Uh, something’s very very different in Back 4 Blood

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Remember back when Wizards of the Coast updated Magic the Gathering by changing the hand size of your initial draw? Rather than drawing seven cards, you instead just took your full deck into your hand. It made every match more exciting by simultaneously giving the players more choice and more power. It was the final tweak that Magic the Gathering needed to become the monster success we know today. In fact, if Wizards of the Coast hadn’t made that change, you would probably never have heard of Magic the Gathering. It would have languished in obscurity along with all those other card games with small hand sizes of five, six, or seven cards.  

Today, something similar happened to another card game called Back 4 Blood. The developers at Turtle Rock released a major update and now, at last, Back 4 Blood is the game it wants to be. Since I’m a huge fan of the game (scroll down to #3), let me tell you all about it!

Back 4 Blood’s June 2022 Update, as it’s officially called, raises the hand size so that when you start a game, you just take your whole deck into your hand. Actually, you can’t call it a deck anymore, since you never draw cards from it, which means the order doesn’t matter. It’s just 15 cards that you hold in your hand, no decking around necessary. Such a simple adjustment, and so intuitive, and so easy to manage no matter what kinds of decks you’ve built. Gloomhaven also works this way, which might be why Turtle Rock did it.

Now I should point out that Back 4 Blood isn’t just a card game. I mean, that’s mainly what it is. It’s also a cooperative horde shooter. But it’s one with a card game as the backbone of its architecture. As you play, you gradually draw cards off the top of your deck and apply their effects, cobbling together a character build, one card at a time, each drawn whenever you reached the next safe house. The cards are the tactical foundation. They’re the unique connective tissue linking each safehouse to the next. Turtle Rock probably added all this because they knew better than to just make Left 4 Dead all over again, so they made it all over again but with the collectible card dynamic.  

That’s gone with today’s update. Now you just take 15 cards into your hand as soon as the game starts. Instead of building up over time, based on the changing situation and how you might have anticipated it with the cards you selected and the order you arranged them, you just pick up the 15 cards and go. Why sip when you can chug? 15 is such a better number than 1. So as soon as the game starts — boom! — 15 cards instantly in effect. No drawing, no decks, no messing around. You get it all and you get it up front!

This shouldn’t come as any surprise to folks who enjoyed the card play in Back 4 Blood. It’s been evident for some time now that Turtle Rock has little interest in their game being played like a card game in which you build decks. That’s been evident from the start, back when your decks were split between online and offline, never the twain meeting or even being aware of each other’s existence. You could also tell Turtle Rock had no interest in helping you collect, sort, and manage your collection because there are so few tools for collecting, sorting, and managing your cards. Fair enough. I have to manage my own collection with my physical card games in real life, so I got this. I totally got this. I even made my own spreadsheet. 

But you could also tell the developers weren’t too keen on their card system by the “active cards” screen. This is the place where you go real quick to check on your character build. I say “real quick” because remember this is also a shooter and you don’t have a lot of time to analyze a screen like this…

…when all you really want to know is how much extra damage you’re doing, or what your heal bonus is, or whether you have that card yet that lets you fire without inflicting friendly fire. It’s going to take a bit to figure out from all those snippets of artwork missing any helpful information other than the card’s suits. No card names, no icon representing their effects, just a piece of prominently featured noisy artwork alongside about 20 other pieces of noisy artwork. And now that’s how it looks from the moment you set foot outside the first safehouse. 

But at least you can get a tally of how many cards of each suit you have! It’s right there on the right side of the screen: information no one asked for and no one needs.  But you can rest assured that if those suits are ever used for gameplay purposes, it’s going to be super easy to see — at a glance! — how many offense, defense, utility, mobility, and economy cards you have. Turtle Rock has really future-proofed the game in that regard, while making sure no one mistakes this for a card game with any helpful sorting or organizational features. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Which is probably for the best, because Back 4 Blood is also a shooter, and you wouldn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea about where its priorities lay. If there had been a convenient way to collect, organize, and assemble cards into decks, it might have detracted from the shootering. If there had been as easy way to track your character build in progress, it might have sent mixed messages about the developers’ priorities. It might have lead to an identity crisis. People might have gotten wrapped up in the cards, in the collecting, in the deck building, in the myriad tactical options the cards flex, how they synergize with each other and reveal exciting and different ways to play the game. If you thought that was a slurry before, wait until you play after the June 2022 Update.

Anyway, if you can’t tell, I’m pretty dismayed that Turtle Rock has finally shed the burden of Back 4 Blood being anything other than a rote Left 4 Dead wannabe. This had been one of my favorite games specifically for how smartly — if not gracefully — it integrated card play into a cooperative horde shooter. Since that’s no longer the case, I have one fewer game competing for my time and one more sad story about a developer murdering their own game.