Chapter 14-Play the Game, see the World


Play the Game, See the World  

MAGIC’S EARLY EXPLOSION into the public realm was not without its fallout. The revolutionary product’s vertiginous rise created tumult radiating from punch-drunk Wizards of the Coast, via starved supply chains, all the way down to players, who were either hopelessly in love with a product they couldn’t buy or, as in Bedford Schools District, assailed by meddling do-gooders. When Peter Adkison says that 1994 and 1995 (after a glorious 1993) were the worst years of his life, he can be forgiven his lament.  

Having unleashed an unprecedented product, Wizards had no off-the-shelf business model they could rely on to ensure its success. And, as revenues rose, the fear that mismanagement might kill the golden goose began to build. Wizards’ inexperience had helped create an iconoclastic product, but now it risked creating another discarded collecting fad; a Garbage Pail Kids for the 1990s. As John Jackson Miller had noted, the ‘locusts’ who had speculated on sports cards and comics were already turning their attention to Magic. A horde of hustlers, flipping boxes of sets like Legends at a huge mark up, or cracking open the product and selling the single cards to desperate players, were beginning to create a dangerous Magic bubble. The problem for Wizards was: how long would their players stay interested in a product that was spiralling out of their price range? Black Lotus, printed only 22,800 times in Alpha, Beta and Unlimited, was racing towards the $100 mark by the end of 1994 and was emblematic of the dangers Magic faced. If the players turned away in disgust, the ‘collectible card game’ would be left to fend on the market not as a game, but as a pure collectible. That would leave it susceptible to the fatal boom and bust nature of such a commodity. Something had to give.  

ASK MOST PLAYERS of a certain age what the worst set in Magic history is and the response will almost certainly be Fallen Empires (1995’s Homelands runs it a close second, though). Released in November 1994, it is stigmatised in part for its relatively weak cards and fiddly gameplay which introduced rafts of counters and tokens to the otherwise pared-down elegance of the Magic battlefield. But really, Fallen Empires’ lacklustre reputation hinges on one simple fact: it was the first set that was printed to demand. As such, it did not immediately go up in value. For that reason, ask Wizards employees of a certain era – including Richard Garfield – what the most important expansion in Magic history is and the response will almost certainly be Fallen Empires. “We had to take the reins away from speculators and collectors,” says the game’s creator. Fallen Empires was the beginning of that process.  

Whereas previous sets had been woefully under-printed, including Fallen Empires’ predecessor The Dark (at 62 million cards), this time Wizards set out to fulfil all the orders streaming in from distributors. Their hope was that by increasing supply, they could begin to deflate the bubble building up in their product. This would be like a controlled explosion of a lone suitcase on a station platform. A chance to defuse a dangerous situation at the time of the company’s choosing, rather than let a sudden destructive blast rip through the market. There was, however, one slight blip: retailers, unaware of Wizards’ plans, had vastly exaggerated the orders they were placing just to be able to get some of what they assumed would be another scarce Magic release. John Jackson Miller, from his time at industry publication Comics Retailer, knows of one store who, in the hope of securing 50 boxes of the hotly anticipated set, due out in the run up to Christmas, ordered 550 of them. With Wizards ready to print more cards than ever before (four times as much as The Dark) every single one of those boxes shipped, costing the store tens of thousands of dollars and ultimately putting it out of business. A controlled explosion this wasn’t. Fallen Empires began crashing the market, assuring it of its dubious place in Magic history. The following year’s Ice Age and Fourth Edition were also deliberately heavily printed to consolidate the process. Indeed, by the end of 1994, Wizards had already printed their billionth Magic card and at that point stopped making print-run data public.  

BURNING THE SPECULATORS before they could burn Magic was only one half of the equation, though. There was still a risk that Magic fever could run its course and that the legion of players who had picked it up in its first flush of success might get bored, down. tools and move on to another game. Lisa Stevens had hedged against that as best as possible by buying up as many licences for established intellectual property as she could, to delay the entry of a powerfully branded competing card game to the market. That advantage would only hold for so long though. A new approach to the product, a new proposition for its players — and not its hoarders, flippers and hustlers — was needed. It was former Philadelphia stalwart and now full-time Wizards employee Skaff Elias who found it.  

By 1995, the ruddy, bearded Elias was Wizards’ brand manager. In reality though, he had far more on his broad shoulders at the frantic company headquarters. From helping establish the R&D department, to designing cards himself, to business development and product management, Elias had fingers in almost every Wizards pie. So dedicated was he to Magic (and so run off his feet), that he could often be found asleep under his desk when the lights went out on another madcap day. There was no going home at a time in the game’s development Elias describes as “extremely precarious”.  

One question in particular plagued Elias: how could a player justify spending hundreds of dollars on Wizards’ product for any more than a year or two? While the answer up until that point – from all quarters — had been, ‘Because the cards keep going up in value’, Elias could see that this was unsustainable. So, with that in mind, he began to spend his long evenings researching what games had remained commercially successful for long periods. The more Elias read, the harder it was to ignore not only the staying power of classic games like chess, bridge and poker, but also the models embraced by professional sports.  

Little over a year before, Zak Dolan’s triumph at the inaugural World Championships had shown the central role that competition held for many Magic players. Within Wizards meanwhile, the fastest growing area of the company was the fledgling organised play department, as more and more players signed up to join the Duelists’ Convocation International (DCI), the game’s official sanctioning body. But just like everyone at Wizards at the time, DCI boss Steve Bishop and his team were struggling to get to grips with Magic’s mind-blowing scale. Even officially sanctioned tournaments, complying to the DCI’s early deck-building and organisational rules, were shambolic. Unfortunately, there was very little understanding at the top of what went into producing a good competitive event. These early tournaments were, says Elias, nothing short of “disasters”, run by a willing but inexperienced team who were simply in over their heads. It was something that Elias could see was a huge problem: “The tournaments were being run by a bunch of people who had never played games competitively before and the structure of early tournaments reflected that.”  

Furthermore, by the beginning of 1995, tournament play such that it was, was in danger of stagnating. The environment was ruled by the Power Nine cards (including the now $100 Black Lotus), all of which had climbed so high in price that a worrying two- tier field of haves and have-nots was emerging. How long would it be, wondered Elias, before the have-nots simply stopped turning up to play altogether? Drastic action was required to redress the situation by scaling back on which cards would be allowed for tournament play. But how could that be done without incurring the wrath of the tournament ‘haves’, in many cases players who had helped make Magic a success from day one?  

The solution that gradually swam into Elias’ focus was a tournament series that would not only turn Magic from an ephemeral collectible into a perennial game, but one which would provide a positive value proposition for switching to new deck construction rules. His idea was to found a professional tournament circuit, or ‘Pro Tour’, backed to the hilt by Wizards financially, played with cards everyone had access to and which would cement the primacy of playing over collecting. Elias’ Pro Tour, he hoped, would create a new level of investment — both intellectual and monetary — in the game from its fan base. It was a truly radical proposition. And, at its inception, one that almost no-one believed could work.  

JUST OVER A year into Wizards’ frantic expansion, the company’s staff was still largely composed of ‘nearest warm bodies’, brought on board to plug holes wherever possible. As former employee John Scott Tynes would write years later in an article for entitled ‘Death to the Minotaur’, If you were a Seattle gamer in 1994-95, you had to be wilfully incompetent not to get a job at Wizards. In particular, says Tynes, the city’s black-clad goth community was heavily represented at Wizards HQ, complete with a dramatically heightened sense of outrage to perceived slights or efforts to sell out. Elias, who had railed against the inefficiency of the current tournament organisers on the one hand and now wanted to propose on the other a hardcore, cut-throat competitive vision for Magic, fuelled by big bucks, seemed in for a losing battle. Still, he was convinced that his idea for a professional tournament series was the best way to ensure the game’s survival. He was also convinced he could count on the support of at least one ally: Richard Garfield.  

Early on in Magic’s dizzying rise, Richard Garfield had already reached the decision that the game should be a product for its players rather than its collectors. His faith in the quality of his game was absolute and it was his hope that it could join the pantheon of great, enduring games, with players respected for their skill and intelligence. He was also well aware of the dangers facing the game if it were simply to muddle on in its current state – popular, but for how long? Although he was initially reticent when Elias put the idea of the Pro Tour in front of him, worried that it would make the game too serious, he came round to the idea as the analogies to the classic games he wanted to emulate became clear (bridge, poker, chess… all featured competitive play at their apex). Similarly, reasoned Garfield, the existence of professionalised sports had not wiped out the grassroots; quite the opposite in fact. The NBA and casual basketball, for example, could co-exist quite happily and, thought Garfield, without the NBA to aspire to, there would probably be far fewer people shooting hoops on their local court. Remembering that he had always wanted to see games elevated to the same level as sport — albeit as sports for the mind — he sensed Magic’s chance to make a lasting mark on the cultural landscape. If Wizards played their cards right, they would gain far more players than the factions they might lose.  

Garfield, though, for all the sway he held in the organisation, was not the sort to kick up a fuss or criticise the currently mediocre state of tournament play. Elias had to go on building alliances within Wizards to get his idea off the ground, even with Magic’s creator onside. His next port of call was Peter Adkison, who could immediately see the strength of Elias’ vision. Having witnessed how Fallen Empires had burst the Magic bubble, he was fully aware that a new conception of the product was required for it to move forwards. Injecting cash into a professional play programme not only put the onus on playing Magic but also sent out a positive riposte to naysayers claiming the Fallen Empires crash was the beginning of the end for Wizards. “I loved the idea and made the changes in the organisation necessary to make it happen,” says Adkison. “But there was a point in time where out of 100 or so employees, only four of us believed in it.”  

The fourth was Rick Arons, the executive who had been slowly but surely spreading professionalism from his desk like ripples ina pond. Sure, he liked to walk around in his socks, but he had a keen mind for business development and possessed the authority, tact and dedication to steer Elias’ idea through the initially sceptical Wizards environment. A huge sports fan, Arons could grasp the potential a professional tournament circuit had, not only for elevating the quality of Magic play, but for legitimising it in the eyes of the general public: “Your grandma might not know what Magic is,” he says. “But she’ll understand what a $10,000 cheque is.”  

IT WAS SEDUCTIVE logic. And the razor-sharp Seth Matlins recalls it with glee as he details his experience with Wizards of the Coast in 1995. Sipping coffee on the other end of the phone line, on a sunny Los Angeles morning, he says with admiration, “When I first met Wizards of the Coast, no-one would have expected Magic to reach its 20th anniversary. But they planned for it.”  

Matlins is a marketing guru who in 1995 was working for ProServ, the second most powerful sports marketing company in the world, behind IMG. While IMG had been built up around the commercialisation of golf, ProServ was built up on tennis, with Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith as its first clients. Its expertise lay not only in representing athletes, but also in broadcasting and television production. In 1995 though, they were in a phase of diversification. The first rumblings of television’s declining efficacy were being felt in the industry, cable was gaining traction and viewerships were beginning to fragment. That meant ProServ were open to new ideas. But still, when they took a phone call from Rick Arons at Wizards of the Coast, it came as something of a surprise. What was Magic anyway? It did not take long for Matlins and his colleagues at ProServ to find out. They were immediately impressed by the rigour and scope of what Arons had to tell them. The feeling was mutual and Matlins was brought on board as part of a shadow government emerging at Wizards HQ.  

A second group working on tournament play started up – not wholly in competition with the existing unit, but not wholly in concert with it either. In keeping with Peter Adkison’s laissez-faire attitude, Elias, Arons and co were free to work on an ideaa majority of the company still felt would ruin the game. But what alternatives did they really have?  

Matlins remembers some outlandish options being discussed as a responsibility to Wizards’ shareholders. Should, for example, the company sell out while the Magic brand was at its hottest and build the Magic: The Gathering theme park? Certainly, it would be a way to cash in on the game if it really was nothing but a fad doomed to die out in the near future. But in their heart of hearts, not only did Garfield, Elias, Arons, Adkison and Matlins not want that – they also had immense faith in the product. Even Matlins, in no way a gamer or typical fantasy fan, could see how powerful Magic was: “The core premise was great,” he says. “You have to give credit to the fundamentally brilliant IP [intellectual property] and gameplay, while the collectible quality of the game undoubtedly added value. Nobody wanted to sell out – so the question became: how do we step outside the traditional lifecycle for a game, which runs about 18 to 24 months, burns really hot for 12 to 16 months, then hits a decline?” The group even briefly considered whether a play could be made to attain Olympic status for Magic as an intellectual sport. If nothing else, it would be an impressive PR stunt.  

Increasingly though, the idea of a big-money professional circuit became inescapable: ‘The $1-million Magic Pro Tour, had a ring to it and was an offering that put many sports at the time in the shade. It would, the group hoped, prove compelling to Magic players and frankly anyone in earshot of the phrase. It would galvanise the game’s grassroots — from local shops upwards – giving players something to aspire to, rewarding the very best with a platform upon which to shine. This was a chance to affect real cultural change. Everyone involved realised that the Pro Tour could legitimise and remunerate Magic players’ skill and creativity, so that they might earn a similar status to the high-school quarterbacks or valedictorians out there: “It was important for us to reward people for their efforts and to give people a sense of self-esteem,” says Elias.  

Vitally, it would also smooth the transition required to level the tournament playing field between the haves and have-nots. “The second purpose,” admits Elias, “was to ‘bribe’ the players. I hate using that word, but we wanted to show them that we would reward them for playing the game with only cards printed in the last two years – a new tournament format that we would call Type II.” The game’s old-school players could certainly continue playing with cards from the game’s entire history at Type I tournaments (the format now known as Vintage) — but the brunt of Wizards’ official prize support and promotional focus would go to a format that provided equal opportunity to all players, no matter how long they had been playing the game. The Type II format (today called Standard) would feature cards currently in print over a two-year period and would rotate as and when new cards were published, with outgoing sets replaced by the new printings. This would keep the format fresh and constantly challenging, much like Garfield had originally imagined. Magic: The Gathering, remember, was originally to be available for a year before being replaced by a completely different Magic: Ice Age product – only the necessity to rush expansions out to the game’s early adopters had changed that plan.  

The creation of the new format was a huge and controversial schism that would relegate Type I to Magic’s margins. But in conjunction with the Pro Tour, it finally provided Wizards with a model for sustainable sales. “They had a vision for what Rick referred to as the ‘metagame,” says Matlins. “His analogue was a pinball machine with all the names of the high scorers on it.” As long as the rewards of triumphing in this vision of the tournament metagame were high enough, players would now have every reason to continue to buy new Magic cards. It was a brilliantly holistic vision and precisely the business model Wizards had been looking for. The Pro Tour itself would be laid over an infrastructure similar to tennis, namely a ranking system based on the Association of Tennis Professionals’ rankings, where players ascended by beating those ranked higher than them. It even harked back to the ‘ladders’ for card games like hearts that Garfield had run for his Maths Department colleagues back in his University of Pennsylvania days. And, as one of his columns in The Duelist magazine in the spring of 1995 revealed, he was fully on board with the idea. Recently, I claimed that I could make any game popular if I could build a good ladder around it, he wrote. Each player [on a ladder] has many different chances for success. When a player moves up even one rung from the bottom of a ladder, he has achieved akind of victory. That same aspiration would be the bedrock of Magic’s future as an enduring, perennial game.  

IT MIGHT NOT have been much, but its consequences would be seismic: a tiny news story, tucked away in the bottom left-hand corner of page 10 of The Duelist issue number eight, from December 1995.  


The first in a series of professional Magictournaments is in the early planning stage at Wizards of the Coast. Members of the Magicteam have been scoping out sites in the New York City area and hope to put together an initial event by early next year. For more information, contact Wizards of the Coast Customer Service at (206) 624-0933.  

WHILE THE SELE-EFFACING manner of the Pro Tour’s announcement almost certainly hints at the internal scepticism at Wizards of the Coast, the master plan was now public knowledge. John Jordan, the company’s biggest shareholder, was onside and preparation began in earnest for the first big-money event — one that would have to prove the viability of Skaff Elias’ radical idea.  

As the news story in The Duelist says, the venue for the first-ever Magic Pro Tour would be New York, in a converted loft near Greenwich Village. With no qualifying system in place, the best-known players around the world were canvassed by Wizards and invited to intend. Bertrand Lestrée, for example, the runner-up to Zak Dolan at the 1994 World Championships, remembers receiving a Fed Ex package while on work placement in the UK. He had stopped playing Magic six months previously, but as he opened the courier’s parcel to discover a letter from Wizards telling him they would fly him to New York to play in the game’s first ever-professional event, all expenses paid, his interest in the game was suddenly rekindled. His case proved in microcosm the allure of playing at the top level, for high stakes, and getting a holiday thrown in, to boot. Fittingly, the Pro Tour’s slogan would for many years become ‘Play the game, see the world!’  

Other players heard about the impending event – to be held on the weekend of 16-18 February 1996 — by word of mouth. While Wizards had a rough idea of the big names they wanted to play at the tournament, the other slots available needed filling – and were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone who called up and asked for one. A total of 347 players would make it to the Pro Tour and would be split into a Junior and Masters competition according to age (a distinction which would be later scrapped). Despite a snowstorm delaying the start of the tournament, there was a palpable sense in that New York loft of a new era beginning. Richard Garfield himself kicked off proceedings with words that summed up what a watershed moment it was: “The reason I take games seriously is because I consider them the intellectual counterpart to sports,” he told a wrapt audience of fans. “I would love to see games raised to the stature of intellectual sports.” The concept was a fine one, but Elias, Matlins and the other Wizards and ProServ staff in attendance could only cross their fingers and hope that the event would prove their big-money gamble correct. Certainly, as far as the players were concerned, this was a thrilling new arena to compete in. One 17-year-old player in the Junior portion of the competition, a Neutral Ground regular called Jon Finkel, could barely contain his emotions. Today, he says that first Pro Tour was like, “being in a school football team that gets to play a game at Wembley. It was clearly a bigger stage.”  

As the rounds progressed, that feeling began to spread to the organisers, too. By the semi-finals, with thousands of dollars on the line, the play had ratcheted up to a new level of intensity – and everyone in attendance had been swept up in it. There were no bleachers or close-circuit television as there would be at later events for the crowds of eliminated players to watch on. So they scrambled as best they could on to nearby tables and chairs to lean in and get a view of the play as it was unfolding. The tournament rules had not been fully ironed out yet, so the players were allowed to play out their matches without a time limit. As the semi-finals stretched out, the atmosphere became electric — and it was then that the organisers were convinced they were on to something. Matlins recalls being bowled over by the intensity in the room. “What you saw was passion, engagement, interest — and if I remember correctly, you could even hear ‘Oohs’ and ‘Ahs’ from the crowd at various plays,” he says. “That was the moment I went from knowing the Pro Tour made sense, to believing it made sense. I wasn’t a Magic player and I’m not today but in that moment you could palpably feel the connection of an audience to the play of others and for a sport, that’s fundamental.” For Elias, seeing Matlins’ reaction was the proof of concept he needed – sure, Magic was exciting to gamers. But when a non-gamer was as awestruck by the unfolding excitement as all the Magic players in the room, the Pro Tour’s entire rationale was vindicated. This was sport; it would produce drama, birth heroes and legitimise not only its big-money heroes – but also all the wannabes striving to be like them. “It was astounding,” says Elias.  

By the time American player Michael Locanto triumphed against Bertrand Lestrée in a gruelling final to become the first ever Pro Tour champion — winning a cheque for $12,000 in the process —- Magic had changed forever. Not only did its players have a reason to be proud, but Wizards, too, could reflect with self-confidence on an excellent business decision. It was, says Peter Adkison, their first. “Up to that point, Magic had been big and amazing because Richard was smart and creative,” he says. “This was the first time we made a really smart business decision rather than simply getting lucky, and it took us to the next level as a company.” The core believers at Wizards had been fully vindicated. And, as the shadow organised play unit absorbed the existing one, fears about the game’s future abated. “Unequivocally,” says Elias, “this saved Magic.”