No game defined a larger part of my life than Magic: the Gathering. Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) hooked me early, when I received a couple of Revised Starter decks as a birthday present from an older cousin during the summer of 1994. Not even yet 10 years old, a world of wonder and endless possibilities opened itself to me. Wonder gave way to obsession as I discovered the competitive tournament scene.
I took on a part-time job as early as I was legally allowed (14, with my parents’ permission) so that I could buy more Magic cards. Any money not spent on cards was diligently saved so I could buy my first car as soon as I got my license (an absurdly reliable 1988 Chevy Corsica). My friends and I spent all of our high school summers working during the week and traveling up and down the east coast to attend Magic tournaments every weekend.
We chased college scholarships as part of Wizards’ now defunct Junior Super Series program, and as we grew older, we began to attend Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQs) and Grand Prix in the hope of “going pro”. Even more than the cardstock we consumed en masse, this dream was the product WOTC peddled to the competitive Magic scene. If you were good enough, the best of the best, you could make your living slinging cards. It’s a dream I chased for embarrassingly longer than I’m willing to admit.
Right from the Level 99 store page, “Millennium Blades is a board game about a group of friends who play a fictional card game, which is also called Millennium Blades.” A game that attempts to capture the culture of being a competitive player in a collectible card game scene? Is that even possible? Do I even want that?
A game of Millennium Blades is played over three rounds, and each round is divided into a Deck Building Phase and a Tournament Phase. Setup can be a bit of a bear, as it will require shuffling together twelve sets of cards to form the store deck. We recommend having the store deck prepared in advance of game night. There’s also a lot of fun to be had by playing an individual store deck multiple times, as familiarity with a given set’s mechanics can really open up new deck building possibilities.
In the Deck Building Phase, players will buy cards, trade with other players, try to complete collections which they can turn in for victory points at the end of the game, sell cards to the Aftermarket for more money, and assemble a deck to compete in the Tournament phase. Sound like a lot? What if we add a timer to really get the blood pumping?
Each of Millennium Blades’ Deck Building Phases is divided into three timed segments (7 minutes, 7 minutes, and 6 minutes again). This design choice is absolutely part of what makes Millennium Blades work. Analysis paralysis be damned! Players will not be pursuing the perfect play, optimal deck construction, or best moves that plague some games because THERE IS NO TIME!!!! There’s even a section in the rulebook instructing players to embrace their mistakes as a part of the game. As someone who has played a card game at competitive and professional rules enforcement levels, this was something I certainly appreciated for the verisimilitude it adds to the experience.
The Tournament Phase, which is untimed, is where players get to showcase their hard work in the Deck Building Phase. An abstraction of events that typically run for full days, the goal of the Tournament Phase is to collect the most Ranking Points (RP, not to be confused with Victory Points, Millennium Blades’ endgame scoring currency). Players will bring up to 8 cards acquired during the Deck Building Phase, along with up to two accessories and one deck box in order to compete.
From there, each player will play a card per a turn to their tableau, and may activate an action on a card (before or after playing their card for the turn). Many of these cards will gain you RP when played. Some of the more powerful ones have a Score effect and will only award you RP if they are still face up at the end of the tournament. Others will flip your or opponents’ cards facedown, usually denying that card’s owner its benefit. Some trigger abilities when they are flipped. The range of abilities that cards have is incredibly varied and it would be impossible to mention them all in a mere review.
Once all players’ tableaus are filled with cards, the Tournament Phase ends and players compare earned RP. Players earn Victory Points (VP) based on their standing in the tournament, with the lion’s share going to first place. Play then proceeds on to the next round of Deck Building, or if that was the third Tournament Phase , then the person with the most VP is the “Ultimate Millennium Blades Champion!”
It seems like any review of Millennium Blades has to start with the money. Who are we to buck a trend? Yes, Millennium Blades uses the much maligned paper currency. But while other games’ paper money is thin, prone to ripping, and annoying to handle, the paper money on offer from Millennium Blades is so much more. Potentially a meta-commentary on CCG player spending habits, players will not be handling solitary bills while playing Millennium Blades. You’ll be flinging entire stacks of bills at the bank as you buy cards! Huge wads of currency will change hands in delightfully tactile exchanges.
If you’re really against paper money or can’t be bothered to complete the somewhat long assembly process, you could just use poker chips or something. But I think you’re really missing out if you don’t give the Millennium Dollars Money Wads (actual name of the component, straight from the rulebook) a chance. And before you dismiss paying exorbitant sums for a single card as hyperbolic nonsense, when I quit Magic for good and sold my collection of tournament staples, my collection had a retail value of approximately $13,000 USD. The entire collection fit into a backpack. Huge wads, indeed.
Undeniably, Millennium Blades scratches the trading card game itch for me. It activates the part of my brain that used to constantly be thinking about tournament format metas, the janky tech I could add to my decks to give me a leg up, the cards I was hoping to pull from boosters or trade for, the bad beats, the good games with good friends. It takes me back to a different time in my life when I had far less responsibility. A time when the majority of my mental energy was devoted to gaming.
An average PTQ season for Magic would run for months. Like shoving lightning into a bottle, Millennium Blades compresses the energy and experience of an entire tournament season into a game that can be played in a single session after our daughter goes to bed. It’s all there: building decks, buying more cards looking for the one thing that will make you unstoppable, a meta that evolves over multiple tournaments as you and the other players respond to what each player is trying to do. It is incredibly engaging and satisfying to be a part of.
The amount of decisions a player has to make in a game of Millennium Blades is staggering, and the intensity of this decision space is amplified by the fact that the Deck Building phase is timed. There are nights when Millennium Blades will stay resolutely on my shelf because I don’t have the mental bandwidth to contend with it. No individual decision is particularly difficult, per se, but the number of things Millennium Blades asks you to think about in a given round are so numerous that they can easily overwhelm an already fatigued mind.
The “High Intensity” legend on the side of the box is more warning label than clever marketing. One wonders if that portion will be printed in Univers Condensed Light font in the next edition (the same font used for Surgeon General’s Warnings). But when I can muster the energy that a game like Millennium Blades requires? It's exhilarating! The high of winning an individual tournament eclipses the feeling I get from winning some other entire games. And when I’m resoundingly crushed by an opponent’s superior strategy? Unless it was the final round of the game, I just look forward to seeing how I can pivot, discovering which new cards I’ll be able to use to counter them in the next tournament.
As a recovered TCG addict, I’m clearly a target audience for Millennium Blades. However, it should be noted that you don’t need significant CCG/TCG experience to enjoy it. Mrs. Saint, who had no prior knowledge of the world of CCGs prior to her exposure to Millennium Blades, initially shared none of my enthusiasm for trying the game. And while she started off her first play full of trepidation, she warmed to Millennium Blades over the course of that game. By the end of our first playthrough, she was praising Millennium Blades for the dynamic engine-building puzzle it presented. And as we continued to play more games of Millennium Blades, she became more and more enamored with it. Honestly, I think she might like it even more than I do at this point.
This isn’t to say Millennium Blades is perfect. As with any game with literally hundreds of points of possible interaction, ambiguities do sometimes arise. Occasionally, a card is not particularly clear on when you can use its effect, or the timing of two abilities triggering simultaneously needs to be resolved. There is a very comprehensive and well maintained FAQ on BoardGameGeek (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1559935/rules-faq) that will probably be able to answer your question quickly with judicious use of Ctrl+F. But if you’re not near a computer, be prepared to exercise some common sense arbitration instead.
Level 99 has a reputation for packing their games to the brim with content, and Millennium Blades is no exception. Because of the way in which you construct the store deck, each game can vary wildly. Even better, with enough familiarity with the different card sets, you can tailor the Millennium Blades experience to fit your game group. Want a mostly multiplayer solitaire resource management engine-builder? Millennium Blades can be that game! How about a highly interactive, cutthroat game where players are constantly butting heads, flipping each others’ cards at nearly every play? Millennium Blades can be that game too! The core box offers enough content for dozens of plays before one would even think about looking at expansions. There’s even a turn-based variant for those turned off by the real-time Deck Building phase. We haven’t tried it because it looks like it would cause massive AP and balloon out the play time, but it’s an option for those so inclined.
Our favorite way to play? Sealed deck format (grabbing 9 store deck cards and 6 core deck cards instead of using the standard starter decks) with the cards sets picked randomly by the Millennium Device (http://www.lvl99games.com/app/millenniumblades/, link currently working fine on Mobile but not on Desktop).
Millennium Blades is part of that rare group of games that has impressed me as much on the tenth play as it did on the first. It simultaneously evokes in me a sense of nostalgia while being different from anything else I’ve ever played. It feels like a passion project created by gamers who understand why people play games. And in that capacity it is an absolute triumph. Millennium Blades. Wow. Just wow.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out the review with images on our website: www.gamingwiththesaints.com and be sure to follow us on Twitter to get updates on when new content is released @Saint_Gamers.