How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?

David Williams just won 3.5 million dollars in the
World Series of Poker in one weekend. Before that, he’d won $40,000 total
over a successful four-year Magic career – which, if you do the math, means
he could have earned more working at a gas station. Given those cold hard
figures, why would any sane pro play Magic?

“So Did Your Boyfriend Bring You Here?”

If you don’t understand why David Williams’ multi-million-dollar finish in the World Series of Poker is going to affect Magic, let me relate a conversation I had one day with former pro Michelle Bush.

Michelle was hot back then*, since she had designed Trix – the truly unfair combination of Donate and Illusions of Grandeur, which sucked your life dry in an instant. The deck dominated the Extended season so thoroughly that it took two bannings and a rotation to kill the damned thing. She had come to Alaska, and I was driving her out to the edges of the wilderness to see the glaciers.

She was also furious at me. When she spoke to me, which was infrequently, her words were only slightly warmer than the iced roads we drove on.

One of the other things that Michelle was famous for was writing one of the greatest Magic rants of all time – Two X Chromosomes And A Whole Lotta Attitude. In this most excellent piece, she went off like a cannon on guys who patronized Magic-playing women, saying things like,” I know what you mean about hoping you don’t get beat down by a girl. I mean, what will I tell my friends if I get beat down by a moron?” and”I’ll make you a deal: I’ll tell you whether or not they’re real if you tell me when you signed up for the first silicone brain implant.”

So it was probably a bad idea to ask her if she had started playing Invasion Sealed because her boyfriend was into it.

See, she had mentioned at the time that she was just starting to get into Limited – and from my distinctly casual perspective, the only reason you’d ever play a format is if it was fun. My friend David introduced me to Standard play, which was why I played Type II on Friday nights now, and my pal Johnny had introduced me to Sealed. And so I assumed that likewise, Michelle’s boyfriend had played a few games of Invasion Sealed with her, and she had said,”Wow, this is fun! I need to play more of this!”

But to Michelle, it was a huge insult – because for her, the only reason someone would play a format was because there was money on the line.”Liking” a format had nothing to do with it. She was just getting into Limited because the Limited Pro Tours were right around the corner, and she had to put in the time if she wanted a money finish. None of her friends had anything to do with it.

Two different worlds, one glaring question. I couldn’t understand why she was so angry. And she was furious because I had edited “Two X Chromosomes.” As her editor, I should be the last person to call her a girly-girl.

But eventually, I asked why she was so angry, and we discovered what the problem was. She laughed at the misunderstanding, the ice cleared away at last, and I realized that Michelle – the Magic pro – had a very different take on Magic than a casual player.

To her, Magic was a lot of grunt work testing decks, figuring out matchups, treating every move as if it meant the game. Michelle never shrugged her shoulders and said,”Aw, hell, let’s see what happens” – she played every game for total victory. Every move got analyzed in a fashion that was mentally exhausting.

And she had to do it three or four times a week. That is, if she was going to make money at it.

I heard her dissatisfaction with it all, and I asked her a crucial question:”Do you like Magic?”

She thought a moment.

“I like the money,” she chuckled.”I like travelling around the world. And I love the fame. And the people are really great – it’s fun going to all the Pro Tours and hanging out with my old friends.

“But you know,” she said, looking vaguely disturbed as the thought formed in her mind,”I don’t think I like playing Magic.”

She quit the game soon after. But there are a lot of pros out there like Michelle; they work eight-hour days, playtesting furiously in order to be the best. Magic probably isn’t painful to play for a lot of the best players – Magic’s full of compulsive gamers who’ll play games of Werewolf and Puerto Rico as a change of pace – but daily, winner-take-all Magic loses its sheen.

The joy of any game is ground away once it turns into a job. What’s left is the hunger for victory.

And now, David Williams – who had accumulated a $40,000 lifetime winnings in Magic – has just walked into one of the highest-stakes poker tournaments and won 3.5 million dollars.

What will that mean to the Magic-playin’ Michelles of the world, who like company and travel… But not the game?

Why The Pros Matter

The gut reaction is to say,”Screw the pros. We don’t need ’em. The real players are the fun guys.” And my heart is with you. I like casual play better.

But my wallet’s with the pros.

For one thing, the challenge of being the best Magic player is something that sells a lot of cards. Bitch as you will about the rapidly-rotating PTQ schedules and the effort it takes to keep up with competitive Magic these days… the tourneys sell cards. A good Limited event means a lot of sold product… And lord knows how many boxes you have to open to find four Arcbound Ravagers.

The pros both define and create the metagame. Sure, States showed us that Affinity was good, but it takes someone like Kai Budde at a world-class event to build the hype. Kai Budde – or any other pro – winning a 735-person tourney shows people that this is a good deck. A big single tourney causes hundreds of other people to copy that deck.

It may stagnate the metagame, and yes we’re all sick of that damned affinity deck… But StarCityGames.com sells a lot of cards based on that popular demand. Those are cards we wouldn’t have sold elsewhere.

In other words, Tobias Henke’s win is going to sell a lot of Furnace Dragons.

Furthermore, the pros are usually the ones who create the counter-decks. If Gabriel Nassif wins some other Standard event with a deck that’s a foil for Affinity, then we’re going to sell a lot of the cards that are in that deck. Yes, it has to be Gabriel who develops it; one big win, saleswise, counts for a lot more than a thousand uncovered FNM wins scattered across the country.

You may hate the metagame – I do, sometimes – but it keeps us in business.

But contrary to popular opinion, the pros are not what keeps Magic alive. I read somewhere – and from my experience, I believe it – that pro-related sales form are about 50% of Magic’s revenue. The rest are from dinner tables and guys who just like slinging the fun stuff. They’re a much larger pool of people who buy less frequently.

And StarCityGames.com sells a lot to those guys, too. One of the miracles of Magic is that the commons matter. We can still sell Rancor – a common from an older set – for two dollars because people still play with them. Contrast that with, say, Pokemon or Mage Knight, where the big focus is on the foil promo cards/figures with splashy effects. You can’t sell a common Mage Knight figure to save your life.

Neither casual players or pros are right. They’re both needed to keep Magic going.

But what if the pros just disappeared? 50% is still a huge hit – but Magic’s large enough that it might be able to take that. Magic would be lessened but still be profitable… Right?

Maybe not.

The thrill of the competition is what gets people out to card shops. You draft on Friday Night because you want to win, or because like Michelle, you’re practicing for the next big PTQ push. Otherwise, you’d just stay at your house and play where the soda is free and the bathroom’s as clean as you want it.

Those FNMs and PTQs are high visibility. You playing around a kitchen table attracts nobody. A room full of nineteen people playing cards gets people asking,”What’s the deal with this?” And a room full of nineteen people is far less likely to break up and walk away from the game than a three-player friendship ring; with nineteen people, it’s a society. It’s a social circle.

In other words, the tournaments are usually much better at recruiting new players than the kitchen table.

The question then has to be asked: If it wasn’t for the Pro Tour, would Magic grow? Or would it gradually die down, as people played it for fun whenever?

I think it’d die down. I think the Pro Tour’s a critical part of the Magic machine, keeping people alive. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the Pro Tour is like the community outreach program. It’s what helps sell it.

You need the pros.

So what happens when they discover that Poker’s a lot more profitable?

The Attractions of the Rounders

Let’s strip the whole”Magic is fun” element out of the game, and instead boil it down to”a game that people play to prove themselves.” It may be Greek to you, but let’s assume that Magic is no longer the gee-whiz, goofy-grin, good-times rumpus around the multiplayer table, but Something You Do To Be The Best At It.

How does Magic stack up against poker?

  • Poker’s more acceptable. There are cool movies about Poker and how bad-ass poker players are. There is no movie on earth that makes Magic players look good.

  • Poker has nicer settings. We’ve all been to casinos. Would you rather sit down at a scratched table, wreathed in Gamer Funk, or play in an air-conditioned room with a velvety-green table underneath your cards?

  • Poker is easier to learn. Oh, there are the inevitable arguments that Poker is a much deeper game from a psychological perspective, but let’s face it. There are fifty-two cards and a set of standard rules. You can break a lot of poker down to a set of statistics. It’s easy to get relatively good at poker quickly; Magic takes a lifetime, and you never get it all.

  • Poker has less maintenance. As noted, you purchase one deck once, and you can play it until the cards wear down. Total investment: $3.99.

  • Poker is more profitable. David Williams, who is now living the high life at age 23, will tell you this.

  • Poker gives you more fame. Bob Maher’s Invitational win didn’t make the front page of Yahoo! Greg Raymer’s win did.

  • Poker has a better online game. Compare the bugfest of Magic Online to most online Poker rooms. Plus, you can make actual money playing online poker – and you can do it more consistently, since there’s a continual flood of clueless newbies who are willing to drop $100 at your feet. (Also, an internet player has won the World Series for the last two years, indicating that online poker might be a better preparation tool than Magic Online.)

What are the drawbacks?

  • More competition. Poker’s been played for longer, and for higher stakes, so once you hit the top tables you might be dealing with a guy who’s been playing for twenty years.

  • More investment. Getting into some of the better tournaments requires you to pony up thousands of your own dollars. You do not get that money back if you scrub out.

  • More legbreaking. No, I’m serious. I know of some players who dealt with the Mob, and got hurt. If you’re stupid, you can fall in with the wrong people. Gambling addiction is also a real danger; you can get in over your head.

On the whole, as long as you keep your nose clean and keep a stockpile of cash, you’re in the gravy. We’ve been losing pros for years – Nick Eisel, Gary Wise, Chris Benafel, Chris Pikula – and tons more like Brock Parker, William Jensen, Jon Finkel, and Gabriel Nassif float in and out of both games, but seem to spend more and more time where the money’s at.

Poker isn’t the only threat to our pros. Other former greats of Magic have migrated to other CCGs with fewer good players and prizes almost as big; skills learned at Magic usually translate well to other games. Former big-timer Mike Long plays Lord of the Rings and calls his”his own personal Pro Tour. Although he hasn’t won the big prize, he has cleaned up over $20,000 in various professional LotR tourneys.

Upper Deck’s new Marvel’s CCG is gonna hurt Wizards, too. There’s the same amount of money on the line, with fewer experienced players. To someone who’s after the money, that tourney is pure candy, gripped in a baby’s weak fist.

So given all that, if you were just a gunslinger looking to test your skills in the most convenient and profitable arena, why would you play Magic?

What Now?

The answer is, of course,”For the love of the game.” But how many of the pros really have that?

Not that they don’t love Magic, of course. It’s a popular (and ragingly incorrect) stereotype among casual guys that all the pros care about is money. As it turns out, the pros I’ve hung with like the game a hell of a lot more than most casual guys. After a day-long tourney, they’ll whip out their 5-Color deck or play Mental Magic or some other weirdo variant. Hell, most of the more famous”casual” Magic variants were created by the pros.

But there’s a difference between love and commitment. What might happen is that the pros go over to Poker, and play Magic to relax in between. Which shows that they still love the game as much as any casual guy, but by then they’re not serving the purpose that pros should serve in Magic – at least from Wizards’ perspective.

So how many of them will leave? And what can Wizards’ do to stop it? That’s where I have no convenient answers. Predictions are hard to make this early, but the fact is that we’ve been losing a lot of former and current pros to the specter of Poker, and we’re likely to lose a lot more. It’s easier and more profitable, siphoning the mercenaries from our ranks.

The thing is, those mercenaries actually help all of us, even if they don’t mean to.

What I think will happen – and I could be wrong – is a lot of the pros will stay, but the average Magic pro player will have a much shorter half-life. He’ll get as far in Magic as it takes to prove to himself that he is really good, at which point he’ll be burned out on the game and move on to bigger winnings.

That’s troublesome, because Kai Budde is good for the game. We need a marquee champion, just like Tiger Woods is for golf and Michael Jordan used to be for basketball. We need someone that Magic players can aspire to be – or, as is more likely, to beat. If the pros start up here, win a PT, and then move on, we’re in trouble from a PR standpoint.**

We’ll continually be taking people from the bottom ranks, cycling them up, and losing them to Poker.*** That makes the PT harder to follow from an outsider’s perspective, and harder to keep it in the public eye.

But how can Wizards keep these guys involved in the game?

Well, that’s a question I couldn’t answer myself. You can’t raise the payout, because poker’s always going to be able to beat it. In Magic, you play for a free seat on the Pro Tour. In Poker, you have to pay $2,000 for a seat at the table. Somehow, I think Magic would die if the letter you got when you won a PTQ said,”Congratulations! You have won! Now write us a biiiig check.”

You can’t make the Pro Tours come less frequently, making it easier to keep up with the game, because the idea is to churn product a lot to sell cards. If you only have one rotation a year, not only will some people get bored, but you’ll sell a hell of a lot less when that set of four Arcbound Ravagers lasts you for two years. (See also: Why Type One Gets No Respect.)

Would it help to make the game more fun? Well, how much more fun can you make it? I’ve played both games, and I keep returning to Magic even as my poker remains a once-a-year habit. Viewed from the perspective of pure enjoyment, Magic’s where the action’s at.

But as mentioned, a lot of pros don’t play for fun. They play for acclaim, and fame, and money. They may have some fun along the way, but it’s hard to keep the fun in any game when it becomes a full-time job.

Then you run into the question of,”What is a fun game?” If the answer is,”One I win every time” – as it is for so many pros – then you’re going to have problems. Somehow, turning the Pro Tour into the Special Olympics, where every player wins a prize, might just go down poorly.

So what’s the answer? Ya got me.


This is not a”OMG, Magic Is So Dead Were All Gonna Die” article. Magic will continue, even if the pros go away or start cycling like an Astral Slide deck. But it very well affect the profitability of the stores that sell this stuff, and it will make Magic a much tighter squeeze. It could make the difference between”profit” and”loss” at your local store.

If you have any bright ideas as to how to make Magic more pro-friendly, I’d suggest you mention it in our forums. And if other people like your idea, you might wanna send it off to Wizards.

I have a feeling they could use the help.

Signing off,

The Ferrett

The Here Webmasters This Here Site Here Guy

[email protected]

P.S. – As long as we’re talking about money, David, if you happen to have a hundred thousand to spare you could do worse than to buy about six thousand copies of my book, conveniently for sale at a store near you….

The Ultimate LAN Party Guice - buy that sucker!

* – Okay, she’s kind of hot now. But you know what I mean.

** – Note that Wizards has not traditionally sold the game as a battle of personality. In their event coverage, they have generally attempted to filter out the interesting gossip and present matches as impersonally as possible. There are exceptions, of course – I know some Wizards tourney reporters go to great pains to try to put each match in some sort of emotional context – but mostly, when you read the reports, the emphasis is on the cards and not the men piloting them. It may be that Wizards does not view the pros as individual stars to be exploited, but rather as an amorphous mass that continually replenishes itself, and thus they are not concerned. I think that’s a mistake that could be exploited by competitors, but I and many others have mentioned that before.

** – Which, I admit would be a just revenge to Wizards, who cheerfully steals all of our best writers and ideas as soon as they get too popular – but hell, I’d do that if I was the official site editor, so what the hell. But I’ll never forgive you for stealing Anthony. [I guess Wizards will be hearing about that one for A-long-i time to come. – Knut, awful]