My Irrational Love for Trading Card Games
I used to play in a lot of Magic: The Gathering tournaments back in the day and still enjoy the game even though I never get to play with real cards anymore and only rarely get to get my fix on in Magic Online. It seems utterly irrational to love a competitive game with so much unfairness woven right into the core concept of the game. This love goes so far that I’m actually actively looking for games that include aspects similar to TCGs.
Most TCGs let the player acquire card through the purchase of booster packs – packs filled with more or less randomly inserted cards. The chance of finding a specific card this way is usually quite low and even if you’re trading with other players it tends to take quite an investment to actually get the cards you are looking for. At the same time you will be accumulating tons and tons of cards that you don’t care for at all but which ware not worth enough for anyone else to be interested in them either. Clearly the whole model is designed to make players buy more and more packs of cards in the hopes of getting lucky. The best cards will of course be suitably rare so that you have to spend even more money to find them.
I know all that and still I love the feeling of opening a booster pack. Not knowing what’s inside and the anticipation of maybe opening something ridiculously rare are quite fun, as is the feeling you get when you actually find something you need. When you are relatively new to the game this gets even more exciting as you won’t know what cards you might find at all and will have the luxury of flipping through the cards one by one, thinking about potential applications, and generally admiring them.
Trading card games are also inherently unfair. The more money you invest, the better your cards will be on average and the higher your chances of winning. At a competitive level this doesn’t matter all that much because people there generally have access to all the cards they need. Before I played competitively though, there was always someone with better cards who would be really hard to beat because of that. Yet I even enjoyed that part. Getting beaten by people who were (in my opinion of course) worse than I was but simply invested more money encouraged me to get better at the game so that I could beat them with my lesser cards. It also encouraged me to get more and better cards or find some cards that were specifically tailored towards beating these players.
I recently played a bit of Warstorm, a free-to-play online Trading Card Game, and the TCG virus hit me right away again. This is quite odd because can hardly even be called a game, to be quite honest. You do get cards and get to select which cards to use for fights against enemies, but the fights are fully automated without any interactive options. Essentially we have a company trying to make money through the TCG model without actually creating a fun gaming experience that would be worth the investment. And yet the game has quite a few players and it captivated me for a while as well. Surely there must be a way to use the interesting (some might say: addictive) elements of TCGs in other computer games, especially MMOs?
The obvious counterpart to trading cards in MMOs would be items that players can find. These are often distributed randomly, increase the wearer’s power, and can be used to customize the character. Yet I’ve rarely noticed an effect similar to the one TCGs have on me in computer games. The Diablo series (and its clones) manage to capture elements of it and I’m sure that that is the main reason why I’ve spent so much time farming bosses for loot in those games. Modern games tend to fail at making this interesting because the items themselves aren’t interesting enough and the drops often not random enough to spark my interest.
I’ve talked about the boring itemization of modern MMOs before multiple times (here and especially here but I’ll reiterate: Merely getting the same item that you are wearing but better is not interesting at all. In Magic for example there are about 12,000 unique cards (yes, twelve THOUSAND) available and yet only a relatively low number are actually strictly better than other comparable cards. Sure, a Wild Mongrel will always be better than a Grizzly Bear (barring very extraordinary circumstances) but the comparison between Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares isn’t nearly as clear cut. In order for an item (or a card) to be interesting, one needs actual choice between different options instead simply doing the math to decide which one is better.
Fixed loot tables also do their thing for making current game loot boring. If you went to kill Pindleskin in Diablo 2, he could essentially drop everything you could imagine. There you have your suspense of opening the pack of boosters. You’d never know what you’d get. Compare that to a modern MMO such as World of Warcraft. When defeating the Lich King with 25 players in normal difficulty the set of drops will be chosen from only 12 options. I don’t know how many items he drops at once but my guess would be that it’s at least three. There will be no surprises, pleasant or unpleasant, when looting the Lich King. Everybody will know what is likely to drop and will not need many attempts at all to actually get the item to drop. This might be good for players collecting a set of gear, but it makes looting incredibly boring.
I wouldn’t mind playing a good computer based TCG at all (I loved Shandalar) but what’s really important in my eyes is that developers have a look at what makes TCGs so addictive much fun, extract those features and add them into their new games.