Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Punctuate (Unhinged, 2004)

One interesting aspect of Magic is that the game's immense success has allowed it a great deal of freedom to do weird and interesting things. This is arguably less true now, at a moment when the game is experiencing record-breaking sales and popularity, than it was in the game's first decade. Magic is selling now better than it has ever sold, and if part of that comes from what feels - occasionally, to long-time players like myself - like an increasingly conservative bent in the game's R&D, well, one simply cannot argue with results. (Also, keep in mind that even if I keep my hand in, I'm far from the most enfranchised, or typical, player. My perception of a creeping sameness in the product over the last few years is solely my own dissatisfaction, no different from, say, what you might expect from any kind of pop culture franchise whose fanbase is old enough to measure its history in decades.)

Something Magic used to do that they haven't done in quite some time is go full-in for laughs. In 1998 and again in 2004 Wizards of the Coast released two wholly comedic sets - Unglued and Unhinged. These sets were printed with silver borders, which you can see above. Normal sets are printed with black borders. Early sets also came with white borders, for various reasons, which were eventually mooted once it was decided that black borders looked better. (There have also been, briefly, gold bordered cards, used I believe for non-tournament legal reprints of championship decks. Pokemon does something similar, but Magic's tournament product sold poorly and was discontinued.) People don't like buying cards they can't legally play, which has also been a problem with the silver bordered sets: for obvious reasons they aren't legal in normal tournament formats like Standard, Modern, or Legacy. They're a niche product, then, constructed for kitchen-table players. Now, if that sounds dismissive - it's not. "Kitchen-table" - or lunchroom table, or game-store casual, or whatever you want to call it - is by far the largest "format" in the game.

A "problem" Magic suffers that its cousins in the world of kitchentop RPGs do not have is the existence of the tournament scene. The world of ultra-competitive players and wannabe grinders can act like a vacuum, squeezing a lot of the air out of the discussion of the game - this despite the relatively small percentage of players who will ever achieve success on the tournament circuit. A lot of writing about Magic online takes it as a given that the main audience for Magic is people who fancy themselves buddings pros, and therefore examine every new development with a ruthlessness that, supposedly, speaks to their experience and expertise as competitive players. Players like that have no use for a silver border set like Unhinged. There are a lot more people who play the game infrequently and casually than seriously and competitively - as with any long-running game, I believe - but the people who play it intensely, frequently, and with possible professional aspirations set the tone for much of the discourse.

Still, the Un-sets sold well enough. The problem, according to Mark Rosewater - the man responsible for both Un-sets - wasn't popularity but overprinting. In the decade-plus since Unhinged the game has had a lot of success targeting niche products for audiences outside the normal crowd who buy each regular Standard-legal expansion. The success of alternate formats like Commander, and Wizards' success in selling speciality product directly to that audience, speaks to the company's ability to identify and target multiple demographic niches within the larger demographic of Magic players. Lots of people buy Magic cards. Enough so that there are products aimed specifically at high-ticket collectors who will pay for exclusive reprints, and products aimed at people who exclusively play the Commander format, and oddball releases for unique formats like Planechase, Archenemy, and Conspiracy. The conservatism that occasionally appears in regular Standard-legal expansions does not extend to alternate formats which Wizards of the Coast has invested heavily in supporting.

Rosewater, despite the game's current success, has been trying unsuccessfully to get another Un-set off the ground pretty much since the last once was printed. Even given his track record - and if you look at the history of the sets he has personally spearheaded, he is responsible for a huge part of the game's current prominence - he hasn't succeeded yet. Although I personally am not playing much Magic now - due a combination of time factors and the fact that the Windows emulator on my Mac laptop went on the fritz and I haven't had the wherewithal to devote the afternoon to fixing it* - a new Un-set might actually get me to go back to a gaming store, even if just for an afternoon. Stranger things have happened.

*Magic: The Gathering Online is still only available for Windows. The reason why this is so in the year 2016 is apparently due to bad decisions made when they first began coding the game a decade and a half ago. They have repeatedly maintained that it is basically impossible that the game could ever come to Mac. Which is . . . what it is. Nerds, being nerds, have written a lot about the problem, if you care to look for it.


Lightning Lord said...

Tim, are you familiar with EDH/Commander? It's probably the most popular casual format.

Tim O'Neil said...

Yes, I mentioned it briefly. I have a couple decks but I haven't played in a long time.