The Problem With Deck Builders

I played Legendary solo last night.  It was my first time playing the game.  I was excited about how different hero and villain superpowers would be expressed via the card mechanics.  However, like many deck builders I’ve played, it was more of the same.

You can break most cards down into:

  1. The cost to acquire
  2. The amount the card is “worth” as currency to acquire cards
  3. The damage that can be inflicted
  4. The damage that can be sustained
  5. Special ability or abilities in the form of text

Regardless of theme, every deck builder I’ve played uses this card structure.

The mechanics include drawing a hand, playing cards as currency to acquire cards, playing cards to use abilities and/or attack, “activating” cards (tapping/booting/kneeling/etc), attacking (using core attack or special abilities) to remove opponent cards, and finally discarding versus removing cards from play.

There’s nothing wrong this this core foundation — but I wanted more of Legendary than this.  Why does Great Responsibility, Spider-Man cost 2, have 1 attack, and have this special ability:

Reveal the top card of your deck.  If that card costs 2 or less, draw it.

This is the problem with deck builders.  You can end up skinning the same abilities — drawing cards, discarding cards, “destroying cards”.

For Optic Blast, Cyclops, why does this ability make sense:

To play this card, you must discard a card from your hand.

Further, there are team and hero icons that end up being nothing more that ability modifiers, for the most part.

I know it must be hard to balance LCGs.  You want to have a core rule system work while adding variability and good card interaction with expansions.

Though I’m very new to Sentinels of the Multiverse, it’s pretty easy to pick out some more creative and thematic implementations of the Deck Building mechanic.  For instance, Hostage Situation:

Hero cards cannot be played.  At the start of the environment turn, each player may discard 1 card each to destroy this card.

But I realized that even that isn’t enough to get me excited about Deck Builders.  I don’t want it to be just another variation of managing what cards I’m likely to draw and puzzling out ways to maximize how they are played.  This is fun — but if you’ve played one Deck Builder you’ve played them all.

That said, I know I have not played a lot of LCGs and Deck Builders.  I have a small and skewed sample.  I want to find games that break the mold.  Doomtown definitely works to add new ways for cards to interact.  There’s quite a bit of interesting innovation there.  I don’t think it all totally works well.  But I applaud them for innovating.

Star Realms is an interesting anomaly as well.  While it doesn’t stray from the formula from a card perspective it does provide a very quick and fun head to head interaction between players.  You have to choose between ships and stations, trashing a card for bonus effects (or trimming a deck), and which Factions to stack based on your opponent draws and whether it’s early or late game.

Star Realms strips everything down to a deck of cards and super fast play.  Unlike Doomtown offering up many new card interactions and mechanics, Star Realms differentiates by eliminating everything but the essential.  Due to this simplicity it makes it a heck of a lot easier to startup and play.

So Deck Builders…  I’d love to see more meaningful expressions of units/characters in the cards beyond the vanilla buy/attack/discard/draw actions.  Create new ways for the cards to interact — and new classes of cards (beyond events, locations, items, etc have all been tried) might breathe new life into the space as well.  Finally, if you’re going to create a licensed super hero game — I want the game mechanics to allow for all those myriad of powers and abilities to be expressed.

As with all games, I’m interested in being proven wrong with Deck Builders — and to find those gems of games that break the mold and act as sirens’ calls to be played again and again.

5 thoughts on “The Problem With Deck Builders

  1. I haven’t played Legendary but the DC deck building game at least changes some rules based on the hero you are playing to defeat the villains. It still has the trappings you list above but for example if you’re the Flash you draw two cards (because he’s fast!), Wonder Woman and Superman add attack points to every attack card, Batman can buy stuff cheaper (cause he’s smart!), and Cyborg gets equipment cards cheaper (cause he’s a scientist!). After those changes though, it is standard deck builder…


  2. Yeah — that’s just not enough. Think about Mage Wars. I feel like that game isn’t a card game at all. It uses cards seamlessly as creatures, mages, items, and spells. You don’t even think of them as cards at all. Deck Builders are just themes pasted on a card game…


  3. Good read. Thanks. I agree with you and in addition, deck builders require some buy-in for multiple plays to even understand how things work within the game. For that reason (multiple exceptions), they are also hard to teach and thus don’t see a lot of time in my more casual gaming environments. That’s the beauty of Star Realms, in my opinion. Fun and super efficient. A quick play that makes it easy to identify card synergies and teach.


  4. I think Deckbuilding’s true strength lies in becoming integrated as one mechnism within a larger game system. It’s like all the dice games out there – dice rolling is fun, and push-your-luck has it’s place, but all the dice games (zombie dice, martian dice, cthlulhu dice, etc. etc.) blend together. But dice-rolling within other games can be fun, interesting, and exciting.

    Here’s an example: in Police Precinct, players must search for evidence in various locations on the board – the Crime Scene, talking to Witnesses, the Morgue (IE the autopsy results). This is represented by a very simplified deckbuilding mechanism – each place has a deck with mostly “nothing” cards but a few “evidence” cards. As you search, you can remove cards from those decks or stack useless cards at the bottom of the deck (which is only a temporary fix as cards get re-shuffled). It works really well and opens up the door to player abilities that manipulate those decks more easily.


    1. Right on. Said it better than I did/could. I’ll have to check out Police Precinct.

      It’s funny because I’m actually working on a design that leverages some deck building mechanics. Like Police Precinct, the cards have information value. Vault Wars influenced some of this. The idea being that more cards creates more variability in information. Imagine I am going to recommend a book to you and the cards in your hand represent the books you’ve read. The more cards I see, the more I can make a good recommendation about what other books you like.

      Thing is, you can play with the idea of heuristics. Imagine you have other non-book cards in your hand — like your favorite ice cream, the name of your dog, etc. Seeing one of those cards in addition to the books you’ve read may change how I think about you.

      The game I’m working through (hope to get to first prototype this weekend) plays with this idea in a thematically appropriate way.

      It’s funny how my original thoughts on Deck Builders have evolved into what’s in my head now.


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