Representation matters. That's obviously true if you're trying to enact social change, but it's no less true if you just want more people to pick up your nerdy hobby. Dungeons & Dragons, for example, owes some of its success in the past seven years to its appearances on popular shows like Community and Stranger Things. These shows normalized D&D for audiences who might never have encountered the game otherwise.
So today, I'm seeing which TV shows have come closest to doing for trading card games what Stranger Things did for D&D. These are the most notable examples I could find of TV characters playing TCGs on shows that aren't already about TCGs (sorry, Yu-Gi-Oh Sevens). And since not all representation is created equal, I'm going to rate each depiction for how accurately it presents the game in question.
Daybreak was a short-lived teen comedy drama on Netflix set in a post-apocalyptic California, based on the Brian Ralph comic of the same name. It's like The Walking Dead meets Mean Girls.
Matthew Broderick is in it?
S1 E9 Josh vs. the Apocalypse: Part 2
Josh (Colin Ford) and temporary ally Eli (Gregory Kasyan) are preparing to infiltrate Glendale High School. Josh wants to save his would-be girlfriend from Matthew Broderick. Eli wants to retrieve his Magic cards, which he assures Josh, have taught him how to be a "master of disguise."
Josh scoffs at this, and Eli retorts that at least Magic is "better than Pokémon." Josh defends Pokémon's honor and bets Eli he could beat him. Eli takes that bet, and challenges Josh to "Mental Pokémon."
Josh accepts, and starts strong.
The two walk through a couple turns trash-talking each other. For a few brief seconds, they are transported to a more innocent time, before cannibalistic principals roamed the earth. Mutually impressed, they continue on, having gained a level of respect and trust that they didn't have before.
Defensive teenage boys learning how to open up through the magic of card games is both heartwarming, and highly accurate.
The game itself is… hard to follow, and not just because it goes by fast. In the Pokémon TCG, mechanically distinct cards can have the same name. So when Josh announces Charizard as his active, it's not clear which card he's talking about, or how he and Eli are keeping the game straight in their heads. But that's a minor quibble—I don't actually want Josh's line to have been, "Charizard-EX (FLF 11) is my active, Venusaur-EX (EVO 1) and Entei (AOR 14) on my bench."
If you're a Pokémon fan, you can rewatch the scene and use context clues to figure out which cards they're playing.
At least, I thought that was the case until I tried it myself. And lost two hours of my life trying to understand how M Charizard-EX can deal exactly 120 damage to Beautifly.
It just doesn't add up.
Final Grade: B+
Do you remember Cartoon Network's Teen Titans?
Great! Do you remember the theme song?
Perfect! So you must remember when Cartoon Network made a series about fictionalized versions of the band who wrote that theme song, Japanese Pop duo Puffy AmiYumi.
You don't? Well, it happened.
S1 E5b In the Cards
Ami and Yumi arrive at their next gig, only to discover they're performing at a tournament for "the hot new battle card game Stu-Pi-Doh!" Then they both fall head over heels for the reigning champion, Chad.
To compete over which of them will get to date him, they play Stu-Pi-Doh.
After two minutes of card slinging, Ami wins, only to discover that Chad is already in a committed relationship with Stu-Pi-Doh and doesn't want to go out with a beautiful pop musician. Ami and Yumi make up, hug, and resolve never to fight over a nerdy boy again. Then a random guy walks by.
Cue comedic turn-around.
Convention centers do in fact host card game tournaments sometimes. I've never heard of live music at one though, the acoustics are terrible.
Stu-Pi-Doh itself is such an on-the-nose parody of Yu-Gi-Oh that I feel dumb for even pointing that out. This makes the "accuracy" question more complicated. Parodies are supposed to exaggerate for comedy, and whining about those inaccuracies is just pedantic. Of course Cheese Grater of Despair isn't a real card—that's the joke!
Unfortunately, the joke is pretty thin. Ami and Yumi play Stu-Pi-Doh for almost two minutes of air time, during which they just shout silly card names at each other. And cards like Wind of Broccoli aren't exactly biting satire when Yu-Gi-Oh has real cards named "Interplanetarypurplythorny Dragon" and "Doom Donuts."
The writers don't seem to know enough about Yu-Gi-Oh as a game to parody it effectively. I want to grade this episode on a curve since it's the oldest example of TCG representation I could find, but I can't help feeling disappointed.
Final Grade: C-
WataMote is a bleak, comedic anime about a girl with crippling social anxiety. Every episode she concocts schemes to become popular—or at least, less desperately lonely. These schemes inevitably fail, leaving her feeling even more humiliated and isolated than when she started. Hilarious!
S1E8 Since I'm Not Popular I'll Put On Airs
Our protagonist Tomoko has spent the whole episode failing to impress her younger cousin Ki. In a final bid to appear cool, Tomoko takes Ki to a corner store where some elementary-school kids are playing an unnamed card game.
It turns out she has a reputation as the legendary "Queen" of the shop. To cement her title, she accepts a challenge from the strongest kid there, and in a major flex, unbuttons her overshirt to reveal a shoulder-mounted deck box.
The kid is strong, and it looks like Tomoko will lose. But on the final turn, she replaces her draw with a card hidden in her sleeve. Only Ki notices her cheating, and the elementary school kids erupt in applause for their unbeatable Queen.
Ki is overwhelmed with feelings for Tomoko. Unfortunately, instead of admiration, she's full of pity for her poor, desperate cousin who was willing to cheat in a game against children to show off to a middle schooler.
Unfortunately, cheating has been part of trading card games since the very beginning. Hiding a card in your sleeve is a little… conspicuous, but Tomoko is scamming kids, not trying to cash a Grand Prix. WataMote could have depicted a more realistic form of cheating, but the show went to great lengths not to make dishonestly look too glamorous.
We don't see enough of the game to judge it on accuracy. But we do see some of the cards, which is how we know they're playing Magic.
The name, type line, and card text have been replaced with synonyms (presumably to dodge copyright violations) but that's unmistakably Crypt Ghast from Magic: The Gathering. When this episode aired in August 2013, Gatecrash had been out for just six months. Crypt Ghast wasn't played much in competitive constructed, but maybe that's why Tomoko was losing. It's totally in character for her to play a mana-greedy mono-black deck that pins all of its hopes on a 2/2 for four mana.
I'd have liked to see more, but everything depicted in WataMote could really happen in a Japanese card shop.
Final Grade: A-
Cartoon Network's Craig of the Creek is like Disney's Recess updated for the 2020s. The show follows friends Craig, Kelsey, and JP as they explore the Creek, a stretch of woods where different clans of kids hang out daily between the hours of 3pm and dinnertime. It's a simple premise that the show uses to riff on relatable middle school drama, geeky pop culture, and what it means to be part of a community.
S1 E12 Bring Out Your Beast
Craig wants his big brother Bernard to teach him the card game Bring Out Your Beast. When Bernard refuses, Craig "borrows" Bernard's binder of old cards to play at the creek.
At the creek, Craig picks out a few cards that look cool, throws them into a deck, and challenges the first player he can find. Since he still doesn't know the rules, Craig is quickly outmatched. Desperate, he plays Beast Snare… prompting a strong reaction from his opponent.
Local player Turner comes over to explain what just happened. It turns out Beast Snare is an old card that lets you take control of your opponent's beasts, and keep them forever. It's never been reprinted because it was "ruining the game." Rather than make the game unfun for everyone in the creek, Craig lets Turner talk him into hiding the card under a rock.
Bernard finds his Beast Snare is missing, and is furious. He doesn't play the game anymore, but the cards are worth serious money.
He and Craig go to dig up Beast Snare, but Turner has taken it and is using it to steal cards from every other player in the creek.
Bernard and Craig team up to take down Turner, but she draws Beast Snare and starts stealing their beasts before they can attack. All hope seems lost, until Craig tricks her into stealing Squeakers: The Infected.
Too late, Turner realizes Squeakers has a drawback that triggers every turn.
Bernard gets his Beast Snare back, and tells Craig he can play with his BOYB cards until it's time to sell them for college money. As long as he uses sleeves.
Older siblings refusing to share their cards? Newbies choosing cards that look cool, but aren't actually good? Cards being expensive because they're very old and horribly unbalanced? Accurate, accurate, accurate. Plus, this is the only episode of TV I know of where a trading card's in-game effect is a plot point.
Bring Out Your Beast isn't a real game, and the gameplay we see isn't perfectly analogous to any real games. That makes accuracy harder to evaluate, but BOYB makes up for it by including a host of references to the game's closest analog, Magic: The Gathering. It's not surprising the writers went there, given that one of the creek's residents wears a shirt with a logo that resembles the MTG planeswalker symbol.
The biggest Magic Easter Egg? Beast Snare's ability to steal cards permanently is a reference to ante, an optional Magic rule that requires both players to "ante" one of their cards before the game, with the winner getting both cards. Ante was part of the official rules when Magic released, but it quickly fell out of favor for being (as the episode shows) incredibly unfun.
That's a deep cut, so I gotta give it up. BOYB might not be a real game, but this is the most accurate depiction of the way people relate to TCGs that I've ever seen.
Final Grade: A
Adventure Time follows Finn the Human and his shape-shifting brother Jake the Dog on episodic, surreal-fantasy adventures in the land of Ooo. But you probably already know that. The series won a bunch of Emmys during its 10-season run and changed the landscape of American animation. It's a friggin' cultural landmark.
S4 E14 Card Wars
Jake is sad that his girlfriend Lady Rainicorn won't play the game Card Wars with him because he gets too competitive. To cheer him up, Finn agrees to play.
Jake decides to up the stakes by mixing a horrible concoction including coffee grounds, grape jelly, and Ham Chunk Juice, declaring that the loser will have to drink it.
It quickly becomes apparent that despite his inexperience, Finn has a good head for Card Wars. He counters Jake's assaults, steals his creatures, and renders his remaining army useless by sending The Pig to eat Jake's cornfields.
Jake doesn't take this well.
Scared, Jake seeks advice from their roommate BMO, who confirms that Jake is so competitive about Card Wars that when he loses, he enters a month-long sulk.
Not wanting to upset his brother, Finn makes a sub-optimal play and loses The Pig. Jake rallies, steals back all his creatures, and wins on the next turn.
Finn drinks from the horrible cup of Dweeb Juice, but tricks Jake into tasting it too. The two trade sips and laugh, their brotherly love rekindled now that their egos aren't in jeopardy.
We all know that player who's so desperate to win that they suck all the fun out of the game. Maybe sometimes we've been that player. This episode depicts him (nearly always "him") in all his painful fragility.
However. The depiction of Card Wars itself is highly inaccurate.
Yes, I know Cryptozoic's Adventure Time Card Wars was published after this episode aired, but I don't see how that's relevant. There's a real game to compare this to! And boy, did they miss the mark. Why isn't Finn using his Finn Hero card? How did Jake look at Finn's hand using Silo of Truth? Why does Immortal Maize Walker deal triple damage when Finn doesn't control any Corn creatures?
Embarrassing. Anyone who watches this episode to learn about Card Wars is going to be sorely disappointed.
Final Grade: C+
Billions is a Showtime drama about hedge fund managers and white-collar crime. It's popcorn viewing for people with actual high-pressure jobs, who don't get to say stuff like this in the workplace:
"I am the last line of defense keeping us all out of prison!"
"If we were in prison, I would wrench you out for a #$%*ing scoop of mashed potatoes!"
Paul Giamatti serves his trademark exasperation every episode and wears a lot of formal vests.
S3 E5 Flaw in the Death Star
Financial analyst Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) and venture capitalist Oscar Langstraat (Mike Birbiglia) have been hitting it off during a business meeting, and Oscar invites Taylor out to dinner. Taylor declines, as they have a previous engagement.
That night Taylor attends a swanky Netrunner tournament… only to find that Oscar is already there. They play over glasses of red wine, and Oscar pours on the charm.
After Oscar asks a gameplay question ("Do you want access?") as suggestively as humanly possible, Taylor says yes. Then they both go back to Oscar's place to have sex while listening to The Killing Moon. We never learn who won their game.
Android Netrunner has many admirable qualities. Being sexy is not one of them. I regret to say that Billions may have taken some liberties when they depicted a Netrunner tournament as an exclusive venue for beautiful people to flirt over Cabernet.
The framing may stretch credulity, but the gameplay is on point, thanks to the Billions writers doing their homework. They put out a casting call for actors with real play experience, and consulted with two-time world champion Dan D'Argenio to make sure all the gameplay was accurate. When Taylor calls Oscar's move "bold," it actually is bold. He double-advanced a face-down card in an unprotected server. That's the Netrunner equivalent of going all-in on the flop and daring your opponent to call your bluff.
But then Oscar says "Do you want access?" and the moment loses all credibility. Obviously they want access, Oscar! They just paid nine credits to get through all your ICE!
This is so hard to judge. On the one hand, this is the only live-action series I know that actually shows two characters playing a TCG. (Yes, I know Android Netrunner is an LCG, don't @ me.) But everything surrounding the game is absurd. In the end, I have to dock Billions a few points for misleadingly depicting card games as cool.
Final Grade: A-
Our six examples got an average grade of B, which feels about right. None of them succeeded at turning "planeswalker" or "prize cards" into household words like Stranger Things did for "Demogorgon," so there's room for improvement. Still, it's nice to know that some TV writers are shining a light on our hobby. Here's hoping we get even better depictions of card games in the future.
Oh, and before you ask: I didn't mention Mystic Warlords of Ka'a because The Big Bang Theory sucks.