Chatter of the Squirrel – Acquisition

Read Zac Hill every week... at StarCityGames.com!Wednesday, March 5th – Mark Rosewater just wrote an article explaining the process of “acquisition,” of expanding Magic’s player base and reaching out to people who have never heard of the game. We, the players, are essential to that process. This article will talk about some of the ways we can help out Wizards, and, by virtue of that, help ourselves.

Acquisition, he called it.

I wanted to talk today about the process of bannings and restrictions, what they do, why Wizards does it, and how we can figure out whether something ought to be banned or not. But, err…

… I won the Luce Fellowship!

… or, more properly, the Henry T. Luce (as in, “the founder of Time Magazine and its requisite Empire”) Scholarship for Study in Asia. One of eighteen in America, kthxboys!

That was said in the Cedric Phillips voice.

I’m ecstatic. A full year’s employment in my professional field, gobs of money, tons of travel, nigh-infinite networking. Six weeks of language training in Madison, WI beforehand – sup, Sully! – and, with any luck, access to the cross-Pacific Magic clique once I’m entrenched. But more to the point of this article, I won one of America’s most prestigious nationwide scholarships by talking about Magic the entire time.

Okay, Magic wasn’t my first order of business. We had obligatory academics, employment history, essays, plans of study, and where-do-I-see-myself-in-ten-years discussions. We had “describe yourself with five adjectives” awkward interview questions, strengths-and-weakness evaluations, and even a foray into comparative literature. But over the entire two-day interview gauntlet, every single interviewer asked me not one, but several questions about Magic: what it was, how I found out about it, how has it impacted my life.

It often crept into my answers, unheralded and unannounced. “Are you prepared to be dropped into a country and left to fend for yourself?” Yes, because of Magic. “What makes you think you’ll be able to form social networks in places where you haven’t met a single soul?” People I’ve met through Magic. “Do you feel like you can compete with the best and brightest scholars in the world?” Yes, because I’ve competed with the best in the world at a game called Magic, and lived to tell the tale. It seemed like every question begged an answer that had to do with Magic, and the more I talked about the game, the more my interviewers – fiftysomethings and sixtysomethings, foremost professionals in their field, Harvard Business School professors and foreign ambassadors and presidents of learned societies – wanted to know more.

As alluded to earlier, Mark Rosewater just wrote an article explaining the process of “acquisition,” of expanding Magic’s player base and reaching out to people who have never heard of the game. He talked about how to teach new players, sell more packs, contribute to Magic’s growth in the long-term. Many of Wizards’ present policies seem to be geared at broadening that base. Retention, says Rosewater, has pretty much been figured out. It’s not perfect, sure, but R&D knows how to deliver fun, interesting sets that keep people engaged year in and year out. I’d tend to agree with that assessment. The process of re-acquisition, too, is inherently tied to the quality of the product. Players who know how Magic works already will be lured by sets that are more fun to play. For that all-important acquisition phase, though, what matters most is image. We, the players, are essential to that phase. This article will talk about some of the ways we can take advantage of that – ways we can help out Wizards, and, by virtue of that, help ourselves.

The reason I want to address this issue is because I am terrible at teaching Magic to new players. A good friend of mine, Kevin McCormack, picked up the game after seeing Steven Strasberg and I sling cards to pass the time on Mock Trial trips. He figured out how to play by virtue of Magic Online, however, and there are only so many situations one can engineer whereby people actually watch matches of Magic being played. Sure, if you know gamers, you can teach them how to play Magic inside a general gaming atmosphere, but again that is a very small section of the population that you have access to. The point is that the situations where you can sit down with a deck of cards and teach people how to play Magic are very limited compared to the number of opportunities to have to make Magic interesting. I think effective brand management by the players could sell infinitely more packs than linear one-on-one teaching sessions.

Beyond that stage, even, lies the goal of communicating to people that Magic exists in the first place. Nevertheless, in my experience, doing so has not only been possible, it’s been easy!

Ask yourself: how many of your close friends know that you’re a Magic player? I pose the question because for me, the answer approaches “every single one of them,” and yet I meet people who act like coming out for Friday Night Magic is akin to scuttling through the front door of a crack house. “I’m just… uh… hanging out with some friends,” they’ll say when they get a call in the middle of a round. And I understand that some people will come to flash judgments about you because of their own preconceptions of what Magic is as a game, but those preconceptions are reinforced by people’s awkward avoidance of the subject. If you act like you’re ashamed of something, people think there’s a reason for you to be ashamed.

Even a cursory glance at the tangible benefits of a single Pro Tour trip shows that’s simply not the case. I’ve gotten more mileage out of that Batu Caves CD than I ever thought possible. Watching Alpha Monkey chasing Small Asian Girl away from Alpha Monkey’s cute little babies is enough material for hours worth of story time. A single snapshot of Cheeks sipping coconut juice out of a freshly-hatcheted fruit is a treasure trove of untapped potential. And sure, that trip was one-of-a-kind. But the flower clock in Geneva outside the Rolex factory was the background on my cell phone for almost a year, and bam, that’s a conversation right there.

I’ve always thought that a great slogan for Magic would simply be, “The Original Trading Card Game.” Reason being half of the questions I get about Magic open with “is that sorta like Pokemon?” This implies that the game we have loved for the last fifteen years is somehow an imitator of cuddly Japanese battling furballs. Yet people will sit there and agree to that comparison like it’s accurate, with the twentysomethings in the area hanging their head in despair as the curious onlooker and would-be intrigued customer answers with a befuddled, “… oh.” I know this situation happens because I do most of my playtesting in the back corner of an International House of Pancakes, and at least once a session someone drops by to ask what kind of cards we’re playing. Saying Magic is like Pokemon is like saying Frank Miller and Dr. Seuss are similar authors because both of their works feature a combination of words and pictures. I don’t think so. Magic is a sophisticated battle of wits that tempers an enormous potential for luck with enormous room for skill. There is no reason it cannot become legitimized like either poker or chess. I understand that there are differences in payouts and differences – huge differences – in the amount of startup material required. My best counter-analogy involves ice hockey, of all things.

Ice hockey, to me, seems like a relic from a parallel universe that God accidentally left in his draft for Earth because of a glitch in his Microsoft Outlook (or something). Most other popular sports you’ve got a ball, some rudimentary goals, and an easily-defined objective. Even American Football emerged out of a system of rubgies that grew more and more complex as the leagues grew larger and larger. Then you’ve got ice hockey. It’s an enormously popular sport, yet it can only be played “naturally” in one region of the world during one season of the year. Even then, you need a veritable arsenal of equipment, awkwardly-acclimated subsets of agility and athleticism that aren’t really honed across any other avenue of life, a set of arcane rules and penalties not limited to a three-period game, uneven distribution of players on the field, more or less sanctioned (and incredibly awkward) fighting, and a device known as a “puck.” Out of that daunting set of startup costs, though, has grown an immensely popular sport.

Magic is a game, sure, and I understand that. But so is chess, and I would wager that more people play chess than have ever played ice hockey. Chess, while possessing a certain stigma to be sure, has garnered a level of mainstream acceptability that I believe is within Magic’s grasp. Image, again, and a willingness to project that image, is the key. Your average Magic player is not exactly photogenic, but then again neither is your average poker player. Yet legions of people routinely watch poker on television without having the slightest of ideas about what is actually taking place. The stakes are high, but I tell people that I can win $40,000 at a Pro Tour and that number is large enough to make eyes roll back in their sockets. Millions are romantic, I’ll grant you, but numbers in the tens of thousands are large enough to elicit a response.

That’s only going to happen, though, if people hear about the game. It’s up to us, the players, to do that. Whenever I go to a Pro Tour I’ve got my friends huddled around computer screens – okay, well, maybe not huddled, but certainly checking the coverage once or twice a day – to see whether I’ve soared, crashed, or burned. My Magic Show guest spots have earned me e-mails from people I haven’t talked to in years. My mother, of all people, will sit down at dinner with her friends and tell them to check up on her baby.

Here is a secret. It’s done me a whole lot of good over the years, and I hate to let it go, but here it is: Your friends like you. They want to see you do well. We all like to be affiliated with some degree of success, some degree of ability, something cool and slightly out of the ordinary through which we can vicariously experience the superlative. I am positive that for every person reading this article, someone somewhere thinks it’s awesome that you can win some tournament, be flown to Hollywood (or Japan or Hawaii or Prague or Germany), and have a chance at winning for what most people is a year’s worth of pay – all for playing a game! Embrace that.

Wizards measures their bottom line by how many packs of cards they can sell at the end of a given fiscal year. This new push toward acquisition reflects that, and to be sure, selling packs is what’s most important. But most advertising pushes for a secondary goal in addition to the immediate sales of a product – a goal that conveys more ephemeral and yet simultaneously more bountiful benefits. When we think of Coke, we think of much more than just a drink. When we think McDonald’s, what springs to mind isn’t a loose restaurant with mediocre food. The idea of Coke is one of ubiquity, of omnipresence, of a brand synonymous with and necessary for the parlaying of American culture. When we, as the players, drive the idea of Magic out of the realm of mother’s basements and messy hobby halls and into the periphery – the niche market, the legitimate subcommunity – of the American mainstream, we will have created a self-sustaining entertainment presence that, in the long run, will be better for us all. Magic will never occupy a central presence in the collective teen-and-twentysomething universal experience, but I do envision it rising to the level of most electronic gaming. Everyone has heard of the Xbox 360, even if they don’t own one, and I would wager that many of the titles have become at least to some degree household names. Certainly figures from “classic” gaming have. But given enough time and effort – and the right marketing strategies – I’m confident that Mishra and Urza can become every bit as popular of a pair of brothers as Mario and Luigi.

Until next time…