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WoW TCG: Interview with Ben Drago, Manager of Organized Play

Mike Schramm

When I came upon Ben Drago at the Darkmoon Faire in Chicago, he was yelling like Ragnaros. He was facing off against three WoW TCG players-- one was playing a Paladin, the second a Mage, and the last a Hunter. It was a Molten Core raiding event, and Drago was more than giving the guys a run for their money. The Paladin dropped quick (the player complained that Drago's Shazzrah "wouldn't let me heal!"), and while the mage and hunter held their own for a while, Drago eventually crushed them all with Rag's firey might.

He handed out a few booster packs as prizes anyway, and then sat down to talk with me about the WoW TCG that he promotes all over the country and the world, what player reaction has been like, and Upper Deck's event plans for Blizzcon and beyond.

What's your title?

I am the Manager of Organized Play, which means my team puts together all the programs and everything from your local hobby shop tournaments on Thursday night all the way up to the World Championships.

How'd you get started at Upper Deck?

I was actually a Magic: the Gathering player and then judge and then tournament organizer. And while I was an upper level judge/tournament organizer, I became friends with Jeff Donais, who worked with Wizard of the Coast at the time. And when Upper Deck was about to launch the VS System, which is the Marvel/DC superhero game, they hired Jeff to come in and build the game development group. We have a lot of licensed properties-- the big ones are VS System, Yu-gi-oh...

Which I sold a lot of, when I used to work at Gamestop.

Yes, very popular with the kiddies. And then our experience with that allowed us to get the license for the World of Warcraft trading card game.

So who designed the World of Warcraft card game?

It was designed completely in house. The head of R&D is here-- his name is Mike Hummel, so he manages the team that oversees it. The two lead designer and developers are Danny Mandel and Bryan Kibler, both of them have been very successful Magic players. There's a lot of pedigree from Magic, as it was definitely, before World of Warcraft, the most successful trading card game.

Is WoW TCG a spin off of another ruleset, or how did they put it together?

It's definitely an evolutionary game. We took what we thought were the best elements from all of the games out there. We worked really hard to address the things that don't make gaming fun. Things like drawing cards and not being able to play them because you don't have the right resources-- those kind of things where you're not interacting. It's still a game at heart, and you want to have fun, and so if you're not playing, we think it's a failure. So we fixed most of those, and then with the World of Warcraft property, I mean it's such a well developed universe. The Blizzard standards for art are amazing. We've taken like-- I'm not even selling this, it's what we heard when it first came out-- a really good ruleset and combined it with an amazing property.

How is it different from other collectible card games?

The first thing is, it fixes what people have always complained about. Like problems with Magic: the Gathering. Magic: the Gathering has the five colors, and so there's a system where if you don't draw resources that match the colors of cards in your hand, you just sit there. In our game, any card you have can be played as a resource. If you have quest cards, those can be played face up as a resource and then you can use those during the game for an advantage.

And how then is it similar to World of Warcraft, the game I play on my computer every day?

We have hero cards, which allow you to customize what you start with. So far there are 36, and we'll release probably somewhere within 10 and 20 with each set. If you have a Horde hero, you can only use Horde allies or Neutral allies, you can't play alongside Alliance allies. If you have ability cards-- here's a Shaman deck-- they have to be Shaman abilities. And that's one of the things that really lets us push the envelope as far as card design, is that you don't have to design cards assuming that someone can put that card in any deck. We can make them powerful and interesting, but still balance the game because you have to be playing a Shaman to play a Shaman ability card.

How do you begin playing this game? You buy a starter deck, and what abilities does that come with?

You buy a starter product-- I believe it retails for around $14.99. Inside, you get a random starter deck, which is like the Shaman one I showed you. This is built ready to play, so you could open this up and play this deck, and you're ready to go.

Is it random, which one you get?

It is random.

So it's not like if I'm a Hunter, I can buy the Hunter deck.

There are online shops that will let you choose. But it's kind of a balance between players' needs and retailers' needs. One of the longstanding complaints with other products like this where you have a preconstructed deck is that retailers will get stuck. They'll have two really good, and two less popular, and they'll put that product out and after a week or so, all that's left are the bad decks. And then they can't sell it. So the blind product, while players can be disappointed if they buy multiple and get the same one, it does really help retailers pick up the product because they know that they're not going to get stuck with something people don't enjoy.

When was it first released?

Early October of last year.

And how has the reaction been so far.

It was probably the most successful TCG launch since Magic back in 1993. Product was sold out probably for the first four months. We reprinted more than once.

How many did you first print? Can you say?

I don't think it's been announced. The original printing was five times what the original order was, placed by distributors. We thought we had a really good product, and even that was underestimated. So it was very successful. From the end of last year to the end of this year, it outsold Magic: the Gathering. That is the first card game to ever do that. It's not that we have to beat Magic to be successful, but that really sets the bar. There's been a lot of trading card games that have come out and have had varied levels of success. But coming out and being able to step up into that Tier 1 rank was pretty important.

And who's playing the game-- is it Magic players, or WoW MMO players or who?

Yeah. Friday afternoon for the Darkmoon Faire is a little light, but tomorrow we'll have around 250 people for the first event and about 400-500 people total, and if you took a survey, it'll be almost evenly broken up between your competitive players, your players from the online game who are just interested and picked it up, and players who enjoy gaming but aren't looking to be world champion, they just want to have fun. And that's really what we try to do, and we're happy that we came pretty close to nailing that.

How exactly has Blizzard paired with you on this? They gave you art, obviously, and the property, of course.

They're super involved as a licenser. They're involved not only with art approval, but their group plays the game. In Irvine alone, they probably have a hundred regular players of the game. [Long pause] We're doing some cool stuff there that we can't talk about yet, but around Blizzcon, we'll have more.

Are you going to be at Blizzcon?

For Blizzcon, there's I think only about 8000 tickets roughly, so what we're going to do there is really target those online players who have come out and get them to see the TCG for the first time, so we'll be running beginner events constantly, like every hour on the hour, lots of staff there to help them answer questions, learn to play, and we'll be doing a couple cool things for competitive players, but mostly we want to give as many people the chance to see it as possible.

Do you play the online game?

I do. We used to be all Horde, and we now have a small Alliance breakout group--

Boo! So what's your main right now?

I'm a resto Shammy--

All right! Me too!

Yeah, we hate ourselves.


And we are just starting Serpentshrine. Although my raiding time is pretty thin-- our summers are so busy with everything.

So what's next for the card game?

August is the next expansion. And then after that is our next raid product, which is Magtheridon's Lair.

Oh, you're jumping right ahead. No Blackwing Lair?

We wanted to keep it varied. Onyxia and Molten Core were so many people's like real first raiding experience. So many people cut their teeth there that they know it. But there's so much great content from Burning Crusade that we want to throw that in there as well.

Except that if you're going for popular things, why are you skipping Karazhan?

It's not that we've skipped it-- it's just that we haven't come out with it yet. Onyxia and Magtheridon's Lair [in the CCG] are both kind of single encounters. So you can do them in about an hour-- they're more straightforward. With Molten Core, there's two versions of it: the full clear, where you fight every boss from Luci up to Majordomo and Rags. We also have a short version, where you randomly choose three in the middle. The full clear takes about two and a half hours to play all the way through. The shorter version is about an hour. We want to keep it short because so people who want to kill some time during a lunch break, there's something to play.

And then there's a tournament in August as well?

This summer, we're doing national championships all over the world.

Just for this game, or with other card tournaments?

Just for World of Warcraft. Primarily North American and Europe. And then we have Australia and New Zealand, there's a big player base. Singapore and Malaysia have a large group as well. And then the top players from there get invited to the World Championships, which will be the last weekend of November in San Diego. The winner of the World Championships will receive $100,000 in cash. So for the serious players we definitely have a very big cookie waiting for them out there.

Thanks again very much!

No problem.

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