Let's get this out of the way: every trading card game out there owes its existence to Magic: The Gathering.
In 1991, game designer Richard Garfield pitched start-up publisher Wizards of the Coast with a novel idea: a card game using decks that players built themselves. That idea grew into MTG, the world's first TCG, which made WotC an overnight success.
In the 28 years since then, hundreds of designers have played in the space opened up by Garfield's idea. Truthfully, the vast majority of these games cannot be said to have 100& "ripped off" Magic the Gathering, even hyperbolically. Trading card games are an entire genre, with their own tropes. Did Yu-Gi-Oh! rip off power and toughness from Magic? No more than Halo ripped off "having guns" from Doom.
That said, there are games with connections to Magic that seem just a little too intimate to chalk up to inspiration alone—games whose genesis sprang from, "What if we made Magic, but…"
Some of them were so good that Magic later borrowed their innovations. Others just got their publishers sued.
Here are a few of their stories...
"What if we made Magic, but based on an anime?"
Why So Similar?
Duel Masters looks like what would happen if someone wrote a Yu-Gi-Oh-style manga about Magic and a game designer had to reverse-engineer the rules. ...Which is basically what happened.
Magic: The Gathering had a tough time breaking into Japan at first, mostly due to marketing missteps. Most sets weren't published in Japanese until Mirage in late 1996, so for the first three years of Magic, Japanese fans of the game had to play with English cards—an extra barrier to entry for a game that's already notoriously complicated.
In 1999, WotC decided to make up for lost time. Likely inspired by the success of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, In May 1999, WotC commissioned a weekly manga about Magic called Duel Masters.
What happened next is kinda unclear. The manga was a hit, but instead of leveraging that success to drive sales of Magic, WotC decided to spin the franchise off into a whole new game. In 2002, the manga was adapted into an anime, and Wizards partnered with a Japanese company to publish Duel Masters.
Despite its strange origins, Duel Masters managed to set itself apart mechanically in a couple important ways. Most importantly, it abandoned lands.
One of the quirks of playing Magic is that there's always a chance you'll draw too many lands (mana flood), or too few (mana screw). Either way, your deck basically rolls over and presents its belly for your opponent to kick.
Every game that imitates Magic takes one look at mana screw and says, "No, thank you." Duel Masters solved this age-old problem by getting rid of land cards and letting you play any card upside down to your mana zone. Magic actually borrowed this mechanic back (after a fashion) with modal double-faced cards in Zendikar Rising.
Duel Masters is still going strong in Japan. In the U.S., it never fared as well. WotC brought the game across the Pacific in 2004, but canceled it just two years later. A second attempt to bring Duel Masters to the U.S. suffered the same fate eight years later, starting in 2012 and ending in 2014.
If you're interested in checking out the game, the online community Duel Masters Reborn is keeping it alive for English-speakers. But if all you want is a laugh, I can't recommend the 2004 English dub of the original anime highly enough. It's a self-aware gag dub in the mode of Kung Pow! Enter the Fist. (Imagine if LittleKuriboh of Yu-Gi-Oh Abridged fame got to direct an official release.)
"What if we made Magic, but as a board game?"
Why So Similar?
According to Underground Games's Kickstarter,
When designing Allegiance, we built on some of our favorite features of different game genres including CCG's, board games and video games. We tried to eliminate design choices that we found frustrating - particularly luck heavy elements - and add our own innovative mechanics to create something new and exciting.
It's not hard to read this as, "We started with Magic and got rid of manascrew." While it's hardly groundbreaking, I can't fault Allegiance for copying from the best, especially because it offers something Magic still hadn't provided in 2014: a satisfying multiplayer sealed experience.
By modern board game standards, Magic is both complicated and high-variance. WotC's beginner-friendly decks usually solve the first problem by making the second problem worse: they're full of simple cards that offer few play choices, and even fewer ways to recover from a bad draw. Even in a game between balanced decks, it's possible for a player to lose without really getting to play.
Allegiance solves all this by ditching land cards, guaranteeing one additional resource each turn, and giving players hero abilities that they can always use, regardless of what they draw. None of these solutions were novel in 2016, but they work. And at $55 for ten heroes, it was way better value than buying five pairs of Duel Decks for $20 each.
WotC apparently agreed, because in 2018 they published Game Night, an out-of-the-box multiplayer experience with a board-game feel.
"What if we made Magic, but on Azeroth?"
Why So Similar?
Hearthstone is the successor to the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game (last published by Cryptozoic Entertainment, who plays a role in another game on this list). In 2013, Blizzard pulled the license from Cryptozoic to relaunch the game on digital platforms, using the same playbook that made World of Warcraft a gaming juggernaut: take something nerds love, and make it more accessible.
Most current WoW players think of the original version of the game as less intuitive and more frustrating for newcomers. But when it was released in 2004, WoW was far more beginner-friendly than its chief competition, Everquest. Monsters were plentiful and respawned quickly. Flight paths swept players across the map in minutes.
Essentially, Blizzard took the core gameplay of Everquest and did everything they could to make the game easier to learn, and less punishing when you made a mistake. To top it off, they gave the game an approachable, cartoony art style and filled it with bells and whistles to let you know you're doing a great job!
For Hearthstone, Blizzard did the same thing with Magic that they did with Everquest. Lands are gone (as always), but so are instants and enchantments. You can mulligan without losing card advantage. Attackers choose defenders, so you don't need to calculate how your opponent can block. Even out-of-game challenges like growing your collection or building a deck are easier, thanks to the dust system and the auto-complete deck builder.
When it launched in 2014, practically all of Hearthstone's mechanics were borrowed from other sources. That didn't matter, though, because they'd never been assembled with as much polish. Only die-hard Magic fans were going to choose to play Magic Online, a PC-only game that uses function keys, over the shiny new toy they could play on a tablet.
Hearthstone's success was immediate, and spawned a wave of imitations from rival companies—including WotC. However many mechanics Hearthstone filched from Magic, Magic filched just as many aesthetic elements when they set about building MTG Arena.
"What if we made Magic, but as a deck-building game?"
Why So Similar?
Designer David Sirlin, like so many before him, wanted to make Magic, but better. From the Kickstarter:
Codex is the 10-year culmination of trying to come at customizable card games from a completely different angle. What if there were so many things you can do with a deck that you might play it for years and have it still be interesting? What if almost any deck you could make is reasonably fair and matchups are generally won or lost by how you play them, rather than before the game starts?
In order to fully explain Codex, first we have to look at Dominion.
Dominion was the world's first deck-building game, a kind of board game where you build a deck of cards over the course of the game. This core idea blossomed into dozens of imitation games that use deck building to fuel their other mechanics, including Trains and Slay the Spire. Designer Donald X. Vaccarino claims Dominion wasn't directly based on Magic, but that Magic did inspire him to pursue game design. And it's hard to miss the similarities between Dominion and drafting.
Codex is the incestuous design offspring of Magic the Gathering and other deck-building games.
Unlike Dominion, in Codex you're building your deck to do very Magic-y things: summoning creatures, turning them sideways, and tracking damage. However, your deck only starts with 10 cards. At the end of every turn, you open your binder of 72 cards and pick two to secretly add to your discard pile. Once your deck is empty, you reshuffle your discard pile (with your new toys in it) and keep on playing.
The result is a game that feels like Sealed-format Magic, except you're continuously rebuilding your deck in the middle of the game.
WotC hasn't directly borrowed any ideas from Codex (as far as I can tell), but it seems only a matter of time before they design a new product/format in the mold of Jumpstart, but using deck building mechanics. When they do, Codex will have done it first.
"What if we made Magic, but with no lands? Like, NO lands?"
Why So Similar?
Epic Card Game was designed by two Magic Hall of Famers, Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle. That's part of the pitch.
Epic's innovation to Magic design is that you don't build up resources over time. Instead, you get one gold each turn, and you can never have more than one gold. You can spend your gold on a card that costs (1), and cards that cost (0) are free.
That's the only significant change from Magic, but it gives Epic a radically different feel. Imagine playing Magic, but you start with 10 lands in play and all your cards are gas. From turn one, you're summoning enormous creatures or wiping the entire board with the same breezy abandon.
That zingy card-flinging gameplay has earned Epic a small cadre of fans—many of them current or former Magic players who just want something a bit different. If that's your cup of tea, you can play it for free on PC and mobile. ...Oh, and the entire cardpool is available to play with for free. I don't see Wizards of the Coast copying that idea any time soon.
"What if we made Magic, but an MMO?"
Why So Similar?
Cryptozoic were the publishers of the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game…that is, until Blizzard entertainment pulled the license in 2013 so they could reshuffle the game's mechanics and assets to create Hearthstone.
But by then, Cryptozoic had bigger plans.
Cryptozoic Entertainment, creators and publishers of the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, is excited and proud to introduce HEX: Shards of Fate, the first real MMO/TCG. A completely unique game that takes place in an original and exciting fantasy world, HEX was created from the ground up as a digital trading card game and brings tremendous innovation to how a TCG can be played.
The "completely unique" game they promised turned out to be the closest copy of Magic: The Gathering that's ever been published. Card types, combat, keywords, turn structure, the five colors…practically every game element is functionally identical to its Magic analogue.
They even kept land cards! Everyone gets rid of lands!
To be fair, Hex also included what they sold as MMO elements, including a single-player campaign, and the ability to join guilds with other players. There were also digital-friendly card designs, like cards that transformed over time. But the core gameplay was unmistakably similar.
WotC responded with a wholly unprecedented move: they sued Cryptozoic. In their complaint they pointed to Hex fans who were using Magic to explain the mechanics, and a statement allegedly by Cryptozoic on the similarities between the games that said "If it ain't broke, don't fix it,"
The legal questions at issue in Wizards of the Coast v. Cryptozoic Entertainment et. al. included copyright violation, trademark violation, and an expired patent on trading cards games that may not have been enforceable to begin with. A precedent-setting case on those issues could have disrupted the entire TCG industry. If you like TCGs, you probably enjoy learning about obscure rules with big implications, and there's an entire rabbit hole of information you can dig through to learn more!
But I'll cut to the finale: WotC and Cryptozoic settled out of court, with the terms of settlement kept secret. With the legal hurdles cleared, Cryptozoic released Hex in 2016.
Unfortunately, its similarities to Magic are Hex's only real legacy nowadays. The game was officially shut down in December of last year. On a Steam forum thread lamenting the death of the game, conversation once again turned to whether the game was too similar to Magic.