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.
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 (1995–2001) and Middle Earth CCG (1995–1998).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.
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/watch?v=PrWV4Hemfio], 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.
- Anyone who feels the call is welcome to pitch me at firstname.lastname@example.org! [↩]
- Which debuted in physical form in late 1992, designed by Richard Garfield and published by Wizards of the Coast. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- This was repeated with ten new cards in the 2001 Sega Dreamcast Magic: the Gathering game, which was only released in Japan. [↩]
- I intend to write more on the latter, quite fascinating game in a future article. [↩]
- This is, of course, similar to Arena mode in Hearthstone. [↩]
- Sorry about that. I welcome less unwieldy suggestions. [↩]