A. D. Jameson's Blog

An open letter to Cedric Phillips, Gerry Thompson, and the Pro Magic community at large

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Dear Cedric Phillips and GerryT,

Having listened with great interest to the “Change Worth Fighting For” episode of the Cedric Phillips Podcast, I felt compelled to reply. On that episode, you wondered why professional Magic players have seen their fortunes decline so precipitously over the past ten years, and what they can now do to improve their situation. I believe I can help explain this reversal of fortune, and offer some relevant advice. What follows is a little on the long side, and perhaps a little depressing, but I hope you will nonetheless find it edifying. If you like, it would be my pleasure to discuss these matters further.

About me, briefly: I’ve played Magic on and off since the release of Fallen Empires, and am a regular consumer of Magic content. Among other things, I’ve watched every Pro Tour since PT Los Angeles (October 2005); I’ve watched countless LSV draft videos and Twitch streams; I’ve listened to hundreds of episodes of Limited Resources, Mark Rosewater’s Drive to Work podcast, and various other Magic podcasts; and I’ve read just about every column that Mark Rosewater has ever written. At the same time, I’m also an English Ph.D. and author whose research interests include the economics of fantasy artworks—for instance, my most recent book, I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture, tells the story of how geek culture went from being an underground phenomenon to a mainstream demographic. Given that, I tend to view Magic from a financial perspective—by which I don’t mean living the dream of playing on the Pro Tour, or making a fortune by speculating on Magic cards, but rather trying to understand why Wizards of the Coast makes the economic decisions that it does.

I am hardly a Wizards insider. But I believe that my research into Magic’s financial history, coupled with my broader knowledge of fantasy franchises, enables me to understand why Wizards has chosen over the past decade to disinvest in its Pros, even if that decision appears baffling and counterintuitive to those players. For years now I’ve watched Pros complain about their situation, wondering why, if Magic is doing so great, then why are the Pros suffering? Shouldn’t their fortunes rise and fall with Wizards’? As you yourselves put it on your podcast, “the stars sell the cards,” by which logic if Wizards wants to succeed, then it needs to build stars. Just like how the NBA promotes LeBron James, and not simply “hoops,” Wizards should promote, say, Reid Duke, and not simply “Siege Rhino.” By that same logic, if Wizards doesn’t build stars, then it won’t sell cards, and everyone’s fortune will decline.

I sympathize with your argument. I love watching professional Magic, and once attended a Pro Tour as press just so I could blog about it. But at the same time, I think that your logic is mistaken, and I suspect that your arguments will fail to impress Wizards. Because while it appears to you that Wizards is behaving irrationally, or foolishly, the fact remains that the company long ago settled on a business plan that involves investing less in its Pro players, not more. This is because Wizards has already tried the strategy that you cite—promoting Magic by championing its Pros—only to find that it didn’t work out that all that well. Indeed, it proved nearly catastrophic. And because of that, as well as for other reasons, Wizards has spent the past ten years rebranding Magic as something other than a competitive tournament game.

Let’s review the relevant history. In 1996, Skaff Elias, Magic’s first Brand Manager, created the Pro Tour in order to promote Magic, and for the next twelve years, Wizards invested heavily in competitive Magic. Wizards ditched Magic’s original whimsical fantasy flavor (not to mention nearly all of the game’s female artists)…

 

…refocusing the game around dueling mage-punk badasses.

 

In September 2005, Magic’s creative lead, Matt Cavotta, described the game’s flavor as follows:

Magic is a head-to-head battle of wits in which two spellcasting warriors fight to the death with magic and armies of bad-ass creatures. Every card illustration should work in that context: active, aggressive, cool, wicked, “edgy.” The word “magepunk” works for us. Remember, your audience is BOYS 14 and up.

There were even two blocks centered around pit fighting.

In the Pro Player Era, Magic became a game about winning and dominating, as Wizards targeted competitive young men, selling them dreams of fame and glory, as well as the chance to “play the game, see the world.” The greatest dream was winning the Pro Tour, which Wizards presented not only as the pinnacle of Magic, but as a recruitment pipeline, using it to hire players like Randy Buehler and Aaron Forsythe. Small wonder then that, during this time, Wizards catered heavily to the Pros by creating Magic Online, the Magic Invitational, the Pro Players Club, and the Pro Tour Hall of Fame, and by making the Pro Tour Player Cards, which went inside actual packs.

 

Wizards also made Magic the way Pros tend to like it: grindy and combo-heavy, chock full of abstract mechanics and cards that skilled players could abuse to gain incremental advantage. For a dozen years, the Pros were Magic’s foremost ambassadors, and the stars did in fact sell the cards.

The problem is that they didn’t sell that many. By catering so heavily to Pros and Pro-wannabes, Wizards steadily alienated its casual players and much of its female fan base. (Scroll, for instance, through these photos, taken at Worlds 2008.) At first, Wizards didn’t know it was losing these customers. On an early episode of his Drive to Work podcast, Mark Rosewater explains that Wizards began calling those disappearing players “the Invisibles,” a shorthand for “people who play who don’t participate in organized play.” Take a moment to let that terminology sink in: during the Pro Player Era, Wizards was so invested in Magic as a competitive game that it didn’t even know that non-competitive players existed, and as such apparently had no good means of tracking their preferences or spending habits. But by 2008, Wizards could no longer deny that its business strategy wasn’t working. Magic was in financial crisis, with sales declining despite the fact that tournament attendance was good and the Pros loved perplexingly complex blocks like Ravnica, Time Spiral, Lorwyn, Shadowmoor, and Alara.

The Pro Player Era came to a rather abrupt end in 2008. That year, Hasbro got a new CEO, Brian Goldner, who appointed a new CEO to Wizards, a man named Greg Leeds. Leeds’ first order of business upon arrival was to clean house, and get Magic back on stable financial footing. Leeds fired several employees (including Randy Buehler), and stripped Wizards back to its core products: Magic and D&D. All other Wizards products—boondoggles like Hecatomb, DreamBlade, and Gleemax—went by the wayside.

Leeds could see that Wizards was spending too much on enfranchised, competitive gamers even as it failed to attract and acquire new players. Part of the problem was that Magic had grown too abstract, too daunting, too mind-meltingly complex for newcomers to grasp. Under Leeds’ direction, Wizards took steps to reverse course. The company partnered with Stainless Games to create the new-player-friendly video game Duels of the Planeswalkers, which launched in June 2009 and proved an immediate success. Wizards also fundamentally changed how Magic was played. Prior to 2008, Magic was primarily a game about mana, in which strategy revolved around players concealing what they were capable of doing on any given turn, which is why control and combo strategies dominated. After 2008, Magic became a game about creature combat, as Wizards nerfed the control and combo strategies that Pros adored, but that infuriated casual players. Wizards also simplified the game’s rules and implemented “New World Order” in an effort to curtail “complexity creep.” Ever since then, Mark Rosewater has cited “complexity” as the greatest threat to Magic’s survival, and Wizards has continued making changes to simplify the game, most recently scaling back the number of new mechanics in each set, and eliminating the block structure. (See Mark Rosewater’s “State of Design” columns for 2016 and 2017.)

The Pros at the time grumbled about the way that Magic was changing, but by and large they accepted what Wizards was doing, reasoning that if and when the game’s fortunes improved, their fortunes would as well—what you, GerryT, called the “trickle-down” theory of Magic. The Pros also accepted that, for the time being at least, sacrifices were needed, so they sucked it up when Wizards reduced its spending on them. The Magic Invitational and the Pro Tour Player Cards disappeared, even as payouts and player perks decreased, as did the number of Pro Tours. The remaining PTs were closed and scaled back, and synced to the latest set releases, no longer taking their names from the cities hosting them. It may not have been obvious at the time, but Wizards was abandoning the concept of “play the game, see the world,” and so it was that in February 2012, Pros attended Pro Tour Dark Ascension, and not the third Pro Tour Honolulu (!). It would seem that, in order to justify its continued existence, the Pro Tour needed to come across less like a vacation for a select few, and more like an ad for the latest set.

But the changes to Magic didn’t stop there. Here it will help to understand how Brian Goldner became CEO of Hasbro, and how he thinks about Magic—how he thinks about all of the company’s top brands. Goldner joined Hasbro in 2000 after working for Haim Saban, the man behind the Power Rangers franchise, and he rose to power by applying Saban’s brand strategy to the Transformers line of toys, transforming it, so to speak, into a massive movie-centric franchise that’s still going strong. (Bumblebee is due out in theaters soon.) Since becoming CEO, Goldner has taken the same approach to a number of Hasbro brands, making movies out of G.I. Joe, Ouija, Battleship, and My Little Pony, and attempting to make films out of Monopoly and Magic. In this way, Goldner has spent the past ten years moving Hasbro away from being a company that acquires licenses to make toys for other brands (such as Star Wars), and more toward becoming an entertainment company that promotes its own brands through movies, TV shows, and other media. (The company recently tried to purchase DreamWorks Animation.)

The way Goldner sees it, consumers aren’t looking to buy toys or Magic cards or physical products per se, but rather emotionally resonant experiences. By this logic, Transformers fans (for example) are looking for all kinds of opportunities to express their love of Transformers, from buying toys and watching movies to putting Autobot emblems on their cars and getting Decepticon tattoos. Or even doing random things like buying bags of shortbread cookies adorned with illustrations of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee.

The trick is to give fans limitless opportunities to express their identity as fans, and thereby experience the joy their fandom brings them. In that way, they bond emotionally with the brand, coming to regard it as an essential part of their life.

Goldner transmitted this philosophy to Wizards via Greg Leeds, which is why, post-2008, Wizards became obsessed with creating emotionally resonant experiences for its players. Aaron Forsythe designed Magic 2010 in order to recapture the resonant flavor of Alpha, and Mark Rosewater designed Innistrad in order to make players feel (pleasurably) afraid. Rosewater even reconceived of his job as designing not Magic cards, but emotional experiences for players. As he put it on a 2013 episode of Drive to Work:

The last couple years […] I’ve been making sure that when I make a design, that I have an emotion that I am getting out of you. That I, the game player, am going, ‘What experience am I trying to create?’ And I want to make sure that I’m making gameplay that has that emotional response.

Goldner also encouraged Wizards to create intellectual property for Magic—characters and plot lines that could be exploited across other media. Wizards responded by rebranding Magic around the Planeswalkers, a growing cast of recurring characters that can be represented not only in card form …

 

… but as Funko Pop figures

 

… and as pieces in a board game

… as well as characters in movies and TV shows and theme parks and Broadway musicals and—well, anything Wizards wants, really, including media and products yet to be invented. (Here, other franchises, like Harry Potter, the MCU, Star Wars, and Avatar, have been leading the way for a while, and Wizards is scrambling to catch up.) This ambition is what led Brian Goldner to claim during Hasbro’s Fourth Quarter 2014 Earnings Conference Call that Magic is “a storytelling brand first and foremost,” specifying that “engagement with characters is critical,” and it’s why Wizards announced soon thereafter that it would be doubling down on promoting the game’s story, using the Magic website and “story spotlight” cards to ensure that players can easily follow what’s happening with Jace, Liliana, Nicol Bolas, and all the rest.

 

As you and I know, these changes proved wildly successful: between 2009 and 2015, Magic acquired new players at a rapid clip, topping out at a reported 20 million. But as you and I also know, even though Magic financially recovered, the Magic Pros did not. Instead, in 2018, the Pro players’ condition is more precarious than ever, despite the fact that Magic is at or near the height of its popularity. Which is to say that Magic’s recent success has not, in fact, benefited the Pros. Rather, it has come at their expense.

The reason for this is relatively simple, although it might be difficult to see if one is too close to the game, and especially if one is too close to professional play. While Magic has grown tremendously over the past decade, the vast majority of the people playing today aren’t Pros, or even wannabe Pros. Instead, the past ten years have seen the “Invisibles”—casual, non-competitive players—take over. And while it’s true, as you said in your podcast, that people connect with other people, I fear you’re kidding yourselves if you think that most current Magic players are looking to connect with Magic Pros. Casual players and competitive gamers want fundamentally different things from Magic. Competitive Magic players want to test themselves, to participate in the highest levels of competition, where they strategically outplay the best opponents in the world. Like Kamahl, Pit Fighter, they came not to play, but to win, wanting the same thing Bob Maher wanted: “Greatness, at any cost.”

Casual players don’t want that, not at all. So while the Pro Tour remains, for professional players, the pinnacle of Magic, it’s a total bore for casual players (assuming they even know it exists). For one thing, as everyone knows, it makes a decidedly poor spectator sport: there’s tons of down time, and when players finally do sit down to battle, viewers can barely make out what’s happening, let alone read which cards are in play.

Beyond that, the game play itself is frequently anticlimactic, with a large percentage of games being won or lost due to mana issues. (Witness LSV losing the very last game of PT Guilds of Ravnica after mulling to four.)

It’s easy to forget, after learning something, what it was like not to know it, and competitive Magic players often forget how much knowledge is required in order to watch and enjoy the Pro Tour. Not only does one need to know all of the relevant cards and decks in a given format, but one has to understand top-level strategies, as well as issues like priority, triggers, and so on. Casual players don’t understand these things, and they don’t want to understand them. In March 2017, the Limited Resources podcast spent ninety minutes providing a detailed overview of Magic Online and “all of the phases and steps of Magic.” Casual players don’t want to listen to podcasts like that; nor do they want to learn how to set stops on Magic Online, or how to even start playing Magic Online.

Nor do they want to memorize draft pick orders, or feel like they have to know every combat trick in the format in order to play. They don’t want to have to do tons of homework just to play Magic. As such, these players (happily) lack the knowledge and proclivity required to appreciate the things that Pros obsess over, like in-depth analyses of strategy, or three-hour-long video series discussing the Top 100 Magic Cards of All Time, or even longer set reviews that scrutinize every card in a new set with an eye toward limited play. They don’t want to be Pros.

You can see this in the fact that casual players prefer playing different formats than the Pros do, to the point where the two groups are practically playing different games. Whereas Pros want to do Rochester drafts (with Beta packs!) and brew Standard decks and play Legacy and Vintage and Vintage cube, casual players gravitate toward formats like Commander. Pros famously dislike that multiplayer format due to the outsize role that politics play in determining who wins and who loses. But casual players are less invested in whether they win or lose, being more concerned with playing a fun, social game with people like themselves—people who express themselves not through crushing their opponents, but through the Guild identities, Commanders, Planeswalkers, and tribes. These players couldn’t care less about solving the metagame; since they lack the luxury of being sponsored by card shops, they can’t easily swap between decks, or afford to do dozens of drafts. Instead of playing with the best cards in the format, they play with the cards they happen to own, and if they do invest in a deck, it’s usually one that suits their personality, and that they can go on to play year in and year out, tinkering with over time.

Because these players are numerous, Wizards has spent the past decade shifting resources away from the Pro players and toward the larger, more casual demographic, rebranding Magic not as a cut-throat competitive game, but more as a fun play experience. Hence the onslaught of casual-friendly products such as Archenemy, Conspiracy, Commander decks, Unstable, the full-art promos for Ultimate Masters, and Magic Arena. The Magic brand no longer revolves around winning games of Magic; indeed, it no longer necessarily involves playing games of Magic. Since 2010, Magic Prereleases have routinely featured events like unlocking the Helvault (Scars of Mirrodin), picking a side in the Mirran-Phyrexian war (Mirrodin Besieged), choosing a clan (Khans of Tarkir), and puzzling one’s way out of the “Stitcher’s Lab” escape room (Shadows over Innistrad)—i.e., ways of getting players to engage with the Magic brand beyond building decks and playing matches. Rather than being cute side events, these types of activities are increasingly the central attraction. Two months ago, Wizards announced its intention to rebrand Grands Prix as “MagicFest,” or “weekends about so much more than just the main event,” including “side events, artist booths, cosplay, panels, [and] spellslinging.” (Pro Tours will be held at MagicFests.) Today’s Magic players are looking for more than just tournaments, which means that tournaments alone aren’t enough to sell and promote the Magic brand. (Wizards can no longer justify paying for standalone GPs and PTs.)

The shoe is now clearly on the other foot. Gradually, steadily, over the past ten years, the Pro players have traded places with the Invisibles, receding from view. At the Magic Subreddit, the top posts concern topics like Magic story, Magic art, card alters, and cosplay; rarely do they involve Magic tournaments. One week after your podcast came out, the “Grand Prix Montreal, Grand Prix Mexico City, and SCG Open Columbus Discussion Megathread!” pinned to the top of the Magic Subreddit received a whopping fifty-three up-votes, and forty-four comments. As it happened, more people were interested in the fact that the artwork for Expropriate features True-Name Nemesis. Small wonder then that the Mothership’s front page routinely ignores GPs and other organized play events, preferring to use that real estate to promote Guilds of Ravnica, Commander 2018, and Magic Arena.

Speaking of which: surely it won’t be long before Wizards moves the Pro Tour to Magic Arena, or replaces the Pro Tour outright with Arena-based tournaments. Already the company is paying celebrity gamers like Day9 and Trump to stream Arena—entertaining personalities who may not be the most skilled Magic players, but who are capable of drawing thousands of eyeballs.

Of course, it’s true that casual players admire certain Magic Pros, such as LSV. But casual players don’t like Luis Scott-Vargas just because he’s one of the greatest players of all time; they like him, and subscribe to the Divination, because LSV is funny and charismatic and loves to durdle and tease Paul Cheon. That’s why they tune in to his Twitch channel even when he does things like sign tokens for GP Las Vegas, choosing to vicariously hang out with him. LSV doesn’t make his casual fans feel stupid; he makes them feel smarter, and as though they’re winning and losing alongside him. In this regard, he’s unlike most Magic Pros, who typically come across to casual players as cold, unfeeling jerks who make Magic unfun by quickly defeating them, then berating them for making bad plays with bad cards and bad decks (or for picking foil Tarmogoyfs in draft).

That is why, in 2018, Pro players are no longer the public face of Magic, having been supplanted by the Planeswalkers. If 1996–2008 was the Pro Player Era, then 2008–present has been the Planeswalker Era. More Magic players today fantasize about being Kiora or Chandra than they do being Magic Pros, which is why Wizards has taken pains to diversify that lineup of characters. The casual player base has always been more diverse than the overwhelmingly male Pro scene, and it’s presumably growing more diverse by the day. (Note how many women and female characters Wizards has chosen to depict on the current Magic homepage.)

And the Planeswalkers offer benefits beyond that. Wizards doesn’t have to pay those characters anything, or fly them anywhere, or put up with them complaining about Magic, or doing things like sitting out Worlds in protest. (Sorry, GerryT.)

Mind you, none of this is to say that Wizards no longer cares about the Pros. I imagine the company is delighted to have such a dedicated group of players that spends all of its time promoting Magic for free by making Magic videos and podcasts—not to mention purchasing Magic cards. And no doubt Pros and Pro-wannabes are still responsible for a significant portion of the game’s revenue. But those players no longer appear to be Magic’s primary audience. As such, Wizards has spent the past decade adjusting its spending on those players to a more appropriate level, valuing them for what they’re really worth, as opposed to what Wizards thought they were worth c. 2006.

Since I don’t want to end this letter on too pessimistic a note, I’ll offer a few hopeful words of advice. Please keep in mind that I am not a Magic Pro. But if I were, I would try to take more of my well-being into my own hands. Fifteen years ago, when Wizards was ignoring the “Invisibles,” some of those players created Elder Dragon Highlander, which went on to become Commander, now the most popular Magic format (and which is still maintained by its own independent rules committee). Today, if the Pros feel slighted by Wizards, then they should make the version of Magic they want to exist—their own tournament scene, their own formats, their own banned and restricted lists, their own Hall of Fame—rather than relying on Wizards to maintain institutions it created in a totally different era, when the company’s priorities were different from what they are now. The Pros should also unionize, or enter into some other collective partnership, and make their stand together, collectively working to attract sponsors and streaming deals. More than anything else, the Pros should recognize that their fortunes won’t necessarily rise or fall with Wizards’, or with Magic’s. But the Pros will certainly rise and fall with each other.

Best wishes,
Adam

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