negative zero

Resource Mechanics in Card Games

2020 November 10

[games] [info]

I like to play games. I don't play video games very often (although I am partial to SuperTuxKart), but I do like card games, roleplaying games, and the like. (In this post I'll be focusing on collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering.)

These games generally involve some type of resource mechanic. You can't just always use your strongest move or play all your cards at once. There needs to be some system that allows you to do some things, but not too much, and to build up resources to do more things as time progresses.

In this post, I will explain the resource mechanics from various games and comment on what I like and dislike about them. I decided to limit the scope of this post to card games I've played. Other games also have a resource mechanic. For example, 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons gives magic-users spell slots at various levels which could be used on any spell of an equal or lower level and recharge when that character rests, while 4th edition instead had limits on how often specific abilities could be used. (At-will abilities could be used any number of times, encounter abilities only once per encounter, and daily abilities only once per long rest.) As well, in turn-oriented combat, characters are limited in the number and types of actions they could take.

Many of these games are fundamentally the same, with some minor differences. Since Magic: The Gathering is probably the most commonly played game, I will try to draw comparisons to Magic to help establish something of a common system. For example, many games use something like mana, which may be called by a different name. Generally, this resource works the same way in most of the games.

I'll be focusing on the normal format of the game, whatever that means for each game. For example, Magic has many formats such as standard/modern, EDH/Commander, Two-Headed Giant, and so on. I'm going to focus on the format where players build a 60-card deck with up to 4 of each non-basic-land card, and play works normally, as in standard format. I may overlook some details about advanced gameplay or corner cases. Please excuse me.


Magic: The Gathering

I'm starting with Magic because I expect it will be familiar to the most readers.

Resource Mechanic

In MtG, Mana must be used to cast spells. Mana comes in each of the 5 colors (red, blue, white, green, black), and it must be spent in the appropriate colors (although for many cards, some or all of the mana cost can be paid with mana of any color).

Land cards are the primary source of mana. Once per turn, the turn player may play one land card from their hand. This means that players must include the cards to generate mana in their main deck and find a balance between mana cards and other cards. You want enough lands to play your cards, but not so many that you don't have cards to play. It also means that as the game progresses, you have more mana available to you and can play more cards of the same cost, or cards that cost more.

Mana doesn't carry over from turn-to-turn. If you tap a land for mana, but you don't use that mana, it goes away at the end of the turn.

Having to balance resources with other cards is a common struggle in these games, and having played other games where you don't have to do that, I prefer not having to find that balance.

Duel Masters/Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters

Duel Masters was a manga/anime similar to Yu-Gi-Oh! which, like Yu-Gi-Oh!, had its own card game, which was produced in English by Wizards of the Coast. The English-language game ran from 2004 to 2006. In 2012, WotC and Hasbro tried to reboot the game with Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters, which was also discontinued after 2 years. See Wikipedia for more info. Duel Masters and Kaijudo are (as far as I can tell) the exact same game (with some of the same cards, even!), just with abilities renamed, and so forth. I own exactly one deck from each game, and the two are entirely compatible, as long as you can translate the names back and forth.

In terms of gameplay, Duel Masters is like Magic Lite. You almost never play cards except during your turn, and the phase order is very straightforward: 1. Draw a card, 2. You may add a card to your mana zone, 3. You may play cards, 4. Combat. The only things you can do during your opponent's turn are block (which only some creatures can do) and very occasionally activate shield trigger effects.

(Without getting into a full explanation of the game) when your opponent attacks you, you get a card (sort of the opposite of Prize Cards in the Pokémon TCG). Some spells can be cast immediately at no cost if they're added to your hand this way, rather than drawn normally. (It's not really part of the resource mechanic, but it's worth acknowledging here that you get a consolation for doing poorly in the form of a card added to your hand when you're attacked. Some games like Pokémon have the reverse - you get a reward for doing well.)

These are the only times you do anything on your opponent's turn. There are no other reactions, and you can't build a stack like in other games. Duel Masters is a pretty simple game.

Resource Mechanic

Duel Masters also uses a resource called Mana which comes in the various colors/elements (which are the same as in Magic, but probably renamed). Unlike Magic, Duel Masters doesn't have special cards for mana. Rather, after you draw, you have the opportunity to put any one card from your hand into your mana zone, to be used as mana. Cards in your mana zone are tapped to play other cards, in similar fashion to Magic (although I think in Duel Masters, those cards are mana, rather than generating mana to add to a pool like in Magic).

This is really nice because it means you don't have to balance mana cards and non-mana cards when constructing a deck; you just put in cards you want in your deck and decide during the game to use some for mana rather than their card text.

To play a card of a certain color in Duel Masters, you need to fill its mana cost, and at least one of the cards used for mana needs to be the same color as the card you're playing. For example, if you have 4 untapped red cards in your mana zone and 1 untapped green card, you can still play a green creature. This is also nice because you don't have to worry about color quite as much, as long as you have one of the color you need.

Also, since you can't use mana on your opponent's turn, budgeting mana is very easy in Duel Masters. You just use as much of what you have as possible.

Pokémon TCG

The Pokémon trading card game is very different from the other Magic-like games on this list. Instead of the goal being to attack your opponent directly, with your opponent's creatures being an obstacle, your goal is to attack your opponent's creatures. In Pokémon, the first player to knock out 6 of their opponent's Pokémon wins. Each time you knock out a Pokémon, you get to draw a Prize Card, so you get a reward for doing well (unlike in Duel Masters, where your opponent gets a card when you attack them).

Resource Mechanic

In Pokémon, there is basically no cost to play cards (but some must be played in the right order. For example, you must first play Basic Pokémon, then evolve them on subsequent turns.) Rather than the cost being to put cards on the field, the cost is to use those cards once they're out. Once per turn, you may attach an Energy card to one of your Pokémon. Your Pokémon must have a certain number of energy cards in certain types (sometimes colorless, which can be filled by energy of any type) to do its attacks. It doesn't (usually) lose these energy cards by attacking (but it does when retreating!), but it has to build up to use stronger attacks, and the energy cards are attached to the Pokémon itself, rather than available for you to use for any purpose.

Otherwise, energy cards are basically like lands in Magic. You have to draw them, and you can play one per turn. There are more types of Pokémon (and thus energy) in Pokémon than there are colors of mana in Magic, but you usually use only one or two in a deck, like in Magic. Deck construction involves the same balancing act.

This mechanic is interesting. I think I prefer having all my resources available for whatever purpose I want. With Pokémon it's easy to put all your eggs in one basket (all your energy cards on one Pokémon), and when that Pokémon faints, you have to start over. I prefer to have to pay to get something out, but once it's out, to be able to use it without further restriction.

Force of Will

Force of Will is a Japanese card game with manga/anime-style art and a lot of lore. The gameplay is very similar to Magic. One thing that's different is the way you get your Magic Stones (equivalent to lands).

Resource Mechanic

In Force of Will, instead of integrating your resource cards into your main deck, you put them in a separate deck: you have a 40-60-card main deck and a 10-20-card magic stone deck.

In FoW, you have a Ruler, which is a little bit like a Commander in Magic's Commander format. Once per turn, you may rest (tap) your ruler to call a Magic Stone, moving it from the top of your magic stone deck, into your field. Thus, you are guaranteed a magic stone each turn (if you choose to call it), but you get a random one. This can cause issues on turn 1 if you call a stone of the wrong attribute.

FoW has 5 basic attributes - fire, water, wind, light, and darkness, and casting spells basically works exactly like in Magic. Just substitute some words. Red becomes Fire, Mana becomes Will, Creature becomes Resonator, and so on. Phase order is a little different, which can be relevant when spending resources. In FoW, you first draw a card, then recover (untap) your cards. This means if you have some still-recovered magic stones at the beginning of your turn, you might be able to use them on a Quickcast spell. (Quickcast is an ability that works like Flash in Magic, but is also used for Chants (Sorceries, or Instants if they have Quickcast) in FoW.) Also, all your will goes away at both your Recovery step and your End of Turn, so you can't get double the will by resting (tapping) your stones, recovering them, and resting them again.

There are also special stones, but like in Magic, you can't have more than 4 copies of any one non-basic-magic-stone card in your deck, including your magic stone deck.

While you're guaranteed the possibility of a stone each turn, since you have to rest your ruler to call a stone, you may not choose to call one each turn. Sometimes it's more valuable to judgment, which allows your ruler to enter the field (as a J-Ruler) and act like a resonator (creature).

I like the Force of Will will mechanic a lot because it streamlines the deck a lot. You don't have to worry about your magic-stone-to-spell ratio because your stones go in a separate deck. Sometimes it can be difficult to choose between using your J/Ruler to get another stone and using it for other purposes.

Yu-Gi-Oh!/Duel Monsters

Yu-Gi-Oh! is a manga and anime franchise that features a card game called Duel Monsters. While the story has wildly inconsistent rules, there is actually a standardized card game, which I've been playing since I was little.

Resource Mechanic

The resource mechanic in Yu-Gi-Oh! is very different from the other games. There's no mana limiting how many cards you can play. Rather, there's a general rule that you can only play one monster per turn, and higher-level monsters require you to tribute (sacrifice) other monsters. This general rule is quickly circumvented by special summoning, which can be done a number of ways that allow you to play several monsters and/or high-level monsters in one turn.

One of the biggest limits in the game is not, in fact, the one-monster-per-turn rule, but the limited space on the field. You can only have 5 monsters and 5 spell/trap cards on the field at a time (with exceptions...) If your field is already full, too bad.

Additionally, the game got so fast that the rulemakers had to add a new mechanic limiting how much of the field could be occupied by monsters special summoned in certain ways.

One thing about Yu-Gi-Oh! is that it's been going on for a long time, and it doesn't have a formal "standard" format like Magic where only the most recent cards are legal. There's a forbidden-and-limited list that's updated periodically of cards you're not allowed to use, but as long as it's not explicitly forbidden, you can use any authentic card that was ever printed. I much prefer this because the alternative is a scam to sell more cards, but it does lead to the game being too complicated as cards from 20 years ago are combined in unexpected or broken ways with modern cards.

It's also worth noting that spell and trap cards do not have a general cost or limit in Yu-Gi-Oh! beyond just limited space in your hand and field. You can play as many spell and trap cards as you want in one turn.

I like Yu-Gi-Oh! and not having to worry about mana, but I do think the game has gotten a little out-of-control. Not that that will stop me from enjoying it!


Elements was an online card game I used to play. I wouldn't play it now because it's proprietary and also written in Flash, but I used to enjoy it a lot.

Resource Mechanic

Elements has a manalike resource called quanta (singular: quantum). Unlike in other games, you can store up quanta over multiple turns. You play towers/pillars, which generate quanta in their elements at the end of your turn. (There are 12 elements, if I remember correctly: fire, water, life, aether, time, gravity, poison, death, darkness, air, and entropy.) Then, during your turn, when you have enough quanta in the right elements, you can play cards or activate abilities of permanents. (Abilities of permanents can be activated once per turn by paying the ability's quantum cost, but they cannot be activated on the turn the permanent is played.)

All quanta paid for something must be the same element, and a permanent's ability may cost quanta of a different element than that permanent did.

One thing about Elements is, while your quanta-generating cards are part of your deck, you're not limited to playing one per turn. This makes balancing a different challenge... You can play all the pillars in your hand as soon as you draw them, but you don't want to have only pillars and nothing to play with all your quanta.

Quanta also caps out at 75 per element. (The most expensive cards in the game cost something like 12-15 quanta.) This keeps you from just endlessly accumulating if you can't use it.

Since you store your quanta from turn to turn, they can also be used in effects. Some cards let you steal quanta from your opponent. At least one card drains all your quanta of one element and deals damage based on that amount. One card shields your life but instead costs you quanta each time you would take damage.

I really like the Elements mechanic with Quanta. It allows for interesting gameplay, and since you can build up quanta reserves over multiple turns, it's not as hard to recover if you're not drawing more resource cards.

Elements also has a limit to the number of permanents on the field, but it's much higher than Yu-Gi-Oh! - I think something like 28 creatures and 12 non-creature permanents (where identical pillars/towers stack and don't take up extra space, and a shield and weapon fill special separate spots).


Hearthstone is another nonfree collectible card video game I don't play anymore. (Actually I stopped playing before I got into the free software ideology because the game had mandatory animations I got sick of waiting for between each action declaration.) I think the characters in the game are from World of Warcraft, but I've never played WoW, so I don't know for sure.

Resource Mechanic

Hearthstone has a manalike resource without any color, and each turn you get one more than you had the previous turn. (On turn 1, you have 1 available. One turn 2, you have 2 available, and so on.) It's pretty simple, and it's nice because you don't have to put resource cards in your deck; you just get one more each turn.

Hearthstone has a limit to the number of creatures on your field. I think it's something like 8-10.

Adventure Time Card Wars

Card Wars is one of my favorite episodes of Adventure Time. Finn and Jake play a strategy card game where each player has a field separated into four landscapes, and they play creatures on those landscapes and activate them to attack or "floop" them to use abilities. Also, there are cool holograms and stuff.

Cartoon Network made a real life game based on the card game in the show. It's not a good game.

Resource Mechanic

Each turn you get 2 Actions, which may be used to play cards and/or draw. Actions are colorless; however, to play a card, you must control the card's cost in landscapes of its type. (Landscapes include IcyLands, Cornfield, NiceLands, SandyLands, Blue Plains, and Useless Swamp. Players have four lanes they can fill with landscapes, and if there's a landscape, you can put up to one creature and one building on a landscape.) For example, if you have a Useless Swamp creature you want to play, you need to have an empty landscape (which does not need to be a Useless Swamp landscape) to put the creature into, and you must have 2 Actions to spend on the creature and 2 Useless Swamp landscapes on your field.

Some cards are colorless.

Since you don't generally change landscapes after the start of the game, you basically play a 1- or 2-landscape deck and use 2 of each landscape, or 4 of the same landscape. Then you don't have to worry about color very much. Each turn you get the same number of actions to play cards. It's pretty simple.

I guess this is kind of interesting because you mostly only worry about resource attribute when you're building your deck, but not during gameplay. The game is overall fairly unremarkable, but it's fun because Adventure Time is cute.

Battle Spirits

Here's another Japanese game. I've never seen it sold in stores, but I got a couple of free promotional decks when Bandai was trying (unsuccessfully) to market it in the USA in 2009.

Resource Mechanic

The resource mechanic in Battle Spirits is interesting. Your mana things are called Cores, and each player starts with the same number and gets a new one at the beginning of each turn (except on the first player's first turn). Cards have color, but cores are colorless. If you already control cards of a color, you can reduce the cost of other cards of that color (up to a certain reduction specified on the card).

Additionally, you can level cards up and down by putting cores on them or removing cores from them.

One of the steps at the beginning of your turn is to move all the cores from your Trash to your Reserve so you can use them. This means that cores used to level up spirits (creatures) can be recycled when the spirits die. Furthermore, your life is kept in cores, so (like in Duel Masters) when your opponent hurts you, you get a consolation - more resources!

I haven't played Battle Spirits very much (and not for a long time), but I think this is a really fun mechanic because there's so much going on with the resource, and it refreshes. I'd like to play more and see how I like it in practice!