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You're Wrong about Magic at Gen Con

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“Wizards doesn’t care about Gen Con.”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that idea, I’d have enough to buy a pizza or three. It’s a common sentiment for those who love Magic above other games. Wizards of the Coast puts on a show for Dungeons & Dragons, the role-playing system recently revamped in the face of competitor Paizo’s Pathfinder success. Dedicated space and special events for D&D are impossible to miss.

Magic’s presence at Gen Con is by no means small, though. Pastimes, the tournament organizer familiar to Grand Prix players, runs the section of the tournament hall dedicated to the game. Changes in big events have appeared here, including plenty of on-demand events as well as a prize wall with some impressive pieces.

The space dedicated to Magic was impressive and included both Magic Duels and Arena of the Planeswalkers demo areas. (Expect an Inside the Deck on the Magic board game in the near future!)

But anyone familiar with San Diego Comic-Con or a PAX event and looking for the convention exclusive for Gen Con would come away disappointed; albeit fun and diverse, there were only events put on by Pastimes throughout the weekend. There were no special versions of Planeswalkers or panels filled with members of Magic’s creative and development teams. There wasn’t even a foil common to hand out to attendees who came to visit Magic.

At a glance, it would appear that there’s nothing for players at Gen Con other than “side events at a Grand Prix,” which seems to support the opening narrative. The idea may look right, but the experience you have is different story. The anti-Magic tale is powerful and pervasive, and it’s one Uriah Oxford of CMDR Decks shared.

“It’d be nice if there were a bigger presence,” he said. “When the World Magic Cup was here in 2012, it felt like there was a dramatic Magic presence. Now that I look at the hall, it’s like half or third of what it was then. [I want] more of a sanctioned Magic experience that’s worthy of Gen Con. I feel like PAX and [San Diego] Comic-Con get a lot of Magic love, and I just don’t see anything of that here.”

The World Magic Cup had a large area dedicated to the feature match area with a spacious back stage and wristband-limited access playing area for competitors. The WMC was less something for everyone at Gen Con and more a spectacle reserved for a tiny fraction of Magic players. Since it was an international event, most of the players in the WMC were not familiar with the U.S.-centric attendee of Gen Con. Luis Scott-Vargas and Brian Kibler were notable highlights, but two top pros simply playing some Magic aren’t a lighthouse beacon for a sea of attendees.

The WMC was a neat centerpiece that took a ton of space, but it didn’t offer anything beyond that. That was my first year going to Gen Con. Of course, I can also compare it to PAX and other conventions since I’d been to many of those as well. Had Oxford been to PAX or Comic-Con, too?

“No, but just from watching coverage and Twitter, I feel that I know what’s happening,” he said. “I might have to choose between PAX and Gen Con in the future since I only have time for one Magic vacation.”

Constant Mists
I’m lucky enough—or unlucky enough, depending upon how you look at it—to attend both Gen Con and PAX two years running. Visiting Seattle and Indianapolis, two cities filled with friends and food I love, is hard for me to turn down. And I mean it that way: I work at both events. This year, the World Championship for Magic returns to Seattle, and I couldn’t be more excited to be there again.

But choosing between the two is like trying to decide to get bourbon bread pudding or crème brûlée for dessert: The fact is both are awesome in different ways. PAX has video games and panels. Comic-Con has, well, media presence and panels. Gen Con has literally everything else Magic players and gamers care about.

“I’m coming to Gen Con because I like signed cards,” Oxford said. “Approximately twenty Magic artists is a draw for me. Outside of that, I’ve gotten more and more into non-Magic board games over the years. Having that outlet to find that stuff is pretty cool. Also, the fact that everyone else I know is basically going to Gen Con—it’s a great time to meet up with friends and play some cards uninterrupted for four days. I don’t have to worry about work or anything else. It’s just a vacation to do what you like to do.”

A Magic vacation full of friends and artists? If that sounds Grand Prix Las Vegas, the reason is that it is. This year’s stunning show for Modern Masters (2015 Edition) was the closest Magic event to the Gen Con experience I’ve seen yet. While Las Vegas offered side events and premier play opportunities in the marquee double-Grand-Prix events, it was everyone else who made it such a good show for Magic players that simple love to play.

“I don’t believe I played any event pods—I didn’t buy tickets for any scheduled events—but from what I heard from those who played in those, they were super-Spikey,” Oxford said about the side events at Gen Con. “I don’t think I’ll be playing in any sanctioned events this year. The potential to play with so many cool people you haven’t met before but you know through online relationships . . . and cool friends you want to meet up with . . . there are so many people who are just great people to play Commander with. I don’t need to go into the sanctioned realms—there are people playing all the time.”

The best part of Gen Con Magic—Commander in particular—is that you have a gamut of amazing experience. “It’s pretty varied. Some people follow social contract and not overpowered decks,” Oxford said. “Then you have players—some newer who maybe have only been playing for a year—who have more synergy and power in their decks.”

Unlike Comic-Con and PAX, except PAX Prime in Seattle, those who trek to Gen Con from Wizards are players and gamers first, often using their own vacation and time to simply play games and have fun. Oxford shared his own story about playing folks from Wizards.

“In 2012, I found myself in a three-player game with Ethan Fleischer and Mark Globus of Wizards R&D,” he said. “I can’t specifically remember what decks they were playing, but there was a lot of buildup, and a lethal attack came my way—I was able to Constant Mists with buyback on the lethal damage and crack back for the win against Globus. That’s the great part about Gen Con: Maybe it’s those guys again or someone like Gavin Verhey or Matt Tabak this year—Wizards folks whom you just might run into a game with.”

Oxford wasn’t alone in enjoying Gen Con in broad ways. Bruce Richard, former Gathering Magic writer and current resident of MagicTheGathering.com’s Serious Fun column, was a long-time attendee of PAX East in Boston. His mission this year was to be somewhere great.

“I decided this year I was going to go out to a handful of conventions—Grand Prix or things like PAX,” Richard said. “I looked at my schedule at the start of the year, and it came down to either Gen Con or PAX Prime. PAX landed when I have family commitments, so I chose Gen Con instead.”

“I expected something PAX East–like,” he continued. “I had been to several of those, and that’s what I expected: the glut of crowds running through booths for various games and gaming areas. Gen Con takes it a step further. For something like PAX East, it disappears when you walk out of the convention hall. There aren’t a lot of restaurants surrounding the convention hall. At Gen Con, the crush of people inside continues when you’re outside. It seems that everyone within a mile of the convention center is attending or working in some capacity, like restaurants and stores. This is a much more all-encompassing event.”

For me, that’s the worst kept secret of Gen Cen: Everything is Gen Con in downtown Indianapolis. Restaurants and food trucks appropriate fantasy, science-fiction, and comic-book tropes for the names of everything.

The other secret isn’t one kept at all: It’s literally the best place for gaming anywhere on the planet. Richard has an archetypical casual Magic group. His decks fall into a range that’s the exception for the online focus on power and synergy: They represent real players having real fun.

“Our play group, we have one guy who makes good decks, and the rest of us have decks that are not quite as good,” Richard explained. “At conventions, my decks just don’t pass the mustard. It’s not just cards: I’m not the best player to begin with, so it’s a bad combination. But the players I play with are all here to have fun. I don’t want it to sound like everybody here is a try-hard running a deck looking to take you out in five turns. Everybody has these great decks, but they’re fun players. They want to take advantage of what their decks can do and show them off: I’ve had great games at conventions in general.”

Early into the first day of Gen Con, I had a chance to play against Richard and Oxford in an excellent back-and-forth game that I eventually won with a final surge to finish off two hours of gameplay.

Games like these, filled with joy and fun, wherein everybody has the chances to enjoy their decks, are what Gen Con is all about for Magic players. You can ignore the dozens of Magic artists who have proofs, signatures, prints, and original art available.

Forget that there’re thousands of board games and any role-playing system you need available somewhere.

Set aside the piles of miniatures and merchandise from across the Internet and beyond.

Skip the concerts and performers who fill theaters and hotel ballrooms for a mile in every direction.

If you forego everything but purely playing Magic at Gen Con, you’re still going to win.

Whether Wizards really cares about Gen Con for Magic isn’t the point you should worry about. Magic players care about Gen Con, and it is hands down the best convention to play Magic at.

Thinking anything otherwise is wrong.


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