The Living Card Game: Giving Collectible Card Games a Run for Their Money

In All, Blog by Mike Mihealsick1 Comment

WHAT IS AN LCG?

LCG conquest

“LCG”—or Living Card Game—is a term coined (and trademarked) by Fantasy Flight Games that describes a card game produced in a certain fashion.  The publisher makes a core set of cards, often including multiple copies of each in the same box, and then adds to that pool of cards with (frequent) expansions.  The key difference between an LCG and a CCG (collectible card game) is that the packaging for an LCG is not randomized.  Once you buy into the game, you have access to all of the cards, and you can build your deck as you wish to compete against—or alongside—fellow players.

It’s important to note that the term “LCG” can’t actually be legally put on the box of any games that aren’t published by Fantasy Flight.  Players will commonly use that label to describe any game that fits the template, but you won’t always find that tag on the box itself.

The LCG model has become increasingly popular over the past few years, but why?  How expensive is this going to get?  Are LCGs for me?  You have questions, and I have answers.

CARD GAMES ARE A BIG DEAL

LCGs are a horse of a different color, but to understand the appeal, there’s some groundwork I’ll need to lay out.  Let’s start from the beginning here.  I’ll be using Magic: the Gathering as the basis for most of my examples, since it’s the paragon CCG, but there are plenty of other similar card games out there.

Card games, in general, are a massive phenomenon—this is a simple fact.  Magic: the Gathering is now twenty-two years old, and continues to break its own attendance records across the globe.  The largest Magic tournament to date was Grand Prix: Las Vegas in 2013, boasting nearly 4,500 entries and an estimated 11,000+ in attendance.  Resale giant Star City Games hosts its own tournament circuit, holding a big cash Open event in a different city each weekend, in addition to over a dozen qualifying events at local game shops across the nation each week.  Thousands of viewers take to Twitch to watch these events.  Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Cardfight: Vanguard, and other games continue to attract a dedicated following as well.  Even Blizzard’s Hearthstone has gotten in on the action, and boasts a following of 20,000,000.

lcg hearthstone

“Jump right in! And while you’re at it, you should try out opium.”

The appeal of card games is that they offer a deep, meaningful experience that can be enjoyed at any number of different levels.  It all depends on your play group.  If you want to compete, then the inherent strategic depth of these games facilitate almost infinite room for improvement, no matter how skilled you are.  If you’re looking for casual fun with your friends, then throw together the cards you have lying around and see how it goes.  Even when you’re not actively playing the game, there’s always tinkering to be done with your deck, new articles to read, or new release spoilers to analyze.  Different formats of play, frequent expansions, and massive followings all inject these games with a vitality you just don’t quite see elsewhere.

THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT

So what’s the problem?  If collectible card games are so darn good, why doesn’t everyone play them?

Collectible and trading card games can be very expensive.  If you want a competitive deck to bring to a standard format Magic event, you could be looking at spending upwards of $500—often less, but sometimes much more.  Older formats that allow out-of-print cards can be absolutely absurdly expensive to get into.  A Modern format deck could easily run over $1000…a mark that’s surpassed by the cost of just a fraction of the 75 cards you’d need for an average Legacy format deck.

LCG hand

This opening hand is worth $917.94. And one of those cards is worth about a penny…

Other CCGs are less expensive, but they’re still far from cheap.  Granted, this expense is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the cards themselves are collectibles, and smart speculation could actually result in netting a profit.  If you could go back in time to 1993 and buy a handful of Moxes and Black Lotuses, you’d basically be the nerd equivalent of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II.

Additionally, constant support and expansion makes CCGs more replayable, yes, but also less accessible.  There are currently around 15,100 unique Magic cards at the time of this writing.  Quick, go read them all and build a cool deck!

Abandon Hope is the first card you’ll see. This is not a coincidence.

Abandon Hope is the first card you’ll see. This is not a coincidence.

It’s true, casual players and competitive tournament players alike really only need to be familiar with some of those cards, but it can still be quite daunting to approach.

Furthermore, elitism is a problem with CCGs.  The gap in skill between the best and worst player of any given CCG is exponentially larger than most other games.  If you’ve ever been to a tournament or event, you’ll have at least one anecdote involving a lack of general sportsmanship.  While a majority of players are perfectly fine people just like anyone else, elitism is a real issue.  It’s comparable with League of Legends or Starcraft—some players that take the game very seriously are, at times, less than fully respectful towards players who don’t.

As a result, there’s a large population of gamers that feel disenfranchised regarding CCGs.  These games are very polarizing—some people love them and spend great deals of time and money investing in the hobby, and some sneer at the very thought of their existence.

ARE LCGs THE SOLUTION?

This isn’t exactly an easy question to answer.  Yes, and no.

On paper, LCGs are fundamentally the same as CCGs.  They offer a very similar gameplay experience.  Players build their decks, they play the game, they grow as players, they adjust their decks and strategies, and they do it all over and over again forever and ever and ever and ever.

However, the culture surrounding LCGs is an entirely different beast.  First, LCGs are dramatically more accessible than CCGs.  I can go out and buy a core set of Marvel Vs 2PCG for $34.99 and own enough copies of every single card that exists to build any deck I want.  When the new expansion comes out eventually, I’ll go to the store, spend maybe $10-$25 to buy it, and I’ll once again own everything I could possibly need.

Right up until I decide I want to run Draxx in more than one deck at a time. And my flatmate decides the same thing. #YOLO…?

Right up until I decide I want to run Draxx in more than one deck at a time. And my flatmate decides the same thing. #YOLO…?

When a game like this is released, everyone is on an equal playing field, and therefore elitism is not as prevalent as it is in CCGs.

Even though remaining loyal to an LCG can get a bit costly over time, they are still far less expensive to play at any level than an average CCG.  The costs of these expansions are proportional to their value.  Producing a card game requires a great deal of development—from card art, to playtesting, to endless balancing.  The end result is, almost invariably, a new set of cards that truly enrich and broaden the entire game experience.  Just when the game may have been starting to get dull, it’s suddenly brand new again.  The best part is that new expansions don’t just give you a handful of new tools to use; they often actually give new context to some of the older, unused tools from earlier releases.

For example, if you’d been playing Android: Netrunner since its release in 2012, you’d have seen the entire game change and evolve in a fairly profound fashion.  Let’s say you bought every single expansion as it came out…you’d be looking at a total investment of just over $400, which won’t really appreciate in value over time.  Some tabletop gamers cringe at this, even though $11 each month is less than the cost of a World of Warcraft subscription, saying that’s just too much to spend on one game.  It’s absolutely true, Settlers of Catan would only run you around $40.

LCG Games

Because $40 is where we all draw the line when it comes to board games. Right? Right…?

But then what about expansions for Catan?  Cities, knights, pirates, seafarers, explorers?  Want to add a 5th and 6th player?  Suddenly, you’re up to about $350.  Even so, Settlers isn’t really comparable to any LCG I’ve ever played.  Settlers is a fun game to trot out at game night.  LCGs can be a true hobby—and, relatively speaking, a very inexpensive one given the amount of depth and engagement they typically offer.

This isn’t to say that LCGs can’t be played casually.  A core set of any LCG is the same price as your average tabletop game, and rule manuals typically include starter deck lists that you can put together and just jam out with your friends.  Many newer LCGs also include multiplayer options, generally up to four players.  I’d go so far as to say that many LCGs can actually serve the same function as a middle-weight Euro game at your weekly casual game night.  At least, they can if everyone is on board for trying out a card game that might be a little trickier to master than your average Lords of Waterdeep clone.

LCG cant be

Summoning Blue Jaguars can’t be all that much more difficult than recruiting warriors from the Field of Heroes. Right?

Tabletop publishers’ knack for gamecraft has translated very well into the LCG scene.  As someone who has played at a competitive level for many years, I feel like I’m in a position to honestly say that most LCGs are much simpler, much easier to understand, more streamlined, better balanced, and overall better games than Magic: the GatheringStrong words, I know, but it’s the truth.

So, LCGs sound like the land of milk and honey, right?  Let’s all go buy all of them!

Not so fast.  While I do love LCGs, and personally own several, the genre has its own set of issues.

WHY LCGs CAN BE TERRIBLE

They’re not terrible.  I love them.  However, I believe they suffer from a number of ailments that I’m not certain have a cure.

LCGs are a strange breed.  They somehow bridge the gap between hardcore hobby gaming and lighter tabletop gaming.  While this is an excellent and respectable endeavor, things get weird.  Let’s start it off with a bit of a mindbender:

The more successful an LCG becomes, the less accessible it becomes.  The less accessible it becomes, the less popular it becomes.  Breakout LCGs gather a fierce following, and fly off the shelves.  Publishers plan expansions ahead of time, and release them early and often to capitalize on the enthusiastic climate.  The problem is, the greater the size of the card pool, the fewer new players are drawn to the game.  With the cornucopia of options available on the market, a gamer in search of a new hobby will more likely head towards the newer LCG that people are getting into at only at $35 investment rather than go straight for Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game and spend $500.

Even though a core constituency remains devoted, LCGs often lose more players than they gain after the first year.  This is common in other tabletop games that lose their novelty as time goes by and bigger and better games are published.  In my opinion, this effect hurts the overall value of a hobbyist card game.  I feel that any game aiming to get its players so deeply invested should strive for the everpublished success of Magic and friends, and not settle for being built to spill.

I’m of a firm belief that all games should aspire to be the forever-mess on my table.

I’m of a firm belief that all games should aspire to be the forever-mess on my table.

When I find an LCG I like, I want to immerse myself in it.  In fact, as a hobbyist, that’s really the main appeal of an LCG.  It’s this constant puzzle, something I can think about beyond just game night, where I can challenge myself to become a better player.  But, if LCGs are supposed to be so prolific, then where are all the big events and pundits?  Why don’t Warhammer: Conquest and Star Wars: the Card Game have tournament circuits and strategy websites like Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon?  The answer is simple.  Third parties don’t profit as much by promoting LCGs like they do by promoting CCGs.  Thus, events, tournaments, and strategy forums are significantly less common.  Certain popular LCGs—Android: Netrunner comes to mind—have a borderline-cult following, and have a decent turnout at their tournament scene.  However, these numbers don’t come anywhere close to those put out by comparable CCGs.  The largest Netrunner tournament I’m aware of had 243 people.

It makes good business sense to offer incentives to keep people playing Magic, because the more people want to play, the more they’ll buy the cards.  It’s delightful that an LCG is more accessible and less expensive; however, once you’ve bought into the game, you’ve probably spent all the money you’re going to on it.  It’s a sad truth, but most game stores aren’t going to bend over backwards planning events just to keep you coming back every couple months to drop $10 on an expansion.

Spoiler: An LCG event will never look like this.

Spoiler: An LCG event will never look like this.

These things might not seem like they’re a big deal.  Some readers might have no interest in cutthroat competition or tournament circuits, and this is perfectly okay.  But, when a game reaches a certain level of depth, it becomes more than a game.  This kind of game, a hobby, craves a cultural outlet.  It needs people, opponents, teammates, and circumstance.  Without that outlet, the spark of interest in that hobby will flicker and die, moving on to the next thing.  To me, this is the LCG model’s greatest flaw: that the consumer knows each game, in turn, will eventually come to an end.

Is there a solution to this?  I honestly don’t know.  Publishers seem to be riding the success of LCGs while they can, and it actually seems like it’s a sustainable model.  With the frequency that new LCGs are entering the market, it’s exhausting to keep up with the flavor of the week.  Really appreciating an LCG takes a bit more of an investment than your average tabletop, and seemingly planned obsolescence hurts the genre.

Only time will tell if the trend continues, if LCGs go out of style, or if publishers can find a way to solve the problems with the genre and elevate it to an even greater destiny.

IS THERE AN LCG FOR ME?

Probably, yes.

LCGs, as a whole, tend to actually be very good games.  Their greatest strength is the fact that they’re…well, they’re fantastic.  Whether you’re looking for a short-term fling, or a hardcore hobby, there’s likely a good match for you on the market.

Hopefully this brief pros/cons rundown of the LCGs I’ve personally played can help you find a good match for your play group.

Android: Netrunner

netrunner

  • Great dystopian cyberpunk theme
  • Based on Richard Garfield’s 1996 CCG design, remarkable and innovative mechanics
  • Best-supported LCG, events common
  • Best-selling Fantasy Flight card game
  • Asymmetrical player roles-corporation versus the runner
  • Fairly complex; higher learning curve
  • Dozens of expansions, less accessible
  • No multiplayer

A Game of Thrones: Second Edition

lcg got


  • New, improved release makes now the perfect time to get into the game
  • Excellent multiplayer variant
  • Fairly simple, but very strategically deep
  • Rerelease made first edition, and all of its trillion expansions, obsolete
  • Cersei’s illustration looks kind of weird

Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

lotr


  • Cooperative game that accommodates team play
  • Innovative structure where expansions are new adventure packs
  • Can be played solo
  • …Cooperative game that accommodates team play
  • Often criticized for being too difficult

Star Wars: The Card Game

starwars


  • Second best-selling Fantasy Flight card game
  • Multiple routes to victory
  • Innovative resource management system
  • It’s Star Wars
  • Older release, less accessible
  • Somewhat less engaging mechanics

Warhammer: Conquest

warhammer


  • Fun, engaging gameplay
  • Intense, competitive struggle
  • Simple and highly accessible
  • Certain factions felt underbalanced
  • Overly swingy effects can be frustrating

ASHES: RISE OF THE PHOENIXBORN

ashes


  • Extremely simple to learn, but very wide decision matrix
  • Very fun dice resource system
  • Newer release, highly accessible
  • Graceful mechanics
  • My personal favorite LCG at the moment
  • Low variance could hurt replayability
  • Somewhat trite theme

MARVEL VS 2PCG

marvel


  • Very easy to learn
  • Newer release, highly accessible
  • Vastly improved from the 2004 CCG release
  • Fun superhero theme
  • Bombastic gameplay
  • Deckbuilding allows access to all cards, resulting in many similarities between competitive decks
  • Already in dire need of an expansion

CONCLUSION

The Living Card Game is a potent, dynamic line of games that has a lot to offer.  Some of my favorite games of all time follow the model, and I keep an eager eye on the market to see what new titles are being released.  The LCG is perfect for people who like a deep, challenging, stimulating game experience that extends past just the top of the table.  If you like CCGs, but you’ve been burned in the past by one, you just might find sweet redemption in an LCG.

Certain intrinsic flaws could spell disaster for the genre in the long term.  A lack of structured support and a market flooded with new releases may threaten to make a fad out of this trend.  But I, for one, am hoping that games like this are here to stay.

About the Author

Mike Mihealsick

Mike is the founder and a senior analyst at his web service, Coalition Game Studios. The Coalition works to provide tabletop designers and small studios with professional playtesting and quality assurance. Apart from that, he is a paramedic and pro-circuit gamer, has an 8-pound dog named Ser Gregor Clegane, and he has been to all six continents that aren't covered with ice all year.

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