The Sociology of Magic: A Scientific Study

Hello everyone in netland! This time, I thought I’d tackle an issue that has gone virtually unexplored: The sociology of Magic. What kind of people does it attract? What are their behaviours? What about the role of women in Magic? That of consumption? All the above issues were carefully analyzed and put into a thesis…

Hello everyone in netland! This time, I thought I’d tackle an issue that has gone virtually unexplored: The sociology of Magic. What kind of people does it attract? What are their behaviours? What about the role of women in Magic? That of consumption? All the above issues were carefully analyzed and put into a thesis on the subject by a good friend of mine, David Corbett, who spent several months analyzing the behaviours of Magic players at various sites. His data will be interspersed through this article, since it is the foundation upon which it was written.

A short addendum: All names apart from those coming from quoted sources have been changed to protect the involved.

To begin, let me state that Mr. Corbett’s work is entitled "Magic the Gathering: The Construction of Status in a Contemporary Neo-Tribe." A neo-tribe may be loosely defined as a group whose standards include voluntary affinity, constitution by consumption, and the central importance of proximity. Other important aspects are the role of women, and status among players. While I am a far cry from being an expert in the field, I will attempt to relay my and his observations about this great phenomenon of ours. At first glance however, Magic players all share the above traits -but some are more marked than others.

Voluntary Affinity

To belong to a group, one must obviously find something in common with those attending. It is simple enough to state that Magic players "find" or "gravitate" toward each other, but the reality is, more often than not they are found by accident. Yours truly had never heard of this game until a friend of his introduced it while we were gaming. Strangely enough, there was a schism between the "true" gamers, who played GURPS, Heavy Gear, and other role-playing games, and the card players. Little respect was afforded card players, and they were often unceremoniously bumped from the gaming space. It should be said, however, that the room WAS reserved for role-playing, but the fact some of the card players were later integrated into the group shows a narrowness of vision.

As to where one finds players, most people that play Magic have an innate sense of where to find each other. They visit gaming stores, go to university, or simply are part of your circle of friends and have a hobby you had not yet suspected. For example, one of the players interviewed by Mr. Corbett, Arthur stated that "…If you’re in a game or, playing Magic in a public place, other gamers will approach you…and if I ever saw a game of Magic being played, I would approach the gamers."

Most universities also have some kind of area, or sometimes a store or a gaming group, where such people can be met. New players are accepted rather quickly, and only exceptionally rude behaviour will see them scorned.

Every player Mr. Corbett talked to during his months long study stated that friends of these players had hooked them on the game. The logic being, obviously, that if you BOTH play, then it’s more fun and you can at least turn to each other for a quick game.

Even though friends and colleagues will play the game for a long time, there are often long stretches where the game will be completely absent from the environment, taking a back seat to other activities. Magic often goes into a hibernation period at these sites, typically when the new Banned and Restricted lists come out. When this happens, players will generally take to another game, leave the cards at home, or just stop showing up altogether.

An interesting aspect of the Magic arena is that players’ personal or work lives are rarely brought to the table. As a striking example, it was well over a month after Mr. Corbett had started examining us and taking notes that anyone even asked him his name! As well, conversation centered around players’ lives seemed to draw an uncomfortable silence, presumably because of the interactions with a new person. Typically however, even people who had known each other for a long time had little knowledge of each other outside the table. As well, few of the players will do anything with each other outside the table, unless they really get along and have an affinity with each other.

Constitution by Consumption

Magic is, at heart, a buyer’s game. While it was not always so (yes, I realize you always had to buy boosters and such, but it did not seem as obvious way back when as it is now) these days the purchasing of cards is almost a necessity for continued participation in the game.

One of the players at a university location, Rob, had an impressive collection of older cards, but wanted to start playing in the Type II format. He especially wanted one card: The Phyrexian Processor. He bought three boxes of Urza’s Saga to locate this card, without success. Rob also got all the components for Tolarian Blue, but that’s a story for another day. 🙂 While no one explicitly stated how much product Rob had to buy, that quest for that ONE CARD is what drove him to such lengths. All the more infuriating in that he could easily have traded for it had he been more patient.

The role of consumption is made more obvious by the formats that WotC and the DCI have set for the regulated play of Magic. Most common of these purchase-intensive formats are the Booster Draft, wherein a set number of people each buy three booster packs of an expansion to pass around, and Sealed Deck, where a Starter Deck and several boosters are bought and assimilated into a coherent playing deck.

The other sanctioned formats also carry their share of commercial purchase. To stay current in Type II, which habitually encapsulates the five or six most recent releases of Magic expansions, and the "base set" of Classic, usually requires an investment of close to close to eight hundred Canadian dollars per year at bare minimum. This is calculated on an average $120 Canadian per box at two boxes per release. Several players have given up on the Type II format because of its sheer expense and the eventual obsolescence of their cards. Just like in any other endeavour or activity, there are those who refuse to be swayed by the winds of change.

Magic can be played at its barest bones with donated cards and still be an enjoyable experience, however. Mr. Corbett demonstrated this amply when he took cards donated from various players and built himself a decent White-Blue deck.

A little-explored area that this connects to is that of collectibility. Some players just seem attuned to a certain card, wanting as many copies of it for whichever reason. The reasons usually range from the art to a goofy portion of flavour text to simply it being a fun thing to do.

I can think off-hand of Rob’s Saprazzan Heir collection, Mike Elliott’s huge collection of Moxes and Power Nine, and Jean’s collection of Ornithopters. The collectibility aspect is harder to pinpoint in most serious players, but usually, those that do collect tend to be of the casual variety.

The Importance of Proximity

It goes without saying that without a place to play in, the game won’t happen. This is often why several stores are open on university campuses, busy shopping areas, or even near residential quarters. The number of Magic players in any one city is hard to pinpoint, but based on my experiences here in Ottawa, a city of about 400,000 people, I would have to say we have close to two hundred or so players (assuming that there are people beyond my immediate knowledge and that there are activities in suburban areas).

The problem with stores is (well, this isn’t ACTUALLY a problem; they are there to make money) that they need to sell a LOT of product to stay profitable unless they have a strong Internet presence. Examples of the latter are of course, StarCity Games and Wizards of the Coast, which has an excellent website. I won’t repeat what an excellent article by David Phifer has already stated, but stores often strike a fine balance between having the barbarian hordes ravaging their store and keeping their other clientele happy.

A store that manages to keep its business relatively close to bus routes and major attractions will find itself with a returning base of customers that will reward it with their hard-earned cash. A complaint often heard in these parts is that many of the stores are out of the way of regular areas, which can be a HUGE problem in the dead of winter. Believe you me, some of you may live in Alaska, but you haven’t lived till you’ve been in -35 degree weather with hail pellets the size of baseballs smashing on your windshields. This poses an additional problems for stores in the Ottawa area. Not only do they have to make a roomy area, they have to be aware of adverse weather conditions, cope with insane customers, and generally be smiley. Enough to have some people elevated to sainthood, let me tell you.

Generally, if a store cannot be found or is closed, people in this city will gather in the Rideau Centre (picture a two-story mall with a food court the size of a football field) and dish out the cards there. Such a situation cannot last forever, however. Often when a store is not or cannot provide a location accessible to its players, the players will drift away to other occupations – or simply stop playing altogether.

The Role of Women

Well, it’s impossible to talk about Magic without talking about the women who are or are not involved with the game. When Mr. Corbett started his study and field notes, he noted the absence of women on more than one occasion. While the subject was not broached publicly, he did ask Rob about it at one point:

"Well, it’s like this. A lot of times, women will show up to play Magic – and will be harassed, or insulted, or not taken seriously. That turns a lot of them off, and they just stop."

I believe that in the time Mr. Corbett wrote his paper, he actually only encountered one or two women playing the game.

One of them, Kayla, was playing uniquely with Unglued cards. She was attracted to them because of the strange and unusual things the cards did. When asked why she played the game, she simply replied: "The Unglued Cards." Playing with such cards made for a more light-hearted approach and was appreciated by other gamers.

Another person associated with gamers, Emma, clearly had no interest in the game, though she was well-acquainted with it and its crowd.

According to Emma: "Magic is too competitive. It’s not a social game, there’s no socialising, it’s a collecting game, it’s half-over by the time you start to play. You win based on what you’ve bought, and that’s just not the sort of game I want to play."

Emma’s attitude reflects that of many other gamers, male and female, who are repulsed by the consumerist aspect of the game. I have personally witnessed more than a few people leave the game in frustration over this.

That being said, this section wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that yes, we have advanced beyond the Bronze Age and women ARE a vital and important part of the Magic community. One has to look no farther than StarCity writers like Mary Van Tyne and Becky Hiebert, veterans of the tourney scene. Who can forget Alice Coggins and her charming Dojo columns? The fact is, some women ARE top-level competitors – and one of them, is of course, Michelle Bush. (Grand Prix second this weekend — Woo hoo! — The Ferrett)

I mention her in particular because her recent columns have showed a frustration toward other players and their attitudes. To those players that behave in this manner, please, think twice before you mouth off or start underestimating your opponent. The person you’re playing against not only is a very intelligent woman – she’s a tremendous deckbuilder and a good writer to boot!

And that goes for probably every other woman who plays this game. These women ALL have brains, capacities, skills, and intuition. Let’s encourage them to make those things grow, instead of scaring them away from the table.

Status in Magic

As in any part of culture, status in Magic can be obtained through a variety of ways. In Mr. Corbett’s study, he found that status was achieved in one of three ways: Through consumption and trading, through excellent play, and through organisation.

The fact that certain people own older and more powerful cards usually entitles them to great respect from their peers. A player who has collection of the Power Nine, a player who has four of every card in a set, a player who plays a deck composed of foils or black-bordered cards will usually call attention to himself and will offset any particular playing deficiencies that player may have. In the case of Dale, there are few deficiencies to be seen. He is known throughout the Magic community as a master of mind tricks, able to bore through your brain to discern what play you will make or what card you will play. His collection is extremely impressive and has close to four of every Magic card generally available to the public. This allows Dale to build any deck for any format he wishes. Dale was the first in our area to have an all-foil deck, which includes a gorgeous foil Serra Angel. Most of the cards Dale and other collectors have NOT been bought, but traded judiciously through the Internet and other sources. This makes their collection all the more impressive.

Successful play will earn a player a reputation just as quickly. Although I am still graduating from Scrub 101, many are the players who have made their marks on the world of Magic through the Pro Tour. Such notables as Jon Finkel, Michael Long, and soon the Ferrett (Um.. right — The Ferrett) will be a source of inspiration as long as their exploits are told through the Internet. While there is an element of luck involved in any game of Magic, the fact is that skilled players have mastered the art of the topdeck. Status can be lost quickly through poor play, bad temper, or just general unsportsmanlike behaviour. In the world of the Internet, fifteen minutes of fame often can become fifteen seconds if a reputation and play skill are not cultivated. Skill typically must be displayed at Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grand Prixs, National Championships, and other tournaments. Little as I feel like attending such events, the fact is they ARE a test of deckbuilding, playing, and stamina. Kudos to those that work through them.

Organisation and sociability can give players and stores status that would not be attributed to them normally. Other players tend to be more aloof, and though they may be superior in playing skill, they are thought of as cold fish generally. Stores that provide regular tournaments, decent prize support, and good gaming space will also see Magic players flock to them. While stores generally cannot control their status, what they will do for a player will go far toward changing this.

Whew! This has been A LOT longer than I had planned it to be. I hope that you all found this informative, if not entertaining. There are lots more issues to deal with, but these should bring more understanding to the community. Hopefully, Ferrett has sprinkled quotes inside to lighten the load. (Nah — The Ferrett)

Crazy Pierre<—————–getting Carpal Tunnel Syndrome but loving it. 🙂