It’s taken me longer than I expected, but I’ve been looking into the free-to-play electronic CCGs that have been coming out in the past year, starting with Solforge.
The overall game structure is similar to Magic — hardly a surprise given that Richard Garfield was involved. You’re trying to reduce your opponent’s health to 0 by casting spells and attacking with summoned creatures. Creatures have an attack strength and a hit point count (not Toughness — creature damage is permanent), and they can’t attack or use activated powers on the turn they’re created. There are direct analogues of the Trample, Haste, Defender, and Deathtouch abilities.
But there are big differences too.
- Creatures must be played into one of five battle lanes. Each lane holds only one creature from each player. Creatures can’t engage ones in other lanes and can’t avoid the one in their own. (There is no Flying analogue.)
- Battle is mandatory every turn and causes all combat-ready creatures on both sides to attack whatever opposes them whether they want to or not. If nothing’s there, they damage the player opposite them. Your opponent’s creatures can hurt yours, and you, on your turn.
- There is no mana or any other resource. Instead, players are simply limited to playing 2 cards a turn, each either before or after the mandatory battle.
- You discard your unplayed cards and draw a fresh hand of 5 after every turn.
The distinguishing feature of the game, something that’s unique and clever and only possible since the game isn’t physical, is that every single card has three levels, each more powerful than the one before. All cards start the game at level 1. When a card is played for effect, it goes into the discard pile one level higher. Both players shuffle their discard piles back into their decks every four rounds, so these higher-level cards become available for play again in short order. Choosing which card to play on any given turn isn’t just a matter of what’s most effective at the moment. You must also consider which cards you want to draw better versions of later. This is a major strategic component of the game.
It’s designed with asynchronous play in mind. You never have to make decisions or provide input on the other player’s turn, so he can take his full turn even if you aren’t available. You can play timed games with 20 minute chess clocks, to enforce head-to-head live play, or untimed games where players have a couple of days to submit each move, for more of a play-by-mail pace.
There is no trading and no singles market. This makes tuning a constructed deck expensive, time-consuming, or both, since your only source of cards is random booster packs and you’re at the mercy of luck getting the specific cards your deck needs. Until you spend well over $100 (one booster with a single guaranteed super-rare costs $12) or commit weeks to grinding out daily rewards, you won’t be able to make any deck you want and will be at a disadvantage versus players who have. (The only alternative to constructed matches is draft tournaments, and those require tickets to enter. You can win one per day by beating live players in random pick-up matches, or buy them for 50¢ each.)
Rarer cards are stronger.