Lorcana, memories of Magic the Gathering, and the value of novelty

There is absolutely no way I can justify buying the new Disney Lorcana trading card game. I’ve still got a few boxes full of Magic: the Gathering cards that have followed me across several moves, even though I was never that big into the game, and I haven’t played it in almost 10 years. I’ve got several other trading card games, and even more deckbuilding games, that I’ve accumulated over the years, and they’re all sitting unplayed.

But I mean, come on. It would be absurd for me to even try and pretend I’m not going to pick up at least a starter pack of the Lorcana decks, so why even bother going through the motions, when we all know how this is going to turn out?

In an attempt to pretend to be responsible, I imposed a rule that I have to get rid of all my Magic the Gathering cards before I can bring any new TCGs into the house1I really should find new homes for my copies of Netrunner and Doomtown while I’m at it..

And it was while I was sorting through the cards that I hit upon the epiphany that launched this post: hey, you know what, Magic is a really well-designed game!

I first played it back in my LucasArts days, and that was a long time ago, and the game was already venerable by that point. I’d been vaguely aware of the game and how it worked, but didn’t really appreciate the depth and flexibility of it until I started playing it fairly regularly with a couple of friends.

There were a ton of new concepts that I hadn’t seen before — it was fascinating to see just the most basic idea of cards that work well together to build up an engine. And the way that each of the different colors has a different style, one which reveals itself as you play, even if you were to ignore all of the theming that drives the style home.

Even more than that, it got me interested in building decks, which is something so completely opposed to the kind of game I’m typically interested in that I’m still amazed that it ever interested me. One of my friends would constantly win games with her unbeatable green deck, which would overwhelm any opponent within four or five turns by using an army of reproducing squirrel tokens. The image of powerful Black Wizards being overrun and quickly skeletonized by squirrels was a compelling one, and she was quite smug about it. I briefly became obsessed with creating a deck that would defeat her. (If I remember correctly, I never came close).

Fast forward about 10 years, and I “rediscovered” the game at Telltale. I think what surprised me was how well it had held up. At the time I was less interested in strategy than I was in snickering like a 12-year-old at the names of the cards2Sorry, Carl but I was quickly drawn back into the process of finding cards to make a deck. In every other game, I am entirely a reactionary player who prefers to make things up as I go instead of trying to plan ahead3More often than not, I’ve already forgotten what my strategy was by the time my turn comes around.

So the game’s got phenomenal staying power. It’s been 30 years since its first release, and people are still into it. And unlike some other well-designed classic games, I could still see myself playing it. I think Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico and Pandemic are all brilliant games, for instance, but I also feel like I’ve played enough of them. I wouldn’t get anything new from playing them again. But even as somebody who never progressed beyond “casual” fan of Magic: the Gathering, I’ve got dozens of potential decks in these boxes, with combinations I’ve never even seen before.

But I don’t have to play it anymore. And realizing that was surprisingly calming.

After all, I’m a grown up with my own money, and I can buy the Disney card game if I want to. I don’t have to stick to some “we have Magic the Gathering at home” mentality if I don’t want to. It’s not that it’s a badly-designed game; far from it. It’s not that I’ve seen everything the game has to offer; I haven’t even come close. But it’s just not new anymore.

Most of the artwork in Lorcana is fantastic, so there’s an inherent appeal there. But I think my unhealthy Disney obsession has always leaned more into the theme parks than the movies4Although when there is an Encanto set of cards, I’ll be first in line, so that’s not really the draw (so to speak) for me. It really is just the newness of it, and the inevitable popularity, the fun of playing the Hot New Thing.

A big part of why that feels calming is because it’s a reassurance that there’s always room for more creativity. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that I’ve always thought of success in terms of “market share:” i.e. you make the best thing, you get the biggest audience, you make the most money, you win. But that’s largely incompatible with the way things have panned out in the 21st century. There are way too many markets, too many disparate audiences, too many niches to fill.

I see that as a good thing. Because making Avengers-level (or I guess now Barbie-level?) money is extremely rare, and it always has been. It used to feel like everyone was shooting for a huge hit, but only a fraction of a percentage of people would actually make it. Now, it feels like a smaller percentage of people are shooting for that level of money or popularity. A lot more of us can define “success” on a much more modest scale, and a lot more of us are more likely to achieve it.

And one very important aspect of that: it has very little to do with “quality,” and everything to do with finding an audience. I don’t know if it’s still the case with The Youths, but my generation was taught that if you can just make something good enough, it will find an audience and be a success.5This is probably why there’s a lot of insufferable Gen-X art about misunderstood artists who’ve created genius works that just aren’t appreciated by the common folk unable to understand them.

That is, of course, false. Popularity and financial success are simply about making a connection with audiences; it doesn’t reward quality, but rewards being able to give people what they want. No matter what smug alt-pop bands might try to tell you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because a lot of the time, what people want is quality. But it’s essential to recognize the line between art and commerce, and not confuse the two.

Back to Magic: the Gathering: it’s masterfully designed, both in terms of art (the gameplay) and commerce (selling 30 years worth of new sets and booster packs). I don’t want to make Lorcana out to be some kind of scrappy underdog, of course; it’s every bit as much a 900-lb gorilla as Magic is, even if Magic did define the entire genre of game. But even before I’ve played it and can assess whether it’s a success in terms of the gameplay art, I already know it’s a success in terms of commerce, because it’s been able to make a connection to an audience.6Just like Pokemon cards did.

So ultimately, scolding myself with “You can’t buy Lorcana, because you have a perfectly good card game at home called Magic that you never play anymore!” made me realize how many old-fashioned ideas I’m still holding onto about novelty, commerce, art, selling out, and creativity. There are more outlets and channels and markets for creativity than there have ever been in my lifetime, more tools to make them, and more people to enjoy them.

It’s okay to like multiple things. It’s okay to belong to the Cult of the New, as long as novelty isn’t the only thing you value. I always considered my short attention span a weakness, but in an environment of hyper-fragmented audiences dedicated to hyper-specific niches, maybe it means short attention spans are a boon. And I’ve already seen that I have a better chance of finding people who connect with the weird and goofy stuff that I make.

  • 1
    I really should find new homes for my copies of Netrunner and Doomtown while I’m at it.
  • 2
    Sorry, Carl
  • 3
    More often than not, I’ve already forgotten what my strategy was by the time my turn comes around
  • 4
    Although when there is an Encanto set of cards, I’ll be first in line
  • 5
    This is probably why there’s a lot of insufferable Gen-X art about misunderstood artists who’ve created genius works that just aren’t appreciated by the common folk unable to understand them.
  • 6
    Just like Pokemon cards did.

2 thoughts on “Tapped”

  1. I went to Games of Berkeley today. Wanted to go for a bike ride, and I can’t ever muster the will to bike for biking’s sake. So I decided, I’ll go to GoB, and see if they have the One Piece trading card game, since the only place I’ve seen it locally is in SF, which is way too far for me.

    I got there just before noon, not realizing that they opened at noon, and was dismayed to find a line about 20 people deep. They said, “If you’re not in line for Lorcana, you can just go in.” So I just went in as they let the line in the store. After looking for One Piece, they didn’t have it, and none of the other new stuff looked interesting, so I got in the Lorcana line. Why not? I’d heard people waited in line for dozens of hours at GenCon, so what the hell, why not?

    20 minutes later, I had a starter deck and a couple of boosters. Bummed they were 1 starter deck a piece, but they sold out three people after me, so I suppose that was a good restriction. The boosters are EXPENSIVE. $7.50/pop??

    The game looks interesting. Sort of a stripped down Magic from what I can tell from the rules. Ink instead of lands, and most cards can be turned into ink. Otherwise looks broadly similar, but there are clearly some things that are significantly different and will become obvious as soon as I play it, since a lot of cards affect other cards that have the same character or type of character or what have you.

    The art’s nice. It’s exactly what I expected, which is both good and bad – nothing that was “holy crap that is BEAUTIFUL!” But also everything was up to a high standard.

    I’m curious to try it. But more, it was just a weird happenstance that I was in the right place at the right time for the launch. How odd.

    1. Congrats on getting a set! I checked at a local store yesterday, and it sounded like they’d sold out on release day. (And were charging more than MSRP, so no big loss on my part).

      I had no idea that there was a One Piece trading card game, which I guess is a good illustration of that idea of fragmented audiences and increasingly specific niches. And One Piece isn’t a “small” IP by any measure!

      I’m far enough out of the loop that I don’t know what the “normal” prices for these things are, so I wouldn’t have thought $8 for booster packs was unusually high. Maybe the Disney IP lets them price booster packs similarly to other collectibles, which people go nuts over?

      I’m more intrigued by the game than the collectible aspect, although obviously the license is a big part of the appeal for me. Once they come out with Disney Parks-themed sets, I’m going to be hooked. It looks like there’s some depth to it and just enough novelty to set it apart from Magic.

      The mechanic that’s most interesting to me is using almost any card for mana/ink, instead of a pool of land cards taking up space in your deck. It’s one of those changes that would’ve seemed incidental before I started playing deckbuilders, and seeing how much of the strategy was devoted to cycling through cards.

      The other that seems thematically appropriate even if it doesn’t turn out to be huge in terms of mechanics: songs. It’s a neat idea to have a character “sing” a spell instead of having to pay the mana/ink for it. There seems to be several mechanics that I think of as “Splendor-like,” where you’re trying to come up with engines that let you play cards for free.

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