What if you could sell your HearthStone cards on the open market? How blockchains transform collectible card economies

by Spenser Huang

Collectible card games (CCGs) appeal to a wide audience. Players range from “kitchen table” casuals who play and explore the CCG for fun, to collectors who collect cards for emotional or financial value, to professionals who compete to be the best in the world. The main motivations of CCG players are social, mastery, or creativity, based on game analytics firm Quantic Foundry’s gamer motivation model

CCG players are generally driven by the competition aspect of the social motivation, the strategy aspect of the mastery motivation, and the discovery aspect of the creativity motivation

Players driven by “social” and “mastery” motivations generally play to win, and need the best decks. Therefore, they must acquire the strongest cards to form meta (the most dominant) decks. Meanwhile, players driven by “creativity” generally play to explore deckbuilding possibilities. Thus, they need to buy lots of cards to try out different combos. This is where card flippers come in.

Card flippers maximize market efficiency in CCG economies, buying low and selling high to ensure all cards are sold at their appropriate market prices. There are two types of card flippers: 

1. Arbitrageurs who purchase underpriced cards on one market and resell it on another one, taking advantage of price differences of the same product in different markets.

2. Investors who identify and purchase cards that may increase in value (ex. a card that has the potential to become meta in the future), hold on to them, then sell them at a later date if their prices increase. 

Card flippers are essential to healthy CCG markets, as they ensure that the markets are efficient, which maximizes aggregate player fun (more on this later). 

“Black Lotus” from Magic the Gathering’s first set, Alpha, once sold for $27,302. It is one of the most coveted cards for investor card flippers.

Card flipper communities exist for all major CCGs. r/mtgfinance, for instance, is an active subreddit with 55k members where people discuss sales strategies, card preservation techniques, and form theses behind card investments. r/Flipping is a more generalized subreddit with 148k members used to discuss flipping tactics for various assets and CCGs. In a way, flipping is a game within a game, creating additional value for players on top of the actual gameplay of the CCG. 

So how can blockchain technology make the game of flipping even more appealing?

How Blockchains Change the Card Flipping Experience

Arbitrageurs and investors who flip blockchain-based CCG cards as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) can derive many benefits. In a recent blog post, Tony Sheng highlights the idea that cryptomarkets offer “more assets, markets, [and] liquidity.”

1. More Assets

NFT token standards like ERC-721 decreases the barrier of entry for people to create their own CCGs, thereby increasing the number of tradable assets. Anyone can mint a ERC-721 token in a matter of minutes by following tutorials and distribute the tokens to a wide audience via token sales or airdrops. 

The design space of NFT-based CCGs is also greater than that of physical CCGs, as NFTs are programmable, which introduces new game mechanics (ex. Hearthstone’s RNG heavy dynamic) that were previously impossible. This leads to not just more CCG assets, but more types of CCG assets. With more possible mechanics, game designers can make games with more complicated rules and card types. This increase in the diversity of assets exposes card flippers to more profit opportunities. 

Yogg is one of the most controversial cards in Hearthstone as it casts random spells from the entire spell pool. This is a mechanic only possible in digital CCGs.

Not to mention, CCGs only account for a small fraction of NFTs that flippers are able to profit off of. Out of the top ten NFT dapps, only two are CCGs. CCG arbitrageurs and investors can thus have diverse portfolios and hedge their risks as they can venture beyond CCGs and into other types of digitally native collectibles.

An additional benefit of NFT CCG cards compared to physical cards is that card condition is no longer a factor for asset depreciation. Unlike physical cards, NFTs cannot be bent, burned, or broken. As a result, NFT flippers do not have to worry about the conditions of their assets. 

On the flipside (no pun intended), like physical cards, NFTs can still be lost or stolen if owners lose access to their wallets. Therefore, best practices for asset management (ex. distributing your NFTs across multiple wallets) and wallet security (ex. using cold wallets) are crucial for successful NFT flipping. 

2. More Markets 

Improved asset discovery is another major benefit of building CCGs on blockchains as flippers can easily find cards. Due to NFTs being digitally native, their marketplaces are also digital. Card flippers now have an easier time finding items to flip as they no longer have to go through massive piles of cards in people’s yard sales. Instead, NFT marketplaces are searchable on the internet and can be easily parsed. Players can also easily spin up marketplaces for new CCGs using decentralized exchange protocols like 0x to earn trading fees and contribute to their CCG’s network of marketplaces. Cryptomarkets are on 24/7 unlike your local brick and mortar card stores. 

Savvy NFT flippers can even code bots that filter online marketplaces to find all available listings and automatically purchase items that they deem underpriced. Now, the arbitrageurs can facilitate trades across jurisdictions (more likely to have price differences), and investors can easily obtain diamonds in markets that were previously geographically unavailable to them. This enhances market efficiency and brings greater margins to card flippers. 

However, this improved efficiency may lead to a decreased number of flippers as assets get concentrated to flippers who can build the most effective flipping bots. While it will increase the overall earnings for the best flippers as they make large numbers of trades, it also will likely increase the barrier of entry for people interested in flipping NFTs. During the CryptoKitties mania, many of the most successful kitty flippers used this exact strategy to extract large profits. Nevertheless, it is possible for new strategies to emerge that can beat out trading bots in the future. 

Many CryptoKitties flippers made large profits during the CryptoKitties mania as some kitties reached prices as high as $170,000.

3. More Liquidity 

The greatest benefit of blockchain based CCGs is increased card liquidity. As NFTs are digitally native, there is lower friction in asset trading. Card flippers no longer have the financial costs of shipping fees and card maintenance, and they can bypass the time costs of filtering through, valuing, and mailing the cards. They only have to pay a transaction to the marketplace and a gas fee to the network, and can use tools that automatically tells them their assets’ market prices. 

The biggest winner from the increased liquidity is the CCG player. Players can now receive their new cards instantly and purchase cards at overall lower prices, thanks to a more efficient market. Other than that, they can more reliably verify the authenticity of the asset they’re purchasing by verifying its legitimacy with a blockchain explorer

The best outcome of an efficient open trading card economy for the game developer is that the same level of fun is now achievable by a wider audience as the pay to play threshold decreases. Most CCGs with card trading economies are, by nature, pay to play. Beginners have low pay to play thresholds as they are mostly playing for fun and only need basic cards to get going. However, the pay to play threshold rises as players start to play competitively, because they now need specific strong cards to make meta decks. The pay to play threshold reaches its peak at the professional level as those players need as many meta cards as possible to keep their decks powerful and flexible. 

The importance of lowering the pay to play threshold of a CCG can be demonstrated by comparing closed economy card games like Hearthstone (only way of acquiring cards is to buy card packs from Blizzard) to open economy CCGs like Gods Unchained (players can buy packs from Immutable and trade peer to peer on marketplaces). To simplify the example, we will disregard the card forging mechanics in the two games. 

In Hearthstone, in order for a new player to build a meta deck, the player must keep buying packs until he/she gets every single card that composes the deck. This leaves the player’s ability to get the necessary cards up to luck. An unlucky player may even end up with stockpiles of bad cards that he/she has no use for, creating a sunk cost. Though this provides Blizzard a lucrative revenue stream in the short term, it can push away players who do not want to invest such large sums in a game, resulting in a long term loss for the company.

Gods Unchained is the token child of CCGs taking advantage of blockchain and open trading economies’ benefits.

In GU, new players who want to build a meta deck have two ways of doing so. The first way is to buy card packs until the total value of their cards equals the total value of their desired deck. Unlike Hearthstone players, they can trade their extra cards with other players for their desired cards. Though this method has a time cost (takes time to find trades), the monetary cost is significantly lower. The second way is to buy all the cards that make up the deck directly from a GU marketplace. This is the most efficient method as it has low monetary and time costs. 

Though open trading card economies may be less profitable in the short run for the company, their lower pay to play threshold reduces the barrier of entry for players, which makes the game more attractive to gamers. This dynamic likely results in more long term growth for the game as less players drop off when the meta changes (lower cost for constructing new meta decks), more players join the ecosystem over time (lower pay to play threshold leads to more players), and more players can advance to the competitive scene which helps grow the game’s esports community. This could be one of the contributing factors of why Magic The Gathering has been the king of CCGs since 1993. 

As demonstrated, the pay to play threshold influences the growth potential for games as it creates a barrier of entry for new players and limits poorer players from competing and discovering. Thus, it is important for companies to lower the pay to play threshold to maximize long term profit. Thanks to increased liquidity brought from blockchains, trading card markets can become more efficient. This helps overall pay to play threshold decrease and all players are now able to enjoy the game at a lower cost, thereby increasing aggregate fun of the game. This aggregate fun may even compound due to the inherent network effects of CCGs. 

All Eyes on the Gods

Capitalizing on these aforementioned benefits, the Immutable team launched their feature CCG Gods Unchained. The game is one of the most anticipated blockchain based games since the CryptoKitties hype in 2017. In fact, this month’s ERC-721 transfer counts have already surpassed peak CryptoKitties transfer counts thanks to Gods Unchained. GU is a turn based, digital trading card game built on the Ethereum blockchain with cards that are tradable ERC-721 tokens. 

Within a week of the Immutable team launching card trading, total trading volume has already surpassed 1700 ETH. One of the mythic cards (one of six cards that only have one copy), Prometheus, already has an offer of 115 ETH on OpenSea. Card flippers are already hard at work arbitraging across sellers and investing in cards that they think will increase in value when Immutable releases more content. We’re anticipating card flippers to build out flipping bots that maximize their profits, valuation software to help them price their cards, and tools that we haven’t even thought of yet! In addition to attracting more people to adopt crypto, Gods Unchained will also help the NFT ecosystem develop by being a living example of how NFTs can enhance the CCG experience. 

Gods Unchained has overtaken major blockchain game titles like MyCryptoHeroes, CryptoKitties, CheezeWizards, and Decentraland in trading volume.

If you’re interested in learning more about Gods Unchained, go to their website to learn more and download the game! There are also many great streamers such as TuskTusk, BitcoinLouie, and Majincraft who share educational content about the game. Finally, if you’re interested in taking advantage of the market benefits of a blockchain based CCG, hop on over to OpenSea’s Gods Unchained marketplace and start flipping cards!

1 comment

Jeffrey Boyd Garrison December 16, 2019 - 9:28 pm

Excellent overview of the value of NFT gaming. Imagine if Blizzard’s execs read and understood it.

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