Playing your cards right

Senior Arts Editor
Published January 7, 2009

Let me start off with a simple truth: “Magic: the Gathering” is the greatest trading card game (or TCG) of all time. You know why? Because it’s the original TCG — practically the first of its kind. Even though not every new trading card game around these days is an exact replica of “Magic”(I’m looking at you here, “Duel Masters”), they all follow the original “Magic” formula in some way or another. But that doesn’t mean these new TCGs are any good.

There have been some impostors that have managed to make a good case for themselves. “Pokémon” and “Yu-Gi-Oh!” cards both took some innovative steps — "Pokémon" had the energy card system, and “Yu-Gi-Oh!” had cards that could be played face-down to mystify opponents. But at this point, the new games are made up entirely of elements from preexisting TCGs. “Duel Masters,” for example, even stole the idea behind “summoning sickness” directly from “Magic” without even trying to mask it as their own invention. Worst of all, the general quality and content of the new games are tarnishing the reputation of the classics, like my precious “Magic.”

2007 saw tragic entrances to the TCG world like the “Kingdom Hearts” card game (yes, the video game where Disney teams up with Square Enix, the “Final Fantasy” developers) and a game based off of the television series “24,” where, in an attempt to be unique, players build 24-card decks and try to be the first to get 24 points. Overkill, anyone?

Last year’s offerings don't look any better, with the release of a professional wrestling TCG called “WWE Face Off” and a surprisingly late-arriving “Power Rangers” card game.

It’s a mystery to me how all these games get enough players to survive. You have to be a special brand of nerd to enjoy the papery goodness of a TCG in the first place, and with so many games out there, each gamer would need to be playing three or four different card games at a time for all the different games to be successful. And let’s be honest here: You can probably count all the “Magic” players who watch “WWE Wrestling” on one hand. In order to just break even, these games have to pull their consumers from somewhere. Could it be that these awkwardly-unfitting games are actually creating new TCG geeks? Should I be embracing these franchises’ attempts at nerd-pandering as a sign that my culture is now being encouraged by those who were once so foreign to it?

No, I shouldn’t. Sure, “WWE Face Off” might make a nerd out of a bulked-up bro or two, but that’s not going to change the TCG world for the better. It creates a dichotomy similar to what’s already emerging in video games, where all the first-person shooter fans think the strategy and RPG gamers are wimps, while the latter group thinks the shooter-players are essentially the dumb jocks of gaming. And honestly, if you’re playing a TCG about glorified bullies, that’s probably a decent indicator. But then again, I’m playing one about magical faeries.

Upon further inspection, the list of trading card games released in the last few years makes it seem like these games were never meant to be lumped with TCG culture at all. I just can’t imagine a “Yu-Gi-Oh!” player who isn’t a fan of the British sci-fi comedy “Doctor Who” buying a booster pack of “Doctor Who – Battles in Time” just to see what it’s like. The same goes for the games based off “Avatar: the Last Airbender,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Naruto” and “Pirates of the Carribbean.”

So it looks like we have two sects of card gamers: Those who are fans of TCGs in general, and those who can’t get enough of their favorite respective franchises. It also seems that, for better or worse, these two sects aren’t going to overlap much. The franchises don’t have to make strategic or original games because the fans are going to swarm to them anyway, regardless of how terrible they may be (and they’re usually pretty awful).

I, for one, am going to stick to “Magic” for a while. There’s a reason so many other games imitate it: It’s really well-designed, the flavorful worlds depicted in the cards are beautiful and developed and the game is just a whole lot of fun. So when you see me or someone else playing “Magic” (which is rare, as we usually do it in dark, secluded rooms and/or dungeons), feel free to consider us nerds. We are. But when and if you walk past a frat house and hear someone shouting “Where’d you get a mint-condition Stone Cold card?” please don’t put them in our category.