2023 In-Depth

Connecting through Trading Card Games

Pile of trading card games and their boxes

Social connection can be found in the nerdiest of places, such as a vibrant and inclusive trading card community within Canberra.

From Magic: The Gathering to collectors of Pokémon cards, what was once stereotyped as a hobby for white men in their basements has grown into a pop culture phenomenon that can be enjoyed by all.

Introduced over a century ago, trading cards have evolved from basic collectibles into complex games with dedicated fan bases. Trading cards began in the late 19th century as promotional items, often bundled with products like tobacco and gum. Eventually they transitioned into baseball cards, with iconic sets like “T206.”

The 1990s saw the inception of trading card games (TCGs) with Magic: The Gathering, altering the landscape by combining card collecting with strategic gameplay. Popular TCGs like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! captivated a wide audience. Many avid fans have grown up with a love of these games, and many have adapted to include an aging audience.

The TCG community has seen a recent surge in popularity that can be attributed to several key factors, including the powerful tug of nostalgia. Many TCGs have long and cherished histories, invoking a sense of nostalgia for players who grew up with these games.

This draws in both former players who want to revisit their childhood passions and new players who are enticed by the classic cards and characters. The collectible nature of TCGs, coupled with the emotional resonance of nostalgia, has been a driving force behind their growth in popularity.

Owner of Ronin Games in Woden, Oliver Shead, says trading card games appeal to an increasingly diverse audience.

“All sorts – every spectrum, every mix of people get into this,” he says. “There is the trope that girls don’t play. Recently, it’s been more. I think it’s because it’s more popular, it’s a bit more welcoming.”

Although most people have likely heard of trading card games, they have only shifted into the mainstream in recent years. Popular influencers such as Logan Paul contributed to a Pokémon resurgence during the pandemic, creating content around Pokémon card unboxings and collecting.

Mr Sheard said it was a surprise to realise how much of a niche trading cards are, assuming everyone knew about the hobby at least.

“During the pandemic, like, I always thought it was popular but people kept making this comment like, ‘Oh is Pokémon still around?’” he says. “I’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s doing really well.’”

In 2020, Pokémon card sales increased by 574% from 2019 on eBay alone. First edition cards and early booster boxes were sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. These extreme prices are determined usually by the rarity of the card, as well as its condition. Pokémon also celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2020, with promotional sets attracting collectors and veteran players.

Pokemon cards splayed on a table

For those that spend time in the TCG community, the shifting landscape is clear. The hobby isn’t as niche as it once was.

“Back in the day you’d get into fights in the school ground cause people are calling you a nerd,” says Mr Shead. “People find it cool now.”

Trading days are events held by card shops, such as Ronin Games, where people can come together to show off their collections and trade cards with each other.

Collecting trading cards has a huge market, but a lot of fun can be found in actually playing the games. I went to an open day to learn how to play Magic: The Gathering, and to see what it’s like to be a part of the community.

Magic: The Gathering has a fanbase of players as well as collectors. There are still plenty of collectors though, as American rapper Post Malone recently purchased a card from the game for $2 million.

Getting into the trading card game community doesn’t actually have to cost anything, though. I received a complimentary starter deck at the beginning of the event and learned it’s perfectly acceptable to print out versions of a card just to play with. It’s all about having fun!

The open day was a chance to get a glimpse of the trading card community in Canberra. Events like these are happening across different card shops in the ACT, most holding weekly game nights or competitions for various games.

This was a laid back Sunday afternoon, and I found myself in the company of others interested in learning the game. We were welcomed by seasoned players eager to welcome newcomers to the community.

Intimidated at first, I struggled to grasp the rules but no one minded my repeated questions. A father had brought his children, who picked up the rules much quicker than I did. They got into character as their monsters battled it out, playing their cards like they could see the scene on the table.

People sitting up to a table playing Magic: The Gathering

Time flew by as I played round after round of the game, slowly improving as I encountered different scenarios. I was assisted by the pros, who helped me understand the different card types, and even gave me tips on building a balanced deck. What struck me the most was their genuine enthusiasm to share their knowledge. Their advice and coaching fostered a sense of community and helped beginners like me feel included.

I realised that this was not only a fantastic hobby but also an excellent way to meet new people. I found it to be a welcoming and inclusive space where individuals come together with a shared passion.

So, if you’re in search of both a pastime and a fulfilling way to connect with like-minded individuals, look no further than Canberra’s trading card game community.

Original photos by Sophie Eickelman