After its general release in 1993, Magic’s early explosion was not without its fallout. The revolutionary product’s vertiginous rise created tumult along fault lines that radiated from the punch-drunk Wizards of the Coast headquarters in Renton, Seattle, via supply chains where distributors and retailers were desperately trying to secure as much of the scarce product as possible, all the way down to players, who were hopelessly in love with a product they often couldn’t buy. When Wizards founder Peter Adkison says that 1994 and 1995—after a glorious 1993—were the worse years of his life, he can be forgiven his lament.
Having unleashed an unprecedented product, Wizards had no off-the-shelf business model they could rely on to ensure its ongoing success. And, as revenues rose, there was a genuine fear building within the company that mismanagement might kill the golden goose. That the inexperience that had led to such an iconoclastic product in the first place might bite its creators in the backside. And that Magic could, after burning blindingly bright for a few years, simply end up on the tragic but mountainous scrapheap of discarded collecting fads, like a Garbage Pail Kids for the 1990s. As former Scrye editor John Jackson Miller noted, the so-called “locusts” who had been speculating on comics and caused a damaging bubble in that market were turning their attention to Magic and creating a horde of hustlers, flipping boxes of sets like Legends at a huge mark up—or cracking open the product and selling the single cards to players who desperately wanted the many cool and exciting new cards churned out by Wizards in its first 12 months for their decks. The problem for Wizards was: how long would their players stay interested in a product that was quickly spiralling out of their price range? Black Lotus, admittedly only printed a total of 22,800 times in Alpha, Beta and Unlimited, was racing towards the $100 mark by the end of 1994 and emblematic of the dangers Magic faced. If the players turned away in disgust, the “collectible card game” would be left to fend on the market not as a game, but as a pure collectible—and would thus be subject to the fatal boom and bust nature of such a commodity. Something had to give.
Ask most players of a certain age what the worst set in Magic history is and the response will almost certainly be Fallen Empires (1995’s Homelands runs it a close second, though). Released in November 1994, it is stigmatised in part for its relatively weak cards and fiddly gameplay which introduced rafts of counters and tokens to the otherwise pared-down elegance of the Magic battlefield. But really, hang-ups about Fallen Empires lacklustre reputation hinge on one simple fact: it was the first set that was printed to demand—and as such, it did not immediately go up in value. For that reason, ask Wizards employees of a certain era—including Richard Garfield—what the most important expansion in Magic history is and the response will almost certainly be Fallen Empires. “We had to take the reins away from speculators and collectors,” says the game’s creator. Fallen Empires was the beginning of that process.
Whereas previous sets had been woefully under-printed, including Fallen Empires’ predecessor The Dark (62 million cards printed), Wizards set out with the new set to fulfil all the orders streaming in from distributors to flood the market with Magic cards and begin deflating the bubble that was building up in their product. This would be like a controlled explosion of a lone suitcase on a station platform. A chance to defuse a dangerous situation at the time of the company’s choosing—rather than a destructive blast that would send shockwaves around the market. There was, however, one slight blip: retailers, unaware of Wizards’ plans, had vastly exaggerated the orders they were placing just to be able to get some of what they assumed would be a product in as short supply as the other Magic releases thus far. John Jackson Miller, from his time at industry publication Comics Retailer, knows of one store who, in the hope of securing 50 boxes of the hotly anticipated set, due out in the run up to the busy Christmas period, ordered 550 of them. However, with Wizards ready to print more cards than ever before (ultimately four times the print run of The Dark) every single one of those boxes shipped, costing the store tens of thousands of dollars and ultimately putting it out of business. A controlled explosion this wasn’t—but Fallen Empires certainly did begin crashing the market, assuring it of its dubious place in Magic history. The following year’s Ice Age and Fourth Edition were also deliberately heavily printed to consolidate the process. Indeed, by the end of 1994, Wizards had already printed their billionth Magic card and at that point stopped making print-run data public.
Burning the speculators before they could burn Magic was only one half of the equation, though: there was still a risk that Magic fever would run its course and the legion of players who had picked it up in its first flush of youth might simply get bored of it, down tools and move on to another game. Wizards vice-president Lisa Stevens had hedged against that as best as possible by buying up as many licences for established intellectual property as she could, to delay the entry of a powerfully branded competing card game to the market. That advantage would only hold for so long though. A new approach to the product, a new proposition for its players—and not its hoarders, flippers and hustlers—was needed. It was former Philadelphia play-tester and now full-time Wizards employee Skaff Elias who found it.
By 1995, Elias was Wizards’ brand manager—to all intents and purposes, however, his brief ranged far wider: from helping build the R&D department from the ground up with his close friend Garfield, to designing cards himself, to business development and product management. Elias had fingers in numerous pies and had become a hugely influential figure at the company. So dedicated was he to Magic—and so run off his feet was he with everything that needed doing—that he could often be found asleep under his desk when the lights went out on another frenetic day in the life of early Wizards. There really was no point going home, when there were so many fires to fight at a time in the game’s development Elias describes as “extremely precarious.” One question in particular plagued Elias: how could a player justify spending hundreds of dollars a year on Wizards’ product, and this for any more than a year or two? While the answer up until that point—from all quarters—had been, because the cards kept going up in value, Elias could see that this was unsustainable. So, with that in mind, Elias began to spend his long evenings at the office researching what games had lasted a long time—and indeed which ones had remained commercially successful for long periods. The more Elias read, the harder it was to ignore not only the staying power of classic games like chess, bridge and poker, but also the models embraced by professional sports.
Little over a year before, the inaugural World Championships held at Gen Con ’94 and won by Zak Dolan had shown the central role that competition held for many Magic players. That event had made manifest just how exciting tournament play could be and just how eager Magic players from around the globe were to pit their skills against one another. The tournaments sweeping the land—including the ones on the West Coast where Brian Weissman, The Deck’s designer, was rising to prominence—were also testament to that. Within Wizards, the fastest growing area of the company seemed to be the fledgling organised play department, as more and more players signed up to join the Duelists’ Convocation (DC, later the Duelists’ Convocation International, or DCI), the official tournament body created by Wizards in late 1993. But just like everyone at Wizards at the time, DCI boss Steve Bishop and his team were struggling to get to grips with Magic’s mind-blowing scale and the rampant demand from players. Even officially sanctioned tournaments, complying to the DCI’s early deck-building and organisational rules, were shambolic, because there was very little understanding at the top of what went into producing a good competitive event. These early tournaments were, says Elias, nothing short of “disasters”, run by a willing but inexperienced team who were simply in over their heads. It was something that Elias, with a background in the long-established world of competitive bridge, could see was a huge problem: “The tournaments were being run by a bunch of people who had never played games competitively before and the structure of early tournaments reflected that.”
Furthermore, by the beginning of 1995, tournament play such that it was, was in danger of stagnating. The environment was ruled by the Power Nine cards (including the now $100 Black Lotus), all of which had climbed so high in price that a worrying two-tier field of haves and have-nots was emerging. How long would it be, wondered Elias, before the have-nots simply stopped turning up to play altogether? Drastic action was required to redress the situation—by scaling back on which cards would be allowed for tournament play—but how could that be done without incurring the wrath of the tournament “haves”, in many cases those who had made Magic a success from day one with their faith in the game?
The solution that gradually swam into Elias’ focus was a tournament series that would not only turn Magic from an ephemeral collectible into a perennial game, but one which would provide a positive value proposition for switching to new deck construction rules: a professional tournament circuit, or “Pro Tour”, backed to the hilt by Wizards financially, played with cards everyone had access to, which would cement the primacy of playing over collecting and would create a new level of investment—both intellectual and monetary—in the game from its fan base. It was a truly radical proposition. And, at its inception, one that almost no-one believed could work.
Just over a year into Wizards’ frantic expansion, the company’s staff was still largely composed of “nearest warm bodies”, brought on board to plug holes wherever possible. As former employee John Scott Tynes would write years later in an article for Salon.com entitled “Death to the Minotaur”, “If you were a Seattle gamer in 1994-95, you had to be willfully incompetent not to get a job at Wizards.” In particular, says Tynes, the city’s black-clad goth community was heavily represented at Wizards HQ, complete with a “dramatically heightened sense of outrage to perceived slights or efforts to sell out.” Elias, who had railed against the inefficiency of the current tournament organisers on the one hand and now wanted to propose on the other a hardcore, cut-throat competitive vision for Magic, fueled by big bucks, seemed in for a losing battle. Still, he was convinced that his idea for a professional tournament series was the best way to ensure the game’s survival. He was also convinced he could count on the support of at least one ally: Richard Garfield.
Garfield had early on in Magic’s dizzying rise reached the decision that the game should be a product for its players rather than its collectors. His faith in the quality of his game was absolute and it was certainly his hope that it could join the pantheon of great, enduring games, with players respected for their skill and intelligence. He was also well aware of the dangers facing the game if it were simply to muddle on in its current state—popular, but for how long? Although he was initially reticent when Elias put the idea of the Pro Tour in front of him, worried that it would make the game too serious, he gradually came round to the idea as the analogies to the classic games he wanted to emulate became clear (bridge, poker, chess… all these featured competitive play at their apex). Similarly, reasoned Garfield, the existence of highly professionalised sports had not wiped out the grassroots, quite the opposite in fact: the NBA and casual basketball, for example, could co-exist quite happily and, thought Garfield, without the NBA to aspire to, there would probably be far less people shooting hoops on their local court. Remembering how he had always wanted to see games elevated to the same level as sport—albeit as sports for the mind—he sensed Magic’s chance to make a lasting mark on the cultural landscape. If Wizards played their cards right, they would gain far more players than the factions they might lose.
Garfield, though, for all the sway he held in the organisation, was not the sort to kick up a fuss or criticise the currently mediocre state of tournament play. Elias had to go on building alliances within Wizards to get his idea off the ground, even with Magic’s creator onside. His next port of call was Peter Adkison, who could immediately see the strength of Elias’ vision. Having witnessed how Fallen Empires had burst the Magic bubble, he was fully aware that a new conception of the product was required for it to move forwards. Injecting cash into a professional play programme not only put the onus on playing Magic but also sent out a positive riposte to naysayers claiming the Fallen Empires crash was the beginning of the end for Wizards. “I loved the idea and made the changes in the organisation necessary to make it happen,” says Adkison. “But there was a point in time where out of 100 or so employees, only four of us believed in it.”
The fourth was Rick Arons, an executive who had been slowly but surely spreading professionalism from his desk like ripples in a pond. Sure, he liked to walk around in his socks, but he had a keen mind for business development and possessed the authority, tact and dedication to steer Elias’ idea through the initially sceptical Wizards environment and into the real world. A huge sports fan, Arons could fully grasp the potential a professional tournament circuit had, not only for elevating the quality of Magic play, but for legitimising it in the eyes of the general public: “Your grandma might not know what Magic is,” he says. “But she’ll understand what a $10,000 cheque is.”
“When I first met Wizards of the Coast, no-one would have expected Magic to reach its 20th anniversary,” says Seth Matlins. “But they planned for it.” Matlins is a marketing guru who in 1995 was working for ProServ, the second most powerful sports marketing and television company in the world, behind IMG. While IMG had been built up around the commercialisation of golf, ProServ was built up on tennis, with Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith as its first ever clients. With expertise not only in representing athletes but also in broadcasting and television production, they were in a phase of diversification as the first rumblings of television’s declining efficacy were being felt in the industry, cable was gaining traction and viewerships were beginning to fragment. That meant ProServ were open to new ideas, but still, when they took a phone call from Rick Arons at Wizards of the Coast, it came as something of surprise. What was Magic anyway? But Matlins remembers that it did not take long for he and his colleagues at ProServ to be impressed by the rigour and scope of Wizards’ thinking. The feeling was mutual and he was quickly brought on board as part of a shadow government emerging at Wizards HQ.
Elias explains, that with the company’s prevailing cultural winds blowing in the opposite direction, a second group working on tournament play started up—not wholly in competition with the existing unit, but not wholly in concert with it either. In keeping with Peter Adkison’s very laissez-faire attitude, they were free to work on an idea a majority of the company still felt would ruin the game. But what alternatives did they really have?
Matlins remembers that there was discussion of other options—diligence had been undertaken as a responsibility to the shareholders. Should, for example, Wizards sell out while the Magic brand was at its hottest and build the Magic: The Gathering theme park? Certainly, it would be a way to cash in on the game if it really was nothing but a fad doomed to die out at some point in the near future anyway. But in their heart of hearts, not only did Garfield, Elias, Arons, Adkison and Matlins not want that—they also had immense faith in the product. Even Matlins, in no way a gamer or typical fantasy fan, could see how powerful Magic was: “The core premise was great,” he says. “You have to give credit to the fundamentally brilliant IP and gameplay, while the collectible quality of the game undoubtedly added value. Nobody wanted to sell out—so the question became: how do we step outside the traditional life cycle for a game, which runs about 18 to 24 months, burns really hot for 12 to 16 months, then hits a decline?” The group even briefly considered whether a play could be made to attain Olympic status for Magic as an intellectual sport. If nothing else, it would be an impressive PR stunt.
Increasingly though, the idea of a big-money professional circuit became inescapable: “The $1-million Magic Pro Tour,” had a ring to it and was an offering that put many sports at the time in the shade. It would, the group hoped, immediately prove compelling to Magic players and frankly anyone in earshot of the phrase. It would galvanise the game’s grassroots—from local shops upwards—crucially giving players something to aspire to in the long term and rewarding the very best with a platform to shine on. There was a huge desire on the part of all involved to legitimise and remunerate the skill and creativity of the best Magic players, so they might earn a similar status to the high-school quarterbacks or valedictorians out there: “It was important for us to reward people for their efforts and to give people a sense of self-esteem,” says Elias.
Vitally, it would also smooth the transition required to level the tournament playing field between the haves and have-nots. “The second purpose,” admits Elias, “was to ‘bribe’ the players. I hate using that word, but we wanted to show them that we would reward them for playing the game with only cards printed in the last two years—a new tournament format that we would call Type II.” The game’s old-school players could certainly continue playing with cards from the game’s entire history at Type I tournaments (the format now known as Vintage)—but the brunt of Wizards’ official prize support and promotional focus would go to a format that provided equal opportunity to all players, no matter how long they had been playing the game. The Type II format (today called Standard) would feature cards currently in print over a two-year period and would rotate as and when new cards were published, with outgoing sets replaced by the new printings. This would keep the format fresh and constantly challenging, much like Garfield had originally imagined. Magic: The Gathering, remember, was originally to be available for a year before being replaced by a completely different Magic: Ice Age product—only the necessity to rush expansions out to the game’s early adopters had changed that plan.
The creation of the new format was a huge and controversial schism that would go on to have major consequences for Type I. But in conjunction with the creation of the Pro Tour, it finally provided Wizards with a model for sustainable sales. “They had a vision for what Rick referred to as the ‘metagame,’” says Matlins. “His analogue was a pinball machine with all the names of the high scorers on it.” As long as the rewards of triumphing in this vision of the tournament metagame were high enough, players would now have every reason to continue to buy new Magic cards. It was a brilliantly holistic vision and precisely the business model Wizards had been looking for. The Pro Tour itself would be laid over an infrastructure similar to tennis, namely a ranking system based on the Association of Tennis Professionals’ rankings, where players ascend by beating players ranked higher than them. It even harked back to the “ladders” for card games like hearts that Garfield had run for his Maths Department colleagues back in his University of Pennsylvania days. And, as one of his columns in The Duelist magazine in the spring of 1995 revealed, he was fully on board with the idea. “Recently, I claimed that I could make any game popular if I could build a good ladder around it,” he wrote. “Each player [on a ladder] has many different chances for success. When a player moves up even one rung from the bottom of a ladder, he has achieved a kind of victory.” That same aspiration would be the bedrock of Magic’s future as an enduring, perennial game.
It might not have been much, but its consequences would be seismic: a tiny news story, tucked away in the bottom left-hand corner of page 10 of The Duelist issue number eight, from December 1995.
PROFESSIONAL POSSIBILITIES FOR Magic TOURNAMENTS
The first in a series of professional Magic tournaments is in the early planning stage at Wizards of the Coast. Members of the Magic team have been scoping out sites in the New York City area and hope to put together an initial event by early next year. For more information, contact Wizards of the Coast Customer Service at (206) 624-0933.
While the self-effacing manner of the Pro Tour’s announcement almost certainly hints at the internal scepticism at Wizards of the Coast, the master plan was now public knowledge. John Jordan, the company’s biggest shareholder, was onside and preparation began in earnest for the first big-money event—one that would have to prove the viability of Skaff Elias’ radical idea.
As the news story in The Duelist says, the venue for the first-ever Magic Pro Tour would be New York, in a converted loft near Greenwich Village. With no qualifying system in place, the best-known players around the world were canvassed by Wizards and invited to intend. Bertrand Lestrée, for example, the runner-up to Zak Dolan at the 1994 World Championships, remembers receiving a Fed Ex package while on work placement in the UK. He had actually stopped playing Magic six months previously, but as he opened the courier’s parcel to discover a letter from Wizards telling him they would fly him to New York to play in the game’s first ever-professional event, all expenses paid, his interest in the game was suddenly rekindled. His case proved in microcosm the allure of playing at the top level, for high stakes and getting a holiday thrown in, to boot. Fittingly, the slogan for the Pro Tour would for many years become “Play the game, see the world!”
Other players simply heard about the impending event—to be held on the weekend of 16-18 February 1996—by word of mouth. While Wizards had a rough idea of the big names they wanted to play at the tournament, the other slots available needed filling—and were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone who called up and asked for one. A total of 347 players would make it to the Pro Tour and would be split into a Junior and Masters competition according to age (a distinction which would later be done away with). Despite a snowstorm delaying the start of the tournament, there was a palpable sense in that New York loft of a new era beginning. Richard Garfield himself kicked off proceedings with words that neatly summed up what a watershed moment it was: “The reason I take games seriously is because I consider them the intellectual counterpart to sports,” he told a rapt audience of fans. “I would love to see games raised to the stature of intellectual sports.” The concept was a fine one, but Elias, Matlins and the other Wizards and ProServ staff in attendance could only cross their fingers and hope that the event would prove their big-money gamble correct. Certainly, as far as the players were concerned, this was a thrilling new arena to compete in. One 17-year-old player in the Junior portion of the competition, a Neutral Ground regular called Jon Finkel, could barely contain his emotions. Today, he says that first Pro Tour was like, “…being in a school football team that gets to play a game at Wembley. It was clearly a bigger stage.”
As the rounds progressed, that feeling began to spread to the organisers, too. By the semi-finals, with thousands of dollars on the line, the play had ratcheted up to a new level of intensity—and everyone in attendance had been swept up in it. There were no bleachers or close-circuit television as there would be at later events for the crowds of eliminated players to watch on. So they scrambled as best they could on to nearby tables and chairs to lean in and get a view of the play as it was unfolding. The tournament rules had not been fully ironed out yet, so the players were allowed to play out their matches without a time limit. As the semi-finals stretched out, the atmosphere became electric—and it was then that the organisers were convinced they were on to something. Matlins recalls being bowled over by the intensity in the room. “What you saw was passion, engagement, interest—and if I remember correctly, you could even hear ‘Oohs’ and ‘Ahs’ from the crowd at various plays,” he says. “That was the moment I went from knowing the Pro Tour made sense, to believing it made sense. I wasn’t a Magic player and I’m not today but in that moment you could palpably feel the connection of an audience to the play of others and for a sport, that’s fundamental.” For Elias, seeing Matlins’ reaction was the proof of concept he needed—sure, Magic was exciting to gamers. But when a non-gamer was as awestruck by the unfolding excitement as all the Magic players in the room, the entire rationale for the Pro Tour was vindicated. This was sport; it would produce drama, birth heroes and legitimise not only its big-money heroes—but also all the wannabes striving to be like them. “It was astounding,” says Elias.
By the time American player Michael Locanto triumphed against Bertrand Lestrée in a gruelling final to become the first ever Pro Tour champion—winning a cheque for $12,000 in the process—Magic had changed forever. Not only did its players have a reason to be proud, but Wizards too could reflect with self-confidence on an excellent business decision. It was, says Peter Adkison, essentially their first. “Up to that point, Magic had been big and amazing because Richard was smart and creative,” he says. “This was the first time we made a really smart business decision rather than simply getting lucky, and it took us to the next level as a company.” The core believers at Wizards had been fully vindicated. And, as the shadow organised play unit absorbed the existing one, fears about the game’s future abated. “Unequivocally,” says Elias, “this saved Magic.”