My first collectible card game-experience was, no big surprise here, Magic: The Gathering. This was 1994, and I had never played something this exciting and engaging that didn’t run on a computer or console before.
The prospect of building my own deck of cards and competing against the decks my friends had built instead of the usual ‘everyone draws from the same deck’ was very intriguing to me. It combined the aspects of collecting and bartering I knew from my childhood (Panini soccer stickers anyone?) with strategizing a winning formula of which cards to use in your deck and how and when to play them.
My first deck used the colors red and black and was over 120 cards strong. I just couldn’t bring myself to take anything out, all the cards were just way too good (in my mind).
During that summer we played every day at a friend’s place until late at night. I couldn’t get enough of it.
The excitement would remain high for quite a while. I played extensively from Revised Edition up to the Tempest block in ’98, after which I took the first longer break. I’ve played on and off since then, but never as regularly or seriously as before.
One reason for that is my then gaming circle pretty much dissolving after everyone had finished school/college/whatever and many of us, myself included, moving to different cities.
The main reason though is that somewhere around 2001 I was introduced to a CCG I fell even more in love with: Vampire: The Eternal Struggle.
It was also designed by Richard Garfield, Magic’s creator, and differs in some key aspects.
One, there are no land cards. In Magic these are an essential part of all but the most specialized trick decks, and at the beginning of a match you never have enough of them, whereas towards the end of longer matches you always draw them when you’d rather draw anything else. I often found this aspect of the game pretty aggravating. The vampires in V:TES (“Veetaz” or just “Struggle”) are indispensable too, but they are not part of your normal playing deck, called ‘library’ just like Magic’s. Instead they are shuffled into a second deck, your ‘crypt’, thus making sure that you don’t draw more than you actually need.
Cards from your hand are replaced the moment you play them, so you’re never empty-handed (heh). This makes it easier to set up and execute combos, which is pretty cool. You can also have as many copies of any card in your decks as you like (and own). This enables you to fully build around the strategy you have devised for your deck, but forces you to also think about card flow. It’s great to always have a copy or two of your deck’s staple card in your hand. Having seven copies of it and nothing else – probably not so great.
Lastly, there are pretty good dedicated multiplayer rules. For me these make the game so much more interesting and fun than any Magic multiplayer match I’ve ever played (although there are probably tons of new rules I’m not aware of to make things more interesting these days).
In V:TES the last player standing is not necessarily the winner. To win a match you need to have the most victory points. One VP is indeed gained by being the last one left, but the main source for VPs is ousting your current prey from the game, your prey being the player to your left. So in a match with four or more players you begin with your prey to your left, your predator (the player whose prey you are) to your right and one or more ‘neutral’ players opposite you who initially have their own battles to fight.
This makes for great table dynamics, sometimes resulting in the most unlikely of alliances. I have, for example, on occasion actively helped my own predator stay in the game, knowing full well that he’d try to oust me at the first opportunity. While this can be a very dangerous game it has ensured a table win for me more than once. When taking an aggressive stance towards someone other than your prey you have to keep in mind though that the VP for an ousted player always goes to that player’s predator, no matter who dealt the final blow. Being too aggessive can also lead to you being perceived as the table’s biggest threat and everyone ganging up on you. It’s a delicate dance, and mastering its steps can be as important for winning as the cards in your hand.
The final reason why I like this game so much is the lore behind it. While most vampire stories range from cheesy to utterly ridiculous I’ve come to really like the lore of World of Darkness, the universe Vampire: The Masquerade, the Pen & Paper RPG V:TES is based on, takes place in. It’s serious, mature and dark, and at the same time fun and sometimes even lighthearted. Above all, I find it actually believable most of the time.
I’ve read a whole bunch of novels set in this universe, and while that was fun in and of itself it also gave me a lot of background knowledge and understanding about how that world works, what the motivations of different factions and clans are etc.
Unfortunately White Wolf discontinued V:TES in 2010, its popularity never coming even close to Magic’s, especially outside the US. The community has kept it alive and even devised new sets of cards available for download and print, but that’s not quite the same of course.
In April, though, an unexpected but very welcome news arrived: five veteran V:TES players have founded a company, Black Chantry Productions, and acquired the license to design and print new cards als well as reprint old ones in conjunction with White Wolf, and they have already released the first brand new set.
I’ve ordered and received two bundles, but haven’t had the time to incorporate any of the cards into my existing decks yet. But it sure has rekindled my enthusiasm for the game, and Lakisa and I have already played a couple matches as well as fiddled around with new decks.
More about how we build and playtest new decks next time.