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The following is an excerpt from A Brief History of Magic Cards, a new book exploring the real-life, human history of Magic cards, currently being funded on Kickstarter. (Rewards include a print and tote of the fantasy map below above, drawn by Seattle artist Cassie Murphy.)
According to old-school Wizards of the Coast employee John Tynes, author of the magnificent Minotaur article (on the early history of Wizards—and that of its signature intellectual property, Magic cards), CEO Peter Adkison “had a vision for a new kind of company, a company that could change the corporate world forever.” He would do this by empowering nerds, elevating their hobbies from the basement to the convention center—where they would stand as equals next to the outside world’s idea of success. It was in this spirit that Wizards started the Magic Pro Tour (PT).
The Pro Tour was—and still is—a tournament where the best players fly in from all over the world to duel with recently released cards, crown a champion, and hand out cash prizes. Today the PT is an institution, with established roads to qualification, long-standing cliques, and modest stipends for frequent competitors. It has outlasted any competition of its kind, and is unlikely to ever change much. In the 90s, though, the PT was as limitless as Magic itself. It could have been anything.
The first Magic Pro Tour was held from Feb. 16-18, 1996, in New York City. There had never been anything like it. Entry was first-come, first-serve. Organization was shambolic but eventually effective. A snowstorm delayed the start of the event by four hours. The player who was supposed to win, did not.
It was a massive success. Hundreds of Quixotes attended, eager to tilt together. More importantly, thousands more watched, or read about it later: on the Internet, or in the same magazines that covered (and priced) the cards my allowance would only let me dream of buying.
On the day of PT New York, Magic finally ascended beyond Richard Garfield’s original vision. It loomed so wonderfully above the skyline of gaming, a paunchy giant on a lean nag, that it lived and would live through its sheer vitality. It stood for everything that was gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody had become a paragon. Adkison had, for a spell, brought his fantasy world into being.
Wizards capitalized on the PT’s success very well, by selling facsimiles of the top eight decks and releasing a video of the event. The Pro Tour has hardly changed since then, though circumstances have. Next to esports in the mid-2010s, the Pro Tour is small, with Dota’s $10 million-plus prize pool dwarfing its purse of $250,000; but in 1996, the same sum made the PT both well-endowed and mind-blowingly cool. There was even a junior division, which would turn into the Junior Super Series—helping the degenerate scamps of the WotC flagship put themselves through college. After PT New York, Wizards put on PT Los Angeles, then PT Columbus, then the World Championships, in Seattle. The competitors were real characters. Thunderstruck, I watched them with admiration and envy.
The parody had become a paragon.
I cannot overstate the importance of the advent of the Pro Tour and its counterpart, Friday Night Magic (FNM). At FNM, lesser mages could spend an evening playing tournament Magic against similarly inexperienced players, in a relaxed atmosphere. Each FNM is like a mini-convention, selling swag and fostering community. Once the players got good enough, they could “level up” to more competitive tournaments, like Grand Prix (GPs—the closest thing Magic has to its own big conventions) and Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQs). A victory in the latter earned a berth in the PT itself, which before poker and esports was the pinnacle of competitive gaming.
By connecting FNM with the PT “tournament of tournaments,” Wizards made it possible for Magic players to live out a fantasy of fantasies. When the PT was well-established, a few years later, Adkison declared Wizards had “created a lifestyle opportunity for a young generation of Magic players, fresh out of school, to be professionals.” The reality of professional Magic, a decade before esports, was a big part of Wizards’ marketing strategy: Thanks to the “new kid of company,” you could make a living playing a card game. Once again, Adkison had worked his Magic: The Pro Tour might not have “changed the corporate world forever,” but it changed gaming—and gaming culture—indelibly.
Today Magic competes with Dota, and a dozen other big games, for market share, power, and prestige. But the PT and FNM, and all the tournament types between them, still make Magic what it is: a fun way to spend time with people, in person. The draw of Magic cards in the era of Dota and League of Legends is the friends you make, in the tournament hall or around the kitchen table.
Wizards had started out as a handful of friends in Peter Adkison’s basement; after the success of the PT and the set Mirage, it climbed skyward, like a tech firm lifted by angels. Now most of its efforts would center around not promoting Magic, but on profiting off of it—by making more games of its kind.
From 1996 to 2000, Wizards went from 150 to 950 employees, hiring anyone who wanted a job. The company generated many clones: Netrunner, a cyberpunk-themed CCG; BattleTech, a CCG whose cards were walking battle-tanks (gum sold separately); Xena: Warrior Princess, which needs no explanation; and MLB Showdown, a callback to Garfield’s original vision of a card game that was both playable and collectible. At this time, Wizards also bought out TSR, the creators of Dungeons & Dragons. It was thought that the indiscriminate acquisition of licenses was the only way to keep the high of Magic’s early days alive. But the Knights of the Kitchen Table—my friends and I—scorned the proliferation of ersatz Magics, because we thought they threatened the game we loved.
Though the above games could not rival Magic in quality and popularity, we didn’t know how right we were. Wizards released Pokémon cards in 1998, and the Knights didn’t want to play Magic with me anymore.
With Magic, the Pro Tour, and WotC in general, Brave Sir Adkison had realized a fantasy, starting from scratch a fiefdom in accordance with his noblest instincts and dearest narratives. But making a new world would not be enough to change this one. Fantasy would yield to reality. In 1999, Wizards sold out, and the tragic-Magic cultural contradictions began to take form.
It took a lot of gold for Hasbro—the acquirers—to sway the gallant Sir Adkison: $325 million. Yet it was an offer the noble don couldn’t refuse, not with his faithful company of riders also set to cash out. So they did what any knight-errants would do—left the court to the courtiers, and rode off to their next adventure under the sun. Crowds at Origins, GenCon, BlizzCon, PAX, greeted Garfield and Adkison with cries of adulation, as they do to this very day. The founders’ fame has made them the people closest to living out Don Quixote’s dream, but it was fortune that freed them from “the corporate world.” In the Hasbro sale, Sir Adkison made some $80 million. Sir Richard Garfield got $100 million. Other founding members, like Lady Veep Lisa Stevens, also did OK.
Each Friday Night Magic is like a mini-convention, selling swag and fostering community.
Back at WotC headquarters, in Renton, a drab suburb at the foot of Seattle, the work of making Magic continued under a foreign flag. For the first 15 months, Hasbro seemed to be a benevolent despot—which is what most nerds, fans of sword and sorcery, crave. Pokémon swelled the royal coffers, and Magic tournament play made an appearance on ESPN2. Wizards operated its businesses with continuity and autonomy: the buyout agreement gave them great freedom, so long as the money kept flowing.
Then, in May 2000, Pokémon tanked. It was a chain reaction: The fewer people that played, the fewer people played. Not that many people, only 9 percent of collectors, had ever played Pokémon in the first place. By overvaluing collectors, Wizards had neglected game design and thwarted their chance at capitalizing on a huge franchise. But Magic’s original business model, “combining the play of card games with the collectibility of baseball cards,” let it once again carry the day. (When MTGOX.com switched from the Magic: the Gathering Online eXchange to a Bitcoin exchange website, it signed its own death warrant. Cryptocurrency fans and beanie-baby collectors, take note!)
On a personal level, Pokémon’s fall was great: Magic reasserted itself above a passing fad, and the Knights reconvened around the Square Table. At a corporate level, it was a catastrophe, the dot-com bubble bursting in miniature. Hasbro, which has always governed Wizards remotely (from Rhode Island) and has never really understood its fiefdom at the foot of Seattle, blamed Wizards for the losses. The overlords sold off electronic and movie rights by the franchiseful, fired 280 skilled artisans, and restructured the fief’s finances around five brands: Dungeons & Dragons, MLB Showdown, Pokémon, Harry Potter, and Magic.
Have you ever heard of Harry Potter TCG? Me neither.
At the same time, some of the kingdom’s finest work moldered and decayed. A game called Legend of the Five Rings, reputed to be on Magic’s level, was no longer supported: The brand wasn’t big enough. So Legend died off, a victim of Hasbro’s neglect, indifference, and failure of imagination. So much for benevolent despotism.
Hasbro was, in fact, cutting costs in all other divisions. The days of fanciful extravagances, like “Magic camp,” where kids would gather around the University of Washington and the Wizards flagship store to binge on Magic for a week, were numbered. Wizards Retail, which operated the flagship and other outlets, was always a small and separate company, sometimes losing out on supply to larger card peddlers: the troubled relationship of Wizards with Wizards. I remember the smaller Wizards store, in Northgate Mall, shutting down, and thinking nothing of it—I was in the know; I went to Floyd’s shop now.
But the writing was on the wall. With the nosedive of Pokémon, Wizards’ prodigal childhood was over. The only things that would be spared would have to be profitable, in the narrowest sense. The first casualty was the flagship.
Have you ever heard of Harry Potter TCG? Me neither.
Wizards was making little money from the flagship, and spending a lot. The things that made it a gamer’s dream—BattleTech sims; the big Minotaur statue; the extravagant waste of space downstairs that was a community center for gamers—made it a CEO’s nightmare. Even the for-profit stuff was ineptly executed or hopelessly dated: For example, half of the basement was ringed in horseshoes of computers, which you could rent at exorbitant rates. A friend’s dad once bought us a half-hour of StarCraft; we got to play the beginning of a game. Home high-speed Internet was becoming popular—DSL was my 2000 Christmas present—and soon the horseshoe would serve no purpose.
The lighting in the whole basement, community center and computer lab, was abysmal; Wizards had spent five figures installing a light fixture around the computers, but had taken it down after employees had suffered eye injuries. It was like a joke about nerds in Plato’s cave, and Hasbro was, then as now, as humorless as Quixote himself.
In 2001, with Brave Sir Adkison long-gone into the sunset, Hasbro shuttered the flagship. John Tynes’ Salon article details the grisly process, including the death by hacking of the minotaur above the dungeon entrance, which will forever be a symbol of my lost childhood. Thoughts of the store still fill me with nostalgia. Though it had the fragility of any fiction, it did embody Peter Adkison’s fantasy of “making Wizards a new kind of company,” and its demise was the first time I thought the greatest game ever made was anything other than perfect.
Corporate culture soldiered on. The flagship was replaced by Tower Records and is currently an Urban Outfitters.