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Altered TCG could change the economics of Magic, Disney Lorcana, and Pokémon

From the creators of Dixit comes a bold attempt to reshape the marketplace

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A flame-headed character from Altered drops a card into a waiting mailbox sporting a flour de lis. Image: Equinox
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Altered, a novel new trading card game from startup Equinox Studio, will compete with Disney Lorcana, Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon Trading Card Game when it launches on Aug. 26, 2024. Distributor Asmodee, which was purchased by Embracer Group in 2021 for $3.1 billion, announced Thursday that it will fund the game via a Kickstarter campaign. And while an early demo shown to Polygon at this year’s Gen Con proved that the mechanics are engaging, the unique technology layer and business model could change the entire TCG industry.

Anyone who has tried to pick up booster packs for Disney Lorcana lately is well aware that cards are extremely hard to come by, with unopened boxes selling for more than twice the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. But that scarcity is only partially organic. It has also been artificially inflated by speculators, who snatch up large quantities of product to flip for a profit, or to cellar in the hopes that they’ll rise in price over time. Entire websites, subreddits, and YouTube channels are dedicated to the hobby of profiting from, not playing with, these cards, and it’s clear to see how TCG trading has evolved from a side hustle into an elaborate get-rich-quick scheme — much the same way that day trading and, later, cryptocurrency have done the same.

Intelligence on the price of these trading cards, as well as the marketplace through which to trade these unique goods, has become so valuable that eBay acquired industry leader TCGPlayer in 2022 for nearly $300 million. (Its employees have since organized, and their union is negotiating its first contract.) eBay even offers a secure, environmentally-controlled warehouse to store the cards in. Like gold speculators, now Magic card traders need never take possession of the items that they own.

Meanwhile, my 13-year-old would just like to get that fourth Tinker Bell card to complete her Steel decks, thanks.

But what if a card game could box out marketplaces like eBay’s TCGPlayer entirely?

What Equinox is proposing with its design for Altered is that every card pulled from a pack is, in reality, a kind of proxy for the digital token which actually represents the value of the card. While developers assured Polygon in August that its technology does not involve blockchain tech, a kind of token is created and locked to a player’s digital account using a QR-style code. The value to consumers, Equinox says on its website, is that if they lose that card they can order a new one to be printed on demand and mailed to them anywhere in the world, even in a different language. But the unstated value for Equinox and Asmodee is absolute visibility, and control, of the marketplace for their cards.

From its website:

Download our app and scan an entire booster in seconds. Your cards are secure, and now you can enjoy a host of features that will enhance your Altered experience. Explore the story behind each card and delve into a deeply positive, inspiring, and inclusive universe. [...]

Trade, sell, or buy from collectors worldwide using your smartphone. At any time, select cards from your collection and have them printed and delivered to your doorstep, brand new and in your preferred language. Print decks for yourself and your friends. Stolen or lost cards, proxies — the possibilities are endless.

The value to Asmodee of this partnership with Equinox is that by creating its own centralized, digital marketplace for its “cards” it is therefore able to profit from secondary and tertiary sales of those same cards. They will be able to achieve a profit both at the initial point of sale — when consumers purchase that blind pack off the store shelf — and also in perpetuity, each time the card moves from player to player.

As an example: Rapper Post Malone recently purchased The One Ring — a singular card created for Magic: The Gathering’s The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth for $2 million. The owner of that card walked away with all of that money, less a hefty sum paid in taxes. Publisher Wizards of the Coast earned nothing. If it had been a card for Altered, publisher Equinox would have been able to profit from that transaction as well.

If Equinox is successful, it’s possible that other TCG publishers would be compelled to follow suit with similar digital platforms. How this will play out in independently owned gaming shops around the world, however, which depend on the sale of individual cards as a profit center, is currently unclear.

A Kickstarter campaign for the game will begin on Jan. 30, 2024. Equinox currently offers six full decks on its website to print and play at home for free.

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