DISCLAIMER: The opinions of Geordie Tait are his alone and do not represent those of StarCityGames or its affiliates.
If you’ve ever been completely priced out of buying planeswalkers and had to resort to some budget, nickel-and-dime-a-victory, 45% against the field, boring POS because of it, this article is for you.
If you’ve ever opened an article by a great Magic theorist, and looked at the list, and said to yourself, “There’s no way I can afford to build this,” this article is for you.
Because that’s what this is about. I don’t play Constructed to cobble together decks out of Preordains and $1 rares. When you can’t afford a card, you lose so much more than just that card. You lose the community.
Moment in Time #1
Flashback to 1991 or so. My father and I were sitting in the basement of our house on old Rayburne Avenue, playing Baseball Stars, a Nintendo game by SNK. It had rudimentary player-creation features that nonetheless represented the best baseball simulation available at the time. One copy of Baseball Stars went for about $50 back then. We had four copies. Why? Because at the time, there were four divisions in baseball, and each copy of Baseball Stars could only handle six user-created teams. My dad and I were modeling the whole league.
I was eleven years old.
My father had shelled out 400 smackers for assorted sports games, and another 150 smackers for the NES system itself. Of these, a quadruple purchase of Baseball Stars was the expenditure that would’ve raised my mom’s eyebrows the most. We kept it a secret, but as an innocent youth, I never quite understood why.
So what if it cost money? I’d never noticed any shortfalls, never felt like one of those “poor kids” I’d vaguely heard about on episodes of Sesame Street. I knew what poverty was in a very general sense, but I didn’t understand why a family might not have the scratch to dump $200 on four copies of the same Nintendo game.
My father and I were grinding. In order to assign stats to our custom-created players, you had to “earn up” by beating on crappy computer-created teams like the SNK Crushers (who were named after the programmers) and Lovely Ladies (an all-female team that would always yield you a huge amount of gate receipts for each drubbing). We spent hours doing that, grinding exhibition games so we could afford to level up our own guys, pixelated sluggers with names like “KGRFFY” and “TGWYNN.”
Most kids had their fathers take them out for Little League. Me? I stayed in and participated in simulated league.* My true baseball experience as a youth was in my basement, scouring the Sporting News and debating with my father about whether Kirby Puckett’s batting stat should be 14 or 15. That’s basically what we were doing on that carefree summer day when we heard noise on the basement stairs. Our eyes met, avid in their sockets like two safe-crackers who had just heard the footfalls of an armed security guard.
It was more serious than that. It was Mom.
You see, my mother had been reading a lot of “child development” books, which in the early 90’s would invariably tell a parent all about how video games were going to turn their child into a mindless couch potato (hey, wait a minute…). This was long before anything computer-related could be considered a useful skill. In her eyes, computers and video games were a waste of time, standing between her son and a career as a bilingual diplomat. As a result, we weren’t even really supposed to have a Nintendo in the house.
My father initially agreed to this provision without researching it, assuming every Nintendo game was just some version of Super Mario Brothers. It was later that he discovered you could use a Nintendo to play baseball, hockey, and other sports. It was in fact his sneaky son who brought this to his attention, because, hey, if in the process of buying Blades of Steel and Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf we happened to pick up Super Mario 3, who would complain?
The footsteps were approaching. We could’ve scrambled, unhooked everything, and thrown it into a cupboard. But we were in the middle of one of our league games, and Kent Hrbek had powered two homers. We couldn’t bear to pull out the power cable and erase Kent’s career game. My father gave me the nod. We held our positions, controllers in hand. My mother entered the room.
She put her hands on her hips. She rolled her eyes. She gave us the same exasperated sigh she’d given when my father first let me stay up until midnight to play Ed Ringler’s Ice Hockey on the Commodore 64 (I was eight years old) despite the fact that I had school the next day. We eventually spent so much time playing that game that my mother stole the disk from the drive and buried it in the backyard. My father took the disk drive apart with a screwdriver, looking for it.
We all stared at each other. After a few moments, my father started laughing at the absurdity of the Mexican standoff.
Later that evening, he took me aside. “Let’s be extra nice to your mother for a while,” he told me. We followed through on that idea and were forgiven for our video game subterfuge. I think my mother was starting to realize that her nerdy son wasn’t going to grow up to be the next Benjamin Disraeli and just decided to let the dream die with dignity.
So yeah — a pretty innocuous result. I only heard one argument on the subject, and it was later that afternoon. I crouched by an air vent, pressing my cheek against the metal hard enough to impress a ribbed pattern in my flesh.
“How much did all this cost?” asked my mother, her voice one level above calm.
“We can afford it,” said my dad.
And we could. Nothing bad happened. I was never left wanting. My dad’s absurd purchase of four copies of the same fifty-dollar NES game never resulted in any shortfall that trickled down to my clueless, eleven-year-old existence.
“For a while I was really sticking with hockey. Once my feet got too big for my ice skates, however, I decided it was time to turn to basketball.” —Jason Richardson, NBA shooting guard
“Hockey… I don’t know about hockey.” —Cedric the Entertainer
Minorities can’t play Constructed.
They don’t have the disposable income to do these things. You can say they don’t play Magic because nebbish hobbies are less a part of their cultural identity, but that’s also because they have no disposable income. If you want to see minorities handling Magic cards, head over to the factory where they’re printed. I guarantee you’ll see plenty.
Hi, my name is Geordie Tait. I can’t play Constructed either. I was born in a two-income, middle-class household. Both of my parents were schoolteachers. My father’s father was a refrigerator repairman; his mother was a homemaker. My mother’s father was a mill worker; my mother’s mother operated a sewing shop. Despite being a complete screw-up, I managed to get through the first twenty-five to twenty-six years of my life without really understanding the value of a dollar. I am Canadian, and also another word that sounds nearly the same: Caucasian.
As a Canadian, I know that Magic: The Gathering isn’t the first form of recreation to essentially ignore the fact that nobody poor can play it. Hockey is Canada’s national sport and couldn’t cost much more if players were skating on gold leaf instead of ice, chasing down a puck made of solid plutonium. If you’ve ever wondered why there are no black players in the NHL, this is the reason. It costs a mint to run your kid through amateur hockey, and as a result, the league is whiter than Celestial Dawn.
What does being black or Hispanic or part of the First Nations have to do with being too poor to play hockey? As it turns out, a lot. I’ll use US figures for this, since that’s where the majority of those reading this likely hang their hats, but the Canadian ones are similar.
Median income in 2006 according to the US Census Bureau:
White households: $50,673.
Hispanic households: $37,781.
African-American households: $31,969.
Right now, I’d like you to imagine how much Magic you’d be playing if you suddenly made $20,000 less per year. Bet you can’t wait to drop $75 on that Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Look at Magic: The Gathering as a hobby akin to stamp collecting, and maybe it’s possible to remain unruffled by its exclusion of the poor. Nobody really blames “collection” type hobbies when they’re inaccessible to people without summer homes. We don’t shed any tears for the young African American boys who can’t scrape together enough scratch to bolster their coin or comic book collections. Magic: The Gathering is similar to those pastimes in some ways, but it’s also a competition, and taking part in the competition isn’t exactly cheap. That 12-20 G’s that white people have over their melanin-soaked peers is where they find the money to play Magic: The Gathering.
Basketball: Shoes might cost about a hundred and fifty bucks, if you get really nice ones. The ball costs a bit, but of course, one basketball is enough for ten guys. Jerseys and shorts can be expensive, but they don’t really affect your performance — you can play in old T-shirts and workout shorts, if you really want. So if you spend about $200, you’re good to go for quite a while.
Number of minority basketball players: High
World of Warcraft: $15/month, plus a computer, which can be a significant investment (we’ll say $1000, it can be more or less), and about $50/month or so for an internet connection. The computer will last you for a long time, though… and it’s not like you need a beast to play WoW.
Number of minority World of Warcraft players: Not totally embarrassing, but still filled with Swedes dropping N-Bombs in “World First” kill screenshots.
Hockey: High-end skates cost about $600. Then you need to buy pads, sticks, helmets, pants, jerseys, shorts, shin-guards, and ice-time. Outfitting your kid and allowing him to play amateur hockey costs thousands of dollars above and beyond other sports. And god forbid your kids grow — you need to buy them new stuff, probably every year or two.
Number of minority hockey players: Hahaha, that’s a good one.
Magic: The Gathering: One Standard deck probably costs at least $200. A collection of every card in Standard will run you four figures. Your kids don’t grow out of their cards, but the environment changes, which means you have to buy new “equipment” every year, just like with amateur hockey. Then you have your tournament entry fees. Every draft you get first-rounded in on MTGO costs $12. Compare that to WoW, which is $15 a month no matter how terrible you are.
Number of minority MTG players: Hahaha, that’s another good one.
Magic is a game by privileged white people, for privileged white people (and Europeans and Japanese). Any fair-skinned person from a country without a major humanitarian crisis can pick up a deck. When I say privileged, I don’t mean that they have a gatehouse and a mansion. I simply mean that they don’t starve at the end of the month and can afford to drop money on hardcover books filled with tables that describe how much damage a bec de corbin deals against an armored target. If your country has a hockey team, they probably sell Magic there. The same countries that can afford for their kids to play amateur hockey (which costs a million bajillion dollars) can afford to buy their children plenty of colored cardboard.
This income bias is reflected in the pallid skin of the game’s luminaries. According to the information I’ve just been handed by the Honkytown Business Bureau, Magic: The Gathering was created by Dr. Richard Whitefield, and was first published by Peter Whitekison’s company, White-zards of the Coast. It’s currently brought to the masses by a team of designers featuring such people as White Turian, Mark Whitewater, and Aaron Whitesythe. They even have a guy named Rich Hagon doing coverage. “Poor Hagon” couldn’t even get in the building.
In addition, pretty much everyone who writes about the game is an Uncle Pennybags. Whether they pull in six figures a year from poker, manage a hedge fund, have a rich daddy, move weight like Marlo Stanfield, or just win a bunch of Pro Tours, the cornerstones of Magic writing aren’t needy. Hold on, dinkleballs — don’t get all up in arms. I’m not saying you’re a pampered bag. I’m saying you have DI money compared to the average minority. I’m saying you’re all a bunch of white guys with white guy income. At the very least, you’re a white guy’s kid. And if you’re not from the United States or Canada, you’re still probably your country’s version of a white guy. Everyone here has an ancestor who played the Hutu to someone else’s Tutsi.
I am also a “white guy’s kid.” As I mentioned, my mother was (and is) an elementary school teacher. This year she has thirty kids in her classroom, many of them with ADHD, some of them with autism and other special needs. One teacher’s aide isn’t enough, but that’s all they give her. She gets stressed out, but she works through it.
Remember when I said I didn’t know the value of a dollar for many years? Shameful admission time. Back when I was a teenager, I stole a bunch of money from my mother and used it to start playing Magic: The Gathering.
That’s right. If I hadn’t started slipping her credit card from her purse when I was sixteen years old, a stupid, lazy punk looking for something to mute the rest of my miserable life and occupy my time, you would never have seen word one from me. I felt I pretty much had to steal from my mother to play Magic, because I had no money — certainly my high-school dropout, drugstore cashier money wasn’t going to keep me in Cursed Scrolls and Cad Blooms. We’re talking about Magic, here! It’s easy to blow a whole rent payment or paycheck just collecting cards — and not even a lot of cards. Just a couple can put you into the poorhouse.
Try blowing a grand while playing World of Warcraft or shooting hoops at the park. You can’t really do it.
Why did I immediately start spending like crazy? Because that’s what Magic players learn to do, especially dumb kids who don’t understand that someone has to work for that $120 they’re dumping on a box of product. The idea that “more and rarer cards = good” is drilled into a player’s mind from the very start. A newbie doesn’t tiptoe into the store and proxy up four Jaces his first week, to “spare himself the expense.” No, a kid actually wants to own Jace, in all of his full-color glory. Magic: The Gathering is a collector’s game, and it trains players from birth not to want to proxy anything. New players want proxies about as much as an art collector would want a fake Rembrandt. By the time a cash-strapped rube figures out that there’s an advanced level to the game, a depth of strategy that you could take part in simply by proxying every card and playtesting with slips of printer paper tucked into sleeves, he’s already on the hook for a couple grand.
I’m happy to say that my mom has since forgiven me for my sordid theft, about which I’m now suitably ashamed. For her part, considering the turns my career path has taken, I think she sees it as something of an investment. Good thing we were middle-class and white, because otherwise that money wouldn’t have been there for me to steal, and I never would’ve played Magic at all.
Thanks for taking it easy on me, mom. Your boy finally learned his lesson.
Flash forward. I’m thirty years old, I have bills to pay, and I look at Koth costing $40-50 and just laugh. The amount of money that it takes to build a top-tier Constructed deck is an actual joke — and not a funny one. The more splashy and “fun” the deck idea, the more it costs, and the less funny the joke gets. Every color with a relevant planeswalker, Titan, or other mythic finisher is going to play it somewhere, and they all cost a ton of cash.
Doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of black, red, or blue…what you need to play Magic is to force white and get passed a lot of green.
Design dictates that the splashiest, swingiest cards are at mythic — and cards like that have the most Constructed applications. There’s no way they can design them otherwise. Planeswalkers in particular are disgusting — if you make a planeswalker even halfway correctly, every deck with access to the mana is going to think about playing it. Also, sometimes the developers just screw with us for no reason. Why is Lotus Cobra mythic again? It’s a 2/1 Snake that doesn’t do anything but produce mana. Really? The flavor link to Black Lotus, that’s your reason? You’re telling me some rube busting packs is going to care about that? I’m sure glad that card is $20 instead of $4.
Anyway, to experience the full sensory experience of Magic, I’m expected to get up to four of a ton of these mythics.
Give me a break.
Don’t feed me that line about how I could just play some other deck. It’s not that simple. Magic isn’t just about what decks you build and play. Mark Rosewater recently did an interview on this very site where he said that a lot of playing Magic isn’t necessarily the physical act of playing Magic, but being part of a community, theorizing, reading, and learning. I agree with this. Part of the fun of Magic
building decks and exploring the limitless possibilities. And if I can’t build any deck that has an Elspeth, Jace, Primeval Titan, or Koth, where does that leave me? Playing Pauper?
I actually can’t believe the format is called “Pauper.”
Pauper is an insult, both in terms of the watered-down gameplay and the aforementioned name. It basically just says, “Here’s the format for people who don’t have any money.” If the competitive game is flourishing, it’s despite this sort of crap, not because of it. I know WotC didn’t invent the format or name it, but it’s a MODO filter, so they definitely use the name with no sense of irony.
An inability to obtain certain cards not only prevents players from building the physical decks, but also leaves them out in the cold when it comes time to discuss strategy and theory— to take part in the larger community to which Mark Rosewater alluded. Not only are the results of budget-choked players hampered by having access to less than 100% of the Standard cardpool, but their ability to interact at the highest strategic levels of the community is hampered as well. Look at how much has already been written about Koth of the Hammer. If a person doesn’t own four Koths, how much of the community is shut off to him? How much theory will he never put into practice? How many Cedric Phillips articles will this player open, only to say, “Well, I’ll never be able to afford that deck, so…”
How would it change a player’s study of chess, if half of the openings cost $200?
Every kid whose parents can’t afford some absurd $75 Worldwake mythic is just another poor mope relegated to the Minor Leagues, where they play casually or not at all, where any talent they might have had to operate at the highest levels is choked out by the miserable cost of mythics. Imagine the tyke that opens up an article by Chapin or Zvi or whoever, sees a $600 decklist, and can’t take part in the discussion about it. Is Magic for
kids or for rich people? Is competitive play important or just a bonus for people who happen to collect cards? I mean, what the heck are we
Planeswalker mythics are the real Eldrazi, and All Is Dust refers to the inside of my wallet.
Not Of This Tax Bracket.
There’s a certain dollar threshold you have to hit for all doors to be open to you. Strategic doors, community doors, even card-collecting doors. Its figure is as expansive and white as one of Rush Limbaugh’s jowls. The card game business ain’t a charity, yo. It’s offices filled with white people cranking our products that other white people can afford, but their own factory workers cannot.
Moment in Time #2
The Japanese were visiting Upper Deck, and a factory tour had been arranged to show the visiting Tokyo executives the sort of American manufacturing power he could expect to be put behind whatever card game we collaborated on.
I had no business being there, but I was the sidekick to someone at least reasonably important, and so I was dragged along. It would be my first time seeing the factory as well.
Because Upper Deck was snake-bit in every possible way, we happened to wander into the factory during shift change. Our line of white folks, one Iranian (family allegedly not oil-rich), and one Japanese millionaire traipsed merrily into the production facility expecting a well-oiled machine, and instead, we got absolute stillness from all the printing presses, and lines of arriving and departing workers pressed against the hallway walls.
Literally every factory worker was Hispanic.
The lunchroom conduct instructions were in Spanish. The machine operating instructions were supplemented with signs, in Spanish. There were Big Brother-ish posters promising a $2,000 reward for anyone diming their co-workers out for theft; these were also in Spanish. The workers lined the halls on either side of our procession, heads down, not making eye contact, not wanting to say or do anything out of turn and anger the Upper Deck executives. Since I was with them, was white, and was wearing a suit, I’m sure they made the mistake of thinking I was important as well.
All of the machines were silent, millions upon millions of cards and print sheets were laid out or resting in funnels or assembly lines.
I wanted to reach out and grab one of the workers, try to talk to him.
“Trust me,” I would’ve said. “I’m not important. These guys don’t care about me, either. Just stop standing there with your head down, as if you’re not allowed to look at us as we pass, okay? You don’t have to look at the floor.”
Of course, I said nothing. We concluded the not-so-impressive tour without incident.
“None of these people could afford to buy the products they’re helping to manufacture,” I remember thinking to myself. “They couldn’t buy one rare on the secondary market on what they make in an hour.”
Then I thought: “We’re going to go back to the main headquarters now, the one with the racecar in the lobby and statues of Batman. And it’s going to be filled to the brim with white people. Creative is going to be an Iranian and white people. R&D is going to be white people + Andrew Yip. And income-wise, he counts as an honorary white person. So does Antonino. Executive row is going to be filled with white people.”
I tried to forget about it. I still remember it now, though — four years later. So what does that tell you?
In closing, mythic rares can juggle my balls.
I dunno, maybe you disagree, but whatever. I don’t care how many more players Magic has now. That Magic has captured more of a certain type of dollar doesn’t mean it’s any less exclusive of people who can’t hit the numbers.
Don’t tell me that Birds of Paradise is $2 now, and that’s a good thing — Birds of Paradise is boring. You’re not doing me a favor by allowing me to pay twenty-five cents for Wild Evocation and Protean Hydra — nobody gives a crap about those cards.
Moment in Time #3
Ben Rubin grabbed a Sharpie and with a few messy scribbles, turned a foil seven-casting-cost Magneto into a proxy of some new card he was developing for the VS. System card game.
“Really? A foil Magneto?” I asked.
“You know they’re all worthless, right?” he replied.
“Oh… yeah,” I muttered, lamely. As if I’d known all along. As if I hadn’t just been clued in by his utter indifference to a card I would’ve paid $10 for at the time.
This truth is why you can only push me so far, and no farther.
Mythics have the splashiest mechanics, the coolest art, and in the case of the planeswalkers, the most IP support. They’re the pinnacles of the game in terms of fun and function. You can’t design them in such a way that they’re optional and yet worth their rarity — you’ll never be able to do that. Nobody wants to design a card that a player can just “take or leave.”
When the worst I could expect to get dinged for was $12 for an Exalted Angel, I was okay with you guys (and dealers) making 3000% off of me. I’m not going to put up with too much more of this “the best card in Standard costs $75” business, though.
I wish there were something you could do to fix this, WotC. But I guess my only recourse is to be a white guy, with a white guy job, so I can play this most “white guy” of games. *** I mean, look at me. Coming back to write for StarCityGames.com was my new version of stealing my mom’s credit card. Without the compensation from this, there’s no way I could afford to play this game — even just Limited.
I still can’t play Constructed.
I’d say “get rid of mythics,” but I know you have your shareholders, and whatnot. But… listen. I’m older now, getting married, with more responsibilities than when I was a snot-nosed, thieving little jerk. Your game just costs too much. I didn’t take this article-writing job just to break even.
Please fix this.
* – My father took me out for Little League as well, though I wasn’t the most engaged player on the diamond. One time, I was in the on-deck circle, swinging my bat around and trying to look Chili Davis, when I cracked myself in the kneecap. Desperate not to be found out as an idiot who had injured himself while warming up, my face nearly white with pain, I hid my limp on the way to the plate and promptly struck out on three feeble, pain-wracked swings.
When I got back to the dugout, I looked over to my dad in the stands (actually just a deck chair he’d brought). He raised an eyebrow at me. His facial expression fairly asked, “Son, what the hell was that?”
I wanted to give him some excuse about how the opposing hurler “really had his stuff.” But the opposing hurler was a ten-year-old, 65-pound kid with a blood disorder. I’d made him look like Cy Young.
** – As reported by Osyp himself — so take it with the largest grain of salt in the history of the world.
*** – As a counterpoint to all of this money whining — Yu-Gi-Oh! has had “mythic” rarities for a long time, and black/Hispanic kids play that game like hotcakes. Of course, there’s no Standard in Yu-Gi-Oh!, it’s far more casual most of the time, and once you have the thirty cards on the restricted list that go in every deck, you don’t have to spend much.