It’s an unseasonably chilly March morning in Las Vegas, but the air in the South Hall of the convention center is humid with anticipation. More than 1,000 trading card game players are refreshing their phones and laying out play mats, rifling through brand-new decks.
Manga-printed suitcases are splayed out on the tournament floor, spilling out their contents of holographic booster packs. Some players wear festive fez hats, others sling spiky turtle-shell backpacks across one shoulder, others sport leather biker vests. A cosplayer in photo-realistic dragon drag (whom I will learn is called Supernova Dragon Siegwurm Nova) tramps through the door, accompanied by a handler ensuring clearance for her 4.5-foot skeleton-wings.
Everyone’s here for the Japanese toy company BANDAI, the host for this BATTLE SPIRITS SAGA launch event. Today the TCG is making its triumphant debut into the gaming world with its inaugural cash prize tournament. Over the course of this spring weekend in Las Vegas hundreds of players will whittle down bracket by bracket until only two are left, facing off for $25,000, their own slice of the $150,000 prize pool.
I mill about the ballroom asking players how they’d like to spend their loot if they take home the kitty. The most popular answer is to reinvest back into the BATTLE SPIRITS SAGA cards, but others hope to split their winnings with friends, pay off credit card debt, or even buy a new car.
A cry from the PA practically smacks me in the face as an organizer commands the attention of the crowd—”Summoners! The first round is about to begin.” The players (or summoners) have just received the pairings for their first games, which are chosen at random and broadcast on a mobile app, compelling them to race to their battle stations. The master of ceremonies counts down, and a hush falls over the room, the players sizing up their opponents, contemplating their decks, and preparing to throw down.
BSS: The Creators
Mitsuhiro Nakazawa, the designer who built BSS, looks on. “It’s very exciting to see so many people here today, all here to play BATTLE SPIRITS SAGA,” he tells me.
As the company behind such iconic Manga-inspired games as Dragon Ball-Z and Digimon, BANDAI is continuing to build its industry pedigree and TCG-community cred in the American market with BATTLE SPIRITS SAGA, and this Vegas moment has been long in the works. In 2008, BANDAI first released Battle Spirits, Saga’s predecessor, exclusively in Japan. This first incarnation was designed by Seattle-based developer Mike Elliot, whose career includes developing for Magic: The Gathering.
This sequel officially debuts in late April 2023, which will coincide with a total of 18 cash prize tournaments worldwide. BANDAI is also partnering with independent game retailers to host smaller events celebrating new launch packs and special collector sets. Players can win everything from life-changing checks to special decks to limited-edition collaboration cards featuring cameos from such beloved characters as the Manga robot GUNDAM, which is debuting in the next few months.
Plus, you never know what can happen at a big community event like these; you might just get your big break.
BSS: The Ground Rules
Grounded in a world that’s home to a menagerie of fantastical creatures—from mechanized fire-breathers to evil queens to adorable emperor penguins—BATTLE SPIRITS SAGA is organized around six Realms, each represented by a color. At the time of the tournament, four of the color-coded starter packs were available:
- Red: Realm of Fire, full of dragons
- Purple: Realm of Gloom, populated by curse-throwing devils and zombies
- Yellow: Realm of Radiance, rife with angels and kawaii cartoon animals
- White: Realm of Frost, brimming with machine beings
Green, the bug,-bird-, and beast-infested Realm of Forest, and Blue, the giant-studded Realm of Water, which are still to come.
When designing the game, Nakazawa turned to the backstories and mechanics of the original BSS. “Some game designers go off of the map of the world or focus on characters, but I took a page out of the yearbook,” he says.
In addition to providing some of the lore and characters, the original Battle Spirits laid much of the tactical groundwork for the new game, too. As Elliot describes: “When I pitched the original version of Battle Spirits to BANDAI, I had mapped out the color system, called a Color Pie in game design. Each color has its benefits and drawbacks. Red gets destruction effects. You start with the mechanics and a loose theme, which develops into a world of iconic characters.”
Beyond the eye-catching art of the cards, much of what makes this game unique is its resource system. The Pieces or Mana (as a Magic player might know it) are known as Cores. In the story of the game, these little blue gems symbolize meteorite-like masses hailing down from the sky, imbuing the creatures with powerful energy and mutating them into battle-ready soldiers.
Players use Cores to pay for cards, put them into play, and level up their cards’ abilities, which are organized into three types:
- Spirits: main attacking and defending agents
- Nexuses: what determines a battle ground and can support a team while hindering your opponent
- Magic: spells allowing you to increase the playing power of your hand or disrupt your opponent
With each turn, players get to take a Core, refresh any Cores spent on playing cards from the last round, draw more cards, play them, and even attack, all with the hopes of draining their opponent’s five life Cores to zero—which is how you win the game and become the greatest Summoner in the Realms.
BSS: The Beginner’s Game Play
Now, I may not be at Caesar’s Palace, but I am a tourist in another culture’s Eternal City. Therefore, I must do as the Romans do and get my hands on a starter pack.
Yellow, as many have advised me, including Nakazawa, is the easiest one to play, and I have nothing to prove or lose. Plus, all of this background means nothing unless I get a chance to put the knowledge to use. BANDAI’s goal in organizing these tournaments is to inspire all players, no matter how green, to get into the game. Even if I feel more like a harmless forest creature than a fearsome dragon in my TCG skills, I’m ready to try my hand.
It’s the second day of the tournament, and though the ballroom is considerably less crowded, the play has become far more serious. Today, the top 32 go head to head, each eligible to win cash prizes upwards of $1,000. Still floating around the space are the cosplayers, including a woman dressed as Archangel Michaela, replete with working wings, and a cerulean princess in a tiered pink gown, doing her best Moonlight Princess Mani, a character from the original game. Even some of the players knocked out on the first day engage in small social matches.
Until now, the competitors have been play-testing without the actual physical cards, which only went on sale the day before. This weekend is their first time to trade, build decks, and compete with people from all over the US, so nobody, including me, is in a rush.
An additional development: I’ve fallen into an unlikely clique with two TCG experts and YouTube commentators who also flew in for the event—Rochester, New York-based Ryan Gomez of Magic Arcanum and Baltimore, Maryland’s Jeff Harris of AetherHub. Gomez offered to teach me how to play.
“More often than not, you want to play with your spirits,” Gomez tells me. “You’re general for the whole army, so you get to make a whole lot of hard choices.”
With my mat laid out (which helpfully charts out each step of my turn), my Cores in place, and my cards shuffled, I’m ready to take a peek at my 4-card hand, which is packed with Nexuses and Magic but tragically lacking in the pivotal active character cards needed to attack and block in the game.
One of my Nexuses includes a place called Soap Bubble Lakeside, two matching magic cards (Imaginary Gate), and a low-core-cost spirit card, Axe Angel: an axe-wielding hunk with a Hermes-reminiscent helmet and big fluffy wings. Thankfully I get to draw another card, and the battle spirits have blessed me: the Spirit Prince Pentan emerges, a lavender penguin in an ermine-trimmed hat and cape denoting his royal status.
My reflexive strategy, informed by nothing other than a preternatural desire to hoard resources, is to keep my Cores, which Gomez does not recommend, but I’m committed to learning everything the hard way. This leaves me a little hesitant to play more than one Spirit at once. Gomez coaches me as I hesitate my way through my hands.
“You always need the Spirits to fight, block, and protect you, but as you play, they end up in your trash [the discard portion of the mat], along with those Cores. However, if you don’t play them, you have nothing to attack, you lose life Cores, and then you lose the game.”
My face-off against Gomez’s brother Keith Gomez, who runs The Focus Theater (an improv performance venue and training center in Rochester), lasts for about 15 minutes before my final remaining Spirit (sweet little Prince Pentan) gets walloped in the kisser by one of the souped-up Spirits named Mummelephant, a mummified elephant, in his nefarious purple deck: a more aggressive set with characters possessing curse abilities to undermine your opponent.
Of course, I’m sad to see my angels get zapped from the deck, but I feel more prepared to use them properly next time. There’s also nothing like having a long stretch of time ahead of you—as we wait for the 32 players to halve until 2, then a final winner—to improve your card game.
BSS: The Pros’ Game Play
Next, I watch Harris from Aetherhub go toe-to-toe with Magic Arcanum’s Gomez as I probe them with questions about everything from character costs, to which Hogwarts house each deck would belong to. I’ve realized yellow is about as close to Hufflepuff as one can get, and when they agree, I do a little victory dance in my head. I think I’m starting to get this TCG thing. They also impart their wisdom about building the perfect deck.
For a newbie such as myself, Gomez advises a deck strategy that puts you on the offense. “Your goal as a less experienced player is to end the game faster than the other person wants,” he tells me. “The faster your game goes, the more practice you get. If you don’t start with an aggressive mindset, your opponent will gain on you.”
Harris lobbies for a more passion and story-driven strategy. “I love the idea of these sweet animals, birds, and bugs going head to head with giant mecha beasts and holding their own,” Harris tells me, a fellow proponent of the underdog. “And it’s not always about what a card does; it’s really what a card means,” he continues. “Getting to know the characters, to identify with them, it adds a lot to the game. So while you always want to have something on the board … my advice would be to build a deck you love over one that’s powerful.”
A couple more hours pass, and the bracket winnows down to two. The finalists are 27-year-old Austin Somers from Phoenix, Arizona—clad in a denim jacket and a key necklace that’s sort of his talisman—and 28-year-old Alex Blandin from Bedford, New Hampshire—sporting a black backwards cap, and green slime-printed sneakers. Blandin is playing red—filled with aggressive characters playing their best offense—and Somers wields a conservative white deck, designed to slow his opponents down.
As they silently glide through attacks and blocks while the spectators crowd around them, the tension mounts. A judge watches on as cameras capture these pros for a live-streamed tutorial. Both have been play-testing for about two months for up to about eight hours a day. The teams they’ve been training alongside (many of whom reached the top 32) watch from the sidelines, much like pit crews. Both Somers and Blandin will take home something, but only one will win the title and $25,000.
A giant cheer erupts from Somers’ crew; he just played the final hand, and the judge confirms the win. The two players shake hands; the champ throws his arms up in victory only when he steps out of the game pen and into his group of friends, folding him into a giant hug. The runner up Blandin also returns to his team, cracking jokes. “Even if I didn’t win, all the hard work paid off. I came here with a huge team, eight of us made the top 32, and I had a great time.”
Now I get to ask how he is going to spend the $13,000 cash prize for second place. “All on black, baby!” Blandin exclaims.
Somers plans to save the prize pot and travel around BANDAI’s home country awhile. But not without first hat-tipping his team and their training support. “My friend Spencer and I have been play-testing constantly, and switching our decks has allowed me to learn how others might play the different ones.” After all, no great champion—or summoner in this case—gets to the top without a little help from their friends.
Join the action! Locate your nearest BATTLE SPIRITS SAGA tournament.
This post is a sponsored collaboration between BANDAI and G/O Media Studios.