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Game-On!: TCG's, CCG's, and Hearthstone

Jan 11, 2015 10:00AM ● By Kieran Gilman

Deck Building in Heartstone

“What is the difference between a TCG (Trading Card Game) and a CCG (Collectible Card Game)?  Why are some cards so expensive?”

-Based on a Conversation with a Friend

Historically, there is none.  But it can be argued that allowing card trading between players gives individual cards value determined by the players themselves.  However, most CCGs do allow card trading, regardless of the word being missing from the term.

Both TCGs and CCGs are card games where players build decks of cards out of an available card pool.  These cards are usually obtained by buying booster packs, intro decks, and through trading with other players.  Cards also have assigned rarities, designating how often a player is likely to see one when they open a pack.  Example of these games are Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering, Nintendo’s Pokémon Trading Card Game, and Konami’s Yu-Gi-Oh! (I often refer to these as the “Big Three”, as they are easily the three most popular TCG/CCGs currently running).

These games also have a huge second hand market.  Players will often sell individual cards to each other or to dedicated stores.  Stores who buy these cards will then sell them to other players either on location, or through the use of websites such as TCGPlayer.  In fact, online stores have simply made the second hand market stronger.  Because some cards are rarer and more popular than others, supply and demand has caused some cards to be worth quite a bit of money.  MtG’s most expensive card, Black Lotus, fetches upwards of $5,000.  

Of course, because card popularity plays a huge role in the second hand value of these cards, players will sometimes see common cards becoming more expensive than some of the rarer ones.  In Yu-Gi-Oh!, Forbidden Lance, a common card, once rose to about $15 per card, more expensive than some of the less-used rares.

The creators of these games have the choice of whether to support the second hand market or to hinder it, depending on the game’s audience.  Wizards of the Coast generally supports MtG’s second hand market.  MtG’s audience is also older than that of Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh!.  Konami, however, will actively bring the price of individual Yu-Gi-Oh! cards down if they are getting too expensive.  Some of the more popular rares will sometimes hit $100 on the second hand market on release, and Konami will bring this down by reprinting the card as a common, thereby making it more widely available to the public.

MtG was one of the first of these games (certainly the first to achieve such popularity), established in the early 1990’s by Richard Garfield and bought by Wizards of the Coast.  In it’s patent, MtG is described as a “Trading Card Game”.  Because of this, it could be said that any card game that isn’t owned by WotC is a CCG.  However, WotC doesn’t own the term TCG, and both Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! describe themselves as TCGs.  For the most part, the difference between the terms is a matter of copyrights and marketing, not gameplay.

There are some anomalies though.  Recently, I’ve been playing Blizzard Entertainment’s new CCG Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.  As a friend pointed out, it is a game that cannot be described as a TCG, as there is no card trading between players.  It is an entirely online freemium (free-to-play, but with in game purchases available) card game.  All the cards can be collected without spending a dime, but spending real money makes it easier.  While cards in Hearthstone have rarities, making some harder to obtain than others, individual cards don’t have value because there is no trading between players.  As my friend pointed out, one of the things that makes a TCG a TCG is that the cards themselves do have value, especially when that value is defined by the players on the second hand market.

What Hearthstone does allow is card crafting.  Players can disenchant unwanted cards to dust, which can then be used to craft specific cards.  The dust value of a card depends on it’s rarity.  So, each rarity does have a dust value.  But dust doesn’t convert into gold, the in-game currency, at any point in the game.  If Blizzard were to ever allow for players to buy dust with gold, which can be bought with real money, then cards would gain real value, but strictly based on their assigned rarities.  Cards would still have no player-assigned values, which is exactly what trading between players adds.

But if Blizzard were to ever allow for players to buy dust with gold, it would also ruin the simple elegance that is Hearthstone.  Hearthstone is a fun, addictive CCG that is incredibly simple compared to other card games, but still insanely strategic when you start getting into it.  And best of all, it’s free.

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