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Why MTG Is Not Geek Chic

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After looking in one of those Halloween pop-up stores and seeing an honest-to-god World of Warcraft costume, I’ve finally accepted that the fantasy genre is stupidly popular. Yes, it took this long. I hope Gygax and Arneson were more self-aware than I have been in foreseeing the trend. Hell, I’m a late majority.

Geek chic is a very real thing. (Don’t confuse this with the hipster/fauxhemian juggernaut that seemingly won’t just stay in Brooklyn.)

Fantasy offers an escape from work, from school, and from life.

The Millennial Generation has been entering a work force in the second worst recession ever in America. Elves and magic can easily compete with the worries of failed start-ups, homework, or a struggling job search. Imagination Land is just plain more pleasant. Sometimes, being a barbarian or planeswalker is simply more fun than working at a telemarketing call center “just until I find that next job.” Mr. Rogers, I loved your lineup on TPT, but your advice was a lie. And being an astronaut is not possible for everyone. Hell, it’s nigh-impossible for nearly everyone.

This magical game requires focus, and in doing so, blocks out everything else. Try live-Tweeting during an entire booster draft. You can check in to get your mayorship, but your mind is definitely elsewhere.

Children who grew up on 1980s cartoons were influenced by fantasy themes and are finally becoming adults who can drive culture.

Watch your Saturday-morning cartoons. Try to find a Walt Disney work. Good luck. Anime, normally aligned to predominantly Asian teenagers and introverted white males wearing dragon button-up tee-shirts, is now a multibillion-dollar industry that feels akin to the Beatles’ invasion. I remember watching Akira for the first time as a young child; I felt just utterly amazed at the animation and the rules broken by a cartoon. It was sexual and violent. It was exciting.

Scott McCloud talks about the Eastern style of animation in great detail in Understanding Comics in the early nineties. He saw the trend coming. Dragonball was an early adopter. It just took time and a community that was open to the style.

Anime was just the tip of the iceberg.

Wizards, warriors, hobbits, orcs, and goblins followed the Hokosai Wave.

I won’t even get into hip-hop and comic books. I’ll see if I can write on why Kanye West is exploiting a positive trend in that community for the future.

Magic Is (Apparently) Not Geek Chic . . . 

 . . . though it should be. It has a long history of obscure knowledge that hipsters should love.

It allows for considerable individualism while having norms. (Grinders and FNMers copying Kibler’s shuffle would be a great example.)

Commander precons have opened a great tabletop game format.

Finkelgate explained much about the greater community’s presence toward Magic: The Gathering. It’s okay to love an honestly terrible movie about pseudo-vampires, but playing a game is not acceptable.

Is it anti-intellectualism toward the game? It’s difficult to play and impossible to master.

Is it widely known that the commitment toward the game is enormous? Friday-night parties in college are right out.

Does the cost prohibit a mass appeal? Maybe.

Is the collectible nature of the game unappealing to the geek-chic majority? Maybe.

Is there a silver bullet to correct everything?

Let’s dive in and examine the situation further.

Why Magic Is Still Marginalized

1. Cost.

The game is not only expensive, it’s also incredibly time-intensive.

Take a Commander precon at $20 to $30.

If you have a normal gaming playgroup that meets once a week, each person needs a Commander precon. 90%-plus of board games don’t cost over $100. Four players at $30 each is $120 to enter the game. Yes, they could use event decks, but it’s not the most conducive to a playgroup. I would assume that if someone plays Arkham Horror, he’s probably played Magic sometime in his past, but from a marketing standpoint, it’s impossible to know.

Playing in an FNM.

In order to play in a pretty standard Friday tournament, you need at least an event deck ($20-plus), three to four open hours to play, a quick dinner—whether premade or fast food—a ride there and home, and usually five American dollars.

2. It isn’t a dabbling game.

The planeswalker decks try to remedy the issue of the high barrier for dabbling. The Commander precons combat the notion that the game is crazy-expensive.

3. It isn’t a dabbling community.

The game has a high amount of cliquish behavior. Simply put, when you see people playing decks in a hobby shop, they’re probably play-testing. That isn’t welcoming. It’s not necessarily inherent, but it’s entrenched pretty deep. If you’re an outsider, how can you pilot this Caw-Blade mirror match I need to study for the weekend GPT?

How can you walk in even five minutes into a draft and play?

4. It’s a fringe fantasy game.

Even World of Warcraft is more approachable than Magic. I argued with my fiancée for a good ten minutes, and she won on the sole point of Mila Kunis. WoW has celebrities that every woman knows. They had an entire advertising campaign to make the stereotyped and ridiculed game into a household conversation. Mr. T might not actually play World of Warcraft, but they didn’t back off the push to make the game approachable. I’m not saying to blindly recruit Olivia Munn—please don’t—but the pvponline.com-type excursions are great, Wotc. Keep doing them. Think about a public-relations campaign. If you get the spotlight like South Park gave World of Warcraft, take it. Now, you just need to snag a spotlight.

5. Low numbers of females.

Women drive the entire Twilight phenomenon. Yes, men can read the books and watch the terrible movies, but let’s be serious here. A limited market will limit the brand’s resonance strength. If you omit a demographic, trying to do any public-relations work will be a serious uphill battle. This isn’t something to be fixed, but rather something to be cognizant of. I’m not sure that the game being 50/50 men/women would necessarily “fix” things. That’s a dangerous assumption.

6. Players aren’t fixing the issue.

We hide behind the excuse of being ostracized. It’s a crutch that we choose to keep using that perpetuates the stereotype. We aren’t trying to fix this issue of being on the fringe—and not “on the fringe” in a positive way.

Since the game behind the game has been so marginalized, it’s moving into being just internalized. It’s worn as a badge.

That marginalization will always be there. There will always be a push-back on people.

We are tapped with a Paralyze, and no one wants to pay the cost.

World of Warcraft can hide behind anonymity. We cannot.

It takes a great effort to break that automatic reaction.

So . . . 

How to Move Magic from Marginalized into Celebrated

The game isn’t in the national conversation.

The brand team is working on it. The game is selling incredibly well, and the social aspect is making progress; the media just isn’t behind it yet. How can we speed up their progress? Simple. Add touchpoints.

We need to get tournaments out of convention halls and into the community.

Let’s face it; no one goes to convention halls in their community on a regular basis, despite what your Chamber of Commerce or city tourism department will claim. Are tournament organizers or Wizards itself contacting local news sources to do a piece on the tournament and the winner? 6:00 p.m. news always has a human-interest story, and GPs cover three days.

Moar comics!

Yes, they’re coming, but we need more. Lots more. Having multiple lines of stories wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Alternate-art card promos will allow them to sell quite easily. Having different lines allows WotC to place promos in circulation immediately when costs skyrocket for rares and mythic rares to control a supply in the market to an exact degree. Could a sideboard card be printed to nerf an entire deck? It’s not ideal, as Mana Crypt created some issues, but it’s possible to massage a metagame.

Cultivating multiple audiences is vital to the game. Not all comic readers will play, but some will.

Let me DVR your TV show.

Yes, there are so many issues with taking a risk like a TV show, but the rewards are enormous. If you do make it, what is the demographic? Is it kids? Teens? Twenty-somethings? Who will love it as fun, who will watch for mindless fun, and who will watch at 1:00 a.m. with a bag of Funyuns after getting home?

Hasbro has a TV channel with the HUB, but it’s a little too young for a Magic show. It could be placed there, but it would alienate a considerable number of Magic players. You can’t make a TV show as an investment for future players, as going into the red is simply not an option.

There are linked-in minds working on this. Please work faster. Please.

Going Beyond the Trend

We need to take micro-steps first.

If Wizards can’t make a TV show, let’s start making movies. If Pokemon can have user-generated movies, why can’t we? Is staging a duel that difficult? We landed on the moon with a calculator’s worth of power. John Avon can paint god on his Wacom tablet if he wants to. Clearly, a group of well-intentioned Magic players could produce something of quality. I’ll donate the first $100 to any group wishing to make a pilot on a KickStarter-esque site. (Yes, I know of the MTG movies being produced. They aren’t on television; it’s a little different.)

I think we will cross the hump soon, I really do.

I’m just curious when things will change again.

Will we as a culture turn even more wizard, making board games the go-to activity on the weekends with fantasy elements, only switching up to play Magic: The Gathering? Or will we revert back to more traditional American leisure, like the beach and baseball? (When was the last pickup baseball game? Stickball in the forever-ago decade.)

Time will tell.

Conclusion

In the meantime, let us ruminate on the situation and take a small bite to fix it.

I must admit that I don’t share my “wizarding” life with my fiancée all that much. She inquires from time to time, but never really asks why I’m not tweaking my Uril build compared to my Melira Commander deck or how close my unlimited set is to being complete. She knows of my Alpha-art project, and I’ll ask her about her perceptions of the community from time to time, but I never really bring her in.

This week, I’m changing that at home.

You obviously won’t be in that conversation, but do some little things.

Meet with some play-testers outside of your local game shop. Play in a park, or a mall, and be ambassadors for the brand. Eat a meal with each other and play a game that isn’t Magic. You can’t break stereotypes if you wall yourself in them.

I’m not perfect, either, but I’m trying.

I hear you, Bob. Rest in peace, buddy.

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