TCGs provide a fascinating multimedia experience on each card

I’ve wanted to do an article about trading card games (TCGs) for ages – before the old blog went offline, in fact – but inspiration never struck. They’re difficult to write about because they’re a polarizing subject. Fans tend to be quite invested, so a broad article rarely appeals to them. It’s similarly tricky to find a topic that appeals at all to people outside the hobby. You either tailor your content for the fans or create something that’s boring to them that has a low chance of appealing to anyone else either. Not a recipe for the type of cornerstone content the SEO plugin I use keeps suggesting I make more of.

But I came up with a topic sure to alienate both the fans and people who don’t care but opened the article anyway. I realized that TCGs are a master class in the art of developing multimedia experiences.

Seriously. The cards are a medium that delivers content, and the games provide ecosystems of art beyond their cards that contextualize and build upon the worlds those pieces depict.

I find this so intriguing because you don’t need any of this, strictly speaking. To build a game, all you really need is an objective and a list of rules. Give me a rule to mark when the game starts. Give me something to aim for. Then, tell me what’s legal and what’s cheating. TCGs add cards to the mix, but all you need on them is more rules text.

Nothing about the way TCGs are played requires world building, character creation, commissioning artworks, or writing entire stories to contextualize those additional pieces of rules text in your deck, but almost every game has these things. It’s clear why. People make stronger connections with your game if they are interested in its world and relate with the characters. A sharp-looking card catches people’s attention, too.

Mandatory media: eye-catching artwork

Four cards from TCGs that show off eye-catching art.
From left to right: A special-art version of Mewtwo and Mew GX from the Pokémon TCG, Yu-Gi-Oh’s Koitsu, a variant art of Magic: The Gathering’s Lotus Cobra and Dash, Inventor Extraordinaire from Flesh and Blood.

Art has been a defining feature of trading cards since long before there were games to play with them. The earliest baseball cards depicted a team photo or an illustration of a player, and companies used them as inserts to make their products more appealing to consumers. In the early 90s, Magic: The Gathering introduced the world to TCGs with cards that featured illustrations to give them context and flavour.

The function of the art shifted when gameplay became involved. With sports cards, it’s basically the whole point, and the player’s photo takes up most of the frame. But in TCGs, art is there for show, providing nothing substantial to the card beyond aesthetics. In Magic’s patent, its creators acknowledge this. They write, “The illustration is not necessary to the playing of the game, and is provided more for the interest and enjoyment of the players”.

Despite its auxiliary nature, card art is a major driver of a game’s identity, and the thing about which players and collectors get most excited. Magic is known as a game of serious, realistic-looking fantasy art and I’ve seen fans bristle at cards that feature artworks in more expressive styles. Meanwhile, Pokémon is known for the array of art styles visible on its cards. I know many people who open packs of Pokémon cards entirely to enjoy the art. In fact, I was one of those people until I decided I should find something to do with the pile of cards I had amassed and began playing with them. But art matters to players too. It’s not uncommon to see discussions about which of a card’s many printings has the best art.

All this, and yet I know of no game with tournament-legal cards that acknowledge or care mechanically about the art. (Magic has a few cards that do this, but they’re in sets designed to bend or break the normal rules of the game and are not sanctioned – one of the sets is even called Unsanctioned.) Roughly half of each card is there for show and nothing more. Now that’s commitment to an aesthetic.

TCGs have a story to tell

Four cards from TCGs that include notable flavour text. Those texts are as follows.
Purrloin (Pokémon TCG): "It steals things from people just to amuse itself with their frustration. A rivalry exists between this Pokémon and Nickit." 
Qliphort Scout (Yu-Gi-Oh): "Booting in replica mode… / An error has occured while executing C:\sophia\zefra.exe / Unknown publisher. / Allow C:\tierra\qliphort.exe? …[Y] / Booting in Autonomy Mode…"
Fodder Cannon (Magic): "Step 1: Find your cousin. Step 2: Get your cousin in the cannon. Step 3: Find another cousin."
Back Alley Breakline (Flesh and Blood): "This is going to hurt your wallet more than your arm. - Doctor Mortimer, The Fixer"
From left to right: Pokémon’s Purrloin, Yu-Gi-Oh’s Qliphort Scout, Magic’s Fodder Cannon, and Flesh and Blood’s Back Alley Breakline all feature notable flavour text.

A related and similarly ubiquitous feature of TCGs is storytelling that places the cards in context. But every game seems to take a different approach to building its world and defining its characters.

Magic has an approach that stands out among these games. Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes the game, commissions short stories and novels about the characters and events depicted on the cards. These novels used to come packed in with box sets. Today, the story lives mostly online, though Wizards did publish an e-book and some critically panned novels last year. A new TCG called Flesh and Blood also tells stories about the game’s world and characters on its website. They’re a lot shorter than Magic’s stories and serve more as character summaries.

Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh are both licensed properties, but their cards often tell stories through their art. In the case of Pokémon, new sets follow the most recent video games, but feature their own background stories, as Gamespot reports in a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the cards get made. Those stories exist only ephemerally – through card art, copy on products and in promotional materials – but they can end up playing a large role in the game. My favourite example of this are the Holon sets from late 2005 to late 2006. They featured Delta Species Pokémon that had unusual types (for example, a Grass type Snorlax, which is usually Normal type) and cards that interacted with those Pokémon. But there was no video-game parallel to these weird monsters. It was all explained in a story unique to the TCG.

Those games are unusual among licensed TCGs because the company that publishes them also owns the copyright for the original property. Their game designers have a lot of freedom to iterate on the source material. There are many games, most of which have failed, that represent licensed, pre-existing stories without that freedom. Star Wars: Destiny is one. The game featured only cards that derived from characters, objects or moments from the Star Wars canon. Unfortunately, although it was a fairly popular TCG, Fantasy Flight Games cancelled it in January 2020. The company didn’t list a reason why it pulled the plug. (Although it did invite fans to the final world championships in May 2020 … ouch).

Almost every game represents elements of its story on some of its cards through flavour text too. That refers to writing on the card that provides no in-game utility, serving instead to build the game’s world. In Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Flesh and Blood, it appears in italics (in languages that use the Latin alphabet) toward the bottom of the card. In Pokémon, you’ll find stats under the art and a Pokédex entry from the games at the bottom.

Tension between form and function

Four versions of the Pokémon card Copycat.
Four printings of the Pokémon card Copycat (which I had to scan because there are no good-quality images available of the old ones). These cards appeared in the sets (from left to right) Expedition Base Set, EX Team Rocket Returns, EX Dragon Frontiers and Celestial Storm.

Art and story elements are just the window-dressing of cards’ main function: to deliver rules text to players. When you put it like that, it’s no wonder well over half a card is devoted to aesthetic considerations.

But that rules text makes up the game (most require nothing more than the cards and some dice to track numbers) and it’s important that cards present it in an accessible and aesthetically pleasant way. Cards that are ugly or difficult to understand alienate players.

Principles of good design apply here, but the art and story elements we’ve discussed pose a challenge. Card designers must balance those elements with rules text. In every game I’m discussing here, that means weaving them together to create a cohesive whole.

Look at those four Copycats above. At the top they communicate what type of card you’re dealing with, which is strictly rules information. Next, they give the card’s name, information that has implications on both rules and world-building. After that is prominent artwork depicting the character. Below that with equal weight is a box where you can find out what the card does in the game. Most have reminder text in that box as well, though the most recent printing has it off to the side at the bottom. The only one with a flavour element (in this case it’s the one with the red “R” that tells you this is a Team Rocket card) places that at the bottom, before the bibliographical information that credits the artist and gives you a set number.

That general layout, which alternates rules and flavour, is standard across TCGs and it’s not hard to see why. This design creates a rhythm that trains your eye to recognize where to focus during a game. You can quickly scan cards you’ve never seen before for all the relevant information. Or, if you just like collecting the cards for their artwork, that aspect is prominent too.

TCGs marry flavour and rules

Four cards from TCGs that create actions that mirror the real-world things they reference.
From left to right: Lillie’s Poké Doll from Pokémon, Broken Bamboo Sword from Yu-Gi-Oh, Floodgate from Magic, and Hit and Run from Flesh and Blood all create in-game moments that evoke the real-world things they reference (or the video game thing in the case of the Poké Doll).

While the cards marry flavour and rules elements through their design, they can also do so in how they play. Cards can be designed so the actions they trigger mirror what they depict. Floodgate above is my favourite example. When you lift the Floodgate (i.e. give it flying) or destroy it, it will deal damage to what lies before it based on the Islands you have (you know, which produce water-looking mana and apparently also literal water).

Magic has cards like this in nearly every set. Pokémon has less room to do it, but I found several item cards that mirror their video game counterparts. I’m not familiar with Yu-Gi-Oh or Flesh and Blood, but I still found a flavourful card from each game. Flavour is easy for players unfamiliar with your game to understand.

The most fascinating part of flavour for me is that you can easily build a deck that tells a story while as you play it. For example, you could build a Pokémon deck that includes monsters Ash used during a gym battle in the anime. I’ve even seen people build Magic decks that evoke other stories (think Lord of the Rings themed decks) by running cards that act as references to things from those properties.

Game over

The cards you use to play TCGs are multimedia experiences, but the fun doesn’t stop there. The items that exist around the gameplay experience (deck boxes, sleeves, playmats) can introduce even more media into the fray. And I haven’t even mentioned the digital clients people use to play these games, which can include animations and voice acting for important cards. Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on media-wise in TCGs.

Unfortunately, the pandemic makes them much harder to play, both because you can’t really meet up with people and because for some reason they’ve become a huge speculative asset class for people with a whole lot of money and little to do, making many of the cards financially inaccessible. Digital clients are fine, but they lack the face-to-face interaction that makes TCGs so special. Also, some of them have egregiously bad economies that make it more expensive to play online than in paper. That’s a post for another time. Also for another blog (it’s a great example of content no one but a diehard TCG fan would find interesting).

Do you play or collect TCGs? Reach out in the comments, on Twitter, or our brand-new Instagram page! I’ve yet to post any stories, but we’ll get there one day.

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