Before I start, let me say that what I say in this post is based on my own personal experience, and that your experience may very well be different. Nonetheless, I think this information is valuable, and I’d like to share it with you.
What are TCGs?
TCGs (Trading Card Games) are card games that are played competitively all over the world. Think of Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, or any of the many other competitive card games available. These types of games release regular sets with booster packs, where you try to pull good cards. You can also buy Starter or Structure decks to give you a handful of cards to get started right away. Part of the experience is chasing rares, trading cards, building a collection, and playing in tournaments.
Note: TCGs are sometimes referred to as “CCGs” or Collectible Card Games. The two terms are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable.
What are ECGs?
ECGs (Expandable Card Games) are games that follow a distribution model with intent to give players who like the TCG experience that same experience, only without the high price point, and without having to chase after rare cards, which are often hard to get or expensive.
Note: Fantasy Flight Games offers ECGs, but has coined and trademarked the term “LCG” or “Living Card Game.” For all intents and purposes, the terms are interchangeable, but know that if I reference “LCGs” I am specifically referring to ECGs published by Fantasy Flight Games.
Where TCGs have blind booster packs, where you don’t know what you’re getting, ECGs have expansions that provide every card in the set (the sets are also usually much smaller than TCG sets), and provide the maximum number of that card that is legal to play in a tournament (usually 3 or 4). You always know exactly what you’re going to get when you buy these expansions, so there’s no chasing rares or money cards. In fact, there are no money cards, because everyone who buys the set, gets all the cards.
ECGs also usually require the purchase of a “Core Set,” which provides the most fundamental cards for playing the game, as well as the rule book and any components that are necessary for play. Depending on the company that makes the game, these core sets may or may not give you a full set of cards like the expansions do. If you buy any of Fantasy Flight’s LCGs , this is the case, and you’ll have to buy multiple core sets to get a full set of every card. But that’s only true with the core set, the expansions provide full sets of cards.
TCGs don’t usually have a core set, but usually do have Starter or Structure decks, which provide you with a pre-made deck, that you can play with right out of the box. Usually you’ll want to use these decks as a “skeleton” or base to work from and expand on. Some ECGs do offer Starter/Structure decks, although it’s not nearly as common as with TCGs.
Frequency of Distribution
How often a new set is released is completely dependent on the company who makes the game. With TCGs, the frequency of distribution is generally pretty consistent. For example, when I played Yu-Gi-Oh, a new booster set was released every 3 months. During those 3 months, other sets and starter decks and things might have also been released, but every 3 months a new main booster set would be released. And I believe other TCGs are similar in consistency.
ECGs on the other hand, aren’t always so consistent, and there are many reasons for this that I may get to at a later time. LCGs probably have the most consistent release schedule of any ECG. LCGs play out in cycles, which last for 6 months at a time. During those 6 months, 6 small expansions, usually consisting of about 20 new cards each, are released, as well as 1 big expansion, which usually has more focus on one faction or archetype of sorts, and provides a larger number of new cards.
Other ECGs are less consistent, and for a lot of them, this is simply because they’re relatively new and haven’t quite figured it out yet.
I don’t want to make a whole new heading, but I also want to say that how TCGs and ECGs deal with banning cards, cycling cards out, or dealing with problem cards, is also completely dependent on the company who makes the game.
Other Differences and Similarities
Aside from the distribution model, there are a number of other things that differentiate TCGs from ECGs. I’ll attempt to list the most prominent of those things here.
The secondary market is only found with TCGs. It’s not an actual market, but more of an idea or practice among people who play the TCG. Essentially, when you buy packs and trade for cards, you’ll inevitably get cards you don’t want, or that are hot, or rare, at the moment, and you want to sell them to make some money. That’s the secondary market, selling and buying cards, either to other players, to a gaming store, or on eBay to some guy you’ve never met before.
This doesn’t exist in ECGs, because everyone has everything, and because there’s no rare cards, everything is worth the same amount.
The only exception for ECGs is with promo cards, that you get for winning a tournament or regional, or simply participating in a league. These cards often are sold, but this doesn’t come close to the secondary market with TCGs.
Trading, Collecting, and Chasing Rares
For the same reasons listed for the secondary market, Trading, Collecting, and Chasing rares also don’t exist in ECGs. Everyone has everything, so there’s no reason for any of these things.
Building a Deck
With TCGs, building a deck is often a matter of what cards you have, or what cards you can get. Since no one has everything, not everyone can build the best decks. And a lot of people are turned off by this fact, because if you have the money to build the best decks, then you have an advantage over other players. Now of course, money does not equal skill, but some cards are simply better than others.
This isn’t always a bad thing though, because it means you can “trade up” to get those cards you want, and for some players, trading is a big part of the fun of these types of games. It definitely was for me, when I played Yu-Gi-Oh.
On the other hand, with ECGs, everyone has everything, so everyone has access to the best cards. Because of this, who has the best deck is often based on who is the more skilled player, or who understands the game better. Anyone can look at a tournament winning deck, build that same deck, and play it, to explore why it did so well. This also means equally skilled players aren’t outmatched simply because their opponent could afford better cards.
Luckily, both options offer a ton of variety, not just in theme, but in gameplay as well.
One big difference I will say is that ECGs often employ the use of components more so than TCGs do. What I mean is, tokens, dice, trackers, and other components often play a more crucial or important role in ECGs than in TCGs. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that TCG creators want their game to be as accessible to new players as possible, and because TCGs don’t require a core set, players would have to buy these components in addition to the packs and things they buy. Since ECGs do require a core set, they can easily include these necessary components.
Note: Here is a list of TCGs and ECGs that you can explore.
Note: When I use the term “Community” I’m not referring to the neighborhood or the area, I’m referring to the number of players of that particular game or type of game.
This is a big one where personal experience comes into play.
What is fact is that TCG communities, especially for the most popular games like Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Cardfight!! Vanguard, is that the communities are huge! Way bigger than you’ll ever find for any ECG.
In my experience with TCGs, I could find people to play, trade, interact with all the time, easily, just by going to my local game store.
With ECGs, it was a lot harder to find a community, and if I did, it was very very small, maybe 10 players at most (Compared to the hundreds of players filling the store on TCG days). These communities were based on competitive play, tournaments, and leagues. And, while we did play casually at meetups, there isn’t much else to do, since there’s no trading or anything like that.
I want to re-emphasize a point I made earlier about demand to buy everything. With ECG communities, especially in league play, in order to stay relevant, you need to have everything, you need to keep up.
Note: a “Meta” is whatever decks and strategies are the most popular at a given time. The release of new sets changes the meta, because new cards change old strategies, or create entirely new strategies that may be better than the old ones.
Both TCGs and ECGs have metas, and they change at different paces, and in different ways, what I found specifically with LCGs is that metas changed very very quickly. Because a new small expansion is released every month, the game changes, sometimes significantly, every month. And for me, that’s just a bit overwhelming.
I believe most TCGs have either a cycle, which means cards from one set are no longer allowed, because they’ve “cycled out” after some period of time, or they have a ban-list, which dictates that some cards can no longer be used in the game at all, or that players can’t use a full set of that card, but may be allowed one or two copies in their deck.
Finding a game with a meta that you can keep up with can be important for you personally.