Magic: The Gathering. Even if you haven’t played it yourself, you’ve likely heard of it, because It’s thetrading card game; what D&D is to RPGs, MTG is to TCGs. It’s been around for more than 25 years now, is still played by millions of people and at last count there are more than 15,000 different cards. In other words, it’s a biggie.
But while Magic: The Gathering is great (if you’re interested in picking it up for the first time, check out our beginner’s guide to getting started here), it’s far from the only collectible card game out there.
There have been countless attempts to capture MTG’s, er, magic in other TCGs over the last couple of decades – many bad, some good. And not all of them require you to spend hundreds on randomised booster packs to keep up with the latest expansion or organised play meta, either. As well as trading and collectible card games, there are expandable and living card games that replace randomised boosters with fixed expansion sets so you always know exactly what cards you’ll be getting in each box.
So, read on as we run through 10 more fantastic collectible, trading, expandable and living card games that are well worth your time and money – plus one more that is an all-time great, if you’re lucky enough to find a copy. Bear in mind we’ve stuck with just competitive card games here – if you’re looking for games that let you team up with your friends, check out our list of the best co-op board games here.
KeyForge has a direct lineage to Magic: The Gathering, having also been created by MTG designer Richard Garfield. It’s a very different game, though, but just as refreshingly innovative and tensely competitive.
The big draw here is KeyForge’s clever way of creating decks using an algorithm, which ensures every player who picks up a set has a deck that is completely different – something that’s led the game to be dubbed the first ‘unique deck game’.
All of the decks are fixed – so you can’t add or remove cards to make them your own – but this means you don’t need to worry about building a custom deck or chasing the best cards in boosters to be able to compete.
The gameplay itself has some standout features that make it a different experience to other MTG-like TCGs. For one, there’s no equivalent to MTG’s mana used for summoning cards – you simply choose one of the three houses that make up your deck each turn, which lets you play as many cards from that faction as you like that round, so you’ll never spend a turn twiddling your thumbs unable to do anything.
It’s more than a straight game of bashing each other down to zero hit points, too. The aim instead is to amass the valuable resource of Æmber and forge it into three keys (hey, that’s the name of the game!), using your creatures and abilities to stop or steal from your rival before they beat you to it.
2. Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn
Isn’t it gorgeous? Although it might not have the name power of some of these other games, Ashes is more than their equal in both looks and gameplay. A combination of card-battling and dice-rolling, Ashes sees two players each take control of a phoenixborn – think along the lines of MTG’s magic-casting planeswalkers – who has an individual deck full of spells, creatures and other abilities to help them whittle their opponent’s health down.
Each phoenixborn also has a pool of ten dice that are rolled to provide resources used to play cards, with players able to adjust bad rolls by discarding cards – so there’s no getting stiffed by bad luck here.
With decks relatively easy to build and Ashes using a fixed expansion release model – the expansions for the game introduce new phoenixborn characters with ready-to-play decks, as well as new types of dice – it’s a game that’s easier to dive straight into and get to grips with than other head-to-head card games. Even better, Ashes was recently declared complete by publisher Plaid Hat, which means you’ll be able to pick up all of its expansions and know you’ve got everything there is to have – although you might want to move quickly before it potentially disappears for good.
3. Yu-Gi-Oh! Speed Duel
Yu-Gi-Oh! has been around almost as long as Magic: The Gathering, emerging from the nineties anime TV series as a real-life version of the fictional Duel Monsters card game. It works pretty much the same way, with players taking turns to throw down monsters, spells and trap cards. (Yelling “You just activated my trap card!” at your opponent never really gets old.)
While the original Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game has the benefit of never being subject to rotation like other collectible card games – so cards are never made officially obsolete by new expansions – thousands of possible card combinations and 20 years of rules and gameplay additions means that the game can be intimidating for newcomers to dive into. Just try wrapping your head around Xyz or Synchro summoning and you’ll see what we mean.
Luckily, Yu-Gi-Oh! Speed Duel was recently launched as a simpler, back-to-basics version of YGO based on the fast-playing Duel Links app. With smaller decks to build, fewer life points and matches that can wrap up in as little as five or ten minutes, Speed Duel makes for a beginner-friendly introduction to Yu-Gi-Oh! and collectible card games in general. Speed Duel has its own pool of cards that can be used in the full game, so once you feel you’ve got a handle on things you can step up to the more complicated experience – or just playing it as a great card game in its own right.
London is the stage for a war between all sorts of supernatural beastie in this totally OTT card game. Sorcerer pits vampire against Lovecraftian horror, demonic hellspawn against mythological monster and MTG-like card battles against gameplay that veers between fighting for control of areas of the city, deckbuilding and rolling dice.
Even constructing a deck is fun and easy here, with your character and their stack of minions formed of three separate sets of cards – lineage, character and domain – that you can combine as you like. It also has the pleasing side effect of giving you a wonderfully ridiculous title, like Miselda the Demonologist of the Screaming Coast. Ellen the Plumber from Bristol it ain’t.
The players lay down their cards to summon creatures to three different boards representing battlefields, with the positioning of monsters and their overlord playing a key part in seizing control for the victory. With a spicy blend of tactics, luck and cardplay wrapped up in a delightfully gothic universe, Sorcerer has its own magic up its sleeve.
5. Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game
A living card game reboot of the nineties collectible card game from mega-publisher Fantasy Flight, Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game sees two clans from the world of Rokugan do battle under the leadership of the players.
The players are trying to break through to their opponent’s provinces and ultimately attack their stronghold by recruiting warriors and outfitting them with powerful equipment. Attacks can be conducted with either military strength or political manipulation, and conducting combat in a respectable way can also bring victory if you amass 25 honour.
Compared to other TCGs where cards cost a fixed amount, L5R: TCG has a neat gameplay twist in that players choose how long their cards remain on the battlefield, spending fate tokens to keep characters and effects in play for extra rounds – something that can potentially swing the victory in their favour. L5R’s feudal Japan-inspired world has been expanded further in a tabletop RPG and board game Battle for Rokugan, so there’s plenty more to dive into once you find yourself hooked.
6. Final Fantasy Trading Card Game
Released in the RPG video games’ home of Japan almost a decade ago, the Final Fantasy Trading Card Game finally made the full leap into an English edition a few years ago. Designed by a former Magic: The Gathering pro (something it has in common with more than one game on this list), it’s far more than a lazy reskin of MTG’s gameplay with the characters and monsters of the Final Fantasy series. Although the two share similarities – after all, you’re still playing cards and doing battle with them – FFTCG’s gameplay is sleeker than Magic: The Gathering’s bloated rules, making it easier for total newcomers to jump in and get going.
You’ll find some really interesting and original ideas in the game, too, including the way that players can activate cards’ powerful EX effects when they take damage, potentially helping them recover from being on the backfoot during a duel. Cards can also be discarded to gain crystal points or CP – FFTCG’s equivalent to MTG’s mana – making it easier to play and activate the cards you want during your turn, even when faced with an unlucky draw.
What’s more, cards’ attack and defence value is the same number, making it easier to understand how they might fare in battle – and potentially riskier to attack as a group, or defend as a single card. You’ll obviously get the most out of the game if you’re already a fan of Final Fantasy series, with decks and sets built around the fan-favourite entries in the series like VII, VIII and X, but the FFTCG’s gameplay makes it an absolutely worthwhile collectible card game in its own right if you have no idea who Tifa, Tidus or Squall are, too.
7. Doomtown: Reloaded
Another reboot of a nineties/early noughties CCG – this time around, Deadlands: Doomtown – as an expandable card game with fixed expansions, Doomtown: Reloaded is a gunslinging western shootout between up to four people trying to take control of the titular locale. All the cards you need are in the box, which you can use to put together a custom deck built around one of the game’s factions, ranging from the sheriff and their law-abiding deputies to rootin’ tootin’ outlaws and even the members of a circus.
What makes Doomtown something special is the way it uses the classic western trope of poker to decide the outcome of its duels, with cards adopting playing card-like suits and numbers, combined with MTG-like abilities that keep everyone on their toes and unloading their revolver until the dust settles. Wrapping up in less time than it takes to say ‘Sergio Leone’ but begging another trigger-itching showdown right away, Reloaded is a glorious return whether it’s your first trip to Doomtown or not.
8. Pokémon Trading Card Game
Even if you haven’t played the Pokémon card game, you know how it works. You and your opponent each have a deck full of the pocket monsters, which you choose to send into battle – defeat enough of your opponent’s Pokémon and you win. Battling isn’t quite the same as in the video games or Pokémon Go, but it’s darn close and really captures the feel of being a Pokémon master (or a trainer on your way to becoming one, anyway).
Attacks cost energy to use, each Pokémon has a certain number of hit points required to make it faint and you can use trainer cards and items to buff up your Squirtles, Charizards, Meowths, Pikachus and the other 800-and-something Pokémon in the ever-growing Pokedex of cards. One especially cool change from the slow, grindy levelling-up of the Nintendo games is that in the Pokémon TCG, Pokémon can evolve during each battle by playing the right cards to replace basic starters with their more advanced evolved forms.
Although Pokémon’s satisfying loop of sending out Pokémon, evolving them and executing their most powerful moves has remained basically the same, later sets have introduced awesome additions like tag teams, which include two Pokémon on a single card – so you can see how Pikachu and Zekrom would fare against Eevee and Snorlax – and some special cards based on the recent Detective Pikachu movie. Plus, it’s easy to get started – just find the latest starter deck with your favourite starter Pokémon on the front and go from there.
9. Star Realms/Hero Realms
Created by two former Magic: The Gathering pros and Hall of Famers, sci-fi card game Star Realms and its later fantasy spin-off Hero Realms are fast-playing deckbuilders that deliver tight and tense card-battling duels.
The players must juggle buying new cards and using the ones they have to attack their opponent, attempting to bring their health down to zero by acquiring more and more powerful cards. While Star Realms and Hero Realms can play with just two people, the games also support battles between bigger groups, and later expansions have introduced extra gameplay elements and even co-operative play – but they’re not collectible card games, so everything you need to play can be found in the core sets.
10. Game of Thrones: The Card Game
Based on George R.R. Martin’s original A Song of Ice and Fire books rather than the Game of Thrones TV show that followed, AGOT: The Card Game is neverless a perfect realisation of what makes the fantasy world of Westeros so bloody (in every sense of the word) brilliant.
A competitive living card game where each player takes on the role of one of Westero’s seven houses, be they Stark, Lannister, Targaryen or one of the ones you choose if those good ones are all gone (this is a joke, we love you Greyjoys out there), AGOT: TCG lets you deploy your military and political might - in the form of cards - as you struggle over the Iron Throne. Like in the books and series, plots abound After a solid first edition, the more recent second edition of the game cut out the chaff and doubled down on what makes it worth picking up, and has continued to be supported with regular packs of cards and content since - though recent rumblings suggest the game’s long-running expansions may be coming to an end soon, so it’s definitely worth seeking them out before they require a Lannister’s fortune to buy.
11. BONUS MENTION: Android: Netrunner (because it’s dead, but great)
Android: Netrunner is admittedly a bit of a cheat being on this list, because as of late 2018 it’s no longer a living card game, having been consigned to a pile of cancelled collectible games that also includes the Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu and WWE CCGs – though it’s superior to all of those. We couldn’t not include it though, not least because it was designed by Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield (or, at least, the original Netrunner CCG was his idea before this LCG reboot) and set in the stylish cyberpunk world of the Android board games, but also because it may well be the greatest competitive card game ever made.
An asymmetric game where one player is a hacker trying to infiltrate a mega-corporation’s highly secretive servers and the other is the megacorp’s firewall trying to keep them out – both have entirely different cards, win conditions and gameplay options – Android: Netrunner is a highly tense, brilliantly thematic and wonderfully complex head-to-head experience that invites endless fascination and experimentation.
Sadly, its sudden ending just after a new revised core set was released means that it’s harder to track down than we’d like, but there are still sets available out there, both official and fan-made as the result of the game’s passionate and devoted community. You might pay more than you would’ve when it was still alive but, honestly, it’s worth every penny.