This week I've entered a four card blind Magic tournament, which is an interesting spin on an existing game that might have some neat design lessons in it. In Magic players usually use 60 card decks, starting with a hand of 7 random cards and drawing one each turn. The game continues until one player has used their cards to defeat the other or someone runs out of cards, at which point they lose. Much of the skill of the game is in deck construction, coming up with a combination of cards that can ensure victory whichever order it is drawn in.
In four card blind, each deck has only four cards and they're all drawn as the players initial hands. Players don't lose as a result of running out of cards in their deck. The format is unusual in that your cards are utterly predictable and certain effects change in power level dramatically. Drawing a card is no longer worth anything, as there are no cards to draw and powers based on your discard pile will do nothing unless you've specifically prepared the battlefield for it. Returning a card to its controllers hand is often devastating, as the format often leads to combinations that can't fire more than once, whereas in regular play it's more of a passing inconvenience that can be overcome by playing the card again next turn.
This card did me proud in the first round, the drawback is significant in a regular game, but negligible in this format. If this was a magic blog I'd get into discussing various strategies and neat tricks people have used in the format, but we're here to discuss game design so as is customary I'll get to the point halfway through the blog
The act of deckbuilding for this format is quick and rewarding. It doesn't take that long to find four cards that will work well together (especially with helpful sites like this), but it feels good to identify options that are particularly good in the format and leverage them to the best effect. It's also nice to see the things that your opponents put together and admire some of the sweetest tricks they've pulled.
Round times are short, match ups are interesting and the game is rewarding, it seems worth thinking about ways to wrap an experience like this into a more self contained game. I think that it would be a mistake to try to make a direct copy, a game could come with a book of 11,000 powers and challenge players to seek out ones that achieve their goals - each one would fit on a line so the book needn't be larger than the average paperback - even if powers were permanently banned (not just in that game) it would be a very long time before the game was past its usefulness.
However I don't think you'd get the same sense of satisfaction out of such a game. Four card blind works because the players are already familiar with Magic from other forms of play in a way that adds to the experience. It's nice to find a use for that card that you were sure should be able to do something cool but that was too situational. Or to pull off that combo that you'd never put into a deck because the odds of pulling the cards together is slim and they're took weak individually. Or just to use that thing that you remembered and everyone else forgot because something in it spoke to you when you first saw it.
To make it work as a self-contained game it needs to hit the same notes, but without requiring all of the baggage. Ultimately you'd be looking to make something that challenged players to find good combinations, but from a corpus that wasn't so large as to be unapproachable to the uninitiated. The building needs to be the meat of the challenge, the resolution needs to be quick and interesting.
I think that the trick would be in managing the set of powers that players are choosing from. It'd need to be small enough to be comprehensible, but you want that feeling of seeking and finding combinations and working around restrictions. Perhaps if the powers used in a round restricted what could be selected in the next round and it was possible to save some of the powers you didn't select for next round there could be room for building a round to round metastrategy. I'm not sure if you could hit the same buttons as four card blind, but it'd be interesting to try sometime.