Interview: World of Warcraft Trading Card Game Developer Cryptozoic Speaks Up

Gamasutra speaks to the developers of the WoW trading card game about the pressures of developing a compliment to the massively successful MMO -- and how they tie in with it.
It's no easy task living up to one of the most successful and recognizable video game franchises in history. The World of Warcraft brand is a global phenomenon and the team at Cryptozoic Entertainment face one of the biggest challenges in developing a trading card game based on the MMO juggernaut. With the imminent release of Twilight of the Dragons, the 16th set in the wildly popular World of Warcraft TCG, it's safe to say that the folks over at Cryptozoic Entertainment are doing a lot of things right and facing that challenge head-on. On July 16th, Cryptozoic held an epic prerelease event in its headquarters to hype up the upcoming set. The public event, just across the street from Blizzard HQ in Irvine, was a mini BlizzCon of sorts. Fans showed up in droves and were given the red carpet treatment with studio tours, swag, free food, and (best of all) a chance to get their hands on the upcoming set weeks before its official release. The festivities and pageantry were just the appetizer for a five-round casual tournament where players would get to test the latest cards in actual competition, with a few lucky random participants winning a chance to face off against members of the development team for a chance at real life loot like giant WoW resin figures and other cool swag. The event was an interesting convergence of card players, gamers, and enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds. Some, like 12 year old Konnor, have been playing the MMO since its release and only recently crossed over to the TCG. Others, like the legendary WoW loremaster Ashkan, were recruited into the MMO early on by friends who needed another guild member to fill a certain need and then similarly recruited into the TCG to help in multiplayer raids. There were even a number of carryovers from the Warcraft RTS series who soaked up the strategic elements of the TCG.
Still, a fair majority in attendance have only dabbled in the MMO out of curiosity and some, like TCG community organizer John Patchell, have never touched the online game. They were all drawn to the TCG at different times and for different reasons, but they all share a love for the amazing art, the community, the social aspect, the chance to play as their favorite race and class in a real-life setting. One thing the World of Warcraft TCG has nailed down is the social aspect. It's a thriving community and between rounds it felt like a giant party as I watched people chat, joke, exchange contact information, and plan dinner dates and parties after the event with people they just met. It provided something the online game can't, one-on-one face-to-face interactions with other fans of the game. Being a fan of the MMO and having just recently picked up the WoW TCG, I decided to take part in the tournament myself, and immediately enjoyed being able to physically see my opponent and chat between turns while joking about certain moves and interactions. While every TCG matchup between strangers sees both players in it to win it, camaraderie seems to triumph above all. Each match ends with a genuine handshake and friendly discussion over class abilities and strategies, with experienced players often sharing helpful tips. After getting steamrolled in my first game against a veteran, the copious amounts of advice handed down to me allowed me to win my next two matches. Even as a relative newcomer to the game, I never felt overwhelmed or out of place.
One of the best things about the WoW TCG is that it's incredibly easy to learn and pick up. Players start by picking a hero which determines which faction and class they'll play. From that point they just build their decks with allies, abilities, quests, and items that suit their particular style of play. I spoke with several first-time players at the event and none of them seemed intimidated by the rules. While many of them have played another TCG before, they universally preferred the fast pace of the WoW TCG and the many options and interactions players have each turn. At the end of the event most people didn't seem to be mulling over their win-loss records. They were too busy laughing it up, sharing stories, and meeting new people. As the final participants slowly filtered out of the event I took a moment to sit down for an interview with head designer Matt Place, head developer Patrick Sullivan, and head creative designer Drew Walker to talk about some of the challenges that come with making the WoW TCG. The first thing I can't help but bring up is the artwork. I'm a total sucker for visual style and the WoW TCG probably has the coolest art I've seen in a trading card game. Fans of the bold contrasting colors and art style of the Warcraft universe will appreciate how every card fully captures the WoW aesthetic, with core members from the Blizzard art team handling the art for the sets and some of the best commissioned artists (and deviantART fan favorites) contributing for various cards on the side. As head creative designer, Drew is quick to elaborate on why art is one of the most important factors in a TCG. “Our goal with the art is to have players be able to identify class abilities just by looking at the card. We want players to look at a card and think 'that looks like a cool Death Knight ability' just as they would in the MMO. It's especially important for drawing fans of the MMO who can identify with specific characteristics of each class while making it easy for newcomers to see the difference between classes.” As a fan of the online game I can't help but notice how well the TCG carries the essence of the MMO. Nearly every card has flavor text and it's something that fans of the series who enjoy the lore can really appreciate. It may be just short line or two, but these little quips really help flesh out and expand the lore of the series for dedicated fans. Each set also has it's own theme as well. Releasing alongside the Cataclysm MMO expansion last December, the Worldbreaker TCG set has a similar focus on introducing Goblins and Worgen to the WoW universe. Just like it's MMO counterpart, the TCG is able to explore all new abilities and allies with the introduction of two new races.
At the same time, one of the major challenges for the TCG development and design team is constantly introducing new and original content while keeping in tune with the spirit of the online game. “We want cards of a certain class to look and feel like they belong in that class. A Warlock ability card should look a certain way and play completely different from a Hunter ability,” Drew points out. This challenge is only amplified considering that a new set of over two hundred cards is released every few months. The TCG features heroes and allies from both Alliance and Horde factions and unique abilities for each of the ten classes, along with weapons, armor, and items for each of those classes. It means the team has to be on their toes and constantly churning out new ideas at a rate that would make even the MMO devs at Blizzard raise their eyebrows. Speaking purely as a player, it's fun to know that my favorite Druid and Priest decks will get a nice injection of new abilities with the release of each new set even if I don't envy the amount of work that must go into designing all of them. “One of the things that makes the TCG standout from the MMO is that we are introducing dozens of new allies and abilities across ten classes with each new set release, so there's always new cards that players can use to enhance their decks. Also, the introduction of new cards adds a nice twist on how old cards work via their interactions. It really helps separate the TCG from the MMO since players are never capped in their abilities in whatever class they play. Players are always coming up with card combinations and interactions that even we couldn't foresee when designing the sets and it shows just how deep the game can be,” Matt tells me. While it's certainly great for fans to have lots of new material to play with, it's proven to be a tight balancing act for developers. “The goal was never to have the TCG directly recreate the video game but rather use the MMO as inspiration and create fun new possibilities within the WoW universe that fans have come to know and love,” says Patrick. “It's true that while we have a lot of creative freedom, we're also always aware that we don't want to contradict the MMO,” Matt continues. That's one thing I noticed throughout the tournament. While each match resembled a stylized PvP matchup in the MMO, the classes don't play as mere replicas of their MMO counterparts, but rather capture the feel of playing a particular class in the Warcraft universe. I watched Rogue players frustrate their opponents with quick and disruptive abilities. Death Knight players were casting diseases and spells that withered down their opponents' heroes and allies. Priests kept healing and protecting their allies to keep them alive against some of the most ferocious enemy abilities. Warriors wielded powerful weapons and armor in an attempt to overrun their opponent. There was plenty of deck variety and numerous play styles, giving players a fresh and dynamic experience with each matchup. When I asked if they were surprised to see a lot of first-time players show up to the event they immediately responded with a sense of accomplishment. “One thing Blizzard has been very good about is trying to make everything they create accessible, and that carries over into the work we do. We recently released intro starter decks to ease players into the game and we're proud to have this really smooth on-ramp where it's really easy to jump into the TCG. Last year at BlizzCon, for example, we found people gravitating toward the TCG and picking preconstructed class starter decks that resemble their online characters. We actually underestimated just how popular the TCG would be at BlizzCon. We had hundreds of boxed products that sold out within the first few hours of the two day event,” Patrick explained. BlizzCon 2010 saw hundreds of players at packed tables pick up the TCG for the first time. It's likely that Cryptozoic will be well prepared for the onslaught at BlizzCon 2011 and I'm personally looking forward to seeing the big crowds of new and veteran players throw down in epic card battles. It seems natural that fans of the WoW MMO would gravitate to the TCG, especially considering some of the interesting carryover between the MMO and the TCG. Drew goes on to explain: “Because we come up with so many abilities, we've seen some of them appear in the MMO as class talents. At the same time, all of our quest cards and weapon/armor/item cards are carried over from the MMO, giving us a huge selection of the coolest equipment the MMO has to offer.” Perhaps even more interesting are the loot cards and the crafting cards. This is where being tied to a mega popular MMO becomes an avenue for converging the two mediums. “A huge part of the creative vision from day one was having these fun interactions between the MMO and TCG,” Patrick admits. Borrowing directly from the MMO, crafting cards allow players to collect a certain number of artifact and material cards (there's one in each booster pack) and mail them in to receive a specially crafted item, weapon, or armor card. Loot cards offer an even bigger bonus as they come with a scratch off code that can be redeemed in the MMO for unique items, pets, or epic mounts. The fact that these unique items can only be acquired via the TCG loot cards provides a nice incentive for MMO players pick up the TCG. The upcoming Twilight of the Dragons set will introduce three new loot cards in the form of the Nightsaber Cub pet, the Amani Dragonhawk mount, and the Fool's Gold item. If that wasn't enough, the WoW TCG goes one step further with raids, a multiplayer format where players band together to take on one super powerful boss player in a dungeon raid, much like its MMO counterpart. The most recent raid deck Assault on Icecrown Citadel pits players against the legendary Lich King and captures the essence of teamwork and coordination of taking down a powerful boss. Drew even takes a moment to highlight the draw of raids: "We found that with MMO players and new players alike, the representation of the iconic raids was an awesome hook for bringing people into the TCG. MMO fans are immediately drawn to iconic figures like Tirion Fordring, Jaina Proudmoore, and Sylvanas Windrunner while new players love the elements of cooperation and teamwork needed to clear and survive the raid.” It's this clever blend of the new with the familiar that has led to the success of the WoW TCG, allowing the design and dev team to explore new avenues and possibilities that the online game cannot. The upcoming Twilight of the Dragons set is a great example as it ups the ante even further by bringing the legendary Deathwing into the TCG as a Master Hero, a character that players can control and summon in battle against their opponents. “It's something the online game can't provide and it gives players a new perspective of playing with creatures and bosses that they can only face off against in the online game. At the Twilight of the Dragons prerelease players were super excited about getting a chance to mess around and play with all the new dragons we're introducing in this upcoming set and we think new players will fall in love with the cards the instant they open the packs,” Drew points out. Overall, the creative minds at Cryptozoic seem focused on delivering a fun experience to existing World of Warcraft MMO fans and newcomers alike. The Twilight of the Dragons set releases on July 26th and new players can jump right in with a boxed Epic Collection that contains a stylized storage case, playmat, deckbox, card dividers, spoiler guide, special loot and foil cards, and six booster packs for only $34.95 MSRP. It's a pretty amazing value for new players so anyone with the slightest interest in the game can jump right in and get a feel for what the WoW TCG has to offer.

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