Christmas, Christmas Time Is Here...
It's Christmas, and you're here.
Come on. There are presents to be unwrapped, relatives to be hugged, friends to be visited. The world is alive with cheer and good will, and you probably have the day off from work. Go spend it with someone you love.
You're still around?
Oh, I gotcha. You got bored for a moment, you clicked on the link, and now you wanna read an article. Well, I don't have much myself; I'm ensconced at my Mom's house, typing on a laptop with a spanking-new hard drive (having rebuilt the whole dang thing after last week's fiasco), and I don't have a lot of strategy to convey. In between rebuilding my laptop and reinstalling RAM on my desktop and actually, you know, getting work done, I had zero chance to play Magic Online.
But I do have something I've been thinking about. It's not Magic, entirely, but it's about Christmas — specifically, the flip side of Christmas. That greedy, grasping side that tugs on your lapels and barks, “You must purchase stuff! Now!” The one that thrusts its hand rudely into your pocket, extracts your wallet without so much as a by-your-leave, and jams its spoon into your credit rating to take a nice solid bite out of it.
That would be the money side. Which is fine. I can talk about that. But after you read this, you have to go promise to step away from the computer and find someone you love (or at least like) and spend some real time with ‘em.
You kids. Coming here on Christmas. The nerve.
World of Warcraft: The Review
So a new kid is in town: He's lean, he's mean, and he's backed by a multi-million dollar media campaign that consists of several million addicts going, “Ooo! Special equipment! In a card box? I gots ta get me some of that!”
That's right; the World of Warcraft card game is in town. And honestly, does it matter whether it's any good? Getting that license was like printing money. You could have a card game that consisted of blurred screenshots of people's games and random numbers that made no sense, a game that made Spellfire look like the second coming of Richard Garfield, and still you'd sell ten bajillion copies.
I am reminded of reviews who talked about the new Broadway revival of The Odd Couple, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, fresh off of their Tony Award-winning run on The Producers. Every writer in town knew damn well that every show in The Odd Couple run, from opening night to the day that Matthew and Nathan left town, was sold out before they wrote the first word. So what did it matter what they thought of it? The damn thing was a hit with or without the help of critics.
But this is a card game. And really, you do need at least a little goodness within to make it work. Sure, you can get away with hot cards for awhile, like the Star Wars Collectible Card Game did, but after a couple of expansions people will cease to care. There are only so many Darth Vader variants someone can be asked to buy in order that they sit, unplayed, in a binder somewhere before they stop caring.
Fortunately, you'll be glad to hear that the WoW CCG is actually damn good.
The nice thing is that Upper Deck, the makers of both WoW and VS, seem to have learned from their problematic DC/Marvel card game. I played Versus a couple of times, and was never impressed; it was designed by pros, for pros, and the whole point of Versus seemed to be to eliminate those swingy games of Magic that pros hated. You know that game where your opponent was playing like crap, and then topdecked from Hell and won when he shouldn't?
My impression of Versus was that the designers sat down and said, “How can we make it so that a bad player always loses?” And the game itself, the predecessor of World of Warcraft, seemed to be an intricate strategy where a bad play on the first turn could lead to a humiliating defeat six turns later, with no outs along the way. There were no stunning comebacks in Versus; just long, slow grinds towards an inevitable finish.
Sounds good in theory. Bad in play. Because say what you will, the stupid topdecks in Magic are what make it fun. You literally don't know who will win any game; Jack Pro might draw into a stream of lands and peter out while Joe Scrub plucks power card after power card.
That makes the game fun. It sucks when you lose thanks to randomness, but for every bad beats story there's a “I thought it was all over, but then I did this!” story of triumph from the ashes that makes it fun. And also, it means that when you start learning Magic, you don't wind up losing every draft ever in the world; you pick up a few random wins here and there because the cards are with you, and that gives you hope. My thirteen-year-old daughter still crows about the time she beat me at Magic with what I termed “a bad deck,” and it's her gleeful gee-whiz happiness that makes this game go round.
Versus? It was grim. Ugly. Really for pros. And why play that when you had chess?
World of Warcraft, on the other hand, seems to strike a nice balance. Every game, even the blowouts, felt like I was at least in it, but it didn't have the stupid mana-screw/mana-flood feel of Magic's dumber games.
But first, lemme tell you how World of Warcraft differs.
World of Warcraft for Magic Players
The World of Warcraft game is a lot like Magic: you lay lands, cast spells and creatures, and attack with your guys. There are a couple of major differences, though.
The first is that you do not automatically start with twenty life. You start as a hero, who usually has around twenty-five to thirty life points. When your hero takes fatal damage, your game is over.
The good news is that your hero not only has a one-time-only special ability he can use, but you can equip weapons to him and have him bash his attackers by himself. You can also put armor on him, and give him pets, making your hero kind of like a much more macho dress-up Barbie.
The second major difference? As is the case in many non-Magic games, your opponent does not choose how to block. You declare each attack with each individual creature (or hero, if he has a weapon equipped), and say, “I am sending in my Augustus Corpsemonger in to fight your Barov Peasant Caller.” There is an ability called “Stealth” which makes it impossible for your creature to be attacked, but mostly it makes it extremely hard to keep a guy with a good passive ability on the board. Imagine how useful a Samite Healer would be if your opponent could choose to have it block whatever creature he sent in, and you'll get the idea of how World of Warcraft is different.
The third major difference? Damage does not heal at the end of the turn. If your 3/2 guy takes a point of damage, he's going to retain that point of damage until he either dies or some other spell heals it. This makes healing spells much more potent, even as it makes a huge ass not matter nearly as much.
Lastly, the fourth major difference lies in lands. There are no lands in World of Warcraft; once a turn, you can choose to lay any card in your hand face-down onto the table, and it will count as a land.
That sounds boring, and it is — fortunately, WoW has a pseudo-land called a “Quest,” which if it were magic would read something like this:
Are We There, Yeti?
Are We There, Yeti? comes into play with one “quest” counter on it.
Tap: Add one colorless mana to your pool.
6, Tap, remove a quest counter from Are We There, Yeti?: Put three 1/1 tokens into play.
This is a really nice twist, because it adds a level of strategy to both deckbuilding and play. There are a lot of low-level quests where you pay two mana to draw a card and then discard a card, or pay three mana to just flat-out draw a card. This means that even if you're drawing all quests, usually you can burn mana to draw some action, ensuring that the games keep flowing... Unlike Magic, where if you draw the all-land hand you're pretty much dead no matter what happens.
Also, it's an interesting balance in deckbuilding, because laying your business spells face-down to serve as land means that you won't get to use them again later — once you lay a creature or a sorcery as a land, it stays a land forever. And Quest/lands give you bonuses for “completing” them, which makes for an interesting choice; do you put in all business spells and eschew Quests, betting that you'll have enough redundancy that you won't mind having to lose a Wrath of God-style while you build up your mana, or do you put in a mix of Quests and business spells, realizing that you could glut on one or the other late in the game?
There are a lot of other small changes — there are factions, meaning that some cards will not serve under certain heroes, and cards that are automatically restricted, and a host of other things — but those are the major issues in a one-on-one duel. If you get that, you can play most of World of Warcraft without much of a hitch.
How's It Feel?
So with all that said, how's the game play? And the answer is that it's fantastic fun.
The concept of “being a hero” is somewhat of a mixed bag. It's nice to have a human avatar to play with — unlike Magic, where you're just a faceless wizard, in World of Warcraft you are Boris Brightbeard, dwarven priest! And it's awesome that everyone has a different life total, making the games feel slightly different.
The problem is that your heroes can't do a damn thing until they equip a weapon. It's a little strange to be piloting Boris Brightbeard, who basically just stands in one place and gets whacked repeatedly until either a) someone gives him a warhammer, at which point you have to pay mana to have him use said warhammer, or b) an ally does his fighting for him.
This makes Boris feel very passive, which from a Vorthos perspective is quite odd. He just sort of shrugs as he takes another wolf-clawing to the face, muttering, “Dammit, I sure wish I had a weapon.”
The other thing is that at least in the early games we've played, equipping a hero didn't seem to be a particularly bright move. You had to pay to get the equipment, then you had to pay to use it, and even when you attack a creature with your warhammer it still gets to do damage back to you. Which means that, at least in our early games, we spent a lot of mana that was all lost if our opponent drew a “destroy target weapon” card. It was a lot more efficient just to lay creatures.
But the creature combat was a lot of fun. Magic's combat can feel very mathematical at times, since it's all about numbers and who blocks what. Whereas World of Warcraft's combat involves a series of one-on-one battles, and thanks to the “damage carries over” system, someone almost always dies. You choose who fights, and there's a battle in the arena (backed with, perhaps, a trick), and then the victor emerges. There's a lot of churn on the ol' battlefield, and rarely are there massive armies going at one another.
The games were quick and evenly-balanced. One of the decks we had was a lot stronger than the other deck — which may be a function of a bad matchup or it may just be a stronger deck, we're not sure — but even so, the games were rarely such blowouts that we didn't feel we'd had a chance somewhere. The Quests kept us from getting land-screwed, which was nice.
What Could Be Better?
The World of Warcraft system comes in a killer box that puts Magic's little cheesy cardboard starter kits to shame. They arrive in sturdy plastic, with a lot of great art, and it feels impressive. That's nice; you're paying $20, and you feel like it's worth your money.
The instruction booklet, however, could use some help. It's pretty good, of course, but the definition of terms in the back flat-out sucks. When a card says, “Instant Ability — Combat Combo” and we're flipping through the thirty pages or so of rules and can't find what that means, then we're in trouble. We didn't know when we could play it, which could have easily been resolved by having “Combat Combo” be defined in alphabetical order.
That's a problem with any game, of course — every CCG is complex — but the system seems to assume that you understand certain things, and a manual should have a very comprehensive index and table of contents to help you figure out any rules conflicts stat. World of Warcraft's manual looks good, but it's not easy to find what you need it in.
Also, the cards theoretically had flavor quotes and artist names on them, but damn — look at those cards! That type has to be six-point. It's invisible. If you're an artist looking for credit, don't work for World of Warcraft — they'll never know who you are, baby.
And lastly, it's hard to say for sure how the game is. We played for an evening, with the cards out of the starter deck, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. But some cards just seemed riotously strong, and the rares appear to be pretty powerful. I'm saying it's fun now, but I haven't seen the all-rare deck piloted yet, and it could get out of hand. We'll see.
But today? Hey, I want to play World of Warcraft again... Which is more than I could say for Dragonball Z, Versus, or Star Wars. It was fun. And fun is something that's the best quality a card game can have.
Merry Christmas to all!
P.S. — Visit my comic Home on the Strange, which is finishing up the “Princess Fluttershine” arc and is now moving back to examine the love lives of Tanner and Izzy in preparation for the big Year One Earth-Shattering finish!
Tanner continues to be an idiot. Sorry ‘bout that.