From shuffling decks of playing cards to mulligans in Hearthstone, card games have evolved to have greater strategic depth with thousands of cards up for play in their collections. Now, digital collectible card games (DCCGs) have taken the world by storm and with it, came the rise of card game esports.

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What is a Collectible Card Game?

A collectible card game (CCG) is a genre of card games that uses unique sets of cards, elements of strategy, and deck building to create endless possibilities of play. CCGs normally take their concepts from fantasy trademarks and franchises such as World of Warcraft, Pokémon, and The Witcher. They are played out in single player which allow skilled individuals to showcase their talent in duels. This has led to the comeuppance of card game esports where players compete to be the best in their title.

How do CCGs work?

Each CCG has its own unique set of rules. However, they generally follow the same pattern: a deck with a standardized, limited number of cards, several card types that have unique effects per type, and a duel to the ‘death’ wherein whoever reduces the opponent’s life points to zero first wins. To achieve that, players can use whatever mechanics that are allowed within the bounds of the game.

For example, Hearthstone, one of the most popular digital collectible card games, has five main types of cards: minions, spells, weapons, hero cards, and locations. These cards have their own strategic purpose and can be used in tandem to augment each other. Hearthstone also has a resource system which limits the number of cards a player can use based on their available Mana.

Despite this, CCGs still have an aspect of luck in the form of deck shuffling, rolling dice, and so on. Sometimes, the player you’re facing will have a good hand while you have a ‘weak’ hand even after pulling a mulligan. But that doesn’t mean that card games like Hearthstone and Yu-Gi-Oh! are reliant on luck. Not at all. Rather, the better player is still more likely to come out on top after considering for variance. This variance or variability primarily comes from the lack of a fixed pattern brought about by the game’s aspect of having a shuffled deck of cards at the beginning of each game – which statistically, will never exactly be the same for any game.

What makes these card games so captivating is the aspect of collecting cards and expanding your own collection. There always lies the thrill of opening a booster pack that you know nothing of what’s inside. Which is why, they are otherwise known as trading card games (TCGs) as players can collect and trade cards from their own library. From these cards, they can create their own deck of cards that have their own synergies and suits their own playstyle. Of which, they can use to challenge players in turn-based player-versus-player competition.

Furthermore, the aspect of luck makes it so that each game is completely different from any other you’ve played. With thousands of playable cards and endless strategies at your command, it’s easy to see how CCGs can have players putting in countless hours to hone their craft. In this situation, luck makes the game fun to play while still having a high skill ceiling.

History of Card Game Esports

Way long before the modern era of Hearthstone and Magic, card games were already being played since the 9th century in China. These would then evolve onwards from the 1300s into the well-known playing cards of today. It would only be until 1951 when a Baseball Card Game would be released which provided the early framework for CCGs. These collectible cards could be purchasable much like the present-day trading cards. However, they lacked the crucial strategic elements that make CCGs so enjoyable.

Fast forward to 1993, Richard Garfield would then go on to design Magic: The Gathering – the first truly collectible card game. It was the first of its kind, introducing the concept of starter decks and booster packs that allowed players to collect and trade cards. It was inspired by games that came before it with Cosmic Encounter and Strat-o-Matic being heavy influences.

Following the Magic

Magic blew up and created a fierce demand for CCGs in the ‘90s to the early 2000s. In fact, it was so popular that it inspired the rest of the industry to follow suit. Familiar names like Startrek and Star Wars and newcomers alike (such as Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!) would try to get a piece of the pie as well. Namely, the Pokémon Trading Card Game, based on the franchise with the same namesake, would go on to rival Magic as one of the most popular card games having sold a whopping 43.2 billion cards as of March 2022.

These card games would go on to have their own resell market where cards are valued highly based on their rarity (even reaching thousands of dollars a card). And of course, their own competitive scene with players vying to be the best duelist of their own game.

Into the Future

However, it wouldn’t stop there as developers continued to innovate following the rise of computer games. Although Magic debuted Magic: The Gathering Online in 2022, it wasn’t quite developed as the card game esports we see today. One such company that would change the CCG landscape forever is Blizzard Entertainment with its introduction of Hearthstone in 2014. Hearthstone built upon the lore of its widely popular Warcraft series and revolutionized card games with its free-to-play business model.

Hearthstone supported cross-platform play which allowed players to play from any country anywhere in the world. As mentioned, its free-to-play Dust system allowed players to earn their desired cards outside of purchasing traditional booster packs. The dust system basically allows players to create any card within Hearthstone’s vast collection from commons to legendaries alike – if they had the dust for it. Players could disenchant cards they had extra copies of to get this valuable dust. This meant that the game was hyper competitive with over a hundred million players. While microtransactions still pervaded the game, it didn’t stop players from enjoying Hearthstone’s core gameplay.

Hearthstone paved the path for a new era of card games called digital collectible card games (DCCGs). It inspired MTG Arena, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links, Artifact, Legends of Runeterra, and so much more! And with their fame, came the money as developers started running their own esports tournaments for their respective games. Although CCGs are still behind MOBAs, FPS, and Battle Royales, it is clear as day that the genre has its own niche and is here to stay thanks to its supportive community behind it.

From the game that started it all to pioneers that innovated the genre, we introduce to you the most played card games out there right now. Whether digital-only or inspired by tabletop cards, there’s a game for you to seek out.

1. Hearthstone

Whenever you think of card esports games, Hearthstone is always the first game that comes to mind. And rightfully so because the game was the first digital-only CCG which pioneered card games in esports. Hearthstone takes from the fantasy universe of Warcraft where you play as a hero from one of ten classes. From hunters, druids, mages, paladins, rogues, and so much more, each class has its own strategic identity with unique cards and abilities. In the game, there are four different types of cards ranging from minions, spells, weapons, and heroes. And among these cards, each card has a rarity increasing from Basic, Common, Rare, Epic, and the highest, Legendary.

In every turn, each player is given a time limit to play cards using mana. Different cards have individual mana costs with each card having unique effects based on their given keyword. These keywords can include effects like Taunt, Freeze, and Silence among others. Altogether, this gives players a lot of opportunities to express their skill. Which is why, Hearthstone has one of the most active esports scenes among CCGs with seasonal Masters tournaments every year. And at the end of the year, the best of the best will compete in the Hearthstone Grandmasters ending with the Hearthstone World Championship with a $500,000 prize pool.

2. Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering, Magic, or MTG as it is commonly called, is the OG of CCGs. As previously mentioned, it was created in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, Magic originally started as a tabletop card game that fascinated generations of players with its deep, strategic gameplay. In Magic, you are a Planeswalker – a dimension-traveling wizard that battles fellow Planeswalkers by using spells, artifacts, and creatures. Much like traditional CCGs, you fight to push your enemy’s life points to zero using your own constructed deck.

Its cards are based on the Color Pie that represents a school or realm of magic: white, blue, black, red, and greed. This is shown on the back of each card and tells the player its strengths and weaknesses. For example, the color white represents order and light while blue represents intellect and trickery. Furthermore, it draws its name ‘pie’ because the colors’ position denotes their relationship with one another. Colors adjacent to each other are complementary while colors opposite each other are considered to counter one another.

As of 2018, the game reportedly had 35 million players, a collection of around 23,000 unique cards made, and over 20 billion cards produced. In 2022, Magic will be celebrating its 30th anniversary alongside the 2022 Magic World Championship from October 28 to 30.

3. Legends of Runeterra

Coming up, we have Riot Games putting its own Runeterran spin to the classic CCGs with Legends of Runeterra. For those who don’t know, Riot is the publisher of, arguably, the world’s biggest esport – League of Legends. As such, when it was announced that they were making their own card game, the community was hyped. A free-to-play, player-first card game that built on what games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering already had to offer.

Legends of Runeterra has three main card types with Champions, Followers, and Spells. Out of the three, champions stand out as they are inspired from the characters of League of Legends with over a hundred champions released to date. They can level up and easily change the tide of the match when used correctly. These cards all come from their own distinct regions such as Noxus, Ionia, or Shurima with each region having its own distinct playstyle.

Since the game just released in 2020, Riot is still well on its way on developing the game into the behemoths that VALORANT and League of Legends are today. However, the game still had a successful run of its World Championship last September 2021 with a $200,000 prize pool. This year, the esport continues its run of seasonal tournaments concluding with the World Championship once more from October 12 to December 6.

4. Shadowverse

For those into Japanese animation, Shadowverse has been one of the top played DCCGs since its release in 2016. Developed by publisher Cygames, Shadowverse’s trademark is its anime-style illustrations heavily influenced by its country of origin. The game has even seen so much success that it has aired its own anime series with a second season already in the works. It even has its own RPG card game released in 2020, the Shadowverse: Champion’s Battle.

Many compare the gameplay of Shadowverse to that of Hearthstone as they make use of similar mechanics that include a range of classes and play points (or mana). However, Shadowverse was one of the first to introduce the Evolution concept that Legends of Runeterra would later bring on in levelling up its Champions. With an expansive story mode and generous rewards for free-to-play players, Shadowverse continues to be a sought-out CCG especially in Japan.

Last year, the Shadowverse World Grand Prix 2021 had a whopping $2.5 million USD to be given out to its top players. Thus, we can expect that this year’s world championship will see even greater heights as we’ve seen tourneys like the RAGE Shadowverse Summer and Spring tournaments see much success already in 2022.

5. Gwent

Heard of The Witcher? Then you’ll be glad to hear that CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher has its own free-to-play, DCCG in Gwent. Funnily enough, Gwent started as a playable game in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and is based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels of the same name. Gwent has its own unique gameplay system and has quite the strategic depth.

In Gwent, you play up to three rounds per match where you need to win two to win it all. Unlike traditional CCGs, winning in Gwent looks a little different. To win a round, players rack up points by playing a card every turn. And at the end of the round, whoever who has the most points on the board wins. A round lasts until both players have passed or there are no longer any cards to play. In Gwent, you draw 10 cards for all three rounds of the match and each card is discarded after being played so you must play for the long haul.

For those who have climbed up the ladder, there are a lot of opportunities to go professional in GWENT Masters. From the qualifiers to the Open tourneys, only the best will reach the World Masters in December where $50,000 is up for the taking.

Honorable Mentions

Now, although these games lean towards their appeal of trading, they are massive franchises within their own rights amongst CCGs. Throughout the past two decades, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! have dominated card games alongside Magic. Between constant expansions, an ongoing anime series, a booming trading market, and an active competitive scene, these titles have led the path for CCGs to expand from just being a game.

In Pokémon, you’re greeted with the familiar pocket monsters, old and new, to battle with fellow trainers. You use Energy cards to perform unique moves and evolve your Pokémon to get an advantage. Meanwhile, Yu-Gi-Oh! is inherently complex with advanced strategies you can pull off and over ten thousand cards available for play. You might have even heard references to the game in pop culture as avid followers counter with their trap cards or challenge opponents to a duel.

Each of these games have their own respective world championships with the 2022 Pokémon TCG World Championships having a $56,500 prize pool. Meanwhile, the Yu-Gi-Oh! World Championship has yet to resume due to restrictions on COVID-19. Although the top duelists do not receive a cash prize in this tournament, the Top 4 do get to take home exclusive, rare cards that collectors viciously seek out and as such, are going to be worth a lot of money.


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FAQ

Card Game Esports FAQs

Riot Games’ Legends of Runettera closely follows Hearthstone and is largely inspired by its success.

Currently, Hearthstone remains as the top CCG hovering over the Top 20 most viewed game streams on Twitch with a still active competitive scene.

Our top CCGs would have to be Magic: The Gathering Arena, Hearthstone, and Legends of Runeterra which represent three different generations of card games.

Yes! As of today, TCGs, CCGs, and DCCGs still see millions of active players monthly across titles.

Hearthstone still boasts the most competitive esports scene among card games with its 2021 World Championship having a $500,000 prize pool.

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