First Impressions of Disney's Lorcana TCG
Thoughts and impressions after a few rounds of playing Lorcana September 15, 2023 Card Games Design
I wanted to capture some thoughts and impressions on Lorcana after some plays of it a few days ago, especially in relation to it’s obvious competitor/inspiration, Magic: The Gathering. I played three games (I was the Sleeping Beauty/Simba set vs. the Cruella/Aladdin set) over the course of an hour or two, so these impressions come from some plays right after learning.
Theme -> Mechanics -> Theme
So, first! Obviously one of the main appeals of the game, and why I picked it up, was the theme. On Magic’s side, even as it’s got its own thing going on, it feels a little bit like generic fantasy. Maybe that’s because I’m not reading all the lore or whatever, but a lot of the cards in Magic tend to blend together so it can be hard to disambiguate where something is situated in the multiverse of the game. Sets like Eldraine or the recent Lord of the Rings do goa against this, giving the game effectively an alternate identity (and makes Magic stronger for it imo!), but generally I feel like Magic operates in an artstation-tier “fantasy” that is hard to latch onto, and those unique sets are the exception.
Lorcana, however, has the power of the strongest IP known to man (with also really interesting routes to go through Disney’s various properties like Marvel or Star Wars, etc.). So playing the game and thinking about Magic-style play seems like it would be really fun to see what these characters can “do”, especially as you’ve followed them so long.
So I’ll start there, and honestly my first reaction to the cards themselves is that they aren’t as maybe mechanically flavorful as you would think. Despite it’s generic-y theme, Magic does a really good job with the mechanics of the cards often feeling narratively related to what the card itself is. If you have like a card that’s got a seagull on it, like I’m thinking about the Vexing Gull, as a Magic player, you could probably intuit off the top of your head that, since it’s a seagull, it might be like a one or two cost white or blue card, likely with Flying, and then it might have like some sort of ability that summons other Gulls next to it or whatever, because it’s a seagull and that’s what it does.
Magic is really really good at this, and it’s something that really embeds you in Magic once you notice it. It’s not necessarily something that you encounter when you first play the game, but once you’re attuned to it, you really notice it. It’s one of these details in Magic that makes the game, and you end up really feeling that theme coming through the mechanics.
Lorcana, imo, is not great at this yet. I don’t know if it’s like the lack of keywords or it’s the first set or whatever, but it feels like the mechanics of the cards are a little bit like out of sync with what the card itself is. I’m sort of surprised by this because, if anything, you have cards that have such a strong theme that the idea of creating mechanics against those cards seems like it would be easier than something like Magic, especially as Magic is working from a blank slate and has to do extra work for a card to be legible.
Off the top of my head, I’m thinking about the Magic Mirror card, which you can see below:
So if you play Magic, you might expect that Magic Mirror lets you mirror an ability or, if you’re pulling from Disney lore, that it does some sort of Scrying type action (peek at your deck, or maybe an opponents deck?). Instead here it just draws a card. It sort of makes sense but seems so insignificant. This is THE MAGIC MIRROR, once of the most iconic things in all of Disney, and its ability is to draw a card. It’s thematically close to what the card does (reveal=draw? maybe?) but once you get the card it feels a bit flat.
Everyone is Iconic, so nobody is
There’s a disconnect, I think, in Lorcana because nearly every character is this absolutely iconic character that has had years of development and inscription into the minds of people around the world. But due to the nature of a card game like this, they can’t necessarily be as commisseratly powerful as their name-recgonition may suggest because nearly every card has equal name recognition. Like if you’re someone who likes Frozen, you probably over-index on how “powerful” frozen cards should be, such that when you see Kristoff for the first time it can be really underwheling as he’s a mostly generic 3/3, despite having more name-recognition than literally anything in Magic:
It’s a different kind of “Main Character Syndrome”, where everyone wants their favorites to be powerful, but because you can’t really do that and you do need gristle for the mill (or really Ink, in Lorcana’s case), drawing your favorite can feel sort of underwhelming.
So even though you might have a card like Aladdin, it’s not like Aladdin gets to have the best abilities. He gets to be a 2/2 with a mediocre ability:
However, this brings us to the SHIFT SYSTEM. Aladdin exists as above, but also like this:
Now we’re talking. Maybe. The ability still feels a bit like mechanical mud, but at least the presentation, cost, strength, and lore start to reflect the collective “idea” of Aladdin. As you can see on the card above, cards that get Shift can allow a cheaper play, provided you already have cards of that type in play. This is a sort of fun way to evolve characters (similar to Ikoria’s “Mutate” idea), and works thematically (Aladdin going from “Street Rat” to “Heroic Outlaw” is thematically perfect), however, it creates a weird sort of interdependence between cards.
Granted Aladdin’s Heroic Outlaw form doesn’t require the “Street Rat” to already be out and can be played independently, but also saving two Ink (Magic’s Mana) on the play (5 instead of 7) is only marginally better, in part because I felt like I always had a ton of Ink with nothing to do with it.
So it’s this really strong (maybe the strongest?) Disney-esque mechanic that is sewn into Your Favorite Characters, but it’s also optional and also, due to the nature of a 60 card deck like in Lorcana, pretty rare to actually happen. You could just be stuck with Street Rats your whole play. It feels like 60% of a good mechanical idea, but the need to be more like Magic here feels like it holds it back.
Ink (aka Mana/Lands/etc.)
I also brought up the idea of Ink above, which feels like a good next place to go. I like the Ink system. I also don’t like the Ink system (especially as it relates to SHIFTING). Ink is Lorcana’s idea of Magic’s Lands filtered a bit through Hearthstone’s one-per-turn mana gain. In Lorcana, cards that have the vortex around their cost number in the top left can be milled to turn into Ink. You can only do this once per turn, so it’s in your interest to do this when you can.
I think, on one hand, this is cool. Getting rid of the idea of needing to seed your deck with the “noise” of Mana is good (and telling that Keyforge took a similar approach to lands) and makes each card draw feel meaningful. However, this is also bad because it means you are likely to mill low-value cards for Ink over the first few rounds, giving you fewer opportunities to SHIFT (if your deck wants that sort of thing). Additionally, it means you absolutely BURN through your hand. I felt like I was constantly top-decking around the middle of games because all my cards had gone to Ink (most “good” cards need around 5 Ink to play).
It’s also a subtly more excruciating decision than I think the designers of the game realize. Burning a card for Ink vs. playing one to the board needs like 4D thinking to understand what’s worth doing in those moments. To make the “right” decision you need to consider the full board state, what’s in your discard pile, what’s in your draw pile, etc. In Magic, you draw a land, you place a land. In Hearthstone it goes up automatically. For Lorcana, it’s a difficult decision, and you make it every turn. And doing it wrong could easily cost you the game. Every turn. On the surface it seems easy, “My cards can be mana!” but the cognitive implications of that are a gear or two two high for the complexity I think Lorcana wants to aim for, which, I think, really is “Magic Lite”.
Which does get me to something I do really like about the game, which is the concept of Lore. In Lorcana, you aren’t trying to “kill” another player. In Magic, creatures and cards generally act like an offensive and defensive wall against the player you are fighting. The goal is to destroy the other player. In Lorcana, players have no health or really the ability to attack each other. Instead, you operate from this sort of thousand-foot-view where You are on a quest to get Lore and the action is happening near and adjacent to you but not directly AT you.
This is really good imo as far as conflict goes. I think people really discount how aggressive and mean Magic implicitly is, and how, because of that, it self-selects for a certain type of player. Lorcana does still have some of that by nature of the game being about winning/losing between two people, but the idea of victory is detached from the actions of aggression. You can win a game of Lorcana by never taking any action against another player (and I don’t mean by getting “When Attacked” effects).
This works via the “Lore” track, which is the actual win state of the game. To win, you get 20 Lore. Played character cards can be tapped to give you their Lore value. You do this in lieu of another ability or directly “challenging” an opponent’s card, which I think is Really Cool. Additionally, only tapped cards can be challenged by other players, so there is this really nice gambling/push your luck element to the game where you are deciding between conflict and progression, which I think, while not necessarily Disney-thematic, does work really well for a card game like this. I like it!
Other plays can effect your Lore track, but so far Ravensburger doesn’t seem like they, at least in the first set, don’t want to “expose” that element to card play too much, for what I expect is fear of nothing in the game feeling “safe”. That safety does give Lorcana a bit more of a boardgame-chill feeling, but I have to expect that Lore track is going to start getting used for a ton of stuff in the future where you begin to treat it much more like a resource.
Because of that too, the Lore track creates this implicit tempo and drama to the game. In Magic, based on card play, Life totals can fluctuate wildly between turns, so just because someone is at 1 health doesn’t mean they are necessarily close to losing. Their whole deck may “activate” based on those circumstances. For now, Lorcana doesn’t really have that. If you have 19/20 Lore, you are about to win the game, and can act appropriately. This also makes games significantly more speedy than Magic, as you aren’t swinging wildly around for sometimes literal hours.
Complexity vs. Magic
Relatedly, the game is just easier to play than Magic. They emphasize a simple three step process to the game, “Ready, Set, Draw” (calling to mind Dominion’s ABC: “Action, Buy, Cleanup”), and currently lacks a lot of the “HOLD ON MY CARD ACTIVATES NOW” stack resolution mess that Magic gets. You get to Just Play in a way that feels nice and breezy. The only wrinkle here is just summoning sickness for current-round-played characters, but that’s light enough that it doesn’t really hamper play.
All this said, I think it’s indicative that I’ve been implying a real “For Now” on this stuff. Games tend to get more complicated as they get worked on and improved as they target the fans of the game that support the game and implicitly want “more”, so it’s hard to see how Lorcana strikes that balance of being continually breezy and not just becoming, over the likely infinite timeline Disney has for this game, Magic-but-Disney. I’m not even sure that would be a bad thing, but it’s hard to see how that also doesn’t happen, as I don’t think there is implicitly enough here (compared to something like Netrunner or Keyforge or Flesh and Blood) for it to evolve into a direction that isn’t just Magic.
So in general, I do like the game. It’s not a drop-in Magic replacement (yet), and I do appreciate that it feels easier to get to the table and a bit more breezy to play through. I’d definitely like to see more theme injected into the mechanics of the cards, which I assume will happen as we get more keywords (though the next set’s keyword, “Resist”. is also a bit banal - this is Disney, where’s the magic?!)
I will say what’s also maybe weird is that Disney is competing against itself here. If you want a really mechanical/theme-y take on the Disney world, it’s hard to beat what is happening with Villainous. Those sets all interlink and drip with theme, and have a stronger identity and better table presence than Lorcana, and it doesn’t suffer the TCG issue of booster packs and deck construction stuff. I think it would be hard to recommend someone Lorcana over Villainous in this regard, especially if they don’t necessarily care about card games. Lorcana also very much feels like a “platform” vs. a specific game, setup with broad enough terms and ideas to incorporate whatever comes down the pipe in the future, but not specific enough to currently have its own identity.
So yeah, I’m interested to see where it goes. First impression? It’s fine. It feels a little bit on rails in terms of its thinking while also not fully committing to the edges of it’s design. This could obviously be a big opportunity moving forward, or it might make it fall a bit on its face. We’ll see! Anyways, thanks for reading this! I’ll be sure to say more in the future if I find myself playing more of the game or checking out that digital version (as long as it doesn’t get DMCA’d).
DateSeptember 15, 2023
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