It’s funny how long it took the world to come up with the trading card game as we know it today. After all, we had card games and trading cards, it seems only logical now to combine the two into a single entity.
It was the still-popular Magic: The Gathering that really nailed the modern formula of this game type. While Magic was the pioneer, trading card games now come in all shapes and sizes. From Pokemon to the Warcraft TCG, there’s something for everyone.
So What is a Trading Card Game (TCG)?
To make the concept of a TCG simple, I’ll break it down into its components. First of all, there’s a rule set that describes how the game is played. Usually the format involves two people playing against each other; each bringing a custom deck of cards to the table. Literally.
TCGs lend themselves to tournament-style play because there can be only one winner from each pairing of players. In that sense, it’s very much like chess.
So how do you actually get the cards? Well, that’s where the trading bit comes into play. Cards are bought in blind packs. You buy the pack and open it up in the hope that you’ll get the cards you want. This is the source of cards for your deck; the set of cards you can legally bring to the game to play against an opponent.
The Cards Themselves
What’s actually printed on a given card depends on the specific rules and nature of the TCG that you want to play. Think of each card as a game piece just as in chess and other board games, except there are hundreds or thousands of unique cards. Each card has its own identity and role in the game. The attributes of the card, as well as how it should be played, is usually printed on the card. There will also be a piece of artwork and some “flavor text” that ties into the lore of the overall game. Many TCGs also include, at a glance, an indication of how rare a particular card is.
The most popular way of getting started in a TCG is to buy a starter deck. Basically, this is a pre-made collection of cards already curated by the game makers to be playable. Starter packs will also come with a nice ruleset, and sometimes with a nice extra such as a playmat.
Depending on the game you’re playing, starter decks might also tell you something about the strategy they are designed to support. Some decks are “fast” and others are “slow”. Some are aggressive and others defensive. You can even get starter decks that also come with one or two booster packs, which will let you customize the deck immediately. Now let’s take a closer look at booster packs.
What’s This Booster Pack Thing?
The first time you start a trading card came you’re likely to buy some sort of starter set guaranteed to have a certain mix of cards in it. That’s enough to get you started, but expanding your collection of cards from the standard set requires booster packs.
While it varies between the different games, cards are usually divided into rarities and, sometimes, game-specific types. Each booster pack might guarantee that a certain percentage of cards will be of a particular rarity or type, but beyond that it’s completely random. A large part of what makes TCGs so addictive is the excitement of opening a new booster pack. It’s exactly like a slot machine – with each pull of the lever you’re hoping to get that elusive rare card that will transform your deck and enable the killer strategy you’ve been working on.
Obviously, this blind system of acquiring cards means you’ll end up with plenty of cards you either don’t want or already have. That’s where the trading part of the TCG equation comes into play. The idea is to find someone that will trade their unwanted cards for your unwanted cards. Once you’ve got a fair collection of cards, you’ll rarely have to buy new booster packs unless a new set of cards is released, which is what I’ll be dealing with next.
TCGs are constantly evolving; new themed sets of cards are released on a regular basis. There are a couple of reasons for this. One obvious drive behind creating cards on a continuous basis is to keep making money. If it wasn’t planned this way, people would eventually have all the cards they wanted and stop buying more. A second reason is that a given set of card mechanics and deck designs becomes stale after a while. Eventually you get certain decks that dominate the game and are entirely predictable. So by introducing new mechanics into the game via fresh sets, the TCG can be kept interesting and alive indefinitely.
While the introduction of new cards and new card mechanics is generally a good thing, it also causes a few problems. Since there are so many cards that combine in so many ways, it’s very hard to make sure a TCG game stays balanced. In order to have some control over the “meta” game, almost all TCGs have formats. A format describes which edition of the rules is valid and which generation of cards is allowed in the game. This stops players from using cards made ten years ago that may combine with newer cards to create a game-breaking effect.
That doesn’t mean you should throw your old cards away! Apart from their value as collectibles, players still keep playing formats that use those older cards. Some formats even allow for a complete free-for-all; game balance be damned.
The Value of Cards
While the idea of trading card games is to trade for the cards you want, it’s also possible to simply trade those little cards we call money for them. Since cards have a rarity attached to them and there’s demand from both collectors and serious players, TCG games can involve some very expensive cards. In fact, some first-generation Magic: The Gathering cards can go for thousands of dollars.
Cards don’t just become valuable thanks to their rarity. Some are sought after because they have been banned or because they form part of very powerful strategies. This also brings another element of excitement into opening booster packs. You might find a card that is actually worth more than the price you paid for a deck or a booster pack.
There are plenty of marketplaces online and in physical locations where you can buy and sell individual cards. Some comic book and gaming stores will buy and sell TCG cards, taking a small commission to make it worth their while. You can sell all your unwanted cards rather than trying to trade them away. For common cards you might only get a few cents each, but that defrays the cost of your future card purchases. It’s also a way you can trade in many lesser cards for one rare and expensive card.
Protecting Your Investment
It’s hardly ever possible to know which of your cards are going to be valuable or highly-collectible one day. In fact, it doesn’t even matter that much. You should take good care of your entire card collection for many good reasons.
Cards that are in mint or near-mint condition are worth more, so if you want to preserve the trade-in value of your cards you need to store and handle them correctly. Cards that you are just holding on to can be stored in special folders that have pockets for each card. This also makes it much easier to manage your collection.
For cards that you actually want to use in play it’s standard practice to use card sleeves. Sleeves keep the cards protected from oil, moisture and, in the case of stiffer sleeves, bending. It’s worth investing in some good card sleeves right away when you buy your first deck. If you also buy a card folder, you only need as many sleeves as the size of a regulation deck for your TCG.
Finding People to Play With
TCGs aren’t something you can play by yourself; you need to find other people to play against. That’s not too much of a problem if you’re still in school or college – there will usually be a group of people who are ready and willing to arrange matches. But once you move into the adult world it can get harder to find opponents to play against.
The good news is that you’re not alone in dealing with the loneliness of adulthood. Most shops that actually sell the TCG you play will also host matches at least once a week. Some TCGs like Magic: The Gathering have an official league. You can register as a player and try to place in regional, national, and global leagues. Comic book and toy stores are often the first and lowest rung on this journey; they’re also a great place to learn from other players.
Online TCG Games
The advent of modern video games, the internet, and especially smartphones and tablets have lead to a surge in computer TCGs. Some of them are digital versions of existing physical card games and some of them are completely original. These games don’t seem to have had an effect on the popularity of the physical games. In fact, I think more people have become interested in TCG games as a result of the easy access and built-in rule system. It’s a great way to get into an new TCG and it’s certainly an awesome way to practice and find human opponents to play against.
The only thing that’s sort of hard to accept is spending real money on virtual booster packs. The good news is that most of these digital card games let you earn booster packs just by playing, with real money only being spent by serious or impatient players.
Learning How to Play
Fortunately, it is now easier than ever to learn the ins and outs of your chosen TCG without having to feel intimidated or out of your depth. You can watch professional matches and YouTube tutorials online, and of course play the aforementioned digital versions of the game. The official material to learn the game is also usually available from the game maker’s official site. Before you ever play a game against a real human being you’ll probably be better prepared than new players from just five years ago.
There are also excellent online resources where you can register your decks as well as browse decks that other people have built. What used to be a tedious process that happened between people who could physically meet has now been democratized.
Beware, TCGs are Addictive
Ever since the first Magic: The Gathering nailed the TCG formula, many people have become completely obsessed with the genre. It’s social and tactical, and stimulates the same collector and gambler instincts that drive people to casinos. While I’m not saying that TCGs are bad for you, it’s true that you can quickly be pulled into the world of a TCG. The community has a lot to offer and the possibility of being a champion is intoxicating. Feel free to dip in a toe, but you might like it…