A comparison of draw systems in customizable card games

Since Magic: The Gathering‘s release in 1993 there have been hundreds of customizable card games. Covering different ideas, mechanics and themes the genre has gone far beyond its humble origins and grown increasingly diverse.

And I think one of the most interesting examples of this growth is the way different games handle card draw. Let’s give them a look.

Used by: Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, VS System, Pokémon CCG, Yu-Gi-Oh and many others.

The original system is the simplest of them all: At the beginning of your turn, you draw one or two cards. That’s it. It’s easy to understand, it does its job of providing new cards and is easy to design for. However, it’s not without its flaws.

The biggest problem with drawing a set number of cards is that, if you don’t get the right ones, you can’t do anything. You might need resources, troops or a way to get rid of a threat, but if the game doesn’t give them to you, there’s nothing you can do. This leads to one-sided games where one player can’t put up a fight.

Drawing only a few cards per turn also makes them very expensive. After all, if one is all you can get per turn, it better be a good one. This forces all cards to be either highly versatile or very impactful to be playable. Cards that are useful only in some situations become a luxury players can’t afford. Deck variety goes down and efficiency becomes paramount.

A typical game of Magic, for example, may end or hit its critical point by turn four. This means that players see about a dozen cards and win through a handful of them. If you only play 6 spells in a game, you don’t have room for that many effects. Or that many lines of play, for that matter.

While its simplicity and high level of randomness have kept this system popular, other systems have been developed to try and address its many shortcomings.

Used by: Vampire: The Eternal Struggle

This is the system used by Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. Whenever you play a card, you draw a card. Simple. It’s a fairly unique design, which I don’t think has ever been replicated but which was highly influential.

The main benefit is that players always have access to cards. Making them available is important, because cards is how you do stuff in a card game. Ensuring players always have some gives them options and makes for better gameplay.

But this easy replacement makes cards too cheap. There’s not much of a cost to playing a card when you can instantly replace it with another. Often, the real cost is not so much the resources you spend to put it into play but simply having it on your hand, taking up space. In fact, one of the flaws of VTES is how often it devolves into players throwing cards at each other and the draw system is one of its causes.

Easy access to cards also distorts balance. When the main cost of a card is having them in your hand, it becomes very difficult to price them. Why play an expensive card when you can simply play five or six cheap cards in its place? The cost of playing one card over of another becomes very hard to control, being either too high or too low depending on how fast you can replace it.

The way the system shoves cards into the player’s face also goes against one of the strengths of card games which is their small rules footprint. Drawing more cards means reading more of them and having to stop mid-turn to do so slows down the game. This is less of an issue for experienced players, but still breaks the flow of the game.

One must keep in mind, though, that these flaws are more acceptable by the nature of VTES. Unlike other card games, it’s multiplayer, which means good access to cards is more important than usual. And its resource system, where money doubles as life, puts a premium on paying for cards. But, still, it could be improved on and it was.

Used by: Keyforge, Middle Earth, Doomtown, Rage

The system used by Vampire: The Eternal struggle had clear benefits but also a rather large number of flaws. Hence, several designers, including Richard Garfield himself, worked to improve it.

The best of these tweaks was drawing up to handsize. That is, instead of drawing a card the exact moment you play another, you only draw them at the end of turn and only up to a certain number.

This still gives players easy access to cards, but there’s now a ceiling to how many of them they can obtain. If the maximum hand size is four, players can only draw four cards per turn, if it’s six, they can only draw six. This keeps things in check and players no longer throw cards at each other with such ease.

However, it’s still a system that makes cards very cheap. Drawing four or five cards per turn is a lot! All the flaws and issues are still present, just minimized and kept under control.

Perhaps this is why Keyforge has so many additional mechanisms to keep the game in check. Your deck is composed of three suits and you can only play or activate cards of one of those suits each turn. While you may be able to play your whole hand once in a while, it’s not possible to do it every turn. Hand management is needed.

Keyforge also addresses the difficulty of balancing cards by making some of them temporarily reduce your hand size. This mechanism adds another way for designers to tune cards and give them an appropriate power level. Very smart design.

Used by: Legend of the Five Rings LCG, Star Wars CCG (Decipher)

But what if draw didn’t require playing cards? Many of the issues found in the other systems could be avoided if drawing cards and actually playing them were separate concepts. This led to a series of games where cards are drawn by spending another resource, like money or life points.

The main benefit of this is that you don’t need cards to draw. No matter what you have in your hand, you always have the option of getting cards. You may have nothing and still have options. But, unlike the other systems, these cards come at a cost.

There is, however, the potential for a feedback loop. Having more resources often means getting more cards and getting more cards often means having more resources. Even worse, having fewer resources means getting less cards, dragging players down if they make a mistake.

Hence, games using this kind of systems tend to have mechanisms to compensate. For example, in Legend of the Five Rings LCG, players bid a resource called honour which doubles as life points. Players draw one card for each point of honour spent but the loser gets the difference between the two bids. Therefore, a player drawing too many cards will also help his opponent.

The addition of a resource system also increases the complexity of the game. Knowing how much to pay for cards, when, and why is difficult and less approachable than previous solutions. Games using this system are harder on the player but also gain in depth.

Used by: Netrunner, Android: Netrunner

Netrunner‘s resource system is, in many ways, the logical conclusion of the analysis presented on this page. It combines the lessons learned from all other systems and synthetizes them into one clean ruleset.

Players have a set amount of actions per turn, which they can spend. Drawing a card costs one action, the same as getting one “credit” (money) or “making a run”, the central mechanic of the game. So, on one turn you might draw a card, get two credits and then make a run. You have freedom to choose.

Like the previous system, the greatest benefit is that it completely separates card draw from the cards themselves. The most important difference is that actions are self-balancing in a way that other resources aren’t. The more actions a player spends drawing, the fewer actions he has to build an economy or attack his opponent. It’s a very elegant system.

And it flows well! It doesn’t flood the player with options, because they only see new cards when they want to. Card balance is easy, because you can compare costs. It limits how hard a player can win and always leaves the opponent a vector of attack. Hands down, it’s the best card draw system I’ve ever seen in a game.


  • Couple of comments:

    The VS system attempted to fix the resource drought issue by allowing a card to be played, once per turn, as a resource. If course some cards worked better in the resource row than others, but with a draw of two cards, one can be played as a resource and the other during the main phase.

    Whilst Netrunner has an action for a card, the Corp must always draw a card at the start of their turn, after all one of their losing conditions is running out of cards in R&D

    • Thanks for chiming in Iain.

      The VS resource system is interesting. It has been debated quite a bit whether it’s just a “fix” of the land system in Magic or a true. And I think part of the reason is that it fixes resource drought, but at the cost of cards and it does not provide a system to get those cards. So it’s a fix but I think you are better off having your resources out of the deck altogether. Not that VS System is a bad game or anything.

      I thought about speaking about the Corp thing in Netrunner but decided not to get into it because it’s a bit confusing for those that don’t play. It’s a very small little thing, because it’s pretty much forcing the Corp to spend his first action to draw but has a lot of ramifications. Like you say, it serves as a clock for the game but it also pushes agendas into the top of R&D and then HQ, dictating the pace of the game. And drawing one card per turn is something you would probably do anyways if you had four clicks.

  • I’d say you missed a spot for Middle-Earth. It draws you back up to 8 every phase, but in addition, you have some measure of control on your draw because you can move to a location, or do multiple moves to locations that increase your draw. Now, why wouldn’t you always do this? Because every time you do, it has a certain risk! Moving parties can run into all sorts of trouble.

    So it’s a bit of a hybrid then. You’re using resources and you have a set hand size to draw/discard back down to.

  • I think your critique of the draw mechanic in Magic the Gathering is off; drawing only one card per turn likely puts you at a disadvantage and you should, via deckbuilding, find ways to draw additional cards (whether through cantrips or permanents). This design choice adds depth and requires thoughtful deckbuilding and resource management to build winning decks. IMO, this is not a game flaw.

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