About two years ago, I foolishly experimented with a highly addictive substance. To the uninitiated, it has the appearance of harmless sheets of printed card. But those caught in its vice-like grip know that it can become a life-consuming obsession, relentlessly draining its users’ wallets and robbing them of their free time. It’s called Magic: The Gathering, or, to use its street name, “cardboard crack.”
With over 20m players around the globe, Magic is one of the analogue gaming industry’s great success stories. It casts players as planeswalkers – powerful mages with the ability to travel between a multitude of alternative dimensions. Armed with a personalised deck of cards, they cast deadly spells and summon armies of dangerous creatures in an effort to overcome their opponents.
It’s utterly compelling and deeply strategic. But Magic isn’t without its flaws. The most powerful cards become highly sought-after on the second hand market, with some changing hands for hundreds or even thousands of pounds. And its system of requiring randomly-drawn cards to generate mana – a kind of metaphysical in-game currency – can lead to situations where one player finds themselves unable to do anything, completely shut out of the game while their opponent romps to an uncontested and unsatisfying victory.
YOU’LL BE ABLE TO DO SOMETHING – OFTEN SOMETHING EXTREMELY POWERFUL – FROM YOUR VERY FIRST TURN
Epic, from US studio White Wizard Games, aims to address both of these shortcomings. Designed by Magic hall-of-famers Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle, it’s a fantasy-themed strategy card game that comes in a single £13 box containing a copy of every card in the game. That’s enough to start playing straight away, and while you’ll need three copies of the game to unlock its full deck-building potential, at a total cost of £39 it’s still cheaper than a single moderately competitive Magic deck.
It also completely does away with the concept of mana. Where Magic forces players to build towards their biggest plays, gradually gathering resources as the game unfolds, Epic makes it infinitely easier to deploy massive creatures and unleash incredibly potent spells. Many cards in the game are free to play, and you’ll be able to cast as many on your turn as you like. Others – the most powerful – cost a gold piece to use. You’ll receive a single point of gold at the start of each turn, limiting you to just one of these potentially devastating cards per round, but the end result is that no matter which cards you draw, you’ll be able to do something – often something extremely powerful – from your very first turn.
The table quickly fills up with angels, vampires, demons and dinosaurs, but while these creatures – or champions, as they’re known in Epic – are powerful, they’re also vulnerable. The game includes a range of event cards that let you trigger earthquakes, rain fire on your enemies or otherwise kill off their units. In some cases these can wipe out several creatures at a time, and with the casualty count running high, it’s best not to become too emotionally attached to the troops under your command.
But while its designers have taken some big steps to address some Magic’s greatest annoyances, it’s disappointing that in other respects, Epic borrows heavily from its predecessor. Several card abilities have been transplanted straight from Magic: haste,the ability to attack with a card as soon as it’s played, becomes blitz; flying, which allows creatures to evade ground-based enemies, becomes airbourne; indestructible, which protects creatures from death, becomes unbreakable.
Just about every core mechanic of Magic has a counterpart in Epic, and while this means Magic players will pick it up quickly and easily, it seems a shame that White Wizard hasn’t given the game more of its own distinct identity.
This is especially apparent in the game’s fictional background – or rather, in its lack of one. Aside from grouping cards into four alignments – good, evil, sage and wild – there’s no sense of setting or character to Epic. It features some gorgeous, vibrant artwork, but there’s no indication as to who any of these creatures are or why they’re fighting one another.
The absence of a detailed setting might not matter to some players, but a more fundamental criticism is that while Epic goes to great lengths to solve Magic’s mana problem, it introduces a new one of its own. With players able to throw down their most powerful cards from the word “go,” there’s no sense of progression to the game. Where Magic can feel a lot like a boxing match, with combatants cautiously feeling each other out in the early rounds before clashing more aggressively as the bout goes on, Epic is more like a wild pub brawl. Both participants charge in with wild hay-makers, and after some heavy blows all round, one ends up flat on the floor having been unceremoniously smashed over the head with a bar stool.
Stripped of any sense of pacing or context, even the biggest, swingiest, most audacious plays lose some of their appeal, and it’s enough to make you wonder whether the dreaded mana screw might not be an acceptable price to pay for the kind of tense gameplay and memorable moments Magic offers.
All of that said, it’s important to note that Epic does have some genuine strong points, not least its flexibility. You can spend hours fine-tuning a custom-built deck, but you can also just shuffle an entire box of cards, deal 30 to each player and bash out a chaotic impromptu game. You can even get some friends together to draft decks and hold a mini tournament. That’s a lot of possibility for under £40.
But as it stands, Epic feels more like an attempt to fix Magic: The Gathering than a new game in its own right. It’s still in its early days, and it’s entirely possible that future expansions will introduce new mechanics that help it to stand out on its own merits. Unless and until that happens, though, it’s a maybe rather than a must-buy.