Why Magic Writing Matters

Tuesday, October 26th – It’s an argument that I’ve heard a million times: When it comes to Magic articles, the quality of writing doesn’t matter. Only tech does. I’m here to tell you why those arguments are wrong. (Plus, an update on the SCG Casual Talent Search!)

A few weeks ago, Bill Stark said something that was utterly wrong on Facebook. Unfortunately, Facebook is where history goes to die.

No, seriously; ever try to look up something someone said a month ago on Facebook? Oh, sure, if it’s your grandmother, who posted once on the wrong wall in 2008 (“Hi, Billy! I remember back when I wiped that cute little tuchis you’re wiggling at me now!”), you have a hope. But if it’s someone who posts regularly, hell, you might as well be trying to find a ripple in a rushing river.

Facebook or Twitter have the memory of an Etch-A-Sketch; one shake, and it’s gone. You have access to the last two day’s events, but does anyone really check back further? If you’re out of town for a week, nobody really cares what happened.

That’s why Facebook is awesome. It’s like that friend with no self-esteem, the one you can ditch at a moment’s notice when something better comes along, but is always there when you call him up on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Hell, they had to invent Farmville and Mafia Wars to give people a reason to keep logging in.

But the point remains: after a week, the cleverest thing written on Facebook is as obsolete as the boringest thing. They’re all gone, locked deep in nameless servers, never to be seen again except by the most dedicated of stalkers.*

(“We don’t actually know what life was like in 2013,” the historians weep. “We had blogs, books, and journals before then. Then Twitter and Facebook took over. I guess we could find out, but we get really bored hitting that ‘more’ button.”)

Anyway, what Bill Stark said was so utterly wrong — which I cannot find, and don’t care to — was actually in response to Ted “Pat the Bunny” Knutson. I don’t really need to find his exact wording, because even if I’m misremembering exactly what M’sieu Stark said, the gist of it was an argument that I’ve heard a million times from many


Quality of writing doesn’t matter. Only tech does.

To get a good Magic site, all you need is top pros, writing honestly about their amazing new decks. You don’t even really need the writing; just the decks will do, thank you, with perhaps a brief note or two on the whacky card choices.

(If, you know, they feel like writing anything to explain their precious logic. You must approach top pros cautiously because they’re beautiful, fragile creatures, like unicorns. Also, like unicorns, they’re surrounded by virgins.)

To a certain extent, this “technology matters” approach is very true. If you had a site that was called “BigProsWithBigDecks.com,” where every week the top ten best players in the world each gave a single decklist — just a deck, no explanation — that was the deck they said you should be playing in Standard this week, it would get an

lot of hits. Because hey, when the crazy old guy down at the park starts flinging bread crumbs, are the pigeons going to complain?

In a vacuum (perhaps one of those awesome Dyson ball-joint ones), this approach would get you a ton of eyeballs. There are a lot of players who treat every article like an ear of corn to be husked — yeah, yeah, enough of this stupid “explanation” thing, just
gimme the sixty.

They’d show up at this site in droves, as would the FNM players looking for an advantage. It’d be a huge hit.

…for a while.

The thing is, tech is a very unforgiving mistress, and Magic is harsh on those who don’t continually do their homework. Those top ten best players in the world, the ones who are writing for HotSwollenTurgidDecks.com? Within a year, about half of them would have rotated out. Some of them lose the fire within, some of them get smacked about by lady luck, others just turn out to be wrong. Magic has a huge turnover.

As the guy who’s in charge of monetizing MonstersOfDeck.com, you’re going to discover a thing about the tech-loving audience:
they have zero loyalty.

Their loyalty is never to your site, but to your technology. The minute your decks start to fail, they’ll lambaste you in the forums and tell everyone how terrible you are now, and then they’ll leave.

They never gave a crap about HowsThatBigDeckGonnaFitInMyHand.com. They gave a crap about winning their tournament.

Now that your pros are starting to fade, you become the moral equivalent of that gangster in all the mob movies who thinks that people love him, but really they just loved his money… And you’re gonna end about as well as Scarface.

“Well, I’ll just get more pros!” you say. “I’ll hire whoever I need to! Pros for everyone!”

That assumes that “professional Magic players” are a commodity, and you can just get on the phone and order up a batch of top pros along with a ton of coal and some sowbellies. You can’t. Pros, in my experience as an editor, fall into three basic categories:

The disinterested.

If said pro is at the top of his game, why would he want to invest his time into making other people better? It’s not that he’s opposed to helping… But thinking up new decks and tracking formats that he’s not playing in takes work. Why would he want to spend his time doing that? It’s not fun, and he’d rather be playing Farmville. You won’t get him to write for BigBlackDecks.com.

The mercenary.

He, too, wonders why he should spend his time helping others… But unlike the disinterested, who just can’t be bothered, he

write for whoever pays him enough to make it worth his time. The key is, he’ll write for whoever pays him the most for the least effort. If he could get away with writing a 250-word article for $2,000, you bet your buns he would, and he’ll move to whoever pays him more. You can get him to write for CravingDeepDeck.com, but it’s going to cost you, and you’re going to have to continually ride that balance between “making him earn his money by providing actually good decks as opposed to last month’s warmed-over tech” and “getting outbid by another site.”

The entertained.

These pros will write if they think it’s going to be fun. They write for the feedback, to amuse their friends, to put out a solid piece, whatever. They want to get paid, of course — every pro Magic player’s smart enough not to do something for free when they can pick up some cash — but money’s not their primary motivation. They’re in it for the fun.

So. You now have your site, OhGodNotAnotherPenisJokeFerrett.com, and it turns out that a third of the top pros

work for you because they’re Disinterested, and a third of the top pros will give you decks but you’ll pay great amounts for it because they’re Mercenary.

What’s left? The Entertained. And who are they giving decks to?

Whoever they like best.

Because they’re in it for the larf, they’re going to write for the site which has the people they like the most. In a lot of cases, that’s going to be the pros who are their friends, who are saying, “Hey, I’m writing for these guys, they’re cool, why don’t you try it?” In some cases those pro friends are also editors, and that’s an advantage because then you’ve got a buddy who can say, “Dude, you need to write more,” and they do.

That’s why Ted’s getting all these great Magic writers back; he chats a lot with a lot of people, he can bug the entertained into writing again because he can convince them it’d be fun. So Red Rover, Red Rover, they come over.

…Except they won’t if it’s just listing decks. That’s not particularly fun for anyone, and it makes it so they don’t have decklists to give to their friends. So basically, you’re down to a third of the Magic pros, and you’re getting the most expensive and arguably least valuable deck makers.

We’ve delved a lot into Magic stuff here — but the point I’m making is that theoretically, getting a large number of Magic readers

as simple as “getting the best tech.” But getting that tech involves a large number of fairly complex factors in attracting the people

that tech, and you’re unlikely to succeed unless you’re deeply involved with the community enough to continually attract the best people to write for you.

That is, of course, only if you’re convinced that technology is the sole reason to read Magic.

If you think that, you’re wrong.

Thing is, while there are a large number of people who will tune in only for the tech — Lord knows one of the best ways to get hits for an article is to promise a new deck your audience has never seen before — there are a lot of other people who

shooting to dominate their PTQ every time. They’re the guys who just love Magic, win or lose, and they want to immerse themselves in this game like a princess settling into a gentle milk bath. They want to bukkake themselves with Magic love.

What gets them to feel that love? Good, solid, entertaining Magic writing.

Look, there’s a reason Evan Erwin is one of the most popular Magic writers today, and it ain’t his tech. You know the routine — Evan gets his hands on a preview card, shrieks “OH MAH GAWD THIS IS GONNA BREAK THE FORMAT,” and then it shows up for a dollar in the newest sales category on StarCityGames.com, “Evan’s Greatest Misses.”

Yet Evan is enthusiastic. Evan has the talent that all great Magic writers have — he makes you feel like you’re part of a community. Good Magic writers can make you feel like there’s a big party here, brimming with fun, and they’ve just pulled up a chair so you can sit at the coolest table in the house.

Unlike the fungible commodity of tech,
that love does not transfer.

Writers like that get people invested not just in the game, but
in the very sites they write for.

While the hardcore players will get the tech at GenericSite.com, it’s like buying broccoli at the grocery store — you have to go, but there’s not a whole lot of investment. Wherever broccoli is cheap and convenient, you’ll go, and if a better broccoli store opens up across the street from you, it’s goodbye older store.

The site that has good Magic writing, however, will get people arriving on a regular basis. It’s not the eat-your-veggies harshness of tech, but the ice cream sundae of Magic. You don’t really need it, but you want it, and it’s sweet
every time.

It’s where you go to relax.

That relaxation will get people coming back.

Furthermore, good Magic writing is entertaining regardless of whether you’re interested in the format or not. I personally don’t play Constructed, because I find it repetitive and boring. But when Patrick Chapin writes about Standard, he explains the process and his philosophy and often talks about the ethical dilemmas involved in creating decks… So I read him even though I have no interest in Standard.

That’s what good Magic writing does:
it transcends tech.

Now, let us not discount the importance of tech. When I first started editing for StarCityGames.com back in the days when gas was two cents a gallon and Archaeopteryx flew the skies, all I was concerned with was entertainment. I let a lot of really crappy decks through because I didn’t know any better, and StarCityGames.com was considered a joke site by the pros, and traffic was steady but flat.

I have to thank the folks at Team Academy, a site of wanna-be “pros” (you know the kind — they qualify, then scrub out on the actual Tour), who mocked my site relentlessly until I realized how much tech counted. I tightened up, made sure everything I published was valid strategy (and marked off the places where I knew it was sketchy, but interesting)… And within a year, SCG was a force to be reckoned with.

For a great Magic site, you have to have

tech and good writing working hand-in-hand.

The ironic thing about it, though, is that if you don’t have the good writing to make the site someplace that people want to be, then you have no community to get the tech that you desperately need. You need a vibrant group of involved people so when those Entertained pros start to write — the pros who are often, by far, the best and most willing to share good ideas — they’ll want to write for

People are a social animal. They want to be where the fun is. While you could have a site that just listed tech, I don’t think anyone would consider it “fun.”

A good site needs to have a bunch of writers who

fun. People who you want to be seen with.

Which is where, I think, StarCityGames.com waned for a while. I’d argued fiercely against dropping the fan-submitted articles, saying that we had dredged through the dross to find such greats as John F. Rizzo, Geordie Tait, Evan Erwin, and Craig Stevenson (who was
on fire

when he wrote). I’d said that if we dropped them, we’d eventually lose a lot of people being invested in us — yes, it was tedious searching through ten articles a day for the one we wanted, but it also made people feel like they were a part of us, and let us refresh our roster regularly. Rizzo stopped writing? Tait steps in. We always had a superstar. Getting rid of that would slowly strangle us over time, and it’d be a long-term error to drop it.

“Nah,” I was told. “We got pros. We can always hire more people.”

And, well, we all know how

worked out.

Hence, the latest StarCityGames.com Talent Search — because it’s time we found more great Magic writers. Ted’s on the ball getting us tech

good writing from the pros, but we want to find the next layer of people.

…which I did last week, when I chose the first people who made the cut. That’s the amazing thing: the “Casual/Other” category got over 130 entries, which was

. Cutting it down to five entries was like chopping off my own hand, Skywalker-style — I could have easily chosen a top twenty, not a top five.

(In fact, by the time I was done with my first pass, 32 articles were sitting in my “Dynomite” folder. I also had a “Reject” folder and a “Not Awful” folder where the rest went.)

The fact that you didn’t make it doesn’t mean you weren’t good. With such a harsh cut to make, a lot of people got cut because I wasn’t sure they had more than one article in them — they wrote an

essay on some narrow aspect of Magic, but it didn’t feel like they had anything else to say after that. Others got cut because their writing was interesting enough to make it in a world without competition, but compared to the other EDH articles I had slots for they just were a hair less good than the one I had to choose.

The ones I did choose are sure to have some controversial stuff, and I’ll tell you why I chose them when they get there. But here are some early stats (some of which you would’ve seen in real time if you were following
my Twitter feed

on the day):

  • Casual players who started off their article by saying, “I am not Pat Chapin”: three
  • Casual players who started off their article by claiming they were not someone

    than Pat Chapin: none. Apparently, if you’re not going to be a Magic player, Pat’s the person not to be like.
  • Writers who spent their entire first article telling me how awesome all their future articles were going to be once they wrote them: six. Why did you waste your time doing this? It baffles me.
  • Writers who started off by telling me how difficult it is to think up a topic, but they have searched their fevered brains to find it: five.
  • Of those writers, the number who made it into the “Dynomite” folder: none. If you had this much trouble coming up with one article, why in hell am I going to try to get you to write more on a deadline?
  • Writers who wasted their first few paragraphs introducing themselves and telling you their Magic history: too many to count. Look, I’m sorry, guys, but no one really cares. You’re not writing an article to introduce yourself; you’re writing it to entertain others, and every Magic history is pretty much the same: “Hi, I’m X, I started playing back when Y came out, and I love playing deck Z.” Start with something that’s really going to set you apart aside from the fact that you started when Ravnica came out — a fact you share with thousands of other interchangeable people.
  • Writers who wrote really entertainingly snarky looks at pros that we couldn’t possibly publish due to possible libel issues: one. But it was a

    good one.

The casual section is going to be an interesting mix. And it won’t have a lot of tech, but that doesn’t matter as much as many think it does. If tech supremacy that were the case, then why would anyone go to MagicTheGathering.com? There’s hardly any real tech there, except on Thursdays. But people show up because MTG.com reflects their love of Magic, as all good sites should do.

(Also, yes, because the site’s on every Magic product these days… But there was a time when Magic’s official website was a dusty hole and SCG.com ruled the Interwebz. It was a short reign, but
I was there.


Anyway, we’ll show you the casual articles Thursday. Today you get Ted’s Limited, and tomorrow is Chapin’s Constructed. It’s gonna be interesting.

Until then, write better. I’ll try to.

Signing off,
The Ferrett
The Here Does Something On This Site Here Guy

Ferretthimself on Twitter

Don’t friend me on Facebook, I’m hardly ever there, and all it ever is is my cross-posted Twitter stuff anyway

[email protected]

* – Except for that photo of you with your shirt off, drool dripping down your face, as you suck on the beer bong and give the camera the thumbs-up. That will be around for all future girlfriends, employers, and your grandmother who last posted in 2008. (“Hi, Billy! What’s that rubber tube in your mouth?”)