Would you spend almost $225 for a single digital image of Han Solo from the original Star Wars? For most people, the answer is obviously “No.” But many of us who are using the app Star Wars: Card Trader, from Topps, would kill to have that singular image in our collections. And some people will pay dearly for it.

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You know Topps. They’re the company that makes the baseball cards everyone had when they were growing up. Well, in the past several years, they’ve created something truly unique. They’ve started a whole subculture of digital trading cards—meaning, cards that are nothing but images on your phone. You collect them and trade them, and many of them are insanely valuable. It started with baseball (an app called Bunt, which launched April 2012), then football (Huddle launched September 2012), then soccer (Kick launched in August 2013) and most recently–Star Wars. And that’s when things really opened up to a whole new audience of fans.

I should know. I’m one of them. Before Star Wars: Card Trader, I had no idea digital cards were a thing. And in fact, when I first heard about the app I, like most people, was skeptical. “It’s just a stupid photo on my phone,” I thought. But after being badgered by a few friends for a week, I finally broke down after a Friday night text conversation and downloaded it. Neither I, nor my family or friends, had any idea of the monster I’d just unleashed.

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It only took a few days. Star Wars: Card Trader quickly took over my life. I downloaded it on my iPhone, iPad, I have mules friends who have accounts just to get cards for me and—at times—I’ve scheduled days around the release of particular cards. One time I forgot my phone and I called my mom from another phone to grab my phone and open packs for me. It was painful (“Mom, now press Boba Fett”) and embarrassing, but it’s true. And some people out there totally understand where I’m coming from. The same kind of person who’d pay $225 for a photo of Han Solo.

Star Wars: Card Trader officially launched on March 11, 2015 and, as of last month, the app has hundreds of thousands of active users. Neither Topps nor Lucasfilm would tell us an exact number but I can personally vouch for at least a dozen people who have accounts.

“Believe it or not, Star Wars changed the marketplace almost completely,” said Adam Gellman, editor of DigitalCardCentral.com, a website dedicated to digital trading cards. “We saw how the brand’s popularity influenced real world value for the cards. Topps went from having no market presence to being a major player in the Star Wars universe within days. It was incredibly impressive. I think it even surprised the team behind the app.”

Here’s how Card Trader works. You use credits (which are given out free daily, or you can get some with real money) to buy packs of cards. It’s not an actual pack of course, but it looks like one on your phone, especially when the four corners unfold to unveil your first card. Most of the packs are filled with base cards, simple cards that have photos of Star Wars characters on them. But once in a while, you’ll get a randomly inserted “insert card.” These are ultra rare cards for which—if you get a full series—there’s usually a reward at the end. These range in rarity from 10 copies of a single card to tens of thousands, with most in the 1000 to 5000 range. And that rarity means that people take interest, which in turn drives them to the secondary market (like eBay).

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“[Star Wars] was the first time [with digital cards] that every card released had enormous value,” said Gellman. “Especially if the subject was a popular character. In the other apps, cards that had 1500 and 2000 copies were almost worthless, where in Star Wars, they are considered to be extremely valuable. The game redefined what it meant to collect.”

To most people, the idea of a digital trading card having any value just doesn’t make sense. It’s just an image, right? Well, yes and no. “It’s a digital object that you own,” said Ian Hundiak, a producer at Topps Digital. “You can go on Google Images and see what a piece of art looks like, but there’s something about owning it. The space of the app makes ownership feel important. Actually owning that card far outweighs the joy from just viewing it.”

That’s true, because once you own the card, it allows you to do something you always talk about doing with cards but never actually do: Trade. “Unless you go to card shows or have a network of friends who are also into card collecting, trading [physical cards] can be really difficult,” said Hundiak. “In the app, we manage all that for you.” Through the app, you’re linked to a global, engaged and active audience. Everyone is eager to make deals because of the sheer amount of cards released, and the small amount of free credits (unless you pay for more). Trading is an essential part of the game.

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There’s also the simple joy of having your entire collection at your disposal at any time. “Initially, the ability to take your collection with you everywhere was the piece of the app people were drawn to the most,” said Hundiak. In the past, if you collected cards, you had boxes and boxes sitting in your bedroom. Now, if you’re bored, simply pull out your phone out and look at your cards, make some trades, open a few packs. This store is always open, and always being updated.

Which makes it very easy to get obsessed with. When I first downloaded the app, first I was confused. There’s a lot going on. Cards are revealed on a digital message board called “Transmissions.” The packs are listed in the “Cantina.” In the Cantina there are Boba Fett, Asajj Ventress and Mace Windu packs, that each cost a different amount. You can connect with friends and view their cards in order to make a trade. You can also look at “All Cards” in the game, but that’s just to see what you don’t have. It’s then that you realize it’s not about the JPG, it’s about having the JPG in your own collection.

Immediately after the first taste and spending all your credits, you want to open more packs. It’s addictive. You’ve got to know what the next card is, and find out if you can get an insert. After only a few minutes, I was hooked, building my collection however I could. And then, every so often, the app buzzes and shoots out confetti when you hit an insert card. Hundiak puts it best: “Once you get in and once you start opening packs, you understand the thrill of actually pulling a card from a pack or pulling off a trade.”

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The attraction and obsession come from a personal obsession with Star Wars, plus the way it scratches that human itch to always want something new. That itch you get to buy something when you go to a store. With Star Wars: Card Trader, every single day, I can get something new and cool for free. And then I can enjoy it, trade for it, and it’s always fun, even when it’s stressful.

And make no mistake, once Card Trader finally takes hold of you, things do get stressful. Sometimes not being able to get a card you need for a set can almost ruin your day, especially if you’re out of credits and unable to work out a trade with people in the app. Like you, most of these people trading in the app are out for themselves, trying to get the best deal possible. It’s understandable, but difficult to work out a deal. When you do though, it’s a rush, but a totally different one from hitting a card you desperately need.

A few weeks back I was at the D23 Expo for work. Saturday is when the app releases “Widevision” cards (like the one seen above, with Obi-Wan Kenobi), which is one of three series I have every single card of. The cards are rare, which usually means a struggle—plus I was working, so I prepared for the worst. I’d saved around 200,ooo credits for the chase, prayed it was released when I wasn’t in a panel and was wholly ready to ask friends to help if it was. Thankfully, the card was released in the app when I had a few minutes, and I started opening packs. BOOM, there it was. First pack. Odds of 1:65 and I got it first pack. I jumped up and down, while waiting in line at the convention. Sure I got some weird looks, but they would’ve gotten even weirder if they’d actually asked why I was excited. “Oh, I’m sorry Ma’am—I got the new ‘Diplomatic Mission’ Widevision in my first pack! Number 23 in a series of 30!”

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That kind of high is part of why the app is so addicting. Another reasons is because there’s always something new to check out. According to Steve Ciccarelli, a producer on Star Wars: Card Trader, the team is usually working on anywhere between 30 and 50 new cards at any one time. That includes cards that are in the concept or design phase, already on the release schedule, or that have different chase mechanics (the phrase which refers to where and how you get the cards). “We have a lot of users who want a lot of cards, so we’re trying to cover all those bases and do it really well,” Ciccarelli said. “We try and get way ahead of ourselves.”

Thus far, the most popular series on Star Wars: Card Trader is the Vintage set. It’s the set in which that aforementioned Han Solo card (seen in all its glory above) is the first entry, making it arguably the most sought after card in the game. Not only is it the first card in the most popular set, it was released on the second day of the app, which means some of the 1,500 total Vintage Han cards are in what fans call “Dead accounts.” Those are accounts opened by people who bought some packs and never played again. It means the number of Vintage Hans out there is probably closer to 1,000 or less.

The Vintage set is a perfect representation of what the app does best.“Vintage is something that just started with a feel,” said Hundiak. The team wanted a card series to release on Thursdays as a throwback, and one of the designers came up with the idea to use classic Star Wars cards and digitally age them. The result was a set of cards that look familiar and old, but are actually brand new. That blend of old product from Topps—which has been making Star Wars cards since the 70s—and new design is Star Wars: Card Trader at its most inventive. They’ve also released digital versions of many of the original Star Wars Topps cards, too, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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The Vintage series is so popular, in fact, a new release caused the entire app to crash on April 30, 2015. So many people were opening so many packs and simultaneously chasing the new card, the whole app collapsed, and Topps refunded all users the credits spent in that time.

Because you were wondering, yes, I was affected by this crash. I was among the thousands of people chasing the Vintage card when the disaster happened, and it was nerve-wracking. Was the card going to sell out before I had a chance to snag one? My friends and I patiently waited for the app to get fixed and just then one of them noticed it went back up before any alert could go out. In those brief seconds, I snagged the card in a pack. Later, Topps refunded all my credits too. Bonus!

Topps wouldn’t comment on details of this particular fiasco, but they insisted that even if something like that happened again, everyone’s collection is safe. “If a server crashes and the app goes down, we don’t lose the data,” Hundiak said. “We have all the data stored.”

With dozens of sets in the works at all times, it means new designs and quirks are added to the app on a daily basis, keeping everything fresh and new. Some of the sets are for the casual user (like the low odds, high count “Sketchbook” set, above left) while others are for more experienced uses (like the high odds, low count “Elegant Weapons” set, above right).

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Sets like those two are prime example of how the app has changed for me as a daily user. At the start, I was collecting everything. But even with friends helping, it became increasingly time-consuming and frustrating. It got to a point where the rarer a card was, the less attractive it was. A set like the “Sketchbook” one is exciting, because it’s easy to get. A set like “Elegant Weapons,” while stunningly beautiful, is more expensive and exponentially more rare. Sacrifices have to be made, and personal preferences begin to take over.

That balance is one of the biggest issues the Topps team has to work with. They have to decide on the rarity and abundance of each card, the daily schedule of new releases, variety of sets—and each of those things has to be juxtaposed with how many credits people have. Obviously, their aim is to get people to buy credits, but they also don’t want fans to feel that’s necessary. The team refused to comment on specific numbers in regards to users buying credits, but Hundiak did say, “This was a product that completely blew our projections out of the water.”

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Then there’s Lucasfilm, the keepers of the Star Wars keys who have been working with Topps for decades. At the start, they weren’t sure if a digital card app was the right match. “We weren’t sure if our traditional collectible card format could translate well to a digital format & what the fan reaction would be,” said Anita Castellar, Lucasfilm’s Manager of Licensing at Disney Consumer Products. Eventually though, the company’s long relationship with Topps won them over and they moved forward.

Lucasfilm “reviews all submissions” sent from Topps, and “works with [them] not only to curate the best card selections but also [manage] the content flow and release schedule for the cards,” said Castellar. The team is already planning well into 2016, and they particularly love that the digital format means they can react and change things much more quickly than they could in a physical medium.

Now, if you’re talking the future of Star Wars, you’re talking about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Soon after the app debuted, seven Force Awakens cards were released (like the one above), making them the first piece of merchandise—digital or otherwise—available from the film. Plans are in place to do more with the new films, but all the Topps team would say is that they have some big plans for Force Friday, September 4. “We will have a lot of cool new stuff come out that day in all kinds of ways,” Ciccarelli said.

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Another subject neither Topps for Lucasfilm like to talk about is that secondary market where that Vintage Han Solo can go for over $200—or an even rarer card (ones that there are only 10 or 50 copies of) can hit $1000. “It’s a bit of a touchy issue, because we don’t want to open our users up to being scammed outside of the app where we can’t control it,” said Hundiak. “But if something holds value to somebody, it can be bought.” It’s also something that happens on the other apps—as well as games like World of Warcraft—so the Topps team wasn’t surprised to see cards end up on eBay. Everyone knows this is mostly a positive, but they don’t encourage it.

However, as you can tell from the headline of this article, the secondary market is one of the most intriguing things about Star Wars: Card Trader. It’s my leading argument when I tell other people about the app. And every single person I’ve told about it has not only downloaded it, many of them are now hard core collectors. Personally I haven’t had to resort to eBay for a card yet (I’ve been lucky in chasing, as well as trading, for cards I need), but I have bought credits when there was some kind of extra incentive, and would absolutely turn to eBay if I needed to. If, for example, I needed the 10th card in a set to get a special award. I hope that won’t happen, though.

As a matter of fact, I got my own Vintage Han without spending a cent. Early on in the app, one of the most popular series was called “Night Brothers,” featuring Darth Maul and his Sith friends (as seen below). I wasn’t collecting it but knowing other people were, I decided to chase the final card in the set for potential trade bait. Not only did I get the final card, I got the final card in its rarest form, a 1:200, 50 count black version of the card. That means there were only 50 of these in the app, so it was highly sought after. I immediately began getting trade offers and after lots of haggling, I traded that card (of which there was only 50) for a Vintage Han (of which there were 1500.) It sounds like a rip off, but my Vintage set was complete, and remains so until this day.

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With cards selling for hundreds of dollars, a new movie coming out, and the app changing on a daily basis, odds are things will continue to grow for Star Wars: Card Trader. In fact, along with the various new card designs, there’s even a major new feature launching soon (which may or may not have something to do with trading in base cards for credits). “We haven’t begun to scratch the surface of this app’s capabilities,” said Castellar. “Look for more from us in the next few months and into 2016.”

Will I keep up with Star Wars: Card Trader? I don’t know. I’m excited to see what changes they make, and will feel great once my Vintage and Widevision sets are complete. But it won’t end there. New Vintage and Widevision cards will surely be released, along with other exciting new sets, bells and whistles. The whole app is a big commitment, but it’s a rewarding one.

In the end though, the popularity of Star Wars: Card Trader doesn’t come from on Lucasfilm, Topps or obsessed fans like me. It’s because of Star Wars itself. “I’ve learned to never underestimate what Star Wars means to people,” said Hundiak.


Contact the author at germain@io9.com. His Star Wars Card Trader name is “DarthGerm”