To be fair, Magic the Gathering has long held a monopoly on the majority of trading card games as well as a fairly successful online game well before Hearthstone was created. But in a way, Hearthstone is one of the first to bring what was seen as a niche community out and make it accessible to the computer gaming community. Let’s take a look into what was a community based around retailers, comic shops, and die-hard geek culture and how it made the transition to the new mainstream trend.
First of all, Magic the Gathering was in the fantasy genre and Wizards of the Coast is no stranger to fantasy. With a growing cult following of D&D, WotC had a market already primed for success. Second, the game had many cards and followed formal rules in play. Again, this is something the crowd from D&D would find familiar, not in the specific ready, draw, main, combat and end-of-turn phases, but in using references and interpreting rules to apply. Third, there was a definite variety of cards and play styles to be had in Magic. Differentiated mainly by color of the decks constructed, it was a system that is easy to understand, synergize, and iterate upon. Lastly, there was substance and depth to be found. From curating a deck, theory crafting combinations, playing optimal order of cards, to even poker-like table manners, competitions or casual players could spend so much time playing the game outside of actually playing the game.
So Magic really thrived around a community. Well, communities in a sense that all had one common collection of places that they were welcome, the local comic shops around the world. Such locations were the places where you could buy new packs of cards, trade cards, discuss the game, and just hang out among like-minded people. The communities often had places to play, hosted small tournaments, and were a meeting place outside of a home. Oh, and most places were mainly comic shops that would have hours of entertainment besides just the card games too.
While my mother didn’t get this whole card game thing, nor did she get D&D either, my father did understand trading cards from his generation’s baseball cards. He understood collecting, trading, and keeping cards with value. While he never got into Magic, he did empathise with the pursuit of such a hobby and was able to allay my mother’s fears that the cards were somehow devil worshiping (classic 80’s-90’s mother’s fears). But, in the end, she saw getting out of the house for social events to be better for me than just attempting to play computer games all day.
Some time later and after the internet became a thing for a lot of people, message boards and forums to Voice Over IP and games with easy multiplayer options came into being, so was the end to many Trading Card Games. After all, I played Magic, BattleTech, and saw the beginnings of Yu-Gi-Oh about the same time in relative order Rise of the Triad, Quake, and Counter-Strike. That, in a few words, sums up most of my childhood.
Now online games are the norm. While many still collect, meet, trade and play TCG’s now, it has become a smaller community than those who will launch a card game on their computer. So how did this transition happen, from the physical to the digital? WotC began Magic in cards, later first trying the format on the computer. It was familiar to those who already played Magic, and it did open up the hobby to new players, but it is not as successful as Hearthstone has become recently.
Well, it is not for play and interaction times as the TCG’s and their digital games and Hearthstone all are designed around 15 to 30 minute games. Perhaps it has something to do with simplicity. Hearthstone gives the resources by default, not like laying lands in Magic is hard or anything, but it is one facet of the game that is just not done. Tapping too as the Blizzard game streamlines that mechanic too. There is a bit less complexity in Hearthstone as the sheer amount of cards, combinations, and possibilities are limited by the time Blizzard has had to make content versus WotC. Cost feels like it has a part to play in it too. Players with a massive library of physical cards would have to buy, trade, and re-acquire cards digitally in Magic. This is different than Hearthstone with a card reward, creation, and ranked play which drafts cards at random. And then there is the meta-game. What are players seeing as the most effective and enjoyable plays, decks, and combinations? There is something to be said about a fresh game rather than being stuck in Revised and 4th edition thinking while Magic’s current iteration is ‘M15’ followed by ‘Origins’?
But back to the original question asked two paragraphs ago, I think the rise of the computer TCG’s is a success due to the times. People can easily communicate with each other, no longer have to drive to a shop to play, and do not need to congregate in one location to safely trade cards, tips, and strategy. Gone are the days of buying Inquest magazine to keep up with that is new and coming out, YouTube and Twitch easily cover much more material than one issue or series of magazines could ever hope to do. And we have changed too. In a way, we still have a community, a place and people to identify as being a part of, but we can now safely abstract it within the internet and have it still hold meaning.
I am amazed at the march of time and circumstance. From something that was so geeky to something generally accepted, to changes in how we socially identify community. And I cannot wait to see what comes out next!