CCGs vs. LCGs

Arkham Horror LCG Cards

CCGs (Collectible Card Games) like Magic: The Gathering and LCGs (Living Card Games) like Android: Netrunner have many similarities and a few key differences.

Today we take a look at what defines a CCG and an LCG, what they have in common and why you might prefer one over the other.

I’ve played a number of games of each type and personally I much prefer the LCG format.  Let me explain the difference between them and then I’ll tell you why I would always choose an LCG over a CCG.

CCGs and LCGs are essentially two-player card games.  Some of them have rules that allow for more players, but they’re clearly designed to be played by two.

Most CCGs, and a significant number of LCGs, fall into the ‘Mage vs. Mage’ genre.  While the themes vary from battling wizards to Star Wars to Game of Thrones, many of the core ideas are the same.

Typically, each player gains resources every turn that they spend to play cards.  These cards are used for attack, defense, summoning allies or providing utility in various ways.  The objective of the game is to deal damage to your opponent until you reduce their health to zero.  Whichever player accomplishes this first is the winner.

Much of the interest comes from constructing your own decks.

However, after you have bought the base game, you typically want to buy lots of mini expansions.  Why?  Well, while the base game will provide each player with suggested ‘starter decks’, much of the interest with these games comes from constructing your own decks.

There are a few rules about how many cards you can have of which types in a deck and within these restrictions you then select the cards you fancy from a large pool of possibilities.  Except that, if you only have the base game, you actually have a fairly small pool of cards to choose from.  Hence why you want to buy the mini-expansion packs, which add more cards to the pool.

This is where the big difference between CCGs and LCGs becomes apparent.  CCGs (which were developed first) release booster packs.  Each booster pack contains a certain number of cards, but it’s random: you don’t know which cards will be in the booster pack.

Some cards are a lot more common than others.  In fact, CCG cards will have an indication on them (usually colour coded) to say how common they are.  For example, cards may be classified as common, uncommon, rare or super-rare.

I said the contents of booster packs were random, but semi-random might be more accurate.  You’re usually guaranteed a certain distribution of cards, eg. 6 commons, 3 uncommons, and 1 rare.  Very occasionally a booster pack will contain a super-rare card.

The difficultly is that the super-rare cards are often the best, so everybody wants them.  If you want to be competitive in tournament play, you need good cards, which means in practice you have two options: buy them on the secondary market or buy lots of booster packs.

However, being rare and in high demand makes the best cards very expensive on the secondary market (you could easily pay £20 for a single card).  If you choose to buy lots of boosters instead, you’re relying on the Law of Large Numbers: if you buy enough booster packs, eventually you will get the cards you want.

Buying lots of booster packs is obviously very expensive as well, but if you’re starting out this has the advantage of providing you with a wide range of other potentially useful cards.  Plus there’s the excitement of opening the boosters: knowing that this could be the one with the super-rare in it!

CCGs have been compared to drug addiction.

For this reason, CCGs have been compared to drug addiction.  The excitement of getting the best cards is the high, but the more cards you get, the less frequently you will get the good cards (since you already have some of them) and the more money you will have to spend to get them.

The problem is further compounded by the release of new cards.  Once or twice a year, the publisher will release a new expansion with its own set of boosters.  Cards are frequently only considered to be tournament-legal if they have been released within the past couple of years, so this forces people to constantly buy the latest cards.

LCGs, on the other hand, are another kettle of fish.  They were invented by Fantasy Flight, who have trademarked the name, although other companies essentially employ the same model, but use a different name for it.  For example, Upper Deck calls it the 2PCG (2-Player Card Game) model.

LCGs don’t release booster packs.  Instead they typically release a big expansion followed by a set of small expansions that tie in to the big expansion.  The big difference though is that the expansions contain a fixed set of cards: you know exactly which cards you’re going to get in each expansion.

Expansions tend to be released once a month and there might be half a dozen small expansions for each big expansion.  Small expansions would cost around £12 and big expansions twice that, so the cost is not insignificant, but it’s contained.  If you want to get every expansion, you can work out exactly how much it’s going to cost you to keep up with the new releases.

The LCG model is not without its difficulties though.  If you want to be competitive in tournaments, you still need the best cards, which the publishers cunningly spread out among all the expansions.  So you really need to buy them all, even if you’re only going to be using one or two cards from each expansion.

It also makes the barrier to entry higher and higher the longer you wait to jump in.  If you want to play Android: Netrunner (which was released in 2012) and are interested in tournaments, you will have to spend hundreds of pounds to get all the expansions.  Plus you have to get your head round the 1000+ released cards to work out which ones you want to include in your deck.

However, you don’t have to play CCGs or LCGs at tournament level.  I certainly don’t.  At least, not any more.  In that case, I still think the LCG model is a bit better.

If you play a CCG casually, you’re going to have a very different set of cards from your gaming partner (they will have bought their own boosters, which contain random cards).  If one of you was luckier than the other in their booster contents then they’re likely to have an advantage.

With an LCG, you can compete on a level playing field.

With an LCG though, since you know exactly which cards are in each expansion, you can just arrange to buy the same expansions as your partner.  Then you both have exactly the same cards and can compete on a level playing field.

The primary reason I prefer LCGs to CCGs though, is their suitability for co-operative play.  Fantasy Flight have released a couple of co-op LCGs.  If you have a friend to play through the scenarios with, they’re lots of fun.

I’ve been playing the Lord of the Rings LCG for a few years now and I’m enjoying it more than ever.  My friend and I each buy the expansion packs, we construct our decks at home and then get together to play.

It means you don’t have to worry about getting the latest cards.  As long as both of you have bought the same expansions, it works perfectly.  We’re a few years behind the release schedule, but it doesn’t matter to us at all.

Do you prefer CCGs or LCGs?  Are there any that you would particularly recommend?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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