Chatter of the Squirrel – The Great Divide, or Why Gabe Walls is Good For You

Read Zac Hill every Wednesday... at StarCityGames.com!
While it may shock people to hear this, Wizards’ employees do not sit enraptured at the edges of their chairs paralyzed in sheer ecstasy at the thought of handing out company dollars to random people they’ve never met before. It’s not as if being good at a card game automatically entitles you to a plethora of $40,000 checks hand-delivered to your doorstep with a smile.

(An investigation into why you, kitchen-table magician, need the so-called “Pros”)

Magic only exists today because a very clever person dreamt up Organized Play. In an alternate universe without the Pro Tour, Magic cards gather dust in attic boxes while players agonize over their army composition for the forthcoming Dragon Dice World Championships.
Craig “Der Professor” Jones.

A lot of people seem not to believe this. Most of the casual players I know view the Pro Tour, and Pros more generally, as they would a sick, nagging mother-in-law that calls the house “just to check up” all the time. It exists, they tolerate it, but wouldn’t things be amazing if somehow it could just… go away?

Today I hope to convince you that’s a very, very bad idea.

I want to get a few things out of the way first, though. I am not trying to say that somehow Pros are all that matters, that the casual player is an unnecessary relic crippling the growth of the game with his nearsightedness (or whatever). Clearly, Magic as we know it lives and dies on the back of the casual player. They buy most of the boosters, they collect most of the cards, and ultimately they compose something like 90% of the player base if not more. My assertion is that the Pro is important – vital, even – but not that he is more important. The reason I choose not to concentrate on why the casual player is so crucial is that to do so would merely be to expound upon the obvious.

Second, I don’t mean to assert that every single casual player in the world wants to punch every Pro in the face. The divide between the two communities is blurry in the first place, and to quantify the unrest that exists between the two groups in any sort of meaningful way would be beyond the scope of what I’m trying to do. In the scope of things, I don’t really know that many “casual” players personally. The e-mails I receive, however, and the forum posts I read suggest a surprising discontent towards the Pro community, a weird perception that their goal in life is to suck every iota of fun out of Magic and transmogrify it into a festival of rules-lawyering and finger-pointing. Needless to say this isn’t the case, but you’d be surprised at how broadly that attitude seems to prevail. Often, a general distaste towards the tournament scene manifests itself in militancy, and people are left wondering why the Pro Tour needs to exist in the first place. If Magic is just a game, what’s the point of all the plane-trips, the playtesting, and the payouts? Are things really better off when every good deck must be lifted off the Internet either to be played or played against, and every up-and-coming drafter must compete against MTGO and its legions of 24/7 booster draft fanatics?

The short answer is, um, yes. Why, as you can imagine, is much trickier.

I’ll delve into the typical responses first before engaging in something that, I hope, will make you think a little harder.

I. Advertising, or, Cash Money Baby!

While it may shock people to hear this, Wizards’ employees do not sit enraptured at the edges of their chairs paralyzed in sheer ecstasy at the thought of handing out company dollars to random people they’ve never met before. It’s not as if being good at a card game automatically entitles you to a plethora of $40,000 checks hand-delivered to your doorstep with a smile. Yet, as has been mentioned to us before, the Pro Tour’s been around for, what, eleven and a half years now? That’s a lot of money. What’s the point?

Perhaps most importantly, the Pro Tour confirmed Magic’s legitimacy as a game. This was especially true when the whole concept of a “collectible card game” was in its infancy and people didn’t really know whether this new kind of animal was mostly skill-intensive or not. Yet it only took about two years for a repeat PT Champion to be crowned, proving once and for all that this was a game that rewarded ability, preparation, and hard work. Now, as a casual player, you may not be all that concerned with how skill-intensive the game truly is. But I remember back before I played competitively, it was still a great feeling to invent some sort of crazy combo deck that one-in-ten games managed to put together its engine and obliterate everybody at the table at once. For that feeling to matter, though, it’s got to be established that winning a game is real, that you’ve done something right.

Also, when you’re asking people to play Magic, you’re looking for a significant investment. Before people decide to be casual players, tournament players, or whatever, you’ve got to get them to the point of being simply players. Once you introduce the Game Proper, though, you’ve got to figure out how to sell more packs. I don’t know the official statistics, but I imagine the number one reason that people buy more cards is to build better and better (or at least more customizable) decks; if you were comfortable with what you had at the outset and simply enjoyed playing the game, you could buy a starter deck and be all set. But the Pro Tour opened up to me the possibility that you could do some really cool, really inventive things with a deck of Magic cards. When I saw the ’98 World Champs Survival deck, my jaw dropped. “Decks can do that??!” I immediately rushed to put together my own take on the deck, and bad as it was I really felt like I was doing something cool. But without an incentive to truly push boundaries, it’s doubtful that Magic as a game would have ever lived up to its full potential in terms of what its decks can do. We’d probably still be enamored with swinging Hill Giants at War Mammoths. There will be more on this idea later.

Then there’s the very real goal of using the Pro Tour to hook otherwise-uninterested players. I know I started playing seriously because Brian Davis won a bazillion dollars and I thought, “Man, I can do that!” Could I, at that point, wide-eyed thirteen-year-old that I was? No, of course not. But the great thing about Magic is that everybody’s got a chance; there’s just enough luck that I don’t find an impregnable wall separating me from people at the uppermost tier. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense, just imagine the gulf between Gary Kasparov and Donk Donkerson at chess, or Roger Federer and the rest of the world at tennis. In truth, there’s probably that big of a gap between early-2000s Kai and Joe Kitchen Table, but it doesn’t seem like there is. When I got hooked on Magic, I thought I could be the best there was, and I tried hard to do it. I know for a fact I wasn’t even close to the only one. Without the tournament scene, Magic was just a hobby, something I could do in between soccer matches and games of Tekken 3. When I heard about the Pro Tour, though, it became a very real part of my life.

Finally, there’s the sense that Magic (and Wizards more broadly) isn’t just a random niche hobby game but is something objectively important. Despite the ultimately errant venture that it was, I remember being completely floored when I first saw Magic on ESPN2. This game is on TV??! But it’s just a game – and this is before televised poker was commonplace. Monopoly isn’t televised. Neither is Scrabble, or L5R, or Vampire, or D&D, or Pogs, or whatever; this must be a big deal. It’s not just that players can win a bunch of money, it’s that Wizards is a company with its act together enough to hand out large sums of cash in places all around the world. “I want to check this game out, man; it’s not some kind of passing fad.” All of the sudden Wizards had those Orgg TV ads, and could send out genuinely newsworthy press releases at cities that hosted Pro Tours. “People are playing this game I’ve never heard of for several hundred thousand dollars? Man, I ought to check this out.” If you follow the coverage you find faces you can recognize, personalities that Wizards can market more or less aggressively, and an overall sense that Magic’s more than just the collection of cards you sling around with your friends when you’re bored. It makes Magic seem like a Big Deal. This is the goal of most advertising, and the Pro Tour is a comparatively cheap way to accomplish it.

II. “Hell Yes, I Play Cards”

The Pro Tour doesn’t merely legitimize Magic as a game; it legitimizes it as a social habit.

Dan Villamizar, a reader from Brookfield, Connecticut, mentioned in a letter last week that it was difficult as a high-schooler to buy Magic product. I don’t know the demographic breakdown, but I’m sure a huge portion of Magic’s constituency is middle-and-high-school kids who live with their parents. As such, it’s not like they have massive expendable incomes with which to buy cards. It’s hard to work construction for a summer at age thirteen so that you can finally afford those Damnations and Watery Graves to go in your U/B control deck. So inevitably you’ve got to ask the parents for cardboard crack money, and the conversation is inevitably awkward. Fortunately, the Pro Tour (and really the MSS) is a huge out. Imagine the following two scenarios:

“Mom, can I have twenty bucks.”


“I need this card for my Magic deck.”

“Is that that dumb game you play in the basement with the fat kid down the street that always eats my damn spaghetti?”

“This is awk. Yeah.”

“What does ‘awk’ mean?”

You get the idea.

That stands in stark contrast to the following (paraphrased) conversation, which is more or less the one I had with my mother at the end of eighth grade:

“Mom, can I have twenty bucks.”


“I need this card for my Magic deck.”

“Cool. I need that twenty dollars, along with the twenty dollars you asked me for last week, and the week before that, to put dinner on the table. How do you feel about starvation?”

“Starvation is pretty loose. But see, there’s this tournament this weekend down at the store, and if I win it they’ll give me a thousand-dollar scholarship – and a chance to win a whole lot more, like fifty grand, at this big tournament at Disney World. A friend of mine just won like $25,000 in Chicago, and he gave me a deck, so I’m pretty sure I can win it if I get a chance. If I win enough of these, we might be able to afford one of those really good colleges my teachers have talked about, and even if I don’t win but a couple thousand dollars it’ll still buy all my books. Could you let me go to a couple tournaments and see how I do?”

“Mise. Sure, here’s a Jackson. I’ll make fun if you if you lose.”

“Mom, you just said Mise. I love you.”

It doesn’t actually matter if you’re a “tournament player” or not; the point is that Magic’s capable of generating said amount of money, and that inherently adds value to the game itself. You can use it as the “door” to make the habit okay for the ‘rents. But if you’re not at the mercy of someone else’s coin-purse, you ask, what difference does it make?

The fact is, games like Magic possess a social stigma. I think that is stupid, but that’s the way it is. A lot of people are ashamed to admit to their friends that they play because there’s a very real backlash that can occur if you say that you spend infinite hours a day slinging cards with a bunch of similarly-aged men, many of whom sport moustaches. Now, there’s a very valid argument that you ought to do what you want to do, other people’s opinions be damned, and certainly that would describe how I conduct the vast majority of my daily activities. But, from Wizards’ standpoint, they’re standing to make a whole lot more customers if Magic is viewed as something tight, rather than something undesirable. From an individual perspective, it’s an easy way to pique people’s interest.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a plane, or whatever, and ran chats about what it means to be a Magic player. “They fly you where?” I’ve dodged a lot of, um, “witching” about my gaming habits at the expense of quality time with would-be significant others. “My ‘stupid game’ paid last month’s rent, sweetheart, and that vacation we took last year.” It doesn’t actually matter that I happen to be a Pro. Even as a casual player, Magic as a whole benefits from looking like something that is valuable in and of itself, that you’re participating in a hobby that has the potential for so much reward.

Finally, there is the fact that for a non-negligible number of people, the potential for a “Pro” lifestyle has made their lives far better. I know I can raise my hand in this category, and I really haven’t won all that much money. This writing job pays some bills and puts me in contact with a lot of awesome people. Magic lets me travel, furnishes minor expenses every once in awhile, helps resume-build, puts me in contact with people on every continent, and all sorts of other things that would have simply been impossible without the Pro Tour. I can only imagine, then, how it’s transformed the lives of people who are actually good at the game. Just because that group of people aren’t the majority doesn’t mean that somehow it’s not important to pay attention to their interests as people.

III. Everyone deserves the best game possible.

The first two sections of this article were more or less obvious. They’re the things Wizards points to when they need to explain the Pro Tour, and they’re not particularly difficult to infer on their own. Yet there’s another aspect to Pro-dom that I feel gets ignored, and that’s the fact that by pushing the game to its limits constantly and in a variety of ways, Magic becomes more well-designed as time passes by.

It’s sort of like a “stress-test.” Without this extremely able, extremely passionate group of people doing everything in their power to “break” a given format, Magic wouldn’t be at the forefront of innovation like it is today.

This concept is extremely difficult to explain, but I’m going to attempt to do so. Before I go further, though, I highly recommend the article that one of last week’s readers posted in the forums, available here.

The article tries to capture what it is that makes a truly great game, and why it’s important that in game design it’s taken as a given that players are trying to win. The central idea is that truly good games become more and more interesting as their players reach higher and higher levels of skill; that is, the game grows more deep and intricate. By contrast, poor games stagnate and/or reach a limit past a certain point of understanding. A good game would be, for example, Soul Calibur II, while a bad one would be Tic-Tac-Toe. Watching two competitive Soul Calibur players fight is like watching two angels dance*. Tic-Tac-Toe, on the other hand, is perhaps the easiest thing to break in the entire world. You “get it,” you always draw, etc.

The thing is, for Magic to be “good,” it’s got to be playtested to the point that the game constantly remains interesting. Magic’s designers always bear in mind that there exists this rabid group of people doing everything they can to make a ton of money by exploiting every possible loophole. If something’s just a smidgen too powerful, these people will figure it out. Thus they’re working equally hard to ensure that the game’s balanced. Some things still slip through the cracks, but by and large Wizards does a good job of this. At the same time, though, they’ve got to make cards powerful and interesting enough to tempt these tournament players and give them little hints as to things they can do to get an edge. It’s all a very delicate balance.

Imagine, then, that the Pro Tour never exists. There’s no desire to engage in active playtesting in-house because there isn’t this delicate balance of power within an environment to maintain, no pushing-the-boundaries-of-fairness model to achieve on the most well-designed cards. Cards aren’t created with an environment in mind, given goals to achieve and norms to uphold. What would happen is that inevitably a card’s going to be designed that’s too powerful, so powerful that even a casual community is going to realize how good it is. Think Tarmogoyf without a bunch of other insane decks out there that are capable of dealing with it. All of the sudden everybody plays this card. It’s omnipresent. It’s less fun. Games devolve into who draws more of their Goyfs, and it’s not like there is some sort of organized metagame that can respond to the needs of casual players everywhere. You can’t very well ban it, without sanctioned tournaments to support. What do you do in this situation? The company loses money, they issue a statement, or whatever, but the bottom line is that you get a much worse version of the Affinity debacle a couple of years ago.

I also imagine that the game would be a lot less interesting because there’d be a paranoia against creating this type of card, and more broadly boundary-pushing cards in general. Without the game being played at the highest level, there’d be no way for the designers to gauge whether they were creating a game that gets more and more complex the further people delve into it. As such, there’d be an upper limit to how “intriguing” – and I know this is difficult to define – the game could ever become.

Adam Prosak was going to ship me a bunch of games that failed because of a distinct lack of supported organized play, but unfortunately I haven’t heard from him in time. Nevertheless, I am sure this is the case, particularly since the loss of an organized-play curriculum signals a death knell for product sales. “Why is this game losing its funding? Oh, Upper Deck (or whomever) must not care about it. Maybe I ought not to care about it!”

You get the idea. Awesome. Pro Players are tight. Please don’t hate us, and definitely don’t hate on us. We’re good people, I swear; did you hear that story about Kenji just shipping his decklist to a random duder in the feature match area? Yes, sometimes we (I) can be condescending, but just because one person is an *sshole doesn’t mean that he’s emblematic of the entire community. Hell, a lot of Pros are really excited for Evan at the Invitational, even if they didn’t necessarily vote for him. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens.


* A valid simile, avid angel-watcher that I am.