Returning to Our Roots: A Detailed History of the Trading Card

Aradena
7 min readApr 25, 2023

Aradena is the latest of an epic legacy of trading card enterprises dating back 500 years. We want to celebrate the past by exploring our origins, telling the story of the trading card from the 1600s up until the present day. In this article, we will explore the evolution of trading cards, the birth of collectable card games, the rise of digital trading cards, and the impact of new technologies on the future of trading cards.

The Early Years: The “Trade Card”

The term “trade card” emerged in the 1800s, denoting small, illustrated cards that were used to advertise a tradesman’s business. However, the trend first became popular in the late 1600s in London, Paris and Lyon. Below is the trade card for Sir Robert Peake, printer and publisher ca. 1635–67.

Source: The Met — Public Domain

We’ll admit, it bears more semblance to the modern business card than Exodia, the Forbidden One. However, these cards from the Stuart era paved the way for those which appeared in the late Victorian Era. From 1870 to 1900, “Trade cards” regained popularity as a means for tradespeople to promote their wares. These cards, featuring vibrant colours and delightful or amusing themes, proved highly attractive to customers, who enjoyed collecting and showcasing them in albums. Often part of a series or a narrative, the cards encouraged repeat business as customers sought to acquire a full set.

Source: Cape Ann Museum — Fair Use

These cards came to feature images of famous athletes, actors, and other celebrities. One of the most popular types of trading cards from this period was baseball cards. Companies like the American Tobacco Company produced sets featuring top baseball players, and these cards were highly sought after by fans, who would by their cigarettes to acquire them. In addition to baseball cards, companies also produced cards featuring other sports, such as football and boxing. Check out these collectable baseball cards; Tip O’Neill of the St. Louis Browns (first) and Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings (second).

Source: Library of Congress — Public Domain
Source: Library of Congress — Public Domain

Evolution of Trading Cards

During the 1930s, trading cards experienced a surge in popularity, particularly in the United States. This era saw the emergence of several iconic trading card sets, including the 1933 Goudey Baseball set, which featured the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

In addition to sports cards, non-sports cards gained traction as well, with sets like the 1938 Horrors of War series depicting graphic images from conflicts around the world. These cards were controversial at the time, with some groups arguing they glorified war and violence. Despite these criticisms, trading cards continued to be a popular pastime, with kids eagerly swapping and collecting them with their friends.

Source: Wikimedia Commons — Public Domain

The increasing popularity of trading cards in this era led manufacturers to explore new themes and styles to appeal to a broader audience. Trading cards featuring movie stars and characters from popular films and comic books became especially popular.

Companies like Gum Inc. capitalized on this trend, producing its first set of superhero trading cards in 1940. The set consisted of 72 cards, each depicting an illustration of Superman and a brief description of his powers and backstory. Gum Inc. followed up with the Batman and Robin set in 1941, as well as sets featuring Captain Marvel, Green Hornet, and the Shadow. However, production stopped in 1941 due to wartime shortages and the company never resumed production after the war. Gum Inc.’s early superhero trading cards were highly influential in establishing the genre and remain popular with collectors today.

Source: Kandor Archives — Fair Use

Moving into the 1950s, trading card themes expanded to include popular TV shows like Howdy Doody and The Lone Ranger. Companies also began producing trading cards with science fiction and horror themes, tapping into the cultural fascination with space exploration and the supernatural. The 1962 Topps set, Mars Attacks, was particularly noteworthy for its graphic depictions of Martians attacking Earth, and quickly became a cult classic. The Outer Limits set, produced in 1964, featured terrifying monsters and eerie creatures, delighting horror fans and collectors alike. As trading cards evolved, their value increased due to factors such as scarcity and rarity, further fueling collectors’ interest.

Source: Internet Archives — Fair Use

The evolution of trading cards throughout the mid to late 20th century was marked by a continued diversification of themes and styles, from sports stars and war heroes to movie characters, TV shows, and science fiction. This movement away from sports-based cards into the realm of fiction, sci-fi and fantasy was a massive step towards creating the modern trading card.

Magic: The Gathering and the Birth of the Collectible Card Game

Source: waichwit via Adobe Stock — licensed

Magic: The Gathering, introduced in 1993 by game designer Richard Garfield, marked a turning point in the history of trading cards. As the first collectable card game (CCG), Magic: The Gathering revolutionized the trading card industry with its innovative gameplay system, unique fantasy theme, and the introduction of rarity levels. The game quickly gained a massive following, and players eagerly bought and traded cards to create customized decks for gameplay. The concept of rarity, which had never been used in trading cards before, added a new layer of intrigue and value to the game, and some of the rarest cards now fetch thousands of dollars on the secondary market.

Magic: The Gathering has had a profound impact on the trading card industry, inspiring numerous other collectable card games over the years. CCGs like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Hearthstone have all followed in Magic’s footsteps, using similar gameplay mechanics and card rarity systems to create their own unique game experiences. The success of Magic: The Gathering has also led to the creation of a thriving secondary market for rare cards, with collectors and players alike willing to pay top dollar for the most sought-after cards.The gameplay system in Magic: The Gathering differed from traditional trading cards by requiring players to build customized decks and engage in strategic battles, making it a truly groundbreaking innovation.

Despite the rise of digital games and online trading, the popularity of physical trading cards remains strong, and Magic: The Gathering continues to be one of the most popular and influential trading card games of all time. With an estimated 20 million players worldwide, the game has become a cultural phenomenon, inspiring not just games, but also books, comics, and even a feature film. The success of Magic: The Gathering is a testament to the enduring appeal of trading cards, and it is a game that will undoubtedly continue to captivate players for generations to come.

Digital Trading Cards

Source: Alex via Adobe Stock — licensed

One of the most exciting developments in the world of trading card games is the incorporation of digital elements. Games like Hearthstone and Gwent were initially highly successful in the digital space, and many others have now followed suit.

And you can’t ignore the semblance of trading cards to modern digital collectables. Having exploded in popularity in the past few years, blockchain-owned digital assets have much in common with trading cards. They are collectable, fetch massive prices at auctions, and feature cool and unique artwork. Digital trading cards offer several advantages over physical cards, such as ease of storage, simpler trading mechanisms, and enhanced security through these emergent technologies.

Games like God’s Unchained, Splinterlands and Axie Infinity have put the new tech to good use. These games have paved the way with unique gameplay systems and a variety of powerful cards that can be owned and freely traded globally. Players can monetize their ownership in exciting new ways through lending and leasing, both of which are facilitated by peer-to-peer technology.

However, without a doubt, the best is yet to come…

The Future of Trading Card Games

As the TCG industry continues to evolve, it will face many challenges and opportunities. Blockchain technology, the growing popularity of digital trading card games and the potential for new, innovative gameplay mechanics will shape the future of trading cards.

In the last decade we’ve seen an explosion in popularity of digital web3 TCGs. But one title is set to rise to the top. Yes, you guessed it. With shameless love and faith for our game, we are confident Aradena: Battlegrounds is set to rise to the top of the TCG world. Our unique and innovative gameplay combines hex-board battler mechanics with trading card strategy in a confluence which is equal parts thrilling, action-packed and deeply strategic. Our commitment is to our users, and to providing them with the best gameplay possible.

With an incredible community supporting us and many successes to celebrate, we are very excited about our future. We are totally committed to trailblazing a new path for the TCG that redefines the best player experience towards being something more exciting, personal and immersive. And with such a phenomenal legacy behind us, we couldn’t be prouder to be carrying the torch.

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Aradena

Aradena is a medieval fantasy gaming brand created by Litoja Labs. Aradena: Battlegrounds is a tactical TCG where collectable cards come to life.