Sunday, June 25, 2006

It’s All in the Cards*

Magic: The Gathering still popular as a card game in Maine, but on-line? Not so much.

On any given Friday night, you can find Jason Baither, of Portland, waiting around in a Westbrook basement store for a draft tournament of Magic: The Gathering to begin.

“I don’t play video games, watch TV, or listen to the radio,” says Baither. “This is the only game I like to do.” Milling about nearby in Weekend Anime's fluorescent lit basement, are several other like-minded players ranging in age from 12 to 28, and a couple non-players who have ventured looking for the latest anime releases. While talking about the types of games he likes to play, Type 2 and Extended — both tournament types that allow or ban particular card sets, Baither keeps half an eye on the casual game being played next to him. A newcomer, a high school student, is sitting in the chair behind him. Amid the mock protests against outside help and good-natured teasing from other players, Baither offers advice, suggesting the new player bring out more land cards and then a particular creature. Baither says he doesn’t see as many new players as when he lived in New York, but “sometimes new people come down the stairs,” he said.

Like the rest of the players in the room Baither spends a fair amount of his discretionary income on Magic cards. How much? “I wouldn’t wish to calculate it.” He plays mostly at his “friends’ cribs,” and, like other players in the room, balks at the idea of playing online. “It’s too expensive he said.”

In June 2002, Wizards of the Coast announced the newest, and unexpected evolution of their internationally popular card game: Magic: The Gathering Online. It created a virtual space where up to 3000 players per server could meet up and chat, create decks, buy cards, and, most importantly, play Magic: The Gathering with gamers from around the world. And now, four years later, various gaming world publications online and in print are buzzing anew with reviews praising and panning the advances in WoC’s newest release: Magic Online 3.0.

But in Maine, the core sets, which sell the software to log on, are sitting on shelves. Not because the magic is fading in the state. While Justin Ziran, brand manager for Magic: Online wouldn’t give exact numbers of sales for Maine, he did tie Magic sales in with population density. According to Ziran, “Magic Online’s population mimics that of the US with clusters of accounts originating from the population centers of the Northeast, Midwest and west coast.”

It seems in Maine, where most players play for fun rather than at sanctioned tournaments, players like to be face to face without paying for either the one-time $9.99 activation fee, which comes with an equal credit for digital cards, or the $14.99 core set cost, which includes the activation fee. Ryan York, owner of Weekend Anime, echoes Bathier’s impressions on the price.

“I find casual players don’t like it because it’s too expensive,” he said after narrowly loosing the game Baither was watching. York says the online version is a great tool for people who like a high level of play, tournament players. “I imagine that at a professional level it has appeal.”

The Company

In 1993, Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro Inc., and part of its gaming division, which counts for 27 percent of all of Hasbro’s US game sales, released Magic: The Gathering. For a complex strategy game, it’s very simple, needing only cards and basic arithmetic skills. It’s almost like rummy on steroids: Each player draws seven cards from his or her own deck and continues to draw a card at the beginning of each turn. But, rather than collecting suits and runs, Magic players try lay out certain combinations of creatures, lands and spells they then use, or “tap”, to attack their opponents. The game ends when all but one player runs out of either life or cards. And within a couple of years it caught on, fast. Today, Magic is WoC’s biggest money-maker, even beating the iconic Dungeons and Dragons with consistent sales and a responsive fan base.

According to Tolena Thorburn, spokeswomen for WoC, the player demographics, measured by tournament registrations, are male, between the ages of 15 and 30. “There are some females that play,” said Thornburn. “But it’s not measurable.”

Perhaps because of its casual nature, Maine store keepers see things differently. “The game went through a massive explosion in ‘94 and ‘95 where I was selling several booster boxes a day,” says Chris Thacker, manager of The Keep Games and Comics in Brunswick. During the Magic boom, other collecting cards sat on the shelf. “It’s all that anybody wanted,” said Thacker.

And, unlike other role playing games or collecting cards, Thacker saw it spark an interest in women, one of the toughest demographics to get into a game store. Thacker has worked at The Keep since 1994, right at the beginning of the Magic boom. “I was teaching housewives, little girls, teenagers, everybody,” said Thacker. “Usually, this kind of thing is mostly male-dominated but I taught tons of women as well, which was kind of neat to see them interact in the hobbies because that’s a demographic [the hobby and gaming] industry hasn’t pierced very well.”

Magic was a surprisingly revolutionary success for WoC and Hasbro, resulting several spin-offs including Star Wars and Star Trek versions, and games which mimicked the Magic playing format like Pokemon and, most recently, Yu-Gi-Oh. But, unlike the Star Wars and Star Trek versions, Magic has proven to have a longevity that didn’t wane as the release hypes for the movies and television series did. And, unlike Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic enjoyed several years of being the only game of its kind on the market and was being played by a wide age range and by entire families. So while its fans grew up and stayed loyal, other card games are finding their market to be a much younger, and therefore smaller, demographic This translates into stronger sales for hobby store managers like Thacker.

Other card shops felt the lift too. Paul Kane, the proprietor of Don’s Sport Cards, was skeptical about the amount of space the Magic cards took up when he was considering buying the sport card store in 2004. “Come to find out it’s the most solid thing in here, though,” said Kane. “[Magic sales are] very, very steady.” The shop mainly focuses on selling sport cards, like boxing, baseball, and hockey and card collecting paraphernalia like protective cases and price guides. But on the western wall of the store, behind the counter, a four-foot-wide floor-to-ceiling shelf is devoted to Magic: The Gathering. And, visible from the retail floor several stacks of boxes filled with unopened foil packs of Magic cards can be seen waiting in the storage room to replenish the display.

While most sport cards release a set a year, the Magic and other cards based on the game model are different – since they don’t have a season or draft picks to determine their subjects, card makers can release new cards at will. WoC releases up to four different sets a year and sanctions various types of tournaments which phase out older cards and requires players who want to compete to have the latest, most up-to-date sets. And, the online version also continues this model by excluding any cards that haven’t been reprinted with each new release. “Baseball will sell year-round but the other sports have their seasons: Racing is starting now so racing is picking up and football is slowing down,” says Kane. “But, with Magic and non-sport cards, those are year round. They don’t have a season.”

Back to the players...

There is also a tactile-social aspect to Magic: The Gathering, which may be the cause for the cool reception of the online version here. At The Keep, Thacker said he’s only known a couple of customers who have tried the game. “I don’t think they enjoyed it initially,” says Thacker. “I don’t think they enjoyed buying booster packs online and then waiting to trade their cards in and come through the mail.” And beyond the time delay, Thacker believes the online version undermines the basic reason why people play a card game. “The whole point a game is the human interaction that you have, especially something like cards that have been around for like what, 1500 years probably?” says Thacker. “I understand that you can play magic online and do duels with other people play for ante and all that kind of stuff but you’re still losing the ability to look at somebody in the face, know who your opponent is and play with a friend. I don’t think online gaming will replace that kind of interaction.”

However, while really learning your opponent can be difficult in an online game, they do have a place in the gaming world and are here to stay. “I have four gaming machines back here hooked up with a guy playing World of Warcraft and I’m playing City Heroes,” says Thacker. “I am sure that traditional games, miniature games will, and are, seeing a downturn and until some kind of status quo happens and the computer gaming world will get humdrum again.”

...And who they are

So, just what is the demographic that is buying the physical Magic: The Gathering cards? Both York and Kane agree it’s a pretty broad range. “Anywhere from six-ish to fifties,” said Kane. “There’s a lot of ‘adults,’ certainly they’re not all kids by any means.” And Kane’s noticed it’s still not just men and boys, too. “I’ve noticed with Magic that there are mothers that will come in and pick out cards with their kids and things like that,” said Kane. “One of the nice things about a business like this is seeing the bonding that goes on while they’re picking cards and it’s kind of neat because there are adults that come in with their kids to buy magic cards and you know that they’re playing the game which is great.”

While Kane was speaking, 12-year-old Austin Shields came in with his father to buy three packs of Magic cards. “I play with my friends at school,” said Shields, who has been playing for three years. He estimated his collection to be around 1000 cards. Although he found the idea of playing online interesting, he doesn’t do it. Shield said he like to play with his friends not because they can talk about Magic, but because “we can talk about other things too.”

There’s also the issue of money. While young players who are new to the game and are more likely to be willing to pay for virtual cards are an important demographic for Magic Online, this is the demographic that most likely won’t have the money or credit cards to do so. Shields spends about $10 per shopping trip, when he can, buying three packs of cards using money he earns by doing chores. The online core set cost an initial investment of $23, plus he would have to purchase the digital versions of cards he already owns.

As Shields and his dad left the store, Kane pointed out another reason why people like to buy cards in person. “The thing that still works with this is you can come in and buy the pack and 'oh wow,'” says Kane. “It’s that excitement of finding the card yourself as opposed to going and picking it out yourself.”

Back in Westbrook at Weekend Anime, the Friday night draft game was just about to begin, more people were pouring into the store and Ryan York was busy selling booster packs. “For the most part, once people know the basic rules, it’s about socializing,” He said. “The closest to a demographic you could say is ‘geeks.’” But he quickly retracted that, saying many players wouldn’t identify themselves as geeks. According to York, an important factor why there is such a broad demographic that plays. “A lot of the kids here come from impoverished background or are high school dropouts,” said York. “It gets them to think and one thing about any gaming environment is that there are people actively looking to socialize.”

*First published in the Portland Phoenix in 2006.

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