Card Economics 2: Economic Systems

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Welcome back to card economics! If you missed the first instalment in this series, be sure to check that out the article or video to catch up. Now that we have some of the basics covered, let’s talk about the different economic systems employed in card games! The piece explores the differences between “Dust” based economies, “Trading” based economies and “Living Card Games”. What are the advantages of each system? What are the disadvantages? How might Artifact learn from these systems within its own economy?

Couple “housekeeping” things before we get started: If you are not in the mood to read a 5000 word article, check out the “TLDR” video that is associated. I am also running a survey on the subject of card economics as part of this series, which you can find here! It takes about 10 minutes and if you enter before June 18th you will have a chance to win a 10$ Steam gift card!

Before I get into the article itself, I just want to be clear about the purpose of this piece. There is no “best” system in the abstract, as the rules of the economy are ultimately going to be tied to the particulars of the game. Even if a given economic system has more advantages than another, different people value different things! There have been plenty of successful games of all three types, so each are totally viable.

With all that said, let’s get to know these economies!

Trading Card Games

Ah, a classic. The original. Did you know that part of the influence for Dr. Garfield developing Magic was sports trading cards? This may seem obvious, but this has had a massive impact on the economy of Trading Card Games (TCGs). Not only are the cards game pieces, they are also collectables. This has lead to a tricky dual nature to these cards, where the goal of “collectable” and “card game” can be at odds. Let’s take a slightly obtuse example: Black Lotus.

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As any self-respecting nerd should know that Black Lotus is the most expensive card in the history of Magic. There are probably less than 5,000 in total in the world, which means that very few people get the privilege of playing with this storied card. What is stopping Wizards of the Coast (the company that makes Magic, also known as “WotC”) from just printing more copies? They could make a boatload of cash if they printed off some copies of Black Lotus and sold these at $1000 each. In the case of Black Lotus, and some other cards from Magic’s early days, WotC has a “Reserved List”, which are a collection of cards they have promised to never reprint. This is obviously great for collectors, as they know that their investment is safe, but at the same time this compromises the spirit of the game.

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On the flip side, this actually helps the community of the game tremendously in an indirect fashion. Since WotC has created some distance between themselves and the trading/collecting element of the game, this allows outside companies to take up the role of intermediary. These third party vendors pair their business with content creators and competitive events. Companies like Channel Fireball and Star City Games are almost as important as WotC in terms of supporting competitive play and building the community. Many people dislike the finance element of Magic, as this is often linked to what makes the hobby expensive, but there is no question that these institutions deserve significant credit for making the game successful. It is pretty easy to point to the legitimate issues of affordability and accessibility, while ignoring the secondary benefits of a thriving trading economy.

What about the players themselves? How does the trading economy effect players in a day-to-day way? Well, collection management is way more complicated than other economic system. Card prices fluctuate like a stock market, so you need to “buy low and sell high” to maximize your value. Some of the events that cause prices to go up and down are predictable (set releases/rotation), though others will be essentially random (decks winning tournaments/shifts in the meta). There are players that enjoy this element of trading card games, but others find the constant pressure stressful. Like it or not, there is no question that the finance of the game take up a lot more brain space in the case of TCGs than in any other economic system.

Dust Based Games

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Some of you may not remember this, but there was a time that World of Warcraft was absolutely popping. In the first couple of years after it’s release it absolutely dominated the MMORPG market, which gave Blizzard a glorious mountain of cash, which they didn’t seem to know what to do with. One of the spin-off projects that came out during this time was the “World of Warcraft Trading Card Game”, which was moderately successful, but never really took off. Eventually the Blizzard team decided that they would adapt the property to digital form, to create Hearthstone. Given the lukewarm reception to the WoWTCG the expectations for Hearthstone were not particularly high. When the game did launch the game it took off with a bang, to the surprise of many! Hearthstone quickly went from side-project to cash cow. One of the major drivers for this growth was the ambitious new take on the economy.

When Hearthstone’s designers sat down to plan out the economy of Hearthstone they clearly didn’t want trading. Trading is quite the hassle to implement digitally – you need to create an interface for linking two accounts, you need to balance the economy around the practice of trading, etc. Blizzard had lots of practice with trading in WoW, or even Diablo before that, but there were a variety of mechanisms in the game to block players from trading certain items. In addition to this, the development team was interested in building the game with a “free-to-play” (F2P) economy. When you implement trading in a F2P game this heavily incentivizes botting, which could cause major issues in the economy. They also wanted the collection management system to be simple - Hearthstone was made with the mobile market in mind, so any collection management system should be easy enough that you could easily operate it on your phone. So what brilliant system did they come up with to solve all these problems? The Dusting system.

Hearthstone uses a crafting currency called Arcane Dust, or Dust for short. You can craft any card that you like using this Dust, where the cost is entirely dependant on the rarity of the card, rather than popularity. You can also destroy unwanted cards for Dust, which you can use to purchase new cards. This makes collection management extremely simple, since getting the cards that you want just requires the click of a button, and unwanted cards are still valuable to you as they can be Dusted. It also allows for a free-to-play economy, since players can slowly acquire cards through gameplay, turn those cards into Dust, which in turn can be used to buy better cards. Simple, elegant, and accessible to everyone!

While this system is quite brilliant in many facets, it has some pretty serious problems. First, you can’t sell your collection. If you want to walk away from Hearthstone you walk away from all of your investment. I suppose it is possible to sell your account, but that is not exactly easy to do. Second, the transaction costs within the game are quite high. Most Dust-based systems use a 1/4 refund rule, where destroying a card gives you back 1/4 of the crafting value. It is nice to get 1/4 of your Dust back from Dusting a legendary, but that means that 3/4s of your value has just been thrown in the garbage! Functionally this means that players should only Dust high rarity cards that are truly unplayable since Dusting/crafting cards unnecessarily is so punishing. This makes switching decks very difficult. Hearthstone also has the problem of being relatively expensive, given the high cost of decks in both free-to-play and pay-to-play terms. So, not everything is perfect, but certainly offers a lot of advantages over trading based systems.

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 As is often the case with Blizzard games, the meteoric rise of Hearthstone lead to a generation of clones and competitors. Some of the most successful digital card games to come out in the last few years include Shadowverse, Eternal, Gwent and The Elder Scrolls Legends. Some of these games were radically different in terms of mechanics and gameplay, but the fundamental rules of the economy were the same: destroy unwanted cards to build up some crafting currency that can be used to buy new cards. Of course each had their own spin on the economy to improve on Hearthstone’s Dusting system, such as generous starter collections in the case of case of Shadowverse, or limiting the cost of decks based on caps on the number of rare cards that can be played in the case of Gwent. Magic the Gathering Arena, while still in beta, is attempting to be a serious competitor with Hearthstone. They are experimenting with an economic system that superficially looks much different than Hearthstone, the fundamentals are actually quite similar to a Dusting system. Whether you like it or not, I expect Dust based systems will be re-skinned and remade again and again in all variety of digital card game for the foreseeable future.

Living Card Games

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Long before Blizzard’s team was working on how to built a trading-free version of digital card games, Fantasy Flight Games was working on how to solve the problem for analog card games. They were working on “Blue Moon”, which was a deckbuilding game, but felt that the TCG model was not really suited for the title. Eventually they came up with a solution: what if we just sold all the cards together? It can still be a deckbuilding game, but now players get to build anything they want! Not only that, when you know that players will have access to everything it is a lot easier to make cards that reference one another, or have special rules based on the assumption of what cards are in your deck/collection. To my knowledge, Blue Moon was the first game to employ the “living card game” model, but since then Fantasy Flight Games has applied this to many other titles, such as Android: Netrunner, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, and Star Wars: The Card Game (the term “Living Card Game” is technically a trademark of Fantasy Flight Games, though the model can be used by anyone).

Living Card Games are a particularly good model for intellectual property like Star Wars or A Game of Thrones since it lets everyone have access to the big name characters. If you were just a fan of the franchise, it would feel bad if you bought a Star Wars card game, but you didn’t get a copy of Luke Skywalker of Darth Vader. By using the LCG model players are guaranteed to get a copy of their favorite Star warrior, which certainly helps for the more casual gamers. For the hardcore gamer, LCG’s typically come with regular expansions, in many cases as often as once-per-month.

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Ultimately this creates a hybrid between collectable card games and board games, which has many advantages over traditional TCGs. No trading is needed when you are just guaranteed to get every card you need with every expansion. This system also gives the developers extra tools, since the products are self-contained. The flat-cost is a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, it is possible to build decks around just the base set, but it is unlikely that these will be competitive with up-to-date lists. It doesn’t take that many expansions before the cost becomes comparable to traditional deckbuilding games. You also don’t really have an opportunity to resell your cards, since everyone has everything you do. LCGs certainly have a lot to offer as a model, but they are not perfect. To my knowledge, the most successful competitive LCG currently on the market is Epic, which is made by White Wizard Games (they have a digital version if you want to try it out).

Compare-and-Contrast

Now that we understand the fundamentals of each system, let’s work through the various advantages and disadvantages of each style of economy. I am going to run through topics like the complexity of the system, and the support for competitive play, and discuss how each economy scores on these different metrics. I’m also going to give a letter grade for each of these because, why not? I love arbitrary grading systems! This will also help differentiate the size of the gaps between the different games. If you pay close attention you will see that these topic are not entirely separate in all cases, but I broke them up as best I could to highlight the distinct characteristics of each. As I mentioned at the top, the purpose here is not to figure out which system is the “best”, but really just investigate what each has to offer.

Complexity:

How hard is it to manage your collection? Would it be obvious to a beginner? Complexity covers the obstacles to just building your decks.

TCG: F

Really high complexity, so much so that managing your collection is almost like an entirely separate game you need to play whether you want to or not. There are Youtube channels dedicated to Magic finance. And websites. And sub-Reddits. While some people clearly really like dedicating all this attention to the trading/collecting aspect of Magic, there is no question that this is a massive barrier for new players, and adds a complexity to collection management that other games do not experience 

Dust: B+

Much lower complexity than TCGs, but still not exactly trivial. Ever card that you open forces players to ask the following question: is this more valuable to me as a card, or as Dust? Am I willing to take the hit of 75% of my value for the flexibility to get a specific card that I want? These kinds of questions are quite the concern for most players, though they are clearly less confusing than in the case of TCGs.

LCG: A

Easily the lowest complexity of the three. Just buy the cards in the available expansions, and VOILA! you have everything you need. There is a little complexity in knowing what sets you need to buy, but it is more beginner friendly than even the Dusting system. One could say that overloading new players with so many cards when they are starting might be a downside, but that isn’t a huge deal. 

Deck Switching

Not liking your current deck? Feeling like a change of pace, or want to attack the meta from a different angle? This grade looks at the barriers to switching from one deck to another!

TCG: B+

Switching decks in a TCG often involves trading the cards in the deck you are currently playing to build another deck. Assuming that the cards in your current deck are worth anything, it isn’t too expensive to switch if you are willing to put in the legwork. Even if you are going through a vendor you can often preserve a good deal of your value.

Dusting: D

Really tough. As I said above, most Dusting systems use a 1/4 ratio on the Dust you get back on the value of a card, which is quite stingy. Players typically don’t “switch” decks, so much as “build an entirely separate deck”. This really makes life difficult for competitive players, since maintaining a competitive collection means you need to own almost all the cards.

LCG: A+

Easily the easiest. You own all the cards! Just go look in your box and build something else! The LCG model is superb for players that like to bounce around a lot.

Cost

How much do these actually cost? Can you play free-to-play? Do I have a lot of flexibility in what I can invest? Let’s see!

TCG: D+

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Well, this kinda depends on the game, but generally prices are actually quite high. Magic is famous for expensive formats such as Legacy and Vintage, where decks typically cost thousands of dollars, but even competitive Standard decks typically requires a $200-$400 investment. Some of you may be saying “Magic is just one game! Look somewhere else!” but competitive decks in Yu-gi-Oh! seem to be pretty pricy as well. There are ways to play TCGs for cheap, such as certain budget-friendly formats. This is an appealing feature of TCGs, but that doesn’t change the fact that the mainstream competitive formats are often quite expensive, which is a barrier to less affluent players.

Dusting: A-

One of the great appeals of Dusting based games is possibility to play entirely F2P. Of course we can debate if a game like Hearthstone is really free to play when the rewards are so stingy, but at least you can heavily subsidize your collection through gameplay! From my research, it seems like most Dusting based digital games do have a real free-to-play option, which opens things up to a wider audience. Even when you are paying for decks, most games that use the Dusting system are inexpensive when compared to TCGs.

LCG: B+

Though it isn’t possible to play LCGs in a totally F2P manner, at least they are a lot cheaper than TCGs. It is really hard to make some general statement comparing the cost of Dusting based games and LCGs since it depends on the specifics of the game and the player, so I will just say they are roughly equivalent. At the same time, Dusting systems give you more flexibility in your investment. For an LCG you must buy the whole game/expansion, or you don’t. For this reason I put LCGs slightly behind Dust based economies on this score, but the difference is not huge.

Resell-ability

Sometimes it is because the meta changes, and sometimes it is because your life changes, but there are a lot of reasons that you need to put down a deck for a while. How much do each of these economies punish you? Let’s find out!

TCG: A-

You can actually get your money back! Maybe not all of it, but the fact that this is even an option is quite appealing. You can even lie to yourself and say that buying cards is an investment! It should be noted that this overlaps considerably with the complexity of the game, since reselling optimally often requires shopping around, but there is no question that TCGs are way better than the competition on this front.

Dusting: D

Well, getting 1/4 of your value back in Dust is…. something…. The fact that there is no way to get your Dust value out of the game if you decide to quit really stings, but at least you can Dust old cards to make new ones if you need to. Certainly not good, but at least you have something.

LCG: D

You are obviously allowed to sell your LCG if you are not longer looking to play it, but I imagine that the market on eBay or kijiji for used games is not exactly hopping. Most invested players probably have everything they want, since it is trivial to buy it new. Anyone buying into the game should assume they aren’t getting any of their money back.

Collector Appeal

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While not everyone cares about this, collecting is an important part of the game for some players. Others might argue that this interferes with the game itself, but I know that many would miss it if it were gone.

TCG: A

Let’s be real, TCGs are the only game for collectors. Yes you can get a bunch of premium cards in Dusting based games, and completing your collection in an LCG is pretty neat, but nothing compares to the feeling of holding an ultra-rare card. There is also the hype of opening a pack and getting something like a foil Mythic, which is a total blast. The other economies do not even come close. It should be mentioned that much of this really only applies to physical cards. Once you move to digital the impact is greatly diminished. I think it is still ahead of Dusting, but not by a lot. Maybe a B- for digital games?

Dusting: C+

Opening a golden Legendary in Hearthstone sure is neat, but the fact that you can’t hold it in your hands really takes out some of the emotional weight for me. Yes, this is a super powerful and super rare card, but I could just make it out of Dust, and I could turn it back into Dust if I wanted to. Still, completing your collection does give you a sense of accomplishment, which is appealing.

LCG: C-

It really does feel like cheating when you can just run to the store and buy an entire collection off the shelf. I know that some games offer premium versions of some of the cards, but it really doesn’t feel the same, especially when you always know what you are going to get. Where is the “Wow” factor from opening packs?

Competitive Play

It is interesting to consider that competitive play has a pretty clear link to the structure of the economy. Does the company make money pushing a tournament scene? Is there a place for vendors and tournament organizers to make some profit off the game?

TCG: A

Every serious TCG has a serious competitive scene. Local game stores, larger retailers, and the parent company all have a powerful incentive to build a competitive scene as a way to promote the game and encourage players to invest more. While the Magic Pro Tour has its problems, the fact that there is a substantial number of Magic Pros who make their money between tournament winnings, sponsorship deals, and content creation is a big deal. Other titles like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon TCGs seem to have respectable competitive scenes as well. I should be clear: it isn't that you need a trading based game for a game to have a competitive scene, but that a business model that allow the developers to continually pull in a profit are more conducive to a competitive scene.

Dusting: C+

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Yes, Hearthstone has a competitive scene, but let’s consider how big Hearthstone is. It’s HUGE! Millions and millions of players, and there is only a modest competitive scene. Also, think about how many Hearthstone pros actually make their money from tournament play and sponsorship, rather than Twitch streaming. There are still a group of true Hearthstone pros, but given the popularity of the game it is quite small. Part of this is Blizzard’s fault for inadequate support of the competitive scene, but also consider the incentives: how much money do they really make from supporting a BIG competitive scene? In Magic and other TCGs the tournament themselves are a huge opportunity to make money through buying and selling cards. In Dusting based digital games there really isn’t much difference between a big competitive scene and a small competitive scene in terms of driving sales. Games outside of Hearthstone do have meagre tournament scenes, but these are generally quite modest.

LCG: C

From my research, it looks like a few LCGs have a competitive scene, but they are relatively modest. There certainly isn’t something like a professional circuit in any LCG that I can find. This makes sense given the business model: there is no difference between a serious player and a really serious player. Blizzard and WotC make most of their money from the hyper-invested crowd, who open a ton of packs and maintain large collections. For an LCG there is no competitive advantage for a player to invest more in the game, which means that building a competitive scene isn’t exactly profitable for the parent company. Furthermore, third parties like local game stores or larger vendors don’t have an incentive to build a professional circuit. How would they make money off of it? Buying and selling cards is not profitable, so why bother?

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What about Artifact?

We know that Artifact will be a TCG, so given this analysis we can already infer what this might mean for the game. Specifically, I want to talk about complexity, cost, and the potential for competitive play.

Complexity: I have mentioned this a couple times in different articles, but the complexity of Artifact’s collection manager could be a major barrier to entry for players. Valve has lot of experience working with the Steam marketplace, which will be handy in creating an intuitive gameplay experience, but there is no question that a lot of effort will be needed to make this system as player-friendly as possible.

It may sound like I am overstating this, or that I am just being repetitive for the sake of it. To illustrate my point, let’s run down some questions that Valve will need to resolve:

Will the entire system be treated as a stock market? Most people probably imagine that this economy will act like an impersonal stock exchange. Players can put their cards up for sale at whatever price they want, and can buy the other cards at the cheapest price available. The buyer and the seller are virtually invisible to one another. Is this the case, and if so how will it be implemented exactly within the client? Will this market be global, or region specific? Will it use regular currency as the unit of trade, or some Artifact-specific currency like Gold or Gems?

Will there be “stores”? In addition to this stock exchange-like marketplace, we might see individual storefronts. The prices would be roughly competitive with the general market, but with some added deals like discounts for repeat customers, larger orders, or special offers. It may not seem like a big deal, but the stores versus stock market model are kinda at odds, and have different advantages and disadvantages. It is entirely possible for both to coexist, but this only adds to the complexity.

What is Valve’s policy about trade bots? If we do see a relatively open market, I will guarantee you that a lot of people are going to want to set up trading bots like we see in traditional stock exchanges. Magic the Gathering Online is the most analogous trading system to the one we would expect in Artifact, and it is absolutely packed with bots. I’m not trying to argue that bots are a bad thing, or that Valve should do something to stop them, I’m just pointing out that they are going to be a big part of the economy.

What “friction” will there be on transactions? I expect Valve will take a cut of any sales as profit, but what % are we talking about here? 1%? 10%? Where this number is set will make a big difference in trade behaviour. In addition, do we expect any other barriers for trade? Daily/monthly transaction limits? Will these barriers be applied to trades between friends, or just trades on the exchange? There could be other barriers too, depending on local laws around gambling and/or trading in video games.

These are just a few of the question that I have been pondering about Artifact’s market. There is clearly a LOT of complexity here. Even if Valve comes up with the perfect answer to all of these questions new players are still going to need to learn all of this when they show up. Complexity is the biggest challenge the TCG model, so I worry this could be a barrier for players getting involved in the game.

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Cost: While TCGs are typically quite expensive, it should be noted that most TCGs are connected with actual paper games. To my knowledge, Hex is the only digital-exclusive game that uses a trading based system, and the pricing of Hex decks is fairly comparable to titles like Hearthstone, Shadowverse, or Eternal. It is difficult to read too much into this given the small sample size, and the relatively small size of Hex’s player base, but there is no question that the connection to real cards adds on a ton of back end costs which are ultimately passed down to the consumer. If I had to guess right now Artifact decks will probably be considerably less expensive than Magic decks.

There are other means to control the cost of TCGs. Both Hearthstone and Eternal have used bonus campaigns as a means to sell special sets of cards to players outside of regular packs. For those who don’t know, “Adventures” in Hearthstone consisted of a short single player campaign that gave access to a handful of cards, some of which were quite powerful. These are great for beginner players as they offer a simple way to quickly improve their collection, and are great for advanced players as they get more regular content releases. In a sense, this allows the game to take advantage of the strengths of LCGs in the TCG setting. Of course I have no idea whether Valve is actually considering this, or how it might be implemented if they are considering this, but it is certainly a possibility.

It should also be noted that just because Artifact is a pay-to-play TCG doesn’t mean it can’t have any F2P rewards. In the case of MTGO there are some forms of play rewards that exist in the system. These are not particularly generous, but they are something. There are a lot of fascinating possibilities for Artifact related to prizing schemes, and we will need to see what happens, but it is important to remember that just because Artifact is not F2P doesn’t mean there will be no rewards for players.

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Competitive Play: when it was announced that Artifact would not be F2P a lot of people were sceptical. Valve is a company known for it F2P properties, so it seemed weird that they would adopt a non-F2P model for a game that fit into a genre known for being F2P friendly. What advantage did this offer? What did they have in mind? I don’t know what they were thinking exactly, but the advantages to competitive play and community building might be part of it. When you develop the game in such a manner where third parties can profit off your game, you greatly incentivize a wider range of people getting involved in building your community. Let’s run through a hypothetical:

When Artifact launches Artifact Academy decides to set up a trading business (I have no specific plan around this right now, but let’s roll with it). I set up a storefront, with some exclusive deals to return customers, in addition to a network of trade bots programmed by people much smarter than me. With some of the money I make from this trading business I invest it into monthly tournaments, which serve as an advertisement for the trading business. As the tournament series expands, I then recruiting talent from those tournaments to produce content for the Artifact Academy website, which serves as an advertisement for both the store and the tournament series. I’m not saying that Artifact Academy itself is going to do this, but someone will make that happen.

This kind of organic growth in third party institutions is really only possible when there is some mechanism for spreading around the profits. These third party businesses that are instrumental for building the competitive scene are really only possible when there is space for them to make a profit. This is one of the reasons I brought up the idea of storefronts above: while they may not be as responsive or flexible as an exchange type system, they certainly offer an avenue for building value within the community.

Some of you may be thinking “HEY! What about Hearthstone? What about websites like Tempo Storm? Or, heck, what about other non-card games that are F2P that have thriving competitive scene” My point is not that you need trading or third party friendly business models to build competitive play. My point is that economic systems that are friendly to third party businesses are also conducive to vibrant competitive scenes. An organization like Tempo Storm is never going to be as influential as a an organization like Star City Games or Channel Fireball just given the structure of the business.

None of this is meant to disparage what websites like Tempo Storm have done, in fact I am really impressed with what they have accomplished given the structure of Hearthstone. It is not an environment that is particularly hospitable for that type of project. What I am saying is that Artifact’s choice to be a TCG may create an ecosystem that is particularly fertile for the growth of third party organizations, which can supercharge the competitive scene. It does suck that F2P players may be left out as a by-product, but I think the potential benefits are quite intriguing.

Conclusions

Thanks everyone for stopping by to check out my rant about economic systems. Be sure to check out the previous article/video in this series if you haven’t had a chance. You can also check out the TLDR video associated with this article here, if you want to get a summary of the article you just read…for… some reason. Also, please fill out my survey on economic preferences of card game players! 5 people will get $10 steam gift cards! Have some thoughts you wanted to add to the article? Think I mis-graded something? Overvaluing the role the TCG economy plays in building a competitive scene? Be sure to check out the Reddit thread to share your thoughts! As I mentioned in the last article, I am looking for any sort of feedback on this series to guide the subjects I hit in the future. I am writing all of this as I go, so please tell me what subjects you would like me to cover. That’s everything for today! Take care everyone!

Neon