I really like card games.

I learned to play poker first when I was little so my Dad could teach me numbers (and also good poker hands). I picked up Pokemon when it was all the rage in the 90s, even though I only collected. I also started playing Yugioh in middle school after watching the show ever Saturday morning.

But the most important CCG (collectible card game) I would learn to play would come during elementary school, when my friends taught me how to play Magic the Gathering from Wizards of the Coast. Its kind of the cream of the crop so far as card games are concerned. Its been around the longest, it has the largest card library with varying strategies and many different formats to play. Afterward, all other games had to stack up to Magic in their complexity, and so far, no other game has risen to the challenge.

Enter a few years ago…

A friend of mine bought a booster pack of cards we had never seen before. The art was anime and we thought they looked cool, and after looking them over, we said that in the future when we had some more money, we would buy a booster box together and throw some decks together to learn the game. It took several years to ever have disposal income (being a millennial and all), and we mostly forgot about the agreement after a while. Later, I reminded my friend about the cards and we took another look. By next week, we decided we would try it out, and he bought a few starter decks for us to play around with.

The game in question was Force of Will.

After playing around the decks for a little bit and learning some of the basics, we made a promise together. We wouldn’t spend anymore on making decks or trying to get into the scene. We had already been down that road in high school and spent a lot of money. It had been a lot of fun, but we hadn’t had the expenses we had now in our twenties, having to pay for gas, food, and almighty rent. Getting into competitive card games meant expensive resources and dealing with lame meta strategies. Wewere too old for that anyway.

Cut to a week later. All of us have semi-competitive decks that we play at the local Friday night tournaments at the neighborhood card shop. My friend in particular, who had bought the first pack those years ago, had his own internal crises as his desire to know more about the game grew until it took control of him (and his wallet).

Yea. We were surprised too.

So what happened? We had made a solemn vow, which we then immediately broke. What was it about the game that drew us in? Furthermore, could it actually unseat Magic the Gathering, or does Wizards of the Coast continue to reign supreme?

Magic of the Will

For one thing, the game is essentially Magic already.

For Magic players, its an easy game to pick up. The card effects have different names, but they do the same things like in MTG. Piercing is Trample, Swiftness is Haste; it all pretty much lines up. There are a few confusing interactions where both games use the same vernacular for different effects (Banish means Sacrifice? The hell…), but sometimes it uses the same name for the same effect, like First Strike.

So for Magic players, its an easy game to pick up. If you come from other games, you’ve probably already played some MTG in your lifetime. But what about if you’ve never played Magic in your whole life and this is the first CCG to come your way?

Well fear not, the game is pretty easy to pick up on its own. It helps if someone sits down with you and plays a faux game in order to teach the basics, but more often than not, your teacher will be familiar with card games and be able to explain it well. I won’t go into it here, it would be better to have the cards in front of you, but if its something you want to learn, its not that difficult when starting out

Interesting Interactions

This might be more of a personal novelty, but for someone who’s played Magic his whole life, the game provides a nice change from the norm. There’s a Catch-22 when it comes to being skilled at CCGs. On one hand, it feels good to look at your whole deck and know exactly what everything does. Everything has a place, you don’t even have to read the cards to know what they are and what they do. Look at the art, know the effect, and play it at the best time. It makes the game go faster, even more so when you see two skilled people playing one another. Both players know enough about the game to know what’s in each deck, and you can guess what kind of deck someone plays just by seeing a few staple cards

That being said…

No matter how skilled a player is, many player fail to realize that the game is never as fun as when you’re first learning it. Think about when you first picked up Magic or whatever else? You were with friends in a comfortable place, and they brought out some cards you had never seen before. The art was interesting an different, you were younger and there were older themes being explored. It was new and exciting, and the stakes were low. You’re friends understood that you didn’t know what you were doing, so even though they could beat you into the dust on those initial games, you had fun because it was relaxing and making mistakes wasn’t a big deal.

That’s what picking up FOW felt like. There were new and interesting things to explore again. You didn’t know everything, so even though you had to read more cards, they surprised you when you didn’t immediately know what everything did, which makes games unpredictable. There are totally new mind games to explore. In MTG, all of your creatures attack at once. In FOW, they attack one at a time, and can only target tapped creatures unless they say otherwise. It creates a tense choice; do you use an effect or block even if it makes it vulnerable to attack? Its a different dynamic that isn’t explored in Magic that makes the game thought provoking in a novel way.

Furthermore, Magic has been around long enough for balance (or some semblance of it) to settle over the sets. The earlier sets are the strongest, which then funnel down to the present standard. When you see a card with a certain effect or power, you can expect there to either be some drawbacks or resources necessary to utilize it. Stronger cards are more expensive with resources, creatures can’t attack immediately. If they can do a combination of those things, they’re rare, so harder to find or more expensive to buy.

But FOW hasn’t been around for twenty years, its just starting out with its cards. That means individual cards are powerful, even if they’re common. It makes the game that much more exciting. For new players, they feel like their cards have an immediate and strong effect. For Magic players, everything feels overpowered, and it kind of feels like you’re cheating.

But so is everyone else, so its fun!

Money is Everything

Many Magic players tend to follow a cycle of play. They start heading out to their local tournaments and hang around with the cards they learned with. They keep up with the next two or three sets, replacing their cards as they filter into standard while trying to hold on to the play style they knew and loved. Finally, replacing cards becomes too expensive, and other things in life take precedence (you gotta eat right?). They might come back for a few little things when they have some money to spare, but after that, the player tends not to come back to most tournaments or spend money on new cards. They hold on to the decks they loved and play with other people doing the same thing (Sounds a lot like me).

And card games are never cheap. A good deck in Magic can run you around $60 for a decent competitive deck. $100 if you want to streamline your resources and get the most efficient deck possible. Yugioh tends to run about the same. Its not something you can just drop for, and with the cards you buy eventually coming out of competitive play, replacing all of those good cards quickly adds up.

But FOW is new. People haven’t really discovered it yet, and the card pool is fairly small. Thus, to make a decent deck, you might only have to drop around $20 to make it playable. That only really translates to a nice dinner for two, rather than two full tanks of gas or a cart of groceries. Much more affordable for someone experimenting. That aspect alone was enough to bring us out for the local tournaments, we didn’t have to sacrifice an arm and a leg just to have fun. For new players, its an excellent place to start, and for experienced players, you still feel like you cheat the system when it feels like you get expensive cards for cheap.

What About the Scene

After putting together a few decks, we made our way to the local tournament for a go. We were met with limited success, but it was still fun to go.

At first.

When it comes to CCGs, a few strategies tend to emerge, no matter what game your playing. There are aggressive decks where you try to deal damage as fast as possible to your opponent, there are mill decks where you try to run your opponent out of cards, which forces them to lose by default.

But the cream of the crop tends to be control decks, which utilize a lot of answers and ways to respond to your opponent before they can really do anything. Their spells never hit the board and their creatures never attack until you find the small combo in your deck that allows you to win the game by a slim margin.

For the person playing the control deck, it can be fun. There are a lot of things to do and options to consider. It’s a thinking person’s deck. For your opponent, however, the game tends to go on too long while you wait for your opponent to win. Not allowing you to play your favorite cards is an easy way to break people from the game quickly, it just doesn’t feel very fair that your opponent takes ten minute turns and you only need a few seconds to ask your opponent if you can play something, where they then promptly tap out for a counter spell and tell you no, you may not play anything.

Magic has these kinds of decks, they tend to be some of the top decks in any set or cycle of standard, but Magic has a good way of balancing those cards out. There are just so many deck making options that people can find what they want to suit their playstyle in the large library of cards. But like we said before, FOW has a pretty small base right now. Great for prices, crappy for the meta. The best decks are undoubtably the control decks, with all of the options and the expensive combos. If you want to win in FOW, play control.

When two people come together with winning in mind, the games can be interesting. It’s a game of chess between two control players, trying to think four moves ahead. The games last for an hour, and those two people have a long and engaging game. But for people like us, who just want to play the cards they’re interested in and don’t really care about winning that much, the game is just boring. It’s not that we’re sore losers, we don’t mind losing, but at least beat us in an interesting way. Explosive damage or a cool combo or something intense, a match between two people fighting it out. Not a slow bleed where you just draw cards you can’t play and summon creatures that never get to attack because they get tapped down or bounced or a hundred other things.

The Verdict

Play FOW. Get cards and experiment and try out new things. It’s a fun up-n-coming scene that really has some fun cards to play. Everyone that we’ve met so far that plays has been nice and helpful in teaching us how to play. But keep it casual maybe? Get some friends and get some cards together, wait until more cards come out before you start heading to tournaments. Make decks that let people play cards rather than stare at them. Once you do that, you’ll quickly find that Magic might actually have a run for its money in the coming years.