Are card games immortal?

Reposted from The Mast.

Walking into a backroom trading card game tournament, one asks oneself two questions: The first is, “What are all of these people doing here?” The second is inevitably, “Why does it seem like a majority of them don’t regularly bathe?”

The answer to the first: They’re playing a trading card game, which are still just as popular as they were in their ‘90s heyday. The answer to the second question is, unfortunately, just as elusive as it was then.

Card appeal

A trading card game (TCG), interchangeably referred to as a collectible card game (CCG) or customizable card game, is a strategy game played using specially designed sets of playing cards, which are collected, traded, bought and sold like so much currency. Players acquire the cards—which they need in order to build a well-balanced and strategically sound deck—by purchasing pre-made decks, booster packs of randomly assorted cards and even individual, high-value cards (known as “singles”). The TCG has worked so well for so long because it combines the appeal of collecting with strong strategic gameplay.

“It’s a fun way to have social interaction,” senior Tyler Gubsch said. Gubsch is a member of PLU’s “Magic: The Gathering” Club. “And it allows people to enjoy collecting things.”

The modern concept of the TCG was first seen with 1993s “Magic: The Gathering,” designed by Richard Garfield and published by the now infamous Wizards of the Coast (current license owners of “Dungeons and Dragons”). However, “Magic” is not considered to be the first example of a TCG— that distinction belongs to the “Baseball Card Game,” produced by The Allegheny Card Co. in 1904, nearly a century before “Magic” hit the scene.

Magic touch

Today, there are three dominating titles in the realm of TCGs: “Magic: The Gathering,” “Yu-Gi-Oh” and “Legend of the Five Rings.” “Magic” is arguably the most popular and longest-lived of its genre. It was the first, is still considered by many to be the best and is often the game that pushes the envelope when it comes to rule changes and new sets of cards. “Magic” puts the player in the role of a “Planeswalker,” a wizard who is able to summon vicious creatures and cast powerful spells. The cards in the game represent these creatures and spells, which the player uses to deplete his opponent’s “life points.”

“I play because my friends play,” Gubsch said.

Every popular TCG follows the core mechanics of “Magic,” with varying degrees of mechanical and aesthetic differences and rule complexity.

Easy to play, easy to hate

“Yu-Gi-Oh,” popular among younger players and, oddly enough, lonely middle-aged guys, is second only to “Magic” in its popularity, which has been constant since the debut of “Yu-Gi-Oh” on U.S. soil in 2002. “Yu-Gi-Oh” is both loved and hated amongst tabletop gamers. Its simple strategy, ease and quickness of play and accessibility to younger gamers are often cited as strengths. Critics counter that the game is too simple (to the point of being inane), the artwork is redundant and the cards are too steeply overpriced (effectively creating an ad hoc market too easily swayed pre-teens who absolutely must have the first-edition foil version of a certain card to round out their decks).

If you’re wondering, I tend to (read: do) sway towards hating the game.

Graceful complication

Possibly most respected in the genre is “Legend of the Five Rings” (“L5R”), a game that has maintained a devoted cult following since its debut in 1995. The game is set in the fictional empire of Rokugan, which is loosely based on feudal Japan. The game is a sophisticated blend of destructive and passive victories, with its mechanics often being described as “gracefully complicated.” Matches can last considerably longer than those of other TCGs—a typical game runs about 45 minutes but can easily yawn into hours.

However, what many fans adore about “L5R,” and what makes the game so unique and innovative, is the story and mythology behind the cards. Stories advancing the overarching plot of Rokugan are published on a weekly basis. More stories are released quarterly in a publication known as the Imperial Herald. Many of these fictional developments reflect the results of tournaments, where matches between the clans of Rokugan will determine which faction will claim a particular victory or prize. It is this ingrained sense of reaction and consequence that keeps players with the game—many of them for a decade or more.

Defying the odds

There are other successful TCGs out there: “Duel Masters,” “Chaotic,” “Dragonball” and, yes, kids still play “Pokémon.” But few TCGs can even come close to touching the popularity or player bases of “Magic,” “Yu-Gi-Oh” and “L5R.” Despite the stigmas, misconceptions and a general lack of exposure, TCGs are more popular now than ever.

Wizards of the Coast claims that more than six million people actively play “Magic: The Gathering.” Half a million players annually compete in high-profile national tournaments. More than 1,000 players from 57 countries showed up in Memphis in December 2008 for the World Championship Tournament. Every Friday, hundreds of thousands compete in Friday Night Magic (FNM) tournaments across the country. “Yu-Gi-Oh” is not far behind “Magic” in sheer number of players, while “Legend of the Five Rings” chugs along resiliently, dancing to the beat of a different drum and keeping its core players happy and satisfied.

Quips about body odor and personal hygiene aside, the trading card game is miraculously alive and well; not just surviving, but thriving, even in this digital age of ours. On the surface, trading card games essentially amount to players sliding overpriced pieces of paper across a table—and that is how they often appear to outsiders, who are typically baffled, confused and somewhat horrified to see so many people (many of them fully mature adults) participating in what they perceive to be a monumental waste of time and resources.

Look deeper, though. You will find a thriving community of strategists and builders. One finds rivalry, camaraderie and, in some cases, very real storytelling. And I don’t mean to overstate the value of trading card games—they are, at the end of the day, simply overpriced collections of paper. On the other hand, TCGs are not the bottom of the nerd totem, as so many seem to think. They are not devoid of intellectuality or intelligence. Believe it or not, there is ingenuity to be had in this gaming sub-culture, provided you simply seek it out.


  1. This is a fairly well-written article. Gubsch's one-line about playing because his friends play seemed short and out of place. But it's otherwise very informative and does a good job of presenting an unbiased look at an oft-ridiculed group of people. Go you.

    Also, you accidentally repeat the first two paragraphs.

  2. Thanks Jess! Oh, and you know I always appreciate your copy-editing skills. They are always welcome. =)


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