MyNBA2K14 is a companion app to the latest console basketball game by 2K Sports, but alongside it comes a free to play NBA Collectible Card Game (CCG) Called My Team Mobile. Having played a few free CCGs before I was sceptical because they normally end up using a number of cynical tricks to draw you into spending real money, such as lotteries, prize withdrawal, and energy systems (Yes Puzzles & Dragons, I’m looking at you here.) Credit where it is due though, My Team Mobile largely steers clear of these tactics, though unfortunately it has a different flaw at the heart of it.
Like all CCGs the game is based around assembling a deck of cards that you use to battle another player, with the cards being NBA players past and present with a common, uncommon, rare, epic or legendary rating. Each player has four stats: Offense, defense, ball control and mental game. Alongside this are a series of special cards which will either increase the stats of your team, or decrease those of your opponent. Your starter pack will include at least a rare quality player from your favorite team and enough other cards to fill out a deck, and then you’re straight into a quick game.
The game mechanic is basically Top Trumps. You choose any five players and two booster cards to make up your deck and a game lasts four quarters. Each quarter has a basketball related theme which will relate to one or two stat categories, for example ‘Windmill Jam’ uses offence and ball control, and you pick the card you wish to play. The opponent does likewise and the cards are compared, with the player with the highest stat value winning the quarter. If you win three quarters then you win the game, but if it’s 2-2 at the end of the four quarters then it’s sudden death overtime.
This structure does leave room for a certain amount of strategy based on whether you wish to just use the highest card for any given category, or for example try to draw the opponent’s best card out against your worst card to give you the edge for the rest of the game. It’s only rudimentary strategy, but it can tip games in your favour. Additionally you can play a booster card once each match, which can be enough to win you a quarter you would otherwise lose. It is worth noting though that you are not playing against actual people, merely their decks with an AI playing the hand.
At the end of each game you are given draft picks, where you choose a facedown card from a 5 x 5 grid to add to your deck. This is where the generous side of the game is revealed as a win gets you two picks, but a loss still gets you one, and the cards are not replaced, meaning the choice gets smaller and smaller until you select one of two special cards. One is an ‘energy’ card which is used in season mode, with the other will being a rare or higher card, and when you find either of those cards the grid resets. The common and uncommon cards you pick up in the meantime can be used to level up your existing high quality cards.
The generosity with which this game gives out high value cards is something I have not seen matched anywhere in mobile gaming. Not only that but during this whole process there is no noticeable sign of how you would go about spending real money for extra cards or draft picks, it was something I actually had to go looking for to confirm existed.
As well as these quick games there is a season mode, and this was what eventually brought the design flaw to light. You enter a deck of fifteen cards for the season, ideally three per basketball position. Games are played on a deck vs deck basis by the AI every 30 minutes, and last another 30 minutes, so an 82 game season will play itself out in three and a half real-time days. The only intervention needed is to swap your players around or use your energy cards every so often to prevent too much fatigue setting in. In my first season I finished top of the standings and then worked my way through the playoffs to win the finals, but this is where the game started to come apart.
My reward was my first epic quality card and two rare cards, meaning I had a far more powerful deck. As a result I started a new season, and played more quick games, and expected to start doing better, so was slightly surprised when the opposite happened. I lost the first five games of the season, and was doing no better in the quick games than with my old deck. It soon became apparent that I was being matched with stronger opponents, which is not a conceptually bad thing, but in this case was flawed.
The flaw lies in the lack of transparency of matchmaking brackets or reward for moving up them. The new season may have pitted me against better opponents but it didn’t give better prizes at the end, still just an epic card and two rare cards, and the quick games were against people packing multiple epics but still only rewarded two draft picks, which were usually common or uncommon players.
Pretty soon I realised I had no incentive left for playing. I’d already won the playoffs and was looking unlikely to do so again and quick games were harder to win for no greater reward. The only incentive to play was to improve my deck, but if I did that then I would be playing against harder opponents, effectively meaning that the improvements were ultimately pointless. It felt like being punished for doing well.
CCGs tend to have tiered systems for this very reason. The higher up the tier you can climb the better the rewards are, which makes it worth facing the better opponents. As it is My Team Mobile has you paddling furiously against a tide just so you can stay in the same place. The matchmaking system itself is not the problem, it is the lack of transparency and the lack of escalating rewards that means the game ultimately becomes unrewarding.
The worst thing is that it’s a real shame because is has the mechanics of an excellent casual card game. It’s simple enough for kids to play, but gives a small amount of strategy for those who want to attempt to min/max their chances, whilst never being overwhelming. It’s a game that avoids the usual pay to win mechanics and hides its micro-transactions away, instead giving a payer good quality cards on a regular basis. It just has a design structure that quickly renders the whole exercise ultimately futile.
By Ian Childs
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