Chapter 13-Plug Me In


Plug Me In  

IT Is AN irony of history that the last great paradigm shift in analogue gaming should have been made possible by the digital medium Usenet. Without the internet and the connection it forged between Peter Adkison and Richard Garfield, there would be no Magic. But it is also possible that without Magic, the internet itself would have looked very different from the one we know today. The rise of one did not simply help fuel the other. Instead, the two technologies (and the communities they spawned) cross- pollinated in a fertile digital swamp, creating a common history that cannot be sliced in twain. As soon as Magic was released in 1993, it was plugged into the internet and set off an outbreak of online discussion among its early audience, many of whom, as students or technologists, had access to Usenet at university or the forward-thinking companies that employed them. Indeed, a year into Magic’s lifetime and even The Duelist was pointing people online in an article entitled ‘Electrons are your friends’. For cool net access, you’ll need a computer and a modem, warned author and long-serving Wizards employee Dave Howell. He then went on to explain how users could send emails directly to the company, who were embracing the medium as a way to build bonds with their customers, or their ‘friends’, as Peter Adkison called them. Howell also listed the Usenet groups where the game’s hardcore had found each other and singled out as the hub of the new Magic community.  

Because Magic by its very design was a game of endless choices, every choice its players did make – from deck selection, to deck design, to actual choices within games – was a potential theme for debate. The initial result on Usenet was a deafening cacophony, as players struggled to grasp which aspects of the game boasted genuine significance. Before, indeed, players realised how they could talk about those factors, as the language needed to define the phenomena they were encountering settled into place. It took Brian Weissman’s cerebral approach to deck construction and the higher level of analysis it demonstrated to open the eyes of Magic players who had been working on pure instinct. Up until The Deck landed like a monolith amongst monkeys, Usenet was a jumble of pet decks being posted online by their creators, news and rules discussions, tournament adverts and so on. But when a friend of Weissman’s, Sun Microsystems employee Paul Pantera, popped up to extol The Deck’s virtues, it served as a lightning rod for serious Magic players everywhere. One of those inspired by the electricity surrounding The Deck was Usenet lurker Rob Hahn.  

 ‘WHEN HAHN BEGAN reading about The Deck, he immediately sensed that Magic discussion had reached a new threshold. Instead of simply posting a list of the cards he was playing, Weissman – who had little online access and relied on Pantera to represent him – explained why he had chosen those cards, outlining the concept behind the design and the synergies between the cards. So many of Weissman’s choices were counter-intuitive to early Magic players, that without his results, without the analysis he was propagating via his discussions with Pantera, his deck may have been largely dismissed by casual observers. A card like Swords to Plowshares, for example, played a huge role in The Deck, allowing Weissman to remove any creature completely from the game (rather than it simply dying and being sent to the graveyard zone, where it can be revived by numerous effects) for the cost of a single white mana. The card’s drawback – that it gave the creature’s controller life equal to its power — had led to the card being dismissed by many early players who visualised the game as nothing but a race to reduce the opponent’s life total to zero. Weissman, however, looked past that and saw the startling efficiency of the card within his strategy. Remove a threat cheaply – live on to fight the long game – and eventually lock the opponent down completely. Once that had been achieved, it didn’t matter how long it took to kill with his two Serra Angels. His position was a virtual checkmate, his victory inevitable. In that sense, says Hahn: “The Deck was fundamental in showing the level of complexity Magic could reach.”  

Perhaps not a player or deck-builder on Weissman’s level, law student Hahn did, however, possess excellent analytical skills and a love of writing. As discussion around Weissman’s deck blossomed and his contemporaries began to discuss their decks more cogently, Hahn began to perceive over-arching strategies that those talking online were failing to adequately distinguish. Late one night in the autumn of 1995, a determined Hahn sat down at his trusty Mac SE and began drafting what would become a seminal Magic document; a Usenet post that would decisively crown the internet as the medium for cutting-edge Magic discussion. Borrowing a martial arts analogy, he called his piece ‘Schools of Magic’ and rattled it off as the midnight oil burned down. Satisfied with his work, Hahn posted it on Usenet and stumbled to bed. The next morning, he awoke to find 300 emails in his inbox.  

Hahn’s breakthrough was his clarity in identifying the different resources that decks, or groups of decks, were leveraging – or denying – to cement their wins. The Weissman School, for example, was focused on drawing cards and denying cards in the opponent’s hand to create overwhelming ‘card superiority’ as Hahn dubbed it. The Handelman School (named after Garry Handelman, another Bay Area player searching for a way to beat the omnipresent Weissman Deck) focused on quickly disrupting the opponent early on, then playing and protecting powerful creatures, a strategy that dominates the game’s tempo. Decks in the Chang School (after Warren Chang), included in Hahn’s second draft of ‘Schools of Magic’, attacked the opponent’s mana to prevent them casting their spells. These were, wrote Hahn, deck ‘archetypes’ – strategies that went beyond a single deck with a single mix of cards and rather highlighted the fundamental areas in which games of Magic were won and lost. Magic was like a pie that could be carved up into different pieces and in trying to present these pieces together, Hahn was helping to reveal the whole pie to players for the first time. “I think what I was trying to do,” he says, “was define the metagame in a real way, which I didn’t feel had been done until then. The idea of the metagame had been discussed – but no-one had put it all together and said, based on the cards, based on the environment, based on the rule set: here it is.”  

A metagame can be loosely described as a game stretching beyond the conventional rules of a particular game, for example deciding to win exactly three matches of Magic at a tournament. Or playing Jenga blindfolded. Or attempting to build more hotels than your best friend in a game of Monopoly. ‘The metagame’ then, as described by Hahn, was a synecdochal use of the term, co-opted by Magic players: one of the infinite metagames open to Magic players became seen – and talked about – as the defining metagame. Namely, in a game of unprecedented choice, what cards should I choose to play with? Or, more specifically, what deck should I play with at a given tournament if I want to beat the other decks in attendance? Thus ‘the metagame’ became in most Magic parlance the term used to describe the ensemble of decks one could expect to face, as well as the interplay between them. It is, admittedly, confusing — but it was even more obscure before Hahn put flesh on the theoretical bones being tossed up in the Usenet ether. Here, suddenly, was a snapshot of the state of Magic strategy. It was a giant step forward in understanding the game and a hugely influential piece of writing. Mike Flores, one of Magic’s most successful columnists, says, “Rob made me think about and look at the game in a much different way. He enriched my experience of Magic and inspired me to start participating on the Usenet boards.”  

FLORES WAS NOT the only one leaping feet first into the now vibrant online Magic community. As ever more players joined the conversation at, the limits of the newsgroup medium were being sorely tested. As Flores puts it, “I personally was becoming disillusioned by the signal-to-noise ratio.” Hahn, meanwhile, was wrestling with his ‘Schools of Magic’ document, having to rewrite it each time a new development occurred and then post a new version on Usenet. As new posts accumulated, it would be pushed ever further down the newslist and hundreds of players trying to find it would email him asking him for a copy. Unthinkable as it might seem now, there was no way for Hahn to hyperlink to his text: each correspondent had to be answered in turn and the ‘Schools of Magic’ content painstakingly copied and pasted into a reply. It was a chore Hahn had never anticipated when he wrote his brilliant Magic article. So, when an IT specialist by the name of Frank Kusumoto emailed him about a pioneering new project he had in mind, Hahn was relieved.  

Kusumoto was a Magic enthusiast with an intriguing day job. In late 1995, when he contacted Hahn, he was working for the FBI and Department of Defense. His specific remit was to organise the tide of human intelligence (as opposed to signals intelligence, from satellites and so on) that the US Navy received. He was, essentially, in the business of spies and something like the IT department’s tinkering ‘Q’. The challenge Kusumoto faced was making the vast quantities of information on fleet movements, maritime operations and smuggling that operatives sent in accessible to analysts. In his search for the right tools to do so, he was keen to explore the possibilities of a new programming language called Hyper Text Markup Language or HTML, the code that would facilitate the shift from newsgroups to the website-centric internet we know today. “I want to try using this new-fangled HTML thing to build a Magic website,” he told Rob Hahn. “And, if it works for Magic, maybe it will work for the Navy, too.” Hahn’s ‘Schools of Magic’ would be the first text that Kusumoto posted to his website and would be joined by a handful of Kusumoto’s own writings. The experimental website would be called the Dojo, decided Kusumoto, and he would be its self-styled sensei. In wonderfully hammy kung fu-ese, the wise and enigmatic leader invited visitors to the Dojo to ‘study and grow strong’. They did. In rapidly spiralling numbers. And before long, the Dojo was renowned as the finest Magic school in town.   

Initially, Kusumoto’s plan was to curate the best posts from Usenet and present them – with the help of the new website format – in a way that made the information more accessible. But very quickly, he had to revise his expectations: not only would he have Usenet to sift through, but players also started emailing him articles directly. Not just strategy pieces arrived in his inbox but opinion pieces, too – and says Kusumoto, once he had accepted the first, “the floodgates were opened.” In his first couple of months running the website (hosted on 1MB of free space from service provider Netcom), Kusumoto clocked up dizzying internet bills as the dial-up tariffs of the time creaked with the weight of traffic surging from his home. With its handpicked content, rapid and accessible flow of information and collaborative, open-source approach to deck innovation, the Dojo slowly but steadily became Magic’s centre of gravity. As the game became more focused on competitive play (which it would in 1996, following a major strategic decision by Wizards of the Coast), so the Dojo took on ever more importance and its users and contributors became ever more prolific. Its editorial strategy, says Kusumoto, fell naturally into place: “To be an advocate for fair play and for the average tournament player.”  

Nonetheless, the site had its controversies, particularly regarding its approach to innovation. One of its key features became a section entitled Decks to Beat – a more naked way, in-keeping with Kusumoto’s desire to make information more accessible, of presenting the tournament metagame. In it, were the latest decklists gleaned from tournament winners. Were you to have any chance at your local competition, you either needed to ‘metagame against’ these decks (design one which beat them) or, more likely, copy them. The idea at the time, that anyone would ‘net-deck’ – build, card for card, a copy of a deck listed online – was abhorrent to many players, who had lovingly collected every card and crammed them into their decks depending on taste or trial and error. The Dojo’s Decks to Beat section was deemed by many to be the death knell for creativity, when it fact, it was anything but. Aping the kind of open-source thinking being promoted in savvy R&D departments all over the land, it actually accelerated learning by squeezing out whimsical (and often plain bad) decks, focusing minds and refining deck-building theory. It was, in effect, the logical conclusion of the process started by ‘Schools of Magic’ and a standard that all Magic players today have become accustomed to. With the tournament scene exploding, it became a vital time-saver to serious Magic-card slingers who could focus their efforts on playing, practising and experimenting — brewing up decks against a clearly defined metagame. To this day, looking up the latest winning decklists online is the number one pastime for many players and in that respect, the Dojo was streets ahead of anyone else. As Pete Hoefling, the owner of major online store and content provider puts it: “The Dojo laid the framework for what every Magic site is today.”  

Crucially, many of the biggest Magic writers, including many still active today, were able to make their name because of sensei Kusumoto’s discernment. By taking on an editorial role (personally proof-reading and posting over 20,000 texts in his stint at the helm), Kusumoto fed the notion of celebrity and authority within the Magic world. Instead of drowning in Usenet postings, authors with something to say found themselves singled out and celebrated on the Dojo. Names like Brian Weissman and Robert Hahn were joined by a string of top tournament players all finding a voice for themselves, as they battled to be the best in the land: Brian Kibler, Jamie Wakefield, Eric Taylor, John Schuler… their names quickly earned a place in the Magic canon. The latter is even largely credited with inventing the form of Magic writing known as the ‘tournament report’, a blow-by-blow account of a player’s performance at a given event. As its inventor, he earned the right to subvert it, too, and sparked outrage with a fictional report called ‘How I won mid-Atlantic Regionals with my Song of Blood deck’. The Dojo was, in short, a springboard for innovators — both players and writers – and allowed many to go on and earn money from their writing as outlets competing for talent sprung up in the Dojo’s wake.  

Hahn himself was recruited in 1997 by Wizards’ Mark Rosewater to become his assistant editor at The Duelist. It was Hahn’s dream job – and he happily took an enormous pay-cut from his role as a corporate lawyer in New York to join the magazine in Seattle. But as good as the content the refreshed team produced was, the Dojo had permanently changed the Magic media landscape. Instead of singing the praises of ‘cool net access’, The Duelist staff were having crisis meetings on how to address their plummeting subscription numbers. The magazine’s big problem was the 90-day turnaround between issues, which was being made to look glacial by the Dojo’s Decks to Beats section, updated after tournament results poured into Frank Kusumoto’s inbox every weekend. Like many (if not all) print titles, The Duelist suddenly found its rationale for existing undermined. In response, says Hahn: “there was serious discussion at Wizards about buying the Dojo.” Wizards eventually decided it would be more healthy to have a strong, independent voice talking about Magic and focused their energies instead on creating content for their own website. Could Hahn replicate the Dojo for Wizards, they asked him. They even had a budget in mind for him to do so: $6 million.  

Wait a minute, thought Hahn. If you’re willing to spend $6 million to create another Dojo, there must be somebody out there willing to fund the existing Dojo as a company. And certainly, with venture capital being thrown willy-nilly at internet start-ups in the first dot-com boom, there was. Hahn got on the phone to Kusumoto (by now burnt out by editing Magic articles) and offered to buy up acontrolling stake in the Dojo. Kusumoto agreed and the Dojo was reborn as the Psylum Dojo, an ad-supported website with Hahn as its boss and Mike Flores (at first an intern) on its staff.  

For a time, the site continued to flourish and in 1999’s Flores-penned article “Who’s the Beatdown?” published one of the game’s most important texts. In it, Flores described how when similar decks faced each other, understanding which deck was the aggressor and which was the controlling deck in the match-up was decisive for victory. He explicitly enumerated a thought process for determining the role each deck was playing and the consequences it had for the pilot of each deck. After ‘Schools of Magic’ had drawn the lines of the metagame, ‘Who’s the Beatdown?’ enunciated the effect that knowledge should have on strategic, in-game reasoning. It taught players that understanding what decks they would be facing had an impact not only on deck design, but also on the decisions made within a game. As such, it was the next quantum leap in Magic theory, again made possible in both execution and propagation by the internet’s connecting power. Flores signed off with the haunting maxim: misassignment of role = game loss, a warning so lucid it sounds like a life (not just a Magic) lesson. It is one still discussed in every card shop or tournament on the planet, while the phrase ‘Who’s the Beatdown?’ has been pronounced in every accent possible. Flores’ article permanently altered the thought patterns of Magic players everywhere, helping unite them into a supra-national, sub-cultural group.  

Unfortunately, the internet still suffered its Babel moment. And while language was not the ultimate reckoner, hubris on a biblical scale was. As sites funded by opportunistic venture capitalists failed to monetise, the dot-com bubble burst spectacularly in 2000. The Dojo, despite a final rescue attempt with a sale to the USA Networks-owned Sci-Fi Channel, eventually imploded. Its tatami mats were rolled up and put away. Its shoji were slid shut for a final time. And its loyal band of students were ushered out of its shomen to study and grow strong at the host of websites that sprung up in its wake. There would never be another Dojo. But each and every Magic site today owes a debt to the genius of sensei Frank Kusumoto.  

TO SAY THAT the Dojo’s influence was limited to Magic websites, though, would be to sell short its groundbreaking design. It was in fact part of a tangible effect being had by Magic players on the very fabric of the early internet. Two factors were crucial to the sway Magic’s online community was able to have. Firstly, their simple weight of numbers; the fact that, before anyone else, they were a genuinely coherent online community. Sociologists studying the early internet today look at two groups – online role- players and newsgroup communities and, as Skaff Elias points out, in the Usenet days, Magic traffic trailed only pornography and weather boards in its volume. As Magic players explored their obsession online they created links between local shop-based scenes that otherwise would have taken years to form, harnessing the new technology to become a distinct and visible group. In so doing, they heralded the internet’s ability to thrust previously small, underground scenes into the light by dint of greater numbers and coherency. As the primary identifiable group online in the mid-1990s, they also became a de facto proving ground for the viability of the forms of internet use that others would go on to adopt. One key example was the heavy presence of Magic card auctions on Usenet, a hugely popular way of buying and selling cards at the time. Says Elias, “A friend of mine wrote his economics PhD at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] specifically using Magic: The Gathering to collect data about auction formats on the internet. Today, he kicks himself because he didn’t found or invest in eBay.” The same phenomenon was echoed in the name of the notorious Bitcoin exchange, MT.Gox, so called because it began life as a platform for trading “MTG” (Magic: The Gathering) cards. Even addictive hook-up app Tinder owes a debt to the proliferation of collectible card games — its designers say its pioneering swipe interface was inspired by sorting through stacks of cards.  

The whole premise of the Dojo meanwhile, was that the amount of information being generated by Magic players was so great, that it would be a valid testing ground for technology destined for wider applications. For that reason, says Flores, “Frank Kusumoto is the second most important person in the history of Magic, after Richard Garfield. He had this skill that other people did not have at the time: the organisation of information on websites so that it could be consumed by everyday people.” In that sense, Kusumoto was inventing the way the internet would be used with every keystroke of code he wrote for the definitive Magic website. To boot, the Dojo would lead the way in what would become the buzz concepts of the first dot-com wave – user- generated content, content aggregation, driving traffic to centralised locations which could then be commercialised… “Literally, the evolution of the internet is there and you can see it in the Dojo’s early iterations,” says Flores. “Here Frank was, working for naval intelligence and just inventing this thing that other people came to adopt in many other areas.”  

That they did so, had much to do with the early Magic community’s second defining characteristic: its composition at the time. Take Rob Hahn for instance. He discovered the game in 1993, whilst working in the IT department of a Wall Street hedge fund. One lunch break, leafing through an IT industry magazine, he stumbled upon an article detailing a new craze that was sweeping the computer industry up in Seattle, at Microsoft and beyond. That craze was Magic and it was being rapidly embraced by and popularised amongst members of the tech workforce (including Paul Pantera at Sun Microsystems). The same developers who were building the World Wide Web’s infrastructure were also scouring it for information pertaining to their hobby. Says Hahn: “It’s entirely possible that people from Microsoft or Netscape looked at the Dojo and said to themselves, ‘Hey, this is a really smart way of organising information on the internet. Maybe we’ll use that somewhere.” Magic and the internet were linked from birth and developed in startling symbiosis. Neither ever looked back. Serendipitous timing thrust them together to their mutual betterment. And, with the virtual wind in its sails, Magic powered forward into uncharted territory, along a new course plotted by Wizards of the Coast.