Little Town Hero, out October 16 for the Nintendo Switch, is a Game Freak role-playing game about a young boy who’s charged with fighting a bunch of viciously powerful monsters as adults stand idly by. No, not that one. Little Town Hero is totally its own thing: a deceptively simple RPG-card-game hybrid with light tactical elements that manages to be addicting.
My co-worker Joshua Rivera joked that my taste in games was “hardcore,” politely clowning me for gravitating toward games about “anime and math,” so it was no big surprise that Little Town Hero is my cup of tea. In it, your protagonist, Axe (or whatever you name him), fights off monsters suddenly invading the town using the power of a mysterious gemstone he found in the nearby mines. He’s guided by the irresponsible knight who was previously sent there to fight the monsters but hurt his back and now spends too much time in the tavern. The townsfolk must figure out the mystery of how these monsters are getting into the village in the first place. How does Axe fight these ferocious beasts? With the power of ideas.
Little Town Hero’s battle system revolves around ideas charmingly called “Izzits” which function like cards do in card-battle games. You can hold up to five at a time, while others remain in your Headspace to be summoned to the front of mind when space opens up. You have a set amount of “Power” each turn that you can use to turn Izzits into “Dazzits,” or usable moves. There are three types of Dazzits: Blue Dazzits, which have an immediate effect on yourself, your opponent, or both, Yellow Dazzits, which can be used again and again until they break, and Red Dazzits, which can be used once per turn or until they break and can be used to inflict damage directly on your enemy when the opportunity arises. Most involve attacking or defending with your pickaxe-shield weapon, but some involve picking up rocks or throwing a firecracker, for instance. Both you and your enemy have health represented as hearts, as well as “Guts,” a buffer that must generally be broken before you can inflict direct damage. It’s important to be careful about how you do this damage, because several enemies have powered-up states they go into when their guts are reduced to zero. After direct heart damage, guts are restored.
The core of the gameplay is simple, but there are a lot of ways to use the finite tools at your disposal, meaning that there’s a lot of predicting and planning and customizing you can do when it comes to your actual playstyle. You always see your opponent’s available Dazzits and the particular one they’re using each turn, which guides your strategy. I’m using a high-risk high-reward playstyle, taking opportunities to gamble by sacrificing health in order to make big plays on my opponents. The combination of Red, Blue, and Yellow Dazzits allows a static set of moves to be mixed and matched in a variety of different ways, especially once you start powering them up and unlocking new effects. The key to winning the game is breaking your opponent’s Dazzits to score a direct hit. Taking direct damage yourself automatically restores all your used-up ideas, which keeps the matches from becoming too one-sided at any given time. The game is easy enough for anyone to pick up but has a lot to offer a fledgling min-maxer.
Between turns, you move around on a party-game-style map. On this map are other townsfolk, who can give you bonuses. Axe’s buddy Nelz, for example, reduces the cost of turning one random Izzit into a Dazzit to zero. His rival Matock can do direct damage to the opponent’s body, regardless of its Dazzits. There are a variety of townsfolk ready to jump in and support this small child battling monsters, and you can find more via sidequests and story progression. Some of them offer inspiration for new ideas mid-battle. There are also environmental effects called “Gimicks” you can tap into if you have the right Dazzit. For example, I’ve taken on a very aggressive play style, so I enjoy strategically using the Barrel which does direct damage to both your and your opponent’s Dazzits and body, strategically sacrificing some of my guts to go ahead and deal heart damage to an energy. There are lots of these options to explore and thus lots of strategies to mess with during the battles, which can easily take 15 or 20 minutes a pop, if you’re like me and enjoy mathing out every possibility.
You may be wondering what you do between battles. You can take on sidequests to get to know townsfolk and gain rewards like Eureka Points, which you can then use to upgrade your Dazzits or increase your Guts on an upgrade grid. This adds a nice, if light, layer of customization to the game. You also fight Matock… a lot. And just like other Game Freak rivals, he is both relentless and unperturbed in his endless quest to get his bell rung by the protagonist, over, and over, and over, and over again. One chapter of the early game had me fight him three times, pretty much consecutively. I didn’t mind so much, since the battles changed slightly each time, but, man. The sidequests and between-battle moments are charming and provide some color for the town and townsfolk you fight so hard to protect. It’s banal but makes complete and total sense within the game’s themes of small-town fellowship, and it’s wholly inoffensive when punctuated by the solid battles you get to think through.
Like the little town Axe works so hard to protect, Little Town Hero is straightforward and earnest. Comical moments between characters and a Toby Fox-made soundtrack keep the boring parts manageable, and the battle system’s mix of a simple core with a variety of ways to execute makes the game work. You have a finite level of actions you can take and a clear layout of your enemy’s attack options. It’s the type of game that makes you feel clever for doing exactly what it’s designed to allow, and that’s always a great time.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
Final Fantasy VIIIRemastered is finally here, which means I can continue my long and storied history of never actually finishing Final Fantasy VIII because I am too busy playing Triple Triad. It’s a whole thing: I get a copy of Final Fantasy VIII, immediately start playing the in-game card game more than anything else, and then tragedy strikes. My disc gets scratched, or my save file is lost, or I need to clear hard drive space, or one of hundreds of other games demand my attention. Nevertheless, I love Triple Triad, and it’s a big reason I’m into card games in the first place.
Triple Triad is a card game you can play in Final Fantasy VIII that’s kind of like dominoes. Each player assembles a hand of five cards to use for the entire game and takes turns placing them on a 3×3 grid. Every card has four numbers from 0-9, one for each edge of the card. You want to place cards so their values are higher than they cards they’re played next to, causing opponents’ cards to be flipped while protecting your own cards. It’s extremely simple, and extremely satisfying.
But Final Fantasy VIII also makes Triple Triad incredibly rewarding to play not just because it’s a good in-game diversion but by seamlessly integrating it into the game’s world. Just about everyone in Final Fantasy VIII plays Triple Triad. The game has a button dedicated to asking other characters if they want to play, and most of them say yes. Each region of the game world has its own rules variants, so playing in Balamb, where the game starts, is slightly different than playing in places you visit later on. Regional house rules in a fictional card game are the sort of thing that makes a world feel alive and worth spending time in. There are side quests that stem from playing Triple Triad, and unrelated side quest goals can be achieved through playing Triple Triad. It gives the world texture.
Card games’ design constraints are compelling—small rectangles with one side only you can see, and one side everyone else can see. You can only fit so much information on a card, and you can fit even less when you try to make the card itself nice to look at, with beautiful art.
How card games solve for these constraints fascinates me. When digital card games like Triple Triad replicate physical card games successfully despite missing out on some of their primary appeals—their wonderful tacticlity, the satisfaction that comes with amassing a collection or admiring a well-constructed hand or deck—I feel a rush.
I love deck-building video games lots—and deck-building tabletop games too—but I wouldn’t have even tried them before Triple Triad showed me how fun they could be, how easy to slip into and suddenly become obsessive over. I never got into Magic: The Gathering or any of the fad collectible card games that spread in my youth, so for a long time card games for me were just limited to the kind of games you could play with a regular poker deck.
Final Fantasy VIII changed that. Even though I still, hilariously, have not finished it (I hope to someday soon) it still managed to make my world a little bit bigger, richer, and more varied. Now I love card games of all stripes, and can’t get enough of them.
From time to time, Blizzard gives away free Hearthstone cards. Sometimes, they are good. But sometimes, as with the recently released free Legendary card SN1P-SN4P (pronounced “snip-snap”), they are great. Seriously, if you see this thing pop up while you’re playing a game of Hearthstone, you should be scared.
Hearthstone Card Of The Month
Every month, we take a close look at a card that’s been getting a lot of buzz—good or bad—in the world of competitive Hearthstone.
The card is a 3-mana Mech with 2 Attack and 3 Health, and it comes with a Deathrattle effect that summons two 1/1 Mechs when it dies. If you do the math and add the stats of the Deathrattle minions to the base stats of SN1P-SN4P, you’ve got 4 Attack and 5 Health, which is already extremely powerful for a 3-Mana minion. Remember: In Hearthstone, 3 Mana is worth around 3 Attack and 4 Health on a minion or vice versa. Anything less, and its effect would have to be really good to justify its cost. Anything more, and it’d need to come with some sort of drawback to justify its power level. Those two Mechs that are spawned when SN1P-SN4P dies aren’t a joke, either: Mechs have tons of synergy with other Mech cards, and even though they don’t seem like they pose a huge threat, they can get buffed by other cards if they’re not dealt with immediately. Very annoying.
Not only does SN1P-SN4P have high stats and survivability for its Mana cost, but it also comes with the Magnetic and Echo attributes, which bring its power level to even greater heights. Magnetic means it can attach to other Mech minions, allowing it to buff other creatures and deal damage to the opponent on the same turn it’s played. Echo means you can replay the card as many times as you want in a single turn. Since it costs 3 Mana and the Mana pool maxes out at 10, most players will only be able to play it 3 times in a turn, but if one were able to decrease its cost, it’d mean trouble.
When the card was first announced with the “Rise of the Mechs” special event, players began to obsess over the combo potential of this card. Using a Priest card called Reckless Experimenter, Priests could discount SN1P-SN4P’s cost to 0 mana and, using the card’s Magnetic attribute, infinitely attach it to another Mech minion already on the board, allowing the Priest to stack infinite damage on the board and kill the opponent in a single turn. As a result, Blizzard actually nerfed Reckless Experimenter so that it couldn’t reduce a card’s Mana cost below 1.
That doesn’t mean this infinite damage combo can’t be used in other scenarios. In Hearthstone’s Wild mode, where players can use every card that’s ever been allowed in competitive play, Warlock players can combo SN1P-SN4P with a card called Mechwarper, which reduces the cost of all Mechs by 1, and another card called Summoning Portal, which reduces the cost of all minions by 2, to pull off the combo in a more roundabout way. Some streamers have put together compilations of all the existing infinite damage SN1P-SN4P combos, but many of them are so hard to pull off that they’re not actually viable in competitive play.
The thing is, even without the ability to use SN1P-SN4P infinitely in a single turn, it’s still ultra-powerful on its own. According to the Hearthstone stat-keeping site HSReplay.net, it’s currently played in about 26.7 percent of decks, making it the second-most-popular card in the game after another extremely powerful Mech called Zilliax. Decks that use SN1P-SN4P average a 55.6 percent win rate, a full 5.6 percent more than the baseline 50 percent average win rate that one should typically expect from any given deck. It’s a high-power, high-versatility, high-synergy card, and it’s free until July 1.
Hearthstone, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, and Gwent are nowhere to be found on the Nintendo Switch. While it’s unclear what’s holding the biggest digital card games back from the platform, their absence has opened up space for a handful of other decent card games.
Despite being a perfect match for the Switch’s touch screen and portability, Blizzard lead game designer August Dean Ayala confirmed last year that the studio had “no plans” to bring Hearthstone to the Nintendo device. CD Projekt Red’s Witcher-based card game Gwent hasn’t made the jump to the platform, either, despite already being on PS4 and Xbox One and heading to iPhones later this year. Even The Elder Scrolls: Legends, Bethesda’s take on the genre, remains MIA, even though the company announced last E3 that it would arrive on Switch before the end of 2018.
As a result, the card-game space on Switch has been ceded to other developers—and they’ve been doing a pretty solid job. One of my favorite games right now is Lightseekers. It’s a more stripped-down version of the two-players-hurl-spells-and-monsters-at-one-another-until-somebody-dies formula established decades ago by Magic: The Gathering. But what it lacks in strategic depth it makes up for with a fun mechanic that drastically changes up the normal rhythm of a duel-style card game.
In Lightseekers, certain cards rotate 90 degrees and produce a new effect each time. Regen Chamber, for example, is a buff card that heals you two points at the start of every turn and rotates any time you take damage. Once any rotating card has spun through all of the positions once—some cards have effects on all four sides, others fewer—it’s discarded from the battlefield. Rather than just producing an army of monsters to overwhelm your opponent with, playing Lightseekers is more like designing a clock that you then set into motion and watch unwind.
Lightseekers is the card-game part of a larger toys-to-life game originally Kickstarted back in 2016. As a result, there’s both a physical and digital version of the game. One of the coolest parts is that you can actually use a mobile app to scan your physical Lightseekers cards and then get them added to your collection in the digital game. When it came to Switch earlier this year, it carried this element over while also allowing cross-play with the PC and mobile versions.
The Makers of Lightseekers, PlayFusion, recently ported another card game to the Switch: Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Champions. It also allows cross-play with other platforms and similarly allows you to share cards between the physical and digital versions. The game also takes advantage of the rotating card mechanic, but with a few more loose ends to consider that draw on the series’ strategic, tabletop roots. It’s a nice alternative if you want more to chew on than Lightseekers and prefer the grim dark aesthetic of the Warhammer universe.
And then there’s Frost, a survival card game where you fight off wolves and the cold as an icy storm chases your tribe across the tundra. Unlike other card games, Frost is a single-play adventure that functions more like a hybrid of Frostpunk and Slay the Spire. You build up your deck as you play, gaining more options to fend off hunger, traverse mountains, and keep rival tribes at bay. There’s almost never an optimal strategy, though—only less bad ones. Toward the end, survival might mean risking starvation or sacrificing some of your fellow tribesmen altogether. As each playthrough is randomly generated, it’s easy to keep returning whenever I have a spare 15 minutes and just want to sink into the game’s melancholy-but-harsh, hand-drawn aesthetic and confront the elements rather than participate in the faceless grind against online opponents in other games.
The Switch has other, even weirder card games. Shephy is a bizarre take on solitaire using a deck made of cards about sheep. There’s also Hand of Fate 2, an excellent card-based role-playing game reminiscent of D&D that came out in the Switch’s first year. And even if the most popular card games, including the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online, are nowhere to be seen, there are plenty of other interesting ones coming down the line. Slay the Spire is due to get ported to the Switch later this year, as is the excellent The Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game, currently in Early Access on Steam.
There are even some card games being crafted specifically for the Switch. The one I’m most excited for is a recently Kickstarted project called Malkyrs: The Interactive Card Game. It aims to take advantage of the NFC chips in the Joy-Con with a library of physical cards that can then be directly transferred into the game. As someone torn between the ease of playing Magic: The Gathering’s latest expansion digitally in Arena and actually buying a box of booster packs to draft locally with friends, it’s been great to see developers on Switch try to bridge that divide.
I’m still desperate to see Hearthstone, Gwent, and the rest one day make it to Switch, but in the meantime the console has proven to be a great place to explore a world of cards beyond those games.
War Of The Spark, Magic: The Gathering’s latest expansion, is available one week early in Magic: The Gathering Arena, the card game’s digital version. It’s already shaping up to be one of the more memorable climaxes in the game’s recent history.
Narratively, War Of The Spark couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune cultural moment. As the current chapters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones come to a close, Magic’s latest expansion plays with ideas from both. A team of powerful heroes called the Gatewatch battle Nicol Bolas, a powerful Elder Dragon who threatens the multiverse and has raised an undead army to assist him in his quest to become its most powerful being.
While other Magic expansions are themed around a particular magical plane of existence, War of the Spark focuses on the confrontation between the Gatewatch and Bolas, and as a result is full of powerful creatures, big spells, and climactic games that tend to go late. This showdown mentality also factors into the two major mechanics at play in the new set.
The first is called Amass, a spell effect that allows a player to summon a 1/1 zombie army token and then stack on more and more +1/+1 counters every additional time a card with Amass is used. This is Bolas’ army of the undead, and it synergizes with existing mechanics like Proliferate, which adds one to all sets of counters someone currently has in play. And because the zombie armies don’t cost black mana to play, they’re available to every deck type, even though Amass is most prevalent in blue, red, and black cards.
Efficiency, getting as much done with as little as possible, is a big virtue in Magic, and Amass leans into that by helping you create an army of creatures while also playing spells that provide other benefits. Aven Eternal is a 3-mana blue card that’s 2/2 with flying and has Amass 1. So in addition to getting you two creatures for the price of one, the second also has the potential to continue growing in power over the course of the game.
Another card, Contentious Plan, is a 2-mana blue card that proliferates and lets you draw a card. This gives it a lot of utility for such a cheap card once you’ve got a few different zombie armies in play.
War Of The Spark’s other focus is planeswalkers, the powerful characters who stand separate from the rest of the battlefield and provide more complex and often extremely powerful benefits. Traditionally, planeswalkers have been a rarified Magic mechanic, incentivizing players to build entire decks around one specific, very powerful planeswalker card. War of the Spark lowers the barrier to entry by adding weaker planeswalkers at lower rarities. Every booster pack in this set comes with at least one planeswalker, which results in decks where it’s not uncommon to be playing with two or three different planeswalkers at the same time.
Blue Illusionist Jace, founding member of the Gatewatch, is back, this time with a mechanic where the player who uses him automatically wins if it’s their turn and they have no cards left to draw. But there are other planeswalkers like Narset, Parter of Veils, a blue uncommon that prevents opponents from drawing more than one card per turn. Or Ral, Storm Conduit, a blue-red rare who lets you play duplicates of spells and deals damage to the opponent every time you do.
Since there are multiple planeswalkers for every occasion, it means every deck needs a Plan B, C, or even D. There aren’t a ton of cards that facilitate quick, aggressive rush play in War Of The Spark, which means games have time to develop. There’s a big emphasis on being able to close out with big showstoppers like Finale of Devastation, a green sorcery that lets players search their deck for their strongest creature and buff it by a huge amount if they have enough extra mana to spare. And with green planeswalker Nissa, who doubles the mana you get from tapping forests, that’s often the case.
In addition to being a lot of fun so far, especially for people like me who enjoy more chess-like matches that don’t turn completely on someone just happening to get the right card early on, War Of The Spark also highlights some of the major benefits of Arena being digital. While I still prefer to play face-to-face with other people and hear the sound of cards snapping as they’re played from a human hand, there’s a lot of complicated stuff going on in War Of The Spark.
In addition to keeping track of multiple zombie armies with multiple plus-one counters, there are often lots of planeswalkers to manage in addition to the normal minutiae of creature and land management. Many times while playing over the weekend, I was relieved to be able to rely on the game to automatically be doing my upkeep for me rather than have to keep track of it all by myself, or negotiate mental lapses out loud with someone sitting across from me.
I’ve played Magic off and on for decades, but always mostly for fun. War Of The Spark offers a ton of tools for crafting high-stakes plays, exactly the kind I’m looking for as a chronically lapsed player. Even though Arena hasn’t fully launched yet, it already helps a lot by helping keep so much of the busy work involved in the game from upstaging the grand strategies and high spectacle.
When-23-year-old Jess Estephan made history with her team as the first woman to win a Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix last year, press and the Wizards of the Coast mothership were thrilled. Grands Prix are the largest Magic tournaments in the world—over the course of three days, aspiring pros descend upon a convention hall to grind through a grueling Swiss bracket for cash prizes and promo cards. You’d think Estephan would be equally as elated—but that’s not how she described the first few days after her victory.
“After we won, I was not happy,” she wrote in a blog post for Magic community conclave Channel Fireball four months later. “I spent days having panic attacks and feeling terrified whenever a notification popped up on my phone. I turned my phone off to try and concentrate on work. I begged friends to stop showing me the hateful comments. I closed my DMs on Twitter and unfollowed people to revoke messaging privileges…I was called fat and ugly, with many iterations of both. I was told I didn’t deserve the attention and the win because I wasn’t a photogenic physical ideal. In other words, screw the hard work I’d put in—I wasn’t pretty enough to be good at a game I loved.”
The shock and trauma of the championship sent her into a doleful state—not eating or sleeping, and feeling far less confident than usual. What eventually rallied Estephan were the spare messages of encouragement from other women that share her dream. They reminded her that no matter what anyone else says, she’s the one with the Cup.
“It reminded me of why I’d started doing all of this in the first place. If I gave up now, they’d win,” continued Estephan. “On a personal level, I promised myself that I’d take this and become a better person too. At this point, I’d spent a lifetime trying to prove myself. To whom or what? To everyone who told me I couldn’t.”
Today, Estephan is undeterred. She’s inked a sponsorship deal to stream the free-to-play Magic The Gathering: Arena, Wizards of the Coast’s ambitious attempt to buy into the esports industry and supplant Hearthstone as Twitch’s card game du jour. But her fraught rise to fame is an effective symbol of what Wizards finds itself up against as we enter Magic’s 26th year as a commercial product: Estephan remains a stark minority in her field.
Simone Aiken, a lifelong Magic player, has a highly specific approach to the problem of increasing women’s participation in Magic tournaments: If more women play, more women will win.
Aiken’s approach has roots in a study the Royal Society published in 2009. Its conclusion is that the lack of female chess grandmasters can be almost entirely blamed on participation rates. If you plot the raw numbers of men and women competing in competitive chess on a bell curve, the stats shake out evenly independent of demographics. “In chess, there’s 16 men for every woman. That’s way better than Magic. We have 50 men for every woman,” she said, over the phone. “You’re not going to see very many women at the top of chess simply because the population is smaller. The study said that 96 percent [of the disparity] was completely explainable by relative numbers, as if you were taking left-handedness, or green eyes.”
It’s a revelation that shouldn’t come as a surprise unless you believe in the questionable phrenology of the superior Male Gamer Brain, but it’s given Aiken a concrete target: Increase the basic participation rates in Magic tournaments, and non-male winners will follow. Simple as that. It’s a reassuringly approachable formula.
So in 2017, she started Play It Forward, which could be reasonably described as a “Magic nonprofit.” Its praxis is simple; at every Grand Prix, Play It Forward offers a supplementary prize for women and nonbinary competitors: Of that group, the player who makes it the farthest takes home a custom-designed playmat and is immortalized on the Play It Forward website.
If the mechanics and metagaming of Magic aren’t keeping women out of the competitive scene, the blame likely falls on issues of social bias. Autumn Burchett, a nonbinary player who won the Mythic Championship 1 in Cleveland back in February, said via email that it’s always going to be an alienating experience to be one of the very few non-male players at a tournament. “This leads to women and non-binary people not going to competitive Magic events, which in turn makes it hard for them to start attending the next set of events when they see that the situation hasn’t improved at all,” they said. Burchett explained that this environment brings out unfortunate cultural deterrents.
“For example, I’ve heard stories of women being unable to find players they trust that they can share hotel rooms with because the men who they’d be sharing with have girlfriends that would be uncomfortable with this,” they continued. “The women players in this scenario can’t room with others as easily as a result and end up having to pay a lot more for accommodation, which presents an economic barrier that affects men less and means that women on average aren’t able to afford to attend as many tournaments. These sorts of barriers are really subtle and hidden until you’re actually in that position or know someone who has been.”
This is what Aiken is trying to change. She wants to counter those negative incentives with something that non-male players can get excited about the next time they’re at a weekend GP.
“Most of us are the best women players in our local communities, and we’re kind of used to being the best woman in the room. You get lazy. It’s a trap of low expectations. Everyone says, ‘Oh yeah, Simone is amazing,’ and there’s this unspoken, ‘for a girl.’ You internalize it,” she said. “[Now] you’re motivated, you want to come out, because you want to get the playmat, or some are trying to get their second. You see huge changes. I hear people saying, ‘Before, I only went to one Grand Prix a year, and now I’m going to three or four.’ Even if we’re not getting new players, the best guys are going to 15 to 20 GPs. So we’re getting a larger population and greater participation.”
Of course those institutional problems shouldn’t distract from some of the more direct prejudices. Talk to any women in Magic, and they can recall a bad attitude, or a lecherous intention, that’s turned them off from the scene. Those experiences add up. It’s hard to fall in love with a game without a sense of solidarity from your practice partners, which can have a chilling effect on the global Magic competitive field.
Where demographics particularly swoon, explains Aiken, is in card games like poker and Magic. Not only is the environment in a card room less inviting than an open range, but a significant part of success in Magic is left up to chance. That opens the door to some uncharitable interpretations regardless of whether a woman wins or loses a match. “You can try your hardest, you can play perfectly, and you can still lose. And when you lose, and you’re the woman, you’re going to have a lot of people saying, ‘It’s not because mana screw happens, it’s because you’re bad at Magic,’” she said. “And when you win… You get people writing you nasty emails about how you totally lucked out.”
Teresa Pho, an aspiring Magic pro in Cincinnati who attended her first Grand Prix in 2017, cut to the root of these issues when I called her to ask if there’s anything specific about the competitive Magic infrastructure she’d like to see improved for women. In short, she’s looking for a role model.
“I think a lack of mentorship is a barrier for women,” said Pho. “I think it’s really hard for us to find other good, competitive players that want to see us grow and succeed and hit that really high-level place. That’s an area that’s really lacking.”
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Demographic barriers keep women from getting started in competitive Magic, which means precious few women orbit to top-of-tournament brackets. When Pho got her start, there wasn’t the same bulwark of pros willing to take her under their wing as there is for male pros. The situation is likely to stay that way until the same traditions and institutions are established for female players—and with it remains the question of what should be done.
Elaine Chase, the vice president of esports at Wizards of the Coast, is aware of all these issues. Representation is a corporate priority, she said in a call, and the company has made a concerted effort to increase the diversity of the on-camera interview and analysis talent of Magic tournament broadcasts. “We saw our numbers go up in those events, more women playing,” she explained. “We looked at our competitive structures themselves, and we put more emphasis on the community gathering [around Grands Prix]. The Grand Prix tournament is still the showcase of the event that happens that weekend, but tons of people show up that don’t even play. They’re there to meet friends, or do side events and things like that. The more that women show up, the more it becomes normalized.”
Wizards has been trying to lay a groundwork for representation for at least the past few years. They even tapped two prominent women from the competitive scene, Jackie Lee and Melissa DeTora, to design and balance new cards. Those hirings were actually met with some mild, good-hearted abrasion from Magic players; two of the best women in the world, who exhibited the best chances for a non-male player to scale the competitive circuit, were plucked from organized play for good. (Chase understands that, but she reiterates how important it is to keep the internal culture of Wizards diverse.)
When I reached out to Estephan for comment over email, she was adamant that she’s been mostly satisfied with how the company has established its ethics.
“[Wizards] really dedicated themselves to increasing both visibility and representation within the community at higher levels of play, which is really important. Seeing women both on coverage and on commentary has been wonderful, and a personal driver in my engagement within the competitive scene,” she wrote. “It would be great to see more women involved in high-level Magic, and to see more women competing. I believe that the aforementioned visibility and representation is a key to increasing these numbers.”
However, that 32 men were invited to the Magic Pro League seemed incongruent with those ideals. For a game that’s been around for so long, it was strange that Wizards didn’t bridge the gender divide in one of their biggest competitive investments ever. Chase told me that this was a question she agonized over.
“It was very serious consideration. We had a lot of different approaches how to build that roster, but at the end of the day we decided to take the top-ranked players from last year. Starting from number one, and going down to 32,” she says. “It was very sad to us that there were no women in that list today. We’re trying to figure out what the MPL looks like next year. I very much want there to be women in next year’s MPL. I want there to be a system that encourages that kind of play. But for the very first time out, as we’re trying to transition from the tabletop world to the esports world, we thought it was important to take the top-ranked players.”
Her sentiment reminded me of what Estephan wrote in her blog post, about how being the center of attention—the first woman on the moon—was for more harrowing than it was rewarding. I brought the quandary to Chase: How worried was she about putting a woman in that same position?
“It was a key part of our decision making. We actually talked to a female Magic player as we were forming the MPL, if we could fit her in. If we could fit others in. How we could make that work,” continues Chase. “And ultimately, her feedback was, if we are going through a system where we’re picking number one to 32, and we have to dip down to number 200 on that list, it would deem her a grave disservice. It would be setting her up to be a target of you’re only here because. And it would derail all the positive things you’re trying to do. So ultimately, we moved away from it. It was tough for us.”
Aiken, who has committed an entire organization to fighting the raw statistical balance in Magic representation, shared the sentiment. As she works tirelessly to bring equity to competitive Magic, the number one thing she’s concerned with is not being cruel.
“It would depend on who they chose. It would vary wildly. I think one [woman player] would be a mistake. If you were going to do it, you’d want at least three,” she says. “It’s like, if I’m the only woman at a thing, and I top-8, that says one thing. If I’m the only woman and I hit the middle, that says another thing. If I’m the only woman and I finish at the bottom, that says another. If you do one, you’re putting intense pressure on her to represent all women. She has no cover. That’s going to degrade her happiness and her performance.”
Given what Estephan went through, it is perhaps unsurprising that she concurred: “It would have been met poorly by the community as a whole and made it only harder for competitive female players to be taken seriously.”
Wizards of the Coast is currently trying to fix the imbalance in other ways. At the forthcoming PAX East in April, the company will host the Mythic Invitational—pitting the MPL roster against a variety of invited streamers and personalities, including seven women. (One of them is Jess Estephan.) The reaction from the community was mixed. Some players were irked that spots in a tournament with a million dollar prize pool were being offered up to Twitch stars and casual players, rather than the people grinding away in the tournament slag mines. There were also some reports that the streamers in question had deactivated their socials to shield themselves from vitriol. Integration in the MPL, if and when it does happen, is going to be an uphill battle.
“The thing is, the vast majority of the Magic community shares the same ideals that Wizards of the Coast does. The vast majority of the community is awesome, and welcoming, and supportive,” says Chase. “When you move things out to the internet, when you have a community as large as Magic, you’re never going to get 100 percent of people that all believe the same thing. The problem with harassment is that it only takes a couple hundred.”
“To me, that’s the question of the human condition.”
Predaking? Weak. Superion? Bah. Before the Autobots and Decepticons started transforming teams of five into one giant robot, there were the Constructicons, six construction vehicle robots who combined into the mighty Devastator. The original gestalt is a “towering warrior” in the Transformers Trading Card Game’s upcoming Rise of the Combiners expansion.
The Rise of the Combiners expansion, hitting stores in March, introduces combiner teams to the Transformers Trading Card Game. Players must collect each member of a team and then use an “Enigma” card to combine them into one gigantic robot. Rather than having two sides featuring their robot and alt modes, combiner team members have both of those on one side of their card, with the other side featuring a portion of their combined form.
Most Transformers combiner team toys feature five robots—four limbs and a main torso, with all limbs being interchangeable. Devastator is a different sort of construct. His six components fit together in a specific way, and there’s no swapping them around.
With six component robots—Bonecrusher, Hook, Longhaul, Mixmaster, Scavenger and Scrapper—Devastator is slightly harder to bring into play than combiners with only five parts.
The end result is a massive metal beast with the health of six different robots combined, as well as a unique tower-building mechanic that really captures the construction vehicle theme of the team. In vehicle form, each robot (as seen in the slideshow above) has a special ability that contributes to the building of a tower. The higher the tower, the more benefits the robots’ combined form gains.
It really is outstanding the way the game’s designers have incorporated themes from the show, comics and toys into the game. The Constructicons not only form one of the most formidable Decepticons in Transformers history, they’re also indulging in their passion for building. They create, they destroy.
Devastator, in all his purple and green glory, arrives as a standalone Rise of the Combiners deck for the Transformers Trading Card Game on March 29.
Toys and CollectiblesAction figures, statues, exclusives, and other merchandise. Beware: if you look here, you’re probably going to spend some money afterwards.
Last month, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast revealed that the first expansion for their Transformers card game would be bringing in the Combiners—which actually get laid out with each other to reveal a gigantic combined form. The Decepticons got Predaking. Now the Autobots are getting Superion.
io9 is excited to reveal the first look at the Superion cards coming in Rise of the Combiners on March 1. As with Predaking, in order to form Superion, players will have to put five different cards onto the field—specifically, of course, the Aerialbots: Air Raid, Alpha Bravo, Fireflight, Silverbolt, and Skydive.
Like all other Transformers in the game, the Aerialbots can still transform into their own vehicle forms—it’s just that, unlike most Transformers cards, you don’t actually physically flip them over to reveal their alternate stats and transformed mode. That’s because, after activating the right “Enigma” card, flipping them over and lining the right ‘bots in the right places together reveals that—when all are one—they’ve got the ginormous art of Superion on the back!
It’s a wonderful way to utilize the combining aspect of the Combiner Transformers within the mechanics of a card game—which, from the flip-to-transform double-sided cards to absurdly-giant-sized ones representing the bulkier bots already, Transformers Trading Card Game has a lot of so far. What’s next after the Combiners? We’ll have to wait and see, but I hope we’re not too far out from having to construct elaborate card structures for some really major transformations or something! Rise of the Combiners—which will also bring in triple-change Transformers to the game as well as several other new mechanics and rules tweaks—booster cards will be available starting March 1.
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