Photo via Oliver Hallmann/Flickr (CC-BY)
2013 felt like a good year: Our ragtag group of underemployed bougie class traitors hung out, played Magic cards, and lived a second childhood—except with beer, travel, and enough money to play with the cards we wanted. With some experience and a lot of testing, we found we could often build very strong original decks, take them to tournaments, and beat players much more experienced and emotionally invested: There was no greater joy than winning that way, watching the grognard leave in a huff, and running over to cackle with my friends Bill and Brandon, whose goals were the same. Many of our regular adversaries had been playing just as obsessively for over a decade and had little to show for it—meager prizes from within the game, and few friends or career prospects outside of it.
But this was easy for us to forget: We had other stuff going on. Magic was just a game we played—to the exclusion of a lot of other things. It was addictive. Time, mobility, and most of all, money made competitive Magic different from, and better than, the Slivers-versus-starter-deck battles of my allowance-addled youth. But even as my Magic Facebook chat thread matched and surpassed its old levels of activity, and weekly clashes at my ancestral home resumed with a new crowd, I kept returning to a single question: Why were professional Magic players not paid a living wage?
At first, I felt each late-night bout of insomnia on a queen-size bed next to Brandon, each early-morning caffeine- and nicotine-fueled player meeting, each win and each loss, got me closer to understanding. But when the pace of novelty slowed, the money ran low, and my irresponsible lifestyle and mediocrity at card games caught up with my high, my experiences in convention centers from Portland to New Jersey seemed as fatally under-imagined as the annual procession of fantasy worlds that led to Magic’s commercial swoon and the death of the dream of the “professional Magic player,” as envisioned by Wizards of the Coast founder and CEO Peter Adkison.
One evening outside Seattle Center, my good friend Bill cradled his second-place prize money, an excellent showing in a field of over a hundred, yet when divided by the length of the tournament, it was worth less than minimum wage. I’ll never forget what he said: “Wouldn’t it be cool if pro Magic were a real thing again? It’d definitely be good for Wizards. Maybe we could invest in Hasbro stock, too.”
2013 turned into 2014. This time was not spent unhappily. I started participating in “normal” life again, opening a tutoring business; much of my clientele was wayward smart kids who’d burned out earlier in their lives than me. I wrote a little, went on some dates, re-read some books from college. But I still thought about Magic and Magic culture all the time: My conversations at bars were about Magic; my birthday parties were dominated by Magic players; my social set was almost all men who played Magic. When I was with them, I was cheerful, full of the shop-talk that makes Magic so addictive to its hidalgos and so impenetrable to the Muggles. But when someone from the “real world”—a girl, my student—asked me what I’d done with the last two years, I looked back into a void. Try as it might, Magic could not swallow up the moral and emotional difficulties of adult life. When I played, now, I no longer felt much like myself; I soon realized that I rarely ever had.
These days, my once-a-month forays to the card shop sometimes trigger nostalgia for the glory days of knight-errantry across the U.S. But then I remember Don Quixote shows that you have to be a romantic to ride out, since the reality of riding out—insomnia, poverty—is so unromantic. Or I lose a match. Part of Magic’s appeal, part and parcel with its ability to make us feel unique and creative, is its parity: The worst Magic player can beat the best Magic player some amount of the time. Even for the best players, most tournaments will be doomed—fated by luck of the draw for an early exit, or a long struggle towards a paltry prize—and this is how most of these jousts went, for nearly all of us. And I am far from the best Magic player.
Bill was a stronger player, and Brandon was sometimes too, but they were also growing discontent with this life. I look back on 2013 and 2014 and know that the only possible justification for spending so much time playing Magic is the handful of friends I’ve retained. But, back when we did tilt, it was something else that kept us going: the narcotic of winning. Only winning, winning, and winning again was worth the budget flights and accommodations, the hangovers under the convention center’s glaring lights, the endless drone of a thousand conversations all at once, the forgettable opponents, the frustrating losses, the vain quest for recognition or self-respect from a dream long diluted. That the glory came so rarely might have made the game more addictive; that this might have let “pro” Magic decline into destitution didn’t occur to me until years later.
Try as it might, Magic could not swallow up the moral and emotional difficulties of adult life.
Still, even at the time, I knew something was a little off. I knew from Wizards employees’ idle gossip that the DCI, competitive Magic’s governing body, had evolved along with the game, growing from a leviathan-in-lieu-of-a-players’-union, into a way to count players and manage organized-play development, into a way to do all that while emphasizing communication and branding. I knew that communication and branding were low-risk ways to grow the game, whereas gambling laws, a perpetual worry of Hasbro’s, had likely mandated the DCI’s Balkanization. But I struggled to put into words the reasons competitive Magic was the way it was. To really know, I’d have to play on the Pro Tour, the peak of the game since 1996. And to do that, I’d have to win a Pro Tour Qualifier.
The Pro Tour had nearly perished in 2011, marched to the scaffold by ex-CEO Greg Leeds’ cost-cutting edict. But Magic R&D had prevailed upon Hasbro to spare its life, a decade after the overlords tore down the Minotaur statue. They’d succeeded; the PT still existed. How much of the old faerieland had the old guard preserved?
In 2015, I won a spot in PT Dragons of Tarkir, in Brussels, and airfare to and from Europe. The Pro Tour was not as advertised.
The morning of the tournament, I went through my usual routine—waking up too early, donning my Richard Sherman jersey, eschewing the shower. I ordered an Uber to the venue: Tours and Taxis of Brussels, a big, bombed-out brick building repurposed into a convention center. My fatigue put a layer of disbelief between me and the day’s events, which made the half-hearted pageantry feel even more unreal. Into Tours and Taxis’ dark, dungeon-like interior came the Tournament Organizer, followed by fanfare. Congratulations, speeches, self-affirmation—the corporate argot of the Hasbro regime. “We want you to be at your mental best,” said one of the functionaries, to a room full of the underslept and jet-lagged. He probably believed it.
Part of Magic’s appeal is its parity: The worst Magic player can beat the best Magic player some amount of the time.
Then the tournament started. I shuffled my deck and sat across from my opponent. This was it: 407 of the best Magic players in the world, competing for a purse of $250,000 and a top prize of $40,000.
The Magic itself was unremarkable. I lost, lost, won, lost, lost, and mercifully lost again. We could often build very strong original decks; this was not one of those times. Most tournaments are doomed; this was one of those tournaments. I’d gotten crushed. Bill, Brandon, and my other friends at home were wondering how I was doing, so I sent out a self-scourging Facebook message.
Losing, like winning, often brings out the worst in anyone. Out of unhappiness, we blame bad luck for things at least a little under our control. Or we take it too hard the other way, blaming ourselves for things at least a little due to bad luck. When Don Quixote loses, he hangs up the cardboard sword and pasteboard visor, then lays down and dies. To him, disillusionment was no gift.
The Magic PT (its contestants are told) is a welcoming environment. Bill, who’d been there before, had told me not to expect much. But years of desire had built up expectations of a genial atmosphere and an entertaining spectacle. Instead, I met exhausted and stressed Dons (and a few Dulcineas), fuddled from red-eye flights out of Korea, Latvia, and San Francisco, and no one like the colorful characters whose globetrotting planeswalking had so captivated me in the ‘90s. My fellow competitors might all have been incredible people, but we were all too tired and stressed to ever know.
And for what? The swag bags we got had maybe $20 worth of Magic paraphernalia? Vendors still hawked cards at inflated prices, and the tournament still started early enough to awaken memories of drowsing through first period. “The PT is Magic’s advertising budget,” a Wizards employee had once told me. One of the most respected Magic personages was on record as saying “Pro” stood for “Promotional,” not “Professional.” Still, I hadn’t realized the PT would feel so much like being on the set of an ad. Nothing outside the shot—a match or two per round, relayed to an audience orders of magnitude beneath real esports’—much mattered. In that light, there was no reason to fill the swag bags with currency, even if it was cardboard, and Wizards itself had printed it. There was no reason to rent a nice venue. There was no reason to even cater lunch. All this thrift, with Magic revenue approaching $300 million a year, and Hasbro making money hand over fist, feudal lords with the peasants at their mercy.
When Wizards dreamed up the Pro Tour, in 1996, it was part of what John Tynes called Peter Adkison’s “dream of revolutionizing corporate culture itself, of making Wizards a new kind of company,” where not just the creators but also the players “would earn fabulous paychecks.” Years later, when the PT was well established, Adkison celebrated the consummation of his “lifestyle opportunity,” where countercultural nerds could shirk the demands of society and be Magic professionals.
My fellow competitors might all have been incredible people, but we were all too tired and stressed to ever know.
Standing in a long and sweaty queue to order a two-ounce, eight-euro burger, I knew that all this was no longer true. There were too many people and not enough money: Without sponsors, streaming income, or a broad and casual audience, $250,000 spread out over 400 people four times a year was not a living wage. But even if the professional dream was dead, Wizards had maintained the myth, using press releases by the “professionals” who had turned from empowered nerd superstars into interchangeable commodities. Their “lifestyle” was an embittering and isolating grind. Though the issue is one of institutions and not individuals, I understood why Bill had said, after his first PT, “I don’t want to be anything like those people.”
Without real professional Magic, then, the only reason to play on the PT is for fun. When you play for fun, what happens when it isn’t fun anymore? And who would watch the PT, over basketball or skiing or Dota, and decide they wanted to play Magic?
This was the endgame.
For those of us who love Magic, there is no Magic bullet. The game’s early 20s ended in 2009; it is now in its yuppie phase and is likely to keep earning a tidy, growing profit while striving, like any other millennial, to be something more. Hasbro has telegraphed its intentions to make Magic a “top-5 esports brand,” and esports today are the closest thing we have to Adkison’s vision of radical companies creating groundbreaking games and empowering a class of professional gamers. But Magic will have to compete with these esports, as well as the broader gaming culture, whose skyline in the last few years has gotten as crowded and capitalistic as ours in Seattle.
The irony is that Magic, once years ahead of its competition, has fallen far behind: Hearthstone’s profits, fan-base, and player-base are daunting things to compete with, but Wizards will have to try. In today’s entertainment industry, standing pat is no longer an option; relentless adaptation is a matter of survival. Just now, in early 2016, Google has engineered a program of superhuman proficiency at the game of Go; its engineers, emboldened by this milestone, have turned their sights to conquering Hearthstone and Magic. My old job, online poker, may be just a hop, skip and a jump away; the world of gaming is always changing. One of its few constants has been Magic: the Gathering, but Magic has been constant because it lives in its own Multiverse, old, passé, isolated, and magnificent.
For this reason, the history of Magic from 1993 to present is the history of the rest of the world. It is a parable about and against late capitalism. Mostly those who own the means of production have benefited. Magic doesn’t exist to make you or me happy; it exists to make Hasbro as wealthy as possible. And though Magic does make a lot more money than Scrabble or Monopoly or the other traditional games it has supplanted, it makes way less than Hasbro media franchises, like Transformers or Disney princesses. All this calls into question Hasbro’s future as a “game company”—and Magic’s future as a game.
Magic doesn’t exist to make you or me happy; it exists to make Hasbro as wealthy as possible.
Likewise, the history of Magic players is the history of Magic itself. Once limitless and young, it is now established and old. Once revolutionary, it is now reactionary. Once independent, it is now bought-out. Once individualistic, it is now cultic. Once untouched by competing ambitions or brands, it is now assailed on all sides by the other possibilities life can offer: games beyond the game. The 20 million Magic players worldwide will soon be 25 million, and only a handful will have much reason to beef with Hasbro. But they were the ones who started it all—in their own game, in a far-off land.
I walked out of Pro Tour Brussels and to my hotel in the muggy heat. I wanted nothing more than to change out of my putrid jersey. On that dejected and disillusioned walk of shame, I knew once and for all that, when I played Magic, I wasn’t at my best. Playing the game, selling the game, making the game: Was anyone at their best, around Magic? For some, it amounted to a full-time job, or the appearance of one; for me, it was 16 rounds of a children’s card game in a ramshackle convention center in the heart of darkness. Whose fantasy is that?
CML, a writer in Seattle, has written for Gawker, Seattle Weekly, CrossCut, the Stranger, and several other publications. He maintains a website at cmlwrites.com and a Twitter at @CMLisawesome.