july 6: yeah yeah gimme til monday. june 29 1996: those darn trading card games

ook around in mainstream culture and it seems like everyone who has actually heard of trading card games is irritated with them. For those unfamiliar with Magic: The Gathering, which started the whole genre, it's a strategy game in which two players, each with their own deck of collectible game cards, face off with monsters, spells, and circumstances until one of them dies or runs out of cards. The game's crystal-clear, medium-complexity structure (a starter deck comes with an adorable little 32-page rulebook) makes it easy to expand or change by changing the cards in your deck. And here's where it gets just a bit dicey: expand it does, with "booster packs" of 15 cards (or fewer, in some games) going at $2.50 a piece, individual rare and powerful cards going for prices as high as $200 for certain out-of-prints, and about two "expansions" a year—new sets of cards sold only in booster packs which hardcore players put in advance orders to purchase in entire point-of-purchase display boxes.

back to the present...

when is theft art?

Magic: The Gathering is referred to as "Cocaine, the Addiction" and related names by many counter-culture detractors. Magic became the site of a clash between two previously insulated subcultures within analog geek culture: the gamers (Dungeons & Dragons nerds) and the comic book kids (a group which already had considerable overlap with card-collecting culture). Some Magic players from the comics-and-cards side were even young enough to be into pogs as well - a trend which has since died, to the great relief of the older gaming crowd. (If you're not familiar with pogs, count yourself lucky; suffice it to say that pogs were collectible and sometimes referred to as milk caps in the mainstream world, that gameplay basically privileged the richest and most brutish kid on the block, and unlike Magic, you got to walk away with winnings from the collections of your opponents.)

The main criticism levelled against Magic is that it's impossible to beat the big boys unless you spend hundreds of dollars on cards. However, the game's publishers, Wizards of the Coast, and its supporters are quick to argue that a great player with a starter deck can beat a fair player with a monstrously expensive deck full of rare cards. Is this true? Sort of, yeah, but not really. It's hard to find players who have expensive decks and only fair skills. Last year, Wizards of the Coast released the Ice Age expansion as a standalone, with starter decks of its own, because Magic tournaments and game-convention events were so overrun with old-school players who had every $200 out-of-print rare there ever was, and the playing chops to back them up, that even the most (financially) dedicated new players couldn't compete. (WotC now sanctions Magic tournaments that only allow cards from the Ice Age set and later, to give relative newcomers at least half a shot.) This wouldn't be an issue if Magic were like chess or go, and was public-domain. However, Magic is also a text - an issue I'll come back to - which describes a fantasy world in card-sized chunks of description and quotes. So it has to be a "sole-source," one-publisher game, like Monopoly. So all the money that gets poured into it goes straight to Wizards of the Coast - "a sport that only the publishers win," as someone said in the last Factsheet 5. (Actually, there are multiple-sponsor professional tournaments now, with rather large cash prizes, so you might say the publishers are giving something back. Do I use parentheses too much?)

Although the TCG trend is not as fevered as it was this time last year, when cheap speculative games based on movie properties were coming out every other week, there are still a lot of rabid Magic players out there. What is it, exactly, that makes "Cocaine: the Addiction" so addictive?

A trading card game is a hypertext. Each card carries a piece of the story, or more accurately, a piece of the world in which the game takes place. A new player gets a good-sized grounding in the game (usually starter decks contain basic starter cards that don't appear in boosters, where they're replaced by fancier stuff), but many of the basic cards contain allusions to cards the player might not own, either in their "flavor text" or in their actual rule text. The fragmentary, expandable nature of the games makes them easy to get caught up in, since it's easy to learn more: just go out and get more cards. My brother and I got a Netrunner deck recently (a new game from the designer of Magic, Richard Garfield), and after looking through the cards and playing a few games, I found myself wanting to pick up a few boosters, even though I had my doubts about the game's flexibility and long-term viability, not much of the art was very interesting, and I had no money. I just wanted to see what else was out there.

Stuart Moulthrop quotes from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in his article "Polymers, Paranoia, and the Rhetorics of Hypertext," and then elaborates further: " ‘the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination - not yet blindingly One, but at least connected....' (703). This is not exactly clinical psychosis (the syndrome Pynchon has in mind is chemically induced), but rather a transcendental enlightenment, another way of knowing". This is something like what's going on in the head of the TCG enthusiast. (My own game of choice, Illuminati: New World Order, in which paranoia is a word to live by, made several references in its first edition to a card that didn't even exist until the first expansion came out.) Or you could go from a passing comment Douglas Coupland made in Microserfs about role-playing games like D&D being all about "adolescent boys roaming in packs in search of identity" (that's a paraphrase), and extrapolate: the young player of trading card games is only as complete as his card collection.

Any paranoia the Magic player might have is entirely justified: there really is someone behind the scenes, calling all the shots. In fact there are several someones, at Wizards of the Coast, led by a particular someone, a former math professor by the name of Richard Garfield. Garfield is an interesting character. He's applied variations on Magic's deviously simple framework in two other card games since (Vampire: the Eternal Struggle and Netrunner, both based on licenses from role-playing game companies), he designs interesting little side projects now that Magic's success has allowed him to do so, and he writes a column, "Lost In The Shuffle," in WotC's now-monthly Duelist magazine. "Games could be as big as the movies," he writes in Duelist #8. "When people are looking for somethingfun to do, games are often dismissed because many people say they don't like to play them. In fact, I've found that people who claim not to like game-playing often really enjoy themselves when invited to play the right game." In addition to his regular semi-promotional pieces on the design of whatever he's released most recently (not a problem; I find the game design process fascinating to read about), he has an abiding concern with the position of games in different parts of world culture, and their future as an art form. In Duelist #7 he writes, "I plan to continue developing a critical language for games, a task I consider a lifetime's work. Through the development of this language, I hope to see gaming become a vital part of our world rather than a ninety-pound weakling on the beach of entertainment."

What is meant by critical language is simply, what criteria we use to judge the quality of a game. Whether or not it's fun to play is not enough - hell, pogs were probably fun to play. Garfield cites replay value (which I would index to the dollar value of a game - but everyone's got different tastes as to what they'd be willing to pay for what kind of experience) and something he calls "kingmaking" - an abundance of players in a group game who can't win, but can decide who does win - as two critical criteria. In the increasingly crowded trading card game field, you start to develop an eye for spotting a bad game without having to buy it and read the rules. Any game based on a major movie or TV property is likely to be collector-oriented, so your chances of getting a playable selection of cards in a starter deck are negligible. A game with too many numbers on its cards is likely to be a real drag to play. (There are a couple of baseball-based card games out there now. Batting averages. Woo fun.) If a game's cards look like they were produced quickly and thoughtlessly, the game design probably was too (but not always).

A good trading card game is a work of art on three levels: 1) the visual artwork and design of the cards themselves - the collectors' aspect; 2) the interlocking "flavor texts" and the creation of the world the game takes place in; 3) the game's actual, mathematical (eek!) mechanics. If a game has one of these three levels locked, it can mke up for deficiencies in others. Or it can get more complex than that; Netrunner is an awe-inspiringly well-designed system to clamber around in, but it feels a little confining, and somehow I don't get those mad, relishful urges to play it, the way I do with other games. Even the urge to play Illuminati, my game of choice, comes and goes, depending largely on who's handy to play it with (who isn't afraid of my massive card collection).

The culture of trading card games has obvious parallels (and considerable overlap) with diehard Net culture. Both are obsessive, nitpicky, immature, mature, packrattish, competitive, unconventional, and ultimately all about having a good time. A look at rec.games.trading-cards.misc or almost any game company's listservs will give you an idea of the huge range of activity out there. Or if you'd prefer looking away from that bright monitor for a while and physically getting a step closer to the cardstock locus of the action, try picking up an issue of the Duelist at almost any comic shop or (if you must) chain bookstore.

in other news...

Marathon 2 has eaten my brain yet again. It's part of the reason I had to bail last week. Richard Garfield also talks about how good games, or even bad ones, get more interesting when they develop meta-games - games surrounding the games. Sometimes the meta-game becomes more popular than the game itself - witness CNN's "Inside Politics" horse-race coverage, which is one whole step removed from anything that running the country is actually about. Anyway, Marathon has net games, and variations on net games, and reputations in net games, and best of all, level editing! But it'll be nice when Marathon Infinity comes out and we finally get a real editor.

Money is pretty dry, I'm only working two nights a week, and the web job market is looking like it'll disappear right around the time I graduate. Am I doing enough with my life? Summer questions.

I take no responsibility for any mental or emotional trauma that may arise from inconsistencies in italicization or acronym expansion within this article.

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Wizards of the Coast (Magic, Netrunner, Vampire)

Illuminati: New World Order

Stuart Moulthrop (check his shit out! a theorist who walks the walk!)

Dungeons & Dragons (TSR used to be the 800-pound gorilla of gaming... WotC has now eaten its lunch. Maybe this is partially due to WotC's enthusiastic embrace of the Internet. Who knows. At least TSR's current site is bracingly honest.)



Tales From The Dork Side are copyright Mike Sugarbaker, email for permission to redistribute.
Updated June 29 1996