Cardboard Capitalism

Or how I learned to stop worrying
and love Wall Street

Once upon a time, young people were divided into "tribes" or "groups" based mostly on aesthetic preferences. There were the jocks, the goths, the nerds, and so on and so forth, as anyone who has watched one of those late-1990s early-2000s dumb movies about high-school can ascertain. I, as it may come as a shocking surprise to anyone reading this, was categorized (quite accurately) as a nerd. Indeed, I must admit, without shame or recourse, that I was really awkward (and, thanks to the pandemic, can safely say that I have become really fucking awkward again). Being a nerd all those years ago means I had some in-depth experience with trading card games, and I'd like to share this absolutely depraved world with those fortunate enough to have avoided these menaces.

The reader may or may not be aware that during the apocalyptic year of 2020, the prices of trading cards of all varieties, from baseball to Yu-gi-oh, skyrocketed. The oddest thing about this, though, is that by definition physical card games are played in person, and as such pretty much nobody could play those dumb cards properly during most of 2020. Pundits like to ascribe this to all sorts of reasons, from the "stimmies" as they call it—the government mandated money (in the US) used to prop up demand in the midst of a collapsing economy—being lavishly spent on the most expensive bits of cardboard players could not acquire before, to just evil manipulative shadowy investors (typified into the odd figure of Rudy, proud owner of a Youtube channel called "Alpha Investments" whose sole purpose is to give thinly veiled "investment advice" on which bits of cardboard are a good idea to buy and hold to eventually resell at a profit), or some sort of collectible boom, something to do whilst one waited for things to "go back to normal", so to speak.

And this is what I'd like to talk about, if at a superficial and mocking level: trading card games are not, and have never really been, principally about playing a game. Sure, they can be pretty fun (as my many years of Magic the Gathering can attest to) but it's not about them being fun or not. It has never been about them being fun or not. It'll never be about them being fun or not. The fun is a side-product of engaging in the true big-boys game: Cardboard Wall Street. I must, before properly starting my rant, point out to the person that best examined this element of trading cards: Jesse Mason, whose "Magical Capitalism" piece, on the capitalist nature of Magic the Gathering, has been a great inspiration. I'd really recommend reading his piece if you, dear reader, are interested in this godforsaken subject.

I.

Legends tell that trading card games were invented in the early 90's by Richard Garfield, a math major, on his spare time together with his university buddies. The idea was simple, but ingenious: have the game pieces be cards, and thus players could combine them in a nearly infinite amount of ways. I don't really want to get into the nitty gritty of things, which are far better explained by Jesse Mason; the point is that almost like in a terrible laboratory accident, Garfield and friends invented the ultimate effigy of capitalism. I have many times thought that videogames are the true representation of the neoliberal age, a cultural form which is inextricably linked to the idea of brands and technocratic progress; but the real inheritor of Ayn Rand's dream might just be Magic the Gathering.

What makes trading card games so capitalistic? There are several elements: first and foremost, the cards come in randomized "booster packs", little plastic shells that hold inside them between 5 and 20 random cards, depending on the game. Not only that, but cards have "rarities" (common, uncommon, rare, etc.), an arbitrary value decided by the designers that produces artificial scarcity of certain cards, and abundance of others. It should come as no surprise that many of the very best cards are also the very rarest.

This is transparently a form of gambling. Under this distribution model, there is no way to acquire the cards that you want except by trading with another person who was actually lucky enough to pull the card you want. Under the best of circumstances, you can trade some of the cards you have but don't want for cards the other person has but doesn't want; in such circumstances, both parties tend to be happy about the transaction. Thing is, this is not always possible; as such, in the cases where you have no cards the other person desires, then the transaction must be facilitated by means of the "universal solvent", namely money. As such, at the very moment card games were born, a market for trading cards was also born, like a cursed conjoined twin, its seedy cardboard underbelly. In the olden days of the 90's, this was done by means of monthly catalogs and magazines, which documented the price of specific cards (and straight from the beginning there were cards that were worth hundreds of dollars), but nowadays there are veritable stock exchanges for cards, as in the giant TCGMarket, which allows anyone to put up their own cards for sale, which greatly facilitates the finding of a buyer.

In a sense the market for cards was just not the result of some crafty folks smelling profit in the air like vultures taken to carrion, but a necessary response to the cursed institution of the booster pack. No player except the very richest would be able to afford to acquire the cards they want by continually opening booster packs; there is something rather cruel in forcing the distribution of game pieces through the mechanism of luck: much like capitalism, if you don't get the cards you want, the only response is "tough luck, should have been born richer or luckier." Wizards of the Coast (the company that makes Magic), Konami (which makes Yu-gi-oh), The Pokémon Company and the like have made princely sums of money in the last few decades: the multibillion dollar toy conglomerate Hasbro's most profitable division is by far Wizards of the Coast, and their most profitable product is, without a doubt, Magic.

An image of the Black Lotus, the most expensive Magic the Gathering card in existence
The Alpha print-run Black Lotus, the most expensive Magic card in existence, a copy of which has been sold for the modest sum of half a million dollars.

Still, this is not enough to say that trading card games are the most capitalistic games; we must also look at the cards themselves. The main reason why they're so spectacularly profitable is because they're so damn cheap to make; after all, they're just bits of colored paper. Most of the expenses that bear no immediate return are labor expenses: paying designers to make cool cards that will be desirable without completely breaking the game, artists to paint pretty images to illustrate the cards, writers to come up with the lore of the game, etc. The companies have special agreements with the major card manufacturers around the world, and in bulk each card costs no more than pennies to produce overall; the cheapest bundle of fifteen of them is commonly sold for around four dollars. It doesn't take a PHd in economics to understand why they are so damn profitable.

In a sense the actual difficulty in manufacturing cards lies in making them feel as if they should be worth a lot of money; to make them feel special, rare, pretty, etc., that you wouldn't feel bad paying tens or hundreds of bucks on colored paper. As such, applying a coat of reflective material on particularly powerful cards makes them even more desirable: "look, it glitters just like gold! It must be valuable!" goes the so-called "lizard-brain". I am always aghast at the amounts of money people, reasonable and money-wise folks, spend to make their cards look prettier. Though I am not one to judge how people spend their money, the sums spent are often breathtaking.

More powerful or "prettier" cards command heftier sums in the "secondary market", be it because of too much demand or too little supply. This name is no accident: the market is "secondary" not just because it feeds on the "primary" market of selling packs, but because all the companies that produce these cards must produce them under the pretense that all they are making are game pieces, all with the same value, all distinguished only by the text and image printed on it. It's bollocks, of course, but for these companies to admit that certain cards are more valuable and more expensive than others would immediately transform a booster pack into what it actually is, namely a sort of convoluted lottery ticket, which would obviously be gambling and thus subject to heavy restrictions in a bunch of countries, including the US.

And this is indeed a fascinating point about trading cards: they are probably one of the most relevant completely unregulated markets in existence. In the card market anything goes: cornering the market to drive scarcity, "pumping and dumping" (buying immense amounts of cards to raise their price then quickly selling them back, crashing the price); insider trading from people connected to the companies that know which cards will suddenly become more powerful or more relevant in the future, thus driving up their prices, or which will be reprinted, lowering their prices; monopolies and oligopolies, with a few major companies being able to corner the market for particular cards, and all sorts of shady business deals that would make Wall Street veterans blush. Trading cards are not just like capitalism; they are capitalism, and in a sense the freest market of them all.

People who actually play these games may object to the things I'm saying, and in a sense they are right; when you are playing any of these games, be it Pokémon or Magic, you are focused in the internal mechanisms of the game, the resources, how to beat your opponents, etc. But make no mistake—and I am quite convinced of this—deep down, perhaps even unconsciously at times, every card game player knows they are playing with money first and game pieces second, which is why it often feels so bad to play against someone with a deck far more expensive that your own: they have access to powerful cards which feel entirely unfair for someone that does not have hundreds of dollars to spend in cardboard.

Is this a bad thing? Yes and no. There is no denying that the Roaring 20's style high roller casino that is card games brought a lot of attention to them, and thus a diverse and engaged playerbase, many of them trying to make decks that are cheap but still able to go toe to toe against the most powerful contenders. The solution to the capitalistic nature of card games, "Living Card Games", that is, games in which you buy a complete set of all the cards at once, more or less like a board game like Settlers of Catan, don't seem to be terribly popular. But the reality of card games means the rich get richer and the poor survive on the scraps they can afford; it is perhaps the most stratified gaming experience one can have, where your class more or less determines which decks or kinds of gameplay you can experience. If you are poor, tough luck, better like playing this one kinda cheap deck or losing. Of course, as in every place the market invades, people tend to resist and produce alternatives: there are ways of playing that limit the price of the cards that can be used to say, 79 cents per card and the like; but the reality of the cards as money tokens becomes even more pronounced that way.

II.

I've spend a good bunch of words explaining how cards have become a sort of fiat money, in a sense; but people do play them, and they play them often in card stores. Comic stores and the like are a fixture of "nerd culture", so to speak, and card stores are a particularly curious subset of these businesses: they thrive on the reselling of individual cards at a markup, and their fortunes are bound to the corporations that make these cards like Faust was bound to Mephisto. If a particular set of cards is beloved, they thrive; if a set of cards is seen as uninteresting, they go bankrupt by the dozens. Their luck is that since card games are gambling in all but name, they likewise do tend to attract the weakest and most exploitable sorts of folks who end up hopelessly addicted, which guarantees that no matter how bad and how expensive cards get, there always will be those that will buy them. (A funny name for Magic cards is "cardboard crack". I don't think I need to explain it.)

There's something obscene in the business of dealing cards. It's a sort of business that thrives on fools and desperate people, and this sort of money always begets the worst in folks. Still, having a card shop of their own is the petty bourgeois dream of many players, a fact that reflects the class from which most players hail from. To have all those cards at their disposal, even the most expensive ones! Just imagine! It's a fool's errand, though, and the margins for those middleman are very slim, especially when compared with the big fish in this pond. 2020 broke many stores, and they won't be replaced.

If cards were merely a pastime, like playing a game of Catan, they would be valuable, but not nearly as valuable as they actually are. One of the smartest things companies learned to do right from the beginning was to market these games to be as skill intensive as a game of chess (which sometimes they are, but frankly not all that often; there is too much luck involved with the shuffling of a deck of cards; it's at best closer to a sort of very skewed poker) and host tournaments with prizes in them. If you're good enough, you could theoretically make a living from playing Magic! This is nonsense, but it is a dream which has been sold since the 90's, and the most expensive cards tend to be the most competitively viable ones, sorta like tickets to the grand prize of the tournaments, which mostly consist of a relevant but negligible amount of money for the effort and above all social clout: the ability to say to all the other nerds that you are, in fact, the ultimate nerd, towering above all others.

As with capitalism, these games are fiendishly competitive, which often brings out the worst in people, namely cheating, defrauding, poisoning relations, etc. Class is the lifeblood of card games, and every player is reminded quite viciously of their place in the world when they had to opt for a cheaper and subpar card choice and face someone who had no problems acquiring the flashiest cards. "You are poor", these cardboard rectangles seem to scream, "and you should be ashamed of being poor." To play a card game is to relate to others' class; whilst yes, class is present even in innocuous or bad board games, in theory when playing a game of Monopoly or the like all players are in a position of equal standing, and whether one is a billionaire or rather poor, in the game their starting position is the same, and as such they have, in theory, an equal chance of winning. This is not the case with trading cards, since the types of cards you can afford determine from the get go the odds of your victory. The only saving grace, though, is that given the extremely luck-intensive nature of the games, it means that even very expensive decks can "brick", that is, the player can draw an unplayable hand and lose because of that; I myself find this to be a distasteful aspect of them, since it more or less means that yeah, you can win the game, insofar as your opponent is rendered incapable of playing because of something entirely outside their control, independent of my or their own skill in the game. In extreme scenarios the games become little more than elaborate coin flips, something very boring to play or watch.

Given that particular combinations of cards are more powerful than others, these sorts of games suffer from a particularly acute problem in their design: certain decks are better than others. In a vacuum this is not necessarily a bad thing, but given that the companies release new cards every year, they are left with two solutions, neither particularly good: first, they can print cards more or less of the same power level, and ban from play egregiously powerful cards that everyone would be forced to play otherwise. This is not a great solution, given that players may have spent a good amount of money getting powerful cards which they can no longer use, which rightfully makes them very angry. Secondly, the company may print more powerful cards than before, which leaves the players in an eternal rat race to buy the newest and most effective cards, a solution obviously beloved by companies' bottom line, but that has the nasty side effect of making the game extremely unbalanced, even broken at times, and in a sense "soft-banning" the players' older cards, since they'll be so underpowered that they become effectively useless. In my experience companies generally opt for a mixture of both solutions, and the smarter ones create several "formats", that is, modes of playing with the cards that only accept recently printed cards, or cards of a particular rarity, or only a single of each card, etc., which tends to mitigate power unbalances, but never quite resolving them. Most card games tend to implode under these contradictory pressures, and the few that survive mostly do so on the back of nostalgia or very strong branding, which guarantees player retention even through the roughest years.

Alongside the card companies, the card stores and the players, there are tons of companies dedicated to selling all manner of junk related to card games. Since cards have value, and they exist by the billions, the main difference between two copies of the same card is their physical state, that is, how damaged they are from years of playing. This has spawned a truly bizarre world of "cardboard protection goods", veritable condoms for your cards so that they won't touch grubby fingers or nasty tables, and keep their value pristine. The lengths many players go in order to keep their cards "safe", as they say, is astounding, and veritable rivers of money are spent in card sleeves, sometimes sleeves to be used inside other sleeves, boxes to keep sleeved cards in, rubber mats to play on top of, etc. There is a very impressive and sizable industry focused on producing plastic "protection" for cards, lest their value is lessened by a particular dent or scratch.

It is evident that if cards were abundant and cheap, no one would care much for having them triple-sleeved or the like; but since cards are money tokens, keeping their value intact is more important than anything else. You'd like to eventually resell your expensive cards for a profit later on, won't you? And this brings me to the proverbial "Sword of Damocles" that has hanged above card games since their inception: are these cards in a financial bubble? Probably; it's hard to say. If it is a bubble, it has yet to pop in the last thirty years, so some skepticism is warranted; the absolutely outrageous price old cards fetch, especially in Magic, a game that has a weird promise never to reprint certain very old cards , has doomed a good chunk of the game to be able to be fully enjoyed only the very richest. So long as these never get reprinted, they'll go higher and higher, and whilst there are greater fools to buy them (and there are plenty) they'll stay up; if, for some reason, card games become unpopular, these will become nothing more than colored cardboard. Given that people do not believe these games will ever become unpopular, there is an argument to say it technically is not a bubble. Overall, I feel that the main question is not whether they are a bubble or not, but when will obscene prices for cheap cardboard finally be too much for the players, forcing the companies to either devalue their product by flooding the market, or to accept an ever-dwindling playerbase.

III.

These concerns clearly are aimed at the printed cards, that is, paper product. A recent innovation, especially since the release of Blizzard's Hearthstone, has been digital card games. They are, in general, simply digital versions of paper card games. Given the variable nature of these games, they tend to have extremely complicated rulebooks, hundreds of pages long, explaining in minute detail how every single part of the game interacts with one another. This is nightmarish for a new player, but rather convenient for programmers trying to transform it into a digital game.

Playing with paper cards and keeping track of the rules oneself inevitably causes many misplays, from bad moves to accidental rule infractions (sometimes egregious ones). I cannot stress this enough: these games are extremely complicated. Tournaments even have rule "judges", that is, people insane enough to have carefully studied the rules manuals and that have the job of explaining or guaranteeing that the game will be properly played (as well as to prevent cheating). Having the computer keep track of rules definitely helps new players navigate and learn the game in a less pressuring environment, and gives the games a semblance of cohesion that playing them with paper lacks.

Broadly speaking, there are two branches of digital card games: those that are digital-only (have started as computer games) and ports of paper card games. Digital-only card games (such as the aforementioned Hearthstone) can do some cute things which would be difficult with paper cards, such as having cards randomly decide their effects, or having a player drawing cards from the opponent's deck, and the like. The main difference, though, lies on the fact that digital-only games can "nerf" cards, that is, balance cards after they have been released, which tends to make them less prone to breakage. For obvious reasons paper games cannot do the same, since you can hardly errata a printed card without causing immense confusion (the card then has an effect different from what is written on it, and the correct effect is only known if the player happens to have a newer copy of the card or they check an official source to see exactly what the card does, a cumbersome process).

The most curious thing about digital card games is the fact that they often are too accurate a facsimile of the real thing. By that I mean they insist on the booster pack model, despite having no apparent reason to do so. In a paper card game, one could excuse the companies for saying that booster packs are merely the easiest way to deliver cards of all sorts to players at a cheap price point (this is debatable, but hardly indefensible at all); digital cards, by definition, do not exist except as combinations of electronic data. There is no particular reason for cards to be unable to be directly purchased by the player, at their own leisure and interest (a good example of this is Riot Games's quite impressive Legends of Runeterra, a rather well made game). Still, they insist in having the booster pack model, and in a even worse way than in paper.

As I mentioned above, given booster packs' stupid distribution method, people tend to trade/buy cards from one another. In most digital card games this is often not possible (there literally isn't an option to trade cards coded in the game), and their way to address this is by allocating a certain number of "wildcards", that is, cards which can be redeemed for any card the player desires. In the case of wildcards being easy to purchase and cheap or generously given (as in the aforementioned Runeterra) this can be a pleasant acquisition experience; in cases such as Magic Arena, where the only way to reliably acquire wildcards is by opening digital booster packs, it can be a tiring and expensive endeavor. People that are forced to have a complete card collection, such as youtubers and streamers that have to play with all sorts of decks, report that the overall cost of getting all the cards you want is exorbitant, many times more that to get the same cards in paper.

This at first glance seems nonsensical: why would it be more expensive to own digital cards than to own paper cards, which you can hold and set fire to and do whatever your heart desires? Precisely because companies have figured out that they have no incentive to make it easy for players to get the cards they want. The gambling nature of booster packs (or, in the digital realm, card loot boxes) means that many players will spend copious amounts of cash trying to get the cards they want, at almost no cost for the company, except server maintenance and software development costs. The insane amounts of money they manage to gouge from their playerbase are frankly repulsive, and a good reason for me to declare that it is a good idea in general to avoid digital card games.

IV.

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.

—Marx, Capital Volume 1, Chapter 1

Cards, as I mentioned above, are no more than colored cardboard. One could indeed, without too great of an expense, though probably with a reduced quality, print them oneself. There is nothing stopping anyone from making extra copies of particular cards; it doesn't particularly hurt anyone if you print a card you would never really buy otherwise. This is called "proxying", that is, making a proxy (a substitute) for a card. Depending on who you play with, it's perfectly fine; people, despite everything, still want to play the game. But whenever this subject is brought up for serious consideration, many players, and not only the very richest ones, screech with vitriol, as if one were touching upon the dearest of their possessions, and attacking their very sense of self.

Why is that? Why is the prospect of making cards outside the evil booster pack system such a heretical thing to suggest? Surely it is not because players think of the poor designers which will have their labor stolen from them—not at all because most sources seem to indicate that most Wizards of the Coast employees are pretty poorly paid, and one would imagine it would be no different in most other companies. This seems to not raise much of an outcry, and I'd imagine that most players would dislike for designers to be paid more if this would mean that it would become more expensive to play the game. (Though I must mention there was a small outrage when last year during BLM protests when a few folks on twitter revealed how racist and sexist are Wizards of the Coast's employment methods, but this soon vanished from the public eye).

The problem is not merely that the players have to disavow the valueless nature of cardboard in order not to recognize that they have been duped by companies and middlemen into spending a lot of money in essentially worthless paper; rather, players want the cards to have value, they desire the greedy feeling of opening an expensive card in a cheap booster pack, they enjoy the hustle of having a card they bought for cheap skyrocket in price, or to dupe a fool into selling for cheap a valuable card. The game, as I said, is Cardboard Wall Street, not Magic the Gathering or Pokémon. Greed is good, capitalism is delightful, money is the true aim of the game. Or so it seems to be the case. The players want the fetish, they want their commodities to act as if they were alive, their cards to smell like cocaine and champagne, to have the very rarest cards and to be admired for having them.

What props up cardgames, and what props up capitalism itself, is the fetishism inside every single commodity. What makes cards valuable is the cursed way in which every commodity relates to every other commodity inside the minds of every player, and which makes cards first and foremost scarce products, of which some are special and others are not. The "theological niceties" in the rules of the game and in the rules of capitalism make card games the perfect effigy for capitalism, as I said above; it is the psychology, the "magic" in the cards that make them valuable, not the labor that went into their production. They are an unregulated market in which each player competes against each other player in the acquisition of the most desirable cards. And the one with them is, by definition, not only the best player, but also the best human, the greatest, the most powerful, as validated by capitalist society.

The truth is that insofar as card games are made in a capitalist world, they will be like this. And the weight of market madness makes them bloated, creaking under their own fetid weight, where every card is not merely a cool game piece, but a particular amount of money and as such, a token of power. The best and most joyous tendencies of card games, their infinite possibilities, their inventive rules and combinations, their endless replayability are smothered by the desperate need for endless growth of profits, endless growth of production, endless growth of card power, endless growth of playerbase.

As these times increasingly descend into chaos and climate induced collapse, I would suggest that we look toward card games as a particularly sad example of capitalist possibilities strangled by their own contradictions. Whereas they could be a joyful collective experience of each player not only engaging with the existing cards in their own way, and perhaps even making their own cards, and sharing this experience with others, they are cursed, bound to have to be investment portfolios, to have to be "special", to have to be an object of great desire and great envy. To liberate society is a tremendous task, seemingly nearly impossible; to liberate card games may be, perhaps, quite simpler. Their greatest asset, their cheap production costs, may be also their greatest weakness as a commodity: to liberate card games one merely has to print one's own. No company in the world can hide away the rules or the images of the cards they produce; the cards are, for all intents and purposes, part of the public good, of the commons; the goal for all card game players ought to be, then, not to have the most complete collection, or the most expensive cards, or the most powerful decks; it ought to be to break the control the cursed fetish has with the distinction between "real" cards and "fake" cards. There is no distinction. They are one an the same: part of the human capacity for inventive play, something that can and will never be fully crushed by the greedy desire for profits.