Early, mid, and late game are terms often used in video gaming or game theory situations that relate to optimizing the outcome given the constraints. Here's a template on how to optimize the credit card game.
You can view credit card offers by going to the "Credit Card Offers" tab. Find offers for the respective cards in "Cash Back Credit Cards" and "Travel Rewards Credit Cards." You don't have to use our links, but we're grateful when you do. Thank you for supporting AskSebby!
The Early Game
The early game is considered your first five credit cards to build the foundation for your credit history. Keep in mind that the definition of early game will vary for everyone. If you only want 5 cards in total, then the early game is considered cards 1-2.
There are two setups; pick either the travel or cash back setup.
Early Game: Travel Setup
The travel setup is based around the Chase 5/24 rule. Your first card should be a student or secured credit card to build your credit history for at least 12 months before applying for another card.
- 1/24 = secured/student
This leaves you with 4 slots left for 5/24. After 12 months have passed with your first card, pick one of the setups below.
- Setup #1: Southwest Companion Pass (Southwest Plus or Premier + Southwest Business)
- Setup #2: Chase Trifecta (Chase Freedom Unlimited, Chase Freedom, and Chase Sapphire Reserve or Preferred)
- Setup #3: Mix and Match 5/24 cards
Early Game: Cash Back Setup
If you're optimizing for cash back only, and not travel, then the cashback setup is for you.
Important note: once you use up Chase 5/24 slots, you will have to wait a full 24 months before you qualify again. If you want to travel in the next 24 months, go for the travel setup.
With the cash back setup, you'll still start off with a student or secured card to build your credit history. After a few months of having the card, move on to cards that give you cash back on categories that you spend the most on.
Here's an example of a cash back setup:
- Ducks Unlimited = 5% gas
- Amex Blue Cash Everyday / Preferred = 3% / 6% groceries
- Uber = 4% dining and 3% travel
- Citi Double Cash = 2% everything else
The Mid Game
The mid game is when you've used up all your 5/24 slots, and you're looking to add more cards.
If you're someone looking to travel, then the mid game is a good opportunity to optimize for hotel keeper cards that aren't affected by 5/24.
Mid Game: Hotel Keeper Cards
- Chase IHG Premier
- Chase Hyatt
- Amex Hilton Honors
- Amex Hilton Ascend
- Amex Hilton Aspire
If you're looking to optimize for flights, then I recommend going for airline cards that have a downgrade path.
Mid Game: Airline Cards w/ Downgrade Paths
- Amex Delta Gold / Delta Platinum
- Barclays JetBlue Plus
- Citi AA Platinum
Mid Game: Travel Cards w/ Downgrade Paths
- Capital One Venture
- U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve (downgrades in Year 3?)
Mid Game: Airline Keeper Cards (YMMV)
Airline keeper cards are those that give you a free companion pass ticket each year. Your mileage may vary based on how much value you get from them.
- Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature
- Other cards w/ companion certificates (Delta Plat)
Mid Game: Super Power Cards (huge YMMV)
Superpower cards are perfect for those who have gotten value from the Chase Sapphire Reserve and want to explore other premium travel cards.
- American Express Platinum
- Centurion Lounge
- Tickets / concierge
- 5x on tickets
- Citi Prestige
- 4th night free (~25% off hotels w/ stays of 4+ nights)
- $350 annual fee (instead of $450) if CitiGold
- Chase Ritz-Carlton / CNB Crystal
- Visa Infinite portal ($100 off round-trip domestic flights)
Mid Game: Cash Back Setup
If you're looking to optimize for cash back, then the following cards are good options based on category spend.
- Chase Amazon Prime = 5% Amazon and Whole Foods
- Chase Freedom (reminder this is a 5/24 card) = 5% rotating categories
- Citi Dividend (only available via product change) = 5% rotating categories
- Discover It = 5% rotating categories
- U.S. Bank Cash+ = 5% rotating categories
The Late Game
The late game is when you applied for all the cards you want, and you're looking to earn multipliers from the cards in your wallet.
For example, the Bank of America cards spending multipliers vary based on the amount of assets you have with them. Learn more about the Bank of America Duo in this post.
In the late game, the ideal setup is to have Platinum status at Bank of America or Merrill Lynch to maximize the BoA Cash Rewards, Travel Rewards, and the Premium Rewards cards.
Most people in the late game start optimizing for cash back since they've maximized the signup bonuses from American Express or they're in card purgatory.
The alternative route for the late game is to signup for travel cards that don't yield that many benefits after the first year. An example of this is the Cathay Pacific card; it has a decent signup bonus, but I won't get value from the card in the long-term. Even if I cancel the card, it won't affect my credit score that much because I have a strong base of cards.
In the late game, it might make sense to try and earn status with a specific hotel or airline by optimizing spend on a card.