Playing Card Coatings

Posted in Feature on April 26, 2018

By Tom Wänerstrand

Tom Wänerstrand began his journey with Wizards of the Coast in 1993 illustrating cards in his spare time. These days he guides the team responsible for the production of Magic, amongst other things.

Last week, Tim O'Hara mentioned the new coating process being used for the cards in English Dominaria booster packs. For most, this change isn't terribly noticeable. But for many who have been playing for a while, the feel, the playability, and even the smell are all a bit different.

But why is that?

This is the first in a series of articles that will take you behind the scenes on how we make our products. In the future, you might see articles like this, photos, videos, or even charts that will illustrate what we're up to and the whys and hows of making a trading card game as big as Magic. Print coatings are a small part of the process, but most outside the industry don't understand much about them. So let's shed some light on this particular finishing touch.

Print coatings are very thin, clear protective finishes applied over the top of printed materials. They are often applied in-line on a printing press, but also can be applied off-line via different processes. Various types of coatings available include aqueous (a quick-drying water-based coating), UV (cured by ultraviolet light), and varnish (sometimes used as a generic term applied to a variety of non-water-based finishes).

Coatings serve several primary purposes. The first of these is to protect the printed surface from moisture, scuffing, and wear, and to prevent the ink from being lifted off by things like finger oils. Without the coating, the art, text, and border on a card would be far more susceptible to smudging, fading, and generally looking worse for wear. Sleeves might be how many players protect their cards, but the coating is the first line of defense.

Second, finishes are often decorative. They can be matte or glossy, soft to the touch or raised and textured. The right coating mixed with the right printing technique can create some wonderful effects that both are visually exciting and feel good to the touch. When you like the "feel" of a card in your hand, you are likely reacting to the coating rather than the paper below.

A third area that we often consider when selecting coatings is performance. Products we produce like book covers, game boards, and playing cards all have specific needs. For instance, we produce most cards with a matte finish to minimize glare, and utilize special playing card finishes to give the cards a certain slip/grip feel when handled or shuffled. We want cards to slide easily over one another when you're tapping lands, but we don't want them to be so slick that you end up playing 40-card pickup every time you start shuffling your Draft deck.

Developing these coatings can be challenging. The materials used need to be safe and environmentally friendly, and run well on high-volume production equipment. Depending on the application, a coating may need to be laminated, glued, and folded. A TCG coating also has to be able to be properly cut as well as accept secondary treatments such as foil stamps.

There's also a rigorous testing process for coatings. Among the things we test in our coatings lab are:

  • Chemical composition – While we don't recommend eating cards, the formulations are assessed and tested to meet global product and children's toy safety regulations. We certify our materials don't contain restricted or hazardous chemicals.
  • Environmental cycling – We test for environmental effects, such as humidity and temperature. We put our cards through extreme conditions and see how they react.
  • Oil resistance – Our hands, no matter how clean, contain oils. Over time, those oils can break down cards. A good coating can help prevent this.
  • Shuffle – Imagine hiring a pro player to shuffle the cards in their hand, but at ten times the speed and 100 times the frequency. We put our cards through the ringer.
  • Surface friction – Now imagine the same pro player trying to shuffle the cards, but they can't because they stick together. Or that they're so slippery they fly off in every direction. Neither of those things is good, so we test and retest how much surface friction cards have, trying to strike a balance.

Another area we think about is how our cards "breathe" when various coatings are used.

You see, Magic uses a proprietary laminated playing card paperboard that can be sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature, and we have found that different coatings and application methods can help the board breathe and assist with overall stability and performance.

With this in mind, we have recently made some changes to our coating process at one of our largest production partners. The first place you saw this is with Dominaria, and while we are pretty happy with the results there, we have made even further improvement to the card coatings in Core Set 2019 as well. We hope these changes will be positively received.

But the process of delivering a best-in-class product is never done. We are always finding ways to make small incremental adjustments in our printing and coating to further improve and standardize the cards produced at all our supply partners.

Well, that's a bit about coatings. Next month I'll be back to talk more about another key part of how we make our cards—the paper! The majority of Magic cards have been printed on the same paperboard since 1993, so there is a little history there to talk about.

Till then.

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