Casual Fridays #43: To Infinity And Beyond!

EDITOR’S NOTE TO THE READER: Two days ago – about the time I was expecting Anthony’s regular installment of Casual Fridays – I received the following submission my mailbox. Its unusual content, and the date in the header, spurred me to additional research. While the evidence is inconclusive at this point, we believe that this…

EDITOR’S NOTE TO THE READER: Two days ago – about the time I was expecting Anthony’s regular installment of Casual Fridays – I received the following submission my mailbox. Its unusual content, and the date in the header, spurred me to additional research. While the evidence is inconclusive at this point, we believe that this email may have accidentally come from THE FUTURE – a future where (hearteningly) StarCityCCG.com still exists and (more disturbingly) so does Casual Fridays.

I have tried to contact his present-day counterpart to confirm or deny our hypothesis, but all emails are being auto-returned with the message: "I can’t reply to your email right now. I’m busy traveling to the year 2007 to see how things work out for me, my family and friends, and of course, Magic. When I return, moments after I have left, I will make nonsense of this auto-reply feature and simply reply normally. Thank you for your patience."

So that you can draw your own conclusions, I have included the entire email, including Anthony’s comments to us.

take care.

Omeed Dariani.

The submission we received follows…

From: Anthony Alongi [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: Wednesday, November 28, 2007 10:04am
To: Pete Hoefling, Omeed Dariani
Subject: #433

Omeed and Pete (and little Omeed Jr. and little Pete Jr.),

Here’s #433. I’ll tell you, it was hard to complete because the Jetsons kept coming over and interrupting with their fascinating Jupiter-visitation stories; but it’s finally done, and on deadline. I think that’s a first!

I don’t know if I’ll have an article for next week; I’m going up to Alaska if the political turmoil settles down. Who would have guessed Canada would threaten to invade so soon? Darn Canadians.

Are you guys going to the Grand Prix in Tehran next month? I don’t think my schedule will permit it — plus, I think it was really stupid for Wizards and DCI to schedule an event there, since the country’s institutions have been dominated by an ultra-conservative, anti-democratic religious order since 1979. Some things never change, eh?

One last order of business, before I take off for the Thanksgiving weekend. You inquired in your last email if I would perhaps write up a short tribute to Jamie Wakefield and his contributions to Magic. I must politely demur this time around, since the man has joined and left Magic no less than 25 times in the last eight years. It’s certainly his right to do so, and as always I wish him well, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend three columns a year thinking up new things to put in his pseudo-obituary. I know you’re disappointed, but stick around; we’ll have another chance in four months, give or take a few weeks.

Take care,
Anthony Alongi


I don’t write much normally about Wizards of the Coast and their strategies. While much of my 20-year career has been spent essentially as an analyst — of politics, of partnerships, of business, and all sorts of things — I’ve restrained myself from looking too deeply at the company that feeds my most expensive habit.

But lo, I can keep quiet no more. WotC (as you all know, a division of Hasbro, which is a division of Disney, which in turn is a division of Time/Warner, which is finally a division of Cisco/Microsoft/Intel/GE/anthonyscoolideas.com) has done so many glorious things of late, has taken so many correct steps to preserve and improve the game of Magic that I must speak.

Actually, it came up in our group last week. Pete, Carl, Theo, Dave, and I were sitting around our weekly game of Magic and the conversation went something like this…

"Dave, I’ll attack you with the Yotian Sky Commander."

Dave picked up the card and admired it. "It is so cool that they reprinted Serra Angel this way. They even came up with better artwork, which I thought would be impossible. But that’s R.K. Ferguson for you. Anyhow, I’ll block with my Sengir Vampire… er, my Sadistic Specter."

"All right, both will hit the graveyard, then?"


At that point my 12-year-old daughter, Carol, sidled up to me. "Hi Dad. Heather and Andrew and I are going to the four-dimensional movies. Can I have 300 bucks?" She squinted at the table and wrinkled her nose. "Are you still playing this game? Isn’t it, like, really old?"

"It’s been around a while," I agreed, "but I’d hardly call it old. In fact, with the changes Wizards made over the last seven years, Magic is a whole new kind of game now, Carol."

Carol, being the fully self-actualized, mindful, and parent-loving 12-year-old that is so common here in the year 2007, brightened up as she prepared for my lecture to continue.

"You see, Carol," I continued, "in late 2000, Wizards conducted a thorough assessment of the state of Magic. Tired of depending upon random comments from Internet chat groups and columnists for their market research, they cast their net pretty wide in a poll and survey effort of as many Magic players and distributors as they could. They used DCI registrations, web-based polling, and even focus groups at local stores to get at what all sorts of different customers thought about their product. They didn’t guarantee any changes beforehand — they were being smart businesspeople, not toadies to the latest net opinions — but they did demonstrate a willingness to implement a series of realistic changes, gradually."

"Wow," my daughter’s eyes shined. "Tell me more, Father!"

"You betcha. They found out three things, primarily. First, they confirmed their suspicions that casual and occasional players constituted a market for Magic that was philosophically, and even somewhat demographically, different from the Pro-Tour (or Pro-Tour-seeking) crowd. Nobody was really surprised by this, but doing the depth of research they did on who these people actually were allowed them to make additional discoveries.

"The second thing they saw was that casual players played Magic for longer and burned out far less often than those involved in the tournament scene. There were several reasons for this, but it essentially boiled down to the fact that emerging tourney players tend to be high-school or college-aged and in a time of great personal and professional flux in their life. Coming into and leaving the world of Magic was natural for them. They screamed and whined about the game and how it changed to much for them, but in reality they were changing far more than the game was. Ah, youth.

"A large contingent of casual players, however, were older. Really old. Like my friends here. They used the game not unlike a poker evening: a chance to get together with friends on a regular basis and just connect around something entertaining. This block of players was a potential gold mine for them — the demographics showed more wealth available, and stronger loyalty to a given brand product. Game changes, if gradual and sensible, were no big deal to them, and didn’t overshadow their underlying desire to play an evolving game for years, week in and week out."

"Of course," Pete cut in, "Wizards wasn’t stupid. They guessed that this might be true beforehand. But it was nice to have the research — "

"Quiet," I snapped. "Don’t interrupt. Anyway, Carol, the third thing that Wizards found out was that the tournament block of customers were at least equally important, since they generated most of the interest and infrastructure for the strategy aspects of the game. A bit like chess or basketball, luminaries like Kasparov or Bird would outline new moves and possibilities. These ideas would be tested under the most competitive of situations. That’s about half of the primary market right there — people buying boxes and tournament packs to build and practice constructed and limited decks. Even casual players get in on some of that action. But the rest of the market was simply the casual players, of all ages, going in for packs, boxes, and so on. These casual players had great admiration for the time and energy that the tourney players put into thinking through and performing innovative maneuvers. They’d try out the gambits Kasparov employed, or practice Bird’s jump shot, but they never expected to rival them, unless they were young and just learning."

"What about collectors, like me?" Theo asked. "You haven’t talked about collectors."

"Hush. Nobody cares about collectors. Yeah, sure, you’re all part of the market too; but most of you are playing as well, either casually or competitively. Making changes just for collectors — like foil cards — has very little impact on the market for play, if done right; so Wizards wasn’t looking at those aspects. Now will you guys please stop interrupting!"

All four of my friends jumped on me at once: "We’re all still waiting for you to finish your turn!"

"Oh. Sorry. Um, gee, guess I got nothing else, go ahead Carl. So Carol, this research led them to do several things over the next few years…"

"Carol, are you coming or not?" Carol’s friends Heather and Bruce poked their heads into the kitchen. "We’re all ready to go to the movies."

"Just a SEC!" Carol told them off harshly. "My dad’s talking!"

"Hi, Heather. Hi, Andrew. Pull up a couple of chairs. We’re talking about Magic."

"Magic? Awww-right!" The two pre-teens quickly found chairs and huddled with my daughter in a highly attentive semi-circle around me.

"Great. So like I said they did five very important things. They didn’t do them all right away, and none of them were that earth-shattering, but collectively they assured the bright future of Magic that we currently enjoy."

"I know the first one," chirped Heather. "They did a special edition release of the most popular cards!"

"Actually, Heather, they did two," I corrected. "They had already done one called Anthologies, which was great, but too narrow in scope. Reflections came out a few years later, and was a full expansion set of 143 cards that, in addition to some new cards for balance, included real or indirect reprints of 15 rares, 15 uncommons, and 15 commons. These 45 cards were among the most popular cards that ever graced the Magic scene.

"Didn’t the rerelease of some of those cards anger collectors?" Carol asked.

"Excellent question. For those cards with clear collectible value but questionable value in constructed tournaments, like Serra Angel and Sengir Vampire (and yes, they are less tourney-practical in most 21st-century environments, don’t argue with your father), they made the same card under a different name. For those cards that were likely to be used in tournament decks, they went ahead and kept the name. People agreed that it was better not to give the black mage the potential for eight Phyrexian Negators, or the blue mage eight Stasis. Wizards even considered making the reprints "super-rares", like foils, that would only show up every once in a great while, to make the collectors happy. Then they remembered that Magic is a collectible card GAME, and so they kept the normal frequency (and their usual foil policy).

"Not easy to pull off, and the non-reprint cards in the set weren’t that great — you have to give somewhere — but it was invaluable in bringing back some lost players and steadying the faith of some who were thinking of ditching because they felt Wizards had little appreciation of its own history. It was a solid effort that allowed Wizards to celebrate the best of fast blocks like Rath, and slow blocks like Masques, and even a couple of Legends, without including the largest mistakes like Memory Jar. People didn’t care that the packs cost nearly 50% more than most expansions."

"What else did they do, Mr. Alongi?" Andrew asked.

"Get your hand off my daughter’s shoulder, Andrew. Thank you. Another thing Wizards did was listen to Michael Granaas, and began a full-fledged tournament scene geared toward less expert players. Type II was a nice gesture but, over time, fruitless since it still shut out those of limited means. Friday Night Magic was a nice move in the right direction as well. When they published a Seventh Edition set that was actually draftable, it was possible for local stores to hold events on Friday and every other night that appealed even more strongly to younger and more casual players."

"Didn’t you say earlier that most casual players were older, not younger, players?" Carl sneered.

"What are you, the logic police? I didn’t say MOST casual players were, though it wouldn’t have surprised me if they were. I said a large contingent was. That contingent, being older and theoretically more experienced in strategy games, was able to keep pace with conventional ("expert") tourney formats when they wanted to. But the intermediate-level events allowed young casual players, who often just caught up with what was good in one set before it was phased out, the opportunity to develop skills and knowledge around a set of draftable cards for a long time. Wizards did two things right with this: they made young casual players happy and more involved; and they grew their future Pro Tour set.

"The third change Wizards, along with the DCI, made had much the same goal: tying together the casual and pro environments a bit more tightly, so that casual players got better at the game and pro players had more fun. The DCI began certifying a set of events built around one or two very carefully selected multiplayer formats. Basic team (two players per side) and Emperor (three players per side), I believe. They published a set of rulings around each format, since that hadn’t really been done before, and actually gave out rankings points and prizes to players (or teams) that could do it well. Not many cards needed to be banned for the formats — Wizards had been paying at least moderate attention to multiplayer design impact since Mirage block — but there was a list, of course. Thank goodness Congregate was on it — not because it was too powerful, but because it was just damn annoying.

"They even explored the potential for limited multiplayer formats, where Emperor teams would draft or build sealed decks. But they decided that careful expansion of innovations was more important than unbridled enthusiasm.

"The fourth change Wizards made was the easiest, because they had a headstart in the Masques block. They paid extra careful attention in each set, with every card, as to how that card would work in (a) a constructed duel deck, (b) a limited duel deck, and (c) a constructed multiplayer deck. As a result, they kept most segments of their market happy."

I paused for dramatic effect. All three children leaned in close in anticipation.

"The last thing Wizards did," I said, "was send four free boxes of each expansion to every regular columnist on the Internet."

The kids gasped in admiration.

"I see you grasp the sheer genius of the strategy," I offered, "so I won’t bore you with the reasoning behind that action. I’m sure any intelligent 21st-century adult can see how a small investment in product can reap amazing rewards to a business. Ah, what we know in 2007 that we just didn’t in 2000. If only Wizards had done all of these things earlier! But especially that free product deal at the end, there.

I pulled six 50-dollar coins out of my pocket and handed them to Carol. "Now, I believe you have a movie to catch. Have fun, and Andrew…"

He caught my glance at the plasma gun rack in the living room, and nodded. "I’ll have her home early, Mr. Alongi."

"There’s a good boy."

COMING NEXT WEEK: Zero-gravity Magic, and the winners of "Break this Card: Oath of Mages: Mission Still Incomplete!"

Anthony Alongi