Card Games: The Digital Resurgence and The Future

With the release of Magic Duels: Origins, out at the time of writ­ing on iOS, and “soon” on XBOX One, PS4, and Steam, I feel like things are final­ly com­ing full cir­cle. Online card games have been gain­ing momen­tum for the past few years, but with Magic: the Gathering appar­ent­ly join­ing in on a true free-to-play model, things are reach­ing what feels like a kind of com­plete­ness. While I haven’t yet been able to try Magic Duels: Origins, so have no hands-on expe­ri­ence with how it works, for some rea­son it’s look­ing like this might be my cue to dip my toes into Magic again after an absence of more than a decade.

But that is only soon. For now, I want to take a brief heli­copter view of the his­to­ry of dig­i­tal and online card games. Where did we come from to get to a world where mil­lions of play­ers are using dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies to play card games? I’ll leave Solitaire, Hearts, Poker, and FreeCell to the side for the moment, although the his­to­ry of dig­i­tal ren­di­tions of such (folk) card games needs to be writ­ten at some point as well.1

Focussing on non-folk games, then, the main­stream his­to­ry of dig­i­tal card games start­ed with Magic: the Gathering,2 appro­pri­ate­ly enough. In 1996, Microprose pub­lished a dig­i­tal ver­sion of the game, includ­ing all the cards from the then cur­rent Fourth Edition set, as well as a selec­tion of cards from the orig­i­nal Alpha–Beta–Unlimited sets. Two expan­sions added cards from the phys­i­cal game’s first new sets, such as Arabian Nights, Antiquities, and Legends. Apart from incor­po­rat­ing the game’s basic duel rules, it fea­tured a map-based ‘frame­work game’, where a planeswalk­er wan­dered through the lands of Shandalar, bat­tling ene­mies and gath­er­ing new cards in the process. It was an extreme­ly charm­ing game — with an inter­est­ing early music-inspired sound­track — that allowed teen me to play with rare cards that by the time I had start­ed play­ing the phys­i­cal game had already become pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive.3 Interestingly, the com­put­er ver­sion of Magic: the Gathering also allowed for online play through a sys­tem called Manalink. I’ve never tried it, and I’m not sure if was any good, but the idea and ambi­tion to set up dig­i­tal card play was already present only a few years after the orig­i­nal release of the phys­i­cal game.

Gem Bazaar

Gem Bazaar, from the 1996 Magic: the Gathering game

What truly set the game apart from its phys­i­cal coun­ter­part, how­ev­er, was the intro­duc­tion of a small num­ber of cards that made use of a ran­dom num­ber gen­er­a­tor. You can see an overview of these cards on this blog on the Wizards of the Coast web­site. Few of them were truly pow­er­ful in the con­text of the entire card set in the game, but they made for inter­est­ing vari­a­tion and unpre­dictabil­i­ty. While card games already pos­sess an inher­ent ran­dom­ness through shuf­fling, and early Magic sets had intro­duced cards that demand­ed flip­ping coins or even cards, these digital-only cards added some­thing extra in the form of ran­dom effects that allowed for a wide range of dif­fer­ent out­comes and tar­gets in a way that would some­times be unwieldy to repli­cate out­side of a com­put­er.4 Recently, Hearthstone start­ed apply­ing this prin­ci­ple on a broad­er scale, being a card game designed for a dig­i­tal realm only, but we’ll return to that later.

After the 1996 Magic: the Gathering PC game, there appears to have been lit­tle in the way of online card play avail­able — again, besides online incar­na­tions of the most well-known games such as Poker and Blackjack. This changed for me around twelve years ago when I dis­cov­ered GCCG (Generic Collectible Card Game) in col­lege. This pro­gram serves as an online plat­form that pro­vides vir­tu­al tables for card games, as well as a data­base for play­ers’ vir­tu­al card col­lec­tions. The pro­gram sup­ports a vari­ety of games, includ­ing pop­u­lar ones such as Magic and Pokémon, and also includ­ing games like the Star Wars CCG (19952001) and Middle Earth CCG (19951998).5 Few of the indi­vid­ual games’ rules are actu­al­ly enforced by the pro­gram: play­ers have to take care of that them­selves and there­fore already be famil­iar with the rules of the phys­i­cal games prop­er. However, GCCG does sim­u­late the basic manip­u­la­tions need­ed for play: mak­ing a deck, draw­ing cards, putting them in and out of play, etc.

What makes GCCG attrac­tive, next to its online play func­tion, is the col­lec­tion sys­tem. Playing games always rewards both play­ers with vir­tu­al money, which can be used to buy card packs and the like. There is also a mar­ket­place sys­tem where play­ers could sell indi­vid­ual cards from their col­lec­tion, again for vir­tu­al money. However, there is no con­nec­tion between these vir­tu­al col­lec­tions and any real-life col­lec­tions play­ers might already have. Finally, the pro­gram allows for a sealed deck mode, in which play­ers con­struct a deck from small amount of card packs, rather than their usual col­lec­tion.6

As an aside, card games have fea­tured as mini-games with­in other games for quite a while as well. Most often, these are well-known games like Poker or vari­ants of those. But some games devise new games to liven up their over­ar­ch­ing game world. The Knights of the Old Republic series intro­duced Pazaak, which is sim­i­lar to black­jack, but with a wide range of cards that can manip­u­late your cur­rent score. Other exam­ples include Caravan in Fallout: New Vegas, and the recent Gwent in The Witcher 3.

A cou­ple of years ago, I stum­bled across a game made by Finnish stu­dio Kyy Games called Cabals. The game, which is themed around occult secret soci­eties, com­bines a col­lectible card game approach with board-based posi­tion­al play and zone con­trol rules. These are all great con­cepts and the game was quite inter­est­ing to play, but to get any cards beyond the basic ones and a cou­ple of packs seemed pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive to me at the time. I had stopped play­ing Magic for a rea­son, after all. That said, a lot things about Cabals are ground­break­ing, in hind­sight. First of all, it was an orig­i­nal dig­i­tal card game, not based on a phys­i­cal coun­ter­part. In addi­tion, it pio­neered a freemi­um model for online card games, some­thing which by now we almost take for grant­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly when think­ing of our next game:

There’s no doubt that it was Blizzard’s Hearthstone that brought dig­i­tal card games to a whole new audi­ence when it was launched in 2014. While Hearthstone main­ly uses a creature-and-spell-based rule sys­tem, sim­i­lar to but sim­pler than that of Magic, it also uses slight ele­ments of posi­tion­al play — cards that are next to each other some­times influ­ence each other — and adds a dol­lop of cards with ran­dom effects, like the ones intro­duced in the 1996 Magic game, although in Hearthstone there are many more, and they are much more cen­tral to the (meta-)game as a whole.

If at first there seems any­thing awk­ward about play­ing card games on a com­put­er (or a phone or tablet), it does help one reflect on the nature of card games them­selves. For the past thou­sand years or so — a rough approx­i­ma­tion of the known his­to­ry of card games — rec­tan­gles or other reg­u­lar shapes of card or bark or paper were sim­ply the best way of cre­at­ing a set of inter­change­able objects which could be marked to give them a par­tic­u­lar game value. A cen­tral fea­ture of a card game is, of course, that the indi­vid­ual cards need to be indis­tin­guish­able on their back, so as to intro­duce ran­dom­ness through igno­rance of what is com­ing up in your own deck, that of your oppo­nent, and of which cards your oppo­nent is hold­ing. But these func­tions are not lim­it­ed to phys­i­cal cards. In a vir­tu­al world, we can rep­re­sent all these inter­act­ing game objects just as well.

Finn and Jake playing Card Wars

Finn and Jake play­ing Card Wars

It is prob­a­bly for famil­iar­i­ty’s sake that these objects still have the shape of cards in games like Hearthstone. Especially once played, such ‘cards’ could just as well give up their card form and trans­form into full-scale dig­i­tal mod­els of what they rep­re­sent (an orc war­rior, a gnomish fly­ing machine) rather than sim­ply an illus­tra­tion with a bor­der. In typ­i­cal style, the show Adventure Time imag­ined some­thing quite like that in the episode Card Wars [https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​P​r​W​V​4​H​e​m​fio], where Finn and Jake play a card game whose cards also pro­duce 3D holo­graph­ic effects on their game table. Of course, this fic­tion­al card game has since spawned actu­al spin-off games, both a ver­sion using phys­i­cal cards, and a vir­tu­al ver­sion.

Though these lat­ter thoughts sug­gest that card games are actu­al­ly a par­tic­u­lar instance of ‘modal obscur­able inter­ac­tive object games’,7 I sup­pose we might as well stick with the orig­i­nal term and sim­ply accept that cards don’t have to be phys­i­cal any­more, and some­times not even cards. Maybe future gen­er­a­tions will have to look into the his­to­ry ‘books’ or ask their grand­ma why par­tic­u­lar games are called card games. The answer will prob­a­bly make them go “Wow, games his­to­ry is weird.”

In the near­er future, my first ques­tion is prob­a­bly going to be: will I final­ly, like a prodi­gal son, return to Magic: the Gathering, or will it be still be Hearthstone for me? A lot of it depends on how Magic Duels is going to turn out. Wizards of the Coast would be wise to take a few leaves out of Blizzard’s book in this case. On the phys­i­cal side, I’ve got some new Android: Netrunner sets to work through, and I have a strong itch to hunt down my col­lec­tion of the Middle-Earth CCG and get re-acquainted with it. Whatever the form, card games are here to stay.

  1. Anyone who feels the call is wel­come to pitch me at! []
  2. Which debuted in phys­i­cal form in late 1992, designed by Richard Garfield and pub­lished by Wizards of the Coast. []
  3. That said, there was one boy with­in my cir­cle of Magic friends who through smart and inde­fati­ga­ble up-trading man­aged to acquire a Black Lotus at one point. Collecting and trad­ing your way to one of those rare cards could be con­sid­ered some­thing of a para-game of Magic. []
  4. This was repeat­ed with ten new cards in the 2001 Sega Dreamcast Magic: the Gathering game, which was only released in Japan. []
  5. I intend to write more on the lat­ter, quite fas­ci­nat­ing game in a future arti­cle. []
  6. This is, of course, sim­i­lar to Arena mode in Hearthstone. []
  7. Sorry about that. I wel­come less unwieldy sug­ges­tions. []

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.