Deck Building Games: Explanation & Recommendations
By my count, 18 of the Top 100 games on Board Game Geek use some sort of deck building mechanism, making deck building one of the most popular types of games played today.
All those games were published after 2008, when Dominion—from Rio Grande Games—spurred players into buying and trashing cards to create the most efficiently powerful deck they could.
Or did deck building start with Magic: The Gathering in the early 1990’s? Magic players build decks. Is Magic a deck-builder? Or are Magic decks “constructed?” Is there a difference between deck building and deck construction?
Assembling the most powerful and synergistic deck of cards is the key to victory in games such as Dominion, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and Magic: The Gathering. But those three games are very different. The way a player creates those winning decks separates them into three distinct genres of deck construction games.
Dominion is a “deck building game,” Arkham Horror is a “living card game,” and Magic is considered a “trading card game.”
All three genres center on constructing a collection of cards and using them to compete against other players or to play cooperatively against the game itself. What makes them different?
Deck Building Games
In deck building games, players start with a small deck of cards—usually the same deck—and play cards to get new cards, which are added to their deck. The goal is to build a deck that is not just bigger but more efficient and effective than your opponents’ decks.
The card pool in a deck building game is limited and shared among all players. The game comes with all the cards needed to play, and the deck construction happens during the game, not before the game as in a trading card game. As players add cards to their deck, they can afford cards with more powerful abilities. They may also find combinations of cards that will work well in a combo with previously added cards.
Examples of deck building games include Dominion, Star Realms, Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game, and Ascension: Deckbuilding Game.
Trading Card Games
Trading card games (TCGs)—also known as collectible card games (CCGs)—are games in which players build decks by buying randomized packs of cards. Each pack contains a mixture of common, uncommon, and rare cards, with rare cards being the most powerful and coveted. Players assemble their decks before they ever sit down in front of their gaming mats. For fans of TCGs, tinkering and fine-tuning their decks between matches is part of the fun.
The element of chance in acquiring new cards makes these games appealing to treasure hunters, but it also means that players who are willing to spend more money on packs have a greater chance of acquiring the most powerful cards.
Trading card games usually have a robust secondary market where rare cards can be resold for a profit. These games appeal as much to collectors as they do to players.
Examples of trading card games include Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, Digimon, Flesh and Blood, and Yu-Gi-Oh.
Living Card Games
Living card games (LCGs) are like trading card games, but with a key difference: all players have access to the same pool of cards. Instead of purchasing multiple randomized packs to find a highly prized new card, players can simply buy a fixed set of cards.
These new packs are released on a schedule and add new characters or scenarios or challenges, evolving the game, changing the effective strategies—making the game a “living” game.
Living card games eliminate the element of chance from acquiring new cards. They are more accessible to players who may not have pockets deep enough to keep up with the latest releases in a trading card game. Every fan of an LCG has access to the same cards.
Examples of living card games include Android: Netrunner, Marvel Champions: The Card Game, The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, and Arkham Horror: The Card Game.
Which Deck Construction Game is For You?
Collectible card games like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and relative newcomer Flesh & Blood appeal to collectors who get as much enjoyment out of owning a rare foil card as they do using it to trounce an opponent. If you enjoy buying, selling, and trading cards, then CCGs are for you.
If you relish the novelty and excitement of ripping open foil packs of cards like a kid on Christmas morning, but buying CCG packs seems like too much of a gamble, then you might gravitate toward living card games. The regular releases of new content can keep your favorite game fresh for years. Until Fantasy Flight Games pulls the plug and your favorite LCG suffers an untimely demise (R.I.P. Android: Netrunner).
On the other hand, if you just want to buy a game and play it today without the pressure of making regular new purchases to stay competitive, then deck building games are the way to go. The deck building becomes the game, rather than a chore to complete before the game.
In the rest of this article, we will focus on deck building games as a sub-set of deck construction games. Craft the leanest and meanest deck possible with any of the games on our list of the best deck building games.
The Best Deck Building Games
From Rio Grande Games, Dominion is the game that popularized the deck building mechanism all the way back in 2008. In Dominion, players are vying for control of a kingdom and must use their resources to build up their own personal deck of cards.
You win Dominion by buying the most victory points. But victory points are cards that go into your deck, and they have no game effects, so getting too many of these cards early in the game makes for a weaker deck.
If you enjoy deck building, then you have probably played Dominion. It is the venerable ancestor of all other deck-builders. Although some of its descendants have surpassed it in popularity, Dominion is still a great game and worth a play. Many expansions have been released over the years, so each game of Dominion can use a different set of cards, keeping the game fresh.
Wise Wizard Games‘ Star Realms is a fast-paced, two-player deck building game of futuristic space combat. Players play resource cards to add powerful spaceships to their fleet. Star Realms is a dueling game. The goal is to deal damage to the other player, whittling his or her Authority (health) down to zero.
One of the key mechanics of Star Realms is card synergy. Cards of the same “suit” work well together and can be combined to create powerful combinations. This adds a strategic element to the game: the value of a card in the market may change depending on which cards you have already added to your fleet.
Star Realms has a number of stand-alone expansions like Star Realms: Colony Wars and Star Realms: Frontiers. There are also many smaller expansion packs available.
If you love the gameplay of Star Realms but prefer swords and sorcery over spaceships and star bases, Wise Wizard also offers Hero Realms and its expansions. The gameplay is very similar but with a fantasy theme.
Star Realms may be the best fifteen bucks you can spend in a game store. I’ve enjoyed more gameplay out of that deck of 80 cards than most board games costing four times as much.
Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game
In Upper Deck Entertainment‘s deck building game set in the Marvel Comics universe, Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game, players use great power with great responsibility as Marvel heroes battling villains and thwarting their schemes.
Legendary is a cooperative game. Players team up to build the best superhero squad and defeat minions before taking down the criminal mastermind. If you enjoy cooperative games, Legendary offers one of the best co-op deckbuilding adventures.
Upper Deck Entertainment has released several movie-based games based on the Legendary Encounters system including Alien, Firefly, Predator, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even Big Trouble in Little China.
Published by Stone Blade Entertainment in 2010, Ascension: Deckbuilding Game is another early pioneer in the deck building world. Gameplay is similar to deck builders like Star Realms, but in Ascension, players don’t battle one another directly. They battle monsters that enter the market area alongside cards that players can purchase to improve their decks.
Defeating these creatures earns the player victory points as well as immediate bonuses. When the pool of points exhausts, the player with the most points wins.
In 2022, Stone Blade released Ascension: 10 Year Anniversary Edition with new artwork and remastered cards. This edition is your best bet if you are just now beginning your ascension.
Alderac Entertainment Group‘s Mystic Vale adds a new twist on the deck building genre by keeping the deck size at 20 cards and upgrading the cards themselves through its innovative “Card Crafting System.” Each card in the deck is actually a transparent plastic sleeve. Players don’t buy new cards—they buy new inserts to slide into one of those sleeves upgrading it with new powers and abilities.
Mystic Vale also has a push-your-luck mechanism. You aren’t limited to a hand of five cards like most deck builders. The more cards you turn over into your field, the more Mana you could get to buy Advancements. But turn over too many Decay symbols and you bust, losing your turn.
Like Ascension, Mystic Vale is a race for victory points. If you enjoy deck building games and want to branch out, Mystic Vale offers a novel alternative.
Build your Collection of Deck Builders
This list is just a sampling of the many deck-builders available today. As the genre has grown, so have the options within the genre. If you want another cooperative deck-builder, try Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle or Aeon’s End. Games are too short? Thunderstone Quest or Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated will take you along on a multi-game deck building campaign.
And deck building ain’t just for card games anymore. We’ve already written an article on the best deck building board games.
Enjoy your journey into the realm of deck building games. But remember—just because you can buy that card doesn’t mean you should buy that card!
Written by John David Thacker
John David is a freelance writer specializing in board games and the board game industry.