Chapter 24-It’s a Small World


It’s a Small World  

MAGIC’S EVER-EXPANDING universe took it worldwide in record time. While America was the game’s epicentre, the international market soon picked up on the shockwaves after its seismic breakthrough. As early as November 1994, Magic: The Gathering became Magic: L’Adunanza, an Italian translation of the game. Despite the meagre supply of English-language product making demand. almost impossible to gauge, it proved a runaway hit. Magic seemed a game capable of striking a chord with very different cultures and in Italy it slotted into a long tradition of playing card games like bridge and briscola on sunny terraces, as much as it did into a Dungeons & Dragons heritage. It was not only a globalising game, but one that offered the same response to globalisation that savvy marketers would also hit upon later: mass personalisation. Magic was the paper precursor to the Nike ID store – an adaptable product, that could be tuned to personal whims in the face of the cultural homogenisation augured by each new world trade agreement, each new conquest by the market economy.  

More translations followed and today the game is available in 11 languages, with many foreign cards prized for their exotic chic. Magic’s rapid proliferation has been aided by the ease with which it can be played against opponents speaking different languages. Compared to more narrative role-playing games, Magic is structured and mechanistic, many cards are iconic and recognisable from their art, and a handful of key words from the game’s rules are usually enough to get through a match with anyone. As Wizards’ organised play programme kicked in, that meant a brilliant smashing together of gamers from very different backgrounds and a broadening of horizons for often previously shy players. Peter Adkison explains games as a structured way for people to interact, when perhaps they lack the confidence to do so spontaneously. Magic would prove capable of doing that across cultures, even if I personally sometimes stumbled on hang-ups that stopped me clicking with opponents in new lands in the way the focused tournament set did. Brian Weissman, creator of The Deck, remembers what a buzz it was meeting players from across the globe in hotel lobbies, bars and bedrooms as professional play attracted a cosmopolitan crowd. “Magic was like a universal language,” he says. “I can remember back in the early days of the Pro Tour just sitting round on hotel room floors in various parts of the world, playing game after game against people who could barely speak English at all and we still had this social bond around the game. That was pretty amazing.”  

As Pro Tours started to be staged abroad, starting with Pro Tour Paris in 1997 and the schedule of Grand Prix swelled, Magic encircled the globe. The emergence of low-cost airlines (such as easyJet in 1995), as well as the rise of an online Magic culture helped knit players into a closer community. First, they came together to play at international tournaments, then they stayed in touch online. And, as the rest of the world caught the Magic bug, it was perhaps no surprise to see America’s primacy at the top of the Magic tree challenged, nor that the nation to do so would be the one buying all the cards in the late 1990s, the most per capita in the world: Japan.  

In 1999, the World Championships made their way to Tokyo, in recognition of the Japanese market’s importance. It was hoped the event would consolidate the buzzing Magic scene there and inspire the best local players to new heights. While there might not have been a local champion to crown at the event, it did ratchet up the enthusiasm of Japan’s player base. The first generation of Japanese pros began to work diligently on their skills, particularly at two key shops in the local Magic scene: Tokyo’s DCI Tournament Centre and Osaka’s Adept. Adept was opened by a legendary figure in Japanese Magic, the now-deceased Muneo Shibata, a dedicated Magic judge who took the shop’s young players under his wing and schooled them in the finer workings of tournament play.  

It would be one of Shibata’s fledglings who would strike a blow for Japanese Magic by racking up the country’s first Pro Tour Top 8 at Pro Tour Tokyo 2001. Tsuyoshi Fujita, a brilliant deckbuilder, lost in the final to the iconoclastic New Yorker Zvi Mowschowitz, but his performance helped crack a glass ceiling the Japanese had been butting up against in their efforts to mix it with the world’s best. It was a watershed moment, which the nation’s pros still credit as a huge inspiration today. That would be followed in 2003 by Mashahiro Kuroda smashing the same glass ceiling for good. He become the nation’s first-ever Pro Tour victor at Pro Tour Kobe in February 2004 and would later credit his mentor Shibata as the most important figure in the history of Japanese Magic.  

Notably though, both Fujita and Kuroda made their breakthroughs on home soil. Travel from Japan to tournaments in Europe or North America could be prohibitively expensive. But Japanese players also had significant cultural barriers to contend with. Japan’s location and history (for example, its collectivism in the wake of World War II), have often led to its culture being described as insular. It would take a gradual broadening of horizons before pioneering pros from the South-East Asian archipelago would feel comfortable enough to smash their opponents in far-flung lands.  

The player who embodied that journey best was Kenji Tsumura, from Hiroshima. Tsumura, a gangly and painfully shy boy, grew up as a rabid fan of the Manga series Yu-Gi-Oh! which featured a fictional card game based on Magic. One day in 1998 the 11-year-old Tsumura was devouring an interview with the series’ creator Kazuki Takahashi, which explained his fictional card game’s origins. Curious, Tsumura asked his best friend if he had heard of Magic and, as it turned out, he had. His older brother was a Magic player and, as is often the way amongst siblings, he soon had the two younger players hooked. Tsumura remembers gleefully opening the then sought-after Paladin En-Vec in his first Booster Pack. Not long after, he was cycling to tournaments every weekend, obsessing over the game and most of all, basking in the distraction it offered him from school. Academically, he felt like a failure for not netting the grades his parents expected and socially, he felt shut out of his school’s popular clique. By the time he was in his late teens, he had dropped out entirely in favour of another goal: making it on the Magic Pro Tour.  

Tsumura’s first-ever professional event was also his maiden voyage beyond Japan’s shores. Pro Tour Chicago 2003, when it came, was a huge challenge to the boy who feared big crowds and was lugging a lifetime’s preconceptions with him. “Because they are taller and bigger than Japanese, I was scared of foreigners,” he says. “But getting to travel abroad for the first time showed. me they are very kind and that made me far more comfortable.” Not only that, but the trip to Chicago, though unsuccessful for Tsumura, opened his eyes to just how good the best players out there were. Whenever his matches finished he would rush off to watch his heroes Jon Finkel and Kai Budde from behind his dyed and floppy fringe, soaking up everything he could from their excellent technical play. Budde in particular was an inspiration and when Tsumura returned home he attempted to replicate the German’s play style when practicing with his best friend Masashi Oiso. Soon, as their quest for Pro Tour glory intensified, they were joining other Japanese players practicing feverishly in a rented house in Tokyo. Itaru Ishida, Katsuhiro Mori, Tsuyoshi Fujita, Osamu Fujita, and Masahiko Morita were a formidable brains trust and all had a part in influencing the young Tsumura.  

Surrounded by such high-quality players and with his phobia of gaijin kicked to the kerb, Tsumura was primed to make his breakthrough. It duly came in 2005, with not one, not two, but a staggering three Pro Tour Top 8s in one incendiary season. On top of that, he added four Grand Prix Top 8s to his list of achievements in that single season and, beating Frenchman Oliver Ruel by a single Pro Point, ended up claiming the coveted Player of the Year award for 2005.  

Humility dies hard and Tsumura claims his success owed much to generational change (the game’s two heavyweights Finkel and Budde were both stepping away from it at that point). While that may be true to an extent, nobody would have predicted just how decisively a new generation of Japanese players would step into the breach. For five years in a row, the Player of the Year was Japanese, beginning with Tsumura, then followed by Shouta Yasooka in 2006, Tomoharu Saitou in 2007, Shuhei Nakamura in 2008 and Yuuya Watanabe in 2009. It was an unprecedented era of dominance by a single nation and one that transformed. the face of global Magic. It even had significant ramifications at home in Japan, says Tsumura, as the legitimising effect the Pro Tour’s creators had dreamed of proved capable of transcending cultures. “The perception of gaming has changed a lot in the last decade,” he says. “When I was a child, card games were considered otaku [obsessional] and people would hide playing them. But now, lots of people have experienced them and an older generation has seen their children playing them. We can discuss them far more casually now.” On a personal level too, the Pro Tour affected its Japanese participants: Tsumura became fascinated by foreign cultures and religions and finally found his motivation to be a more diligent student. He recently put the finishing touches to an English degree.  

JAPAN REMAINS A key territory for Magic and receives special marketing attention from Wizards, including unique promotional cards as well as its own tailored coverage from the Pro Tour in Japanese. Nonetheless, while Japan’s Pro Tour hot streak was a brilliant rattling of the game’s established order and a marvellous performance by a coherent and communal Magic scene, in years to come it may also be considered the high watermark of nationhood in Magic. While the US can today legitimately claim to be the world’s top dog again, it is such a huge and diverse nation with hot spots of Magic productivity so dispersed that it arguably still fits into a post-national landscape for the game. Rich Hagon, Pro Tour statistician and commentator, says team composition is evolving away from nationality. “There was certainly a point when you could have said, without fear of racism, ‘What will the Japanese bring to Pro Tour Montreal?” he says. “Ten years ago I could have said that, because there really were the Japanese, the Dutch, the French, some weirdoes in Britain, the West Coasters and the East Coasters. Even five years ago, there were a dozen Japanese players practicing in one room for a fortnight […] But that’s not true now.” Instead, says Hagon, an increase in the number of Grand Prix worldwide – and the need of professional players to rake up Pro Points at them to boost their ranking – has driven an ever-increasing amount of international travel, cemented new friendships and forged new team links. Shuhei Nakamura now tests with an American team, there are British players testing with Norwegians and Belgians, French and Germans working together and so on. In many ways, it highlights the almost anachronistic incongruity at the heart of Richard Garfield’s game — that as a paper product intertwined with the digital age, it has remained not simply fuel for online chatter, but a physical social network. One aided by the ease of digital communication, but one rooted in coming together to share a social experience.  

That said, the ways for Magic players to communicate when not together in the same room have been greatly enhanced since the days of Usenet and the Dojo. While content websites, forums, and social media play a huge role in the online Magic conversation, it is perhaps the creation of Magic: The Gathering Online which has had a decisive effect on the ability of players to interact with far-flung friends and opponents. The game was developed on Randy Buehler’s watch as head of R&D and is in essence a direct digital adaptation of the paper game of Magic – complete with the crucial collectible aspect intact. That means, in order to play the game, players must purchase virtual cards either in Booster Pack form from Wizards of the Coast or from friends or bots (automated buyers and sellers of virtual cards) inside the game economy. And while the currency used to make those purchases is called ‘Event Tickets’, often abbreviated to ‘Tix’, it is roughly equivalent in value to the real-world dollar.  

Magic Online has proven a huge source of revenue for Wizards since it went live in 2002 and is worth anything up to $100 million a year, according to some sources. In keeping with the game’s symbiosis with the internet, it has also helped prove the validity of an increasingly attractive online business model. “In a lot of ways, I feel like Magic Online is the first real American success story of the item sales business model,” says Randy Buehler. “The game itself is given away, but you know that you are trying to get your customers to pay for stuff. Obviously, charging the same price for a digital Booster as we were for a physical Booster was controversial, but it worked. The game has been making money since 2002 and it’s in its second decade.” By 2015, the global market for virtual items, characters and other goods was estimated to be worth $49.7 billion by researchers.  

Magic Online has had a sometimes-troubled life, though, suffering numerous technical setbacks that started with Wizards’ decision in 2003 to ditch their initial development partner Leaping Lizard. Bringing the game in-house was a decision many of the service’s 300,000 or so registered users found hubristic- and was followed by server woes, games crashes and stalled development (there is still no Mac version, for example, let alone one for smartphones and tablets) that blighted the experience of playing Magic Online for many users. Although new iterations of the client and a gradual rebuild of the game’s codebase have addressed some problems, even Chris Kiritz, Magic Online’s business manager, has said it is neither the “prettiest or the easiest to use.” As further improvements to the client continue to meet with delays, some users believe too little of the revenue the game generates is re- invested in its development. Says one regular user Jan van der Vegt, “This is a false economy for Wizards.”  

Van der Vegt, better known by his online handle Dzyl, should know. He spends countless hours on Magic Online and represents the new breed of aspiring professional player that the digital version of Magic has given birth to. The 26-year-old from Amsterdam. is a lapsed student and part-time tutor. He rises late most days and gears up for a nocturnal practice session on Magic Online, where players can now find an opponent, irrespective of their proximity to a local shop or scene, at any time of day or night. What is more, the game’s engine has the rules built into it, too. Whereas previous unofficial ways of playing online simply allowed players to represent their decks and cards and play as they would in person, Magic Online actively enforces the games rules, meaning players cannot perform anything illegal or incorrect in-game. Combined with the convenience of playing for long hours from the comfort of their homes, this has driven the skill level of the average PTQ grinder ever upwards and contributed to the erosion of geographic importance within the game. As Japan’s star was fading in the mid-2000s, a player like Terry Soh was able to blaze a trail with GP and Pro Tour Top 8s, without a local scene to speak of. Soh lives in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.  

Dzyl is the next generation of a player like Soh: not simply using Magic Online to practise for his own pleasure or advancement, but also as a platform for social interaction, self-promotion and even earning. Because, when Dzyl plays Magic Online, he is not simply alone in his flat in Amsterdam. He is being watched, live, by thousands of fans who tune in to his performances streamed over the net, via the specialist platform Twitch. Twitch allows gamers of all stripes to broadcast their sessions direct from their computers and has turned people like Dzyl into entertainers. In the summer of 2014, Amazon snapped up the platform in a headline-grabbing purchase worth $970 million. Jeff Bezos’ online behemoth could spot the value in providing content tailored to an audience increasingly turning off linear TV. And Magic is the site’s most searched-for game.  

Dzyl stumbled across Twitch when the service was still relatively new, shortly after its launch in 2011. While aimed originally at video gamers, it had become a channel for Magic tournament organisers to film paper games and broadcast them out to fans. Dzyl noticed that a few people were also using it to stream their regular Magic Online games and decided to have a crack at it himself. And, through a mixture of timing, play skill and personality, he rapidly built an impressive following, with some 2.3 million views of his stream to date. Already, after a week on the platform, he had the highest viewer count of any Magic streamer on Twitch, and then two weeks later, he won the Magic Online Championship Series that qualified him for a big-money tournament in Boston. It made him an instant online celebrity and attracted a flock of new users to his stream.  

But while Dzyl is undoubtedly a decent player – and one who through dint of practising dozens of hours a week is rapidly improving — he was no big-name pro when he began his nocturnal hobby. Keeping his legion of fans happy has been a process of trial and error; a recipe still very much in the experimental phase in the emerging medium. “I’ve been trying to figure this out for a while,” says Dzyl. “What do I have that other streamers don’t? I’m definitely a better player than most of the other streamers; certainly I’m up there with the better players in the Netherlands. But in my opinion, that is less relevant than being entertaining. People want to see good Magic, but I think people actually like me for having a bit of an abnormal personality! You have to keep talking, which is hard – but I try and interact a lot with viewers who are talking to me on chat and make the stream fun to watch.” Dyzl’s trademark is a hotel lobby-style bell, which he ‘dings’ with every exciting or funny play. It is a small touch – but one which has won him a devoted following, who rush over to say hello when they spot him at Grand Prix. Dyzl has manufactured his own. celebrity within the community, one savvy mouse click at a time.  

That in turn has monetary consequences for a player who has reached the Pro Tour a handful of times, but has yet to cement his place on the ‘gravy train’, where through consistent performances he would be permanently qualified and paid an appearance fee – essentially the threshold for being a ‘professional’ Magic player. Twitch shares its ad revenues 50:50 with streamers, meaning that popular players like Dzyl can earn a modest amount of cash from their stream; currently around $200 a month in Dyzl’s case. Although that is quickly spent on virtual cards, travel to tournaments or a takeaway while broadcasting, Dzyl believes there is plenty of room for growth in the streaming space. “The more you know about the game, the more you can get out of watching a stream,” he says. “There are lots of new players taking up Magic at the moment and they are an audience still to discover streaming.”  

Magic Online, meanwhile, is having a considerable impact on the player base at the opposite end of the scale; the game’s grizzled veterans. The same flexibility it offers to ambitious players like Dzyl has allowed many older players to stay in the game far longer than ever before. Thirty-something Magic players with kids can now squeeze in a few games, once the children have gone to bed. Or can fit Magic in around a busy work schedule without having to factor in travel to a tournament or hanging out in the kind of grimy shop they might have outgrown. Similarly, a bulging collection of paper cards that can start to take over an apartment need not fuel domestic discord: playing online eliminates the fiddly and time-consuming annoyance that managing an enormous stack of paper Magic cards can be. It has become a grown-up way to keep Magic in one’s life.  

Of course, this does beg the question why or whether Wizards would continue printing paper Magic cards at all, when the game mechanics translate well online, the virtual business model in place is even more profitable than ‘printing money’ and indeed, when the game’s social aspect is increasingly, arguably, replicable via streaming. In March 2014 for example, Blizzard Entertainment, released an online-only card game called Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, which with its slick, tablet-friendly interface, free client and big brand, attracted 20 million users within its first six months. For Magic, a game whose very fabric is tied to the internet’s, going virtual seems like a seductively logical future step. But looking forwards, Helene Bergeot, Wizards’ director of organised play and trade marketing, says, “In 20 years from now, Magic will still be a game that brings communities together to share the same passion and the excitement of competing against each other. I strongly believe the community is what makes Magic the game it is today and what it will be tomorrow.” While frustrated Magic Online users might argue that Wizards’ software is simply too bug-ridden for the game to go virtual-only, anyone who has ever made an unexpected friend, face-to-face, at a Magic tournament will hope that no-one among Wizards’ – or Hasbro’s – top brass is contemplating ditching paper just yet. Long may that continue.