News : Failed epidemic: why does Magic the Gathering sometimes fail to take hold?

Failed epidemic: why does Magic the Gathering sometimes fail to take hold?


By Neil T Stacey


For those catching up, last week I applied epidemiological concepts to the game of Magic the Gathering. This idea started off as sort of a joke but as I got into the analysis I started to find that it turned up valuable insights and could be a genuinely useful way to think about the spread of the game.

MTG is of course not a disease in the traditional sense but for the most part it spreads in a similar way: through personal contact between Magic players and susceptible individuals. Advertising and promotional activity rarely recruit new players directly; instead they serve to make it easier for the game to spread from person to person.

As is the case with diseases, the rate at which Magic spreads through personal contact is governed by its Effective Reproductive Number, R, which is the average number of new players recruited by any player over the course of his or her career. R>1 results in exponential growth, R=1 results in stable endemic and R<1 results in a dwindling player base.

Last week I noted the success of Magic the Gathering as a contagion, charting its consistent exponential growth across most of the world and suggesting that the shift in Magic design philosophy known as ‘New World Order’ is a likely candidate as the trigger for this sustained growth. Here’s a link to last week’s article for anyone confused: How-contagious-is-magic-the-gathering.

Despite its obvious efficacy as a contagion, Magic the Gathering hasn’t taken hold everywhere. We know that the game itself is primed to spread, so the issue has to be differences in context that affect its contagiousness in different locations.

This week I’ll be talking about context, in particular the factors inhibiting the spread of Magic in areas where it hasn’t taken hold as an epidemic.

I’ll start by looking close to home. MTG has been popular in South Africa for about as long as the game has been around and our player base is more or less stable. Tournament attendance has hovered around roughly the same levels for years. I don’t have access to the sort of concrete data that would allow a more rigorous modelling but it’s safe to say that, subject to fluctuations both upward and downward, our R hovers around 1. In the context of South Africa Magic is a relatively stable endemic. We certainly aren’t seeing the rapid growth prevalent elsewhere.

This shouldn’t be too surprising; there are a number of factors working against us. I would be remiss if I didn’t start by taking this opportunity to address the elephant in the room – the new PTQ system. I will say firstly that the new system is, in general terms, less contagious than the old one. The old system made the Pro Tour an accessible dream for new players. ‘Win a tournament and you get your seat at the Pro Tour’ is a simple narrative and an easy one to sell. Doubtless there have been thousands of people who took an interest in the game because of the allure of pro play.

The new narrative is a more difficult sell. ‘Win a tournament and you get a chance to play at another tournament where, if you do well, you get your seat at the Pro Tour’ is kind of wordy. While the new system serves to simplify logistics and solves certain issues it doesn’t offer us the same opportunities to sell the game to other people. In general terms, the two-tier system is less contagious.

In the specific case of South Africa there is no comparison. Our distance and isolation make RPTQs largely inaccessible. The cost of travelling to Europe from here is actually higher than the average payout at the Pro Tour itself, making for an absurd Expected Value calculation. The old system offered an accessible path to the highest level of play; the new system offers us nothing.

When a contagion is in equilibrium, a nudge in either direction can have a significant effect. I would hate to see a relatively small tweak to Premier Play policy tip South African magic into a decline. WoTC continually tinkers with their policies; we can hope that they will at some point come up with a tweak that’s more inclusive of isolated regions.

Isolation isn’t the only factor working against us, however. South Africa also has lower median income and literacy rates than many of the countries in which Magic is played. This reduces the fraction of the general population which is susceptible, in turn reducing the frequency of interactions between Magic players and susceptible individuals. Our rate of player attrition is also higher than in other places. The same demographics that are most likely to play Magic also have a depressing habit of emigrating. This, too, lowers R.

Another critical factor is the price of boosters. For instance, retails booster boxes at $90. We are paying around $150. I won’t go into all the reasons for this; suffice it to say that the distribution chain is unnecessarily convoluted. I mentioned earlier that lower income is a factor; it doesn’t help that we’re paying two-thirds more for cards.

This isn’t to say that everyone in South Africa who might play Magic is already doing so; it just means that the rate at which we recruit new players is in approximate balance with the rate at which we lose existing players. With R hovering around that critical threshold every factor has a potentially huge impact. If we modify the context just a little bit we can get over that tipping point and start seeing exponential growth.

There is a potentially endless list of possible ways to modify the local context to nudge R upwards. Locally-produced online content is one approach. has this sector more or less to themselves for the time being, but I expect competitors to start popping up. Online content is a great way to engage players in large numbers and for many of us it’s a big part of the overall experience of playing this game.

Other tweaks can be made to the tournament experience. Top Deck, a new venue in Sandton, have a strict policy of starting on time which makes a welcome change to the chronic tardiness of South African Magic. They also limit their FNMs to four rounds regardless of attendance, which means that their tournaments start and end at predictable times, making life far easier for tournament-goers with tight schedules or a fondness for actually sleeping.

Another option is to transition a bit more toward cash prizes as opposed to exclusively boosters. Just like the issue with the new PTQ system, this is about how easy it is to sell the game to other people. For instance, if I tell someone that I won a booster box I can expect a blank stare. If I tell the same person that I won two thousand rand playing Magic, that’s something they can understand and take an interest in and getting the general population interested in the game is the foundation for building a player base. This is just an example but it highlights a way of thinking that is conducive to long-term growth. When deciding on how to run a promotional activity, try to picture your players explaining it to their friends who don’t play Magic.

These are seemingly small things in isolation, but they all contribute toward nudging R in the right direction. I use them as examples, there are countless other options for improving the tournament experience. Probably the most direct method for stimulating growth, however, would be teaching new players in large numbers. By itself that will only have a linear effect rather than an exponential one, unless we take steps to encourage those new players to eventually go on to teach other new players.

The easiest way that I can think of to do that is to give new players sample decks to use to teach their friends. Lucky for us, WoTC supplies sample decks to stores for teaching new players. Now, I’m not sure just how many of them they allocate to each store and it’s quite possible that stock is a limiting factor. Not a problem. Most experienced players have mounds of unused commons and uncommons they’d be happy to donate. It should be a simple matter to put together sample decks out of those mounds and start getting them out there. The easiest way to build the player base is to give it what it needs to build itself.

South African Magic has taken a big hit with the loss of PTQs but I’m convinced that things can be turned around with a renewed emphasis on long-term growth.

Another context where Magic’s contagiousness has come up somewhat lacking is amongst women. I realise it sounds odd to refer to Magic amongst women as being in a different context, but contexts need not be defined strictly by geographic boundaries. Women have different experiences in the game than men do and they approach it from a different socio-cultural background. Hence, their context for playing Magic is different.

Consequently, it is possible for Magic as a contagion to have a different R among women than among men. Last week I discussed how the nature of exponential growth dictates that even a small difference in R can have dramatic long-term effects. It follows that small differences in experiences in Magic can produce large disparities in how the game spreads and of course, in markers like tournament attendance.

This phenomenon goes some way to explain the disconnect between the two sides of the gender debate raging throughout the Magic community. I don’t believe anyone disputes the fact that the experience of playing Magic is different for women. The area of dispute is generally the size of that difference. There are those who argue that while women certainly have different experiences, they aren’t different enough to explain the tremendous disparity in tournament attendance. There are also those who argue that an individual shouldn’t be deterred by small differences or by minor disadvantages.

Intuitively, these arguments appear to be worth considering. However, exponential growth is renowned for its ability to defy our intuition and produce results far exceeding our expectations.

Small changes in R have dramatic effects. In other words, arguments that the differences are small hold no water; the differences don’t need to be all that large to have a significant effect. Arguments focusing on individuals are equally flawed. Even if the majority of individuals are willing and able to put up with prejudice some percentage will not be and it doesn’t have to be a large percentage. I won’t go into all the things that are wrong with expecting anyone to put up with prejudice. I’ll just point out that even if most of them do so, the argument still falls down when it comes to overall trends.

I can say with confidence that R is lower for women than it is for men. The reasons involved in this are manifold, ranging from personal experiences at Magic tournaments to the male emphasis in Magic coverage and even elements within the game itself. I won’t belabour the host of contentious issues at play nor advocate a specific course of action. I will just point out that current conditions are against the growth of Magic amongst women and that the main arguments to the contrary are transparently flawed when examined using these concepts.

I’ll end off with a more cut-and-dried example. Magic the Gathering has never taken off in Saudi Arabia. It’s a high-income country with a high level of development so on the surface it looks suitable.

However, Pokemon is banned in Saudi Arabia. As far as I can determine that ban is specific to Pokemon so in theory Magic is perfectly legal. But I imagine explaining that what you’re playing is Magic and not Pokemon is even less fun in a Saudi police station than it is at your LGS.

There are of course plenty of other locations where circumstances dictate that Magic can’t possibly take hold, Saudi Arabia is just one example among many. In these last two articles I’ve written about how small tweaks can have large effects; I just thought I’d end with a reminder that some factors are capable of overwhelming any number of small adjustments. All of us who get to play this great game are in some way lucky to be in a position to do so. Remember that, and give others the same opportunity.