Monday, October 3, 2011

Trading Card Game Design and Why is Magic so good?

About 7 years ago I was first introduced to Magic.  Even though I didn’t understand most of the cards, I knew that it was going to be a fun, spellbinding game.  My mind started to race and I thought that all trading card games (TCGs) must be as good as Magic, so I learned a couple of other games and immediately I could tell that the “fun factor” just wasn’t there.  Magic is truly unique.

I’m no TCG expert and I’ve never designed a single card but recently I’ve started looking at a few other TCGs.  One of the goals of a good TCG is to make each faction or color feel different.  Magic somehow makes red cards very “red”.  Red cards feel angry, chaotic, and full of randomness.  Even the name often lets you guess the color of the card.  Making each color feel and play differently is one of Magic’s greatest strengths.

The Marvel/DC VS System had too many factions.  The VS System encouraged players to use one or two factions by restricting group attacks to characters that have the same faction.  The problem was that the VS System introduced too many factions.  Each new set had new factions and the previous factions only received a few cards.  The VS System was great because it let you use all of the great superheroes but eventually it crumbled.

The Spoils provides an interesting twist on Magic’s combat.  In the Spoils you can have many different combat phases because each creature can attack separately.  While this is just a small change, it increases the number of decisions that a player has to make.  (The Spoils only has 4 sets but let’s hope that it doesn’t die.  You can even play it online using OCTGN, which is one of those programs that lets you play online but doesn’t enforce the rules.  You can read more here.)

The Inuyasha TCG also has an interesting combat mechanic.  Each character has up to 3 attack colors, out of a total of 5.  Characters can attack other characters only if the same color exists on both cards.  This makes cards harder to evaluate.  A character might have a green attack of 5 but a blue attack of 1.  With this mechanic card designers would need to be careful to make groups of characters feel similar by using similar attack colors and values otherwise each character would feel independent and random.  For example, maybe “good” characters would  have high blue and green stats while “evil” character have high white stats.  (In Inuyasha good versus evil characters are a major theme and Inuyasha is often depicted as both “good” and “evil”.)

Lord of the Rings: The Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games turns combat completely upside-down.  Instead of two people playing against each other, both people play cooperatively (co-op) against an “encounter deck” that spits out enemy characters and obstacles.  Recently Fantasy Flight Games bought the Star Wars license and plans to release a co-op Star Wars TCG.  (In a co-op game if one or both of the players beats the encounter deck, both players win.)

The one facet that Magic does better than anyone else is that each set feels different.  Each set has a different world, theme, and conflict but sets are tied together by new mechanics.  Without a coherent theme, a card set could easily become a random collection of cards (which is sometimes how I feel when using Forge).  Making each set interesting is a very hard challenge but Wizards makes it look easy.

A TCG must be “fun” although there are hundreds of aspects to “fun”.  The TCG must feel “fair”, as in both players have a chance to win.  A TCG must allow both players to interact and respond, otherwise you might as well be playing a one-player game.  Good artwork never hurts and good TCGs need to be playtested for hundreds of hours.

Most TCGs burnout after a few years and stop being produced.  Only few TCGs last more than 5 years.  This fact saddens me a little bit but I guess that is how the world works.  In reality most individuals keep up with only 1 or 2 TCGs.  Most people don’t have to time/effort/money to take an interest in more than 2 TCGs.  Even keeping up with one game like Magic is more than enough for most people.

In conclusion, maybe paper TCGs are dead?  On the positive side there are a number of free online TCGs and I’m sure some of them are very good.  Here is a discussion about free online TCGs.  

( is a great resource because it has rules and variations for almost every TCG, card and board game in existence.)

Keep on tapping,

--When I say, “Maybe paper TCGs are dead?” I mean bringing a new paper TCG to market seems impossibly hard compared with a cheaper-to-produce TCG videogame that lets you play against the computer with a couple of hundred cards.   

Offline TCG videogames are my favorite niche and even though they aren’t insanely popular, somebody could still make a handsome profit.  I know of exactly five offline TCG videogames: Forge, Magic’s Duels of the Planeswalkers, Shandalar (old Magic PC program), Marvel Trading Card Videogame, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Trading Card Game for Nintendo DS.

--I tried to understand the Netrunner TCG, which still has a pretty strong following despite being 15 years old, but the rules flowchart scared me to death.  You can read the rules and how to play online here.


Anonymous said...

Although I have never played them, the Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh! games on the Nintendo DS are always top-sellers, and the Pokemon games are usually the #1 game for the handhelds for an entire month after they are released. From what I understand, they play very similar to a paper tcg.

Anonymous said...

don't the 2 pokemon tcg games and the countless yu-gi-oh ones

moomarc said...

I loved the Vampire: the Eternal Struggle. It was another brainchild of Richard Garfield but published by White Wolf, and was a brilliant mix of what I loved in MtG and new tactics. Unfortunately the reseller near me stopped selling them after I'd bought only 2 packs, but even with just those two it took a long time before my friends and I got bored with the limited pool. But eventually you knew what to expect so I've been looking for ways to play against an AI opponent since, but never found anything.

polaris said...

Great insight. I myself have old collections of such TCGs like Vampire: The Etetnal Struggle, Middle-Earth, Harry Potter, Legend of the 5 rings and even Initial D (Car racing themed) and they were all fun while it lasted. The main wall that kills these publishers are funding. WoTC has always been bigger and I think owning the TSR world gave them access to a lot of art and story material


Launching a new paper TCG now would be very challenging because of the established TCGs out there and enormous funding you'll need. That's also why we see a lot of virtual card games such as "Shadow Era" , "Cabals", "Kard Kombat/Orions". Easier to gain traction that way, the when it successful enough, maybe they can go on paper.

I wish thos small time TCGs were given a chance. MTG is undeniably the best to date due to its multitude of possibilities --- especially on vintage and it complexity further multiplies those said possibilities. If it weren't too expensive today as compared during the 90s, I'd probably still be playing.

Forge said...

My first TCG was the very first Yu-Gi-Oh for Gameboy Advance way back around 2000.

Vampire: The Etetnal Struggle sounds very interesting. I did know that Magic creator Richard Garfield has created many other games like Vampire and Netrunner.

Huggybaby said...

"I know of exactly five offline TCG videogames: Forge, Magic’s Duels of the Planeswalkers, Shandalar (old Magic PC program), Marvel Trading Card Videogame, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Trading Card Game for Nintendo DS."

Come on rares, certainly you can think of a few more? I know I can!

Forge said...


I couldn't think of any more, that is why I listed the games that I could think of. Maybe there is a hidden niche of offline TCG videogames somewhere on the net?

Zirbert said...

Just to add:

Netrunner was brilliant, and the most fun TCG I've ever played. And that's with having played Magic since 1994, and worked in a comic & game shop (i.e., rying everything on the market) in th late 199os TCG boom years.

I still have a couple of Netrunner decks tucked away behind the Magic cards, in hopes of getting someone to play a few games again someday.