Monday, April 23, 2018

magical capitalism

pt i: what is magical capitalism?

We’re used to the way Magic works. The cards come from packs, we buy the individual cards, we build decks with those cards. Or, we pay for the packs and draft with those. Easy.

Magic is like this because it’s always been like this. We assume that Magic has to be like this, that the game wouldn’t function any other way. But the reason we assume this isn’t that people don’t think the rules system of Magic would work if cards were available in a different way; it obviously still would. We assume that Wizards of the Coast just wouldn’t be able to make the game anymore, because the only reason Magic exists is to make them money.

The game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We live in a capitalist era, and Magic is made as part of that. But of course, just about everything produced is made by a for-profit company, so that’s hardly unique. The unique part is that Magic isn’t just some random game made by a company trying to make money. It is the most capitalist game. The system, of players chasing after scarce resources (cards) to play with them, using other resources (their money, their other cards, their time) to acquire them, forces players to compete with one another before the “real” game even starts.

The way that Magic is both a product of capitalism and incorporates capitalism into how its players behave affects everything about it. This post is a tour through Magic through the lens of how the game is shaped by capitalism. Magic is not merely a reflection of the system around it: it’s become its own unique system, what I think of as “Magical capitalism.”

In Magical capitalism, it’s not just a company producing a product, and consumers giving them money for it. Those consumers, themselves, end up being incorporated into the system that makes Magic so expensive for players and so profitable for Wizards of the Coast and the intermediaries that buy and sell cards.

pt ii: history

It’s a well-known story at this point, but the initial playtesting of Magic gave those early players a small number of cards (about a Sealed Deck worth) and allowed trading between them, in order to simulate how people playing Magic in the real world would interact with each other. As the traditional narrative explains, those playtesters never imagined the game would be so successful that people would have access to the entire card pool. They wanted it to be cool and surprising when you saw some bizarre card like Chaos Orb for the first time.

After Peter Adkison introduced the game at Gencon in August, 1993, it was surprising seeing new cards… both because the game was brand new, and because getting more product was nearly impossible. Alpha sold out in a week. It wasn’t till October that Beta came out, and that set was sold out before the product even hit the continent. Then Arabian Nights was rushed out to keep something on the shelves while the base set was unobtainable, then Unlimited. In fact, there wasn’t a pack that could sit on a store shelf without getting instantly bought till the massive print run of Revised.

By that time, Wizards had learned to print as much of each set as possible, because it’ll sell out no matter what. This thinking served them well until The Dark, which was a bit overprinted, and nearly doomed the whole company with Fallen Empires. As I discussed in my review of early sets, stores would ask for many times the amount that they actually wanted, knowing they’d only get a small percentage. When Fallen Empires came out, Wizards just… printed the total amount stores asked for. That massive capital investment kept them from releasing any more sets until Fourth Edition, six months later.

Pretty early on in its history, information scarcity disappeared from Magic: magazines printed full card lists, and with only a few hundred cards in Alpha/Beta/Unlimited, it wasn’t that difficult to get a handle on which ones would be good to have in your deck. Price lists followed, which meant that the only barriers between a person and having The Perfect Deck were their ability to tune a decklist, their ability to find the cards in a store or from a guy on the nascent Internet, and their bank account.

People treat Richard Garfield misunderstanding how desperate people would be to get new cards as an amusing anecdote of the early days of Wizards, something to chuckle about as we think how naive they all were. There’s one big flaw with this, though: Garfield did anticipate some people spending a ton of money on Magic.

In 1995, Garfield wrote an essay for the 4th Edition Player’s handbook that touched on the inclusion of ante. He was concerned with what he called “rich kid syndrome,” where someone could spend vastly more than everyone else they played with and win nearly every time. He thought that this would be somewhat self-correcting (people would refuse to play against that person if their deck was too powerful), but he also wanted a game mechanic to help with it. Ante provided this: if you’re going to spend so much money on the game that your deck wins almost every game, you need to have more on the line if you do lose.

It’s the most meritocratic and anti-capitalist thing to ever be included in the rules of Magic. It tells players, “yeah, some people have really expensive cards, but if you’re a better player with a better-constructed deck you can take those cards away from people who don’t deserve them.”

I’m not defending ante as a mechanic. It’s really bad. But it proves Garfield’s awareness of the possibility of people spending too much money on Magic. It also shows that, rather than just encouraging players to spend more and more to compete with those rich kids, he thought of it as something that could be a problem.

The important part of Garfield not expecting most people to spend so much on Magic wasn’t that people’s decks were better than Garfield expected them to be, with more rares per player than he projected; it was that this meant Wizards made far more money per player than he anticipated. He really wasn’t trying to make a game that would attempt to maximize its per-player income, like modern-day microtransaction-based mobile games do. He just wanted to make a game with seemingly infinite space to explore. Just like in any art, though, once it’s out of the hands of the creator, artistic intent stops mattering. He was just trying to make a game without visible borders, one that players wouldn’t just be able to play and go “yep, I’ve seen everything in it.” Instead, he accidentally gave a lot of people jobs.

The origin of Magical capitalism is from this shift: when spending astronomical sums of money on more cards isn’t unusual but accepted or even necessary to play more.

pt iii: the economics of magic

The economics of Magic as a whole are different than the economics of Wizards of the Coast. They just sell packs and intentionally pretend that they have no idea that people resell their cards individually. (Just try to find a reference on to a card’s price; it’s most comical in the “building on a budget” articles that attempt to cater to a player type whose reality they inherently reject.[1])

[1] The best era of Building on a Budget was when they focused it on Magic Online, so that they could talk about decks in terms of how many tickets they were worth, even though a ticket is literally $1. This is one of those weird Wizards things that really encapsulates how nonsensical some of their policies can be.

What really sustains Magic are the in-between people and businesses whose livelihood depends on Magic. I used to work for Card Kingdom, one of the largest online retailers, and every set release, we would open and sort at least 400 cases per set. This is just the product we were opening; there were plenty of other cases that were being sold as boxes, or individual packs, or used for drafts in the retail space. The company is significantly bigger now than it used to be, so I expect that number is way bigger these days.

When a business is investing close to $200,000 in product from one set, they get pretty determined to make a return on that money. And obviously, Card Kingdom isn’t alone in that sort of investment. Everyone wants to get in the extremely profitable role of being in between people and the Magic cards they want. As a former coworker of mine once said about businesses like that one, “you have to try really hard to not make money off Magic.” All you do is just buy the product at wholesale prices, open it, and sell it. Then you buy people’s individual cards at pawn shop rates and flip those, too. Easy.

This system keeps the game expensive, and it means that Wizards has to do a minimum amount of design for the amount of product they sell. It’s been a financially successful model for everyone but the players. Plus, while consumers may be fickle from one season to the next, retailers can be counted on to buy a certain amount of product with every set release.

pt iv: we’re all capitalists now

But it’s not just the stores financially invested in new sets.

Anyone that plays constructed is required to intimately know the finance of Magic. It’s impossible to ignore unless you’re so new to the game that you just play with cards you’ve opened from packs and got from friends, or so Montgomery Burns-style rich that you see absolutely no difference between a $15 draft and a $3000 deck.

No one gets to just play Magic, if you want to play Constructed. You have to buy or trade for cards, and that means giving up some (large) amount of either your own money, or the cards you own already. Before anyone can be an expert in playing any deck, they have to be an expert on the availability of those cards, the price of the cards that they already own in order to acquire it, and the price of every other deck in the format, in case one of those other decks is more affordable.

All of this requires knowledge, research, expertise. Everyone has to become skilled at getting the most value for their cards and money, at trading for what they want from the guy with $100,000 worth of cards without getting ripped off.

And they have to do that instead of playing the game.

Even playing Limited, the format where no one needs anything other than to sign up for an event, people are more likely to be praying to open a foil of the set’s chase mythic. And why wouldn’t they? For most drafts, the highest reward for winning matches is enough store credit to be able to enter the next draft, whereas a card can easily be worth over $100 straight from a Standard-legal set. It’s teaching players that what matters isn’t the game, but the possessions they use to play the game.

Since the real rewards are in the hands of other players (what they opened from packs in that draft), players are all trying to play one another. They’re not trying to pull one over on Wizards, of course; that’s impossible, because Wizards is a level separated from the sales of cards, disingenuously refusing to acknowledge that these sales even exist. Just to have the cards to play the game, people want to scam one another out of small amounts of value.

Which is, to some degree, rational. There are two games going on here: the game of playing Magic, and the game of making money (or money-equivalent-cards) from other Magic players. Which would you rather be good at?

The best player in the room earns almost nothing, even from winning a relatively large tournament. The best players in the world can often barely squeak out a living from Magic, and a good portion of that is from third parties paying them to write or promote them. (And those third parties get their money from… selling Magic cards.)

The best people in Magic finance, though, get a significantly larger reward. The amount of money you can make with, for example, a successful speculation, or a buyout, or selling cards to a store with a mistakenly-high buylist price, is almost unbounded.

So of course, people want to become the Magic finance kings. They memorize the equivalent of enormous, multi-variable Excel spreadsheets, with numbers constantly changing from week to week. They invest their own money into product with the hope of making a return on it. In other words, they’re capitalists.

Well, sort of. By a traditional definition, a capitalist is someone who owns the means of production, and uses that to generate a profit for themselves. They purchase others’ labor power, which gives them a large amount of control over those people, since their employees depend on that job for their survival.

Someone buying and selling Magic cards isn’t in control of the means of production. Unless they own a store, they don’t employ anyone. But they’re not just consumers, because they’re all convinced that their investment will make them a return. The closest equivalent are stock brokers.

In my favorite nonfiction book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman describes doing a study for a financial institution. He proves convincingly that there is no correlation between how well a broker does one year with how well they do the next; that is, that it’s entirely random. That’s the best equivalent for how Magic players treat one another: they’re just trading back and forth, remembering that one time that they were a genius and bought four Tarmogoyf and flipped them for $400 in profit, conveniently forgetting when they bought Tarmogoyf again and lost the same amount. (Because it stayed in their binder, so they didn’t really lose money, right?)

Even in situations where no one really gets a long-term advantage over anyone else, it changes the dynamic of how players interact with one another. The capitalist’s goal is to use their financial resources to exploit other people to get access to theirs; in Magic, instead of a company exploiting a worker, it’s millions of petit-capitalists all trying to exploit one another.

Today’s Magic is not a game, nor a hobby, nor a way to get out of the house and chat with people who share a common interest. It’s an investment. Our enjoyment, our passion, has been commodified. We’ve been taught to not even bother spending an evening having a good time with friends at the card shop unless the EV of the event is sufficiently high. Think of people grinding constructed Magic Online events for small returns, just to get enough tickets and packs to be able to draft every now and then. If it wasn’t for the high cost, people could play what they really wanted to play all the time. In Magical capitalism, fun is no longer the goal of playing a game, it’s a byproduct of the attempt to acquire more cards.

This secondary game (or primary game, depending on how you look at it) splits players’ focus. Every minute spent haggling over cards or studying price swings is a minute not spent playtesting or discussing which cards are going to be viable in the format. People can’t focus on everything all the time; we have neither infinite time, nor infinite mental energy. It’s a certainty that, if every Magic player were able to focus exclusively on the game, the quality of play and deckbuilding would rise.

Similar to how even multi-millionaires still squeeze the last bit out of their tube of toothpaste, the incredible card-wealth that many of these players have doesn’t seem to inspire much generosity, and especially not any devaluing of what they have. When someone with $50,000 worth of cards in a binder looks over the trade stuff of a kid who started playing this year using their allowance money, the most likely result is the rich person saying, “thank you” and handing the binder back, not any selfless offer to help the younger person get the cards they want.

With true collective action, seeing each other as allies rather than as binders full of cards just waiting for us to reach out and pick from, players could accomplish so much more. There are so many multiples more copies of valuable cards than there are people who want to use them in decks; for every player just trying to get a playset of Noble Hierarch so they can play a weekly Modern event with their friends, there are ten players with pristine playsets of the cards, unwilling to give them up unless they get a good return on their investment.

This sort of selfishness is ingrained in us not just by the broader culture, but by Magic culture, starting with the randomized way we (supposedly) acquire our cards. When we see parts of our game not just as, well, parts of a game, but as physical manifestations of our wealth, it becomes nearly impossible for us to get rid of them without getting something we want in exchange.

Sure, Magic players should compete with each other: we should compete within games of Magic, and to make better decks to bring to tournaments. The sort of competition that happens because of Magical capitalism is a competition that makes it more difficult for people to even get decks and play in the first place.

pt v: kill reviews: masters 25

Nowhere is the tension between Magic as a game, Magic as a way for stores to make money, Magic as a collectable, and Magic as a capitalist enterprise more apparent than in reprint sets like Masters 25. The reason they exist is that even Wizards knows that Magic’s eternal formats (including Modern) are unsustainable without new cards being supplied to accommodate new players entering the format; but Wizards is also a game company, so outside of wildly expensive, few-cards-per-sale box sets like From the Vault, they’re going to print these cards in a way that allows and encourages people to play games with them.

And then the tension shows.

It was bad enough when Modern Masters had an MSRP of $7 a pack, and was a limited print run: they’d fly off the shelves in a way that was great for stores, but bad for people that wanted to draft the set, since the cards were going straight to people that were opening them in order to sell the cards inside for a profit. So Wizards raised the MSRP to $10 a pack and printed it like any other booster set, instead of in a limited print run.

So now, when stores hold drafts of it, just the cost of the packs is $30. And since stores usually charge a few bucks more to offer prize support, you’re looking at $40+ for a normal draft of a set. That is… a lot.

Wizards is straight up telling its players with its pricing, “these cards are better and more important than the cards we sell for $4 a pack.” And players, for good reason, expect it to be worth it. It’s unlikely that the draft environment is going to be so much more fun that it’s worth paying $20-$30 more for a draft, so they expect their money to go to good use somewhere else. That is… in the value of the cards. Duh.

Then, when you sit down to draft a Masters set, making back that $40+ is going to be your first priority. That’s just rational, and it’s not as though cards like Jace, Imperial Recruiter, Rishadan Port, or even a common like Nettle Sentinel were put in the set first and foremost for the fun gameplay they add to the limited environment. (That’s not why the set exists, remember?) So your first picks, hopefully, are going to be high-value cards. If you get $5 worth of cards for your $40, you’re going to be upset… even if you have by far the best deck at the table.

So… what are we paying for, with Masters 25? Are we paying extra for additional fun; that is, a more expensive product from Wizards isn’t just rarer, shinier, and more prestigious, but actually a more successful product as a piece of entertainment? This probably isn’t the case. It’s not the experience that you’re paying a premium for, but simply being left with somehow nicer possessions when you’re done.

Apply this to all of Magic, though. What are you paying for, when you draft any Magic set? Is the game so much more fun than any other game that’s ever been made that it’s worth $15 (or $30, or $40…) for an evening’s entertainment? Almost no one over the age of 12 wants to regularly spend substantial amounts of money getting a fleeting experience playing video games at an arcade, paying for a game without getting anything corporeal to show for it. A common objection is, “for that amount of money, I could just buy the game.” Which is what Magic does, in a way. It makes you feel better about paying so much for a game by telling you that it was the resulting game pieces that you were really paying for.

In a weird twist, the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Masters 25 led to a great result for players like myself: I actually got to draft it! Mox Boarding House is already selling packs for a buck below MSRP, and instead of the $40 per draft like it was as the set was released, they ran drafts for $30 each, including prize support.

I wasn’t expecting much, for a couple reasons. I’ve only done a couple drafts of previous Masters sets, and I absolutely hated them. Your first couple picks locked you into one of eight to ten archetypes, then you picked every card from your next packs that matched that archetype. There was no strategy, no creativity; you weren’t creating your own art, you were following paint-by-numbers instructions. Sure, your decks ended up looking sweet, but a deck is only cool to me if some amount of thought went into making it. The process of drafting has always been more fun to me than the actual games of Magic, and the drafts of those sets were mind-numbing.

Then, reading some early feedback online, people absolutely hated the format. They said that there were no archetypes, no signposts, that their decks ended up nearly random mishmashes of cards. Well that’s weird, I thought… maybe they reacted too hard to the previous feedback?

Then I drafted the set.

It’s… phenomenal. It’s brilliant. If you sat me down right now and made me choose between drafting it and Innistrad, I’d draft Masters 25.

What sets it apart from any other set I’ve drafted in paper in the last decade is its difficulty, right from the first pick. I’ve often complained about sets like Ixalan and Zendikar for the dropoff in card quality, and complemented Innistrad and Rise of the Eldrazi for how they use those late picks to support archetypes. Masters 25 seems to take this even further: the commons, while surely not equal in power level, are almost all tempting picks in one way or another.

Is it worth it first-picking Horseshoe Crab and trying to make a deck around it? Does the power level of Counterspell, an early pick in cube, make it a better option in a booster Limited format compared to its modern three-mana equivalents? Is Court Hussar good enough to commit to UW early on in the draft? Man-o-War is just better than trying any of those speculative strategies, right? Does the lower mana cost and built-in protection of Ghost Ship make it better than Shoreline Ranger, or is the flexibility to fix your mana better? How many landcyclers should make a final deck, anyway?

Those are commons in one color. Which ones are better, and under what circumstances? [2]

[2] At this very moment, within the first few picks, I think my pick order would be Man-o-War, Court Hussar, Horseshoe Crab, Counterspell, Shoreline Ranger, Ghost Ship. But really, I have no idea.

What separates Masters 25 even from other archetype-based draft formats is how the defining cards are at common. Even my beloved Innistrad’s most interesting draft archetypes, Burning Vengeance and Spider Spawning, are dependent on their namesake uncommons. Masters 25 shifts it down: from what I’ve seen so far, Fencing Ace seems like an archetype-defining card, with all the power-boosting cards in green (Giant Growth, Echoing Courage, Rancor, Invigorate), and it’s a card that feels uncommon based on how it makes you draft differently around it. But in order for it to function without absurd luck opening packs, it has to be a common.

When people say that there are “no archetypes” after a draft or two, they’re just wrong. The archetypes are just more subtle than “draft all of this mechanic” from previous masters sets, or “pick creatures with the same type” from Ixalan. There are multiple viable control decks. Actual control decks! Creature-light, heavy on removal, maybe even permission, Limited control decks!

One of the defining cards of the Masters 25 experience, to me, is Angelic Page. It’s not one that defines an archetype, and it’s hardly the best White uncommon in the set. It defines Masters 25 because it’s a card that Wizards would never print in a Standard-legal draft format: it’s too skill-intensive, leading to a ton of on-board interactions and complex decision trees during combat. It’s an entirely different card in the hands of a good player than it is with a mediocre one. But it’s not even a card that screams to players that it does that: most players are familiar with difficult spells like Fact or Fiction, Gifts Ungiven, and Brainstorm. But for the players that Masters 25 was made for—not the ones who buy it, but the ones it was made for—Angelic Page is a celebration. It’s telling them that their skill of learning the ins and outs of combat, of setting up specific lines of play, hasn’t gone unappreciated even in 2018. It just has a specific place.

I wish that more people could experience Masters 25 draft. I wish that I could play it more often. Specifically, I wish that I could play it at my local card shop and draft cards with the intention of playing them, with other people doing the same. But the $10 price point means that this incredibly deep Limited format that rewards people for drafting it repeatedly and learning its nooks and crannies… will have very few people with the extra money to do so, and even if some people do want to, they’ll have difficulty finding seven others.

Because of the impossible situation the set was put in, Masters 25 might end up as Magic’s great lost format. It’s as though an LP was released only to a group of Ultimate Frisbee enthusiasts, and they all complain it’s too heavy and impossible to catch.

pt vi: consumerism

It’s not just to play the game, or to make a few extra dollars, that people trade Magic cards. It’s a collectable, and something in the human brain makes us wired to appreciate unusual or prestigious things. I have to restrain myself from sneering at people foiling out their Legacy Lands deck, because I’ve certainly felt a certain way looking at an FNM promo Quirion Ranger, or an original copy of Nico’s Chelsea Girl, that makes me understand the impulse.

Collecting is about owning cool things, and playing Magic gives players the opportunity for the most important part of owning something: showing off to other people. Every class and subculture has their own version of conspicuous consumption, and every one of these groups thinks everyone else’s displays are tacky or ridiculous. Lots of male Magic players think people like Kylie Jenner are image-obsessed, shallow, without substance; then those guys play their EDH deck that they’ve spent a year and $5000 foiling out.

This is one of the most bizarre aspects: it’s a self-conscious display of expensive things for their aesthetic value, but most of these people seem to put no value on this in any other respect. It would make more logical sense if everyone who was showing off expensive foils was also walking around in tailored designer suits and driving an ostentatious car, but players don’t seem to care about any aspect of appearance other than when it comes to their cards.

The very fact that so many people, whether competitive or casual, care so deeply about the appearance and the rarity of their cards does a lot to expose how irrelevant the game itself is to so many people. There’s nothing that a foil does for you in a game, and the most reaction it can cause is for someone to go “whoa, cool card.”

As is often the case with this sort of consumption, it’s self-reinforcing in the community. If you spend $300 on some card you don’t really need and feel a twinge of remorse when you get it, that’s going to get washed away when you go to your store and people are spending ten times that much. Relatively, you’re a cheapskate. Then that purchase will lead you to justify more and more things, until you’re the guy that makes other players feel normal for their spending on the game.

pt vii: class

Of the people that are truly devoted to playing Magic, there are two distinct classes: those who have to spend extra time and effort to afford the decks they want to play (or the packs to draft with), just so they can play the game, and there are those who can voluntarily choose to spend more money than is necessary in order to show off. There are other economic models where these two can live in harmony: in free-to-play games, like League of Legends, plenty of people play endlessly without spending a cent (and even unlocking more things as a reward for playing more). Their playing is subsidized by the “whales,” those players who choose to spend a lot of money on cosmetics and other items in the game.

Magic, instead, gets money from everyone. In addition to those people engaging in conspicuous consumption, the average player still has to buy cards. Newer players comprise the third, lowest class in Magic. Rather than being cut a break and given some starting stuff for free like in modern free-to-play games, they’re punished for not even knowing how to buy cards. Their consumerism is, in some way, involuntary: sure, they choose to play Magic, but they don’t know that there are ways to acquire cards other than buying packs. They don’t know enough about Magic to know how to spend less money on Magic. It’s like a startup fee for learning the game, a tax on a lack of Magical knowledge.

pt viii: but what’s the problem? wizards’s incentives

Okay, so people like having expensive cards to show off. Wizards wants to make money on their product. It’s a capitalist system. As long as it makes a good game, who cares?

It affects the game. Alongside the blatant concessions to the nature of letting sets go out of print that are the Masters sets, the commercial nature of Magic is apparent in sets like Ixalan. “Pirates and Dinosaurs” is pretty obviously a concept that was made as something that would have mass appeal, especially to a younger demographic.

It’s the most egregious example of Wizards needing to have something “catchy” in order to sell a set. A set can’t just be a collection of cards that plays really well together and advances the design of the game; it has to be something marketable, something easily summed up with a tagline and represented with a couple of chase cards.

If, as players, we just want them to make sets that are fun to play, Wizards’s incentives are completely warped. They can pretty much print whatever set they want, and if it has a bunch of constructed-worthy dual lands or a really high power level… they’re pretty much set. To their credit, they’re very conscious of power creep and take strong action to let it go out of control, so the fact that Darksteel simultaneously destroyed every constructed format it touched and became the best-selling small set of all time is more funny than indicative of any evil plan.

The lands, though, they’ve been really blatant about. Worried that a set might not meet expectations? Throw some high-powered lands into it. Still concerned? Give it a gimmick like randomly inserting otherwise-unavailable cards.

Yes, everyone complains about the price of dual lands and how hard this makes it to build new decks. The frequency of these complaints doesn’t make them any less true: Wizards actively chooses to make constructed Magic dramatically more expensive by putting cards that are mandatory to play at rare, so that vendors and people looking for value will open more packs hunting them. There’s been an ongoing decision for them to make: do they take the side of players, and choose to (somewhat) lower the cost of constructed magic so that more people can afford to play, thus boosting their potential customer base and getting more people in tournaments? Or do they choose to raise the “expected value” of packs, so that they can sell more of them to fewer people? The last time they chose the former was Invasion, when they put the cycle of comes-into-play-tapped lands at uncommon. [3]

[3] It sounds strange now, but those were a big deal at the time. To that point, every multicolored land other than the original duals and the painlands in Ice Age had been pretty awful. Here’s Randy Buehler in 2002 writing about pitching the Invasion cycle when he was brand-new to Wizards::

"Why don't we just do 'comes-into-play-tapped' dual lands?"

They stared at me, so I elaborated. "They're just like Tundra except they come into play tapped and don't count as an island or a plains."

Their first reaction was "No way--that's way too good." In fact, R&D had already considered exactly those lands and decided on theoretical grounds that they were significantly better than basic lands, and thus we couldn't print them.

The whole article is worth a read, one of Buehler’s best (Buehler’s articles were notoriously short, and read like he was writing them for a school assignment rather than because of a genuine desire to communicate).

pt ix: but what’s the problem? sets going out of print

Even compared to other industries, where companies are trying to make money selling some form of art or media, the collectable/limited run nature of Magic warps what products are thought of as successful. In almost any other medium where artistic creations are sold, things aren’t just written off as massive failures just because they fail to immediately attract a mainstream audience. Movies are probably the closest, with studios wanting to make as much money at the box office as possible, but at least with movies, you can go back and watch stuff that came out years ago and the studio still gets some money. Fight Club (sorry to reference it, but it really does fit as an example) overcame studio executive nervousness, poor reviews, and a mediocre box office return to be a hit years later with its DVD release, prompting a critical reevaluation.

Magic, because it only prints sets that were released within the last couple years, has absolutely no use for sets that attract attention later, after the initial release. Wizards considered sets like Future Sight and Lorwyn massive failures due to their poor sales. Years later, boxes of those go for about $800 and $700, respectively. They’re two of the most historically important sets printed in the Modern era: Future Sight is still getting reprints from its “futureshifted” cards, with Steamflogger Boss literally inspiring an entire set. Lorwyn was the debut of planeswalkers, the first truly new card type since Alpha, and what came to define the entire identity of how the story works in Magic.

The financial model of Magic has made true historical analysis of the game nearly impossible, or at least, financially and logistically inaccessible to the vast majority of players. People give serious attention, academic or hobbyist, to media like film, literature, music, and visual art; it’s no more expensive to read a copy of Lolita than it is the latest bestseller. In fact, it’s almost always cheaper to get copies of old stuff than something brand-new. Companies keep old art in print, both because they can sell it year after year and keep making money, and as almost a point of pride: some works are too historically important to ever make them unavailable.

I was intrigued by a side event at the upcoming GP: Seattle, where over three days, people draft a dozen out-of-print draft formats. It’s $700.

Old art does more than just make money for the owners of the intellectual property; it informs and inspires people. Every medium has periodic revivals in some outdated or overlooked older genre, like the 60s with folk music and the early 2000s with post-punk. It can even lead to entirely original things, like when kids into rap music dug through their parents’ jazz records for the samples that comprised early-90s rap.

An often-asked thing among Magic players, especially as the game gets to 25 years old, is what certain formats were like (usually draft). In any system that valued its players over its economic model, it would be easy for a group of friends together and draft old sets for fun without spending a fortune. Maybe a specific old format even catches on at a store or in a specific community, and it builds from there.

The system as it is seems built to tell people that the present is all there is; if you don’t like a specific format, you can go to another current format, or you can stop playing. It is a denial of the history of the game. When the game does acknowledge its history, it’s always on the terms of the present-day Wizards: they pick and choose select cards, replace a bunch of art, put it on a new card frame, and package it in order to sell the allure of one or two chase cards. But history doesn’t work like this. Going back and watching movies from the 60s, they look different. They have different styles in everything, whether it’s visuals, acting, writing, or directing. And no present-day imitation that uses vintage lenses and apes a certain style is going to capture it; it just captures the modern memory of those old things instead.

What I’m saying is that Masters sets are not enough. If the game is really going to last for another 25 years, players’ memories are going to fade. The knowledge of what Odyssey block limited was really like won’t last; when Wizards tells us that a certain set was a design failure, we have no choice but to take their word for it instead of making our own conclusions. Different people are going to have different takes on design and art: that’s how it should be. I don’t want my reviews of old sets to become unquestioningly canonized any more than I want Wizards’s takes on them to be. Our memories of the past are always telling of our present.

pt x: but what’s the problem? who gets to play magic

Racing cars might be a lot of fun. I don’t know for certain, I’ve never done it. My parents weren’t mechanics, car hobbyists, or Jay Leno, so I didn’t have access to cars that I could drive around for no real reason. Plus, when I was the age most people start learning to drive, my family was living in the middle of Denver. I would have spent all my money just on parking.

It’s an obvious point, but not everyone has the opportunity to get into, or even try, every hobby. This makes sense for stuff like cars, where it’s physically necessary to have expensive equipment, or for things like football, which requires organized teams of at least 22 players and a lot of open space.

But Magic cards are goddamned cardboard. Card games are exactly as financially inaccessible as the creators of them want them to be.

Wizards has been making a big show of how they want Magic to be more diverse and inclusive, which is a good sentiment. But it totally ignores the inherent aspects of Magic that keep it from improving in these areas. They made a game with a fairly high initial cost and an almost unfathomably large recurring cost in order to continue playing the game. Who actually wants to spend that much money? Unsurprisingly, it correlates pretty highly with the groups of people that are more likely to earn significantly more money. It’s white people, it’s men, it’s people living in high-income countries.

Is there a solution to this? Not at this point, no. The game has its established playerbase, and the way that people learn the game is almost always from someone they know who introduces them. White men are mostly going to hang out with other white men, so the network of players spreads mostly through that. For the game to truly have a diverse playerbase, it would have needed to set up roots in communities years or decades ago; it can’t be made to happen top-down at this point.

Should Magic be made more inclusive? Of course. Magic players need to stop being assholes and making people who aren’t white men not want to play by being horrible to them. But even with perfect behavior, the huge number of white male players somehow acting perfectly toward everyone else, the combination of the structure of Magic with the economic realities of race and gender are going to make sure that, from now until Magic stops existing, Magic will always be overwhelmingly white and male. Just like the houses in my beloved Seattle are filled with pro-immigrant, anti-racist, anti-poverty liberals that would rather set their house on fire than live next to subsidized housing for poor people, Magic is filled with people who are for diversity, as long as it doesn’t require changing anything about the underlying reasons for the lack of diversity.

pt xi: the capitalist attitude 

Capitalism isn’t just people making money, it has a specific definition: private ownership of the means of production, run for a profit for the shareholders. For Magic, Wizards of the Coast owns more than just the physical capability of making cards. It owns the intellectual property that is Magic. When players think about what’s good for Magic, players almost always translate it into their head: what’s good for Wizards.

I hate this.

Wizards might legally own the trademarks, it might employ the designers. It’s the company that makes Magic: the Gathering. That doesn’t mean that it is Magic: the Gathering.

No matter if they made your favorite set, or if you’ve never had more fun in your life than when you’ve been playing Magic lately, Wizards is not your friend. They are trying to maximize the amount of money they can get from you. I wouldn’t put it in terms this harsh if I felt like Wizards was interested in a truly symbiotic relationship with players, where they benefit from doing what’s in players’ best interest, but they gave up doing anything close to that a long time ago.

When there’s an argument about something in Magic (it does happen from time to time), someone always tries to take the side of what’s best for Magic long-term. This, in their mind, is the same thing as what’s best for Wizards long-term. Wizards doesn’t need anyone to argue on its behalf, though; it already does that quite effectively by making every decision about Magic. What players need to do instead is focus on what’s best for us, and accept that it will be different than what’s best for Wizards.

Demand high-quality products[4]. Demand the products that you want to see. Don’t try to justify it as something that would help Wizards out in some way or make them a lot of money; it’s enough that it would be good for you and players like you.

[4] Printed high-quality, please, it’s been awful lately.

Magic isn’t one group of people, and it’s sure as hell not just one corporation. Everyone at Wizards could be abducted and sent off to an alternate dimension, and it would certainly disrupt the logistics of coming out with sets, but Magic could continue. No one can go into our brains and remove all our knowledge about the game, or the relationships we have with one another that let us sit down with cards and play a game.

Wizards likes to exert control over every aspect of Magic, from the type of tournaments that can be run (no proxies!) to the language that players can use to talk about their game.[5] They see this as their right, their responsibility, because Magic is theirs. Any problem with the game needs a top-down solution, delivered from Wizards to the eager playerbase below them.

[5] Just mention “MODO” around a Wizards-employed true believer, or “EDH,” or refer to a deck as “Dredge” or “Affinity” when it doesn’t technically have any cards with those mechanics.

Fuck that. Hasbro owning copyrights over symbols and ideas pertaining to Magic, because they bought the company in 1999, doesn’t mean that Magic is theirs. Magic belongs to the people playing it. (The Magic was inside us all along!) When Wizards steps in and tries to change how people talk about something embedded in Magic culture, like trying to redefine what a “proxy” is despite how the term has been used by players since the game’s inception, just keep using the terms that players use, regardless of how Wizards wants us to talk about the game.

We’ve invested too much time in this game not to be its real owners.


TappTapp said...

Players are downright religious about officialness. When people were speculating about the Jace unban, almost nobody considered just playing some games of modern with him. People will save up thousands for a deck without at least playing a few games with it. People argued incessantly about pithing needle in standard when it was literally words away from reshaping the format.

Chinese counterfeits are less than $1 and are impossible to distinguish across a table. Why would you be looking for them anyway? There's no personal benefit to getting your opponent banned.

The sunk cost fallacy, too. Someone is new to modern, and they play some awful deck. They get thrashed, but save up and buy into jund. And so they save (for years, I've witnessed), playing a game they no longer like, until they own the best deck. And it turns out the deck is incredibly boring to play. They did something they hate for years, and spent an absurd amount of money doing it.

Matthew Butler said...

As usual, the most intelligent, completely correct, direct and clear stating of the point of any of these articles. 100% right, as usual.

Craig said...

No, this isnt direct or clear. It is whining about magic not being cheaper along with a bunch of politically correct and socialist rhetoric masquerading as being the more fair way to play the game, ignoring any pitfalls of their belief in these ideologies.

We have an ideologue spouting drivel about how life isnt fair and they should get things from other people (trades, companies make too much, sieze thr means of production, white men are oppressive and we cant fix it unless white men go away). Everybody should be nice so the author can get stuff and have stuff they way he wants it to be. Stop crying and move on if you dont like it. The OPs suggestions would have killed the game years ago, this isnt a LCG and those tend to die, quickly.

Gooby said...

Woo boy went straight for the strawmanning huh

Somewhere in that string together jumble of repeated tropes should be a point but damn, I don't see it

Benny D said...

Bravo! It's good to see you back in the saddle. Some of the best Magic writing around.

Unknown said...

I identify with this comment.

herbievore said...

Seize the means for production.

Literally - Make fakes.

schadenfreudy said...

This article is probably my favorite piece of your writing since the time spiral review. I dont agree with all of it (the what should we do part is kinda weak tea) but the diagnosis of the problem is fucking great.

I'm really curious to get your thoughts on F2P digital card games and economies, both MTGArena and, if you've tried it, Eternal. Thoughts on Eternal because its very close to(but legally distinct from) Magic, but not made by WotC, which I know has been something you've discussed in the past, and it has a much more generous (while still sorta capitalist) economy, though there are less infinite combos...

Happy Clam said...

Fantastic and fascinating analysis while, as usual, kind of gesturing at a conclusion rather than reaching one. The points about the commodification of our experience of playing Magic- to the active detriment of enjoying the game- is a fascinating one. Cube, of course, is one answer to this, and it's interesting how equivocal Wizards' support of this and other player-curated limited formats has been (no Cube-specific products, no custom Cube on MTGO). I think it's fascinating how much tension there is between the facts you state in this article and the way that the most prominent Magic content producers have no incentive to go against Wizards' preferences.

I think Craig touches one useful point in their stream of nonsense, which is that the logical end-point of this kind of thinking is closer to a Living Card Game than a Trading Card Game. And, as he says, these do not have such a great track record of survival (although neither do many TCGs!). Is the increasing excellence of Magic as a game compatible with its curation by Wizards of the Coast? What if Wizards could finish the

Also, please write a whole article about the ecosystem of third-party sellers, tournament organisers like SCG, and how they relate to Wizards. I think it's very telling how Arena, which presumably maps the future of Magic (at least online) has literally no space for these sorts of businesses- it is not a Trading Card Game, but a Collecting Card Game.

Dave said...

Overall a very fun read but it does seem to trail off into a hatebook list at points comapred to the opening which came across more factually.

I have the affordability debate with a lot of people and I disagree completely. While it is isn't as cheap of a hobby as some things the cost is comparable to something like golf. Clubs, green fees, balls etc. And if you want to play on more elite courses (while still playing 99% the same game you pay more). New players can get intro decks for $15 and play the game just as Garfield intended it so I don't buy that they are some third class citizens.

You also point out that other games use whales to subsidize others but completely missed out the deck pimpers foiling our their deck are doing the same thing for magic. For many people like me it is the fact that there are all these other aspects to magic that make it more than a game. It is a game where people can express themselves in their deck choices and their edition choices.

Magic isn't hacky sack and it is stamp collecting but the place in between is pretty great and I give wizards credit for that. I remember it after chronicles and fallen empires came out and I think they have steered the ship pretty well. As far as demanding what we want, the internet seems to be full of those people, and I vote with my wallet on magic products all the time.

Thanks for the article, you are probably the only person who likes Masters 24 as much as I do.

P.S. I think you need to get in tune with your younger self, everyone likes Dinosaurs and Pirates

Jeff said...

Should WOTC sell 4x playsets of each new set for a reasonable MSRP? Akin to buying the latest expansion for a LCG like Ascension or Legendary? That would be sweet if that was viable - I'd certainly buy every release. I'm befuddled by the "white male" shaming, I don't see what purpose that serves.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this essay. I've played Magic a few times with friends that allowed me to borrow their decks. It was really fun! I enjoyed the artwork, the thinking behind every decision, the RNG aspect of a deck-based game, the card-counting to anticipate future draws, etc. But they asked me why I never actually went and constructed a deck for myself, and I told them the prices for getting actually good cards was crazy.

ConfusedCactus said...

Boy, that was a whole lot of words to say very little.
Yes, Magic is an expensive hobby that not everyone can afford. That doesn't mean that Magic needs to change. There is no particular reason why everyone in the world needs to be able to compete at a high level in sanctioned tournaments with the best of the best cards. Magic can easily be enjoyed immensely for free to cheap, as long as your intent is not to compete in sanctioned tournaments (a tiny fraction of all magic games played). This opinion piece reads as little more than the pseudosocialist ranting of a man who wants his favorite hobby to be cheaper and wants the company who makes it to intentionally choose to make less money to accommodate his wish. An understandable position, but one without much intellectual value. I want the time I spent reading this back.

shopkins said...

Interesting there is no mention of the reserved list here, which imo is one of the most interesting facets of MTG finance.

Andy said...

In what way are they shaming people for being white men? All I gathered is that MTG is mostly played by white men and as long as the financial barrier to entry stays high then the majority of people who can afford to play will still be white and/or men.

shopkins said...

To expand on my comment about the reserved list: there are theoretically many schemes WOTC could use to sell MTG while staying within the capitalist paradigm of profit. For instance rather than sell expensive cards to a small number of people, they could sell cheaper cards to many more people (this is what I believe the online games like Hearthstone do, and who knows, maybe it’s what they’ll do with Arena). But with the reserved list we see clearly an instance where the non-WOTC financial stakeholders in MTG called the shots. Although we don’t know the full story, especially events circa 2011 with Phyrexian Negator suggest that these stakeholders do have a lot over power.

Amarsir said...

Some good stuff there, with an egregious error in the middle.

The bit where you're mistaken is in part 4, but I imagine you won't mind me saying that it's a common error made by no less than Karl Marx himself. It's your belief that middlemen add no value. Marx theorized that if you aren't a producer or a consumer then you have no place in the economy and therefore must be exploiting the others. After all, your gains must have come from *somewhere*, right? So I'm sure he would agree that Hasbro owns the means of production and we are all exploiting each other.

But it's not true. The fact that all exchanges are voluntary should prove as much, but supporters of this belief seem to be comfortable letting that hang as a paradox. The value that a middle man adds is by helping to find efficient allocation. Exchange benefits both parties and the cumulative benefit of those exchanges are how the middleman succeeds.

So you may find it a waste that someone is trying to flip Scourge of the Throne for profit. Why not just let the original owner and the final owner find each other and keep the difference for themselves? A fine theory. But as is frequently the case with Marx, that theory fails to acknowledge reality: they *didn't* find each other. No one forcibly stopped them from doing so. And if they had, there would have been no gain for the flipper to make. But they didn't, and thus he had a profitable role.

So no, we are not "all trying to exploit one another". We are in fact all trying to benefit each other, motivated by the commission we earn from facilitating that benefit.

"What about hoarding? What about dishonest trades?" These tend to be the fallback positions when a first barrage on capitalism fails. Indeed you include one and hint at the other. But it doesn't take much effort to see that neither is the domain of capitalism. As long as any scarcity exists, everyone has an instinct to hold more in case of future need. I'm sure you know The Tragedy of the Commons.

In fact, the desire to profit from trade assuages this problem. It's easy to say "I'm going to hold onto these Snapcasters in case I want them for a deck later." But knowing they are worth $240 for a set makes the incentive to sell *higher*, not lower. If we could imagine a world without prices, I'd still rare draft. Not because it's worth X dollars, but because I don't know when I'd see it again. And then it would sit in my card box, forgotten.

So really your mistake was trying to connect any of this to an economic system. It made for a snappy title and probably got you some traction on reddit. (I haven't checked.) But it just isn't substantiated.


Now where you're on to something is the the problem with Masters 25.

The value of a pack = draft value + card value. And pack price must be less than the value of the pack but greater than the card value. If the pack price is higher than the total, no one wants them. If lower than the cards, it just gets ripped open for singles until that's no longer true. So they have this little range, enabled by the value of draft and the flexibility of those numbers to different parties.

To turn a $4 pack into a $10 pack by adding card value is certainly possible. But even a good draft may not be 2.5x better. (Or if it is as you imply, people may not know that due to difficulty of experiments.) So the band in which the price has to sit becomes a smaller percent of the total product. That means less room for error.

This I think is their mistake and one I hope they learn. I guess we'll see.

TheBigGSN5 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheBigGSN5 said...

You'd think it'd be to hard to write comments while licking boots, but they just keep gettin' it done.

Unknown said...

I loved this article. It articulates everything I don't like about MTG and underscores everything I love about Cube -- including set cubes that capture a Limited feel. Masters 25 sounds like it would make for a very solid and interesting set cube.

Derp said...

I think it was you that wrote this too (but forgive me if not) but one of the quirks of people viewing the cards as valuable is the tendency of magic fans to 'think like a corporation'. People get emotionally invested in stuff but in MTG you're literally invested; I know many people who dislike decisions/sets but defend them because 'WOTC has to do this to grow and/or make money so we can still have more MTG'.

Unknown said...

Phenomenal article, if highly depressing.

Zemyla said...

The reserved list wasn't mentioned because it's practically a nonentity at this point, and will continue to be one as long as Magic does well. It's pretty much Wizards's ace in the hole. If Wizards finds itself in dire financial straits due to a lack of Magic sales, all it has to do is reprint Vintage Masters, verbatim, IRL. That'll fill their coffers up faster than you can say "Black Lotus". And the thing is, the longer they wait to deploy it, the rarer the vital cards required for Legacy and Vintage get, and the more potential demand they can get from current and returning players.

The reason they don't do this yet has nothing to do with the actual legality of the Reserved List itself. Hasbro has far more lawyers than Wizards did when they first made the agreement. They could wiggle out of it, no problem. The reason is that they can only really pop the cork on that bottle once, and then it's done.

I can't give you a firm timeline on when it'll happen, but it'll almost certainly happen.

Hunter Jay Perković said...

You really hit the nail on the head with this. I actually learned about class struggle first hand through magic, from a young age. It was always poorer kids fighting an uphill battle against the rich ones. The greatest fun with MtG I have these days is when a rich guy with a several 1000 Euro deck walks into a gaming bar I frequent, sits across a 20 Euro semi-pauper fair-looking deck I keep around and loses. Or going to an EDH tourney with a deck with barely any rares in it and beating guys with piles of foiled bling.

The MtG corporate model actually kept one of humanities cooler achievements, this game, out of reach for so many people. And some of the coolest things about it never got poperly explored because of the way it's made and distributed. Great mechanics, like Rhystic actually is, will never again see print because they're associated with commercial failure. Or you don't ever get the chance to have two blocks which play like a house on fire in the same standard - a Masques + Odyssey format, for example, would have been insane to experience.

It's even crazier with drafts. How many people know how well Fallen Empires draft? How much ahead of it's time that set was? How silly FAST that format is once you understand that it has lands, in every color, which you can sacrifice for 2 mana? How many people understand that Prophecy sped up Masques draft to the point of turn-5 kills being something you can count on? And that full-block Masques draft is actually really good?

What I did way before cube was invented was simply make homemade Fallen Empires drafts out of a huge pile of cards. Because most kids couldn't afford to ever draft. And we drafted the hell out of it, getting deep into the design of it and falling in love with the depth. Cards you'd think are the best in the set, like Pump Knights, get massacred by the stupid looking Dwarven Catapult, once you realize you can dump a lot of mana into it. Deep Spawn looks a lot better on turn 5 when you High Tide it out. You can murder people rather fast with Goblin Kites, Orcish Captain + anything that gives +1 toughness. If we didn't self-organize to let ourselves draft it for free, we never would have had any idea.

I did this for a lot of homemade drafts for different sets afterwards. It's magic the way it was originally envisioned, limited cardpools to compete with among friends once you've all bought a few boosters and traded the ones you didn't need to guys who could hand you something you could use. And people don't look to maximize their profits so they actually draft a deck to play with every time. And you don't have to buy new boosters every week for one afternoon of fun.

Poor kids never bought any boosters, anyway. Or played drafts. The very act of drafting was seen as a completely decadent perversion available only to people with money to burn. I've seen some of the best and brightest people who ever held cards in their hands play limited only when I made these homemade boosters for them. These are folks who learned to take down decks orders of magnitude more valuable than their whole collection. Magic history, sets, environments, drafts look sooooo much different from that perspective. We came up with Jund before shards of Alara was a thing, we preyed on Ravager Affinity all the time it was in standard, we laughed at Onslaught era goblins, we beat all but degenerate legacy decks with semi-standard ones and, most fun of all, I'd personally wade into a field of Destructive Flow Domain Zoo with an all-basics Domain deck week after week and grab prize boosters to draft with.

It always felt to me that Magic was so much more than the average player, or even the broader public, ever got to see or experience. The bussiness model always got in the way.

Great article, thank you for it, and sorry about this rambling textwall.

keratacon said...

I do not for one second believe that Wizards of the Coast didn't anticipate demand from the very beginning. They printed the very first set on counterfeit-proof blue core paper and as soon as two printings were gone, they started printing ugly white border cards to keep the value of the first printings high.

Everyone in the 90s was trying to make a collectible. Beanie Babies. Pogs. Every action figure line in the long shadow of Star Wars. Remember what comic books were like back then? All that limited edition holographic nonsense? Look up old kids' toys from the era, Monster in my Pocket and such. The 90s had a vogue of collectibles and Magic was 100% designed to be a rare collectible from day zero.

Also, it's funny that Wizards has a policy of never talking about competitors products, so it leads to a really distorted reality. Time Spiral and Lorwyn were low-sellers. They self-flagellate and blame design for it. But that was 2007. Nobody was buying cards because everyone was playing WoW.

DrTandtheWomen said...

This was fucking brilliant.

Conor said...

You are very very dumb.

linky00 said...

This is still the best article on the internet about Magic (or at least, most relevant).

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