Ultimate Card Game

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modified: 2017/04/5

The Ultimate Card Game ™

Magic the Gathering (MtG) is pretty much already the ultimate card game. Very few games (of any kind) can compete in terms of depth of play. There are however a couple of design parameters which can be improved upon:

  1. Turn complexity: MtG has 12 phases per turn, each of which can be stacked by “instants”, making some turns endlessly complex. Most of this complexity is needed however to allow the deep gameplay, so any simplifications must be careful not to throw away gameplay possibilities
  2. Speed of play: mostly caused by complexity, MtG requires a lot of “synchronisation” to make sure every phase has happened and each player has had their opportunity.
  3. Random element: the random element of the draw is on the one hand what makes MtG great:
    • every game is different – endless variety of play
    • “I wonder what I will get this time” (addiction – inducing)
    • a reduction in complexity: you don’t need to plan the perfect card order as you have no influence over that anyway. This is the best use of randomness in game design

The balance of the random element however is critical. Bad draws are very frequent in MtG and their influence just a bit too strong. It is frustrating to see an entire game be pretty much lost at the start even though you have the skill to do well. Land is crucial initially, then useless afterwards… it hardly ever works out well.

Many games have tried to simplify MtG, and failed because they removed all depth. Kids games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Duel Masters are neat, but shallow. Etherlords successfully managed to create deep gameplay while reducing a lot of MtGs problems, but its simple phase system lacks the stacking of instants that makes MtG so involving.


The UCG: Mini-turns

UCG solves design issues 1&2 by the use of mini turns, which merge turns & phases into one. A mini turn has the following properties:

  • It can be one of many possible actions, mostly corresponding to what used to be phases (see below).
  • Each action is very clearly defined by a card-moving action, so the other player knows when a mini turn has finished, and can start his mini-turn without discussion / checking: this makes turns very fast
  • Stack based complex attack sequences are preserved, the key to deep gameplay
  • The ability to choose your action for each mini turn opens up even broader strategical possibilities
  • The generalized attack/block actions (see below) allow for more complex and interesting combat


The game

For each player, there are 6 locations where cards may reside:

  • The deck
  • Your hand
  • Mana cards
  • In-play cards
  • In-combat cards
  • The graveyard

A game starts out with 40 cards in the deck from which 7 are drawn into each players hand, and no cards anywhere else yet. Gameplay then proceeds as one long sequence of mini turns, for each of which a player can choose only one of the following actions. There is only one part to any mini turn: the movement of card(s) in a single gesture (shown below in []). The other player may start his mini turn immediately after the action: no waiting is required and there is no turning back for a player once he has made his move. If the card being moved has a static ability, the player moving it must mention the effect as he is moving the card.

  • Draw a card [deck → hand]
    this action is only available if you have 7 or less cards in your hand.
  • Create mana [hand → mana]
    UCG does not have special mana cards, you can simply pick any card from your hand, and place it upside down in the mana area. As long as its upside down only its color matters.
  • Play a card [hand → play]
    You can only play the card if its corresponding cost is covered by mana, as usual.
  • Enter Combat [play → combat] (multiple cards at once)
    You may either place the combatants unattached, or if there are already enemy combatants present, you may attach any number of them to a single enemy (in a certain order). You may attach to an enemy that is already attached only if your addition is on the N side of the 1:N relationship.
  • Play instant [hand → combat]
    An instant is a non-permanent card that resides until the first combat resolution. As normal cards they require mana coverage.
  • Activate ability []
    Use ability of any card you have (unlike static abilities, which always hold and don’t need to be activated). Mana coverage may be required.
  • Resolve combat [combat → graveyard/play] (multiple cards)
    attached combatants resolve combat taking into account the order if there is multiple on one side, and any attached instants. Dead ones go to the graveyard, survivors return to play. All instants go to the graveyard. Unattached combatants deal player damage, then return to play.

Notice that tapping/untapping of mana or attackers is not needed anymore, this is all covered by the structure of the mini turns. Summoning sickness doesn’t matter anymore either.

More importantly, notice that combat is now very simple, doesn’t discriminate between attacker/blocker anymore, and still has all opportunities for endless stacking of attacks. Unlike MtG, creatures can be added in multiple stages, and combat only ends when one of the player decides to resolve… as long as there are cards in the combat zone, combat can grow with every mini turn.

Using any cards as mana is UCG’s solution to design issue 3, further alleviated by the fact that the mini turns allow the player to focus on drawing cards or creating mana if he feels he needs more resources, and adding the interesting choice of what card to sacrifice.

Design issues to think about:

  • cannot screw people after they have already decided on blockers/attackers. So be it.
  • Mana system is maybe a bit boring this way. Replace by permanent consumption of mana? Might as well have it such that you pay for more expensive casting cards by cards in play (according to their current cost), of which 1 point is always free. problem: this reduces the snowball effect of making more and more mana available as the game progresses, which promotes stalemates. What if: mana taps, and untapping all costs 1 turn, this way it still is valuable being able to play multiple cards before an untap turn. Being able to play any card as mana also has its downsides, as it is now too easy to get rid of cards you don’t want.
  • Smaller deck size, but one that simply repeats indefinitely, also reduces randomness
  • What about doing away with hitpoint system for player damage but replacing it with something simpler (lose cards?): not have to deal with dice etc in the physical game.
  • This looks like “promote between resource pools” design like some RTSes… how does that affect gameplay?