So Many Insane Plays – The Ages of Magic and the Future of the Game

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Philadelphia June 5th - 6th
Monday, May 31st – In this reflective article, Stephen Menendian examines the future of our great game, and considers the average age of a Magic player in particular. While the current push is towards Player Recruitment, is that the best way to ensure Magic’s long-term success?

As the game turns 18 years old this summer, I would be very interested in reading an article about the different ‘ages’ of Magic. If we understand Invasion as the onset of the modern set design principles, ushering in a period of relative growth and stability up until Mirrodin/Darksteel, we can probably mark M10/Zendikar as a new era in Magic’s history. M10 and Zendikar herald a period of unprecedented growth and surging tournament attendance. Last week’s record busting attendance at a Grand Prix in Washington D.C. is merely another milestone in this epoch, as was Grand Prix: Madrid, earlier this year.

That’s not what this article is about. This article is more literally about the Ages of Magic, and Magic players in particular, and the implications for Magic as a brand and as a game.

When I was at Wizards, they had a demographic model loosely represented in a series of framed profiles on a wall charting out the life cycle of the Magic player, progressive through phases: entering the game, casual play, competitive play, PTQing (the tournament player), then slowing down, and then basically retiring. The ‘retired’ player is 30. Their model is predicated on people starting magic around the ages of 12-17, I would guess, and quitting somewhere between 23-27ish.

I can’t claim with any certainty that this is the model that Wizards currently bases its Magic business on, but I have no reason to think otherwise, or to think that this model doesn’t at least influence its business decisions or isn’t present and operational in the minds of many of the people who make and manage Magic. It’s a model that feeds into the whole idea of a Magic player playing for 2-3 years and then quitting, hence the statistic that the average Magic player only plays Magic for a few years, which we’ve heard various people at Wizards cite on different occasions. This model also informs marketing, both how they market the game (what messages they send, where they advertise, etc.) and to whom they market the game.

In this article, I argue that this demographic profile is wrong and, despite how successful Magic has been recently, this model is keeping the game from reaching its full potential. I suggest that these demographic assumptions are destructively self-fulfilling, a vicious circle, and have created a market gap, one that has only recently been exposed, but remains misunderstood.

In the aftermath of Grand Prix: Madrid, which had over 2200 players, Rich Hagon raised the question: Was GP Madrid too big? Rich wrote:

Who, exactly, are Grand Prix for?

Are they for the Casual player? If they are, huge events are bad. You want to have fun playing Magic, and it’s many hours before you get to do so. Eating is difficult, finding your friends is difficult, trading is difficult, playing Public Events is potentially impossible, getting beaten early is really, really bad, being in contention feels like a lot more hard work than it’s worth, and you have to wait until approximately Tuesday for your ride home.

Are they for the aspiring Pro Tour player? If they are, huge events are bad. You want to beat people at Magic, and it’s many hours before you get to do so. It’s hard to get the food and drink you need to keep yourself mentally refreshed and alert, you have to play your best Magic at 10.30pm just to reach a Day 2 with hundreds of players still left, and even if you accomplish all this, you have a vanishingly small chance of making the Top 16, which automatically qualifies you for a forthcoming Pro Tour, which was the whole reason you trekked across Europe in the first place.

Are they for Pros? If they are, huge events are bad. You’re obviously there in pursuit of Pro Points, and, to a lesser extent, cash dollars. With ten rounds on Day 1, your three byes get devalued. With eight rounds on Day 2, your byes get devalued further. With tiebreaks being reset at the end of Day 1 (because the software was built at a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and the idea that this many people might have exactly the same idea of what to do with a weekend on day release hadn’t dawned on anyone yet), your byes get devalued yet again. It becomes vastly more difficult to get practical rewards from a tournament this vast.

Rich’s article generated a heated debate in the forums, with folks throughout the community weighing in. PV’s response typifies the Pro response, agreeing with Rich that such a huge event was bad for Pros. Director of R&D, Aaron Forsythe took issue with something Rich said:

I think large events ARE great for casual players. There might be no better validation of what you’re spending your time and money on that the feeling you get walking into a SEA of humanity in a giant hall, all there because they share the same passion as you.

The World Series of Poker Main Even gets over 6,000 people and their final tables are often filled with dudes you’ve never heard of. Yet it is still the Holy Grail of poker events.

Aaron Forsythe is partially right. He’s right that these huge events are great for some players, but he repeats the same error that Rich made, which is to sharply divide the world of Magic players into ‘pro player’ or competitive player and the ‘casual’ player. Wizards is well aware of the ‘casual’ player, and knows that whether its kitchen table Magic or the pre-release fan, most Magic players are casual. The assumption is that people who do not play in PTQs or the Pro Tour are ‘casual.’ And because Rich and Aaron make this assumption, they do not fully appreciate or cannot see the reasons why huge events like GP: Madrid are great.

What they’ve failed to realize is that there are players out there that are neither casual nor PTQ. There are players out there who want to compete in competitive tournaments, but do not find PTQs to be attractive for a number of valid reasons:

1) Poor prize support. PTQs award an invite to the very top, and the rest of the prizes are generally junk. Aside from pre-releases, boosters are a dubious prize for large scale tournaments with many players and a high entry fee, yet this is still the standard for too many tournament organizers. Second place at a 200-player PTQ may win you as little as a booster box. Compare that to what the StarCityGames.com Open Series awards: cash, and a good amount of it, downwardly distributed.

2) Poor environment. Sometimes, PTQs are scheduled in grimy or plain, aesthetically unpleasing spaces near airports or other inconveniently accessible locations with few nearby amenities. Getting cards at the last minute at the TOs exclusive dealer may be difficult and/or frustrating, but getting food, water, or to a restroom may be even worse. SCG is a notable exception because it has a ‘game center,’ with a pleasant staff and a beautiful facility. PTQ’s often don’t have good side events structured into them, or other supports, making it even less worthwhile if you are mathematically eliminated early in the day.

3) Constantly rotating card pool, with often enormous expenses. The PTQ schedule is constantly rotating, requiring players to familiarize themselves intimately with new formats every few months. To sustain that level of engagement requires a significant monetary investment for just a few, and perhaps just one, local tournament (that may have poor prize support and a poor environment, see (1) and (2)), and requires sufficient friends/testing partners to learn well enough to compete. Players can only sustain this level of engagement for so long, and often only during college or grad school (and likely, not even then). Even players who want to sustain that level of commitment may feel pressured to bow out simply because they can’t continue to compete at such a high level consistently (anecdotally, the Hall of Fame has helped reverse this trend by automatically qualifying older players).

These factors, individually and in concert, cause burnout, and are a major reason why players cycle in and out of Magic. At some point, the player says: this is no longer fun, or it’s just not worth it. More likely, it’s a combination of both.

The motivation to participate in PTQs, either at a high level or just periodically, wanes if the tournament isn’t fun. If the prize support is poor, even players who performed well will come to feel that it’s just not worth it. If the tournament site is unpleasant and inconvenient, lacking in nearby amenities such as food, water, and clean restrooms, then the experience becomes less enjoyable and the trip seems more like a hassle. If there aren’t supports such as worthwhile side events or other fun extras, then the costs of performing badly in the main event are greater, a disincentive to participate. These extras also help create a positive, memorable experience. If the experience is less memorable, then players are less likely to repeat it.

Not enough PTQ TOs strive to create a positive, enjoyable experience that most players seek, and that makes a repeat experience likely, even for players that didn’t perform up to their expectations. These TOs often don’t appropriately coordinate food and lodging. They treat PTQ players as disposable. Over time, these factors will generate the feeling that the tournament organizer doesn’t care about them. And if players feel disrespected, they are less likely to repeat the experience.

The justification for poor PTQ prizes is that the real prize is the potential to make money on the Pro Tour, Masters, Nationals, etc. For example, I remember attending 800-player Regionals about 8 years ago that were larger than most Grand Prix tournaments of the era (which paid $15-20K), yet if you made Top 16, you may have been lucky to get a box. The tacit assumption that PTQ entry fees go to fund the Pro Tour, so far as I have been able to determine, is actually untrue. The Pro Tour budget comes out of a different budget than PTQ entry fee revenue. The justification for such terrible payout, that the real prizes are qualification for Nationals (or the Pro Tour, in the case of PTQs), is simply unacceptable.

In short, players, and PTQ players in particular, are treated as disposable. While younger players with more time may put up with poor venues and weak prize support, fewer adults will. What adult would put up with this kind of treatment for very long? It’s no wonder that the average Magic player only played for 2-3 years, as Wizards demographic profile might suggest. It’s no wonder players burn out or quit. Just because a player doesn’t PTQ, doesn’t mean that they are casual. They may have simply been turned off the PTQ experience.

The assumption that Magic players are either casual or PTQ created a market gap. This market gap is increasingly being served variety of sources, such as Grand Prix tournaments, the StarCityGames.com Open Series, Eternal formats, and States. There are a lot of tournament players out there who aren’t casual, but they don’t PTQ and they don’t have Pro Tour aspirations, per se. Many of these players just want to compete for good prizes in large tournaments with their friends.

It’s no wonder that SCG has finally broken through the market gap with a competitive tournament alternative to the Wizards sponsored or supported experience. Same with States. It’s no wonder that a consortium of TOs have pulled off States. Not everyone wants to spend each weekend traveling to a local PTQ or one within the region, cycling through format after format, fighting for booster packs. The SCG Open Series give you the big tournament experience, competing for good prizes, in the format you enjoy.

This is one of the reasons that the Eternal formats have a natural gravity. These players enjoy and seek out the experience of a big tournament, with big prizes. Just not at the clip required by PTQs. Your format is a perennial format; it doesn’t rotate its card pool. So, you don’t have to worry about acquiring a ton of new staples nor trading to get what you need. Nor do you have to become familiar with an entirely new card pool. And, it can be played year round. SCG and other major European TOs have created a culture change; we see gigantic Vintage and Legacy tournaments in Europe with enormous prize value.

This is also why, I believe, Grand Prix tournaments are increasingly successful, when structured and marketed well. They have all of the benefits of a PTQs, since Pro Tour invites are available, but they also resemble a convention experience ala Gencon or the SCG Open experience: tons of people, tons of side events/formats, pick-up games, dealers, trading, and plenty of community and friends. GPs often feature side events for formats like Vintage (see Houston, where Luis Scott Vargas and Dave Williams had a blast playing Vintage) but also have PTQs, trivia, journalists, and all of the extras that give it a fun atmosphere.

Legacy GPs are the perfect outlet for all of this. Legacy GPs bring every player segment:

• They bring the PTQ players who want to qualify and can do so in the main event or PTQ side event
• They bring attract fans every format because there are plenty of side events, especially at Eternal Grand Prix tournaments.
• They also bring in the SCG Open players, since they have greater value prizes, and greater downward prize distribution and are not as top-heavy as PTQs in prize payout.

Rich suggested that huge GPs were bad for casual players because if you lose, you have to wait around twiddling your thumbs until the end of the event. The mistake that Rich and others espousing the pro player viewpoint is that they only see these events from their perspective. Rich and PV look at the GP for one thing: the main event. To casual players or to the non-PTQ player, a GP is much more than a tournament. Its many tournaments. There are side events, there are pick-up games, and a litany of trading and other games to be had.

Aaron is right, that GPs are fun for many players, including casual players, but he misses the main reason why. It’s not simply that the casual player enjoys being swept up in the sea of humanity; it’s that there is a lot to do. Getting knocked out of the main event doesn’t end their enjoyment or their participation. And it’s because Aaron repeats the mistake that Rich makes, of dividing players into casual and competitive, that they fail to appreciate this.

It’s not that these players are ‘casual,’ as they want to compete in a tournament, but that’s not the only reason they are there. They wouldn’t necessarily make the trip if it was just the main event, although they are interested in it. It’s the possibility of winning great prizes, not simply an invite to go to another tournament to win prizes or crappy prizes. It’s the chance to compete in formats of their choice. A GP is like a Gencon experience, but anywhere, not just in Indy.

Large regional Vintage tournaments in the U.S. and Europe aren’t marketed simply based upon the main event, but upon the fun they create, the ‘dopeness’ factor. The Waterbury’s, one of the largest formerly annual Vintage events in the U.S., used to market the tournament with extras like Magic Trivia (free entry with prizes for all participants) and Magic Scattegories, with the same. That doesn’t mean this player is merely a casual player. They go to win. But, the benefits of winning aren’t necessarily enough to justify expense and the time. If you lose, there are plenty of other things to do besides watch the main event.

César Fernández captured the eternal player perspective in response to Rich’s article:

GP Madrid was a great event, even with its fail[ing]s. [It was] A thing to remember, and a good weekend with a lot of friends sharing its passion[makes it] hard to forget.

And if Aaron and Rich saw how large GPs serve these players, who aren’t necessarily casual, but don’t actively PTQ, then they would better appreciate why these GPs, like Madrid, are a good thing. But first, you have to understand that this player segment exists, and is out there craving more events like it.

To do that, we have to move beyond the narrow demographic model that Wizards ascribes to. This may have been the model for the 1997-2003 Magic player, but it’s no longer the case. It’s a model of Magic where Regionals and PTQs are the only major vehicle for tournament Magic (if you weren’t on the Pro Tour). There was no SCG Open Series, and Grand Prix tournaments were much smaller. It’s also an era where there was no Eternal magic. Vintage was totally dead. Legacy was non-existent.

In 2000, there were no competitive Vintage tournaments; it was a dead format. Today, Vintage tournaments can be found all over the world. Legacy has exploded. Legacy has the largest GP in history. To date, we’ve had five Legacy Grand Prix tournaments: 2 in 2005, 1 in 2007, 1 in 2009, and 1 so far in 2010. At first, it appeared that Wizards would schedule a Legacy GP once every two years. But with the enormous success of GP Chicago, they added two for 2010.

About a month ago, I conducted two surveys of the Eternal Community, one in the Vintage community and the other in the Legacy community. I posed a simple question: “How Old Are You?”

348 people voted in the Legacy survey, and 142 people voted in the Vintage survey. The results were revealing.

The average age of the Legacy community player was 24.3 years old. The mode was the 23-24 age bracket, with over 20% of the votes. That was also the median age bracket.

The average age of the Vintage community player was 26.52 years old. The mode age was 25, with 14.1% of the votes. However, the median age was 26.

These surveys may not be scientifically accurate, but they are strongly suggestive. Simply put: the average age of the Magic player in the eternal community is old, and getting older. Vintage has already hit that critical threshold where more players are 25 or older than not. Perhaps more revealingly, 12% and almost 22% of the Legacy and Vintage communities, respectively, are 30 or older. On the flip side, only 14.4% and 2.8% of the Legacy and Vintage community players were under the age of 20.

No one younger than 18 voted in the Vintage poll, and only 1% of respondents in the Legacy poll were 16 or younger. In short, Eternal formats aren’t serving 16 year olds. There aren’t many teenagers playing Eternal.

Matt Wang and Brian David-Marshall released a free white paper on the trading card industry in which they suggested that the average age of the Magic player was 25, and the average collectible card game player was 22 years old.

The implications?

The demographic model that Wizards uses is wrong. If the Matt Wang and BDM report is to be believed, then most Magic players are already out of the college age bracket. The notion that players enter the game as teenagers and quit shortly into or after their college years is not only untrue, it’s destructive. Wizards demographic profile, and the way it markets and conducts its business, may be self-fulfilling. By not providing enough alternatives to PTQs and by not ensuring that PTQs are adult-friendly, they may be driving away players. Most players are already adults. Adults want to be treated as such.

Why would a business ever assume, or take it as a given, that a player segment will stop using its product? Does Coca-Cola think that people will stop drinking Coke? Sure, Mattel probably assumes that little girls stop buying Barbie. But is Magic more like Barbie or Coke?

What if Wizards did not assume that their players will inevitably quit, or that those that quit can be brought back into the game? How would that change their business? What would they do differently?

The key to maximizing Magic’s potential is to figure out how to keep people playing Magic longer, and how to re-engage players who quit. It’s retainment and re-entry. If my analysis of how PTQs cause burnout is accurate, then there are two immediate challenges for the future of Magic that should address both.

One is to renovate the qualifier tournament experience, to engender greater long-term participation. It’s not at all surprising to me that Regionals (now called Nationals Qualifier) can have an abysmal turnout, when GPs and SCG $5Ks are thriving. Like Peter Jahn said recently, the Prize Supports at States were just better. In fact, I can’t even find Nationals Qualifier prize payouts information for the Ohio Valley Nationals Qualifier.

There is no reason we couldn’t hit 5000 player GPs within a decade, if Magic markets itself well. If Wizards demands a reformulation of the PTQ experience. If Wizards demands and imposes more attractive prize payouts for tournaments the size of PTQs. If it implements standards for TOs beyond whether TOs are following the rules and are being fair, but whether they are creating an experience that will bring back players, or whether they are treating players as disposable. If Wizards punishes TOs that rip-off players for a big payday but don’t grow their player base, and rewards TOs that do those things right.

The second major challenge is to find ways to support non-qualifier tournaments, like States. The Eternal formats are capturing some of the outflow of Magic players who don’t feel that the PTQ experience serves them. The poll results I shared suggest is that there is no single demographic model for the Magic player. Instead, different formats serve different age demographics. Each format has its own demographic. The Vintage player is about two years older than the Legacy player, on average. I imagine that the age differential of the average Standard and Legacy player is greater. No doubt, that’s because the Eternal formats are serving the players in the market gap.

We’re moving from a PT centric model, to a more fluid one, where the Pro Tour is important, but other things are important too, such as amenities, an enjoyable experience, good prizes, and a fairer prize distribution. And clinging to the older model is holding back Magic. Look at the SCG Open series. That’s tapped into what Wizards should/could have been doing all this time.

Even if you do all of those things right, there will still be players who quit Magic. Let’s assume that 60- 80% of all Magic players quit Magic at some point, which is a reasonable assumption. If you renovate the PTQ experience and if you support players who don’t PTQ, but aren’t casual, then you can dramatically reduce that number.

And even when people quit for other reasons, relating to major life changes, such as getting married, having kids, or graduating from college, many of those players, if not most, will once again encounter Magic at some point, and have an opportunity to re-enter the game. The question is simple: will they? If they have a PTQ experience like the one they had that drove them from the game, I would submit to you that the answer is: “no.” But if they have a GP or SCG Open experience, I would submit to you that the answer is probably: “yes.”

I’ve tried to tell this to the Vintage community for years, but it’s a simple stocks and flows issue. There are only three ways to grow the player base and increase tournament attendance:

1) Recruit New Players
2) Retain Existing Players
3) Re-Engage Players who Quit

If you increase the number of new players, you can increase the player base. If you slow down the number of players leaving Magic, you can increase the player base. Or, if you someone attract players that quit the game to become active players again, you grow the player base. There is no reason that all three shouldn’t be given maximum effort.

Magic for too long has seemed hellbent on recruitment, and ignored (2) and (3), assuming that players are replaceable. That’s an awful way to run a business. Only pyramid schemes and Halloween stores operate that way.

Which do you think is harder to do? If done right, you should have a much easier time retaining existing players or re-attracting players who quit. Yet, we place far too much emphasis on recruiting new players when we should be trying to keep players in the game from quitting, or, barring that, making sure that at that moment of possible re-entry, players have a positive, enjoyable experience, win, lose, or draw. Only then will Magic truly reach its full potential, and the player base will grow far beyond what is even imaginable today.

Magic is a game with a long future, yet too many of the folks involved in the game think short-term. It’s time to change that. The demographic profile, with its assumption about player turnover, may actually be inadvertently driving player turnover. The casual versus competitive player binary has created a market gap that is only partially being satisfied, but remains misunderstood even by the people who make Magic.

The Magic player is getting older, and the day won’t be far off when the average Magic player is 30. That won’t mean the end of the Magic. On the contrary, it should mark its outward expansion. But it will mean a different understanding of how to market Magic and how to serve Magic players, resulting in a more positive experience for everyone.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian