All in the Cards

Trading (Web) Cards


In a career riddled with mistakes of minor consequence, I look back at 1980 as the one blunder of colossal magnitude that proved me, beyond doubt, a hopeless dimwit.

While I waited with him in line for an event at Noreascon Two, the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, Peter Olotka, co-designer of the brilliant Cosmic Encounter boardgame, described a notion for a game that players might play while, for instance, waiting in line at a convention. “They would each lay out their own cards,” Olotka said, thinking it over, “and play them against each other, and the winner would somehow get the loser’s cards.” I pondered this, then said, “I don’t see how that would work,” and changed the subject.

In 1992, long after I blithely abandoned this 12-year headstart, Peter Adkison met at a convention with Richard Garfield. Adkison was a former Boeing engineer who had cashed in some stock to start his own little game company; Garfield was an amateur game designer and doctoral candidate in combinatory math at the University of Pennsylvania. Adkison, trying to scrape together the money to publish Garfield’s boardgame RoboRally, was looking for intermediate projects. Having not yet met me or Olotka, Adkison independently inquired with Garfield about a game suitable for convention play. Garfield thought it over and, the next day, proposed a game where each player has his own cards, plays against others, and the winner gets one of the loser’s cards. Adkison pondered this, grew excited and said, “This could make us a million dollars. Maybe two million!”

This is why a Boeing engineer revolutionized the game field and is now worth upwards of $50 million, whereas I scrounge a hand-to-mouth existence writing for online game magazines.

Those Were the Days
On the first day of the June 1993 Origins game convention in Fort Worth, Texas, as I sat with him at his small, neglected exhibitor booth behind unsold stacks of his roleplaying supplement The Primal Order, Adkison bubbled with characteristic enthusiasm. He showed me Garfield’s decks of Magic: The Gathering play test cards – laser-printed on construction paper with cheap clipart – and explained the concept in almost the same way Olotka had described it to me years before.

Along with Garfield, Adkison’s small Seattle company of six part-time gamers, Wizards of the Coast, had made several market assumptions. They hoped each Magic player would buy one 60-card deck and perhaps as many as six 13-card booster packs. Players would naturally form small groups (hence the game’s subtitle) and play one another for “ante,” a card from the loser’s deck. In every player group, the available cards would represent a unique subset of cards from the game’s larger universe; no one would have a clear sense of all the cards in existence. About eight months after they released The Gathering, Adkison said, Wizards planned (finances permitting) to release Ice Age, a companion “Deckmaster” game using the same card backs.

The next day at that Origins show, I stopped again at the Wizards booth and found Adkison even more jubilant than usual. He proudly showed me samples of the printed Magic cards, which had just arrived from the printer, Cartamundi in Belgium. I held what was, I believe, the very first printed card of the Hurloon Minotaur, which would become the iconic creature of Magic‘s Alpha, Beta, Unlimited and Revised sets. “Very nice,” said Hopeless Dimwit, oblivious to the tide of history.

Magic debuted two months later, at the August 1993 Gen Con in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I never saw the Wizards booth there, because gamers were packed solid around it, three deep, every single minute the exhibitor hall was open. They bought the first few thousand of the several billion Magic cards sold to date.

This isn’t the place for a corporate biography of Wizards of the Coast under Peter Adkison. (Shannon Appelcline offers a brief Wizards history on But to close off the story: Adkison continued to display his eye for talent, acquiring TSR (publisher of Dungeons & Dragons) in 1997 and, in 1998, English-language rights to the Pokemon trading card game, which ultimately proved even more lucrative than Magic. In 1999, Adkison sold Wizards to Hasbro for $325 million; he left the company at the start of 2001. He now runs Gen Con and wants to be Stephen Colbert’s gamer friend.

Now in its ninth edition, Magic not only dominates card games and the paper gaming hobby; it also looms large in the history of games on the internet. Magic reshaped net gaming, and vice versa. This caught Wizards off-guard. Adkison the engineer was, by the standards of the early 1990s, remarkably net-savvy; he secured the instant he started his company, long before most publishers had ever heard of a domain name. Yet the net confounded his expectations about Magic‘s players, and the players in turn bulldozed Wizards’ early plans for the DeckMaster series.

Magic: Even the Paper Game was Online
Though Magic was no computer game – not at the start, anyway – it became a huge “computer-enabled” game. Players quickly coordinated through Usenet to compile card lists, optimized deck designs and rules exploits. Everyone quickly learned, and bought, every card. Frenzied by a speculator-driven secondary market, players hungered for more cards. Magic‘s phenomenal success prompted Wizards to postpone standalone DeckMaster companion games in favor of expansion sets for The Gathering. (Ice Age belatedly debuted in June 1995 as Magic‘s first “standalone expansion,” and Wizards has since published 11 more Magic standalones.)

In the first years of the craze, imitators flooded the market with physical trading card games of widely varying quality. In 1996, inevitably, this bubble burst. Because it cost well over $100,000 to produce a trading card game, some ambitious small publishers created their versions online. These games, along with a few pioneering text MUDs, were the first to attempt business models centered on Virtual Asset Purchase. Unlike the small freeware apps players could use to play Magic over the net, such as Apprentice, these online-only operations sold nonexistent virtual trading cards. Purchasers could then play the game for free using a downloadable client. This seemed so odd, back then – at least to a hopeless dimwit.

The first online trading card game was Chron X in May 1997, followed by Sanctum and several more over the years. Some of these survive as labors of love, but only two companies have thrived with digital cards: Wizards itself, with Magic Online (though it is blighted with lag, bribery, security issues and frequent downtime); and Worlds Apart Productions, a Denver company that started with text MUDs (Eternal City and Grendel’s Revenge) before moving into online card games in 2003 with Star Chamber. Building out the Star Chamber technology as the Collect-Trade-Play platform, Worlds Apart hit it big with online versions of two licensed paper card games published by Decipher: Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings. How big? Hard to tell, but in a Denver Post article, Worlds Apart founder and president Scott Martins claimed a successful online card game can generate an average of $70 per player each month.

As that news article reports, Sony Online Entertainment bought Worlds Apart in August 2006 for an undisclosed sum. Renaming it SOE-Denver, Sony has set the studio to develop an online game based on WizKids’ “collectible strategy game” Pirates of the Spanish Main. No word yet on the fate of the Auto Assault digital card game Worlds Apart designed as a tie-in to NCsoft’s new MMOG.

Reshuffle and Deal
Sony’s purchase shows its desire to get into the online card business. “We are going to be integrating what they do with what we do,” said SOE spokesperson Chris Kramer in a Rocky Mountain News story about the purchase. “There may be a point in time in the future where not only is there an EverQuest II card game, but people playing in the (computer game version) of EverQuest II could go into a tavern, sit down and play the card game inside the computer game.”

SOE has already moved into virtual asset sales with its Station Exchange, launched for EverQuest II in July 2006. Online card games are a natural extension of this idea, but a risky one, as designer Damion Schubert noted in his Zen of Design blog entry “SOE Buys CCG Company, Clearly Up To Something.”

“[T]here will be a real temptation here to make a money game. Magic is a money game – they have a relatively small number of customers buying a lot of cards. This is a very different spending pattern than you see in a [World of Warcraft/EverQuest]-style monthly fee. The big danger with money games, if the history of all the Magic wannabes is any indication, is hitting critical mass – finding enough other players willing to invest into any given CCG [collectible card game]. The paper CCG industry averages one success every five years.”

We’ll see increasing convergence between online card games and MMOGs. This follows as part of the larger role that physical trading card games have assumed, as one more routine format for licensed media properties: lunchbox, videogame, trading card game. In fact, the first wave of physical card games based on MMOGs has already arrived: One based on City of Heroes appeared in January 2006, and World of Warcraft and EVE Online card games are due in late autumn. If any of these games sell well (the City of Heroes card game has so far roused little fanfare), we may see events in the online world reflected in the card game expansions, and vice versa. The companies may offer cross-promotions: Send in these three rare cards and get a prized virtual item for your online character; complete this quest and earn a coupon for a free booster.

Beyond that, I wouldn’t care to speculate, having already proven myself a dimwit.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

About the author