Following Suit: Are Wizards the Good Guys?

People love rumor season. Why is Wizards doing this to its loyal customers? Why is it attempting to destroy a tremendous source of hype and excitement about upcoming sets? Why is it punishing someone who’s worked tirelessly to promote its products?

Why can’t I convince myself that this lawsuit is a bad thing?

Last Thursday, Wizards of the Coast announced in a press release that it is suing Daron Rutter, better known as Rancored_Elf, an administrator at MTGSalvation.com. According to the press release, Wizards’ suit alleges that Rutter “intentionally and repeatedly posted on the site Wizards’ proprietary information he unlawfully obtained.” The suit also implicates ten unknown individuals who allegedly provided Rutter with this information.

You probably already knew all that, but I’m covering my bases. Let’s talk about it.

I’ve heard the announcement called “an outrage,” a “disappointment,” an “absolute f***in’ joke.” I’ve read posts by people (mostly on MTGSalvation.com) saying that they were quitting Magic, boycotting Guildpact, writing angry letters, contributing to Rutter’s defense fund, and even (in France, naturally) staging protests. Banners sprang up almost immediately on MTGSalvation.com reading “R_E: Not Guilty!” or “I *heart* Leaks.”

People love rumor season, and they love Rancored_Elf. Why is Wizards doing this to its loyal customers? Why is it attempting to destroy a tremendous source of hype and excitement about upcoming sets? Why is it punishing someone who’s worked tirelessly to promote its products?

Why can’t I convince myself that this lawsuit is a bad thing?

Wizards is doing this because they have the right, and because they think it’s the right thing to do for the game and, yes, for their bottom line. They’re doing this to defend their intellectual property and to figure out where these leaks are coming from.

It seems like there have been a number of serious misunderstandings among the Internet Magic community about this lawsuit, and I hope I can clear them up a little. First of all, what isn’t this about?

It isn’t about shutting down MTGSalvation.com or its Rumor Mill. If Wizards wanted to shut down the Rumor Mill, they could have sent out a cease-and-desist order any time.

It isn’t about punishing R_E. I seriously doubt that anyone at Wizards really expects to take R_E to court. If they did, I have absolutely no idea if they would win (not a lawyer, folks), but as this is a civil suit, I have no idea what they would win or why it would help them. Again, if the goal were to stop the Rumor Mill, a cease-and-desist order would have been the first step.

It isn’t about money in any immediate sense. Wizards will not make money on this. Nor do they likely lose money on leaks in the short run. They said it themselves in the press release: they’re doing it to protect their brand identity, which is certainly about money — but only indirectly.

It isn’t about run-of-the-mill leaks. At a certain point in the process, the cards leave Wizards’ headquarters, and at that point, they inevitably become available, at least to someone. If somebody cracks packs three weeks early and uploads the scans to MTGSalvation.com, it’s technically against the retailer’s agreement with Wizards, but realistically there’s very little that can be done about it. Now, I’ll admit that it’s possible that Wizards is trying to crack down on this as well, to which I say: Good luck.

With all that out of the way, what is this about?

It’s about protecting Magic’s brand identity. Wizards feels that it has a right to control how and when people get information about a product before its release. In many types of business, the acquisition and display of specifications before release would be considered industrial espionage (though please note that I’m not suggesting it be considered as such in this case).

It’s about the health of the game. Call me crazy, but I believe that the owner of the longest-running CCG in existence may have learned a few things about how to keep one running. They must feel that the leaks in question do enough long-term harm to Magic — as a game and as a product — to warrant what could obviously be a public relations disaster. This isn’t a snap decision on their part, nor is it emotional. This is part of an overall strategy for managing their business — which, again, I’m assuming they’ve gotten pretty good at.

It’s about serious leaks. A week or two ago, R_E posted information he had received concerning the contents of Dissension, which won’t be released until April. A few months ago, he posted scans of what appeared to be playtest cards from the first set of the next block, codenamed “Snap,” and not scheduled for release until October. Leaks like these couldn’t come from outside the company. They indicate violations of nondisclosure agreements by outside playtesters or people within the company, and they’re happening earlier, more frequently, and on a larger scale than they have in the past. This answers the question that many are asking: “Why now?”

It’s about rooting out the people providing the leaks. Even if R_E himself has done something illegal (I am hazy on the legal situation here), Wizards must perforce consider him small fry when compared to the unknown people violating their NDAs and doling out the info. Wizards wants those people out of their employ immediately, and probably brought to court; R_E is their best way of getting to the leaks.

There is one more misconception I think it’s vital to clear up. A lot of people on the forums who are upset about this seem to think that they are in the majority. Reading the forums, it’s plain as day that at least nine out of every ten Magic players are up in arms about this. Besides, everyone you know who plays Magic thinks it’s insane.

The fact is that the majority of Magic players do not care. They don’t read spoilers, they don’t go to tournaments (except the occasional prerelease), they don’t know about the lawsuit, and they wouldn’t care if they did. A lot of them, as far as I know, actively dislike spoilers because they give “serious” players an edge at the prerelease. They are the silent majority, and reading Magic websites is an easy way to forget that they exist. Wizards’ market research listens to them, though, which explains why the company sometimes does things that seem to piss everybody off. That everybody excludes a huge swarm of casual Magic players who spend a lot of money, in bits and pieces. Even if every single member of MTGSalvation.com quit playing Magic for good over this — that’s a hair under 10,000 people — Wizards wouldn’t care.

I feel that Wizards has the right to control public information regarding its products. I feel, further, that early leaks are bad for the game and can easily do as much to dampen enthusiasm about an upcoming set as to hype it. Look at Guildpact, for instance. Wreak Havoc and Giant Solifuge were both originally spoiled as significantly better than they turned out to be. Although their actual costs and abilities still make them pretty strong, the fact that they appeared to get weaker turned a lot of people off to Guildpact, spawning a passel of “disappointed with Guildpact” threads and the like. Seeing the least-exciting Nephilim first turned everyone off to the whole cycle, and while reception for them would probably never have been stellar, this didn’t help any.

Meanwhile, the spoiled playtest cards, real or not, are shaping people’s expectations and opinions about a set that doesn’t come out for 8 months. Whatever excitement people feel now will easily be overcome by later revelations, but if they don’t like the apparent theme or these particular three cards, they may dismiss the entire set now and never really give it another chance. Negative impressions seem to stick better.

You may already see several flaws in my arguments. How can I maintain that the majority of players don’t read spoilers, yet claim that negative impressions caused by those spoilers harm the game? If every forum member on MTGSalvation.com could quit Magic without Wizards batting an eye, what does it matter if those members don’t like the set?

If the potential positive and negative effects of early leaks are at least equal (I feel that they are), then the size of the community they impact hardly matters. I feel that those 10,000 people (plus the countless thousands who read the spoilers on MTGSalvation.com but do not post, who probably constitute a majority of “serious” players) are less likely to buy new cards if they happen to be disappointed, less likely to go to the prerelease if they know the contents of the set, and more likely to badmouth the set publicly if they dislike it than to praise it if they like it. Magic players are a critical lot.

On top of that, you have to consider the people who are driven away from prereleases, or discouraged by their performance there, because they dislike spoilers and refuse to read them. Widespread availability of spoilers creates an environment in which people who don’t read those spoilers are at a serious disadvantage, and contrary to the beliefs of many serious-minded players, there are far more reasons than laziness or stupidity to stay unspoiled.

I am, of course, being a bit hypocritical here. I read the spoilers on MTGSalvation.com, as I read the ones on MTGNews.com before it. I did manage to stay unspoiled for Champions, but then I didn’t get to go to the prerelease. Although there is no room for a moral position which would allow me to dislike spoilers but read them anyway (at least, not a moral position I could respect), I offer two points in my defense.

Firstly, there’s the aforementioned disadvantage. This is not a big deal to me, and in fact I plan on going to the “Snap” prerelease knowing as little as possible about the set.

Second, and much more significantly, I have terrible impulse control. Design is my favorite aspect of Magic, which means that new sets are even more exciting to me than to others. I am fascinated specifically by the new directions they take the cards, the implications for Magic design as a whole, the weird little rules tweaks they make, and the themes and mechanics playing out across sets and blocks. Once I’ve read a card, or even a mechanic, a lot of the excitement is over. I have found that I consistently enjoy cards more when I see them in person or in official previews (complete with art, flavor text, final wordings, etc.), and I absolutely hate it when the spoiler is done a month in advance, as it was for Ravnica, and my prerelease experience consists largely of, “Oh yeah, that card.” All that, and I can never seem to stop myself from heading to the spoiler during rumor season. I’m just too eager to see those new cards, and I usually regret it later. It is an impulse, a habit, and I always feel simultaneously guilty and excited about it.

Actually, it’s a lot like pornography. I don’t approve of it, I don’t think it’s good for society, I wouldn’t participate in creating or distributing it, and yet… well, you get the picture. The difference, of course, is that a free society must allow pornography as a form of expression (even as it controls access to it), whereas the Magic community is — and this may come as a shock to you — not, in fact, a free society.

Magic players form a community of consumers. We’re more like Mac users than we are like McDonald’s customers, forming to a greater or lesser degree a bond with the brand identity of the product, but we remain, at heart, consumers. Magic is the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast; we pay them for the privilege of using it. They, meanwhile, cook up schemes like Limited and set rotation to get us to spend more, which I’m fine with because I like what they do for the game.

Further, we have to consider that our spending money on Magic is not without its rewards. When it comes from buying more cards (as opposed to the price of cards going up), it means we have more cards, and regardless of the form it takes, it means Magic stays profitable and Wizards can keep making it. This is, as Martha Stewart would say, a Good Thing. Even the secondary market ultimately drives sales, as all those power rares had to come out of a pack at some point.

We are lucky (or smart) enough to have aligned ourselves with a company that is amazing at public relations. They take the time to post weekly columns by the people involved in making it to explain the choices they made and provide behind-the-scenes info, and I can’t name another company that does that. They release images of all of their cards as public information. They conduct market research, they host forums, they post their email addresses, they read other websites; their ears are open to the demands of the Magic community as a whole, and they actually listen. They’re also willing to own up to and fix their genuine mistakes (as distinct from choices they made that many of us disagree with, such as printing One With Nothing). When people complained that it was too hard to distinguish between white cards and artifacts in the new card face, they changed it at the earliest possible convenience. When the dominance of Raffinity was driving people away from Standard, they banned the core of the deck.

In short, we are dealing with a company that is extremely, even unusually, open with its customers and receptive to their complaints. We get used to their openness, and so it surprises us when they act like a company. The fact of the matter is that, while Wizards obviously owes its success to its player base as a whole, it doesn’t owe anything to you or me personally. If we like the sets, we can keep buying them. If not, there’s nothing compelling us to. It’s clearly in Wizards best interest to keep pleasing the players, but it also must occasionally take other actions that are in its best interest, even when its decisions displease the player base (or, as in this case, parts of it).

Further, it’s once again vital to bear in mind that you, me, and everyone we know constitute but a tiny portion of Magic players. When Wizards makes a card, or even an entire set, that we have no use for, it’s important to remember that somebody else does. Somebody else cracked open Light of Sanction and thought, “Wow! Combo with Hammerfist Giant!” Somebody else pulled Myojin of Life’s Web and though, “Man, Jimmy’s not gonna believe it when I slap this thing down!” Wizards is trying to appeal to innumerable play styles and preferences, and inevitably they’re going to make somebody mad.

When they sue a popular website administrator, they’re going to make a lot of somebodies mad. Even then, however, those somebodies are only the most vocal, not the most numerous. If doing this were truly screwing Wizards over, they wouldn’t do it unless they vastly misjudged their situation — and I’ll believe that when I see it.

I hope that Rancored_Elf gets out of this okay, although he’s in a bad spot. Either he refuses to name names and goes to court (or more likely takes some kind of harsh settlement, probably involving a cease-and-desist), or he gives as much information as he knows (and as little as he can get away with) about his sources, and ensures that future sources will be very, very nervous about contacting him. I wish him luck, and I’m sorry he’s in the middle of this. The only person actually named in the lawsuit is probably the least culpable, and that’s a shame.

At the same time, it’s my sincere hope that they take serious steps toward rooting out the leaks. Those people definitely did do something illegal (and, to my mind, immoral), and by doing so, they’ve harmed a game they should be working to protect. It doesn’t help anybody to know about “Snap” eight months in advance, and even if it did, it’s Wizards right to decide when and how that happens, not John Doe #3’s.

I’m not suggesting that there be no spoilers at all. As I said, spoilers in the last few weeks are probably inevitable, and I think they’re far less harmful than information well in advance, which is out of context and potentially inaccurate.

I think the best approach would be for Wizards to subsidize certain early leaks to build hype. This is basically what they do already with the early promo cards (such as Blind Hunter, for Guildpact), which they send out to stores but never publicly acknowledge. They could leak a few cool cards that don’t let slip too much about the set, releasing them quietly to interested websites. They could take the option of making such sites “official unofficial” preview sites, for people who would rather get their previews from somewhere at least a little less centrally controlled. Optionally, they could let such cards slip on the condition that the sites not reveal that they’re official, so that people get their taste of “illicit” previews in a way that’s still controlled by Wizards (who, again, I trust to control it to everyone’s advantage). For all we know, this is happening already. It would certainly have the option of allowing for leaks while heavily discouraging websites from posting non-subsidized ones. After all, they would know exactly what they’d doled out.

I suppose I must seem like a corporate pawn, spouting the party line. I’m a naturally trusting person. When a new set comes out, I generally like it. When Wizards makes an announcement, I generally believe it. My trust in them may seem naive, but if you still play Magic actively (i.e., spend money on it), then you must at least approve of one thing they’re doing. Peer pressure and habit are the only other reasons to keep buying, and they are also positions with no moral weight.

I feel that ultimately, this lawsuit will prove to be for the good of the game. It is the result of careful planning in pursuit of a rational goal. It is not as disastrous or as unthinking as it seems to be, nor is it an intentional “slap in the face.” Whatever the outcome, I support the right of this company — a company that has generally treated us fairly, openly, and respectfully — to defend its intellectual property.

Whether you agree with me or not, feel free to say so (respectfully, please) in the forums or via email. It’s a big issue that a lot of people feel strongly about, but ultimately I think it will change less than you might fear and help the game more than you might expect.

Tune in next time for an extremely serious set review.

Kelly Digges
kdigges at gmail dot com

P.S. Special thanks to my friend and co-worker Nina for proofreading this.