The New Frontier in Card Games: Magic the Gathering

by Thomas Bonnell

Andrew Prosser swung his fingers quickly across the three red cards in front of him, looked across the table at his opponent, and said, “Bonfire of the Damned for three. That should be game.” Prosser, looking pleased, stood up from the table, walked over to the owner of the store, and plopped another fifteen dollars down on the table. “Sign me up for another draft Louis Chato. Looks like I’ll be here all night.”

The twenty-one year old New York University student was not talking about playing poker or blackjack. Prosser walked back across the cramped Williamsburg room to a short, black table in the back and looked pensively at the smiling face of Michael Zhang, a financial planner who works on Wall Street, and asked “Hey Zhang, got any trades?” Prosser, however, wasn’t looking to trade baseball cards or football cards. No, Andrew Prosser and Michael Zhang were talking about Magic: the Gathering.

Honus Wagner’s rookie card is certainly not what you’ll find at the Twenty Sided Store, a “gaming retail location,” located just across the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. The store was opened in 2011 by Louis Chato and Lauren Bianco, a couple, who spend six days a week running it by themselves. The store focuses on Magic: the Gathering, which is one of the most popular collectible card games in America today.

            “We opened the store because we were fed up with playing Magic and D&D in the basements of comic book shops. We wanted a central location that was focused on playing Magic, board games and D&D [Dungeons and Dragons]. We wanted to create a place for the New York community that was tired of being shuffled around between cramped basements and dirty rec rooms,” said Chato.  Chato’s store is designed as a neighborhood hangout and gaming spot, one where people can come and play for free, but most “ultimately pay to play some type of game that is going on. We have free board games and Dungeon and Dragon nights, but people usually come away with some dice or figurine after playing. We don’t force anyone to put down money, but if they’re having a good time they usually do.”

            “It’s a cool spot to relax and play games. Between Magic matches I sometimes play checkers with other people here” said Matt Jones, a frequent patron of the Twenty Sided Store. “I know Louis and Lauren are the owners, but they feel more like friends than shopkeepers. I’ve met some of my closest friends here” said Jones enthusiastically. Jones even runs a blog with some other Twenty Siders (the name the store’s patrons have given themselves) where they discuss notable games that occur at the store.

            The Magic Trading Card Game (officially Magic: The Gathering) was created in 1993 by Richard Garfield and a Washington-based company called Wizards of the Coast, which also owns the rights to the fabled tabletop game “Dungeons and Dragons.” However, unlike D&D, Magic is a game played entirely with cards. Since it is a tournament-based game there is a significant amount of money involved.  A typical match of Magic lasts between twenty to forty minutes. Each match is a best of three series, with each game involving two competing players who start at twenty “life points.” A game ends when one player’s life total has been reduced to zero.

Magic cards are comprised of two halves: the top half has the name of the card, the card’s “casting cost” (how much mana, or resources, it costs the player to put the card into play) and artwork that gives a visual representation of the card, while the bottom half encompasses information about the card’s relative strength in the game as well as what effects it will have on the playing field. A card feels like a regular playing card used in a casino, but the wording and artwork upon each individual card is exponentially more complex than your average seven of diamonds.

            While some might envision trading cards and playing tournaments with them as an activity reserved strictly for pimply-faced, geeky boys, the store-and the entire tournament scene of the game-is flush with men and women from ages twenty to fifty.

            “It’s a multi-million dollar industry, and it keeps growing. At Twenty Sided we wanted to capitalize on that, and while it has taken us quite a while to find a way to turn a profit, by gaining the community’s trust we’re already a hub for Magic in the Northeast,” said Chato. He’s right: Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of Magic, has been a big asset for Hasbro, the toy giant that makes well known products such as Yahtzee and Tonka trucks. Hasbro posted larger than expected earnings in the third financial quarter of 2012, and its sales stand at $1.35 million for the year. What role does Magic play in all of this?

“People will come in from out of town for a tournament and spend $200 to $300 in one visit just to buy sixty cards for a deck,” explained Chato. “We sell individual cards that start at $.25 each and can go up to $2000 if the card is extremely rare. We also sell dice, deck boxes, and playmats, but those only bring in about $10.” Chato explained that the vast majority of the store’s income was based around Magic, even though the store’s inventory only consisted of about thirty percent of Magic product.

Serious tournament players of the game estimate they spend quite a deal more than that just to remain competitive. “I spend around $500 every two months on cards just for decks, and that’s not even counting the drafts I play in every week, which amount to about $100 a week,” confessed Allen Yee, twenty-five, who works at a hedge fund in Manhattan. Yee comes to the store dressed in his work attire: a suit that looks like it belongs more to a man headed to an afterhours upscale club rather than someone headed to a lively gaming store that is filled to the brim with boisterous men and women excitedly commenting on their friend’s games that they are currently spectating.

As mentioned by Yee, players come in not only to purchase cards, but also to draft. A draft is an event where eight players gather and open three fresh packs of cards, pass them back and forth so each player can make a cohesive deck, and then play three rounds against each other to determine a first, second, and third place finisher . “I play about four drafts per week online on Magic Online (the game’s online component that is entirely a copy of its paper incarnation) and draft twice a week in person, so that is about $15 a draft. Add in to that the cards I need to play in regional tournaments, and a fair amount of my paycheck is spent on Magic. But I love it, and it’s the only game I play,” said Yee. “It’s not about collecting at all, it’s about finding cool combinations that I can do with cards, and being able to beat all of my opponents. I’m extremely competitive, so winning is very important to me. If that means paying $500 just to make a new deck, it’s worth it.” Yee added that he is always adding to his collection because Wizards of the Coast releases a new set of cards three times a year, each set containing roughly 290 new cards. A set is not complete until you own four of each card, which are how many copies each player can legally have of a single card in their playing deck at one time.

Yee plays not only at the Twenty Sided Store, but also at New York University’s own Games Club, which holds weekly Magic events. This proves to be quite costly, and has become a serious problem to the financial viability of the organization, said the treasurer of the club, Jenny Li. “The club has spent approximately $500 out of our $700 budget for this semester just to hold Magic events for its members for the months of September and October. Magic is by far our largest expense, and creates a lot of concern for our club. Each time we hold an event, we have to purchase new product, and it’s really stressful to make sure we have enough for the number of people that want to participate. It isn’t exactly cheap to buy a box of cards, and even if we try to get a bulk discount, we need about $85 a box [a box contains enough product to allow for eight people to participate in one three hour event]. That makes it pretty difficult to balance the budget versus satisfying club members. As a club, we want to support and encourage member interests, but within the first month, we’d already chewed up a little less than a third of our annual budget on Magic alone,” remarked Li.

But how does the game remain so popular while costing so much to play and run? “The game has a low entry level price point. You can come in, without knowing anything about the game, and open up three packs and take cards out of them to play in a tournament for over $15. It doesn’t mean you’ll win, but it gets you interested,” said Li.

The game has even become its own industry, with entire websites dedicated to providing financial and competitive coverage of the game, complete with subscription fees and paid journalists who cover events. “I subscribe to Starcitygames.com because it gives me strategy that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. For five bucks I could do better at Magic or get two slices of pizza. Who cares? It’s fun,” said Andrew Prosser. Starcitygames.com is a site that not only serves as an online hub through which players can buy individual cards and have them shipped to them, it also houses a journalist side where players can pay $5 a month to read articles on event coverage and about what the industry’s best players believe will be the “winning deck” that every player should attempt to build to achieve success in the game’s current format.

The industry continues to grow, and it seems to be a boon for Wizards of the Coast’s parent company, Hasbro. (Hasbro acquired Wizards of the Coast in 1999). Debbie Hancock, Hasbro’s vice president of investor relations, spoke positively of Wizards of the Coast’s performance in Hasbro’s fourth quarter earnings call in 2011: “let me speak to the continued success of Magic: The Gathering. The team at Wizards of the Coast has done a tremendous job of taking this brand, which totaled less than $100 million in revenues in 2008, and was on the decline to where it is today, [to become] the largest brand in our Games & Puzzle category, the largest game brand in the U.S. and more than double the size it was just 3 years ago.” The game’s turnaround following 2008 might coincide with Wizard of the Coast’s change in structure to how it released Magic’s new card sets: in 2009 the company began to release Magic’s “core sets”, the large sets of basic cards that constitute parts of decks that most competitive players build, annually in the summer rather than bi-annually as the company had done before. This meant that to keep up competitively players had to purchase new cards twice as fast as they did previously, while still keeping their collections full with the other two sets of cards that the company releases over the rest of the year. “It gets too costly to keep up with sometimes,” said Vivian Xi, a casual NYU player who can only afford to play Magic once a while. Wizards of the Coast has even started publishing its own video game version of its product, releasing an annual title called “Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers” on the Xbox, Playstation 3, and PC platforms. The video game sells for $9.99 per copy.

 “People come here to play Magic,” said Jenny Li. “We don’t have the same kind of allegiance among the Call of Duty crowd that we do with Magic players. We can count on the same Magic players showing up week after week.”

But do some players take it too far? Is there such a thing as being addicted to trading card games like Magic?

“Any game has the potential to be addictive,” explained Irvin Cohen, 90, a retired psychiatrist with fifty years of professional experience. “If the game can be played in many different ways, with each game involving some variability of luck, such as whether or not you will draw a certain card [like in Magic], the game can keep drawing individuals back in. If the game provides some measure of reward or incentive to win, like money, then that heightens the potential of addiction.”  Cohen added that when an individual player is rewarded with some tangible, or intangible, object for competing in the game that the player’s brain will release endorphins, which makes the player feel good. “This would make it hard for the player to give the game up,” said Cohen.

When asked if he knew of anyone who had ever gone bankrupt or been addicted to playing Magic Andrew Prosser smiled and said, “Oh god no. I don’t think anyone’s ever ended up in rags because they couldn’t stop playing Magic.”

So, maybe Magic can’t be classified as addictive just yet. But as for being so pricy that someone might have to trade in their three-piece-suit for some raggedy clothes just to buy a card? Well, “The Black Lotus,” Magic’s rarest card, already fetches nearly five figures at auction. Chato, the beaming owner of his Williamsburg trading card emporium, proudly displays his own behind protective glass in his store. 

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