Card Collection and Ownership

Con­sid­ers is­sues raised by: Ar­ti­fact Em­braces Card Balance Changes.

III. Card Col­lec­tion and Ownership

What does it mean to own a card?

Good ques­tion.

In differ­ent games, with differ­ent prin­ci­ples, on­line and offline, it means differ­ent things.

Let us be­gin in good old pa­per Magic: The Gather­ing. What does it mean to own a card?

In its literal sense it means you phys­i­cally own a card. This is my Black Lo­tus, or my Light­ning Strike. The card­board be­longs to me and no one can take that away.

In a more in­ter­est­ing sense, it means I own a card that I can play in games of Magic, from the table­top to the biggest tour­na­ments.

There are catches.

The first cat­e­gory of catch is that the card might not be le­gal, or not le­gal in its cur­rent form.

Wizards can ban or re­strict the card in var­i­ous for­mats. For­mats widely played can change, mak­ing the card no longer rele­vant or le­gal. Wizards can also er­rata the card, to change what it does.

To re­as­sure play­ers, Wizards has im­ple­mented a va­ri­ety of mea­sures against this.

They’ve stopped all power level er­rata; cards can be changed be­cause to make them work as in­tended if a mis­take is made, or to fix other rules or con­sis­tency is­sues, but not be­cause the card is too good or too weak.

They’ve stopped re­strict­ing cards en­tirely out­side of Vin­tage. They’ve promised not to ban (or in Vin­tage re­strict) cards lightly, only do­ing so in the face of su­per strong ev­i­dence, and even then ac­tively seek to lift such bans when­ever fea­si­ble. When such moves do prove nec­es­sary, their an­nounce­ments (link to a re­cent ex­am­ple) share their rea­son­ing and data so play­ers can bet­ter an­ti­ci­pate fu­ture ac­tions.

Bans re­main a con­cern, but Wizards has built a long track record of re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior, so their im­pact is min­i­mal ex­cept in cases where bans are likely for the right rea­sons.

A sec­ond cat­e­gory of con­cern is that what it rare to­day may be com­mon to­mor­row. Wizards might reprint your card, per­haps at a lower rar­ity, in­flat­ing the sup­ply and de­press­ing the price. This came to a head when Wizards printed large quan­tities of the Chron­i­cles set, crash­ing the value of many cards. Wizards has since spent decades re­as­sur­ing play­ers that they will print cards, both new and old, re­spon­si­bly.

The lynch­pin of this is the re­serve list. Wizards has promised that key old cards will never be reprinted. This has be­come a valuable costly sig­nal that Wizards will treat all of Magic re­spon­si­bly. If Wizards were to break the re­serve list, it would al­low many more play­ers to ac­cess the Le­gacy for­mat, which ex­ten­sively uses many cards from the re­serve list, and Wizards would make a lot of money from sel­l­ing the cards. But by do­ing so, Wizards would de­stroy the faith of its play­ers in the long term value of their col­lec­tions, card prices would crash, and a key pillar of the game would be gone. This would dev­as­tate all cards, not only the cards on the re­serve list, be­cause of the sig­nal it would send about Wizards’ gov­er­nance and fu­ture in­ten­tions.

Wizards has printed a num­ber of sets in the Masters se­ries, in­clud­ing Modern Masters, Vin­tage Masters and re­cently Ul­ti­mate Masters, which provide new copies of many of Magic’s most valuable and pop­u­lar cards not on the re­serve list, in­creas­ing player ac­cess to the Modern for­mat. The re­sult­ing in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Modern, com­bined with the new cards hav­ing new art and be­ing printed in re­spon­si­ble quan­tities, meant that older copies of the same cards in­creased rather than de­creased in value. The high prices on the Masters packs have, I be­lieve, been a key part of this suc­cess. There is some rea­son for con­cern if such poli­cies con­tinue, but in the medium term this has (at least to me) re­in­forced Wizards’ rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing re­spon­si­ble shep­herds.

A third cat­e­gory of con­cern is power creep. There is the temp­ta­tion in each set to print cards more pow­er­ful than those seen pre­vi­ously, in or­der to shake things up, keep­ing decks and games fresh and new, and giv­ing play­ers mo­ti­va­tion to buy the new cards. Do­ing this hurts the value of old cards, and by an­ti­ci­pa­tion of new ones, and also dam­ages the qual­ity of your game as the bal­ance is de­stroyed.

Another solu­tion to all these con­cerns is pro­vided by the Old School for­mat, and other similar for­mats that pre­serve older cards and sets. Th­ese provide a per­ma­nent place for older cards, with their prin­ci­ples heav­ily in­vested in pro­tect­ing that value. Th­ese for­mats are a key rea­son older cards are so valuable and that the prices of the old­est cards have ex­ploded.

I can think of three ad­di­tional con­cerns.

One is that Magic will lose its play­ers and times and places to play, re­sult­ing in a loss of value and util­ity for its cards. A sec­ond is that Magic play­ers will lose their re­spect for the offi­cially printed cards and start widely us­ing prox­ies and printed copies. A third is the threat of coun­terfeit cards. All are con­tinued threats that will never be elimi­nated. I con­tinue to be sur­prised and im­pressed that the prob­lem of coun­terfeits in par­tic­u­lar has not be­come far worse than it has.

As a res­i­dent of New York City, of course, I also have the is­sue of stor­age costs, and as an adult with chil­dren, sort­ing costs also loom large. Th­ese, rather than the above con­cerns or is­sues of cost, are what limit my phys­i­cal Magic col­lec­tion to­day.

Over­all, Wizards has pro­vided ro­bust own­er­ship of phys­i­cal Magic cards.

Other phys­i­cal games pro­vided vary­ing de­grees of own­er­ship. The biggest threat in these games is typ­i­cally power creep.

All of this has echoes and im­pli­ca­tions as we move into the digi­tal realm.

IV. Digi­tal Card Ownership

Own­er­ship of a digi­tal card, like own­er­ship of all digi­tal goods, is a trick­ier, more slip­pery con­cept.

To what ex­tent do you own a card on Magic On­line? In Magic Arena? In Hearth­stone or Eter­nal? In Poke­mon? In the re­mark­ably fun old Xbox 360 game Culd­cept Saga?

In Culd­cept Saga, your cards are yours, as part of your save file. No one can take that away, un­less Microsoft forces an up­date upon you that does so, al­though that seems un­likely at this point. You don’t need a cen­tral server to play. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you can’t sell your cards other than by trans­fer­ring your en­tire save file, and it would not do you any good since they aren’t worth any­thing, nor are there any as­surances of rar­ity. It is easy to ‘mine’ what­ever you want via grind­ing, if you so de­sire.

In Poke­mon, as I learned from former fa­natic Ari Lax, there is great news. You can trans­fer the Poke­mon. You could also spend hours upon hours grind­ing to get those perfect Poke­mon, as for true com­pe­ti­tion noth­ing less than a perfect Poke­mon will do. Since it takes so long to gen­er­ate the Poke­mon for sale, there ex­ists (or at least, there ex­isted) a mar­ket­place for them. Their price was pre­sum­ably based on the cost to grind them. Or if you look at things from a crypto per­spec­tive, they re­quired min­ing, and Poke­mon works via proof of work. I’d say proof of play, but few if any ‘play­ers’ craft­ing perfect Poke­mon are go­ing to make that mis­cat­e­go­riza­tion.

You even have a de­cent amount of pro­tec­tion against the Poke­mon be­ing mod­ified or con­fis­cated, since the game is played with­out a cen­tral server that can change what the cards do and rule your par­tic­u­lar copy in­valid.

Not half bad. In a real sense, one can be said to own your Poke­mon. If you catch them all, you can keep them all.

Eter­nal and Hearth­stone offer a less gen­er­ous pic­ture.

If I own a card in Eter­nal or Hearth­stone, I only own it in the con­text of my ac­count, on the com­pany’s servers. If they change a card, which they fre­quently do, the old card is gone. If they banned the card, or ro­tated it out, it would van­ish. If they con­fis­cate your ac­count, that’s it. If they take away a mode of play, you can’t get it back. Sur­plus copies are al­most worth­less, as they don’t per­mit vari­a­tions where ex­tra copies would be al­lowed, and you can’t trans­fer or sell them, only de­stroy them for a small fixed re­turn in dust or shift­stone.

Packs are given away daily, with re­ward sys­tems that some­times hand them out like candy, while other times be­ing stingy. When you get re­wards, it feels worth­while be­cause it is sav­ing you from hav­ing to spend money or lose ac­cess to cards, but the sum to­tal of all pos­si­ble re­wards is a fully un­locked game un­til the next ex­pan­sion rolls around. If the game were to fail, the servers would shut down, the game would be­come un­playable and your cards would be worth­less in all senses.

That’s quite the grim pic­ture. They take away buy­ing and sel­l­ing, trans­fer and in­de­pen­dent play, and any prac­ti­cal ex­pec­ta­tion of re­spect for value earned, but still de­mand un­lock­ing all cards one by one. This leaves games that de­mand a grind to keep you play­ing, and give you noth­ing in re­turn ex­cept the right to keep play­ing. Even when there’s a fun game un­der there, most time spent with the game largely fails to find it. I’ve dis­cussed my dis­like for such mod­els be­fore.

Don’t get me wrong. Things could be so much worse on all such fronts. True best-prac­tices-fol­low­ing mo­bile games make you ap­pre­ci­ate how truly gen­er­ous, and not-ut­terly-util­ity-de­stroy­ing, Eter­nal’s or Hearth­stone’s busi­ness model is by com­par­i­son. As an ex­am­ple, see Plants vs. Zom­bies Heroes, a game I was pointed to by good friend Sam Black. There seems to be a solid lane game hid­den un­der there, but we will never know. We’re too busy let­ting the phone play ads to get gems to buy a pack.

Magic the Gather­ing: Arena is a step up from Eter­nal and Hearth­stone on the card own­er­ship front. Cards can’t be mod­ified due to their ties with phys­i­cal Magic: The Gather­ing, and ban­ning cards means ban­ning them in phys­i­cal play. This makes your own­er­ship rel­a­tively se­cure.

That still leaves all the other weak­nesses of the free to play eco­nomic model (minus some marginal other im­prove­ments Arena makes). Play is con­fined to Wizards’ servers, un­der their rules, and their judg­ment that you con­tinue to own an ac­count and its cards, with their database be­ing the only judge on whether you own a card. You can’t buy, sell or trans­fer cards out­side of buy­ing gems in the offi­cial store. Wizards is free to give out cards like candy at some point in the fu­ture. Even the de­fault for­mats of play are some­times ro­tated in and out, and could dis­ap­pear en­tirely. If you left your Arena col­lec­tion alone for sev­eral years, you would be un­likely to have much of value or be able to com­pet­i­tively play any­thing upon your re­turn.

There is tons of cool stuff one can do with Magic (or to a lesser ex­tent Eter­nal or Hearth­stone) cards. Many week­ends on Arena fea­ture one of these cool things! They charge you in-game cur­rency to play. Then af­ter a few days the op­por­tu­nity is gone, per­haps never to re­turn.

Magic On­line at­tempts to ren­der your cards as your cards. You can buy and sell them freely with other play­ers, so long as you go through the game’s in­ter­face. Re­cent cards can even be re­deemed for phys­i­cal cards. Wizards brought its record and rep­u­ta­tion as re­spon­si­ble stew­ard and promised ex­plic­itly not to print more than a small ad­di­tional amount of each product each year, to main­tain col­lec­tion value. A full Magic On­line ac­count, with four copies of each card, at one point was worth over $20,000.

Then came the trea­sure chests. Wizards re­moved and broke its promises about quan­tity of reprints. While there were pos­i­tive short term effects on the Magic On­line econ­omy, and one can make a case that cheaper Magic is bet­ter long term for all, col­lec­tions have tanked in value as they are in­flated away. One is re­minded of gov­ern­ments that re­al­ize they can print money, as the cur­rency slowly is drained of its value. With Magic Arena’s new pop­u­lar­ity, there is ad­di­tional fear that Wizards will stop sup­port­ing Magic On­line. With play only pos­si­ble on its servers and all the ac­com­pa­ny­ing re­stric­tions, there is real dan­ger that the plat­form will not even sur­vive more than a few years out.

Magic On­line ex­tracted a ton of money from many play­ers, my­self in­cluded, by pro­vid­ing a way to play Magic on a com­puter and do­ing a good enough job with card own­er­ship and col­lec­tion value to jus­tify the in­vest­ment. I can’t say I didn’t get my money’s worth in good times and good prac­tice, but it is sad to see that things could not be sus­tained. Bet­ter stew­ards, and bet­ter ways of pro­tect­ing against cor­po­rate policy changes, proved nec­es­sary.

This brings us to Ar­ti­fact.

Ar­ti­fact makes its cards trans­fer­able. That’s huge. You can only sell them through the steam mar­ket­place, which is bad, and it charges a hefty fee on each trade, which is worse. By de­fault you get paid in steam credit. But even crip­pled, the fact that you can trade at all is huge. It is such a re­lief to be able to buy cards di­rectly at rea­son­able prices. at all, and to sell even at a sub­stan­tial dis­count.

Valve also, prior to the re­cent up­date, promised a philos­o­phy of not mod­ify­ing cards ex­cept in ex­treme situ­a­tions, and made a point not to give away packs un­less money was spent or tour­na­ment en­try fees were risked. Com­bined with a com­mit­ment to a mil­lion dol­lar first prize tour­na­ment, and Valve’s long term cred­i­bil­ity and track record, there was rea­son to trust an in­vest­ment in an Ar­ti­fact col­lec­tion.

There were catches, of course. Other big limi­ta­tions ex­isted on card own­er­ship. You can only play Ar­ti­fact on Valve’s servers, with its offi­cial play modes. Your cards are en­tries in their database. They could in the­ory con­fis­cate your steam ac­count at any time, or more likely they or you could be hacked. The game could shut down and take your cards with it, or play modes could shift and ro­tate.

I have always been of two minds about whether I mostly own the games I have on steam and on similar down­load ser­vices, since I can’t lose or mis­place or dam­age them and the kids can’t de­stroy them, or if I mostly own the games I have phys­i­cal copies for. Same goes for mu­sic and other me­dia. In prac­tice I’ve been far hap­pier with ser­vices like steam, but the om­nip­re­sent dan­ger is definitely there. Our own­er­ship, and in an im­por­tant sense our civ­i­liza­tion, grow more frag­ile.

I still can’t get my phone to re­li­ably re­sume play­ing pod­casts I had already started, if I go into the sub­way and lose in­ter­net ac­cess. It’s a prob­lem. But I digress.

Last week’s changes take away two im­por­tant pillars.

Play­ers are now given packs and event tick­ets as a re­ward for play. The re­wards are limited in scope, so in their cur­rent form this should not have too big an im­pact. There is already dan­ger, if too many play­ers who are ex­clu­sively play­ing limited get pe­ri­odic card re­wards and then dump them into the com­mu­nity mar­ket.

At cur­rent lev­els I ex­pect this to not be a ma­jor im­pact. This con­cern is more about po­ten­tial fu­ture re­wards that would have a larger im­pact, and the an­ti­ci­pa­tion by play­ers of those fu­ture re­wards and their eco­nomic im­pact. Once the cen­tral bank of Ar­ti­fact proves will­ing to print money to give to play­ers, its cur­rency will for­ever be sus­pect as a re­sult.

My first level model says that there should be a de­cent amount of ruin in the sys­tem here, as play­ers sub­sti­tute buy­ing off other play­ers for the pur­chase of packs, and the dam­age starts when the sum of this effect and the cards from packs won in the prize queues, and the col­lec­tions of play­ers who buy the game then dump all they have, adds up to be­yond a crit­i­cal amount ver­sus the num­ber of play­ers. Thus, in­creas­ing the num­ber of ac­tive play­ers who keep and ex­pand col­lec­tions, and thus both in­creas­ing de­mand and re­duc­ing available sup­ply, can eas­ily more than com­pen­sate for this effect in­definitely as long as Valve is ex­pected to be­have re­spon­si­bly. It would still cau­tion me away from ex­tra cards as a fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment, but not be suffi­cient to drive me away from hold­ing a full set for its mun­dane util­ity.

The other change is the one I de­scribed in the first post. Valve pivoted from a philos­o­phy of mod­ify­ing cards only in ex­treme cases, to a philos­o­phy of reg­u­lar, grad­ual card bal­ance changes, which is more in line with how they ap­proach a game like DOTA 2.

There are many good (and bad) ar­gu­ments for and against power level changes on cards. If these changes drive player par­ti­ci­pa­tion suffi­ciently, other con­sid­er­a­tions might over­whelm the down­side risks even for card own­er­ship.

That down­side is the di­rect im­pact on own­er­ship, both short and long term. It is not small.

If I ex­pect cards that prove suc­cess­ful to be made less pow­er­ful, then that bodes quite poorly for the long term value of my in­vest­ments, and is a crip­pling blow to spec­u­la­tion on the ba­sis of card util­ity. My cards and deck might not only not be the most pow­er­ful op­tion available, they might not even work the same way to­mor­row. My ‘own­er­ship quo­tient’ has gone down dra­mat­i­cally. There is a rea­son Valve is offer­ing to buy back pur­chased copies of these cards at their post-an­nounce­ment prices. We won’t have that fal­lback from fu­ture an­nounce­ments, so if I was go­ing to buy other cards likely to even­tu­ally get worse, such as An­nihila­tion, I would severely dis­count the long term in­vest­ment value, and eval­u­ate mostly on the ba­sis of short term util­ity.

V. But Does Any­one Care?

De­grees of card own­er­ship and col­lectibil­ity vary greatly from game to game.

You can have the abil­ity to buy and sell freely (Magic: The Gather­ing on pa­per, or a fu­ture crypto-based game), buy and sell within the frame­work of the game (Magic: The Gather­ing On­line), buy and sell within the frame­work of the game for a fee (Ar­ti­fact), or not have that abil­ity at all (Hearth­stone, Eter­nal or Magic Arena).

You can have an ab­solute guaran­tee of rar­ity (older pa­per Magic: The Gather­ing cards, or per­haps a fu­ture crypto-based game), you can have a guaran­tee of cards be­yond a fixed base be­ing printed only when in­ten­tion­ally paid for (Ar­ti­fact be­fore the change, Magic: The Gather­ing On­line be­fore trea­sure chests, in-print Magic: The Gather­ing pa­per cards), you can have sup­ply be re­stricted in real ways but with sub­stan­tial free or in­ci­den­tal in­flux (Ar­ti­fact af­ter the change, Magic: The Gather­ing On­line af­ter trea­sure chests), or you can have lots of in­flux con­tin­u­ously (Magic Arena, Eter­nal, Hearth­stone and similar games).

You can have the free­dom to do what you want with your cards with­out a cen­tral au­thor­ity (pa­per Magic, or a fu­ture crypto game), you can have rea­son­able ded­i­ca­tion to al­low­ing flex­ible con­structed game forms in­definitely but not limited play or al­ter­nate rules sets or other weird­ness (Magic: The Gather­ing On­line), or you can be re­stricted to the few op­tions cur­rently offered to play­ers in an at­tempt to solve co­or­di­na­tion and crit­i­cal mass prob­lems (Magic Arena, Ar­ti­fact, Eter­nal, Hearth­stone and al­most ev­ery digi­tal game ever).

You can have in­surance against cards chang­ing or be­ing banned on a whim (Magic, and pre-change Ar­ti­fact), or con­fis­cated from you, or not (most ev­ery­one else digi­tal).

If you want to cre­ate en­dur­ing col­lectibles, these are cru­cial is­sues.

But se­ri­ously: does any­one care about any of that?

Good ques­tion.

Some peo­ple care. I care. Proof by ex­am­ple.

Col­lec­tively, do peo­ple care? Or do they mostly just want their game to be fun and peo­ple to play it?

My be­lief is that they care if you give them a rea­son to care. Or, they want to care, but they don’t have to care to en­joy your game.

Good col­lectibil­ity is one po­ten­tial as­set among many. It has value. So do other things. It also has down­sides, as it risks forc­ing a mar­ket men­tal­ity on a leisure ac­tivity.

Some peo­ple come for col­lectibil­ity and card value al­most ex­clu­sively. Some peo­ple don’t care about it at all, or ac­tively dis­like it. Others like it along with a wide va­ri­ety of other things.

The rea­son I care about it is partly be­cause it adds in­ter­est­ing strate­gic lay­ers and op­tions to the ex­pe­rience, and be­cause they cre­ate value, re­ward play­ers and al­low games to charge a lot more money, al­low­ing these games to be cre­ated, to ex­ist and to sup­port com­mu­ni­ties and prize pools.

VI. Four Paths

The big­ger rea­son to care is be­cause most of the al­ter­na­tives peo­ple im­ple­ment are fun­da­men­tally bro­ken, to the ex­tent that they ruin games.

The con­cepts of ran­dom­ized paid in­cre­men­tal play com­po­nents has be­come best prac­tices in games. Most im­ple­men­ta­tions are a night­mare.

See my pre­vi­ous com­men­tary re­gard­ing Eter­nal, or Richard Garfield’s A Game Player’s Man­i­festo. Eter­nal’s model is com­par­a­tively gen­er­ous and friendly, even when held against similar games like Hearth­stone or Magic: The Gather­ing Arena, and it is a differ­ent or­der of mag­ni­tude of bad when com­pared to true mo­bile freemium hell that fol­lows ‘best prac­tices,’ which de­stroys far more than all of the value. Try­ing to play Shin Megami Ten­sei D-2 or Plants vs. Zom­bies Heroes, games that on im­por­tant lev­els are try­ing to be my jam, made me cry.

Games have four known tech­nolo­gies re­gard­ing pric­ing, rev­enue and own­er­ship. Each has its own logic.

Op­tion one is true mo­bile freemium hell. I view this as a true deal with the devil. You bom­bard play­ers with im­pe­tus to spend ab­surd amounts, make the game not fun, let a few big spenders get ad­dicted and take their money. Such games should be avoided on prin­ci­ple, even when they still have some fun in them.

Op­tion two is friendly freemium. This in­cludes Hearth­stone, Eter­nal and Magic: The Gather­ing Arena. I view this as a path de­pen­dent bad equil­ibrium. Play­ers see the re­wards in such games as be­ing ‘paid to play’ in an emo­tion­ally res­o­nant sense, and want to see num­bers go­ing up as they play. I un­der­stand and sym­pa­thize. Play­ers thus de­mand and ac­cept their com­pet­i­tive games be­com­ing grinds, and vi­o­lently protest (see Ar­ti­fact’s re­cep­tion) when games are not such grinds. Play­ers thus talk about want­ing a ‘gen­er­ous busi­ness model’.

The friendly fremium model dra­mat­i­cally re­duces the fun value of the game out­side of the Sk­in­ner box of grind­ing, largely re­plac­ing it with the grind for most play­ers. Such games need not be avoided en­tirely, if the game ex­pe­rience is suffi­ciently com­pel­ling. But one must pro­ceed with cau­tion, as you are fac­ing ad­dic­tive loops, and money spent is un­likely to go far or last long. Thus, one must have a com­mit­ment to not spend money on such games un­less the need is great and one’s eyes are fully open, and you know ex­actly what you are buy­ing.

Op­tion three is a fixed fee for ac­cess to the base game, and ad­di­tional fees for ex­pan­sions. This is also known as the liv­ing card game. It is also known as how most games (and other things!) are sold. This model is great. There are lots of games in the first two cat­e­gories I would love to give $50 to if that let me fully en­joy what the game could be offer­ing, but there is no rea­son­able way to in­cre­men­tally spend money. A fixed fee that then al­lows the game to op­ti­mize around my en­joy­ment is much bet­ter.

Even here, I still care about main­tain­ing ‘value’ even though that could rea­son­ably be viewed as silly. Con­sider the Steam Sale. Mul­ti­ple times a year, many com­puter games are offered at ex­treme, 50%+ dis­counts, and pe­ri­od­i­cally base prices are low­ered as well. That which costs $60 on re­lease day is likely available for $30 within the year, and $10 not too long there­after. Given my op­por­tu­nity cost to play games, you could ar­gue I should not care, but I am still a trader and the ex­pe­rience is su­per painful. Com­pare this to my ex­pe­rience buy­ing games for the Nin­tendo Switch, where I want digi­tal down­loads so I need to pay full prices from the store with no ex­pec­ta­tion that I will get a bet­ter price by wait­ing. There, I pay far more, and yes this means I buy and try fewer items, but if any­thing I feel bet­ter about the ex­pe­rience.

The emer­gence of An­droid: Netrun­ner and other liv­ing card games was a won­der­ful trend that I hope con­tinues. I hope it also pros­pers on­line. If you are not go­ing to em­brace the mar­ket­place in op­tion four, this is what I want the busi­ness model to be. Pay Slay the Spire its $30, play the game as in­tended for­ever. Ideally, make a com­mit­ment to not dis­count that price, at least for a pe­riod of a few years, so I don’t feel like a schmuck ev­ery time I make a pur­chase.

There can still be en­try fees and prizes, to give play­ers mo­ti­va­tion in their games, but the prizes need not take the form of cards. Like poker, the point is to give play­ers mo­ti­va­tion, so pay them in as close to money as pos­si­ble.

Ar­ti­fact does this for its limited play ex­pe­rience. You pay $20 for the core game, and can draft as much as you want. If you wish, you can risk $1 to keep it in­ter­est­ing and keep ev­ery­one mo­ti­vated. Great!

The ques­tion I keep com­ing back to in the week fol­low­ing Ar­ti­fact’s changes is, if we are go­ing to bal­ance cards con­tin­u­ously, should it have sim­ply been a liv­ing card game with prize tour­na­ments at­tached? Could it still be­come one and we com­pen­sate peo­ple who bought in? Why are we trad­ing these cards in the Steam mar­ket­place at all, at this point? Valve has already pi­o­neered hugely suc­cess­ful ways of mon­e­tiz­ing games like DOTA 2 that it could use again in Ar­ti­fact.

The prob­lems I have with Ar­ti­fact’s new ap­proach to card changes and awards are myr­iad, but the biggest is the mis­match it has with the busi­ness model of the full mar­ket­place. How to prop­erly em­brace a true mar­ket­place for a card game is a prob­lem I have been ex­ten­sively work­ing on for many months. Con­tin­u­ously giv­ing away and chang­ing cards seems like the op­po­site of what one must do.

The fourth op­tion is to cre­ate a mar­ket­place. This is the solu­tion for pa­per Magic: The Gather­ing, and Magic: The Gather­ing On­line. It was also, to my delight, cho­sen by Ar­ti­fact. Do­ing this in­volves a pact be­tween pub­lisher, play­ers, traders and col­lec­tors. It also means tak­ing good care of the mar­ket through effec­tive mon­e­tary policy and think­ing hard about is­sues of sup­ply and de­mand. If that pact is main­tained, the mar­ket is han­dled well and the game is a suc­cess, cards can be a great in­vest­ment and ev­ery­one wins. Fall down on too many fronts, as Magic: The Gather­ing On­line has some­times done in the past and is now do­ing, and it goes badly.

For le­gal rea­sons, Has­bro has per­pet­u­ated the farce that it be­lieves that Magic: The Gather­ing cards are not worth money. This has led to some ab­surd failures and poor func­tion­al­ity, par­tic­u­larly in Magic: The Gather­ing On­line. It has also led to missed op­por­tu­ni­ties to em­brace the mar­ket­place and in­te­grate it prop­erly into the game ex­pe­rience. Countless hours would cease be­ing wasted, trans­ac­tion costs would shrink and new pos­si­bil­ities would open up.

I hope to soon get the op­por­tu­nity to make a game of my own. My in­ten­tion is that such a game will em­brace the logic of the mar­ket, and in­te­grate that into its de­sign, its for­mats and its busi­ness model from the start. I am deeply ex­cited to see what I can do with that, and with giv­ing play­ers full and real own­er­ship of their cards. It comes with re­stric­tions, but as Mark Rose­wa­ter of­ten re­minds us, re­stric­tions breed cre­ativity. I work much bet­ter un­der re­stric­tions than with­out them.

Most im­por­tantly, when you em­brace the mar­ket fully, cards be­come fully liquid, and col­lec­tion man­age­ment and ac­qui­si­tion ceases to be a huge time sink or the pri­mary mode of game play. You come full cir­cle.

For those who mostly want to make a card game that plays great, as Ar­ti­fact does, it may fi­nally be time to go the other way. Charge your money up front, or make it on other things. Free us from the Sk­in­ner box grind of need­ing to slowly as­sem­ble com­po­nents one by one and the time sink of col­lec­tion man­age­ment. Free us to ex­pe­rience core game play.