Monday, April 14, 2014

My Little Pony CCG: A Horse of a Different Color

Pictured: Pre-release promo Nightmare Moon

I played a lot of fun and interesting games at PAX East 2014, including a memorable game simply titled Throw Trucks with your Mind—a review of which will be forthcoming—but the game I undoubtedly spent the most time and money on was the My Little Pony Collectible Card Game.

My Little Pony, as most of you are probably already aware, is a show by Hasbro, targeted at young girls, whose latest incarnation is titled My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Friendship is Magic, the fourth generation of the franchise, first aired in 2011.

While My Little Pony has historically been at best a thinly veiled toy commercial of atrociously low quality, Friendship is Magic's unexpectedly deep characters, surprisingly rich stories, and powerful messages of friendship and positivity have drawn in an enormous fanbase of all ages and genders. Hasbro has capitalized on this unlooked-for market with a wide variety of products, including a new collectible card game (CCG), which brings us to the topic at hoof. Er, hand.

The My Little Pony CCG, which was released in December 2013, allows players to take control of their favorite ponies and use them to solve various Problems that crop up. At its simplest it is a game of confronting and solving Problems for points, with the first player to reach fifteen points declared the winner. This is accomplished by sending characters to each Problem until a certain minimum power level is reached, at which point you are able to confront it.

I don't want to devote too much time to breaking down the mechanics and rules of the game, but just so we are all on the same page, here is a quick rundown:

Each deck contains one main character, 45 other cards, and a ten-card Problem deck for a total of 56 cards. As I said before, the goal is to confront Problems and build up your points. Players begin with their main characters on the field and support them with Friends and various Events and Resources—which if you're familiar with Magic: The Gathering are essentially instants/sorceries and enchantments. The other type of card is the Troublemaker, which can be played on a Problem to prevent your opponent from being able to confront that Problem, and often has other negative effects as well. As you build up your power on the field you are able to play more powerful cards, and as players gain points they both start generating more Action Points (AP) with which to play those cards, giving the game the feeling of build-up that is central to so many CCGs.

It is important to keep both the power level and the color of each card in mind, as many cards require a certain amount of a certain color to be in play before they can be used, and all Problems require at least two colors to confront. Each Problem has two costs: a color-specific cost for the one who played it, and a more expensive but non color-based cost for the opponent. This adds another layer of strategy, as it allows players to pick their battles based on what they currently have available.

The last mechanic worth exploring is the faceoff. When both players confront the same problem it triggers a faceoff, which is a confrontation between the two groups of friends at that problem. Each player totals up the power of the friends at the problem then flips one card from the top of his or her deck and adds that card’s power. Whoever has the higher total wins the faceoff and receives bonus points, at which point the problem is considered “solved” and the characters return to their starting area.

While the goal is the same no matter who you are playing as, each main character has their own playstyle. For example, Twilight Sparkle operates in large part by generating additional AP, while Rarity is devoted more to control-based mechanics like Inspired, which allows the player to look at the top card of his or her opponent's deck and put it back on the top or bottom. I found myself with a certain affinity for Rainbow Dash, which is not surprising as she plays a great deal like a mono-red deck would in Magic—those of you who know me personally know that I am a die-hard Red Deck Wins player. Rainbow Dash plays by sending out a lot of ponies, which she is then able to move around the field quite quickly and easily. Her power builds rapidly, and her movement tricks enable you to make sure you have that power right where you need it.

My concern going into this game was that it would simply be a money grab by Hasbro: a lackluster Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh clone with ponies on the cover, looking to make a quick buck from the fandom. I could not have been more wrong. My Little Pony is a solid game, and the mechanics and overall tone of the game are like no other CCG I've ever played. Rather than a battle, this is a race to solve Problems and correct what's wrong before your opponent can; a competition, certainly, but not a fight. This is shown not only in the terminology used (ponies confront instead of battling, and are dismissed rather than killed, for example) but in the very mechanics of the game, namely in the scoring system.

In Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Kaijudo, Vanguard, or any other CCG you care to name, the objective is to break down your opponents defenses and attack until you are able to deliver the killing blow. In My Little Pony, it is the opposite. Rather than aiming to take away your opponent's points, you try to build up your own. The other part of this mechanic is how Action Points are generated: at the start of each player's turn, that player gets a certain number of AP which he or she can then use to play cards, move characters around, draw extra cards, and a few other things. The interesting part about it is that points are generated based on the score of the highest scoring player. While this is in place mostly to prevent the game from quickly becoming too one-sided, it also feeds into the ever-present feeling that, even though you are competing against your opponent, you are not really enemies. Even though you are doing your best to win, you are helping your opponent as well.

Overall, the MLP CCG is an unexpectedly good game, and a breath of fresh air in the trading card game world. It has some innovative ideas and an atmosphere that's all its own. Is it as good as long-standing games like Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh? At the moment I would have to say no, but on the other hand it has only been out for a few months. Details are still being ironed out and options are still rather limited. The second set, Canterlot Nights, is scheduled to release in May, so I am excited to see where Hasbro and Enterplay are able to take this game with the second set and beyond.

Whether you're a pony fan or not, this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

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