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Steam trading cards explained

How to play Valve's weird new metagame, and why you should bother

On Monday morning Valve invited another 100,000 people to the beta for its new trading card game, but what the hell is it? We played it over the weekend - if you can really call it 'playing' - and it's actually quite fun, if slightly confusing at first.

Rare foil cards - think 'shiny' Pokémon cards - are traded on the Steam Community Market for as much as £20, and we know at least one person who completed their card collection by spending real-world money. It's genius, really. Valve has found a way to bring microtransactions to Steam itself, so people are spending money even when they aren't buying Team Fortress 2 hats. But, of course, it's all optional, and you can get involved without spending a digital penny.


1. Joining the beta

To get an invite, join the official trading card Steam group. When the next wave is sent out, you'll be notified by email. Alternatively, get one from a friend who's already in the beta - you get three to gift to people when you join - or buy one on the Market.

When the beta is activated, your profile design will change (see above), and you'll notice that you now have a level and an RPG-style XP bar. Any badges you've already earned - from completing sale achievements or the Potato Sack ARG, for example - will earn you XP. The higher your level, the more you can edit your profile. Unlockable customisation options include a showcase of your best achievements, background images, and a screenshot gallery.


2. Unlocking cards

So far, only six games have card support: Half-Life 2, Counter-Strike: GO, Portal 2, Team Fortress 2, Don't Starve and Dota 2. To unlock them, the only thing you have to do is play the game. After a certain amount of time - which seems random - a card will appear in your inventory.

You can unlock roughly half a set of cards this way, but after this the drops will stop. To get the rest you have to trade with someone, or buy the remaining cards on the Market. The prices have been up and down, but at the time of writing regular cards are selling for about 60p/$1. As more people join the beta and start unlocking cards, the average price will drop significantly.


3. Trading

Cards behave the same way as regular Steam items. You can trade them using the secure built-in trading interface, and it doesn't have to be for other cards either; we got the last card in the Counter-Strike set in exchange for a Team Fortress 2 hat. To see what cards your friends have (pictured), select a card in your inventory. If you're missing a card, someone on your friends list might have it. If not, there's always the official trading forum.

It's worth reading Steam's trading policy if you've never used it before. Scammers are rampant, and will undoubtedly start taking advantage of the trading card beta. You don't want some jerk cheating you out of your rare shiny G-Man card, do you?


4. Crafting badges

So you've collected a whole set of cards. Now what? On the badge progress screen a new 'craft' option will have appeared. Click it and your cards will be transformed into a bundle of rewards - and destroyed. You lose them for good, but you can buy/trade them back.

There are actually additional rewards for completing a card set again, if you have money/time to burn. Your badge will be 'upgraded' with a new icon for each successive completion, and you'll earn increasingly more XP. You can see Counter-Strike's badge progression here.


5. Earning rewards

Rewards include game-themed emoticons for use in Steam chat, profile background images, discount vouchers for certain games (as much as 50% in some cases), a badge to display on your profile, and Steam XP. If you don't particularly care about your profile, it's probably wiser to just stick all your cards on the Market and get a few quid off the next game you buy.

Rewards can be traded as well, but you won't be able to use them once they leave your inventory. So if you're using, say, a Portal 2 background image, trading it will remove it from your profile. The Market is already flooded with emoticons and backgrounds, and they go for a tiny amount, so selling uncrafted cards - for now, at least - will earn you more.


6. Selling on the Community Market

We've sold a few cards, and a couple of emoticons, on the market, and every time they sold within seconds of the listing being put up. Any item in your inventory that you can list will have a green sell button in its description, but it's worth checking the lowest price before you set your own. If your price is the lowest, you'll be the first result in a search. Steam take a small cut from every sale, so you won't get the exact amount your buyer pays.

Foil cards are selling for a ridiculous amount, considering they don't actually do anything special. They drop randomly if your Steam level is over 10, but as far as we know they don't give better rewards than regular cards when crafted. It's pretty impressive that, with only six active games, people are already becoming obsessed with completing their collections, and it'll only get more popular when it leaves beta and is fully integrated into Steam.