Trading/Collectible Card Games are experiencing a massive resurgence right now and over the past couple of years, especially in the digital sphere. This is surprising because physical paper TCGs/CCGs experienced a slump in the mid-to-late 2000s. Many thought that, outside of the big players of Magic: the Gathering, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! (and some notable but much smaller exceptions), no other developer could ever again find success with the traditional TCG/CCG model of distribution.
This has largely remained true in the physical games hobby industry, as new trading card games have historically struggled to take away market share from the big companies. However, digital card games currently seem to be enjoying a surprising amount of success – and so I want to ask, why? Even the most popular paper games are enjoying renewed success in recent years, with a couple of newcomers onto the field doing quite well as well (notably Cardfight! Vanguard).
In my research, I’ve identified 10 core reasons as to why this is happening. So let’s jump right in and find out what makes TCGs “tick”…
1. Constantly Evolving Gameplay With New Challenges
TCGs grab people because the game is regularly updated with frequent releases of new cards. It prevents the game becoming stale for too long. With each new set of a TCG, the developers are offering up a large puzzle for the player base to figure out. What are the major themes of mechanics and gameplay styles present in the new cards? What are the most powerful strategies for deck building, and are there any “answers” to act as counter-strategies to those decks if they become too dominating in the competitive scene?
Many times, new card sets will also add new mechanics that can completely change the way the game is played. This could be new card types, new keyword abilities, and occasionally, even new zones on the field for special cards to be played to. This creates a sense of excitement about the future of a game because nearly anything is possible. You just don’t get that with a single, unchanging board game.
Further, the developers can’t predict 100% the way in which each new set of cards will be received and used. Due to number of moving parts, they can’t possibly find every combination as the pool of available cards gets larger and larger. Players will often find unintended combinations of cards that can “break” the format. This leads directly onto the next point…
2. A Healthy Meta-Game
The “meta-game” is a larger environment of gameplay styles and strategies that are dominating a particular area or scene. Some local game stores have their own meta-game that evolves based on what the players bring and use at their events. However, since increased use of the internet over the past decade, these smaller, isolated meta-games have been overwhelmed by the availability of information online that tends to lead to “net-decking”, players finding out and copying the best and most powerful deck builds. This means that an international meta-game evolves as tens of thousands of players work together to find out the game’s most powerful and consistent deck types.
Developers often encourage or even directly tinker with this evolving meta-game. The biggest way they do this is of course by releasing new card sets, but they can also do this via other means. They can rotate out older sets which ensures old deck types become invalid, forcing players to discover new ones. Another method is to utilize a “ban list” that prevents certain cards from being used in tournaments officially. This can help when a broken combination is discovered that needs to be rectified immediately for the health of the meta-game. It can also can change a stale meta-game into a dynamic one by limiting or restricting certain cards (or even un-banning formerly banned cards completely, as is often the case in Yu-Gi-Oh!).
3. Secondary Markets
These games have healthy secondary markets: the unofficial market that arises from players, collectors and vendors re-selling cards as singles with prices in line with their perceived value and demand. While the game’s original developer and distributors are aware of these unofficial markets, they implicitly allow them to occur because it actually benefits them in the long run.
This is the case because more people are playing the game and buying it over time. Official sealed products are being bought either by players directly or by vendors that obtain cards to re-sell as singles. Singles help players who are looking to buy just the cards they need to play rather than randomized booster packs which are more of a gamble.
Healthy secondary markets can be vital to a game’s long term success. Players are also interested in the value of their own card collections, as they know card prices can go up over time due to the perceived value changing and old cards become rarer to find. Sometimes, pro players will find an old card to use in a new way in the game and the secondary price of that card skyrockets as a result. Either way, both buyers and sellers benefit from there being a healthy secondary card market for any game.
4. Art, Story and Theme
Trading card games need to provide these three aspects: art, story and theme. Card games often live and die by the quality of their artwork. This is also the aspect of the game that costs developers the most to produce, with artist commissions being quite high to reflect the value of their work (and rightly so). Art helps tell the story, which a card game has to have in order to draw the players in to its world and make them feel like they are interacting with a living, breathing universe rather than pieces of paper with numbers on them.
Magic: the Gathering often tells stories through its “block format”, where card sets are focused around travelling to a specific Plane in the Multiverse. This allows them to tell new stories of the places, character and events in those worlds. Both art and story contribute to the game’s thematic components that keep players engaged on a long-term basis, elevating the game beyond its core of an abstract, mathematical system to become an on-going saga of politics, war and strife.
5. Formation of Strong Communities
Another aspect that contributes to the continuing success of a game is a strong community of players. Without other players, the game dies – not just from a hard financial perspective of lacking the required sales to keep the game going but also because if there isn’t a large pool of players to play against, people can get bored of the same cards and the same people. The spice of a TCG is the huge variety of not just cards, but also players and preferred play styles.
This can be a mixed bag, for sure, as often there can be some rather toxic members in a game’s community that make it a difficult experience for people, especially newcomers. However, the majority of welcoming, helpful, encouraging players dwarfs however many toxic players there may be, making trading card games a great way to engage socially with other people through a shared passion.
6. On-going Developer Support
A lot of the points above could be seen as subsets of this major point: trading card games are not produced as a single product, released into the wild and abandoned by the developers. This would make it more like a board game or a single-box strategy card game. These also have their own communities and fan bases, to be sure, but they don’t fall within the TCG/CCG heading due to the limited nature of their release: they don’t provide new cards on a regular basis which constantly changes and evolves the way the game is played.
All of the biggest card games have strong support from the companies that produce them, regularly organizing and funding local, national and international tournaments which contribute to the game’s desirability and prestige. Many trading card games got off to a good start but died a sad, pathetic, utterly premature death due to lack of support from the developers. Usually they didn’t put enough effort into supporting the front line of TCG sales: local hobby game stores. These are the stores selling the card packs and providing spaces for players to play the game, including hosting tournaments which are often the biggest draw to a new game for many people.
Granted, on-going support of a game is an expensive affair and it is usually tied directly to the success of a game’s sales. Unfortunately a lot of extremely well-designed games did not make it off the ground due to poor initial sales, which led to a decision not to support the game any further.
Because of this need for support, it’s increasingly harder for new games to enter the paper TCG/CCG market. Many now argue that players have “burnt out” on the distribution model of randomized booster packs as well – and rightly so, as many people cite this as the number one reason for not wanting to get into a new trading card game. It’s an expensive and undesirable investment of time and energy that you may not get back if the game dies. This leads nicely onto my next point…
7. The Expandable/”Living” Card Game Model
Some companies, especially one in particular, have come up with an extremely clever way of dealing with this problem. They’ve worked out how to entice consumers back into a financial relationship with new TCG/CCG style games – it’s called the Expandable Card Game Model (also called “Living Card Games” but not by everybody because this is an exclusive trademark of the company Fantasy Flight Games who pioneered this model).
Expandable Card Games are, at first glance, exactly like trading card games – they’ve got the same style of gameplay and offer new card sets, tournaments, and on-going support. There’s just one difference: they’ve eliminated randomized booster packs entirely from the distribution model. Instead, they usually provide a Core Set with all the cards you need to get started and then focus on smaller, set-number packs that are not randomized, as well as larger releases as big-box expansions. When you buy these packs and box sets, you know exactly what cards you’re going to get because they’re the same across the board.
This has been a huge leap forward for paper TCGs because it had lowered the barrier to entry for competitive play, the mode of play that often requires building decks using all of the strongest and most useful cards. This way, players can buy new releases and keep up with all of the game’s new cards without having to hunt for rares in randomized booster packs or paying re-sellers for singles which lead to a much higher cost of building decks. This distribution model has been the savior of new games trying to enter the market, as it is a much more attractive deal for players.
8. The Digital Revolution
This is arguably the biggest, most important point in the list. The amount of new card games arriving on the scene exclusively in digital format is astounding, and it’s completely changing the whole genre.
Even though Magic: the Gathering has had a digital version of the game consistently since 2002 (Magic Online), it has functioned more like an emulation of the paper card game than a truly unique digital implementation of the game in its own right. Players constantly complain about the lack of features, bug fixes and overall user experience. However, it has been estimated to earn somewhere between 30-50% of all of the Magic brand’s sales regardless. Since then, Wizards of the Coast have released more video game-style versions of Magic as the Duels of the Planeswalkers series, but these have had a mixed reception over the years as well.
It’s going to take talking about one game in particular to truly call for the arrival of a Digital Revolution: that game is Hearthstone. Hearthstone has revived, single-handed, the entire genre of collectible card games by taking it to an entirely new level for players’ expectations as to what a card game can – and should – deliver as a digital experience. I’ll talk about this in the last two points.
9. Renewed Focus on Presentation, Polish and User Experience
One of the reasons Hearthstone stands out from prior digital implementations of card games is that it took players’ expectations of how a card game should be implemented and exceeded those expectations on all accounts. Yes, there were many, many other digital card games around before Hearthstone came along, but it’s hard to deny that Hearthstone is emblematic of a turning point in the popularity of digital TCGs/CCGs, bringing in a whole new audience to the genre.
Hearthstone did this not because of its core gameplay, but due to the entire package that it came gift-wrapped inside of: a digital player experience that goes beyond just emulating a card game by merging it even more with the speed, excitement and adrenaline of fast-paced video games.
To some traditional players of the genre, Hearthstone represents a “fall from grace”, a watered-down game that is completely unoriginal and copies nearly everything that came before it while offering nothing new of its own. From a strictly mechanical point of view as a card game, this is hard to deny: however, Hearthstone is presented so perfectly, with such a great amount of polish and attention to detail that it completely transcends this criticism into the lofty heights of heaven from where the sticks and stones may break its bones, but bullies cannot drag it back down.
Hearthstone irrevocably changed what players expect from digital versions of card games in so many ways that we have “left the matrix” and can never return again to mere digital emulations of physical card games.
10. Free-to-play: a New Distribution Model
In the onslaught of games following Hearthstone‘s success, many have picked up on one of the core things that makes it so successful: that Hearthstone offers a truly “free-to-play” experience that allows players of all wallet-sizes (and none) to join in on the party. Many games before it would offer only small portions of the game for free while locking the rest of it behind a firm pay wall or only offer randomized booster packs as a way of acquiring more cards.
Hearthstone (at least before the paid-expansions) was entirely free of these hard pay walls, instead offering a path that allowed you to play the paid-for aspect of the game (the Arena) by earning the requisite cost in gold through completing Quests instead. Players can also obtain the rare Legendary cards by crafting them from gold, even if this does admittedly require a near-insane amount of crafting currency (dust) to do so.
Nevertheless, it is entirely feasible and possible for players to play for free, win packs in the Arena and enchant their own cards from dust. Lots of games are now copying this model because they realize it encourages players to eventually spend money on the game anyway out of a show of good faith that they were invited to take part without being asked to pay up front. This is a good thing and we can only hope to see it continue.
It’s clear that despite some bumps in the road, TCGs and CCGs are here to stay. With the increased popularity and new fan bases of the genre coming in from the video game market, it seems that the genre has nowhere to go but up, evolving into newer and more rewarding products and player experiences. I am very excited about the future of this genre and I hope you are as well.
So what do you think about this list? Is there anything that you would add to it or take away from it? Let us know in the comments below!