Between Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon, the 10 biggest CCGs released in the interim

Posted by

In the fall of 1993 Wizards of the Coast, then a small RPG publisher operating out of its founder’s basement, launched Richard Garfield’s collectable card game Magic: The Gathering. Magic was the first game of its kind, and it was an instant hit that generated millions of dollars in sales for the small company. From the very beginning it was clear that Magic was the next big thing in tabletop gaming, and soon every game publisher, big and small, found themselves racing to create their own collectable card game that would hopefully upsurp Magic’s top position.

Magic managed to hold its top position for three years before it was ultimately dethroned by the Pokemon Trading Card Game. Created by Media Factory in partnership with Nintendo, the Pokemon Trading Card Game was released in the fall of 1996, and for a time was even published by Wizards of the Coast in the United States. Between the release of Magic and the release of Pokemon, dozens of other games came and went, and many of them were backed by large companies and powerful IPs. Many of those games have been long forgotten, but a surprising number are still kept alive today by fans, about twenty-five years after their initial release. These are the ten biggest, and best, games that came out during the three years between the release of Magic: The Gathering and the release of the Pokemon Trading Card Game.

10. On The Edge

Atlas Games was a small publisher that got its start creating modules for the Ars Magica RPG. In 1992 they released their own original RPG, Over The Edge, which garnered a lot of critical acclaim and gained a small cult following. When Magic: The Gathering was released in '93 and became an overnight success, Atlas Games immediately decided they wanted a piece of that action, and they rushed to develop and release a competing game making it on to store shelves by early '94. The endeavour was so expansive for Atlas that they were forced to take on outside investors, and along with those investors Atlas created a new company, Trident, to publish the game.

The game was called On The Edge, and it was set in the same universe as their Over The Edge RPG. On The Edge wasn't completely terrible, but it isn't a very good game either, which surprised many Over The Edge fans since that games success was largely due to its innovative and tight game mechanics. The best things that can be said about On The Edge is that it was one of the first CCGs to hit the market, probably the first one to hit the market following the release of Magic, and it at least had unique rules that weren't just a knock-off of Magic's.

Atlas Games tried hard to find a following for the game releasing three expansions and giving away a ton of cards at conventions, but in the end Over The Edge's cult following wasn't large enough to carry the CCG by itself, and On The Edge's mediocre gameplay wasn't good enough to draw in new players with Magic readily available and a marketplace that soon became filled with other competitors.

9. Highlander

Nothing screams early to mid 90s as much as the Highlander franchise. The first movie in the series was released in 1986 to mediocre reviews and low box office earnings, but over the next few years it gained a respectably sized cult following. The early 90s gave us two bad Highlander sequels, but it also gave us an awesome Highlander TV series that ran for six seasons brought the Highlander franchise into mainstream 90s culture.

The Highlander universe is all about a world in which immortals secretly run around chopping off each other's heads and stealing each other's souls because their can only be one. The CCG follows that mythos with each game simulating a duel between two immortals where the winner is the first one to cut off the other one's head. Surprisingly, the game doesn't play as badly as it sounds.

The Highlander CCG was never a very successful game, but it did develop a strong following in a few small regions across the US, and an expansion was released before the game was discontinued. With the original publisher now long defunct, some fans have attempted to keep the game alive by creating and selling new card sets of dubious legality with the most recent set being released in 2016.

8. Illuminati: New World Order

In 1982 Steve Jackson Games released the card game Illuminati based off the Illuminatis book trilogy and conspiracy theories in general. Since that time the game has gone had several expansions and editions, and its still in print today. The Illuminati card game centers around deal making between players, has rules that allow cheating, is unbalanced, is fiddly, and is notorious for games that last much longer than anyone wants to play them, but when it was first released, in many ways it was groundbreaking and influenced a lot of better games that came after it. By and large, Illuminati is the Monopoly of hobby board games.

Since its founding, anytime there has been a new innovation or trend in tabletop gaming, someone at Steve Jackson Games has asked, "What's the cheapest and most half-assed way we can get some of that market share for ourselves?" In the case of collectible card games, the answer was to adapt their Illuminati card game into a CCG format and slap a 'New World Order' subtitle on it.

Illuminati: New World Order is everything a person would expect an Illuminati themed CCG developed and published by Steve Jackson Games to be. It's a stripped down version of Illuminati that's unbalanced and some of the official variants don't work very well. It may not even technically be a CCG, since in addition to randomized packs Steve Jackson Games also sold a one of every card complete set of the game, and later they released a stand alone card game, INWO Subgenius, that could be integrated into it. Some fans have pointed out that integrating INWO Subgenius into Illuminati: New World Order completely wrecks both games.

7. Spellfire

Richard Garfield was never coy about the fact that Magic: The Gathering's medieval fantasy theme was largely inspired by TSR's Dungeons and Dragons RPG. So it's no surprise that once Magic proved the viability of the CCG market, TSR went to task at creating their own CCG with official Dungeon and Dragons branding.

Unfortunately by the mid-90s TSR was no longer the innovative and revolutionary company it was in the late 70s, or the gaming behemoth that it was in the early 80s. By the 90s TSR had gone into a death spiral after it could no longer adapt to changing market trends, and by the time Magic was released it was little more than a marketing department that kept trying to push ever more rulebooks and campaign settings on what remained of its loyal fanbase. Not surprisingly Spellfire turned out to be just another Magic knock-off that was inferior to the game it was imitating, and for their part TSR was shameless enough to cut whatever corners they could get away with, like by using old D&D illustrations instead of commissioning new artwork for the cards.

To be fair, Spellfire released with official multiplayer rules that played better than the unofficial multiplayer Magic variants of the time, and its D&D branding landed Spellfire a bigger player base than any other CCG, other than Magic The Gathering, had when it first released. TSR continued to support Spellfire and released new expansions every few months until fall of '96, and then released one additional expansion in late '97. Shortly after the release of the game's final expansion, TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast and Spellfire was officially discontinued.

6. Jyhad

To show just how ephemeral this game is, I remember it being everywhere when it first came out and I even owned a few decks, but I had totally forgotten that it existed until I wrote this list. Jyhad was the second CCG designed by Magic creator Richard Garfield, and it was based on White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade RPG. In the mid-90s, Vampire: The Masquerade and its World of Darkness setting was the it-girl of tabletop RPGs. The game was published by Wizards of the Coast in partnership with White Wolf, and considering the game's pedigree it's not surprising that retailers were eager to back it and it quickly found a following. What's surprising is how commercially unsuccessful the game ended up being.

From the get go there were problems with the game's name, Jyhad, which failed to convey that the game was part of the Vampire: The Masquerade universe, and also caused problems selling the game in some regions due to the name's association with Islam. It didn't help that most critics who reviewed the game gave it just an average score, or that most players were unhappy with the game's slow pace. Instead of quickly fixing the game's issues with a new expansion to retain the game's initial buzz and fanbase, Wizards of the Coast instead went an entire year without releasing any new cards for the game before coming out not with an expansion, but with a 2nd edition rebranded Vampire the Eternal Struggle.

Wizards of the Coast released three new expansions over the following year in an attempt to make the game a commercial success, but ultimately failed and let the rights revert back to White Wolf. White Wolf revived the game in 2000 with a new expansion set and continued to release new expansions for the game every now and then over the next decade, but in 2010 the game was again discontinued. Much like the vampires the game is themed around, Jyhad just won't die, and in 2018 Black Chantry Productions picked up the rights and started releasing new expansion sets.

5. Star Wars: Customizable Card Game

No matter how niche a geeky hobby is, the moment it comes into existence, George Lucas starts looking for someone to sell the Star Wars licensing rights to. In the case of CCGs, that someone was Decipher. Not content to just coast off the Star Wars IP and get some of that sweet Star Wars cash, Decipher instead developed an awesome and original CCG with rules that perfectly fit the flavor of Star Wars.

The Star Wars CCG was an asymmetrical game, with players drawing from different card pools depending on if they were playing the light side or the dark side of the force. Unique among popular CCGs at the time, Decipher didn't ban overpowered cards from tournament play, but instead released cards to counter them in future expansions, and in some cases even created errata to nerf the cards.

Decipher continued to support the game with expansions until 2001, and only discontinued the game when they lost the rights to the IP to Wizards of the Coast. WotC got none other than Magic creator Richard Garfield to develop a new CCG, but Decipher has some of the most dedicated and loyal fans in all of tabletop gaming. Unimpressed with WotC's offering, fans of the Decipher game have continued to release unofficial virtual expansions and organize tournaments since the game's cancellation up until today.

4. Middle-Earth Collectible Card Game

Magic: The Gathering's fantasy theme was largely inspired by TSR's Dungeons and Dragons. Not long after the release of Magic: The Gathering, TSR released their own Dungeon and Dragon's branded game Spellfire, but Dungeons and Dragon's fantasy theme was largely based off of Tolkien's Middle-Earth universe. With the CCG market blowing up into a multi-million dollar industry overnight, it was only a matter of time before someone with access to Tolkien's Middle-Earth IP connected those dots. That someone ended up being Iron Crown Enterprises, the publishers of the Middle-Earth RPG game.

Unlike TSR's shameless cash grab that was Spellfire, ICE put a lot of effort into creating a CCG that was innovative, fun-to-play, and not just another Magic rip-off. ICE's Middle-Earth CCG is steeped in Tolkien's lore, contains other material created for their Middle-Earth RPG, and features artwork by illustrators known for their illustrations of Tolkien's books. It is everything a Tolkien fan could wish for in a CCG.

Unfortunately the game, when played with just the initial offering of cards, is a bit basic relative to other CCGs, and that initially turned off some fans. However that was done by design, as ICE always intended to ease players in with the simple game, then slowly continue to make the game more complex with each new expansion. In total seven expansions were released for the game before it was abruptly canceled in 1999 due to ICE losing the license to Tolkien's IP. The final expansion released by ICE, The Barlong, was left overpowered due to ICE's plans to balance it with an eighth expansion that was never released. Unlike a lot of other popular games on this list, Middle-Earth hasn't had continuous unofficial card releases made by fans since its demise, but even without getting any new cards over the last two decades, Middle-Earth still has an active fanbase that continues to enjoy the game.

3. Netrunner

Netrunner was the third CCG designed by Richard Garfield after creating Magic: The Gathering and Jyhad. Learning from his previous games, Garfield made what, at the time, was largely considered to be the best designed CCG to date. Based on the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG universe, Netrunner was an asymmetrical game with one player playing a runner and the other corp, and each player drew from a different pool of cards based on their role. Unique to CCGs at the time, victory was largely determined by how well the game was played, and not how well the player's deck was constructed.

Despite critical acclaim, Netrunner was never the breakout commercial hit that Magic: The Gathering was, and after the release of a single expansion Wizards of the Coast canceled the game. Like many other beloved CCGs, fans tried to keep the game alive with unofficial expansions and tournaments, and in 1998 one player even attempted to buy the rights to the game from Wizards of the Coast. In 2012 Netrunner was finally officially revived as Android:Netrunner by Fantasy Flight in their LCG format. Andriod:Netrunner was a huge critical and commercial success, but Fantasy Flight lost the rights to the IP in 2018 and the game is once again discontinued.

2. Star Trek: Customizable Card Game

This is about the Star Trek CCG that was released in 1994 by Decipher and based off the Next Generation series at the time of its release, and not the other Star Trek CCG released in 1996 based off the original series.

Decipher's Star Trek CCG had rules that were very different from the CCGs that were released before it, and the game's pace was quite a bit slower than what CCG players were used to, but these were intentional design choices to make the game fit with the flavor of the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe, and the first edition of the Star Trek CCG is one of the best representations of Star Trek in tabletop gaming. The game quickly found a dedicated and loyal fanbase among Star Trek fans, and Decipher eventually acquired rights to integrate other parts of the Star Trek universe into the game.

Decipher continued to support the first edition until 2002. By then, the large number of expansions and new rules that came along with them had made the game overly complex, and a large number of overpowered cards and strategies were wrecking the balance of the game. Decipher's solution was to release a second edition that had faster gameplay, streamlined rules, and better balance, but also featured a large number of cards that would be backwards compatible with the previous edition for fans who continued to play with those cards. Decipher released new second edition expansions until 2007 when they lost the rights to the Star Trek IP.

Unable to let a good game die, fans picked up the baton in 2007, and calling themselves the Continuing Committee took to organizing tournaments and releasing new virtual cards for both the first and second edition of the game. The Continuing Committee is still active today and offers digital files to print out all of the game's cards, both their own creations and the original sets created by Decipher.

1. Legend of the Five Rings

When talking about CCGs released between Magic and Pokemon, Legend of the Five Rings lasted longer, was more popular, and more successful than any other. If this were a list of the all time greatest CCGs, Legend of the Five Rings would be second only to Magic: The Gathering.

Released by AEG in 1995, Legend of the Five Rings was fun-to-play, had tons of strategic depth, and was very different from Magic: The Gathering or anything else on the market at the time. Instead of trying to emulate the overnight success of Magic, like nearly every other early CCG publisher, AEG instead concentrated on winning over players in specific regions and then expanding outward over time. It was a strategy that paid off. Legend of the Five Rings has spawned a spin-off RPG and miniature war game that both take place in its universe, and for a short period while the property was controlled by Wizards of the Coast was used for the Dungeons and Dragons Oriental Adventures campaign setting.

Legend of the Five Rings is as well known for its setting's deep and ever expanding lore as it is for its great gameplay mechanics. Unique among CCGs, AEG has allowed players to have a direct impact on the storyline, with official tournament outcomes being used to direct story changes in future expansions. AEG continued to support Legend of the Five Rings with official tournaments and new cards until finally canceling the game in 2015 and selling the rights to Fantasy Flight, and the game remained successful and profitable throughout its entire twenty-year run. Fantasy Flight has since released a new edition of the game in their LCG format.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *