World of Warcraft has a trading card game, and Everquest 1 & 2 now have the Legends of Norrath online trading card game integrated. Joshthestampede called it “cocaine wrapped in bacon”, and although bacon isn’t an officially recognized addictive substance, the image is clear. Both MMORPGs and trading card games have frequently been accused of being addictive, and the combination of the two is a powerful one. So how do the two trading card games and their integration into their respective MMORPGs compare?
Lets first have a look at what is similar between LoN and the WoW TCG. Both are second-generation trading card games, clearly developed by people who have played Magic the Gathering before. Thus they are using many of the conventions invented by MtG: You win by taking all the life points of your opponent, you play with a deck with some minimum number of cards, and some maximum number of identical cards. You draw a hand of cards at the start; there are creature cards, instant spells, and equipment cards. Every round you are limited by some sort of resource (power, mana) in how many and how powerful cards you can play. These communalities are far from making these two games into simple Magic-clones, but they clearly belong to the same family of games. Unlike Magic, but common to both games, is that you have an avatar with a character class, with this class limiting what kind of cards you can put into your deck.
From a gameplay point of view personally I wouldn’t judge LoN to be better or worse than the WoW TCG. There will certainly be people preferring one to the other, but it is hard to clearly identify any superiority of the one or the other. I found both games to be not quite as good as the original Magic the Gathering, but of course the first of a kind always has some advantage of loyalty. The MMO-integrated TCGs live of the card lore being familiar to the players of the MMORPG, while Magic had to build up its own lore from scratch.
The biggest difference between Legends of Norrath TCG and the WoW TCG is that LoN is an online game with virtual cards, while the WoW TCG is played with paper cards. The advantages and disadvantages of virtual vs. paper cards have been discussed since Magic the Gathering started to offer both versions. Paper cards have the advantage that you can stuff a deck into your pocket and play anywhere, without needing a computer and internet connection. They also have the advantage that the day the company stops supporting the game, you can still play with the paper cards you have. Virtual cards stop to exist when the game company shuts down their servers. But virtual cards don’t suffer wear and tear. And the major advantage of virtual cards is that it is much easier to find somebody else to play against. So to play the WoW TCG you need a friend somewhere near willing to play against you. LoN you can play anytime against strangers on the internet, or even against a computer opponent.
This difference between virtual and paper also has a big impact on the integration of the trading card game with the MMORPG. In both LoN and WoW TCG you buy boosters of cards, and you have a chance of finding loot cards that give you items in the MMORPG. But only for Legends of Norrath you also have the reverse reward possibility: You can play Everquest 1 or 2 and in the MMORPG find cards you can use in the LoN TCG. You don’t have that possibility in World of Warcraft; playing WoW will never give you access to new WoW TCG cards. This is a result of logistics: It is easy to have two online games interface, and you can print paper cards with a code for an online game on them. But how do you make an online game produce paper cards? You can’t just send them to your printer, and mailing you every reward card would be prohibitively expensive. So in integration Legends of Norrath has an inherent advantage over the WoW TCG game.
While I am not a fan of using the term “addiction” to describe games, I don’t deny that there are certain dangers. The danger of a MMORPG is that it tends to eat up more of your time than you can afford to spend. The danger of a trading card game is that it tends to eat up more of your money than you can afford to spend. I played Magic the Gathering for 10 years, paper and online, and spent roughly $10,000 in total on it, so about $1,000 per year. A MMORPG costs roughly $200 per year (if you don’t count the cost for the computer and internet connection), and thus is much cheaper. There is no doubt that both Blizzard and SOE launched their respective trading card games to make more money from the fans of their games. You can’t play the WoW TCG at all without spending money. If you have an account for Everquest 1 or 2 you get some free cards for Legends of Norrath, plus the opportunity to gain more cards while playing the MMORPG. But with one booster of cards costing $3 of real money, don’t expect finding too many LoN cards in the MMORPG. You can play LoN for “free”, but the temptation to get ahead by spending money on more cards will be strong.
This is going to cause some controversy. Games are often considered to be for kids, and games that induce you to spend lots of money are easily accused of stealing the kids’ lunch money. But fact is that the demographic of players has changed. Especially for MMORPGs, which already have a money-based barrier of entry in the form of a monthly fee, the average player is an adult. And compared to other hobbies that adults spend money on, a trading card game isn’t excessively expensive. A company trying to sell you an attractive product that eats up your disposable income is simply the everyday capitalism that surrounds us. Nobody forces you to buy TCG cards, just like nobody forces you to buy a big SUV, or a pack of cigarettes a day, or a fancy set of golf clubs. There is nothing inherently wrong with expensive games. You just need to decide for yourself whether spending that money is worth it for you. Just as you need to decide whether spending all that time in a virtual world is worth it.
Me, I only have one starter set of WoW TCG, and I’m not planning to buy any more of them. I will buy some more Legends of Norrath cards this weekend, and explore the game as well as its integration into EQ2 some more. LoN is still in some kind of open beta, I'll do a full review once it goes into release and LoN cards actually drop in EQ2. I don’t think I’ll end up spending hundreds of dollars on it. I already did that for Magic the Gathering, and I don’t consider LoN to be as good as MtG. While LoN is somewhat integrated with EQ2, they are still two separate games, and you can play one without the other. One day an MMO will come out where the trading card game principle is an integral part of the MMORPG, with the virtual cards replacing the skills and abilities used in the combat system. That’ll be the game I might spend a fortune on.