And why you should give a damn about them
Only a few short weeks ago, I spent approximately four seconds looking at this whole Steam Trading Card scheme and decided that it was dumb. Oh, what a fool I was! The system isn't exactly new -- it's been out of beta since the end of June -- but now that Valve has tied it in with the Steam summer sale and more developers are on board every day, it's finally clicked with me. I'm hooked.
Before we get any further, yes, virtual cards are a bit silly. I'll be among the last to argue in their favor from that standpoint. What's not so silly -- actually, it totally is, but in a good way -- is the ability to essentially earn free money that can then be reinvested in game purchases or, if you're like me, in the acquisition of further cards because you've lost control of your life.
After spending my weekend downloading a bunch of games I already owned just to run them, minimized, for a chance at earning virtual cards that could then be sold for less than a quarter each, I have some tips to share. But before that, it's come to my attention that some of you have no idea what Steam Trading Cards are all about. Let's get you up to speed.
The absolute basics
There's been some real confusion as to what exactly Steam Trading Cards are. Consider this your obligatory link to Valve's FAQ on the matter. Didn't read it? Perfect! For the purposes of this article, I'm just going to assume that, at best, you merely skimmed the thing. That's fine. Here are the highlights to get you started.
Steam Trading Cards are, quite simply, virtual trading cards that are tied to your Steam account. By playing participating games (here's the full list) or at the very least running them in the background -- yes, that works and I actively encourage it -- cards will drop at random.
How many can you get? That depends on the specific title. Some sets are as low as five cards, and some are as high as fifteen. You'll be able to earn a number of cards equal to half of the set, rounded up. So for a game that's got eight cards, you can earn four from playing, while a title that features nine cards will drop five of them. Once all of the cards have dropped for a game, you are then eligible to earn a booster pack containing three additional cards -- this happens randomly as Steam users craft badges using their own cards. More on that in a second.
To see which cards you've got, head to your Steam Inventory, which can be accessed by clicking your name on the top left of Steam. Better yet, choose "Badges" from that same drop-down menu to see the participating games you own. From your inventory, you can sell cards on the Steam Market or trade with other users. This is how you'll be able to collect a full set at which point you can then optionally craft a badge, consuming those cards in the process. This is all handled from, you guessed it, the aforementioned Badges menu.
It's worth crafting a badge for a few reasons: you'll earn a random emoticon based on the game in question, a random profile background, a chance at a discount coupon for a separate game on Steam or DLC, and 100 experience points toward your Steam account. For what it's worth (generally not much!), you can sell emoticons and backgrounds. Leveling up on Steam has a few benefits of its own, like an extension on the friends list cap, but most importantly, it eventually increases your card drop rate. This is where I descended into madness.
Every 10 levels, your drop rate increases by 20 percent. I've managed to hit level 20 myself, meaning I've now got a 40 percent increase in my drop rate. For the time being I've called it quits with crafting badges, as the scaling XP requirements for leveling have become too much to handle. My hope is that the benefit will pay off long-term; Valve seems committed to Trading Cards, and since developers take a cut with each card sold, they're in it as well.
Anyway, that's most of what you need to know when getting started. It's worth pointing out that there are also foil cards that are a) worth more money and b) can be put towards crafting a separate badge so, essentially, each game has two badges. Also, did I mention that badges can be upgraded? Yeah. That's where things get crazy.
Each individual badge has five levels that are reached by completing a full set of cards and crafting a second or third time, etc. You'll get another 100 XP each time and the upgraded badge will look different, visually. Unfortunately, this isn't really worth doing in most cases -- you have to acquire the set on your own since you'll be fresh out of card drops for that game, and the increased investment still only rewards you with a meager 100 XP.
Lastly, all of this ties into the current summer sale on Steam. Every $10 spent will reward you with a Summer Getaway card, as will every three votes you cast for the community's choice deal on Steam that happens every eight hours. There's no real reason not to do this and sell your cards for, at the time of writing, approximately $0.15 each. It might not seem like much, but it adds up, especially considered how inexpensive some on-sale games are.
Got the basics down? Here are some pro tips
In talking up my experience to fellow Destructoid writers, I managed to get contributor Darren Nakamura on board because I'm a bad influence like that. He's graciously helped me with this article by offering the following tips:
Not all cards are created equally.
The Steam Market generally follows the basic idea of the relationship between supply and demand. The most popular games typically have a huge supply of cards, while the least popular games typically have very low demand for cards. In both cases, prices for trading cards are low. More highly priced cards often come from expensive-yet-popular games, like Borderlands 2 or Tomb Raider. Since there is a higher barrier to entry for those than, say, Team Fortress 2, the supply of cards is smaller, but given that they are still well-regarded, the demand for cards is greater.
That's great; now what?
Regardless of individual card value, each level of any craftable badge is worth the same. In order to maximize your completed sets, and in turn your badges and Steam level, you will want to earn high-value cards, sell them, and use the funds to purchase low-value cards. You can often get two low-value cards for the cost of one high-value card, with some change left over.
In other words, you can convert your high-value, naturally-dropped half set to a low-value, purchased full set. Considering their current low price and availability, some sets I recommend filling out are Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Terraria, and Magicka. There are more; keep an eye out for low-priced cards by searching the Steam Market.
Okay, so there's a little more to think about: pricing
When you go to sell a card or other item on the Steam Market, a line graph will show up detailing the median sale price of the item over its lifetime. Generally, you can set your sale price at the current median and the item will sell. However, when game sales hit, supply for the corresponding trading cards goes up, driving prices down.
If you happen to list your item right before supply increases, you may not ever sell the item in question. Keep an eye on your active offers; if one has been sitting unpurchased for a while, it may be worthwhile to check out the current prices to see if you need to adjust down.That said, there is almost no reason to significantly undercut the median price for any item, unless you absolutely need the funds in your Steam Wallet immediately.
Completing sets without sacrificing others
This is more difficult to pull off, since you typically only gain about half of any given set naturally. However, it can be done with some savvy trading and a little luck. Every so often, someone who doesn't quite understand the system or simply wants to offload cards as quickly as possible will drastically underprice a card.
If you're quick, you can pick up that card and immediately turn it around and sell it at the median price, making a few cents profit. This method is slow and uncertain, so to speed it up, it is worth looking at the foil cards instead. Typing "foil" into the Steam Market search will bring up all of the foil cards available. These generally sell for a dollar or more, so the potential gain is greater. As before, try to snipe underpriced cards and sell them for a profit.
Don't forget the 15%
This is easier to ignore at lower prices, when Steam is only taking two cents from each sale, but when you start trading foils, you will notice the impact of the cut that goes to Valve and/or the game's developer, which is a hefty 15%. This means that you should not go in on a two-dollar foil card unless you can sell it for thirty cents more than you paid, for instance; any less and you actually lose money on it, with all profit going to Steam, despite selling it for more than you paid.
This is how I knew I'd gone too far. On that note, I'm envious of you guys that got into cards early on, back before the prices dropped so drastically. I'm hopeful that, as people lose interest, prices will return to what they were prior to the summer sale explosion.