Blog Fanatic: Me And Zvi And Netrunner Makes Three
Magic is my foremost gaming passion, and it has been an integral part of my life for over a decade. It isn't the only game I've ever tried - I'll admit that I've openly cheated on my one true love with other brazen hussies in the gaming world. Today are some stories about the other collectible card games that I've played over the last years of my life.
STAR WARS (Original Decipher Version)
I was a huge fan of the original Star Wars game, published by Decipher back in the mid-90's. We had a large following for this game at Neutral Ground, to the point where we had higher attendances at Friday Night Star Wars tournaments than at Friday Night Magic tournaments for about half a year. The most competitive players we had were Mike Mikaelian (former Neutral Ground employee and now editor of Undefeated Magazine), Sean Fleishman (former Pro Magic player and Neutral Ground employee) and Matt Blank (current owner of Neutral Ground).
Star Wars was one of the most skill-intensive games ever printed. The only resource you had was your deck - it was used both for drawing cards, as your life total, as your "randomization" factor, and as your mana. Each card had a number in the corner - and the more powerful the card, the lower the number. At certain times in the game, players would have to reveal the top card of their libraries and the higher number would win - so if you stacked your deck entirely with high-power, low-number cards, you were in for trouble. (Note: This is a vast oversimplification of the rules, but if you're a fan of the game, just bear with me). Once you ran out of cards in your deck, the game was over and you'd lost.
Star Wars players were notorious for trying to finish with as many cards left in their deck as possible - this was the first tiebreaker after match wins in tournament play. Because of this, several Star Wars players avoided cards with milling drawbacks as if they were the plague. This allowed me to step in and design a deck which dominated the New York area for months and placed two of our players in the Top 8 at Star Wars worlds (I believe in 1997, but don't quote me on this). The deck revolved around a Dark Side instant called Imperial Supply. You could remove Imperial Supply from the game and remove the top card of your library from the game to generate four force (mana). Each player started with roughly this much force each game, but you could use the Supply on your very first turn - effectively doubling the amount of mana you had access to immediately. This allowed the Dark Side player to drop something huge - like Darth Vader - and absolutely dominate the board starting on the first turn. In Magic, this would be pretty close to the equivalent of dropping down a first turn Visara the Dreadful at the cost of discarding a card and milling a card from your library.
Needless to say, the Imperial Supply deck caught on and became very popular. Never underestimate the lessons you learn from Magic about resource management and conversion of one resource to another for when you play other games. Many other CCG's use the same basic principals, allowing a Magic player to dominate newer players almost immediately.
I haven't had the opportunity to play the Z-Man games version of Shadowfist, but from what I hear it has upheld the spirit of the early games while doing away with the brokenness that permeated the original Daedelus version. Shadowfist was a mix of Hong Kong action movies, mysticism, science-fiction, and spaghetti westerns. In short, it was a mish-mash of virtually every facet of movie geekdom rolled into one game. The resource management was horrible in the early game, it was impossible to come back from a losing position, and a ton of the cards were off the charts on their power levels (all problems fixed in the new version of the game), but it was fun! You had cards like Furious George (Card Quote: "He's too much monkey business.") and the Oranga Tank (Card Type: Ground-Assault Monkey.) The game took itself seriously as a game - but the cards were all designed to have a very tongue in cheek humor that worked. Many players stopped playing Shadowfist a few months after its release due to the issues I've listed above, but it remained a very popular multi-player game for years at Neutral Ground.
Netrunner did not appeal to me in the least. It was the follow up from Wizards of the Coast to Magic, and I just didn't get it. Maybe Zvi will chime in the forums and explain the appeal of the game to everyone, but it was designed as a two-deck game (you needed a deck for the corporation and a deck for the runner) and you'd alternate playing each deck (if you had runner, your opponent had corporation - and if you had corporation, your opponent would have runner). I can't really say anything that nice about the game, since I tried it for about a month and just couldn't get into it at all. Zvi, on the other hand, loved the game. Loved it to death. He thought, for a long time, that it was the pinnacle of collectible card games. He was so infatuated with the game that he almost bought the game from Wizards of the Coast.
It was Pro Tour: New Orleans in 2001 when I first learned that Zvi was trying to buy Netrunner. A bunch of Magic Pros went downtown to grab some food and entertainment in New Orleans, and we made our way down to Bourbon Street for the entertainment portion of the evening. I'd lived in New Orleans for six of the past eight years at that point, and I had no interest in partying or drinking - so when most of the people went into Rick's Cabaret, Zvi and I went off on our own on Bourbon Street and began talking.
Zvi was really interested in buying Netrunner. He had won a lot of money playing Magic, and was a well known personality in the game at the time. Netrunner had long since been dead and buried, and Wizards of the Coast had absolutely no interest in reviving the game. It seemed perfect that Zvi, who is very good at understanding game theory and game design, would take over a WOTC property and use his expertise to turn it from a failure into a success. Unfortunately, the deal fell apart down the road during dealings with Wizards of the Coast legal, and Zvi went on to helm the Cyberpunk game instead.
On that day though, in early November of 2001, I came up with an idea that I pitched to Zvi that I was certain, absolutely certain, would have ensured the success of Netrunner. It wouldn't have mattered if Zvi tinkered with the rules of the game or designed the cards differently than the original Wizards version - this idea would have sent the sales of Netrunner somewhere into the stratosphere. What was this idea?
In March of 1999, a new breed of science fiction film burst onto the scene. This now heavily-imitated movie had many ideas and special effects that were novel for its time, and the movie ended up being a humongous success - one far beyond the humble imaginings of the film's writers/directors. This success led to two sequels - and while neither of these lived up to the ingenuity of the first, the anticipation for these follow up movies was at a fever pitch.
This movie was, of course, the Matrix, which featured a band of outlaws and free men "jacking in" to the evil mainframe computer in an attempt to save humanity from being batteries for the machines. In return, the computer would create programs to try to stop the humans in the machine, the most memorable of which were the agents. In Netrunner, the Runner tries to hack into the Corporation to steal things, and the Corporation deploys programs and traps to try to stop the Runner. The parallels between these two games was uncanny.
I pitched this idea to Zvi. "Zvi", I said, "you need to get the rights to Netrunner and immediately license the game to whoever handles the Matrix property. It's a natural fit! You already have a pre-existing game that has a flavor almost identical to the Matrix, and the gameplay elements would be ridiculously easy to convert! The Runners would become Neo and Trinity and Morpheus, the Corporation would become the Matrix, and all the elements of the game could stay identical to the original game, except that you rename everything to fit into the Matrix universe."
Zvi said he'd consider the idea - he may have thought it was good, he may have thought it was bad - but unfortunately he never got control of the game to find out. I'd like to think that in some parallel universe, Zvi had gotten control of the Netrunner license and that thousands of people across the world were using Neo (Rare) to hack the Matrix (common) using a telephone interceptor (uncommon) while fighting Agent Smith (foil).
Ben can be reached at Blogfanatic@yahoo.com