Before I jump into this week’s column, I want to briefly explain my absence the past few weeks as well as what may be a continuing hiatus.
A few weeks ago, I came down with Carpal Tunnel in my left (dominant) wrist. I fought through it for a while because I love writing more than anything, but eventually typing became really painful. I got a brace from my doctor that I’ve worn for the past week, and things have gotten better over the past couple of days. If things keep improving, I’ll be able to make my deadlines going forward. If they get worse again, you might not hear from me for a while.
I should honestly be resting up instead of writing this, but there are some things that I really want to talk about.
Specifically, I want to talk about the end of Magic.
Turn and Face the Strange Ch-ch-ch-changes
When most people imagine “the end of Magic,” the image conjured up is likely one of a curt WOTC announcement that the next set will be Magic’s final expansion. In that nightmare, the announcement is likely followed up by a lengthy Mark Rosewater (or Gavin Verhey) article about ‘what went wrong.’
Of course, R&D costs for set development are likely quite a bit lower than profits made from the sale of packs. And since Magic doesn’t do much advertising, it would take a catastrophic hit to the popularity of the game for WOTC to stop churning out sets.
Likely, then, something else will make you stop playing Magic long before that ‘final set’ announcement ever gets made.
In this article I will we taking an in-depth look at what it would take to actually ‘kill’ Magic. In doing so, we’ll examine what that would entail as well as taking a look at Wizards’ recent changes to tournament policy, the ratings changes, set design, and the modifications made to organized play as a whole.
Are the latest changes to organized play the beginning of the end, or simply a blip on the radar? Let’s look toward the future and see if we can figure it out.
The Business of Business
Imagine that your local multiplex just announced a policy change.
In order to help make your movie-going experience more magical, they decided to close all but the largest two screens. Despite offering fewer show times (leading to longer lines) and turning away all but the biggest national releases, you can now rest easy knowing you’ll never have to watch a movie in one of the smaller projection rooms ever again!
“We think this is for the best,” said director James Cameron in a press release.
“Boo!” shouted a throng of devout movie fans. “Why did you do this, James Cameron? Besides, I’m still mad at you because I didn’t like Avatar!”
The point I’m trying to make here is two-fold:
1) Budget cuts are generally pretty obvious, no matter what the spin is.
2) The fact that the MTG creative team had to make the announcements about organized play (and are taking the fall for it!) is sheer lunacy.
Right here, right now, it’s important that we separate creative decisions from business ones.
Creative decisions (double faced cards, the M10 rules changes) come from R&D and are designed to improve the game. While it’s true that some of these decisions are made with specific marketing trends and demographic appeal in mind, (it’s clear that double-faced cards are the ‘hook’ for Innistrad) no one is making these decisions to deliberately hurt the game of Magic.
Believe me – no one wants Magic to succeed more than the guys who make it!
Pure business decisions, on the other hand, likely come from people who have never played a game of Magic in their lives.
Remember that Wizards of the Coast is nothing more than a division of Hasbro. While Magic is probably one of Hasbro’s top ten brands, it certainly isn’t its most important.
You know what’s lucrative for Hasbro? Transformers merchandise.
2009 was a HUGE year for Hasbro because Transformers II came out.
2010 was a bad year for Hasbro because no Transformers movies came out even though Magic sales went up 30%(!) during fiscal year 2010.
The first two quarters of 2011 were awful for Hasbro. At that point, there had been no Transformers movie for over a year, and they had just launched a cable television network – The Hub – that was not doing as well as was hoped.
Then Q3 came out, with it Transformers III, and – naturally – Hasbro began to do incredibly well again.
Of course, even flush with Transformers cash, Hasbro is a company producing luxury goods in the midst of the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Every single company has been belt-tightening over the past couple of years, chopping the positions that are deemed least necessary and ending all but the most essential services.
Why would Hasbro be an exception?
My guess is that all the recent organized play decisions have been an edict from the top – a mandate by an executive at Hasbro who has no real idea how crucial it is to the future of the game.
After all, remember what Wizards’ overall marketing strategy is regarding Magic…
You Are Not (Very) Important
In March of 2008, Mark Rosewater revealed that the most important goal that year in Magic design would be to push hard for the acquisition of new players.
At the time, it became clear that Wizards wasn’t looking at Magic in the way that, say, Blizzard does with World of Warcraft.
Blizzard is all about player retention. Get ‘em hooked, keep ‘em signed up, and keep delivering enough new and surprising content to keep everyone guessing. The main goal at Blizzard is to get everyone playing Warcraft for as long as possible.
Magic, on the other hand, developed a marketing strategy based more on sporadic periods of activity.
The ethos behind Wizards’ plan is that people will be drawn to the game, pick it up for a while, then put it down. Hopefully they’ll come back in the future, but it’s not a big deal if they don’t.
Keeping an existing base of players happy is simply less important to WOTC than recruiting the next batch of Magic consumers – be they brand new customers or old players returning to the game.
To be fair to Wizards, I’m sure this strategy did not come from nowhere. My guess is that large amounts of market research showed this to be the norm for Magic players, and that it’s better EV to get lure in to buy a couple boxes worth of packs and a few precons once than it is to keep the regulars who buy 3 packs a week happy.
Through this lens, you can begin to see why so many creative and marketing decisions over the past four years have happened.
From mythic rares to M10 rules to Duels of the Planeswalkers, Magic has been beating the player acquisition drum quite successfully.
The problem, then, is this:
As someone who plays a ton of Magic, you are not the target audience for Magic.
I bolded this point because it’s really really important that we all understand it.
This is a similar point to the whole, “it’s just a children’s card game!” argument that people make on Twitter when everyone in the community is flailing around about some minor change in policy. Only the truth is that it’s not really an issue of age – it’s about level of commitment.
The fact that a community of obsessed individuals has developed around the game is something that I’m sure makes Hasbro executives happy, but they probably don’t really understand it. To them, we’re the icing on the cake.
The cake is new players – casual players – who will likely only spend around $100 on Magic in their lifetimes.
To put it bluntly, you just don’t matter all that much to them.
The End of Magic?
Going forward, when I talk about ‘the end of Magic,’ and ‘why people play Magic,’ I’m going to be talking exclusively about the sorts of people who read this site – weekly Magic players who consider the game to be a major part of their lives.
I am unconcerned about Wizards’ ability to keep churning out sets that will have appeal to their target demographic. If all you care about is the fact that Magic will continue to be printed, fear not. This is NOT the end of Magic in that sense.
In fact, Magic is doing astoundingly well right now. If that was Hasbro’s only product, I doubt we’d be seeing any cuts at all. The end of Magic R&D is probably a decade away or more.
What might be on the verge of collapse, though, is our community. For the rest of the article, I’m going to focus on that.
Why People Play (And Why They Might Stop)
Magic is an expensive game.
In the realm of cost alone, Magic is (debatably) second only to Warhammer and other miniatures games in terms of investment required to play with a variety of expensive strategies.
It certainly doesn’t compare favorably to board games, video games, MMORPGs, television, the internet, and everything else competing for our free time and available cash in the early 21st century.
So why did you draft Innistrad three times last weekend instead of buying Battlefield 3 and staying at home? Why did you drop the last of your paycheck to finish your Standard deck, knowing full well that the cards will rotate one day and lose value? Why did you drop 20 freaking dollars on an online prerelease draft when you don’t even have an online collection?
Seriously. Take a moment and think about your last major Magic purchase. Justify it in your mind. Think about exactly why continuing to spend money on this game is so important to you. I’ll wait.
Here’s what I came up with:
1) I have a deep and genuine love for the game. I believe it to be among the best games ever designed, if not the best. Playing Magic – in nearly any form – makes me happy. Playing new sets and formats that I enjoy can make me positively giddy.
2) The packs and cards I buy aren’t valueless. I can spend $100 on singles knowing that if I’m smart, I can get a large percentage of that price back by selling at the right time. They may even go up if I am lucky!
3) The more Magic I play, the better I am likely to get. This means I have a better chance of winning money and more cards as prizes.
4) I like being a part of our community. Small events like FNM or the ability to buy a box of the latest set are good excuses to hang out with friends for a couple hours. Large events like GPs, opens, and prereleases are good excuses to get together with friends for a day or more.
For me to stop playing Magic regularly, several of the above reasons would have to stop being true. I would imagine the same holds for many of you as well.
For Love of the Game
Most of the “Magic is ending! The sky is falling!” chatter in the past has been a reaction to changes in the game itself. This is a partial list of things that have made large swaths of the community angry over the past ten years:
- The change from the old card face to the modern one.
- Changing the background color of artifacts from brown to silver.
- The affinity/anti-affinity metagame of Mirrodin-era standard.
- The relative low power and parasitic mechanics of Kamigawa block.
- Tarmogoyf and the first truly expensive Standard-legal rare.
- The addition of Planeswalkers to the game.
- The addition of a basic land card to the booster pack.
- The decision to lower the number of cards released per year significantly.
- Cryptic Command and the Fae menace.
- The decision to keep the reserved list.
- The changes to Extended.
- Bloodbraid Elf and the Jund menace.
- Survival of the Fittest and the Vengevine menace in Legacy.
- The M10 rules changes – no more damage on the stack or mana burn.
- Caw-Blade and the Jace/Stoneforge menace.
- Phyrexian mana and the bleeding of the color pie.
- Werewolves and the double-faced card mechanic.
I’m probably forgetting a ton of obvious ones, but this list shows that Magic is constantly evolving and tweaking the power level and color bleed of its formats.
Breaking the list down further, there are three main design issues that upset people:
1) Aesthetic changes to the game that affect flavor in a major way.
2) Rules changes, especially simplification.
3) Power imbalances, especially ones that warp the metagame around a specific card or strategy.
So far, Magic has shown a strong resilience to these types of creative changes. Most of the aesthetic changes only bother players who will keep playing regardless, and ditto the rules changes.
The bottom line is that as long as Magic still feels like Magic, people will grumble but they will keep buying cards.
Further, these changes make perfect sense when looking at them through a “new players are our target audience” lens. Most of these changes were made to excite newer players or simplify the game in ways that make it more appealing to the casual crowd. As an established player, I wasn’t happy with almost any of them personally –especially not double-faced cards – but none of them made me quit the game.
Mark Rosewater often speaks that change is necessary even when it isn’t popular, and I do agree that the game has to evolve or it will die. I may not always agree with how the change is implemented, but I still trust those whose job it is to make those decisions. (Of course, this may change when Mark Rosewater retires or moves on…)
In terms of broken or otherwise unfun formats, this issue has become much more prevalent lately. Due to the large number of Star City Opens, (and, as of 2012 Grand Prix events), formats become saturated and stale much quicker than in past years. Thus, when a mistake like Jace, The Mind Sculptor comes along, it feels even more oppressive than it otherwise would.
While most creative/rules simplification changes are either negligible or serve to boost pack sales, bad formats actually have a major affect on tournament attendance. During the height of Affinity and Caw-Blade, tournament attendance was down 30% or more at most stores. It was before my time, but I heard that it was even worse during Urza’s block.
By some accounts, it took 2-3 years for stores to get back up to Mirrodin-level attendance figures after Darksteel drove so many away from the game.
Luckily, Wizards has taken to having a quick trigger finger with the ban hammer. This has helped keep formats far fresher than they otherwise would be, and has been a great under-the-radar policy change by them. Frustration will still mount – probably every Standard season from here on out – and banning the best deck in April to keep Summer Standard feeling fresh may be a new annual tradition.
Ultimately, though, the truth is that Wizards has already printed enough cards to keep me enjoying Magic for a lifetime.
Were Magic to ‘die’ tomorrow, I could still buy up vast lots of random old cards and brew decks in made-up formats into infinity. Heck, I have hundreds of thousands of cards already, dozens of Commander decks, boxes of old sets, my cube…not to mention that people would quickly brew up free versions of MTGO that would allow online drafting. And if R&D started developing sets, you’d better believe that other people would start.
There’s nothing Wizards could do to screw up the power level or rules of the game that could ever ruin my enjoyment of it. If they ever actually ruined the game, people would simply develop house rules to circumvent it and keep playing.
Magic: the Gathering – in a glorious, well-balanced form – exists in our world. Nothing can take that away from us – not R&D mistakes, not power creep, not complexity creep - nothing.
Of course, as fans of defunct games can tell you, the real sting is in the loss of the community as well as the ability to experience high level play. If finding a competitive Magic game ever became as difficult as finding, say, a game of competitive Vintage, most people would pick up their cards a few times a year at most.
So what we’re really fearing isn’t the loss of Magic – it’s the loss of community and organized play.
And that IS something that Wizards can take away from us.
In fact, they’ve already started.
Requiem for a Dream
Once upon a time, competitive Magic was simple.
Chances are, your local store, student union, or downtown pub ran a tournament or two each week. Build a deck, enter, and you could win some packs if you did well. Play in enough tournaments, and Wizards would reward you by sending you powerful cards in the mail that might help your chances.
Three or four times a year, the convention center in your nearest city would host a massive celebration where you could open packs of the latest set. It was a chance for you to meet up with all the players in the region – a whole world of people who love Magic as much as you.
If you started doing well at these local events, you could try your luck at a PTQ, States, Regionals, or a Grand Prix. The winner (or top few) in each of these events would get a ticket to the Pro Tour – a chance to ‘get on the gravy train’ and win money while traveling the world.
Even cooler, the winners of States got to compete in Nationals for a coveted slot on the team that would represent their country. Get on that team and you get a ticket to the World Championships and a shot at being crowned the best Magic player in the world.
Of course, not only the best tactical players in the world were rewarded. The strongest personalities in the game – the reigning pros, the recognizable faces, even some of the top writers – got to compete in an Invitational event. That prize? You got to (sort of) design your own Magic card with your face on it. Wow.
Now let’s examine this system through the eyes of an executive who has never played Magic and wants to focus on new player acquisition while trimming departmental fat.
New players don’t go to events at convention centers. For the most part, they don’t wander into a student union or a library or anywhere else run by an indie TO and start buying packs, either. They certainly don’t compete in States or Regionals.
The reason Wizards has been so FNM/brick and mortar centric is that’s where they believe the money is. They don’t want you playing Magic with your buddies in a bar or a dorm or a convention center, they want you playing at a store where you might buy more Wizards products and you might intrigue someone new to join you.
That, in my mind, is what killed regional prereleases and non-store-affiliated TOs.
As for the changes to the Pro Tour and high level competition, I feel as if the new edict is something like, “how much can we cut while still keeping the pro dream alive?”
Hasbro understands that having some sort of professional circuit drives a certain portion of sales, but I don’t think they care even the slightest bit about what it takes to make the tour and stay on it.
To them, as long as it’s possible to dream of going pro, no matter how unlikely, the pro tour has done its job.
And as long as you’re messing with the Pro Tour, which makes better financial sense for them – to reward the best players in the world or to reward those who have spent the most on cards and event fees?
Think about that for a moment.
So now we come to the 2012 version of organized play, a simplified world where the options are simply FNMs, PTQs, and Grands Prix feeding 3 annual Pro Tour events and on 16-person championship.
More frightening, these scaled-down events likely aren’t going to be dominated by a class of pros who make an impact year after year, enriching our lives with excellent strategy articles, videos, and decklists.
If you need to constantly grind to make it to a far-diminished pro tour and then have to get right back at the grind, the best minds in the game will leave. You think guys like Luis, Paulo, and Conley are going to keep playing Magic if it stops being both fun and lucrative? You don’t think those guys could get better jobs elsewhere?
The problem with Planeswalker Points, as has been pointed out by the best minds the game has ever known, is that they make it impossible for highly skilled Magicians to qualify for events while playing a reasonable amount of Magic.
If you want to qualify now, you will likely have to play an absurd amount of Magic. And making a pro tour – maybe even a few – aren’t likely to guarantee anything. (Though who knows? Wizards won’t even tell us what the future is going to bring right now!)
I’ve never thought seriously about turning pro, but it was nice to dream about the possibility of ‘breaking through’ and becoming so good that qualifying for a tour or two might be a realistic goal.
But in my mind that goal was based on skill, not time spent.
I doubt I’d have ever gotten good enough to make the Pro Tour under the old rules, but I know for certain that I won’t have the time to travel to enough events to make it now.
For me – and many others who have a life beyond Magic – the dream is 100% dead.
Of course, many players who ARE willing to put in the time have had their dream killed because they don’t live in the Midwest or Northeastern USA.
One of the most rage-inducing parts of WOTC’s announcement this week was, “if you live somewhere remote, ask your store to start hosting SCG-open sized events on a regular basis!”
This is truly laughable, especially at a time when WIZARDS THEMSELVES is scaling back their organized play for budgetary reasons!
So first rural and non-US areas get hurt badly by WOTC’s store affiliation policy (in the UK, for example, there are almost no game stores), then their dreams are further destroyed because it has become physically impossible for them to accumulate enough Planeswalker points to qualify for anything relevant?
Yeah, good thing there’s nothing else in the world that people could spend their time doing other than Magic or I might really be worried about the future of this game…
Life Without Sanctioned Play
Since we’re deep into theory-crafting, at a certain point you have to start wondering why the average Magic player bothers with sanctioned tournaments at all.
Planeswalker Points, as currently construed, are essentially meaningless to 99% of Magic players. The lifetime points mean absolutely nothing. Seasonal ones only matter to those on the extreme grind.
There are no more MPR cards, and it’s been a long time since the FNM foil was anything other than some useless common from several sets ago. (Coughteeteringpeakscough)
While some (especially those who live near Superstars) still have a good time at prereleases, for most my once-favorite day in Magic has now been reduced to a crappy sealed FNM that tries to jam too many people into a tiny store.
Of course, if most Magic suddenly became unsanctioned, I’m pretty sure another issue would develop that isn’t currently being considered:
The truth is that VERY few people nowadays play with proxies unless they’re building a testing gauntlet or they’re playing Vintage. It’s important to own and use actual, real Magic cards because that’s what’s legal in organized play.
Because of that, the community developed in a very anti-proxy way. Even in casual formats like Commander, most people frown at decks that have more than one or two proxies.
Why? Because collecting the cards is considered part of the game.
Were sanctioned organized play to lose focus as a central part of Magic, I feel as though the taboo against proxies/copies of cards may shift – at least for the more casual crowd.
Yeah, it’s nice to have a real & beautiful copy of a card, but the same can be said for DVDs as well and media piracy is rampant.
If you know you’re never going to play that Tundra in a sanctioned event, why shell out $80 for it? Why not just print out a high quality proxy for $1 or less?
How much less would your enjoyment of a cube draft be if the cards cost $5 to print out instead of $15,000 to buy?
Breaking Our Trust
To put it bluntly, Wizards hasn’t done a single thing recently to show they care about their community of loyal, dedicated players.
All of these policy changes have been met with mixed feelings at best and massive dissent at worst from the established player base:
- Ending the Magic Player Rewards Program.
- Ending the Invitational.
- Ending the Junior Super Series.
- Ending States.
- Ending Worlds.
- Cutting a Pro Tour.
- Removing PT invites from Grands Prix.
- Dropping Grand Prix prize support.
- Removing large regional prereleases.
- Removing drafting from preleases.
- Replacing the ELO ratings system with Planeswalker Points.
- Limiting FNM to Friday nights.
- Removing sanctioning abilities for independent TOs.
- Charging exorbitant amounts for online prerelease drafts.
- Starting online PTQs without scaling prize support.
Let’s compare this to the list of positive changes that Wizards has made, shall we?
- Sets are still pretty good. I mean, I didn’t like Scars block much, but Innistrad is sweet.
Oh, I guess that’s not really a policy change. Uhh…
- Magic Game Day events.
- The Magic 2012 Celebration (the free pack war tournament).
- There will be more Grands Prix, though they mean less.
- Airfare being included in PT invites.
I might be missing a few, but for the most part I think my point stands. Wizards has been making massive cuts lately – cuts that affect everyone that plays the game on a regular basis. You can justify most of them on a case-by-case basis if you really stretch the truth, but listed together it looks pretty damning.
And that’s really the crux of the problem. Wizards has spun most of these changes as if they were positive things that will be good for the game. Or if not, they bury them at the bottom of press releases or make vague statements about “works in progress.” I think they hope that we’ll forget about the cuts and all move on to the next shiny set release.
Unless Wizards does something positive – and soon – I am forced to believe that before long I won’t be able to count on organized play for, well, anything.
What could Wizards do to reverse these trends? Here are my suggestions:
- Bring back independent TOs and the ability to acquire product and sanction events without being tied to a brick and mortar store. If they’re worried about this cutting into the business of legitimate stores, limit the number of active indie TOs to one or two per local area. Allow more in places were there are no stores, few in places with an active Magic community already.
- Bring back a limited number of large regional prereleases. The big metro areas that turn people away at the small events (LA, New York, etc.) should be allowed to have these large events. Play space is MUCH more prevalent in areas where real estate costs are low.
- Bring back MPR and tie it to Planeswalker points. Every time you reach a new level (or five at lower levels), you get a promo mailed to you. The cards will be premium foil versions of eternal & casual favorites, and it will be retroactive. (If you’re level 44 now, your next ‘mailing’ will have all the cards up through that level)
- Adjust Planeswalker Point modifiers/the Pro Player’s club based on the suggestions put forth by Kai Budde, Luis Scott-Vargas, Bob Maher, Zvi Mowshowitz, and Jon Finkel.
- Bring back Worlds.
My guess, though, is that they will do none of these things. No matter how many petitions like this one I sign.
Of course, even with these changes, it’s very unlikely that sanctioned play will disappear anytime soon.
Wizards absolutely adores FNM, and that will remain a popular format for the foreseeable future.
Pros or not, the Tour will keep going, the Star City opens will keep going, and people will keep turning out to play Magic.
You will probably keep playing Magic too.
At least for now.
What might the loss of the pro players and the dream of the tour mean for you? Likely, it will start with the loss of prominent community members as they make a mass exodus toward other games or professions. We will lose many of our best writers, videographers, creative minds, and deckbuilders.
In turn, this means that people will start spending less time (for some, significantly less time) reading and thinking about Magic. Which in turn means less time spent playing Magic. Which means sales among members of the community will dip.
This likely won’t hurt Hasbro’s bottom line all that much. Sets will still be churned out every few months as new players discover Magic, play for a while, and then move on to something else.
With less hype surrounding large sanctioned events, I expect most eternal card prices to stagnate or drop. Right now, most of what is driving the market for Modern and Legacy are speculators, not players. With fewer players trying to “go for it,” I’d imagine $50 Wastelands are just flat out unsustainable in the long term.
This does NOT mean to sell your collection in an all-out panic – there will still be plenty of demand, especially around large tournaments - but over the next five years or so I don’t think we’ll see the same upward trend that we’ve seen to date. At least not unless something drastic changes.
As prices for casual/Commander staples continue to go up (Seriously - $10 for a Woodfall Primus!?) and sanctioned Magic starts becoming less of a necessity, I’d expect a shift in the casual culture toward being more accepting of proxies. This in turn will shrink the demand for purely casual cards that will likely never find a home in a sanctioned tournament anyway.
Casual cards are overvalued at the moment, and that will probably change.
I expect the latest and greatest standard cards will always rise and fall in value much as they do now, simply because that is the most popular FNM format. In this form, Magic will go on much as it always has.
By and large, I think the golden age of Magic is probably close to an end.
In the future, we will view this latest round of organized play changes not as the end of Magic, but certainly as a defining moment for the history of the game.
And not in a positive way.
As of 2012, Magic is going to matter less.
And that’s a damned shame.
Until next time –
- Chas Andres