While the feature has been out for a while, I am still often asked about Steam Trading Cards. What are they? How do they work? What’s the point? The short answers to those questions, in order, are: an addiction I finally kicked, using the Internet, and to help Valve and the developers to make money with little effort. If you are reading this, you probably want a little more information than that.

What are they and how do I get them?

The true idea of the Steam  Trading Card system is actually quite ingenious. A feature in a large portion of titles being released on Steam new, as well as one being added to legacy games, it is intended to be a way for gamers to invest further in a title they truly enjoy. Each game has a set amount of cards to collect; a set for one game could be five, in another it could be fifteen. When a game is purchased new, there are a certain amount of cards that will drop via normal play. (Or just by booting up the game and leaving it on. Play is not required.) The number of cards that will drop equals half the total amount available in the game’s set. Keep in mind, that the type of card is completely random.

Example: Fetid Fecal Fighters has a set of ten total cards, meaning five will drop just by virtue of the game being on. During this time, they will randomly appear in your inventory. When you go to check, you see that five total cards did indeed drop after playing this masterpiece of consonance. Closer inspection shows that you kind of got screwed. There are three “Javier, The Undigested Jalapeno” cards, one “Burnt Brown Boxer Shorts,” and one “(Editor’s note: good Lord no, Jason.)” By the time you are done, you have only collected three cards out of the total ten needed to make a set.

Sucks to be you.

Screw you too, buddy. So, how do I get the set?

There are many ways to complete a set, especially if you have doubles. You can trade with other friends who have the same game, but that probably isn’t likely based on the attitude you’ve been displaying. You can also sell your cards on the community marketplace. This can be a great way to quickly get the scratch you need to pick up one last card to complete a set. Just use your inventory to put it up for one to two cents less than what it sold for recently (this information will be displayed to you when you go to sell), and it typically sells in less than five minutes.  Just keep in mind that, with very few exceptions, you’re talking about seven to eight cents per card. This is also where Valve and the developer make money, as they each get a tiny cut from every sale.

There are also numerous trading forums and chat rooms to be found within the Steam Community. If you are really indiscriminate about what you are collecting and are just enjoying amassing a collection, these are great to check out. Oftentimes, you will find one person looking for a specific card and are willing to trade three to four cards at a minimum to get it. It can be a crap shoot as to whether it’s worth your time, but sometimes you can stumble across some really good trades. Just do yourself a favor: if you come across someone offering one of these trades and they have something you really need, be nonchalant. (Bonus tip: Keep your inventory set to private, or friends only. That way you hold all the cards. Pun intended.)

Finally, game specific three card booster packs are sent out randomly. According to the Steam FAQ on this, these are created when the community crafts badges for the game. I have not been able to determine if this means a pack is sent for every badge crafted, when a set number of badges are made, or if the amount of cards for a game in the Steam ecosystem drops below a minimum amount.

Badges, now? When does the explanation end?

If you have managed to collect a set, you can now go to your badges page and use the full set to craft a badge. Crafting a badge grants you a profile background representing the game, an emoticon for chat, and a discount coupon for another Steam game. (During the Summer and Winter Steam Sales, these coupons are replaced with promotion specific trading cards.) It will also grant you 100 experience points towards your next Steam level.

Steam level? What’s that?

For the trading card addict, Steam level is important. You see, every ten levels vastly increases the chance of being awarded a random booster pack. This also grants you additional perks, such as extra slots for your friends list and additional ways to customize your profile page.

Levels 1 through 10 only require 100 points to go up a level. To go from 11-20 requires 200. 21-30 need three hundred, and so on. Experience points are also awarded based on the size of your game collection, length of time you have had a Steam account, or completing a few “community actions.”

Wait, so Valve actually understands that earning levels in a meta-game is fun? Why did they refuse to tie this into their achievement system?

Exactly. You know, maybe I was too hard on you before. You seem alright after all.

Right, right. And how can someone get from level 2 to level 4 since Valve doesn’t understand the concept of ‘3’?

…Aaaand you blew it.

Fine. What’s this about gems?

Right before the Winter sale, Valve added a “gem system” to the whole thing, because people were starting to understand everything. Gems can be used to create booster packs and can be purchased on the marketplace. They can also be created by trading in cards, backgrounds, and emoticons. The basic pattern I have noticed is that backgrounds and emoticons for higher priced games get you more gems. The amount of gems needed to get a booster pack depends on the size of the game’s full set. A game with a fifteen card set is cheaper than one with a five.

Oh, and if you trade in cards for gems, you are a sucker. The gem value attached to cards are much lower than the ones assigned to backgrounds and emoticons. This is by design; Valve wants to keep people trading, selling, and buying. Especially selling and buying.

You see, for a while there, the backgrounds and emoticons were going for three to four cents on the marketplace, with some exceptions. This was causing a glut that was taking up bandwidth and needed to be murdered with fire. The easiest way to do this was attach a benefit to destroy the things.

Don’t care.

I figured.

Any other tips?


  • Never invest actual money into this stuff. You will only regret it immediately after. Mentally separate out what you have earned on the community market place from whatever prepaid card gift card you have up there. It’s one thing when it’s “funny money.” that you are playing with. If you are using actual “I could have bought a game” cash, you will curse yourself while staring at the background that you really didn’t want.
  • Keep an eye on game sales. Of course, you are doing that already, but sometimes you can make a funny money profit. For example, Squishy, The Suicidal Pig was recently on sale for fourteen cents. People were harvesting the cards and selling them, coming out ahead on the deal.
  • Pick a few games to focus on. I need to heed this advice myself as my inventory could use some pruning, but if you pick a few favorites to concentrate on, it’s easier to sell the cards for others, yielding more funny money, or even real game cash.
  • Anime girls have made me money. The cards and backgrounds featuring jiggling waifus have been kind to me. For example, I sold a couple of Vanguard Princess backgrounds about a year ago for a net profit of twelve dollars.

Remember, it’s meant to be fun, but be careful. I am not kidding when I say that I was previously addicted. I cannot tell you why, but it was firing all of the right neurons to suck me in. I am better, now, and I hope I am an anomaly, but step away if you find yourself going overboard trying to “play the market.”

I hope this little primer explained everything regarding this bizarre, fun little meta game on Steam. Feel free to comment if you have any further questions.

Wait! What’s this about “foil cards?”

Oh, those. If you get one, sell it right away. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Thanks for reading!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here