The trading card games, they are a-changin’.
It’s been over 25 years since Magic: The Gathering hit stores nationwide.
It’s insane to think that the game that started the collectible trading card game genre would be going strong after a quarter of a century. But with Magic tournaments and events continuing to break attendance records, there’s no denying its popularity. Numerous trading card games have come and gone since Magic‘s release, and collectible trading card games have become an international phenomenon. But will trading card games flourish for another 25 years, or will the craze eventually die down for good?
Well, judging by recent trends, collectible card games have a lot of life left in them yet. But if you’re looking at the newest games entering the market, don’t expect to find mere Magic clones.
The chance of a “Magic killer” is slim to none.
Years ago, we hit you with the fun fact that Yu-Gi-Oh held the world record for best selling card game in 2011. Coincidentally, Yu-Gi-Oh remains the last “big” trading card game to hit the industry.
Magic, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh have been the top dogs in physical trading card games for decades now. Since these games broke in virtually every trading card game player, most other card games are defined by how alike or different they are to these three. Sure, there are a lot of other trading card games, and games like Cardfight!! Vanguard have garnered passionate fanbases. Still, we have yet to see a physical trading card game soar to Magic heights of popularity since the year 2000.
That bodes well for current fans of these games, but it does present a problem for new blood entering the field. World of Warcraft commands the MMORPG market because few gamers are willing to keep up with two games of the genre at once. Similarly, it takes a dedicated card game player to “main” more than one game. That has led the industry at large to look for ways to innovate, and we’ve seen a few distinct paths become manifest through the past decade.
Future 1: The Digital Trading Card Game.
Speaking of World of Warcraft, did you notice I specified the three big trading card games were the top dogs in physical games? That’s because there has been fierce competitors to their thrones, but you can’t buy these games’ booster packs at your local card shop.
Hearthstone, a spinoff of World of Warcraft, is one of the biggest game-changers in the trading card game space to date. It wasn’t the first digital card game ever made, but it was the first new digital property to fully emulate the look and feel of a physical trading card game. Hearthstone’s massive success has inspired a massive wave of digital card games in its wake. Cygames’ Shadowverse shows that Japan is all in on digital card games as well, and franchises like The Witcher and The Elder Scrolls have their own digital card game spinoffs. It’s like the trading card game explosion we first saw in the 90s, except these games have serious staying power by competing in a relatively new subset of the market.
Digital card games have as many advantages as they do disadvantages when compared to their physical counterparts. For starters, developers can balance cards on the fly without resorting to outright bans (looking at you, Black Lotus). Also, by emulating the business model of gacha games, digital card games enable players to collect and play without ever actually spending money. On the other hand, you don’t have the freedom to buy, sell, or trade cards between friends either (though some games have tried to change this). Physical trading cards will last for however long you’re able to care for them, and you don’t need a device with an internet connection to play games either. But if the servers for a digital card game ever go down, then say goodbye to the collection you worked so hard to build.
Still, with the growing Esports presence that digital card games have built, it’s clear these games are here to stay. And with the surge of interest they’ve inspired for physical trading card games, fans of both collectibles win. Only time will tell how digital card games will flourish in the future.
Future 2: The Living Card Game
The biggest trading card games require serious commitment. Just hunting for the cards you want can cost serious time and money, and learning a vast library of cards to build your own deck is overwhelming. This is why veteran trading card game players are reticent to learn new games, but emerging trading card games have pioneered a method to be more accessible than ever.
The Living Card Game is a term trademarked by Fantasy Flight Games to describe a unique monetization model for physical card games. Rather than rely on starter decks and randomized booster packs, Living Card Games are released in set expansions with static monthly add-on purchases. This approach means “rare cards” simply don’t exist. If there’s a card you’re looking for, just buy the set or add-on it’s included in and call your hunt a day. Many card games outside Fantasy Flight Games’ catalog have adopted this practice, though they don’t use the term “Living Card Game” for legal reasons.
New and casual card game players benefit most from this model. You know from the outset exactly how much a good deck will cost you, and some base sets include enough cards for you and a friend to split and make complete decks. In fact, living card games are so popular that fans have petitioned the aforementioned digital card games to adopt the practice. That said, collectors who like to play the second hand market don’t have a lot going for them in Living Card Games. Without card rarity, there’s no thrill of chasing an elusive card and finally laying claim to it after a long search. This would be considered a good thing for most players, but it’s still worth noting.
The actual downside of Living Card Games is the sheer conundrum of why they exist. By marketing themselves on their accessibility, Living Card Games become more daunting for new players as they age. Older Living Card Games also have arguably as expensive of a buy-in to play on a competitive level as games like Magic (we’re talking $500+). As a result, it’s hard to tell which games will have enough appeal to last for decades. Android: Netrunner is a massively beloved game with a passionate fanbase, yet it was announced to come to an end in 2018. Granted, this was due to a licensing issue, but it’s one that presumably would have been solved if the money was there. As many Living Card Games are also licensed properties, the issue of their lasting power remains uneasy.
Still, if you and some friends can agree on a game you’d like to play together, Living Card Games are an amazing way for fresh and old blood to get into trading card games. And who knows, even if you do collect a discontinued game, those cards could become massively valuable in the future. It wouldn’t be the first time a discontinued product becomes a goldmine.
Future 3: The Experiments
Digital and Living Card Games have carved two distinct paths forward for the future of trading card games. Yet some games have shirked both these approaches for their own take on what a trading card game can be.
For example, Lightseekers was a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 that aimed to integrate a standalone trading card game into an integrated toys-to-life franchise. Physical cards you buy can be scanned to the digital version of the card game, and a stand-alone action RPG game also interacts with the trading cards. Judging from app store reviews, some fans have felt that the scope of these ambitious ideas were never fully realized since the Kickstarter campaign ended. However, the Lightseekers trading card game is still active, and it’s even available on the Nintendo Switch!
But the big daddy of crazy ideas has got to be Keyforge. Designed by Magic creator Richard Garfield, Keyforge is a trading card game that actually does away with deck building completely. Using an advanced algorithm, each Keyforge deck is automatically constructed using a pool of premade cards. The catch is, you cannot mix and match Keyforge cards between decks. Expanding your play option requires buying wholesale decks to pick and choose from, though the designers claim each Keyforge deck is algorithmically designed to be balanced. It’s an absolutely wild concept, but only time will tell if it will find its footing among card game enthusiasts.
So what is the future of trading card games really?
Looking at all the facts, there is no single “future” of trading card games. Instead, we’re in an exciting time where trading card games can be… well, anything we want really.
Tabletop board games are exploding in popularity, and trading card games are riding that wave. So yes, even if a fabled “Magic killer” is unlikely to happen, the market is hungry for new games with innovative ideas. All the while, this rise in competition paradoxically benefits all card games in the end. Video game fans are becoming card game collectors through Hearthstone and its many competitors, and Living Card Games are enticing new fans to enter the ring with accessible games based on mega popular franchises. And all the while, games like Keyforge continue to define our image of what a trading card game even is.
All in all, the exact shape trading card games will take in another 25 years remains unclear. But in a way, that’s the most exciting future we can hope for. Though every game has had their ups and downs, gamers and collectors alike have a ton of material to play and collect. No matter what card game you collect for, just remember to have a great time and remember to make friends along the way. And if you really get into the moment and scream about the heart of the cards, just be prepared for an absolute uproar of groans and applause.