Reality, digital, and digital reality
As an avid player of both digital and meatspace collectible card games (CCG), I can’t help but be pleased by the explosion of new entries into this design space. Hearthstone is obviously the biggest name, but plenty of other IPs exist and many more are on the way. The old king of CCGs, Magic the Gathering (MtG), faces stiff competition from many corners. It is being punished for its years of digital neglect as MtG developer Wizards of the Coast is just now trying to update its online client into something humans might use. The temptation is to say that the proliferation of digital competitors means that MtG’s days are numbered. Magic certainly has challenges ahead, but its unique position in the physical world makes the game stronger than it would appear.
The digital case is a strong one. Adopting the powerful free-to-play model, digital card games are incredibly accessible in a way that the physical ones can’t be. A pack of Magic cards costs $4 whereas most digital CCGs will let the player grind for every card in the game free of charge. That’s a long and laborious process, but players can certainly grind enough to build a decent deck and compete. Particularly for new players, the ability to play without a major financial outlay means that there is little risk and little reason not to try the game. The cost savings don’t stop there. Digital CCGs do allow players to buy packs and those packs are cheaper as well. The lack of print and transportation costs means that a game like Hearthstone can sell packs for a fraction of the cost of a Magic pack and still realize a huge profit. Digital CCGs are more cost efficient for both the player and the developer.
The digital world holds two major gameplay benefits for CCGs. It’s 1) infinitely malleable and 2) totally controllable. To the first point, anything the developers want in a game, they can code in. The only hard limit is the imagination of the developers. Consider the piloted shredder cards of Hearthstone. When one of these creatures dies, it is replaced by another random creature in the game. With over 10,000 cards, a Magic player would need a massive collection to replicate such an effect. Hearthstone players just need an account because the program can do the rest. Along with the malleability comes the complete control over every card and rule at all times. One of the greatest challenges of any competitive game is balancing. Once printed, Wizards of the Coast can’t undo or modify an unbalanced card. If a card breaks the meta-game, then Wizards can ban or restrict it, but they can’t modify it to make it more meta-friendly. By comparison, a digital CCG developer can change every copy of the problematic card in a single shot. Everything is in the code. Change the code, change the world.
I could go on, but it’s important to see the other side of this coin. Digital cards may beat physical in a lot of ways, but the physical model still has legs on it. The first is the social nature of the game. Magic promotes the meeting of players by virtue of the fact that the physical game is unplayable without a human opponent. Unlike Hearthstone which practically assumes that the player won’t know their opponent, MtG allows people to get together and enjoy the game among friends. When friends aren’t available, Magic promotes Friday Night Magic which are locally run events designed to draw in players and build a community. Many players talk fondly of the friends they’ve made through playing Magic; something that is all but impossible in your average digital CCG.
The other enormous benefit to the physical card game is that it taps player creativity in a way that a digital CCG never could. While digital CCGs are incredibly responsive to the whims of the developers, they are completely harden to the whims of the players. Creativity is a one way street from developer to player as every rule is hard coded into the game and every card may only behave a certain way. Contrast that with MtG which has spawned numerous variations both big and small. One of the more successful variation, Commander, was created by casual players and has been worked into future Magic card design. The only way to incorporate this kind of creativity into a digital CCG would be to open the game up to modding. Modding might sound promising, but the creation of an open environment would cripple the competitive scene. Furthermore, modding requires a level of coding knowledge that would confine it to only the most committed of players. By contrast, the only requirement for “modding” Magic is both players willingness to go along with it.
Fortunately for me, I think there’s enough space for both digital and physical card games. They each serve a different, but overlapping, market that will allow players to enjoy both for years to come. Their shared existence may even serve as a mutual benefit to each other. Both types of CCG serve as an entry point for players who appreciate CCGs for different reasons. Once hooked, they may reach out to explore the other options and, in doing so, expand into another game.