As we approach the 25th anniversary of Magic, one of the most intriguing things to look back on is what the market was like when it first debuted. In 2018, the ever-dwindling subgenre of collectible card games effectively consists of about 80% Magic: the Gathering, and 20% everything else – with about 10% of that being a continual cycle of newcomers who try in vain to rekindle the CCG grandeur that was the mid 1990s.
The hard truth is that although there are a handful of new CCGs that find success every few years (such as My Little Pony or Force of Will), the format is not what it once was. With a resurgence in board games overall, coupled with the creation of alternative card game styles such as deckbuilders and LCGs/ECGs – where the game has fixed content releases versus randomized ones – the market has evolved substantially since Richard Garfield debuted the idea of a collectible card game to the world with Magic: the Gathering. Indeed, with rare exception, most attempts to create the next notable CCG will fail, and the task gets harder every year. Player tastes and expectations of their games have come a long way in 25 years, and some can even argue that Magic itself mostly persists solely because of the size of its player base.
That being said, while the concept of a CCG certainly has legitimate flaws, and criticisms can be raised to that end, one thing that cannot be understated is Richard Garfield’s contributions to the gaming hobby and his creations’ impact on the market when they debuted. Whether you enjoy Magic or not, there are many, many games that simply would not exist because of this game.
And yes, I do mean creations. As in plural.
It’s entirely likely that the newest generation of MtG players may have only heard of Richard Garfield’s name in relation to Magic, but it’s far from the only game he has designed. In fact, it’s not even the only CCG he designed. Magic may have been his first, and the one that caught on the most, but from the period of 1993 to 1997, Dr. Garfield helped create five different CCGs, including Magic, Android: Netrunner, BattleTech, Star Wars (the second one), and Vampire: the Eternal Struggle, each with a markedly different feeling.
The success of Magic, however, was the largest catalyst to interest in CCGs, leading to period of explosive growth in the market during the mid to late 90s as everybody tried to cash in on becoming the next big CCG. This led to the creation of many decent card games – some of which took off and some that didn’t. A few, such as Pokemon, L5R, and Vampire, went on to have lengthy lifespans of moderate success, though most came and went within just a couple years. (If curious, you can check out my list of Top Five CCGs Before 1999 Not Called Magic.)
I personally adore card games with the ability to really dig in to hand and / or deck management, where you can fine tune which cards you’d like to use to gain a strategic advantage over your opponents. Yet as is often the inherent challenge with all such games, I typically lack enough other players around me who maintain the same level of interest. That is…except for Magic. I enjoy games such as the Arkham Horror LCG, High Command, Summoner Wars, and the revamped Android: Netrunner LCG (in non-competitive settings anyway), just to name a few, but getting them to the table is often a sizable challenge.
Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. It’s actually the same reason that so many other customizable games lose steam at one point or another, just on a larger scale. Without a critical mass of player interest, there’s no reason for you to buy the cards. And if you’re not buying cards, there’s no reason for a store to carry them…thereby creating the often-seen CCG death spiral.
Although I found myself around quite a few different CCGs over the years, I largely just stuck with Magic for money reasons. During middle school, I saw more CCGs fly by than I can remember, though Star Trek and the highly underrated Wyvern saw regular use among friends. In college, the card game of choice for the local gaming club was routinely split between the members’ preference for 7th Sea or Legend of the Five Rings. While Magic: the Gathering (to my knowledge) has become the sole competitive card game at the club nowadays, during my tenure it was relegated to a distant third.
After graduation, this trend continued for a couple more years wherein my friend group split their time between Magic and Dr. Garfield’s follow-up CCG, Vampire: the Eternal Struggle. Learning from his previous design, Vampire was created with a multiplayer approach in mind from the start, often creating highly interesting games of table politics. It was only once the game was formally discontinued in 2010 that my cadre completely switched their CCG focus over to Magic full time.
Well, at least until the aforementioned alternate models in recent years have started creating cracks in their singular focus once more. But that’s another article.
This trip down the memory lane of dead card games is a reminder that all games borrow and improve upon one another, and collectible games are no different. Case in point: we have Vampire to thank for this week’s card pick as celebrate the revival of a very multiplayer-focused ability.
Today we have: Throne of the High City
Name: Throne of the High City
Edition: Conspiracy: Take the Crown
Focus: Card Draw / Table Politics
Highlights: Monarch was an ability that appeared in the multiplayer-focused second Conspiracy set, which is rather fitting giving its origins. See, Monarch was directly influenced from a mechanic in Vampire called The Edge, whereby a player who had The Edge would gain additional currency (blood) at the beginning of their turn, and that any other player could claim The Edge by successfully dealing damage to the person who had it.
In Magic parlance, the idea behind Monarch is largely the same. In any game, no one starts off with the title of monarch. Once somebody claims it though, it becomes an active marker for the remainder of the game, creating a pair of linked abilities. The first is that if you are the monarch at the end of your turn, you get to draw a card. The second is that any player who successfully deals combat damage to that player becomes the new monarch.
Both of these effects can be quite handy in Commander games, albeit for different reasons. For one, because the effect isn’t tied to a particular card the monarch ability allows you to draw an extra card on your turn without having to protect a specific permanent on your board – much like the power of an emblem. And you don’t need to play multiplayer games long to realize that there are rarely times in EDH when having more card acceleration than your opponents is a bad thing.
Secondly, because the ability to gain (or maintain) the monarch status is tied to combat, it encourages players to interact with one another more frequently than they may otherwise. Many EDH settings are often defensive in nature, leading to many stalemate situations where players don’t want to poke at one another for fear of leaving themselves open for retaliation or retribution, or until they can attempt a massive knock-out blow to someone. However, the monarch trait upends this narrative, giving players a legitimized means of attacking each other if for no other reason than to steal the card draw effect. This propels games forward while at the same time provides political justifications for more table skirmishes.
The best part of Throne of the High City, however, is that you get to control when to pull that switch. Nearly every other monarch-based card makes you the monarch the moment it enters the battlefield, which can set off its cat-and-mouse antics before you may want to embark down that road. Assuming there aren’t other monarch cards floating about, the Throne allows you to dictate the terms by which it will start.
The only down side is that it does require sacrificing the land to use, meaning that it’s more likely to happen in the middle to late stages of the game. Still, that’s probably when you’re more capable of defending yourself anyhow, rendering its biggest down side slightly moot. And until you reach that point, it functions perfectly well as a boring old colorless mana producer.
In the end, you may never have played the old Vampire CCG – or heard about it for that matter – but that doesn’t mean with this card you can’t experience a small part of CCG’s past in a game that likely has a future for awhile yet.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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