The Collectible Card Game Thread – Limited Play

Welcome to the *CG thread, where we talk all manner of Card Games – Collectible, Trading, Living, and otherwise! Feel free to chat amongst yourselves about the card games you’re playing or anything card game-related that strikes your fancy.

Last week, I talked about different ways to play constructed formats – formats where you build a deck in advance and bring it to the table. This week, I want to talk more about Limited formats.

I’ve talked about Limited briefly before (for booster-oriented limited formats, at least), but to go into a little more detail. In limited, you don’t bring a built deck to the table – instead, building your deck is core to the experience. There are a bunch of different ways deckbuilding can be accomplished; in paper, the two major categories are Sealed Deck or Draft (though there are many different sub-categories that each of those can take). In digital games, in addition to those formats, there are also “algorithmic” limited formats, like Hearthstone’s Arena mode, where you build a deck in a single-player mode with your options being defined by a dynamic algorithm rather than a randomized booster pack or by other players’ decisions.

In sealed deck, you open a couple boosters and build a deck out of them. There are variations based on number of packs and types of packs, but they all end up fairly similar.

Draft, on the other hand, is as flexible as you can imagine. The core of draft is that you rotate “picks” among other drafters, taking it in turns to choose a card (or sometimes cards) from a pool (which can be shared, secret, open, big, small, static, dynamic, etc). The mechanic originates from sports drafts, which I basically don’t know anything about, so whatever? But the format has evolved many variants. A selection off the top of my head:

Winston draft – a 2-player draft invented by Richard Garfield where players draft face-down piles of cards that are refilled by a mixed “deck” as players look at them.

Rochester draft – an open draft format where an entire table drafts a booster pack face up on the table and can see each pick as it is made.

Winchester draft – a combination of Winston and Rochester (thus the name ha ha ha) where two players alternate open picks of piles of cards

Rotisserie draft – an open draft of an entire card pool instead of individual boosters

And many, many, many more, including team drafts with and without pre-selecting teams, “cube” drafts where the card pool is made of a curated set of cards and a whole host of formats for strange numbers of players.

To go back to talking about Digital, there are as many algorithmic draft formats as there are ways to randomly or semi-randomly choose cards to present. Hearthstone uses card categories and synergy picks, and Magic Arena’s upcoming AI draft uses data-driven AI to approximate human drafters, though for obvious reasons, they’re not all that into openness around exactly how those algorithms function.

Limited formats are nice for a number of reasons. Chief among them are:

Collection-building – For newer players, limited formats can be a good way to play the game on a (seemingly1) equal level to other players, most of whom have more cards than they do. Then, as they play more limited, they can bring home the cards they play with and build their collections. However, limited formats tend to be fairly unfriendly to new players, both due to the above footnoted skill-gaps, and the fact that they demand much more familiarity with many more cards than a constructed deck composed of cards that they already own requires. Also, collection-building is not always built in, especially in digital (e.g. Hearthstone doesn’t let you keep the cards you pick in its Arena format)

Dynamism – Limited formats are always different – there is a built-in randomness in most limited formats in the form of the card pool, usually boosters that you open or draft. This makes each time you play limited different, especially when a card pool is well defined. However, this doesn’t happen for free – game designers need to work hard to balance formats so that no one strategy dominates the format, because if a limited format gets stale, there’s often no way to salvage it.

Skill-testing – In theory, everyone comes to the table on an equal footing, especially as compared to constructed formats. Everyone gets randomized packs, so everyone theoretically has the same chance to win, it’s just your own skill at drafting and deck building that changes the outcome. In practice though, it doesn’t always work out this way – If a card pool isn’t balanced, random variance can make the strength of one card pool overwhelmingly superior to another. In Draft, this is at least slightly mitigated as it self-correcting to a point – if a particular strategy is too good, it will draw more players to that strategy, diluting the number of cards in that strategy they can acquire. This doesn’t always work though, so designers still need to be careful.

A side note about Deckbuilding Games – While I don’t generally consider them to be true CCGs (there’s not really a “collecting” aspect, and they’re not as flexible in terms of “ways to play”) they function in a way that hits a lot of the same play-experiences as limited play, especially when you get into the more esoteric formats, like Rochester or Rotisserie. If you’re looking for a repeatable draft-like boxed game, Deckbuilders can sometimes scratch that itch.

This week’s prompt – Do you play much limited? What’s your preferred limited format?

Or, as always, feel free to talk about anything going on with you in the world of *CGs.