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The End of Magic

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What would happen if Magic ended? Imagine if Wizards called the game with one final Masters set that reprinted, for the final time, many big ticket items, and then closed the game. It’s had a good run!

Today I want to consider what would actually happen if the game we all love were to be discontinued. It doesn’t matter why - Hasbro shutting down WOTC, mismanagement of the product by WOTC, a mistake with the Reserve List one way or the other that pushes the market in the wrong direction, a depression that leads to a drop in the gaming market that sees many games up and stop printing. Whatever the reason, what if MTG stopped being made? What would happen next?

The only CCG I’ve ever played that I thought was better than Magic was the Middle Earth: CCG in the mid-90s. This is also my nomination for the most flavorful CCG ever as every single card, mechanic, restriction, and interaction is one that perfectly evokes the books, story, and world of the game. The mechanics are very different from other CCGs. In fact, it was so distinctive and compelling that when I created my own personal Dr. Who CCG just for myself, I was heavily influenced by the world-based flavorful tether of ME: CCG and it’s more a child of that game than it is of Magic.

I have been in a ME: CGG mood lately and the problem is that the game stopped being published in 1999 after the initial set, two expansions, a very different standalone set, and then three more expansions came along. Finding games with people who know how to play the game is rough. Who played then? Who is still interested in playing? Who kept their cards? Who lives near me?

No game is immune to the tides of time. Take Dungeons and Dragons which was on sabbatical for a long time after the company over expanded the market, or the Atari game machine in the early 80s on the video game crash. A great example is the closing of Wizkids Games and the very popular HeroClix line despite the fact that it was the best selling Collectible Miniatures Game (CMG) out there. The owner, Topps, was dealing with recession-related issues and needed to trim everything that wasn’t core to their survival, so they cut Wizkids off and sold it for parts.

If you don’t think that Wizards of the Coast is subject to the dictates of Hasbro, and could see its mission and focus on games change with new management or economic difficulty, then you don’t understand economics.

So I wanted to explore what I think might happen if the game were to stop being made. I don’t think this is happening. I think those predicting the doom of the game aren’t reflecting reality of the numbers and installed player base. But no one saw HeroClix getting shuttered either.

Five games in my Top Ten of All Time have been stopped. On three occasions, they were sold to others - D&D, HeroClix, and BattleTech. On two occasions - HeroScape and ME: CCG, they were never picked up or sold again. One of those two games, HeroScape, was made by Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast, and WotC mishandled that IP horribly after Hasbro moved it over, and it was shuttered shortly thereafter. The others are still currently active.

I remember getting gut punched when the online game City of Heroes closed its doors. There is this horrible pang of nostalgia that almost buckles my soul when I think about it. All of the time that I had invested was permanently lost. The same was true of other games like Star Chamber. Ultima Online is my 3rd favorite video game of all time and I cannot imagine what will happen when it eventually folds as well!

What do I think would happen if Magic were to rotate out?

The first is that tournaments would likely continue. Tournaments such as locally operated ones at game store, as well as bigger ones by StarCityGames and its series would continue. I would also expect the DCI to continue, although it’s current role would likely change. The DCI has long been an arm of Wizards of the Coast, and there have been times when it’s been closer to the body of the company that makes the game and then times when it’s been kept away further and given space to breathe.

For example, some of the DCI actions and bannings about non-game related things that occurred away from tournaments but also impacted the brand and company poorly are good examples of Wizards trying to protect itself, and they illustrate how close the DCI and Wizards have become in recent years. That role would change after the end of the game, but we would keep our DCI numbers and such and things would continue as normal with tournaments.

At least for a while.

Take Mage Knight as a good example. This game was created and was the first collectible miniature game. It was a great game, and the concept of having a miniature that was clicked as it took damage and it could lose powers, abilities, scores or gain others, was pretty cool. Take the Werebear. As it took damage, it grew more powerful and stronger as you clicked it until it died. It was an angry Werebear! The system was incredibly innovative, and the company that made it had a big lean over its competitors. It had the good will of its customers, and a dominant position in the marketplace.

But then the company badly mismanaged its brand with the poor Mage Knight 2.0 and it would do things like reprint sculpts of very rare and valuable minis from earlier expansions with a new dial later. It’s mismanagement of the IP drove the game into the Great Cancelled Graveyard in the Sky. It was never to return.

So, if Magic is mismanaging its brand, as some suspect, then the game heads away. When that happens, though, it would still have a tournament presence. In MK, people were still playing it in tournaments, as were other WizKids brands like HeroClix when it was folded by Topps. That would certainly happen with MTG as well, no doubt.

It would continue to have a table presence.

It’s a big game, and even if it stopped being played, it would still have value for folks playing it, and I suspect that tournaments would stick around for quite some time.

Price wise, you would basically have every card ever printed now on a Reserve List as even a Fathom Trawl or Leonin Warleader wasn’t getting reprinted. And the demand would, initially, outstrip supply.

One key takeaway is that MTG is in a weird place. It has so many cards, print runs, and more, and so many players, that I think players and prices would be steady long after other games would stop being played.

Take, as a great example, my favorite game of all time - BattleTech. I once wrote an article for that game asking if BattleTech had crossed generations. If a game’s audience never grew beyond the people who played it when it came out, the game would die as soon as they left. I think we’ll see the same for Ultima Online and other games that hit on a major note at one time and now live on in dream and shadow.

In the above article, I mention that a game needs to cross generations to endure, much like Chess or D&D or Warhammer 40k have done. New people are making the game and new people are playing the game and that leads to new people buying the game. I hope the new BattleTech video game has re-injected lifeblood into my BattleTech fixation as well, but I’m not holding out hope.

But Magic? It did cross generations and thus it would endure longer than other games after it stops being made and supported. But it will still pass the test of time.

And yet, I’m unsure that the price of the cards will drop appreciably. This would become more collectible and less of a game, but the value is still there.

Here’s a great example from my favorite CCG:

This is the One Ring, and it’s one of the most iconic cards from the first set of the MECCG. Guess what? It’s still roughly the same value today as it was when the game was cancelled. Some cards have increased in value from this game as they were good for tournaments and such and still are – like Assassin.

Now, like MECCG, I suspect that the cards that are iconic, splashable, playable and such are going to retrain much of or all of their value. If this game ended tomorrow, Black Lotus isn’t going to drop to $100. With the large player base out there, it can absorb a lot of stuff for a while.

Black Lotus

Shoot, I expect there to be enough sealed product that you could run drafts and such for a long time without a price hike due to the lack of new product coming out, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see things like Cubes and alternate means of drafting remain popular long after the game fades.

Assuming that another company didn’t come along and purchase the IP (which I think is very likely) I think the game would remain for an incredibly long time, but then, it would fade. I would expect at least 15-20 years before players began turning to other games in enough numbers to appreciably impact the post-MTG world.

Instead of a quick death, I suspect you’d see a slow and measured one. There would be no incentive to dial into the game. Why purchase playing pieces for a game that is done? Remember Mage Knight? By now, most people who enjoy collectible miniatures games have just moved on to other games. If you didn’t play it then, then you certainly aren’t playing it now. They aren’t purchasing and picking up the game anew.

One of the interesting things about Magic is that it currently has multiple IPs and exists in multiple places, so there could always be interest.

But let’s look at BattleTech again…

It had these:

  • The initial wargame with tons of sets and books
  • A popular RPG spin-off of said wargame
  • Lines of metal miniatures for the game
  • A Saturday Morning Cartoon
  • A line of toys made for said Cartoon
  • A set of Comics
  • A line of novels more than a hundred long
  • A CCG made by Wizards of the Coast
  • A CMG made by WizKids Games
  • Successful video games made by many companies, including Microsoft
  • Multiple board games

And despite all of this, the initial company that made BattleTech, FASA, closed its doors and sold its IP to WizKids, FanPro, and then WizKids sold it to Catalyst Game Labs when Topps closed it down. It’s been sold multiple times and was unable to keep these studios afloat.

When considering that, the extra footprints of Magic’s video games, novels, and such don’t seem as important, right? While I suspect that someone would come along and buy the IP eventually and keep it alive, that’s no guarantee. It will eventually fade.

After folks start leaving the game I would expect some fans, reacting to their own pangs of nostalgia, to make their own fan created sets. I don’t mean like it has been done in the past where folks have made the occasional card. I would expect one or more of the former designers of the game to authorize fan made sets that could be released in a print-on-demand method of distribution with proper Deckmaster backs for the cards and such. Anything to keep the dream alive, right?

With these various attempts to retain the game’s cachet in place, I would expect it to outlast the death knells of others games, as it has a big installed user base and card supply. I don’t think that lasts, though. In around 20 years or so, I’d expect only die-hard folks to keep playing. A lot of folks will probably keep a box of cards and decks in case they want to play, but I doubt it stays around any more than that.

With the proliferation of games, video and otherwise, I don’t think the brand loyalty of folks in my generation will keep pace in the next. There are too many things out there competing for attention. I own a copy of every BattleTech novel, rules book, guidebook, module, and more. It’s almost as big as my epic D&D collection. But I don’t think the same loyalty will last with a dead Magic given the larger amount of competition for people’s time. This game can fall.

But it might take just as long to pass from this realm as it was officially made and supported.

And those are my thoughts on what would happen if the game were to fold this year.

I don’t think it’ll happen. I suspect this game will be printed long after I pass from this mortal coil. But if I am wrong, I suspect the card prices will remain stable, tournament structure will change but remain mostly the same, and for most players to stick with the game for a while before inexorably heading elsewhere.

What do you think would happen?