In the cramped, entrepreneurial air of Peter Adkison’s basement, a small relatively unknown team produced the world’s first trading card game – Magic: The Gathering. Today, TCGs are among the most popular genres of gaming, with millions of dedicated players worldwide.
But while the original, tabletop format is still loved by many, TCGs have undergone significant change over the years – from the early digitization attempts of the 90s, to Blizzard’s iconic HearthStone, all the way to the thrilling new frontier of crypto-gaming with games like Gods Unchained.
Chapter One: Paper Magic
1993. Late summer in the portside hub of Milwaukee. A time when wizards and elves had long since enchanted the masses. On this particular day, by the simmering bluffs of Lake Michigan, a hoard of 20,000 descend upon GenCon – the world’s oldest and largest gaming convention. Amid stalls of adored classics, a bold newcomer arrives on the scene. Its name… Magic: The Gathering (MTG) – and already it’s a hit.
Frantic cues eclipse the booth. Gamers wait with bated breath as lines stagger relentlessly forward. By noon stock has already sold out and the disappointed majority must wait for an express delivery, air shipped from Seattle, to join the craze.
If opening day were any indication, TCGs were off to a wild start, and over the coming years would rise to unprecedented heights. So, what was the fuss all about?
Participation in trading card games (TCGs) consists of two main activities: 1) collecting and 2) dueling. Players first build a collection of cards from illustrated sets – trading cards amongst their friends (and strangers) to complete their dream collections. Players then strategically curate their collection into a deck, designed to compete with others in a duel– a game where each card has its own influence on the board. Magic The Gathering defined this genre of gaming, and its intricate world of fantasy lore fostered an army of die-hard fans.
Competitors soon cropped up – with Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon cultivating their own dedicated audience. With cosmetic and mechanic variations, each TCG brought a new twist to the genre, while at heart sustaining the core aspect of trading.
TCGs gave people a sense of ownership, of participation in their own unique economy. And yet, despite the popularity of this original, tabletop form, developers could not resist the pull of technological growth. So, given the meteoric rise of TCGs coincided with the advent of modern console gaming, it’s unsurprising they were snapped up for digitization. But these early digital TCGs faced some significant hurdles…
Chapter Two: Lost In Translation
November 1996. It’s been over three years since MTG debuted, and its ravenous fans are desperate for more. Enter Magic: The Gathering BattleMage – the franchise’s first attempt at digitization. For the first-time players experience cards from their collection on-screen. Unfortunately, game design fell short in delivering the same loved elements of paper Magic.
Indeed, words fall short in conveying the chaos that was BattleMage – a game which astonishingly, abandoned the turn-based increments of tabletop Magic, and opted for the frenzy of real-time.
For those not versed in the lingo of game mechanics, imagine chess, each player taking their time, studying the board, plotting their move, waiting for a reply. Now, imagine it again, except now there’s no turns. Now it’s a free-for-all. No waiting. No plotting. No holds bar. That’s what happens when turn-based games are transposed to real time. The studied glances, the meticulous planning, all become lost in translation. What was once a slow-dance with strategy becomes a tap-dance of button mashing. And it was not lost on the game’s critical response.
As Tal Blevins wrote in his ’97 GameSpot Review: ‘Real time destroys the beauty of the game – figuring out the perfect combination anticipating your opponent’s next move – and destroys the Zen-like experience of the card game.’ Clearly there were some hurdles for the genre to manage, and Magic was not alone in the struggle.
In 1998, Konami released Yu-Gi-Oh Monster Capsule: Breed and Battle – also for PlayStation. The game itself however was a variant of chess with characters filling mere cosmetic roles. TCG lovers found some solace in Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters – also 1998 – but the game’s mechanics were somewhat reductive.
Tribute summoning, for example, a rule which requires players first sacrifice monsters to play higher level ones, was not featured in the game. Instead one could freely summon pretty much anything in their hand. So, if the competition had that Blue Eyes White Dragon in the opening draw… well it was just bad luck.
Still, despite some hurdles, digitization remained promising. Magic Online, released in 2002, quickly became popular and started its own line of tournaments. The internet promised to transcend borders and connect players in a way tabletop gaming could not. Nonetheless, it would take another wave of development for the digital genre to come into its own.
Chapter Three: The Second Wave
March 2014. Blizzard, the company behind cultural sensation World of Warcraft (WOW), release their own collectible card game, Hearthstone.
With the ever-expansive narrative base of WOW, the game introduces Heroes to the genre. From a selection of Warcraft icons, such as the indomitable Hellscream, or the righteous Uther Lightbringer, players recruit champions for their conquest. This intoxicating lore and a warm animated aesthetic captured fans around the world.
Today, with over 70 million players, it’s safe to say the game has carved out a healthy slice of the digital market. Nonetheless, there remains a big problem with Hearthstone, drumroll… it’s not a trading card game. Why? Because the cards aren’t tradable.
Sure you can to “disenchant” your cards and turn them into arcane dust (a currency used to construct items) but as for exchanging with others… it’s simply not on the cards. And that’s disappointing, because, for many, trading lies at the heart of TCG nostalgia.
Who can forget those charged schoolyard trades… the last minute swaps before tournaments… the countless friendships, forged in the mute contemplation of binders. Hearthstone seems incapable of rebuilding the scenes of our most cherished TCG memories. Even if you dare cast sentiment aside, you can’t shake the financial burden.
Paper Magic made title of ownership clear. Players could do with the cards as they pleased – trade them for new ones, sell to the market, hoard for eternity. In Hearthstone it’s difficult to see how cards can be considered yours when avenues of cashing out are short to none. And for standard players (a format where only cards produced in the last two calendar years are valid) there’s going to be an ever growing number of cards simply gathering dust (arcane or otherwise) in Blizzard’s increasingly cavernous servers.
But perhaps some bridges can never crossed. Perhaps that classic, sense of ownership can never be replicated on the digital screen. Perhaps…
Chapter Four: The Next Frontier
2018. It’s winter in Sydney Australia – a peculiar season for the sun-soaked metropolis. At a short walk from the iconic Opera House, a team of sleep deprived developers debut a brand new TCG entitled Gods Unchained. In two months the game amasses millions of dollars in card “pre-orders”, and sells out 20,000 tickets to the games first tournament scheduled for early 2019.
If that isn’t hype enough – a one-of-a-kind card is auctioned for over $60,000 USD, a price to make even MTG’s famed “Black Lotus” blush. Buzz within the TCG community seems comparable to the release of Magic in 1993. And there’s just one question... Why?
On the surface Gods Unchained looks just like any other attempt a digitization – translating the classic, old-school thrill of tabletop gaming onto the screen. But this time there’s a twist. Each playing card in Gods Unchained is what’s known as a non-fungible token (NFT), a digital asset technologically akin to Bitcoin. Each of these NFTs live in the Ethereum blockchain, a decentralized computer which can execute “smart contracts.”
To those untrained in the crypto-arts, that can all sound a bit, well, cryptic. Though the benefits for players of incorporating this technology are easier to understand. It seems often overlooked how much power publishers have over in-game economies.
Take Hearthstone for instance - players purchase digital cards with real money, but they don’t actually own these cards as their use is merely licensed by Blizzard, the publisher. In fact, Hearthstone doesn’t even let players trade amongst their friends, instead requiring each user to obtain cards solely through purchasing packs.
For a game that is known to cost players hundreds (or thousands) of dollars annually to keep up with, all these purchases have to be written off once they decide to stop playing the game. The ability for players to buy and sell in-game assets amongst each other, known as real world trade, is often cited by publishers as detrimental to the gaming experience because those with financial resources can, in theory, advance faster than those without. However, this argument is flawed in most cases as the same advancements can be accomplished through in-game purchases. The real impact is lost revenue for the publisher, as it removes their monopoly and instead enables players to purchase assets off each other.
One might ask next, why do we need blockchain technology if the issue lies in publisher policies? Isn’t the solution as simple as allowing real world trade? To answer this, look at Diablo 3, a game published by Blizzard in 2012. Diablo had what was known as The Auction House, a feature where players could trade the loot they farmed in game for real-world cash.
In 2014, Blizzard shut down The Auction House, explaining how it was “undermining Diablo’s core game play”, a pretty significant move if you were one of the many players that owned thousands of dollars in game assets. The take away? So long as the publisher holds licensed control of the items, players are at their mercy.
This is where non-fungible tokens and the blockchain come in.
With NFTs, players have absolute ownership of game assets as they don’t live within the companies database. Anybody can send an NFT without that power being revoked. Anybody can create a secondary exchange providing a medium for trade. The code which determines how the publisher can alter these assets is immutable - it can’t be changed retroactively. Publishers can’t take away a players items. Players can see an entire items history - when it was created and who owned it. Other games can make use of these assets, allowing an item in one game to be usable in another. And because of the blockchain’s transparency, the number of a particular asset in existence, its scarcity, can be proven.
In Gods Unchained, this means if you purchase a card, you own it, not the publisher.
What’s most alluring for TCG lovers is the market economy this creates. Cards are fully-tradable. This means anything that is purchased in-game can be resold, and if a player spends time accumulating cards through winning games, it can actually become profitable for them to play. Gaming is no longer a sunk cost, and now TCGs have the ownership rights of a paper medium combined with the real-time benefits that a digital context offers.
Trading card games are at the very foundation of modern gaming communities. When MTG started all the way back in 90s who could have predicted the breadth of its reach.
Over the decades, as technologies have changed, so too has the genre evolved. Now Gods Unchained is set to kick off yet another evolution in a game style loved by so many. Indeed, in times like these, one finds oneself transported back to Milwaukee in 1993, when it all began, when the world discovered TCGs.
When it discovered, in short, magic.