I recently found myself in the middle of a conversation with other Magic writers about… Me.
Actually, the conversation was about the writer’s role in promoting Magic’s profitability so that websites like StarCity – and companies like Wizards of the Coast – can make money and stay in business. Aaron Forsythe asked the question (and it’s important to emphasize that he only ASKED the question, and even then it was pretty much tongue-in-cheek) whether I, by constantly advertising that I owned no cards, hurt Magic’s profitability.
Before I even joined the conversation, people were passing the comment off as hogwash. Since it was about me, though, I considered the argument. As far as I can figure, it goes something like this:
Sarah, a new player overwhelmed by Magic’s hefty pricetag, discovers the wonders of the internet. All she sees everywhere are decks chock-full of expensive rares that she doesn’t own. But there’s one guy – a guy who seems to know what he’s talking about – who is having fun and making decks. This guy OWNS NO CARDS.
"How can this be?" gasps Sarah, and then notices the guy is talking about some program named Apprentice. Sarah does some more research and quickly realizes she can play Magic, with access to every card Wizards has ever printed, for free. Moreover, she can even play competitively via E-League. Happy as a clam, she gives her small bag of cards to her brother and downloads Apprentice. She never buys another magical piece of cardboard again.
Meanwhile Dan, a fellow with a fairly impressive collection, is fed up. He’s been banging his head against the PTQ wall to no avail. He has a few Top 8s to his name, but he has spent countless hours on Magic and is quickly realizing the Pro Tour is not in his future. Worst of all, Magic has lost that spark that made it fun and has instead become almost solely about metagames and Net Decks ™. Dan feels as if he’s at a crossroads: Bag Magic and start playing Asheron’s Call, or try to rediscover the fun parts of the game. He talks to his kid sister’s friend Sarah, and finds out about a guy who sold all his cards on eBay and is still playing all the time. The guy has FUN. After reading some of the guy’s articles, Dan’s decision is made. He sells his collection and never buys another magical piece of cardboard again.
Dan’s next-door-neighbor Tom is sure disappointed in Dan’s decision. Tom is married with two small kids and is constantly being pulled between spending time with his family and playing Magic. He has spent a lot of time and money buying cards, but Magic always seems to soak up hours at a time without him realizing it. The worst are tournaments, which can last all day. Dan’s decision means Tom’s only outlet for playing is tournaments at the local card shop, and he already knows his wife will disapprove. Dan tells Tom about Apprentice, though. Tom suddenly realizes he can play Magic after the kids have gone to sleep, and he never has to leave his home to play. Tom sells his collection (using the money to buy his wife a new necklace… he figures she’s earned it), and never buys another magical piece of cardboard again.
Are Sarah, Dan and Tom wildly exaggerated examples? Maybe exaggerated, perhapsm but I would argue they aren’t WILDLY exaggerated.
I could suddenly see Aaron’s point. On the small scale, nobody cares about me. Heck, *I* don’t even care about me. But having a high-profile writer on arguably Magic’s most popular website waving his hands around yelling "Look at me! I own no cards! Look how little I complain! I’m having fun again! Wheeeeeee!" can’t have NO effect, right? Somewhere out there there’s a twisted little kid who listens to me… Right? RIGHT?!?
And somebody’s listening to that kid, right? And on and on and soon we’ve got dogs and cats living together, right?
But probably not.
First off, let me share two deep convictions of mine. They are Controversial, let me warn you. Not for the weak of heart. But they are also important to understand where I am coming from in this particular debate. Here goes…
CONVICTION #1: I DON’T THINK YOU NEED CARDS TO ENJOY MAGIC: THE GATHERING
That’s right. I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop Sarah, Dan or Tom. I might talk with them so they understand the implications of playing online and selling one’s cards, but I wouldn’t dissuade them. I haven’t spent a day regretting my decision to quit face-to-face Magic nor to sell my cards.
Currently, playing Magic online is:
a) Free. As free as free can be, given you own a PC (and yes, I rhyme all the time). If you miss the pretty pictures, you can drop about $50 and invest in Magic Encyclopedia. Even with Encyclopedia, the cost is fixed. Every time a new set is released, you will have access to every card without spending a cent.
b) Fun. One of the pains about having cards was either proxying or only making decks with the cards I owned. I was constantly shuffling Rishadan Ports from sleeve to sleeve using them in five different decks. There were also few places to play my fun decks. And you know what? Now I can make ten decks in ten minutes and play them all concurrently. My "Decks" folder has no less than a hundred decks in it. Suddenly the world is my oyster (uh oh… the second clam reference) and I am only limited by my imagination to what I can build. Moreover, since it’s fairly anonymous, I never feel embarrassed to play my wacky decks.
c) Competitive. The caliber of players on NewNet is, on average, very good. They play Net Decks ™ which is great for playtesting. There are online tournaments. With prizes.
d) Easy. I can shuffle my deck by clicking my mouse. I don’t have to find space to store a single card. At any moment in time – even in the middle of the night – there are players (and tournaments) waiting for me.
e) Social. I have met countless folks through online play who want to talk about Magic and play. Admittedly, the chat rooms are usually offensive, homophobic, racist and enormously sexist… But what’s to stop you from inviting your friends to a different room? Besides, are face-to-face tournaments all that inviting?
There are three drawbacks, as far as I can see. First, you will never go to the Pro Tour. This isn’t an issue for since since I quit face-to-face Magic because of its huge time commitment, but you may have aspirations to be the next Finkel. If so, becoming a solely virtual player is not for you. There is little fame in the online community.
Second, you won’t hang out in person with your friends or meet new warm-blooded folks. Again, I don’t mind since the friends with whom I played Magic still hang out with me. I do a lot of social stuff now – almost more than my introverted little heart can handle. But if Magic is first, foremost and last a social event for you, then becoming a virtual Magic player will only deepen your sad misanthropic existence.
Finally, online Magic is in no way collectible. Sorry. Back to baseball cards you go.
Right about now the Ferrett is wondering where I’m going with this. Not to worry! If my first conviction alienated those who make money from Magic, my second alienates those who do not.
CONVICTION #2: I THINK WIZARDS SHOULD CHARGE FOR DOWNLOADING SETS
Understand that my Ph.D. is in business and that I work in Corporate America. I both realize the importance of the almighty dollar and that currently online magic provides Wizards and StarCity no direct revenue streams. I simply don’t agree with the current model – or at least I can envision a different way:
In my opinion, online Magic SHOULD be producing wealth for its distributors. After all, what you’re buying when you buy a pack of cards are, at least in part, the ideas behind the cards. Those ideas are intellectual capital and worth something. I would not bat an eye if Wizards asked me to pay $20 to download Planeshift for Apprentice. And I would pay it, knowing full well it is their right to make money from their ideas – and that $20 is a heck of a lot less than I would have spent playing with the cardboard (which makes sense, since they save the cost of making the cardboard and shiny wrappers in the first place).
And let’s not get into an economics debate about Napster and Java. For the record, I think both of these should be free, but the argument for each takes me far afield from this game we love.
I am absolutely certain that charging for downloads would diminish the number of people using Apprentice. And those folks (which is most of you) who play both in-person and online would be getting double-charged to play the game which would seem awfully unfair.
But from where I stand, I would argue that online Magic and face-to-face Magic are two different games–a bit like bowling and Sega bowling (though only a bit… the analogy is far from perfect). By playing both, you should be required to pay for both. And if online Magic were treated as its own game, it could do things beyond the DCI’s wildest dreams.
Again, just my opinion.
So maybe I am the anti-Christ after all. Maybe I’m trying to ruin the party for everyone.
But probably not.
WHY I AM NOT KILLING MAGIC:
One thing is certain: Wizards shouldn’t appoint me their next Chief Operating Officer. I would be a mighty unpopular fellow, both within the company and outside of it. I would also be messing with their whole business philosophy. If you haven’t heard it recently, here goes:
The Pro Tour is the key to Magic’s future.
Pretty simple, really. Somewhere someone decided to put all the chips on the PT square of the roulette table. Wizards pours its money into big prizes, amazing venues and advertising because they know that Pro Tours create PTQs. PTQs are loaded with players who spend ridiculous amounts of money as they chase each new deck fad, hoping to qualify. Constant sets keep the game fresh for the pros, and also demand that to be a professional Magic player means to master each dynamic format. Mastery means more time and money for the hordes of qualifier hopefuls. Icons like John Finkel only fuel the Pro Tour mystique… Do you honestly think basketball would generate as much wealth without the NBA and Michael Jordan?
And StarCity fits into this, too. Besides selling cards themselves, strategy articles help promote the Pro Tour (and make no mistake, pro players get a lot more visits to their articles than the non-pros). (He speaks truth, my friends — The Ferrett) Articles generate excitement for the game and new cards. All of it is about creating a foundation on which the Pro Tour can stand, because it is the Pro Tour that keeps Magic economically viable.
It sounds insidious, but you shouldn’t get too riled up: Without the Pro Tour, casual Magic wouldn’t exist either because the game would have gone the way of the dodo.
The reason sets like Unglued and box-sets like Beatdown are economic failures is because there is no mechanism for getting people to buy mountains of these cards. The casual player just doesn’t care enough to lay down their cash, and there is nothing like the Pro Tour to MAKE them care. Wizards hoped they would, but I think the message was pretty clear given sales.
Of course, this begs the question as to whether the Pro Tour is the right bet for Magic’s future. I’ll say yes for now, but there are other bets I can envision. That’s a whoooooole other article, though.
So no matter what I think, Wizards won’t charge for its downloads right
now. Apprentice is, first and foremost, a way for people to quickly
playtest their decks and chat about strategy. Keeping online play free
means people will continue to get excited about decks and cards they don’t
yet own, but MUST buy to play in the next PTQ.
And people won’t be following my lead to solely online play either. If, for some reason, the frustration with Magic’s time commitments and financial commitments send people to follow my little piper’s tune, Wizards will respond by changing its business philosophy and looking for ways to either bring those people (us people, I should say) back into the Pro Tour stream – or treat us as a new market with new needs.
Those folks at Hasbro are mighty clever, as are Pete and the other folks at StarCity. They just won’t let me kill Magic.
Instead, here’s a pearl of wisdom (the third clam reference! You found it!): Be very wary of writers who promote…
– Unbalanced cards, which lead to unbalanced formats and bannings.
– Power sets, which limit the viable cards in Constructed and make other sets obsolete.
– More stringent PT qualifying requirements, which widens the gulf between the pro, the wannabe, and the casual player.
– Abolishing Pokemon, which is the bridge from youngsters to Magic.
– Less marketing for the beginner and more for the Seasoned Expert, because it is not the Expert paying for R&D’s budget.
– Women-only events, which are quick-fixes to Magic’s intolerable atmosphere. We need less segregation, not more. (Who the heck advocated THAT? — The Ferrett, aghast)
– More frequent sets, which would saturate the game and alienate people already strapped to pay for their hobby.
– The return of Combo Winter.
THESE are the people killing Magic, not me. They pervert Wizards’ business philosophy in ways that are difficult to undo and have horrible long-lasting effects for the game.
And if anyone starts spouting off about INCREASING the price of Magic (which is hard to imagine, isn’t it?), shoot those people too. Profit can’t be pushed too far. Right now Magic is just barely an Everyman hobby, not a hobby for the rich. Let the wealthy sail, or do whatever they do.
Clearly I’ve missed all sorts of subtleties in the debate. For example, I arely touched on Magic’s collectible nature, which is also part of the Master Plan. I could keep going, but this treatise is already long enough methinks.
So for now, rest easy. Folks like me aren’t taking over the world, even a little. As long people keep promoting a Magic that is fun for the widest population possible, the game will continue to flourish.
Now go out and qualify! I’ll be sitting right here, tinkering with my Meddling Mage deck. The first February E-League tourney is just around the corner, after all. Mwoo ha ha.
"doctorjay" on IRC and Magic Encyclopedia