It can take so much effort to play TCGs, or trading card games, physically. You’ve got to visit a store regularly to buy cards, find people to trade for the ones you want, protect your cards with card sleeves, store the cards in piling boxes, and find people to challenge. All these are made much easier on the internet. You can buy cards at the comfort of your own home, trade cards at the comfort of your own home, challenge people at the comfort of your own home… and you don’t have to protect your digital cards. Most importantly, the internet is so much more expansive than the real world. If you have a limited playgroup in the real world, you can imagine that you won’t find too many people willing to sell a Thassa, God of the Sea, for instance, because people don’t even have one. You’ll also be playing against the same people all day, and you can imagine that after playing against Tom’s Blue/Black milling deck for the twentieth time you can almost predict what cards he has in his hand just by a twitch of his nose. No sense in playing Progenitor Mimic because that poor dude doesn’t even have a creature worth copying.
Of course, in many self-respecting online TCG platforms, the cards you own are controlled such that you have to pay, usually by Paypal, in order to get booster packs or rare cards. There are some fan-made platforms that allow you access to every card in the world, where you can play out your competitive-level dreams, but these are usually unrecognised by a vast majority of people and populated by n00bs anyway. That said, even in the official platforms such as Magic Online, cards are usually cheaper than their physical incarnations, so you can net yourself a better deal. Why do people still play physically then?
1. There are always some things you can’t get online.
In the case of Magic, it’s getting the set on time. Sets on Magic Online are released later than their physical counterparts. As for Pokémon, there aren’t that many large-scale tournaments on the platform that I know of. Most games will find some way to entice players to get off their computers and buy actual cards, and sometimes it’s this feeling that someone is thinking really hard to disadvantage you that encourages you to go physical once in a while. It’s like a latent prejudice against immigrants, for instance. Nothing overt, but the government just has to insert some perks that only the locals get, and it feels irritatingly unjust.
2. The good ol’ smell of cardboard.
The feel of real cards in your hands, the smell of brand-new cards… all quickly disappear once you slot them into card sleeves. Nevertheless, people play physically for the traditional atmosphere of the game, the shuffling of cards in a deck (never mind that computer shuffling is that much more reliable) and the real-life living people crowding around your table cheering you on. Magic Online competitions tend to be just the precursor to things like the Grand Prix or the Pro Tour, and those always take place in luxurious surroundings, with a prestigious emcee and the intense feeling of being a champion. You’re representing your country in a global tournament! On the computer, national pride doesn’t quite feel at stake, and you don’t get to stay in a hotel either.
3. All sorts of tech glitches
Computers are quite unforgiving when you make a mistake, but they make some terribly big mistakes of their own. The best part of playing physically is that there’s no chance you’ll press the wrong button and end up closing the game, and there’s definitely no way your computer can have some weird bug and crash the game. I’m quite sure that at some point in any online player’s life, they’ll bemoan “clicking on the wrong thing” and making an inerasable mis-play that lost them the game. Physically, there’s no such thing. Tapped the wrong land? Just untap it and apologise.
Perhaps the best thing, as always, is to dabble in both, but that probably ends up in spending loads of money and being quite frustrated that your online cards can’t materialise in physical form and vice versa. Is there ever a way we can get the best of both worlds?