Magic the Gathering has been an undeniable success since its release more than 30 years ago, and it keeps growing in popularity, with more than 40 millions players worldwide, with its recent growth in part due to the success of its digital version, MTG Arena.
Magic the Gathering, released originally in 1993, was the first collectible card game. It wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but it had enough for it to turn it into an instant success after its release. Wizards of the Coast sold in under a month the print run they had expected them to last a year.
Such a success of course triggered a wave of competitor games in the mid to late nineties, some of which were quite good, but not a single one of them was able to last as long as Magic.
Let’s have a look at ten TCGs that couldn’t outlast Magic the Gathering. The games are in no specific order, but all had a reasonable shot at competing with Magic back then. Although most of these games are out of print in their original TCG aspect, several of them are still alive, either as digital games, or Living Card Games (a kind of collectible card game without the randomness aspect of booster packs). To this day however, none of them have the success and reach that Magic does.
10. Illuminati: New World Order
Illuminati New World Order was released in 1994 By Steve Jackson Games, and was based on board Game Illuminati. The game was generally well received by critics, but was considered to be a bit complex. Reviewers praised the original gameplay and satirical tone of the game, while mentioning that the large rulebook was daunting.
Illuminati NWO received Two extensions (Assassins and SubGenius) and went out of print shortly after the Subgenius release in 1998.
9. Vampire The Eternal Struggle
Vampire The Eternal Struggle, also known as Jyhad in its original release, was a new TCG by Richard Garfield himself, published once again by Wizards of The Coast, and based on the Vampire The Masquerade Roleplaying Game.
Richard Garfield wanted at the time to prove that TCGs could be potentially as diverse as board games.
Vampire was a very popular card game in the 90’s, possibly the second most popular TCG behind Magic The Gathering. Although Wizards of the Coast abandoned the game in 1996, about a year after its original release, White wolf Publishing took over, and supported the game until 2010! In total, the game received almost 20 expansions during its lifetime.
Although it wasn’t as popular as MTG in a commercial way, the game is still officially supported today by Black Chantry Production, and a fifth edition was released in 2020. Black Chantry also made expansions available for free in PDF form.
Doomtrooper was a TCG based on the Mutant Chronicles franchise. It was released in 1995 by Target games, and received 7 expansions. Doomtrooper was an ok game but lacked depth. It was maybe too “average” and didn’t last long. It was recently revived as a Steam game though, through a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2019
Spellfire is believed to be the second Trading Card Game ever published, quickly following in Magic The Gathering’s footsteps. The game was published in 1994 by TSR and based on their popular Dungeons and Dragons RPG. The game received heavy criticism on its release, due to reusing a lot of graphics assets from their other products.
The art, while passable, is obviously not designed for the game and there are several oddly cropped cards. Even worse, there are several cards with different croppings of the same image. That just really shows the small amount of effort that TSR spent on this game.
In 1997, Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, and later announced that they would revive the Spellfire game. But that project was ultimately canned.
Spellfire received four editions and eleven expansions, but went out of print in 1998.
6. The Crow
The Crow was an example of many franchises being used in the late 1990’s to try and sell TCGs. It was a fairly simple game, that at the time was considered as possibly a “good entry point” to introduce new gamers to TCGs, but it didn’t have enough depth to keep people interested for very long. The game was released in 1995 by Heartbreaker Press and Target Games. It used pictures from the Brandon Lee Movie.
Kult was another 1995 TCG by Heartbreaker and Target Games, like The Crow mentioned above.
Kult was a bit particular because it was based on an RPG that was a bit controversial at the time. Kult, the Roleplaying game, was a horror game with religious content and mature themes. Some lobbies and politicians were trying to link roleplaying in general, and Kult in particular, to suicide and murder events in Sweden in the late 1990s.
This kind of contributed to giving the game a special aura, and is why the card game itself shared a bit of that controversy, in particular because the art on it was told to be gruesome. Looking at the art nowadays, I am not particularly shocked by it, and have seen more disturbing images in other tabletop games or movies. Kult was another fairly easy game to play, which received one expansion but went out of print fairly quickly.
4. Legend of the Five Rings
Legend of the Five Rings was released in 1995, and was for a long time considered to be one of the best collectible cards games out there. The game shares some similarities with Magic The Gathering, but has its own set of rules and puts a significant emphasis on the storyline, which guides the expansion releases. One review in Arcane magazine gave it an 8 out of 10, and said:
“Lo5R is a splendid game, redolent with the atmosphere of ancient Japan.”
Wizards of the Coast acquired the rights for Legends of the Five Rings in 1997, but sold them back to original publisher Alderac in 2001.
Throughout its lifespan, Legends of the 5 rings received good support from its publishers, with dozens of expansions released over the course of 20 years. It received the award of best TCG of the year as recently as 2007.
Fantasy Flight acquired the rights for the game in 2015, at which point they discontinued L5R as a collectible card game, but relaunched it as a Living Card Game in 2017.
3. Middle Earth Collectible Card Game
Middle-Earth Collectible Card Game (MECCG) was published in 1995 by ICE. It was praised for its gorgeous art which involved illustrations from a lot of longtime Tolkien illustrators such as Ted Nasmith and Angus McBride. Reviewers also liked its complexity and general respect of the original material.
The game was discontinued when ICE lost their license for Tolkien products, but MECCG still has a loyal fanbase to this day.
Rage was a trading card game based on Roleplaying Game Werewolf: The apocalypse. It was a great game with, as far as I recall, great illustrations, that unfortunately suffered from being passed from one publisher to the next.
It was initially published by publisher White Wolf in 1995, but later on sold to Wizards of the Coast. When Hasbro acquired Wizards of the Coast, they discontinued several products, including Rage, which lapsed back to White Wolf.
Third party company Azrael was able to acquire the rights, but multiple licensing issues prevented Azrael from bringing the game back to print. Starting in 2003, Azrael worked with fans to publish fan-made sets, which are officially accepted in tournaments. fan-made sets for rage have been regularly created between 2003 and 2017, allowing the game to have a long life after commercial support was dropped.
Netrunner is another game designed by Richard Garfield, the third in this list after Magic itself, and Vampire Eternal Struggle. This cyberpunk 2-player game was published by Wizards of the Coast in 1996. It did reasonably well, and people still remember fondly its asymmetric battles between a hacker (the runner) and the corporation.
Netrunner, like Rage, has benefited from a lot of fan support, with fan-created sets that are allowed in tournaments.
It was discontinued in 1999, but re-released by Fantasy Flight as a Living Card Game in 2012, under the name Android Netrunner. That game is also discontinued as the licensing contract between FF Games and WotC ran out in 2018. Wizards of the Coast abandoned their Netrunner trademark in 2022.
Magic The Gathering was never a perfect game, but its longevity is a true testament to its solid gameplay and the effort and creativity poured into keeping it up to date with modern gaming trends.
Similarly, most of the games mentioned in the list above were very good, but didn’t have the level of support that Wizards of the Coast put into MTG. Some of them still exist to this day in some shape or form, but not necessarily as Trading Card Games.
Games mentioned in this article