Trading Card Games (TCGs), Collectible Card Games (CCGs), whatever you want to call them, but at some point everyone has seen, owned or played one. We even saw this branch out into Trading Figure Games (TFGs) in the 2000’s. Many people credit Magic: The Gathering™ as the first TCG in 1993. However, card games existed well before Magic but with a few key differences from its successors:

  • You could usually acquire all possible cards in one purchase, or
  • The game required strategy, but only during play.

Most games at the time were strictly setup and play. Board games which were in a decline as an industry all followed the same format. Luckily for us, Magic wasn’t the only TCG to achieve sustained success: Pokémon™,  Yu-Gi-Oh!™  and now the Digital TCG Hearthstone™ all became big players in the market, pulling from different fan bases and demographics of players. There’s obviously a plethora of TCGs now, but their potential is really controlled by how well they are designed and engineered.

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A Magic: The Gathering™ Alpha Booster Box from 1993.

Herein lies every TCG’s flaw: Power Creep & the Metagame.

With every new product, there needs to be a draw to support that product’s sales, which in turn keeps developers, well, developing. Not only does this come in the form of new cards and strategies, but depending on which game you are playing, this is the developer’s active attempt to shape the Metagame. The Metagame refers to the optimal strategies and decks played by the game’s “best players” which through several channels trickle down into local playgroups and dominate events and tournaments. With different championships making their top tier contestants’ data available, even the most casual player can figure out what deck is being played most, and, assuming they have the resources to build that deck, are now in the possession of a “metadeck”.

Now there is usually at least two metadecks at any given time depending on the game, its rules and the current format. Any regular TCG player will tell you though, it gets dull seeing the same decks and strategies being used for too long. It gets even worse when it becomes a metadeck vs. metadeck scenario, in which the game loses nearly all strategic elements and becomes almost completely a first-to-draw or “top decking” luck based game. Developers despise this because their defining feature is meant to be strategy; seeing a variety of combinations and deckbuilds that allow for the metagame to not be dominated by just a select few metadecks.

So with every new set or product, what we will see is Power Creep entering the TCG. Power Creep refers to how much stronger a new card is compared to a previously released card. This can be in the form of:

  • Updating existing cards (for better or worse).
  • Creating new cards.
  • Banning existing cards.
  • Creating new card mechanics.
  • Changing the game rules.
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A newer Pokémon TCG™ Mewtwo (left) compared to the first printed version (right).

Some of these options are more ideal than others, but depending on just much product has been released, the effect on the entire game of any one of these options can be drastic and absolutely enriching or devastating, both to strategy and to perceived value by players. However, the most common form of Power Creep is by creating new cards. New cards released within new products are usually designed to disrupt the current metagame. With players dependent on studying metadecks, many players with big hopes empty their wallets to try and keep up with the metagame for its convenience in lieu of building different decks or attempting new strategies. Ironically, it’s those highly skilled players who discover new strategies early that seem to achieve the most success.

You see, TCGs reward you for trying to discover newer, better strategies to counter existing metadecks. There’s definitely an internal satisfaction when you review your collection, finding an underused underrated card, put it into your deck and defeat someone who you’ve struggled against because they use a metadeck. The emphasis always has been on how well you build your deck and your ability to play it.

In the end, TCG’s are money driven and luck based. Even the best and most expensive metadeck can draw poorly during the most critical matches. You as the player though, are choosing to play that game, and it’s up to you to understand why you enjoy playing it and invest your time into it.

Strategy. Building a better, original deck with new strategies, and playing it as best I can aiming to get even better, is my reason to continue playing TCGs. What’s yours?

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GameSpark Cafe’s Mirrodin Besieged™ Pre-Release tournament, 2011.

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