Lord of the Rings TCG » Articles » Why Pay For Virtual Trading Cards
I started writing this article a year ago, when the Lord of the Rings Online TCG began, but I never finished it. Now, I finally have, and I have also updated sections based on my experiences of the past year. The aim of this article is to provide an answer to the question "Why Pay For Virtual Trading Cards?", and hopefully be informative enough to help you decide how to spend your money.
Since the online and offline games are the same in terms of rules and cards, this article will be concerned with all the other aspects that make the two different. I'm grouping the differences into 5 categories, which will be addressed in turn over the next 5 sections.
What I mean by collection management is both how/where you store your cards and also how you record what you've got. With traditional (offline) card-based collections, there are a number of trade-offs to consider when finding a home for your cards.
There are probably others, but these are the ones that I see. In terms of storage solutions, there are maybe 4 broad choices for card storage: binders, purpose-built card boxes, suitcase, or just anywhere there's space.
I've tried to quantify the various factors in the table below, to try and highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The Anywhere strategy involves putting your cards anywhere there's space. No sorting is involved - you don't even have to take them out of the boosters they came in - and you don't need to spend money on binders, boxes, etc, so this option gets full marks for Maintenance Time and Cost. The downsides to this non-strategy, however, are that it's very hard to find a given card for deck building and you can't easily admire your collection or show it to others, so for Aesthetics and Search Time I've given this no marks. Overall, this strategy is not recommended, since making decks becomes very slow and it's hard to keep track of what you've got and where it is.
For maximum Aesthetics, you will want all of your cards in binders - one per expansion perhaps - sorted by card number or rarity, or something like that. In this form, it is very easy to spend hours flicking through the pages, appreciating the beauty of your collection and gaining inspiration for decks. In terms of cost, binders are below average because the binders themselves and the pocketed sheets they contain are not cheap. Space Efficiency and Maintenance Time are neither great nor terrible - you can fit maybe four full binders in a reasonably sized box or on a shelf, and maintenance merely involves sorting your cards into piles and then putting them in the appropriate pages.
For good Space Efficiency, custom-made boxes or the suitcase are the best option. Searching through these will generally be slower than a binder, but you should find what you're after reasonably quickly. The downside of both of these is that the Maintenance Time is very high. As you get more cards, each one has to be fitted into the space you allocated previously, which can easily create overflow and hassle. At this point, your scheme will probably start to resemble the Anywhere strategy, where boosters are left in their original packs (minus the rares).
The factor I haven't addressed yet is future proofing. How future proof your storage is will depend on how you've organised your cards. Arranging by culture means that every new expansion requires a reshuffle, whereas arranging by expansion makes things much easier.
Right, now that we've got that out of the way, let's consider the online version.
In my view, apart from having the pleasure of looking through a collection of real cards, collecting virtual cards has all of the other aspects nailed. Your entire collection lives on a server somewhere and you can easily filter or sort it based on many criteria. When you open packs, they are automatically put into your collection and you can easily see the number of each card you have at one time. One additional benefit of the online game is that the contents of your collection is automatically recorded. With real life cards, you will usually require an additional strategy for recording what you have (e.g. Excel spreadsheet, notebook, etc) which takes up even more of your time to keep up to date.
Deck building is probably the most time-consuming part of being a LOTR TCG player (aside from actually playing games). I say "probably", because it may be that you keep one or two decks and just tweak them now and again, or perhaps you can't afford to buy too many cards and spend a lot of time trading. Still, I don't think we can argue with the fact that building a deck from scratch can be a long process (of which some will be tedious).
I, personally, enjoy looking through the cards and trying to come up with new combos, and planning out my next deck. This part is fun and also a good way to pass the time on public transport: I always keep spoilers of all the cards in my bag for this reason. Sometimes, I scribble down notes, such as what cards are must-haves in the deck. I'll usually focus on one side too, since I will rarely try a new Shadow and Free Peoples side at the same time - there's less risk involved if you can have confidence in at least one side of your deck. :)
The next part of deckbuilding is finding the right cards that are going to fill the remaining slots in your deck, after the must-have cards. It is at this point that offline deck building used to get long-winded, since you either had to have very good knowledge of the cards, or you had to trawl through your collection, or the spoilers, to make sure you haven't missed card that would be perfect for your deck. It is here, where the deck building software for the online game comes into its own. Thankfully, we can now use this for building offline decks too (and I do), so we can search for "burdens", "ranger" or "discard" and find all the relevant cards that are candidates for inclusion into our decks. Once your deck is finished, you will probably record the contents of it somewhere. Again, thanks to the software we have now, we can just save it or print it out. Before it, we would have to write it out by hand.
So far, the online and offline versions of deckbuilding are equally matched (since the highly useful software from Worlds Apart can be used for offline deck building). Where they diverge is actually putting the deck together (i.e. assembling the cards into a shuffled pile). For the online game you have to do nothing except ensure you have saved your deck; for the offline game, you have to track down each card from your collection (which could take a long time if your collection management strategy scores poorly for this) and probably get a protective sleeve on it. Dependent on the number of cards you have, you may be able to keep all of your decks made up at one time, but this is unlikely. It's more likely that you will have a few Shadow sides and FP sides made up that you borrow cards or sleeves from to make others (this is what I do). The online version suffers none of these problems, since you can share a single copy of a card in multiple decks and there is no need for protective sleeves. It should hopefully be clear from this part of my article that the online version wins hands down, since there is no effort involved in bringing the contents of the deck together: you just select which deck you want to use. In addition, no shuffling is required before the game starts - which leads nicely onto the third part of the article...
I expect this section to be the most subjective of the article, but I will try and fairly cover all of the differences between offline and online games. (I've never played in an offline tournament, however, so some feedback would be appreciated from players who have, so I can amend this article, if necessary.)
The most obvious and significant difference between offline and online seems like a good place to start. (For the slow-witted, I'm referring to the fact that one is played offline and the other takes place online.) To play a game offline, both opponents must be sitting in the same room, on opposite sides of a reasonably-sized table; to play online, each is sat at their computer, perhaps on opposite sides of the world! Many advantages and disadvantages stem from this major difference alone:
To begin with, we will only consider casual games, since the tournament aspect brings in a whole load of other issues that warrants a separate section of its own.
There must be a lot more differences, but I'm a busy person and would prefer other people to send them to me. :)
Now, I'm going to move onto tournaments.
On the face of it, it looks as though online play offers a lot of advantages over offline play. Whether you value any of these will depend on how good your offline play is though. If you come from an area where a lot of people play together regularly and there are local tournaments, then you might not see that much of a benefit when playing online. On the other hand, if you only have one person in your area who plays, then you get a great chance for variation of games and to try out different things with no real consequences for your ego.
I'd like to add a lot more to this section, but I need some input from other players. You can access my email address with the link at the bottom of the page.
We might as well start with the online game because there is only one way to trade: the Trade Lobby.
You start a trade with someone by selecting their name in the Trade Lobby and offering to trade with them. When they accept, you are both taken to the Trade Browser, where you can look at each other's cards. So you don't trade away cards you want to keep, only those cards you have "extra" copies of are shown. Similarly, under each of your friend's cards, you can see how many copies you have and how many more you think you need. (You set your target quantity for cards within the Collection Manager, and any copies you have above your "Want" value become extras.)
As with the Collection Manager and Deck Builder, you can search for particular cards or filter by culture/rarity/whatever. During the trade, you can communicate with the other user via a chat window at the bottom of the screen. At all times, you can see what cards you are getting and those that are going to be traded away.
Once you've both found all the cards you like, it's time to do some haggling and decide which cards will actually be part of the trade and those that will be deselected. When you're both happy, you hit Accept and it confirms what cards are going to who, so you can have one last check before hitting OK. When you've both done this, the trade is automatic and the cards are removed/added to your collection.
There are two main ways to trade cards in real life: in person or by mail.
To trade in person, you both need to be physically at the same location and have all your spare cards with you. It also helps to have a Have/Want list so you can remember what cards you're after and how many copies you need. Aside from this, trading is a doddle, as you just agree who's getting what and it's done.
Trading by mail involves viewing each other's Have/Want lists and agreeing who's going to get what and then posting the cards to that person. This obviously involves some amount of trust and additional costs that aren't required to trade in person (or online). The advantage is that you might be able to get cards that you can't find locally (due to the current meta in your area, for example).
As with the Playing Games section, how valuable the Trading aspect of the online game is to you will depend on how many offline players/collectors you know, and how many of them are easy to meet in person. I find that online trades can take up to half an hour sometimes, so trading in person is probably quicker overall. That said, the hassle of lugging your spare cards around and keeping Have/Want lists up to date adds extra "overhead" to your day-to-day LOTRTCG experience. When this is factored in, I believe the online and offline game are even. Where the online game excels, however, is when you can't meet up with people in real life. It doesn't matter where people are in the world, there is no cost involved in doing a trade and there is no requirement to trust the other user (or your postal service!).
Since the other sections put forward the value of online cards, this section will double as a conclusion, comparing the apparent value of online cards versus the actual price we have to pay.
The current prices for the online game can be found here.
Since I'm in the UK, I'll start with what I definitely know: whether you buy by the pack or by the box, online cards cost less than real-life ones (even when 17.5% VAT is automatically added in the online store). This is due to the relative weakness of the US Dollar versus the British Pound. With the other sections of this article in mind, it should be clear that playing online is better value-for-money than playing offline.
For the average American, online booster boxes actually cost more online because boosters are sold at the recommended retail price and the discount on buying a full box is only 10%. For the casual player, who only buys boosters, it's only slightly more expensive to buy online cards, but for the serious player, it is much cheaper to buy real-life cards than online ones. However, if we assume a serious player would want to play in tournaments, then the savings from never having to travel to tournaments makes the difference in card costs insignificant.
One thing people often ask is whether there is any way to trade in your real-life cards for online ones (or vice versa, when you want to cash-out of the online game). The answer is no. Obviously, you can arrange a deal with other users and conduct the trade using a combination of the methods outlined in the previous section, but there is no official scheme for moving cards between your offline collection and your online one.
For those who don't want to buy unopened product, there are a number of online singles sellers who offer competitive prices on single cards. They supply your cards via the Trade Lobby and you can pay via PayPal or with Event Passes. Again, I think American players could find certain cards cheaper offline than online, but UK players will probably get their cards cheaper online.
In conclusion, I think that wherever you are in the world, the online game is better value than offline: the huge benefits for collection management, deckbuilding and tournaments are universally applicable; for people with no local player base, the advantages extend into trading and playing games; for Europeans, the prices are actually cheaper online. The only thing that online cards can't give you is a physical collection, but since physical collections are dropping in value or the time due to less players taking part now, you could easily pick one up in the future when you get bored of playing online.
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