The origins are lost in the mists of history (or my befuddled memory – which may actually be the same thing). I was a teenage and had just returned from holiday in some sunny location for two weeks. When I came back my friends had these curious decks of cards that seemed to represent monsters and spells being cast by wizards against one another. I was (still am) a geek and so naturally this interested me. Before long Magic: The Gathering had its terrible hooks into me and I was spending a heck of a lot of money on packs of cards.
That may be unfair. I still like Magic: The Gathering, although I am no longer splurging money on it like it was going out of fashion. And before you turn away from this page in disgust, this isn’t a details discussion on Magic either (I have not got the time and you probably don’t have the patience to endure that). Rather I wanted to look at the concept of Collectable Card Games (or CCGs) as a whole and whether they were still a valid model of operation.
I am undoubtedly about to tell you fine readers how to suck eggs, but in the small chance that anyone here does not know what a CCG is, I shall elaborate. A CCG is defined by the collector purchasing random packs of cards and assembling them into a deck by which they can play the game by its rules. It is usually agreed that there must be some strategic element to this play to differentiate it from other trading cards that operate on more basic gameplay level (if indeed there is a game attached to the cards). There is usually a secondary card market attached to these games, whereby players can purchase individual cards in order to complete their collection. Trading cards between players is also a frequent occurrence (also leading to their secondary title of trading card games).
Magic is the grand-daddy of all CCGs being released in 1993 and almost singlehanded responsible for the big boom of CCGs in the mid-1990s. Companies such as White Wolf; Decipher; Upper Deck; Topps and others all leapt onto the bandwagon. The success of most of these games (or conspicuous lack of it) demonstrated quite clearly that the market could not support a vast number of these types of games and it left only a few from the maelstrom standing by the current time. The vast number of ‘dead’ CCG is testament to that. Even Wizards of the Coast, manufactures of Magic found that within a couple of years of their initial release, they had to make cut backs of their staff.
However, CCGs still carry on to this day and the popularity of Magic, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! shows no sign of waning. However , there is a question, at least in my mind, as to whether the model of the CCG is still relevant, particularly in the face of new means both of distribution and of gameplay.
Returning to Magic , as of July last year, the card pool consisted of 16,505 different cards which stretched a period of 23 years. Consider owning all of those cards. Furthermore, try to deck build with all of those cards. That’s pretty intimidating.
‘But Adam’, I hear you cry, ‘There are formats that allow people to compete with more limited card pools.’ Quite correct. And limiting the pool by the means of Modern and Limited Magic does allow for players who do not have the collecting history to compete. But when you limit, it also places restrictions on the archetypes. Normally two or three key decks emerge which become the ‘big boys’ of each set.
This is not me complaining about tournament play, because I understand that it is a staple of a lot games. I have played in gaming tournaments myself with a variety of success (although never a Magic one). But what I am trying to demonstrate is to how intimidating the can appear to a new or to a casual player. Those players who are fully invested into the meta and have invested the time and money into either the luck of blind purchasing or by seeking out individual cards, have an effect upon those players who buy a few new packs a month and just want to play to enjoy. The game essentially becomes a competition between who has the biggest wallet rather than a balanced playing field.
I agree this this is not a problem restricted solely to the CCG environment. Certainly competitive play in any form of game often has people clamouring for the ‘new hotness’. One only needs to look at the development of the Warhammer 40k tournament community that became a quiet literal arms race over who could grab the biggest (and most expensive) models and slap them all onto the tabletop as quickly as possible. But is there an alternative …
Enter Fantasy Flight Games and their Living Card Game model.
FFG were no strangers to CCGs prior to 2008. The had acquired the license to Chaosium’s old Mythos game and released it in 2004 as Call Of Cthulhu: The Card Game, having employed game designer Eric Lang to turn it into something more accessible than the previous iteration. And it was fairly well received still operating within the normal model. Then in 2006 everything changed.
An announcement was made that Call of Cthulhu would cease to release products in the normal distribution and would instead release monthly “Asylum Packs”. These packs would consist of 20 cards in triplicate, ensuring that any player purchasing them would get exactly the same cards as everyone else. The move proved so popular, that two years later they elected to re-release the entirety of the game via this format. Since this point, everyone of their game has been released in this format and has seen other companies adopt a similar approach (Upper Deck’s VS System relaunch in 2015 was produced in a similar fashion but with a different name).
The LCG system essentially means that deck planning and building is a very structured and precise process in which you know exactly which sets are needed. There are numerous deck builder systems online which can identify the cards and their relevant locations. Furthermore, the secondary card market does not really result in extortionate pricing because most players realise that there is no need to pay over the odds for a cards when it is relatively easy to get their hand on it by just buying the respective pack.
Furthermore, as each new pack produces only 20 new cards, it means that players do not need an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cards in order to function effectively within the game. A smaller card pool produces much less opportunity for conflicts between cards or rule problems that can bog the game down unnecessarily.
However, this limited card pool has other problems. Certain towards the start of the game, the development of the ‘meta’ is almost glacial and one big slash release can weigh the advantage towards a particular faction or type of deck. In order to counter this, you will often find that release rates are accelerated in order to keep customers interested. Whereas Magic the Gathering may have four big releases over the course of an entire year, LCGs will have many more. I find less excitement in the release of a new card deck for something like Game Of Thrones, than the latest Magic set which feels like a huge event.
And whilst you may think the financial impact of the card game hobby is reduced by the LCG model, this is not necessarily the case. Say a LCG has 6 factions and you only are interested in one of them. Well each new set may contact 2 or 3 cards relevant to each individual faction. You are now buying a 60 card set for perhaps 9 cards. A deluxe expansion may be focused on an entirely different faction to the one you play, but will still have cards that you need for your side. The situation becomes worse with FFG’s Core set model, which normally requires that you buy 2 or 3 basic sets in order that you have multiple of several basic cards that you need (Test Of Will from the Lord Of The Rings LCG – I am looking at you!). Like the CCG release model, you are still buying a lot of chaff in order to make the deck you want.
The game does need to be carefully managed as well, in order to avoid bloating. The original Game Of Thrones LCG eventually collapsed under its own weight, as FFG felt the need to introduce a new mechanic with each cycle. And as every cycle was legal in competitive play, you had to have knowledge of several additional rules beyond the base game in order to make it operate. Eventually, they had to release a 2nd edition – which meant that the card collection certain people had been cultivating for a long period of time was essentially worthless. There is no argument in my mind that the second edition is a superior product. However, I still resent the fact that I have a box of cards on my shelf that is essentially a nostalgia piece. For all its history and many different rules that it has implemented, I can still pick up my Ice Age or Legends Magic cards and play with them in the right environment.
I think what the current gaming environment shows around the two models is that whilst LCGs are gaining popularity, the presence of a gaming behemoth in Magic The Gathering means that it is highly unlikely that this will go away any time soon. FFG clearly also don’t believe that the type of distribution that CCGs operate under are dying, as recently they have produced a collectable dice game using a similar style of production in their Star Wars Destiny game. We also need to bear in mind that product styled towards a younger audience, such as Topps Match Attax football cards, also follow the CCG model and based on the number of cards my son appears to have, they also continue to be popular.
As much as anything, if you want to go down the card collecting rabbit hole, there is so much choice still available, that it is unlikely that you will fail to find something that appeals. And somewhere with the combination of theme, budget, play style, mechanics and countless other items, it has to be your enjoyment that should ultimately be the deciding factor.