Trading card games and competitive play
Due to the COVID situation I've found myself at home a lot more often during 2020 compared to before. I've also found that I've been researching economics more and also playing games more often.
One of the things that's been keeping me sane during all this is playing some board games and games like Magic the Gathering over webcam with some friends. With a temporary easing of restrictions in Melbourne I went to a games store for the first time in ages to pick some things up.
There's been a massive surge in people playing board games lately. The store near me said they had sold a lot of copies of Catan and the Pandemic board game, I played an unreasonable amount of Catan while I was at university. Pandemic was inspired by the events of the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s and led designers to make the cooperative board game in 2004. Interestingly the makers of the game Pandemic made a sequel game called Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America which got designed and printed in late 2019 to early 2020. I was told that as a result of the world events of 2020 some of the distributors were refusing to distribute the game in the states for fear of customer backlash. The fact that a lack of supply for a game about pandemics came about due to a pandemic hot spot in north America might lead to the game itself becoming a collectible item in the future, especially if the boxes never ship.
And collectable items leads me to the next topic, the secondary market. A lot of people have used goods that they want to buy/sell/trade with each other directly after the initial release of a product. In the case of trading card games the secondary market is a crucial part of the game itself as players trade cards with each other, a good part of the fun is getting trades where you get a card you like more and your friend gets a card they like more. Because of this dynamic trading card game makers pay very close attention to the secondary market even if for regulatory reasons they don't publicly comment on it.
Things get a bit interesting when you have competitive games that have a strong secondary market factor. Especially so if the game dynamics mean that certain items or cards give you an in game edge by possessing them, in these cases you start to run into pay-to-win dynamics. This is in contrast to chess or go where there's no pay to win dynamic at all and the games are almost pure competition where the more skilled player wins the majority of the time.
In terms of purely competitive games where the main axis of competition is the skill of the players you start to have some issues with play-to-win dynamics. Unfortunately a new era of pay-to-win has come about in many online games. The downside of this is that once a game becomes known to be a pay-to-win game competitive play tends to cease fairly fast and community around the games tend to corrode quickly. I went to the store on a Friday and noticed that people who were at the store were playing some trading card games in a competitive format. In particular they were playing a draft format, such a format that is notable because it completely lacks of a pay-to-win dynamic.
While this limited format deals with the pay-to-win issues it unfortunately doesn't give people the full freedom to construct the decks that they wish to play in game. Formats that do allow people to make decks with any cards that are available lead to a dilemma if the game they are playing allows for the purchasing power of the competitors to drastically impact their chances of winning. I think there's some games like Magic the Gathering where this is a major factor in some formats.
There's an interesting Magic the Gathering format that people play called pauper where there's a restriction that only the most common, and therefore cheap cards, can be used in the decks constructed for this format. This has turned out to be quite popular as a competitive format because it's financially quite accessible and allows people to construct their decks which is a major part of the enjoyment of the game for many.
Speaking of accessible there's a really great video I watched today about people racing really beat up cars in Finland. While there's definitely something very cool about the most technologically advanced teams putting together purpose built formula 1 cars and drag racing vehicles that's a really expensive form of competition there's also something great about the sheer accessibility of that form of racing in Finland.
A new format that takes into account the secondary market
One could argue that a format like pauper in Magic the Gathering is taking into account the secondary market, which it is, but it's doing it by using a particular property of the reported frequencies of printings of cards from the games creators.
I think a much more direct way to deal with the variation of the purchasing power of the competitors is a better overall approach for a number of reasons. Just like how formula 1 racing isn't accessible to the vast majority of people there's formats in trading card games that also aren't accessible. This isn't an issue except if people are effectively competing against people who are in a different category. If a go kart was taken out on the F1 course it just wouldn't be either competitive or interesting, and this is an issue that is effectively avoided in many other forms of competition.
But how to do this in a trading card game?
The way you can ensure a competition without huge purchasing power differences destroying the format is to have a rule whereby you must sell the deck you used for at most specified amount to any of your competitors at the end of the competition if they want to buy it (only other competitors have the option to buy). This dollar amount is an explicit part of the rules and therefore create a soft upper bound of how much money can be spent in this format. Doing so is an important way to get a sense of fairness between competitors, a bit like how we have weight divisions for weightlifting but this would not be a strict upper limit like something you'd see in weightlifting. If someone wants to make a deck that's slightly more expensive than the limit they can, but to do so they run the risk of that deck being bought by the competitor for the specified price.
This buy out rule levels the playing field in terms of the purchasing power of the competitors. Because only competitors have the option to buy the deck if someone decides to make a more expensive deck for the competition they are effectively paying their competitors for the privilege of doing so. This forms a very direct economic incentive for people to build their decks close to the maximum dollar amount as specified in the buy out clause in the tournament rules. Maybe someone rich will come along with super over power decks just to show off their wealth, this might be a bit of an issue but the people they are playing would be getting great decks at a steep discount if this were to happen.
So for example you might have a $10 division or a $100 division, by doing this the people who only have the purchasing power to enter into the $10 division still can with a chance of actually winning. This might prove to be a good way to allow more people to be able to enjoy the game in a competitive format.
There's also one other major reason I like this format, the format itself protects itself from getting too many players playing exactly the same deck because of the price equilibrium of the decks depending on their popularity. If everyone play the same deck the demands for the constituent cards in that deck would go up in value which would start to push the deck price above the buy out price if the deck price is close to the limit. [^1]
Could this become a popular thing?
: There's an interesting unstable equilibrium strategy where there could be an escalation of the power of decks used between a cycle of competitors because if say 2 people enter a $100 bracket competition with $200 decks then they are indifferent to swapping with each other. But I don't think this poses any accessibility problems because in a $100 bracket competition if someone enters with a normal deck then they could buy the more expensive decks out at the end.