Being a geek implies many things. You still like cartoons even though you pay taxes, video games are a qualified form of art, and lords have mercy if you try and discuss your hobbies at the water cooler. You’re also required by law to think Star Wars is cool or they come and take your badge away.
Being a geek from the 80’s or 90’s also has one more commandment. When you were growing up you played trading card games! These things were everywhere, you couldn’t visit the supermarket without being awed by the colourful shiny wrappers for things your parents KNEW were a waste of money but you couldn’t be talked out of it. My younger days, like so many, were surrounded in the most addictive drug sold to children… cardboard.
But man did we love it. I played anything I could get my hands on and (tried) to be a collector. Of course having no disposable income at the time did make that a damn sight harder.
Why did I get so hooked? Well a part of me blames that on my fascination with toys and board games. Another part of me thinks back to that first pack of cards I ever opened, and just so happened to pull out a Shiny Charizard card. Which I still have to this day packed away somewhere.
So the real question for today; Which IS the best collectable trading card game?
For this debate I will be excluding any of the ‘boxed set’ games that are becoming more and more frequent today. Games like Netrunner, the Game of Thrones card game, Dominion and so many more. These are entire sets of cards which don’t come in booster packs but are bought in expansions including every usable card in the set. If I might be so daring; this is a MUCH better system for players and means you’ll never be without the cards you need to have fun, and almost every game features interesting deck building mechanics and variation. If you’ve never played a boxed set game, I highly recommend going out and grabbing one today.
But now, let’s talk boosters.
As you’ve already guessed my first fixation was the Pokemon trading card game back when it launched around 1998. Like many kids I was more focused on the cards than the actual game and never played a proper match until I picked up the Pokemon TCG Gameboy colour game!
So what did I like about it at the time? Well the artwork was always really cool. Unique drawings or 3D renderings of monsters made exclusively for the card game. Sometimes they look more like street art than official pieces, and let’s not forget the famous Ancient Mew card which was drawn as a hieroglyph… including all its text! You literally couldn’t read the damn thing, but that’s what made it cool.
Not to mention the thing everyone wanted as a kid, Shiny cards! It didn’t matter if they were actually rare or not, that holofoil was everything when you were nine years old. This is a trend we’ve seen carry through to most card games since, with shiny cards upgrading the value of paper in thousands of sets around the world- but we’ll get to that.
So what do I think of the Pokemon card game now?
As child-friendly as it is and based on a nostalgic cartoon property most serious players wouldn’t give this the time of day. However it features some of the best core mechanics of any card game I’ve seen, solid deck building options and a very neat and tidy method of play. Added features like coin flips, card lotteries and tokens give it a very ‘board game’ feel which is perfect for the simple ruleset.
Power creep is not so much the issue as a Power Revolution. Cards of a decade ago are not nearly as viable as newer cards, mostly because the game has evolved and become something quite different since then; with new card types, energy colours and even entire rulesets coming in. New sets released today in the 2010’s keep power creep manageable, just with some cards notably better than others (isn’t that always the case?)
They’ve kept true to the old system of shiny and rare balance- for the most part- with some interesting exceptions. Anyone who knows the Pokemon games is aware that ‘shiny’ Pokemon actually exist outside of the cards, as uniquely coloured monsters. These have been brought in as super-rare cards, but with a cool gameplay twist. All shinies are actually re-prints of the older versions of some monsters. So the Shiny Pikachu from a 2016 set might have the text and rules of the 2009 set Pikachu. I think that’s pretty neat.
So what did I play after Pokemon cards got banned in all schools (everywhere) and the cost of new sets turned me away? Actually I hopped between systems for a while, and I dare say none of them quite matched up. So for the sake of today’s article I will present to you my three honourable mentions before the next ‘big thing’ took my attention!
The Digimon TCG. If there was one card game I wish more of my friends played as a kid it would probably be this one. Not just because I enjoyed the cartoon when I was a tyke, but because this became the most affordable card game of them all. As an attempt at competing with Pokemon cards these didn’t pick up as a fad and quickly became sales products- I still remember picking up a booster box for less than five pounds!
Sadly this meant the game collapsed quickly and didn’t get much of a follow up, which is amusing since the simple colour-matching gameplay of it strikes me as very familiar in the modern world of facebook and mobile app games. The artwork also lacked the varied and stylised touch of its popular counterpart, but the drawings were still nicely done (and no doubt used on a variety of other promotional material as well). Ultimately the Digimon cards were an imitator that didn’t have the star power of its competition, nor the star power of its publisher. But that’s not something I learned until later…
My second mention goes to the Dragonball Z Trading Card game. Yes, this was a thing. Yes, pulling a shiny Super Saiyan out of a booster pack is still the coolest thing I can imagine. No, I am not ashamed.
There’s not an awful lot to say for this one- mostly because its arrival in the UK was a short lived experiment around the time of the Android Saga (in the west). The cards were very simple and featured a rather clunky method of using separate cards for attacks, often with a quote from the series plastered on them. This was also the first example of ‘screengrab syndrome’ I noticed in a TCG, where all of the art is just ripped off the TV series, a trend that I’d see time and again among a lot of the lower-budget collectables.
It was crude and silly, but I still get the feeling a lot of love went into designing it. Even though it didn’t catch a strong international release, research tells me the game lasted a solid six years on market with no less than 18 expansions! It was eventually discontinued in 2006 and replaced a couple years later by the Bandai version in 2008 with completely different rules … and is still being played today! Good on you, Dragonball.
The last and possibly least of my three mentions goes to Monster Racher. A game and television series most people probably forgot existed and just got a jolt of nostalgia at the mention.
While the video games still continue to this day my introduction to ‘Rancher was through delicious booster packs. Nowadays finding information on the card game is difficult but I can express a nostalgic joy remembering all the weird variety it offered. Sadly a poorly designed system and insistence on screengrabs for artwork led to a quick decline that stole them off my Toys R Us shelves. Younger me mourned their loss, but perhaps it was for the best.
So what emerged after this long drought to quench my need to throw cardboard at my friends and yell ridiculous phrases? Well if that wasn’t clue enough, it was the shelf invasion that was the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters game. A name so embarrassing to say at a book store checkout I still can’t believe it sold as well as it did.
Still the most popular trading card game worldwide YGO pioneered the marketing goldmine that was launching cards based on a TV show… which was also about trading cards! A devilish strategy made all the more tragic when you know Yu-GI-Oh’s original run had nothing to do with Duel Monster cards, and was actually much darker and adult in tone. But money talks and the fandom walks, so today there are literally HUNDREDS of expansion sets for this game.
Personally I had the biggest involvement in the first five years or so, coming back later on to play in the tournament scene around 2011. To say the game underwent changes is an understatement; YGO is probably the most mutating card game in the world. Why? It’s not just because the television show has to create new important cards and strategies to remain interesting… though that is a part of it…
The card game never had rules to begin with! As in, when the show began and the basics of the game were demonstrated (and then adapted to real world cards) there was no official rulebook. It was made up to fit the needs of each episode, with some examples being frankly ridiculous.
Because of this so many old concepts were scrapped and the first dozen sets of cards are truly unusable! That hasn’t stopped them from cherry picking the few good (see; broken) cards with the help of the most complicated ban system in any competitive TCG. Why just have banned cards when you can have semi-banned, restricted and limited cards for each standard?
Its popularity can be justified though- more than just saying we were all teenagers once.
They have managed to squeeze a healthy amount of game out of the original concept, with various spell types that don’t just imitate the popular systems that came before. They also have free range to create weird and epic art for each card, probably the best stylised since the original Pokemon card run! If I had to speak honestly though, it stands out more for its negatives than positives.
Because it began life as a pretend card game it had to retrofit long and complicated rules into most of its cards. Because it needed to build a brand in an oversaturated market it relied on speculators and collectors, issuing FAR too many ‘rare’ editions of its products; Shinies, holo shinies, star shinies and so many more… the apex of which are GHOST shinies- artwork printed entirely in silver to the point you almost can’t see the image! And ultimately, it’s greatest issue, power creep.
Yu-Gi-Oh! has suffered more from power-creep between editions than World of Warcraft. If you’re playing casually this won’t bring you down, but for anyone who prides in collecting or showing off at tournaments this means every new release will be a reset from zero.
Though it is the most popular of card games in stores today, for these reasons and more, I cannot award Yu-Gi-Oh! the crown for TCG’s.
As a side note, one of the few games I was introduced to but never indulged was Cardfight Vanguard- which exploded in Japan and the US but bombed in Europe. In find myself in group B, as it didn’t take long before I wrote off the game as ‘Not for me’.
On the surface there is a lot to like in Vanguard; It’s method of play is one of the strangest you’ll find among card titles, there are several stylised factions to indulge in (including an evil circus) and because the card game and TV show were made in tandem neither restricted the creativity of the other. However there is one word that comes to mind when speaking of Vanguard- Overload.
The game takes the tropes of cartoon based TCGs and pushes them all to eleven. Too many rules, overdesigned cards, a rarity system requiring a flowchart and so much text on one piece of cardboard people without 20/20 vision will have trouble playing it- which is a problem when marketing toys to nerds. Ultimately the same drawbacks that apply to Yu-Gi-Oh! also darken the waters here.
I can’t say that I dislike this game- but it’s a true testament to “acquired taste”.
With that we hit the tipping point. The time-tested monster that is Magic: The Gathering.
So what’s my exposure with this one? Could it really compete for the title of ‘Best TCG?’
My first attempt at Magic was when I was about fourteen years old and still casually collecting Yu-Gi-Oh!. I picked up a starter deck along with a friend from school and he showed me the ropes.
Not being able to direct attacks, having to manage mana resources, only having twenty life when all the cool monsters had 10 or more in attack. I thought it was stupid.
That was young me, though. Back when wrestling still looked real and Sonic the Hedgehog released good games. So how has my opinion aged with maturity?
As it happens the elements that turned me off the game have returned as some of my favourite parts now that I’ve learned to appreciate design. Handling in-game resources to control the flow of the game is a graceful mechanic, and appreciating that bigger numbers on cards do not equate to your strongest tools is something that took time and patience.
The art style also has improved with new releases, moving away from the dull colour pallets of old and taking advantage of the digital age of artwork (and all the artists who can’t get work elsewhere). In fact I was shocked to discover this game launched in 1993! It’s so ingrained in geek culture I think of it being a game our parents could have played growing up. Or maybe it just reminds me of Dungeons & Dragons since they’re both by Wizards of the Coast- the Kling of Dorito fuelled Friday evenings.
This game does step into the traps of other collectables- with some cards notably better than others, and a reliance on a rarity system for better decks. In fact these can be considered the biggest downfalls of Magic and the reason many move away from the game. But if you’re willing to accept that playing in the pros is considerably more expensive than playing for fun there isn’t much else to complain about. Even shiny cards- the bane of some marketing ploys- are very reserved. With the occasional pack having a completely random card in foil. You’re just as likely to get a shiny swamp as you are a mythical creature!
MTG also has famous stories of ‘lost’ cards emerging and selling for tens of thousands. This isn’t the case any longer, since the hobby is now haunted by the boogeyman called ‘speculation’ which turned comic books from a collector’s goldmine to only so much paperback ink. (But I’ll discuss that another time). For some people Magic is all about the money value on the card. For most of us, it’s about the weird and wonderful things you can do with thousands of toys at your disposal and all the lego-like ways you can put them together!
Unless you have cards from 1993. Then we’re talking real money.
You’ll notice these are all TCG’s I first discovered before my 20’s. So, as an old and grouchy man, what was the last card game I picked up?
A little spectacle called Romance of the Nine Empires. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s not real. Not entirely. The only playable edition was the special promo release that distributed alongside the 2013 independent film ‘Gamers 3: Hands of Fate’, which followed the adventure of a jerk named Cass who gets roped into playing a TCG tournament at Gencon in order to win a date from a fiery redhead. The game they play is none other than R9E, a surprisingly fleshed out game featuring multiple factions, food and resource management, quest systems and unique heroes. The movie is great and you can watch the whole thing on their Youtube channel, and the card game is fun- if clearly an alpha model for something they hoped would take off. As far as I’m aware it never got much further than the promo sets, but it’s a delightful relic all the same.
As we get deeper into the early 2000’s people are moving away from the physical cardgames that were so rampant in the 90’s. A part of that may be because new alternatives are hitting the scene. I already mentioned ‘boxed set’ games that make buying boosters a thing of the past, but what for those who enjoy the thrill of random cards? Is there a modern interpretation for them?
In many ways, yes. A lot of digital games have stepped in to fill that gap, both as their own exclusive title and even as add-ons to existing products. While ‘The Witcher 3’s Gwent cardgame could be its own title it’s delightful to see nerdy TCG’s work their way into different worlds and settings, much like Triple Triad did way back in Final Fantasy 8!
The most proliferous game of this type being Blizzard’s famous ‘Hearthstone’, a mobile and tablet card game that uses very simple rules to create a smaller edition of the kind of games we used to see sold in booster packs. Of course they still have those too, they’re just digital (and sold for game currency as well as real cash). I spent a good amount of time with Hearthstone and found it to be enjoyable as a casual game; however it lacks the depth and deck variety to catch a hook in more seasoned TCG players.
It does however open the door for new games going forward- will they find a happy medium between the bloated table games and the minimalist virtual counterparts? I for one would love to see how the best of both worlds could change the landscape of games nights everywhere.
But that is the future! This is now! Which leaves us with the important question…
Who makes the best cardboard in the land? Or at least, which do I think are the cream of the crop when it comes to trading cards.
Speaking from the heart I believe there are two options- if you’re looking to play casually and have tonnes of fun, while also enjoying the glee of shiny rare things, the game you want is the Pokemon TCG. Its design is simple and beautiful, with mechanics that make it fun to master even if you aren’t a fan of the overall franchise.
If you’re looking to dig your teeth in deeper, get into some serious Nerding, then I call Magic: The Gathering the time tested winner. It has some of the flaws that ape all large-scale competitive TCG’s but the core of the game is still as solid now as it was in the nineties. Thanks to decades of industry knowledge they’ve managed to keep the game consistent and every new set interesting. With the strongest professional pedigree out there you’ll never be short on help with the tournament scene. The more expensive older-brother to the Pokemon TCG, but also the more in-depth, this is your pick if you’ll accept no substitutes in your card gaming.
I guess what I’m saying is- you can’t beat Wizards of the Coast. Much as we try.
So those WOULD be my choices for best trading cards… but there is another. Without doubt the most prestigious and long running trading card collection out there. A trading card game so beloved around the world it managed to pull off an international release in the 1800’s!
I am of course, speaking of Baseball cards. Now wait- put down your lightsabers and foam He-Man swords. I’m not turning in my geek membership badge just yet. Here is why the phenomena of Baseball cards is probably the coolest set of collectables ever, even if there isn’t much of a table game to go along with them.
We all remember stories from our grandparents about cards being sold in old bubblegum packets back in the day. Those were the forties when stuff like that wasn’t weird. But did you know baseball cards were a TCG as early as 1868? You read that right, eighteen sixty-eight! Originally they were given away alongside products that had nothing to do with baseball due to the sports increasing popularity and the cards being an easy way to promote their goods. Just imagine that- your new windshield wipers coming with a pack of Pokemon cards!
But no, not even official cards. These were cards made by the businesses that gave them away! Imagine something like that happening now, lawyers would have a field day.
Sports equipment outlet Peck and Snyder gained enough popularity with their cards to largely be considered the ‘first’ recognised set! Making their way into cigarette boxes and related tobacco products across America before seeing a Japanese release in 1898!
So yes, the first TCG had to be imported TO Japan, not from them. How bizarre is that with today’s market?
So what slice of brilliance has survived to this day? Baseball cards are still sold now, just over the counter instead of inside cigar boxes, and I dare say my favourite element is still alive now.
For a long time, much longer than we’ve been alive, baseball cards have included signed copies in rare packs by the players themselves. You might ask why this is important- but consider this.
You open a pack and find a Joe DiMaggio card (trust me, that’s a big deal) but not only that, it’s a special card signed by the man himself! Now you’ve got a collector’s item on your hand that no amount of holofoil can compete with.
The same is still true today, with the added bonus of ‘rookie cards’. Baseball cards printed with newcomers to the playing field who haven’t made a name for themselves yet. Meaning if you snag a rookie card with a signature on it, you’ve got yourself a lottery ticket. Will that player fade into obscurity, or be the next Daryl Strawberry? It’s a level of engagement with your collection no other card games today can boast.
And if you thought Jace the Mind Sculptor was expensive … Honus Wagner’s baseball card sold in 2007 for $2.8 Million.
Now that’s a card I would trade my Charizard for.