As the original TCG, Magic: The Gathering has always been the golden standard for collectible card games. Many, many other TCGs have come and gone but Magic is in another class entirely for age, player population and complexity. Only the Pokemon TCG has been around almost as long as Magic and has historically been as successful or more in terms of sales. However, the biggest difference between the games is that many people that buy Pokemon cards don’t even know how to play the game, they are primarily collectors. But what if there were a game that was incredibly collectible but also played exceptionally well? What if it played shockingly similar to Magic but was easier to get new players into? Could it seek to bump Magic out of one of the top slots in TCGs?
Welcome to Disney Lorcana. Featuring the vast intellectual property rights of the Disney corporation, Lorcana was developed by the Ravensburger toy company. One of the co-designers of the game, Ryan Miller, worked for Wizards of the Coast on Magic for 20 years. The other co-designer, Steve Warner, also worked for Wizards on several games including, you guessed it, Magic. With two Magic designers working on a new card game, you would have to wonder if they would take care to differentiate it from Magic or learn how to reduce that system’s flaws while making their own game better.
As a player of Magic for almost 30 years, I now have played in multiple Lorcana events over three days. The game is well done. It is obvious that it is inspired by what has come before it. In fact, I believe you could probably figure out how to play without a rule book as merely reading the cards would be sufficient in most cases. This would be impossible for a game as complex and deep as Magic.
First, let’s take a look at where the games are the same. Second, we’ll talk about what Lorcana does well that Magic doesn’t. Finally, is this new game going to impact Magic and how if so?
Impossibly Easy to Learn
If you have ever played Magic: the Gathering, Hearthstone or the World of Warcraft TCG you already know how to play Lorcana. This fact is extremely flattering to Magic when you consider that so many game mechanics introduced 30 years ago are still being used, and copied. Imitation and all that.
Effectively speaking, you play lands, tap them to cast spells, tap to activate abilities and attack, have creatures with power/toughness, cast spells and effects that target and so on. Sounds familiar, right?
Merely using the term “exert” to avoid trademark infringement might be enough legally speaking but it’s not enough to differentiate the game action of turning a card 90 degrees to denote it being used for the turn. That’s tapping a card and it has been since 1993. The same can be said of numerous keywords. For example, “Ward” in Lorcana is essentially “Hexproof” in Magic. Shift? Basically Mutate. Evasive? Flying, more or less.
In another strange nod to Magic, you play to precisely 20 points called “Lore” which is awfully similar to having exactly 20 life. This game takes more than just a little inspiration from Magic and that may end up being why it plays so well; it’s got 30 years of play testing built in already.
Where it Excels
Learning a game takes a certain amount of effort. The more complex the game, the more effort is required, and that directly translates into a barrier to entry for new players. Lorcana has one of the lowest barriers of any TCG, ever. It is deceptively simple and likely is aiming for “easy to learn, easy to master too.”
Furthermore, you can take all of your game actions, as many times as you can, in any order you want. So if a new player is struggling to understand if they can do something, the answer is practically always “Yes” so long as it is on their turn. This greatly reduces analysis paralysis.
In Magic, there are so many different triggered abilities, responses and priority that it can get extremely overwhelming for new players to know when they even can do something, let alone if it’s a good play. A complaint I have heard from new Magic players is an inability to follow where they are in the turn order. “Whose turn is it anyways?” Because you can play many spells or have effects played against you at any point, new players can get lost in the sauce.
Lorcana removes this issue by only letting you do stuff on your own turn. This leads me to one of my personal complaints with many other previous TCGs. They were, effectively speaking, solitaire, i.e. on my turn I make a play and on your turn I’m going to go get a soda. Please let me know when you’re done with your turn.
Rules-wise, it’s the same but I never felt like I was doing nothing while I watched my opponent play. I was sizing up if they were aiming to establish more board control or seeking to win the game through lore. If they didn’t play something or activate something I was gaining information. So even when I could not make plays outside of my turn, I was still gaining intel for game decisions when it was my turn. This is a unique quality that, in my experience, other “solitaire” games have never had.
Also the fact that almost every card can be put face down as a land means you cannot be “mana screwed” or “mana flooded” which is something that occurs far too often in Magic. This reduces the number of complete and total non-games that occur purely from bad luck. We all know that sometimes we keep a one lander and regret it in Magic. In those cases it’s our own fault and we should have learned our lesson. Don’t keep one landers folks!
Other times, you can keep a perfectly acceptable hand and draw eight lands straight and just lose. That feels bad and in Lorcana it basically cannot happen. You get to play your cards, always. Whether it makes a difference or not, though, is another story…
Where it Fails
The mulligan system is underwhelming. At first I thought it was interesting and made sense but after enough rounds of play I recognized it’s very flawed.
After you draw your opening seven, you can choose to mulligan. That means you set aside as many cards as you want from your opening seven to the bottom of your deck, draw up to seven, then reshuffle your deck. Unlike Magic, you don’t take a penalty for doing so, but you also can only do this exactly once. That means if you know the strategy your opponent is going for and you know you have answers in your deck, you can try to draw them but only once.
In Magic, if you know your deck is vulnerable to a particular strategy or counter-play but you have a sideboard answer, you can aggressively mulligan to give yourself a chance at the cost of cards. Not so in Lorcana.
Furthermore in Magic, you put the cards you want the least on the bottom of your library so that you won’t re-draw them early but in Lorcana due to shuffling again your very next draw could be something you tried to get rid of.
Because I always enjoyed the absurdly deep interactivity of Magic, “solitaire” style TCGs never appealed to me. Sure, it’s a lot more complicated with the stack and priority. Every little nuance matters from tapping your lands correctly to proceeding in the correct order of priority. In Lorcana, though, there’s essentially zero interaction across turns. This keeps it simple, but removes interesting counter play and decision making.
At the moment, it’s relatively difficult to trade tempo for some other advantage whereas with Magic you can make that decision every single turn by untapping and keeping mana open to interact. Thus, you sort of need to commit something to the board every single turn which feels a bit reductive like you’re playing a simple game of “War“.
Additionally, part of this lack of interaction issue is the fact that going first seems to be absurdly better than going second. This is true in many card games but it feels odd here. While it’s anecdotal, let me share my experience at three separate events with different venues and players.
Going First is Way Too Good
During event number one, my games had a 60/40 split – the person that went first won 60% of the time, going second had a 40% win rate. That does not seem that bad. However, at event two, it was an 82% win rate going first and only 18% going second. Event three? Make it 92% if you’re going first. The general consensus at all three events was that going first was better by a mile in most cases. While not absolute proof of an imbalance, it sure felt that way to many players at the events which leads to another failure of the system.
Magic has a rich history of comebacks. Some certainly would be due to the random nature of mana. Others, though, are because there are cards of significant power that facilitate it happening. So far, Lorcana games seem to come to an abrupt end with very few being close or neck and neck. One player pulls ahead and then that’s it. No card drawn could have saved you. There are not enough board wipes or mass removal effects in every color to do so, at least, not yet.
The surprising part was how often this happened. While the victory conditions aren’t the same, they’re almost analogous. In Magic, you might be getting beaten up and very low on life, clear the board, then gradually win it back. This situation basically cannot happen in Lorcana. You go from slightly behind to so impossibly behind that you have already lost in the space of one turn. To put it another way I saw exactly one, single game that was neck and neck, as close as it could be. Every other game I played in or witnessed for three days was somewhere between a severe thrashing and a total stomp. Very scientific language, I know.
It’s likely future expansions will address these issues. If the amount of lore required to win were raised a little higher that may help make games feel less one-sided.
Impact on MTG
Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, Magic. No matter which head is in charge, there have been a lot of mistakes made in the last several years, so many that naming them all would be a task in itself. Whether it’s simple mistakes like not crediting the right artist on a card, to sicking the Pinkertons on an unlucky content creator, to being double down rated by Bank of America, Hasbro is ultimately responsible for misstep after misstep. But what about if your actions are directly responsible for creating one of your competitors?
Oftentimes appearing in the top five of TCGs Flesh and Blood was created as a direct response to Magic becoming a corporate machine. Flesh and Blood had a meteoric rise and, even though it cooled down, it’s regaining steam once more. Being responsible for the creation of a multi-million dollar competitor is a big oof. Having two former employees of Wizards responsible for the design of Lorcana is likely going to be a massive oof.
That being said, the upshot of all this is that Hasbro needs to focus for the rest of 2023 and beyond. Sure, Magic is selling tons of cards right now and virtually every set is a record breaker, but that’s before the House of Mouse arrived.
Pokemon is not a direct competitor to Magic because one is mostly about the collectible angle with a game that you can play. Flesh and Blood has always been about gameplay first and collectibles second and has been only a minor player so far. Because it’s run by Disney, Lorcana is automatically a collectible juggernaut. Because the game play is “Magic lite” far more players can get into the game aspect with very little effort.
Simplicity and a Lack of Mistakes
For me, if I were a new player, it would be difficult to see that Magic is the more rewarding game. Extremely deep thinking and piles of game knowledge, especially in an environment like Commander with a card ocean tens of thousands deep, is important. Lorcana is on its first set of 200 cards and is a puddle by comparison. However, that lack of depth helps it play exceedingly well as it is not chained up to older systems and ideas that are hard to explain to new players. There aren’t a lot of game decisions to make and, in most situations, making the right move is fairly elementary.
Combining a game that is collectible as all hell with a good enough level of game play that is not hard to learn has always been the goal of any modern TCG. Lorcana almost certainly is this. The ball is in Hasbro’s court and it is up to them to come up with a strategy to minimize their losses to another new competitor. The lowest of hanging fruit would be to stop making so many mistakes, many of which could be due to the increased pressure of releasing so much product so quickly. A focus on quality might make all the difference.