The way forward for SA Magic
By Neil T Stacey
Talking about the “SA Magic Community”as a single homogenous entity is convenient, but it’s far from accurate. There are several distinct groups with disparate interests that don’t always align that well. Sometimes the interests of those groups are genuinely at odds with each other.
With this in mind, it’s clear that the title of this article is making an ambitious claim. Is there really one thing that we can all get involved in which happens to serve all of these disparate interests? I believe that there is and that it’s quite simple.
Teach people how to play Magic.
Paul Gulbis is doing a series of articles, right on this site, all about how to teach the game. I hope they get the attention they deserve; the teaching of new players is fundamental to the continuation of the game and everything bound up in it. The number of people who know how to play Magic is a key determining factor in everything from tournament attendance and booster sales to the probability of WOTC giving South Africa a GP. Teaching people doesn’t always bring immediate benefits, it’s true. The conversion from “Person who knows how to play Magic” into “Tournament Regular” is often a lengthy and convoluted process, and it’s different for everyone.
If you teach a few people to play the game, that doesn’t mean they’ll all be showing up at FNM the very same week. It’s unusual for someone to jump into tournament play right after learning the game, which is probably for the best. For someone without a solid number of games under their belt, competitive play can be discouraging, to put it mildly. I am of the opinion that a gestation period of casual play is a good thing.
What this means is that we can’t really head out onto the street and convert strangers into tournament regulars. Instead, the best we can really do is add to the general pool of people who know the game, some percentage of whom will eventually turn into tournament players. To give a rough estimate, I would say that at any given time, roughly 10% of people who know how to play Magic are actively attending tournaments.
On the surface, that’s a little bit discouraging. “I have to teach ten people just to get one more regular?” a tournament organiser might protest. Well, it’s worse than that, because it won’t even happen right away. And hell, they might end up playing at some other store anyway. It’s only when you start to think it through that it starts to look more appealing. Teaching 10 people a week isn’t out of the question for a store with full-time staff. If we assume that one in ten of those eventually becomes a tournament player and that half of those end up playing at that particular store, then that store is looking at adding half a player to their player base per week. That’s an extra twenty-six players in one year. For smaller stores, that amounts to doubling their player base with one year’s steady work.
We can think of marketing to Magic players as happening on three levels. The topmost level can be summed up as “How can I get current tournament players to come to this specific tournament instead of a tournament at another store?” This has the most noticeable short-term effect, but the least long-term value. Sure, putting up an extra box for FNM brings in a bigger crowd but next week, they go back to playing at whichever venue is most convenient. The second level has a bit more long-term value; it consists of generally advertising tournaments, with the aim of prompting casual Magic players to start attending tournaments. Advertising pre-releases in mainstream media would count on this level, for instance. WOTC has this level pretty well covered just with the existence of pre-releases, the ideal introduction to tournament play. Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to rope in people who have no clue how to play the game in the first place. So this method is still dependent on the number of people who know how to play the game.
Each of these levels draws on the resources created by the one below it. Enticing players to a specific tournament draws on the existing pool of tournament players. Getting casual players into the tournament scene draws on the existing pool of casual players. Teaching new players how to play, however, requires only that there are people out there who don’t know the game. Until such time as an appreciable fraction of the general population already knows how to play Magic, the greatest long term gains are made on this level, by expanding the resources that are drawn on by any other marketing strategy.
The potential exists for our player base to be significantly larger than it currently is, perhaps several times its current size. It would take a lot to get there, but the first step would be teaching the game to a ton of people; the rest will tend to sort itself out.
An influx of new players doesn’t just benefit the store owners. Highly competitive players thrive on big tournament attendance; that’s what leads to the big prize payouts and high stakes tournaments that reward the best players. With the new PTQ system cutting in half our access to top level Magic, there has been a lot of debate about how to structure tournaments where the entry fees subsidize tickets to GPs or to Regional PTQs. This certainly has merit and it makes sense for some percentage of the money floating around the system to be used to give our best players an opportunity at the biggest stage. However, we can quibble endlessly over how to slice up the pie, but that won’t change the fact that the pie has gotten smaller. Right now there is a fairly limited capacity to support this kind of initiative. That could change, however. If the player base grows, that brings a bit more money into the system, freeing up some resources for tournaments of this sort. And hey, WOTC allocates Premier Events based largely on player base. Just saying.
There are also a lot of casual tournament players who go to FNM to relax and have a good time. They aren’t losing any sleep over the end of PTQs. They certainly aren’t concerned about whether someone or other gets to go to a GP or not. And yet, they also benefit from a bigger player base. No-one has a good time when FNM fails to fire. And no-one enjoys taking their newest brew to FNM just to face down a parade of tier one decks with disdainful pilots. As it stands, that’s a commonplace situation.
The best players play a lot of Magic, that’s how they get to be good. And with a limited number of tournaments running in any given week, that means the casual crowd can’t avoid running into them. Expanding the player base makes it possible to run more tournaments and this problem disappears. The different groups will tend to naturally separate out as they stick to the tournaments that suit them.
And of course, kitchen players benefit from teaching new players because they get more people to play with. Sweet.
There are plenty of ways to tweak tournament structure, many of them with a lot of merit. For instance, I believe that a few more cash prizes in the mix will rev up excitement in the player base as well as making the hobby seem more legitimate to the general public. It’s pretty deflating to tell a non-player that you won a big tournament and when they ask what you won, you have to answer “Uh, more cards.” Being able to answer with a decent sum of money is much more impressive. I’m all for anything that lets me be less sheepish about my hobby. And let’s face it; winning cards makes you less likely to buy more cards, but winning money makes you more likely to buy more cards. I see a lot of benefit to having a bit of cash in the mix when it comes to prizes, but I’m not going to be spending my time advocating that approach. Let’s get the basics right. First, I’ll teach some people how to play.
For the rest of you? You want South Africa to get a GP? Teach a few people to play. You want tournaments that subsidize international play? Teach a few people to play. You want a better crowd at FNM? Teach a few people to play.