An introduction to deckbuilding restrictions in Arkham Horror

Hello and welcome to the first post here on Obscure studies, a blog centered around Arkham Horror: The Card Game, by Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). This article will serve as a sort of introduction to both the blog in its entirety but also to the first series of articles I’m publishing, focusing on the deck building aspects of the game.

I’m a huge fan of card games and the deck construction side of it always fascinates me, no matter the game. Arkham Horror adds an extra special touch to this due to being both a cooperative game and very heavy on lore and flavor. It’s not the first cooperative card game by FFG, that title goes to the Lord of the Rings card game, but it does something different by implementing card levels and experience. As we’ll explore in this and forthcoming articles, this allows for extremely varied restrictions on deckbuilding and game balance as well as providing an RPG-esque experience improving your deck over the course of a campaign. The focus of this series will be to analyze the finer points of each character’s deckbuilding options and how they interact with the card pool, the investigator’s abilities and the investigator’s background.

As with all card games, Arkham Horror is open to both players that love to build decks from scratch, to those that like taking pre-built lists and piloting them to the best of their abilities as well as anything in between. Luckily we have amazing resources such as ArkhamDB that let us share and read about other people’s deck ideas and how to play them. I’ve seen broken decks, decks that seek to defy the general consensus of subpar cards and plain old fun decks. My objective with this series is to shed some light on a topic most people don’t put much thought into and a lot of the time is just some code on the backend of ArkhamDB.

Who cares about the back?

Whenever new Investigator cards are spoiled, we usually only see the front side, showing off whatever fancy ability the new character brings to the game. In most circles, this is the most focused upon aspect of that card, as everyone gets excited on how to best use the ability with the cards available to that class. This is usually because (most) investigators get unlimited access to their own class as well as neutral cards. In the early days of the game, this was always true and most deckbuilding restrictions were on the simpler side. Now that we’re in the fourth year of this game’s existence, the variety in restrictions has increased and we’ve seen a lot that defy the mold set in the Core Set.

The most obvious point I can make (but that I’ll do so regardless) is that the deckbuilding options really define the investigator and how you’ll play them. In an ideal world, these options both give us the freedom to create a deck however we see fit but also define the character’s role. In the example above, with one of my favorite investigators, Carolyn Fern, it’s clear that her function is to heal horror. This plays very clearly into her main ability that grants a resource to the owner of a card she heals horror from. In addition to that, her limited guardian access gives her cards to heal and take the burden off her allies. The other part of her options, the seeker and mystic cards, help flesh out her role as a potential clue gatherer, encounter/enemy tank or spell wielder. Lastly, her restrictions on leveled up weapon cards represent a potential balance fix as well as a thematic restriction. After all, a therapist might not wish to or even know how to wield guns, swords and other violent instruments.

Carolyn’s example also shows us that deckbuilding restrictions are added for two major reasons: mechanical and thematical. The psychologist’s main option, cards that heal horror, is very thematically tied to her job, healing people’s minds. That might not always make sense (like, how does psychology enable her to cast reality altering spells?) but at face value, it’s a flavor win. Her ability to take up to 15 level 0 Seeker and Mystic cards on the other hand is largely mechanical, allowing her to serve a function other than just healing horror. You could make the argument that she has studied extensively, giving her Seeker access or that she’s been exposed to the hidden world of magic through some of her patients. Even so, the number of cards and the levels available to her were almost certainly reached through playtesting and tuning, not through analysis of the character. These two themes are something we’ll see a lot of through the card pool and they are both very valid when it comes to making exciting decks. Whether it’s a deck that inspires an epic tale or one that comes together to defeat an Elder God with relative ease, playing into the strengths of an investigator’s card pool is essential to making it all come together!

Similarities ensue!

One of my favorite points to analyze about the restrictions is how similarities appear and cycles form, sometimes over a single cycle, sometimes over many different cycles. Something about the symmetry of a complete set and how the combinations of two card pools can play so well with different abilities just makes me happy. For that reason, we’ll be dividing up the deckbuilding options into categories in order to analyze completeness of each cycle, potential future investigators and how that cycle plays into the investigator abilities.

Sometimes, cards with analogous deckbuilding can play out very similarly when constructing their decks. In our above example, Tony and Mandy play very different roles in a campaign. After all, Tony has 5 combat to Mandy’s 1 and Mandy has 5 intellect to Tony’s 3. Even so, the process of building a deck for either investigator usually begins by choosing the secondary class, which will depend on what role that player wants to fill in the campaign. When looking at either of their options, it’s also important to note that only skills and events of the secondary class are available. No Guardian guns for Tony and no Mystic magic for Mandy. This plays out very differently from investigators that have level 0 to 2 access of only one secondary class. In those cases, you’re usually looking at how that option supplements your character’s main ability.

Given all that, I’ve split up the deckbuilding options in five main categories, which I’ll cover individually in future posts. Those are:

  • The 5-2 split, where you have defined secondary class and access to all cards level 0 to 2 of that class
  • The Dunwich splash, where you have access to up to five level 0 cards from any other class
  • Trait based deck building where you have access to all cards of a specified trait given a level constraint
  • The choose-a-class option, where you choose a secondary class at deck creation, as Mandy and Tony above
  • Special restrictions that don’t follow any known pattern, as shown by Carolyn at the start of the article

That’s it for now on this topic. Thank you so much for reading and if you have any feedback, please leave a comment here or find me on the Mythos Busters discord. See you next time!

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