Copyright and collectible card games

Though I am a midway defender of the notion of copyright, for some reason the collectible card game craze really disgusts me. I think that it is because the scarcity is intentionally created, and the dollar amounts paid simply seem idiotic due to that fact.

I was thinking about Magic: The Gathering cards for some reason, and mulling over the fact that a $.005 piece of cardboard could be worth $10,000. You can not say it is worth that because the actual card was handpainted and therefore impossible to produce, etc. Instead, its value is entirely artificial, caused solely by its “power” in a game, perhaps combined with some nostalgia value.

But, of course, in the end, it really is a $.005 piece of cardboard. One that would be incredibly easy to reproduce in this day and age. In fact, you can almost guarantee that if there were no copyright or other intellectual property protection law out there, it would be readily reproduced. People would make copies that were impossible to detect versus the “real thing,” and the value would presumably be lost (assuming the technology exists to make a perfect or near perfect copy, which I assume it does).

I recognize that a lot of comparisons can be made to comic books. For example, we could obviously recreate damn near exact copies of the first Superman or Spiderman, but people want the real original. Yet with most comic books (at least the incredibly valuable ones), the scarcity was generated by accident. They were produced to be read, not hoarded. In fact, though I am far from knowledgeable about the area, I recall part of the problem in the 80s and 90s was generated by comic book makers intentionally creating these artificially hyped limited edition “1st issue” runs, that would be profiteers snapped up, only to find later that you can not always “create” a valuable collectible.

I think it is interesting that to some degree, copyright is probably what is artificially protecting the valuation of things like Magic cards. I can not quite come to an answer as to whether that is good or bad, and I am interested in hearing from copyright advocates and haters whether this is another area where copyright law either excels or falls down.

Your problem has to do with you not having an affinity for the media in question. I could care less about card games, period, but I would think in what is obviously an industry driven by obsession and dedication to that very “artificial” scarcity you condemn, undermining the foundation of the game would be extremely unpopular for all involved.

Collector mentality defies all logic and comes and goes in cycles, depending on what thingy is popular this week and why. Copyright has nothing to do with it.

What a bizarre post.

Actually I like them, that is part of the problem.

By way of example, I have a ton of board games, some of which are complete game card games. You buy them, you may end up getting the same number cards to play with as you do in a collectible card game. But you have all of the cards.

You could similarly acquire all of the cards in a collectible card game. It is certainly possible. It is simply 20 times more expensive because of the artificial scarcity created by the right to print limited runs, and prevent others from making more. This right is only allowed because copyright law protects the right of the manufacturer/developer of the card.

I actually own some complete sets of collectible card games. But I generally refuse to buy them, because I have such a difficult time paying a huge amount of money for something I know could be easily reproduced for about half of a penny. Unlike other areas, like baseball cards, where collection is in and of itself primarily the sole goal, the primary goal of collectible card games (to my knowledge) is supposed to be the game. A personal opinion, obviously, but that makes the “$10k for a rare card” issue different for me in that context. If you are buying it to play a game, not to be a collector, why not just make another one?

I do not know exactly why noun is so strident that copyright has nothing to do with this, or why he thinks the post is so bizarre. Suffice it to say, I disagree with him.

I’ve known people who have played with photocopied magic cards. Obviously not in tournaments or anything but just for fun with friends. It never bothered me to play with those people but I wouldn’t play with fakes in my own deck. No special reason other than I like buying things and before the internet it was fun going all over town looking for a rare card.

I was pretty heavily into Legend of the Five Rings for a couple years. One story from that game’s history has relevance to this situation I think.

A while ago, I want to say around '97, they introduced a new distribution method. Called Rolling Thunder, it broke the traditional CCG cycle of releasing one moderate-sized expansion every 3 months. Instead, the same number of cards were spread over monthly installments. Each box was about half the size of standard display boxes, and the set had flattened rarity (although I don’t recall the specifics). Essentially, you could acquire each set in its entirety (probably) from a single $50 box per month.

The idea failed miserably for a variety of reasons. The one that’s relevant to this point is that interest diminished vastly due to the ease of acquiring complete sets. As much as CCGers piss and moan about rarity schemes, it turns out that they like the alternative even less.

And yeah, people play with proxies in casual games all the time. I’d say people who want to play competitively and don’t enjoy the collection aspect are very rare. Of course, that could just be self-selection since anyone with that attitude never picked up the hobby in the first place.

Precisely my point. I knew staying awake in Econ would be good for something!

There were a couple of things that went on. Big one, as you suggest, was the creation of artificial scarcity of some titles designed to the speculation market, i.e., collectors. Image, particularly, was big on the foil covers, sending in proofs-of-purchase to get a special “Image #0” (which means you have to get two, one to take the proof from, the other to remain pristine).

The speculation market was there because so many of the ones that had been meant to be read and not hoarded had come to be perceived as very valuable, thanks in no small part to Overstreet and other price guides. I’m sure there is also a psychological element in there, of mostly boys in their late teens and up rationalizing their weekly expenditures on what is mostly a medium aimed at 13 year olds.

Collecting is the sport of the affluent.

Also, comics disappeared from the corner convenience store spinner racks and newstands, it became a ‘comic book store’ thing. Specialized retail selling products not available elsewhere, i.e., a fetish store. A large factor in this was the consolidation that happened in the distribution. There used to be 6 major comic book distributors, and retailers could return unsold copies to the distributor/publisher, enabling many titles to be stocked, even those with very limited appeal, because the retailer wasn’t going to be eating a bunch of inventory every week. This is how magazines and most books are still handled.

But then, through various events including the meddling of Ronald Perelman and Carl Icahn, junk bond dealers and corporate raiders, and the business failings of some distributors, Marvel ends up owning Diamond, the only real comic book distributor. Monopoly = bad, usually. Returns go bye-bye. More than half the comic book shops in the country go out of business. A “hit selling” title drops from 650,000 copies sold nationally (IIRC, Batman has the title) to less than 1/10th that. And the margins comic retailers get is pretty damn small - you gotta move a LOT of paper to pay the rent.

This has been the state for about the last 20 years. They still offer “alternate cover” editions in limited runs. But what’s happened, those speculators, i.e., collectors, are holding a bunch of colored paper. A lot of comic book stores have gotten out of the “back issue” business. My local store has the best stock of any comic book store I have ever seen in my 30-something years of reading comics, and is well known nationally, but ALL back issues are now 50% off, and the owner has no intention of changing that discount (and I’m sure that 50% is off the Overstreet Guide list).

There have been some signs of progress though, Borders and Barnes and Nobles with spinner racks in their stores. Some limited attempts at allowing returns by DC, but the fundamental problem is twofold:

  • they’re too damned expensive, and
  • kids don’t go to comic book stores (I haven’t seen anyone under the age of 27 or so in a comic book store in years, others with a broader range of experience with the comic book store demo have said the same).

(There’s also a problem, I think, in that most of the popular titles are based on characters that are 80-to-50 years old).

But that’s comics…

I think it is interesting that to some degree, copyright is probably what is artificially protecting the valuation of things like Magic cards. I can not quite come to an answer as to whether that is good or bad, and I am interested in hearing from copyright advocates and haters whether this is another area where copyright law either excels or falls down.

I don’t think copyright law is much of a factor in the CCG issue. The thing that inflates prices there is scarcity and demand: scarcity from the publisher, demand from the player. When I dabbled in Magic cards, the demand was almost solely based on bad or unbalanced game mechanics in cards, or text that was had unforeseen implications. I sold my cards, for a nice return of about 500%, just before a bunch of them were ‘revised’ for the next edition. Mmmm, mmmm, Moxen, Black Lotus, Time Twister FTW!

The implications of getting caught with a fake card are much more significant, I think, than getting caught for a copyright violation. Selling a fake would get you a counterfeit or fraud charge, though, not a copyright violation (at least, I think that unlikley in the extreme).

The problem is, some people can afford to buy them at grossly inflated prices. That’s life. Not that if you photocopy a card, the FBI and Jack Valenti’s Ghost will come for you in the middle of the night.

Now…anyone want to buy 40 long boxes of great comics from the mid-80s through the mid-90s? I could really use the space in my garage. :)

Yeah, collectible card games clearly aren’t about collecting at all.

I’m struggling to determine what this has to do with politics or religion.

Flat Rarity always seemed far more preferable to me, but the CCGs that tried it most failed, and did at best middling. They not only ended up making less due to the cheaper cost to play, but they also got played less. Maybe the non-collectors like the “unknown” aspect of seeing cards new to them on a regular basis? I don’t know, but for whatever reason flat rarity ended up being a bad business decision.

On the other hand, it’s apparently not necessary to be quite so eye-gouging about rarity as WotC is. Shadow Fist is still kicking around (a much better game than Magic), and while it’s not flat rarity, the rarity of cards roughly parallels how many of the card you’d want to have in your deck. Broadly useful/powerful cards are common, special case cards tend to be uncommon, and unique cards you can only use one of tend to be rare – in stark contrast to Magic’s tendency to make rare cards simply better. There’s still enough collectability for the completionists to get their fix, but you can play competitively with only a modest investment.

Well, clearly this has become an opportunity for at least a few people to act intensely stupid merely for purposes of being contrary to whatever I say. I believe it is an interesting question/issue, and have no desire to play out the good old “forum enemies” game on this one that some apparently want to engage in.

So you’re not only pissed because CCG manufacturers don’t make equal numbers of every card, thus allowing you to easily complete sets, you’re pissed because you can’t simply photocopy your own due to the manufacturer thinking they should make some money from their own IP.

“Forum enemies” has nothing to do with it, your complaint is retarded. You should really get a different hobby if the very nature of the one you’re in is so offensive to you.

What you said has absolutely nothing to do with anything I said. Further, you have ascribed motives to me that I do not have, nor did I evidence them.

It does, however, prove the point in my prior post. You are simply making outright lies in some odd attempt to vilify me, along with the now standard tossing around of words like “retard” and “idiot.”

I understand that to you, every thread absolutely must be about your own personal hatred of something or love of something. Please go find another thread like that so you can call someone a retard or band together with someone who shares your viewpoints on something and call others retards. This is not that thread.

Marvel bought Heroes’ World, not Diamond. And drove it into the ground.

IIRC, DC owns a minority stake in Diamond.

Can we agree that, all other points aside, “Love it or leave it!” is virtually always a terrible argument to make? I don’t think the “very nature” of Magic is a stupid power creep that forces me to choose between spending hundreds of dollars a year or never being able to play the game. The “very nature” of Magic is a game.

And using a nerd hobby as a lead-in for a discussion about politics is a great idea. This is a gaming board, after all.

Anyway, the politics tie-in problem with Magic isn’t things like the $10,000 Black Lotus. They were strange accidents of the game, whose value came about organically. If copyright laws allowed unlimited “legit” Lotuses, the price would go down, yes, but Magic as a game would be far less enjoyable. The interesting political problem raised by Magic is the notion of whether profit-seeking by WotC should be more important than maintaining Magic as an enjoyable and (somewhat) balanced game. Breaking and re-breaking Magic makes WotC money, but also lowers the total utility. There’s an extent to which Magic belongs to WotC, but there’s also an extent to which there is (or was) an implied social contract that WotC took advantage of to become a hit in the first place.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution, but it’s an interesting problem.

Translation: “I don’t have a hope in hell of responding to your criticisms logically, as my own position has no basis in reality, so please leave.”

Before I go, I want to let you know that I used to sell this stuff, so please believe me when I say that uneven distribution is an inherent part of the business plan. If people can complete a set after opening one or two boxes, then sales are going to die quickly. So they print fewer of some cards, making them rare, to force people to open more and more packs in an attempt to get it. This is not new. The same thing has been happening with sports cards for decades.

If the chase is so irritating to you, but you absolutely must have the cards, then consider buying full sets from dealers instead. You’ll pay a premium for someone else’s labor, but you won’t be dealing with the frustration of trying to complete your own. (Of course, many others would argue that’s the whole POINT of the hobby, but…)

I understand what Slyfrog is driving at with the mechanics of the games in general, but I’m not sure it’s really a copyright issue at all. Keep in mind, packs of Magic sell for $3.95 no matter what cards are in them, so the publisher really has no financial incentive to make some cards any more rare than others. Rarity is a function of game mechanics. If all cards in a game were printed in equal numbers soon the game would devolve into a few decks containing only the best cards. By introducing a rarity factor, the game forces people to compensate by developing strategies using common and uncommon cards.

On the flip side, there are plenty of rares in Magic and other games that aren’t worth the cardboard they’re printed on. Only game altering or “broken” rares tend to fetch high prices, despite what the price guides might say. Plenty of rare cards listed at $3-$5 in the price guides sell for $0.50 or even $0.25 at stores and conventions. For the short time I played Magic back in the mid-90’s my gaming friends and I would have fun trying to make viable decks using only these “trash rares” and a few commons. Damn if some of those decks didn’t go on to win a local tourney or two.

Basically, rarity in a CCG isn’t as much about selling more packs or putting an artificial value on a card as much as it is about game mechanics and strategy. I saw plenty of “burn decks” and “weenie decks” made of common cards win tournaments, so having a set of Moxes does not a victory guaranty.

I take your point, but couldn’t you still have the same system by simply limiting the number of rares in a deck, for example?

Put another way, having rares does not really force people to compensate because the common cards are just as good or better. It just means that you are compensating because you can not afford the cost to get the rare.

If one card is really better than another (and CCG systems often contain tons of cards, where the good players will often admit that at least for some of them, there is no reason to ever have a particular card unless you can not afford the better version of that card), then it really just means (for a game context) there was no reason to print the worse card in the first place. Again, other than to increase the total volume of cards on the market to heighten the collectability difficulty (i.e. increase cash flow to the developer).

This has something to do with it, and it is true that many people -mostly casual players and collectors- fully expect their rare cards to be better than the common cards. This is often not the case; the rares are usually special-use cards, though in Magic, there is definitely a bump in power for some simpler rare cards. This is a source of annoyance for many tournament players, especially with the rare lands. Everyone needs land (of course, there is an exception to this in some current older format decks).

There are uses for the the “bad” cards, and mostly it has to do with limited card pools such as in limited tournaments or casual players that are learning the game. Some strictly worse cards have use as redundancy of effect because of the 4-of-a-kind maxmum in tournament constructed decks; for example, it seems there isn’t really a reason for you to use Shock if you can get Lightning Bolt, but if you already have four Lightning Bolts and you need that particular effect, you have to use the lesser card.

Copyright has nothing to do with the value of the cards; collectability/speculation (of which only authentics are worth anything) and playability in tournaments has everything to do with it. The ridiculous price of the power cards that are worth hundreds of dollars actually does relate to your example of comic books: the creators did NOT expect people to want four of everything. The moxes were overpowered because they figured nobody would own more than a few hundred cards and the extra efficiency of the rare cards made it exciting and mysterious. The physical production of the cards has very little to do with the value, as well. Besides the obvious IP, art assets, and R&D, there are the very expensive pro tours and promotions, Magic Online, and the sink of money into new games that unfortunately usually bomb.

I assume from your attitude that you do not usually play in competetive tournaments such as those sanctioned by the DCI; they usually do not involve the ridiculously overpriced cards and are limited to cards from the last few years. Newer cards (as in since 1995!) were produced in such a high volume that it isn’t too difficult to obtain a particular rare at all. Most of the tournaments I play in are the Limited format, where you don’t even need a deck. I might suggest using various free online games such as Apprentice or Magic Workstation if you’d like to try the expensive formats against random internet people. You can also simply get a sharpie to write on trash commons if you’re playing live; that’s what most competetive players do when trying out new decks.

I also know plenty of people that play and very much enjoy the game of trading, and rarely spend money on individual cards or hundreds of packs. They obtain new product from winning tournaments (which is definitely possible with cheap and borrowed decks), trade up, and trade older cards away to casual players and those without a budget so they can afford to build the next best deck for the next tournament.

It can be an expensive hobby, yes. But it doesn’t have to be. I’ve been playing various casual and limited formats (including a Pro Tour tournament) lately and haven’t spent a dime on new cards since the beginning of the year.