In 2020, Mike Waddell spent most of his free weekends packing trading cards featuring Bigfoot, Mothman, and other strange cryptids into promo packs, then shipping them out to potential collectors, investors, and gaming companies. He hoped they might be interested in his new trading card game (TCG), called MetaZoo. He was right. In the years since, MetaZoo cards have exploded in popularity and in value.
MetaZoo was created in August 2020 with a Kickstarter campaign that fundraised $18,249. The official first set, “Cryptid Nation,” launched July 2021. As of January this year, MetaZoo’s newest Kickstarter raised more than $1.8 million, and MetaZoo cards can be found in major retailers like Walmart.
Some investors and collectors have compared MetaZoo to products on par with a first-edition Pokémon Charizard hologram or unopened boxes of Magic: The Gathering booster boxes. A limited run of sample MetaZoo cards, now deemed rare, can command thousands on the secondary market. Specific rare cards summon even more, like the Red Ink First Secret Rare Box Topper, which is listed on Ebay for $20,000. MetaZoo has also attracted big names from the collectibles market, including Steve Aoki.
But MetaZoo’s popularity isn’t solely driven by its investment potential. There are fans snatching up MetaZoo products as quickly as they appear on the market simply because they like cryptids and enjoy playing TCGs. There are around 12,100 members on the official MetaZoo Discord, where members share tribute art, new releases, and fan-fic, as well as play live games. There are also in-person MetaZoo tournaments, largely organized through the MetaZoo Play Network.
MetaZoo cards are most easily compared to Pokémon, but these cards feature cryptids, which are mythical creatures that have never been proven to exist, such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Chupacabra. Each card boasts a colorful illustration of a cryptid, reminiscent of Ken Sugimori’s initial Pokémon designs, and is based on United States folklore and strange tales. Snow snake, for instance, borrows its backstory from a mid-century lumberjack story from Wisconsin about venomous serpents that become practically invisible when coiled on a snow drift.
Cryptids were always intriguing to Waddell. Growing up in Brazil, he often heard tales of Saci, a mythical creature said to control the wind, smoke a pipe, and play tricks on the locals. But it wasn’t until he saw the 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, Waddell said, that cryptids took on a bigger meaning to him, sparking the idea to make a trading card game around them.
While MetaZoo might be aesthetically reminiscent of Pokémon, the game’s mechanics are much more similar to Magic: The Gathering. Play is focused on reducing your opponent’s life points to zero, with a combination of creatures, spells, and magic potions. MetaZoo also uses “fourth wall” effects, in which real-life actions and surroundings have an effect in-game. For example, if you have a water-based “beastie” card, you can amplify its powers by having a glass of water nearby.
“My favorite part of the game is the way outside objects can influence it,” said James Studley, a member of the Caster Society, a MetaZoo community focused on teaching and organizing gameplay. “It’s a rapidly changing and responsive card game.”
The fourth wall effects can get a little strange, especially if you’re playing face-to-face in a tournament. For instance, if you’re playing a Cactus Cat card, you can avoid damage by drinking a beverage when you throw down the card. If you’re at a MetaZoo tournament and you’re within eyesight of a radio, you lose a ton of attack points when playing the Metal Man of Alabama card. Maybe the most extreme example is the Jersey Devil card, which requires the user to unfurl a “blood-curdling scream” to avoid 50 damage when playing it.
The most committed players can take an exam, conducted monthly, to become recognized “Metazoologists,” with tests and study guides released through the MetaZoo Discord. “I’ve been a part of many different online communities, but the MetaZoo ones have been some of the most friendly and welcoming. It was very easy to become a part of the community and get into the game,” said Trey Tadpradel, a Metazoologist who is a volunteer judge for tournaments and gameplay.
But the prices for certain cards can make it hard for first-time players to join in. As a longtime collector and player of TCGs, YouTuber Ethan Pohl uses FourthStarTCG to primarily talk about Pokémon, but MetaZoo caught his eye upon its first Kickstarter campaign.
“Upon release, a lot of the discussion was focused on the high prices that some of the cards were commanding,” Pohl said. “MetaZoo has fostered this money-making aspect by rolling out endless special limited promo cards, first editions, NFTs, and artificially limited products to maintain interest and hype.”
Pohl credits MetaZoo’s success to “right product, right marketing, right time,” adding that the company hasn’t been coy about positioning MetaZoo as “the next Pokémon” during the massive Pokémon hype of 2020 and 2021, which led to a large speculative bubble. He believes that marketing directly to collectors and borrowing Pokémon’s release style has helped boost MetaZoo’s popularity and visibility. But Pohl questions the sustainability of this strategy in the long term. “As a trading card game, not a collectible card game, I am very skeptical of MetaZoo,” Pohl said. “The cards do not seem to be balanced, and the ‘fourth-wall-breaking’ method of playing the game seems to take away from skill-based gameplay and limit feasibility.”
Waddell doesn’t seem too concerned, though. This year, he plans to expand the world of MetaZoo well outside the card game with the lofty goal of launching 56 verticals by its end. That includes everything from figurines, footwear, pins, T-shirts, and NFTs. MetaZoo will also continue to release more expansion packs. Wilderness recently launched on March 31, and UFO will launch in July.
“My belief is you can’t just have TCG with just cards, and fandom likes to develop as a lifestyle,” Waddell said. “From a business and creative perspective, it just makes sense.”