Insert Column Name Here – Ask Not What Your Company Can Do For You

Read The Ferrett every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!
Monday, February 18th – The Vice President of Organized Play sat down with everyone and had a nice little chat. And according to Raphael Levy, thankfully, that first meeting went fairly well (though as I write this, we’re currently short on details from the Union’s side). But I think that the story’s not quite over yet, so let an old-time Magic grognard tell you what he thinks has to be done for the Union to thrive and flourish.

“It’ll be a little too late to discuss the Players’ Union next week, don’t you think?”
Forum user Reindeercards, after me promising to get ‘round to the Player’s Union today.

The answer is, of course, no. Some things have occurred in the interim, of course; the Vice President of Organized Play sat down with everyone and had a nice little chat. And according to Raphael Levy, thankfully, that first meeting went fairly well (though as I write this, we’re currently short on details from the Union’s side).

Now, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Wizards has been on a mean streak lately — cutting back the rewards for being in the club, cutting a Pro Tour out of the schedule, cancelling States without so much as a by-your-leave, and kicking a puppy into a gutter. That’s some pretty awful stuff to spring on people, and it doesn’t help that Wizards released all of this information by taping it to the back of a flyer advertising a rally for the KKK.

…well, they might as well have, anyway. The point is that Wizards was doing some pretty major reorganizing, and not doing a particularly good job at disseminating the answers well. Good PR involves not just announcing things where people can see them (“By the way, our last batch of Red Bull was mixed up with a shipment of mouse urine”) — but rather in anticipating how people will react and moving proactively to reassure them (“…But the mice have been tested and they are disease-free”).

From that standpoint, Wizards failed. The fact that the Pros thought they needed to band together was probably a sign that things had gotten at least a little out of hand. After all, as one of the major customers of Magic cards, shouldn’t Wizards go out of the way to keep them apprised?


Read the article on Wizards’ site, and you’ll find a fascinating fact: as much as you loved States, you were a frightening minority. Only about three to four percent of tournament players attended States or the MSS, making it a failure from Wizards’ point of view.

And if you take that logic further, given that States is one of the most popular tournaments around, then you have to draw the conclusion that if happy ol’ noncompetitive States is three percent, then the number of people who are actively trying to get ten points for the Pro Players’ club has to be…

…Well, a heck of a lot less. I’d be surprised if, statistically speaking, the number of people going for their time in the PP club was a single digit’s percentage of tournament players.

In other words, the number of folks who are really bent out of shape about this? They may have a loud voice, but they’re not particularly numerous. They’re not major customers of Magic, but rather a niche market that may — or, more relevantly, may not – be profitable.

Wizards should have anticipated the uproar, of course, and been more communicative. That’s what good companies should do. But the larger problem that the Pro Players’ Union is going to face is that statistically speaking, they may not contribute a whole lot to the bottom line. They may, in fact, be a net drain on Wizards’ resources in a US economy that many claim is heading towards a recession. And that in turn makes it hard to negotiate for benefits, because then your essential negotiating position is “You should give us more stuff because we play your dang game.”

And Wizards — which has really tried quite hard to make everyone happy in the past — may well say, “We understand that. But you’re not profitable.”

What Good Are Pros?
Before we can continue, we must indulge in a little honesty. Otherwise, I’m going to get dinged by the judge for “Failure to agree upon reality.” And here’s the reality, folks:

Wizards wants to make money. And they’ll do whatever’s necessary to get it.

Now, the problem with making money is that frequently, the best way to get it is to make sure the customer is happy. Hey, we treat you good here at Star City Games, don’t you want to buy from us? That’s good when it works, because you win, I win… We all get what we want. But what can (and frequently does) happen is that people then slide into the awful miscomprehension of, “If I’m happy, then Wizards is happy.”

Wrong. If you hate the new card face and keep buying two boxes’ worth of every expansion, Wizards could care less about your griping. They know they can’t make everybody happy — and worse, some players get off on grousing — so they understand that some folks are gonna be angry at the game no matter what.

As the Big Kahuna Editor here, I’ve seen ‘em come and seen ‘em go. And the same people who said, “THAT’S IT! THOSE SIXTH EDITION RULES ARE LUDICROUS! I’M LEAVING!” are still here. They voted with their credit cards, telling Wizards, “Despite my constant moaning, I still support you.” Likewise, there are Vintage players who play every day on freeware constructs like Apprentice and haven’t bought a new card since mid-2007 when Tarmogoyf became too big to ignore. And while they may be happy, they’re not paying for Randy Buehler lunch.

Which, from Wizards’ perspective, makes the ultimate question this: “Are you contributing significantly to their bottom line?” If you are, you’re an ally of Wizards. If not, well, Wizards might like you, and they won’t go out of their way to vex you… But at the end of the day, they’ll drop you like a hot potato if they need to make their budget. That’s just the way it is.

And let me state: THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Money does not rain from the sky. Until the day comes when landlords hand out apartments for free and grocery stores hand out Hot Pockets to anyone who looks sad, “Wanting to be paid for your efforts” is not evil, or greedy. In fact, not wanting to be paid for your efforts, where you will eventually go broke and then no one can play your game any more, is generally a sign of a really bad business model.

So what matters to Wizards? How many people are playing Magic. They aren’t giving away Pro Tour money because they love Magic players — they’re doing it as part of a strategy to get you involved in the game, so you’ll purchase more cards to stay competitive, with the ultimate goal of you lining their pockets with your dosh.

Got that?


Now, the question of what a Raphael Levy brings to the game as a Name Pro is what the Players’ Union – and, to a larger extent, all of you reading this – should be asking.

Raph is a good player. But to a certain extent, Wizards doesn’t care who’s on top. This being a game with lots of players, someone’s going to be at the top of the rankings, and the fact that it’s Raphael is kind of irrelevant at any given time. If it’s not him, it’ll be someone else. Which is brutal, but true. (Finkel leaves, Kai shows up. Kai falls from the heavens, some other player arrives. It’s the circle of life.)

Raph designs decks. Those decks, assuming he does well with them at a Pro Tour or a Grand Prix, will be widely emulated across the world as lesser players bring his novelties to the PTQs and GPTs. This helps Wizards sell cards, which is a boost overall… And probably why they keep the Pro Tour in business.

Raph even goes one cut above! He’s willing to write for Magic sites, acting as an ambassador to the game. By explaining his choices and going over his strategy, he allows people to get better at Magic, and encourages them to play more.

But who does Raph really talk to? Other PTQers and wannabes.

Will people who aren’t already PTQ regulars know about his deck? Almost certainly not. Will his huge victory on the Pro Tour inspire novices who’ve never played in tournaments to get out there and be competitive? Probably not.

As I’ve said before, I have a good idea how many people read Magicthegathering.com. I know exactly how many people show up at SCG. We’re not even close to their traffic, meaning that the fact that you’re here means that you’re one of the most die-hard and atypical Magic players around. And if you take into account the fact that most Magic players probably do not read about Magic on the Web — making Magicthegathering’s large hits a smaller percentage of a non-web-readin’ whole —

– then you have to realize that for all of Raph’s work, he’s largely preaching to the converted. He’s talking to the die-hards.

Who’s he reaching outside of that already-playing-Magic-at-tournaments contingent? Not that many folks, I’d wager.

You know what probably matters a lot more when it comes to getting new butts in Magic-playing seats? Your local store. Raph could be the greatest player in the world, with an awesome deck that’s fun to play… But some grimy, crappy local store with a crooked judge and a snotty set of regulars would undo all of Raph’s work in a heartbeat. Likewise, if the store is clean and the people friendly and the folks willing to accept and train newbies, then Raph could be the biggest jerk in the whole world and nobody would care as long as Raph himself didn’t show up there.

My point is that what an individual Pro Player can do to help out Magic’s overall tournament scene? It’s pretty small on the whole.

Now, there is one element in there that I’ve been purposely ignoring until this paragraph — which is to say that if Raphael Levy is someone who the players will root for, like a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods, then he does boost the overall game level to some extent. Hell, I know that Jon Finkel winning Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur fills me with a strange (and unwarranted pride), because The Best Player Of 2003 Shows That He’s Still Got It makes for a really compelling story. Pros can be good for the game by inspiring people, creating narratives that get people roped in.

Still. As I’ve stated in the past, the number of people who tune in to watch Pro Tours? Statistically speaking, once again… freaks. (Sorry.) There’s a lot of very intense watching, but I’d suspect that in terms of the overall audience for Magic, once again, we’re lucky if we’re in the low double-digits. (And by “low double-digits,” I’m guessing probably 10-20%. If that.)

So an individual Pro? He’s really not that important, in the scheme of things — and he gets less important if he doesn’t write. If Joe Pro just shows up to decksling at the local Pro Tour and vanishes, then all he leaves behind is a deck that people may or may not play.

So. Pros? They’re important as a class of people to encourage folks that “Hey, you can live the dream”… But on an individual scale, I don’t think they’re really that important.

Now we come ‘round to the big point: unless the Pro Players’ Union can show what they can do for Wizards, it’s probably not going to be that effective.

Sure, the top fifty players can just walk out of the game if Wizards really botches it — but Scrabble has a lot less money on its pro circuit, and they still have folks signing up. And as stated, are those top fifty all that influential at roping in and retaining new players? Probably not.

And it may well be that the Pro Tour strategy for Wizards is hemorrhaging money. We don’t know.

What I think the Pro Players’ Union has to do if it wants to be successful is to partner with Wizards. If I were them, I’d make a point to go to Wizards and try to say, “Look. We have a lot of people who play Magic hard-core. And our goal is to help you grow Magic, so that we can afford to keep playing for fun. What can we do to help?”

The fact that States is a failure from Wizards’ perspective indicates that the community probably doesn’t know what they’re really trying to achieve. (Hey, it looked like a success to me… But I was wrong.) And it’d be foolish to assume that Wizards would go, “Why, golly! Here’s our marketing plan and confidential statistics. Take a whack at it, why don’t you?”

But the collective intelligence of the Pro Players could help Wizards. These are, by definition, smart guys capable of formulating and carrying out a strategy. They’re good at seeing opportunities where nobody else finds them. If they really tried to become the right-hand arm of Wizards, growing the game, then they could probably do a lot to keep Magic healthy — and, in a happy event of synergy, keep them happy and on the tour.

But my worry with the Pro Players’ Union is that it’ll start out strong, but degenerate into entitlement. “WE PLAY THIS GAME!” they cry, pounding their fists on the table. “YOU OWE US STUFF!” And Wizards, looking painfully at the copy of Quickbooks open on their desktop, makes the reluctant decision to cut things.

Like I said. Signs are good that the economy is getting worse — and Wizards of the Coast’s strong point has never been long-term planning. (“MODO? What MODO?”) What we need now for the Pro Tour to not only survive, but flourish, is for the Pros and Casual guys and Wizards themselves to work together to face the new challenges.

Things like:

  • Magic Online is great for dedicated players. But if it gets too good, then the stores that introduce people to Magic go out of business and you lose an entry point. How do we reconcile this?
  • The climb upwards from novice to mediocre player often causes people to think of Magic as “not fun.” Is there a way around it?
  • Given that States was a failure from their perspective, what kind of local tournament would look like a success… And how could we create that?

We have a big future ahead of us. I hope the Players’ Union is up to it.

Let’s roll.

Signing off,
The Ferrett
[email protected]StarCityGames.com
The Here Edits This Here Site Guy
New Webcomic Coming In T-Minus Two Weeks Or Less
Aren’t you excited?