The Power Nine

Escapism: Collectible Card Games: a game played using specially designed sets of playing cards that combine the appeal of collecting with strategic gameplay.

i like to think of these sorts of games as chess on steroids.  In chess, each player has six distinct pieces that all move on the 64-square checkered board in their own way.  In CCGs, sometimes called TCGs (trading card games), each player has a pool of potentially thousands to choose from in designing a deck to play with.  Each game has a fundamental set of rules that includes the win condition, different categories of cards, and how they interact with each other.

The progenitor of CCGs is a game called Magic: The Gathering.  It was designed by Richard Garfield when he was a graduate student studying combinatorial mathematics and introduced in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, a hugely successful publisher of games.  My guess is that Garfield’s knowledge of this sort of math is key to the game’s success.  i’m not going to delve into combinatorics too deeply because frankly i don’t even understand many of the terms used to describe what it is.  Suffice to say it deals a lot with numerical structures in finite systems and algorithmic analysis.  Since CCGs boil down to a numbers game, it’s no wonder the granddaddy of them all is still wildly popular today.

In fact, i’ve been playing M:TG in some form or another since 1994.  My brother and a friend of his had gotten into it right off the bat and introduced it to me.  i was hooked immediately and it’s still just as interesting and fascinating to me now as it was back then.  Come to think of it, that could be said of a lot of the topics i plan to cover as escapism.  Never thought about that before.  Thanks bro!

Anyway, i’m going to primarily focus on M:TG here because it’s the one i’m most familiar with and enjoy the most.  Feel free to add your own thoughts on any others that you’ve heard of or enjoy.  There’s quite a few out there.  Those of you with kids might even know a thing or two about Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh.

The back of every M:TG card tells you a little about the game.  See those colored dots in the center?  That’s the Color Wheel.  It represents the five colors of magic: white, blue, black, red, and green.  There’s some other card types outside of these but primarily all cards fall (there are over 20K unique cards – if you’ve got a definite number let me know!) into one of these colors, which each have thematic styles.
Gameplay in CCGs is based around managing your resources.  This usually includes things like your starting total of points (or health/life/endurance), your hand, your attack and defense, etc.  As players take their turns, the output of resources increases, which allows for more powerful cards to be played.
What i enjoy most about CCGs is probably deck design, maybe even more than playing the actual game.  Designing a deck is where you get to manipulate the two things that factor heavily in gameplay: skill and luck.
Most games have a minimum number of cards that must be included in a deck.  At the start of a game decks are shuffled and a hand drawn, with additional cards drawn at the start of each turn, the number of which is determined by the rules of the particular game.  In that sense, like a traditional playing card game, there’s a huge element of luck or randomness in that you don’t know what you’re going to get.  Typically, in CCGs you are limited to a certain maximum number of any particular card in the deck as well (usually four).  That way, a player can’t stack a deck with so many of the same card that you would essentially ensure having them every single time.  In other words you can’t play with a deck full of aces.  You play by the luck of the draw.
Designing a deck gives you a chance to manipulate the odds of that luck.  For example, there are cards that allow you to draw extra cards, or search through your deck for a particular card.  Basically to do things that break the rules.  With such a large card pool to choose from, you can imagine how many interactions between cards are possible.  i won’t say it’s incalculable but at the same time i’m no combinatorialist.  To use our chess analogy, it would be like if you had a piece that let you move a pawn diagonally, or allowed you to move two pieces on your turn instead of one.
What i like most about deck designing is the sense i get that what i’m building is representing me.  That’s not an inherent part of it as a function of the rules, but it’s the feeling i get anyway.  In all the CCGs that i’ve played, i like to find out-of-the-ordinary card interactions, and i like to use cards with artwork that appeals to me, and i like to sort of tell a story with a deck.  i think that tells a little something about me.  In M:TG i prefer to use the color blue, which in the game is the color of intellect, reason, logic, and knowledge.
To me, CCGs represent a form of subculture.  There was a time when i would bring my deck everywhere with me.  It kind of reminds me of Chinese wuxia literature, the concept of a culture of adventuring men and women who traveled around and engaged each other in combat with their distinctive styles.  To that end i’ve always worked to create that “perfect deck” that would be effective against anyone else’s strategy.  If i’m honest i think i’ve done a fairly good job at doing that over the last few years.  i don’t win every time, but pretty often.  It’s not a physical deck though, just a virtual one that i’ve built online.  If you’re interested, you can download the client for free through Wizards of the Coast.  Maybe we’ll meet up someday and play against each other.
The world of CCGs has some practical merit too.  A lot of these games have vibrant tournament environments.  Although it has decreased over the years, there was a time when World Tournaments for M:TG and other games had prize payouts of $1 million dollars.  For playing a card game!  In 2011, World Championship prize payout for M:TG was $45,000.  Still not bad for playing a game.  If i’m not mistaken, you also have to win a few tournaments on the road to that World as well, and those also have cash prizes.  Many are the times over the years that i’ve daydreamed about being a professional CCG gamer.  Just thinking about it right now as i’m writing this is making the wheels turn in my imagination.  Sure, it sounds risky and crazy…but so do most other aspirations.

Anyway, what i’d like to leave you with in terms of the relationship between escapism and CCGs is to reinforce the idea that escapism is not wholly a negative concept.  i brought that up in my initial discussion of it and i believe this look at CCGs bears that out.  While it is true that, like any game, CCGs give you an opportunity to step outside the real-world stuff we deal with every day, there’s something to be learned there.  These are games based on complex math that involve critical thinking in everything from designing the deck you play with to calculating what your opponent might do.  They provide social interaction and camaraderie.  And for some they even provide a means of income.  And perhaps most important, they’re fun.  A typical match only takes about 15 minutes to play.  With my free time being so limited these days between school, and work, and homework, and keeping up with things at home, CCGs are little oases in the day.  i might not have hours at a time to relax or escape into a different world through books, movies, video games, or the like.  But i can squeeze in a match or two most afternoons.
Hmmm…i might just flop some cards right now.  Maybe i’ll see you there.

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