Tales from the Fireside – TCG, LCG, WTF?!

This week Campfire decides to lay his cards on the table.


Recently I found myself in an altercation with a friend over which were better: Living Card Games or Trading Card Games. Being tabletop gaming fellows and therefore somewhat civilised we resolved the matter by agreeing to disagree, but even as we shook hands our jaws were set and our handshakes just a few pascals short of turning into a thumb war. Obviously there was still some resentment between us and, equally obviously, for all their similarities Living Card Games and Trading Card Games were two very different beasts.

“Living Card Whats? Trading Card Whos?

Okay–and bear with me on this, because despite having my own column on The Little Dog Show website I’m no gaming expert–they work kind of like this:

Trading Card Games or TCGs are sprawling games in which players build decks from a vast and ever-increasing pool of cards. The cards are generally sold as starter decks containing everything you need to play the game, and booster packs, which contain a random assortment of cards you can swap with those from your starter deck; doing this changed its composition and accordingly the way you play the game.

Let’s say you and a friend are playing with a starter deck each. You both have the same cards, so whoever wins the game is down to a) your skill at playing and b) the luck of the draw.

You win a couple rounds each and decide you’re one as good as the other.

But what if I gave you a booster of, say, fifteen new cards, some of which are more powerful than those you already have in your deck? You swap them out, play another round and lo, you win! In any other game this would be cheating; in a TCG, it’s the way the game’s supposed to be played.

Your mate now buys a booster of his own–in fact he buys four, increasing his chances of finding cards better than yours. He wins the next round and you buy a whole box of boosters to put his deck to shame.

As you both build bigger card pools you realise there aren’t many cards left from your initial starter still in your deck; you have enough cards now to build multiple decks, each of which you fine-tune to counter anything your opponent might be building.

The regular game session that began so innocently now has the raging ferocity of a pit-bull spitting bees; things go further downhill when the game’s publisher releases a new set of cards to play with. Some of your most powerful cards are made obsolete–you’re no longer allowed to use them in professional competition–while the best cards in the new set sell for high prices online, where players have already found them and now auction them off individually. Perhaps you’ve heard of people paying £50+ for a TCG card on eBay; perhaps you thought this was a joke.

All the while you’re further refining your deck–in TCG lingo, making it ‘tighter’. As most TCGs involve drawing cards from a randomly shuffled deck it pays to have multiple copies of the same few cards, increasing the odds the you draw something useful on any given turn. Of course, if you want multiple copies of that £50+ card in your deck, you’re going to have to pay a hefty price for them.

Warhammer Invasion box art depicting friend of the show Gordon Bloodthirster on holiday in Skegness.

TCGs are big business. Loads of them have been released over the years, and while only a few have stuck around since then those that have spawned tournaments that offer big money prizes. Players spend a fortune piecing decks together card by card, and while their collections can cost hundreds, even thousands of pounds, it’s possible to travel the world winning high level tournaments and living off the prize money–just look at Justin Gary, creator of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer and guest on Episode 27 of The Little Metal Dog Show.

At first, Living Card Games (LCGs) seem very similar. They’re packaged in starter deck ‘Core Sets’ and have cards pools from which players build their deck, but rather than rooting for rare cards in random boosters, when you want a particular card you need only buy the expansion pack that contains it. You see, LCG expansions aren’t random at all: each expansion has a set number of cards which are all catalogued online. There are no surprises in LCGs and no super-expensive cards to chase down.

(Here I should mention that ‘Living Card Game’ is actually a registered trademark of Fantasy Flight Games–who currently produce four LCGs and have a fifth on its way–but there are other games like Blue Moon and Killer Bunnies that follow or have followed the same kind of expansion distribution as Fantasy Flight’s LCG titles)

As much as I like the gameplay mechanics of TCGs I could never play them properly. I hate buying booster packs filled with chaff in the hope I might get a card I want. I know this is where the ‘Trading’ part of ‘Trading Card Game’ comes in but let’s face it: us tabletop gamers are pack-rats. We build towers from game boxes, take over entire cupboards and never let a charity shop bargain pass us by. Some of us even have multiple copies of beloved games–Tichu, anyone?–stored just in case we wear out copies already in use. We don’t like getting rid of our old games so why trade away our precious cards when they’ll probably end up being used for coasters?

But there’s something almost narcotic about opening boosters. It’s a small-scale gamble, a cheap thrill that becomes expensive as you need more boosters to get yourself off. If you’ve never opened a booster pack, think of the satisfaction you get from punching board game tokens and imagine that one in every fifty punched will randomly reward you with chocolate.

LCG expansions don’t contain that thrill of the unknown; neither do LCGs have the same grand tournament prizes as Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft or Pokémon–if you get down to brass tacks they don’t even come with everything you need to play the game packaged in the starter decks. The Core Sets and some of the early expansions have between one and three cards of each kind inside them, meaning if you want a ‘tight’ deck made from three of each card, you’ll need to buy three sets containing the card you want.

Which sounds horrible when you put it like that. Having to buy three copies of a game in order play it? You’d have to be out of your tree.

2009 WoW TCG World Champion William 'Billy P' Postlethwait holds aloft the
grand prize of all the glass he can eat.

This is where my pal Jonny and I approached the games from two different perspectives. He’s a TCG fan who likes the idea of LCGs but finds their advertising blurb rather dubious: he thinks when it says you get ‘everything you need for a complete and self-contained game experience’ in a Core Set you should get everything you need.

Which I say you do. Forget all that nonsense about buying three of each set; buy a single LCG Core Set and you and your friends can play ‘til your hearts’ content, not realising there’s anything missing because as far as you’re concerned, there isn’t.

Jonny’s card-gaming needs are different to mine. Coming from the World of Warcraft tournament scene–where a deck that isn’t tight enough can cost you the match–these LCG sets and expansions seemed to be missing a third of their cards. With only one or two of copies of each card they were too random for high level play and therefore useless: they certainly weren’t ‘a complete and self-contained game experience’.

He also took umbrage with Fantasy Flight’s insistence that LCGs had ‘no rare or promo cards’ when, if you need to buy three of an expansion set to collect enough cards for a tight deck, the cards that only come only one per pack are considerably rarer than those that come in threes. Even though this is another thing inexperienced players won’t be concerned about, in this case he has a point.

But there’s a wide gulf between the rarity of cards in these early LCG expansions and those in a typical TCG. Buy three sets containing one of these rare cards and you’re done–by TCG terms these cards are common.

To contrast, a mythic rare card from Magic: The Gathering appears on average once in every eight boosters. There are ten mythic rare cards in the current block of releases–New Phyrexia–meaning in every eight boosters you open you’ll find one of these ten cards. I’m no bookie, so I’m not going to work out the odds of finding three copies of any one of these mythic rare cards in three consecutively opened booster packs, but by my calculations you’d have to buy two hundred and forty boosters to ensure getting the three cards you need–and as the cards are randomly distributed, there’s always a possibility you’d still not get the cards you were after.

A fat pack of Phyrexia boosters: nine down, two hundred and thirty-one to go...

I doubt even the hardiest Magic player would buy that many boosters in a single block; fortunately he doesn’t have to. There’s a healthy online market for individual card from the most popular TCGs–but there’s also the option not to chase rare cards, and only play with the cards you already have at your disposal.

Which is exactly how LCGs work.

But in case this isn’t good enough for you, in the past couple years Fantasy Flight have eliminated those few ‘rare’ cards from their expansions: every recent LCG expansion now contains three copies of each card, making it both cheap and easy to build a tight deck to play with, if that’s your bag.

There are other differences between LCGs and TCGs, such as the vastly different number of available cards and the frequency with which older cards are moved out of play as the game pushes players towards new product. LCGs have a much smaller card pool than established TCGs, and have a rotation much less volatile, with older expansions still in print, available for both purchase and play.

The thing that separates the two most, however, is you, the player: What do you want from a game? Personally I’m not interested in tournament play; I’d be far happier at home building decks from cards I already have and kicking back with friends while the world passes us by. If I want to get an expansion, I’d rather know what I was buying, and pick up only those expansions that sound interesting, that contain cards I think will be fun to play.

Maybe you feel the same way.

Or maybe you’re a gambler chasing prizes and thrills alike. Maybe you want to spend the last couple quid of your paycheck on a booster that might just contain a mythic rare, or spend the wee small hours sniping bids on eBay. You might want a card pool so large you have almost infinite strategic options at your command. You might want that.

Which are better: Living Card Games or Trading Card Games? There’s no objective answer; there’s only what’s right for you. I hope now you know the differences between the two, you’ll be able to decide for yourself.

You can’t, you say? You want me to choose for you? What, do you want me to tie your shoes as well–clear off!


Tell Campfire Burning what you reckon. Who knows, he may even respond! Email: campfire@littlemetaldog.com


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