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The Digital TCG Conundrum

Let's talk about a touchy subject within TCGs. Card Games thrive on the purchase and spread of their physical product, but it is not always easy for interested players to get other friends to play or make it to LGS events regularly. Some players may not even have an LGS near them that supports the game! Additionally, players often want to playtest with new cards prior to buying or trading for product to ensure that their crazy new deck idea works. Players usually turn to digital solutions in these cases.

The problem with replicating the experience of your TCG in a digital game, is that you have to make a tough decision on how to approach monetization. If you offer every single card in the game for people to play against each other and utilize in testing, then there is an argument to be made that they will now be less incentivized to purchase new sealed product. Why buy sealed when I can test for the cards I want and buy singles instead? Because of this, TCGs will oftentimes develop the game with a Free-to-Play business model in mind, or won't make a digital experience at all.

Magic the Gathering: Arena image
Magic the Gathering: Arena offers a seamless digital Magic experience... for a price.

Official games like Magic the Gathering: Arena, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links, and Pokemon TCG Online offer a relatively seamless and automated digital experience for the games totally free of charge, but require players to purchase digital content (usually in the form of digital booster packs) to be able to use all the cards, or for them to grind out hundreds of games to get cards for free. For isolated players, this is usually great! They get to enjoy the game, support the company, and play against other people without having to find a physical location to drive to. For play testers this is an unrealistic solution for them, since their whole goal is to isolate which cards they want to run. image
Untap offers all cards for free, but players have to manually execute every single step of an ability

Unofficial systems like Untap and Dueling Nexus offer online experiences with all of the cards free of charge, but these systems are rarely (if ever) supported by the official company. Additionally, systems like Untap are often not automated and require players to manually execute every single move that they take. This is great for online tournaments, play testers and their friends who just need to get a feeling for how decks will run, and for the interested casual who wants to see what the game is all about before making any purchase. This isn't a great experience for the isolated player though as the systems are often laggy, clunky, or not automated and lead to more frustration than enjoyment of the game.

It's a difficult problem to solve that is limited to the board game, TTRPG, and TCG industries that live or die on their physical in-store sales. While a free, automated service would make all players happy, it has a large chance of making a significant impact on their own sales. Businesses opting instead to create a fully featured digital alternative that is gated behind a paywall works well for the business itself to offset their potential loss of income, but competitive players, who are often the most vocal ambassadors for the game, are more hard pressed to support it since it doesn't meet their needs for tournaments and testing. Lastly, if you offer no digital alternative to your physical product, players have shown they will put in the time and effort to make their own version, cutting out your business from the process entirely.

As a business, the question you ultimately have to ask is... what bullet do you bite down on? What is your Kobayashi Maru of choice?


What are your thoughts on the digital landscape for TCGs? Which do you feel is the best option for them to chase after?

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