Sunday, May 11, 2014

The High Cost of Magic

I've mentioned before that I play Magic: The Gathering. Well, sort of. I mean, I sort of play. I used to really play, and if you want to read more about that, you can go here, but, these days, I only sort of play.
I just don't have the time or money to really compete, right now, but it is fun to go play a tournament every so often. However, in the short time I've been back into playing again, I've noticed a disturbing trend. Now, stay with me even those of you that have never heard of the game, because I have a point, so I will try to keep my technical talk as general as possible so that you can follow along.

Cards in Magic have a cost to put them into play. In general, that cost becomes higher the more powerful the card. So, for instance, a goblin,
which is weak, only costs 1 to put into play while a dragon,
which is quite a bit more powerful, costs 6. In the past, these costs were basically unaffected by the cards rarity. In the above example, the goblin is a common card (easy to get) while the dragon is a rare card (difficult to get). But this wolf
is a rare card and has the same casting cost of 1 as the goblin while this common wurm
has the same cost as the dragon.

What this did for Magic was allow people to play at whatever level they could afford. You didn't have to own tons of rare cards. The rare cards allowed slightly more flexibility and some advantage but not an overwhelming advantage. The same Terror card, a common and cheap to cast,
could kill a rare card as quickly as it could a common card. Basically, you could build a strong deck without having to have rares in it. In fact, I used to keep a deck built entirely of commons (with a few uncommons) around just to show people you didn't have to have the rares. People would bring their competition decks to test against my common deck (which always resulted in sales for the store I worked in when I would beat them).

This model of Magic was a good one. It allowed a broad base of players to play and to play on a fairly level playing field. You didn't have to own thousands of dollars worth of cards to be able to compete.

That model of Magic no longer exists.

Just within the last couple of years, Wizards of the Coast has switched to a model that lowers the cost to put rare cards into play. For example, this Loxodon Smiter
only costs 3 to put into play and he has some pretty fantastic special abilities. It's half the casting cost of the above dragon and wurm and nearly as powerful. This common card, not nearly as powerful as the Smiter,
costs 5 to put into play. To which you might say, "There's still the Terror card," but, no, they took that card out of the game, so there is no card that will destroy a creature that's that cheap to cast. What you have instead are things like
which costs 3 (as opposed to Terror's 2) and only works on flying creatures (but is, at least, common) or
which costs a whopping 6 and isn't even common; it's an uncommon. Perhaps the best example can be seen here. Lightning Bolt
was a common card that could deal damage to a creature at a cost of 1 but has been taken out like Terror has. The closest to it is
for double the cost, which may not seem like a big deal but, trust me, it is. And it's still not enough to take care of that Smiter from up above.

All of that to say that Wizards of the Coast has shifted the focus of the game from one that allows people of all financial means to play to one that favors the players with lots of money to spend gaining rare cards and the even harder to get, but even more powerful, mythic rare cards.
What this has caused is fewer players showing up to tournaments. I don't go more than once every couple of months, but even I have noticed it. And, after talking with some of the guys in the game shop that hosts the tournaments, player numbers are about half of what they were two years ago. What you end up with is fewer players spending money on packs and cards. Sure, those fewer are spending more money than they were before, and it may make up for the attrition rate of players for a while, but that can't last for forever. The end result is a strong but small player base where once you had a very large player base. In the end, it's bad for the game.

The cost of Magic, both in the game with the casting cost of the cards and outside the game on the wallets of the players, has become too high.

Of course, this kind of problem is not restricted to the guys at Wizards of the Coast.

When I was in high school, I was pretty big into the Xanth novels by Piers Anthony.

The series involved the use of puns. In the beginning, the puns were few, just added in as a bit of fun, but, by book four, Centaur Isle (get it?), the puns were becoming part of the story and, later, in such books as Isle of View (get that one?), the puns had eclipsed the story. The reason was a fan-based one. Fans of Xanth began sending in puns to Anthony, and he would work them into the story with acknowledgement to the sender at the end of the book. But he lost the story somewhere in doing this and lost readers like me that wanted that story thing to be involved. He was left with a loyal but small fan base and, although Xanth is still going on, there is no call for any other kind of writing work from Anthony because he has become just that one thing.

I think authors can easily be pulled into traps like this. Basically, they can focus in too much on writing just one kind of thing because that appears to be where the money is. They lock themselves into just writing fantasy or just writing romance or just writing... whatever because "that's what people want." Usually, by the time you've realized you've put yourself in a box, it's too late to get out. As Anthony says, publishers don't want anything else from him anymore.

David Eddings did the same thing after the success of his The Belgariad. Everything he wrote after that was just that same story over and over again for two decades because that's "what people wanted."

All of that to say (all of that because I wanted to talk about the whole Magic thing since it's something that I've noticed and am not happy with) that it's a dangerous thing to narrow your focus too much to only appeal to a particular audience. The more you narrow, the more people you will lose.

So, yeah, I like fantasy and stories with fantastic elements, but I don't want to be "just a fantasy author." I don't want to get locked in like that. I want to write good stories, all kinds of good stories, so I'll keep trying new things. Some of them may not work.

But some of them will.


  1. They took out the Terror card? That was my favorite card. With it, I had a Black deck that kicked butt, and like you said, it wasn't made up of rare or really powerful creatures.
    I am writing another space opera, but it will be different from the other three books. And I still might move into fantasy. If I keep writing of course...

  2. When my daughter was young(er), she wanted me to read one of the Xanth books, I forget which one. I found the constant punniness exhausting, and didn't get too far. It was clever for clever's sake, and I just could not get into it.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with being 'just' a fantasy writer, or 'just' a sci-fi writer, etc. It's entirely possible to write nothing but one particular genre, yet still put out unique stories.

  3. It's an easy trap to fall into, which is why I try to make all my books as different from each other as possible, and write in different age categories and sub-genres of fantasy. It can be easy to fall back on what you know works, or what readers want, but it takes away the challenging part of writing, and the drive to improve with each book. Great post!

  4. Bravo to you. As always, I didn't follow the Magic stuff at all, but I did follow the branching out in writing. I like trying new things and seeing what I like or don't like to do. I remember reading "A Painted House" by John Grisham and thinking it was really great. Not so much his "Playing For Pizza," although that was still interesting.

    It keeps your writing and your outlook fresh to work in new areas and with new ideas.

  5. My son plays Magic, and yes, he too has complained about the high cost of some of the cards needed to really compete.

    As to writing, I don't think there's anything wrong with focusing on one genre, but I can't seem to do it. So I'm glad you agree that's not a bad thing.

  6. Typecasting is a danger in all the arts. But I suppose if you're making a lot of money at it then it's not so bad. The only problem is when you're typecast and not making money anymore; then you become a has-been.

  7. We're big believers in diversifying. That's why we write anything and everything. Our next novel is fantasy, and after that we have a loose idea for a science fiction novel.

    I think you never know what you're truly good at till you've tried writing everything.

  8. I was just talking to my friend yesterday (who's way bigger into Magic than I am) about tournaments and all the different categories there have become. It's kind of ridiculous. If you stay on top of things, attaining new cards frequently, you can play a certain style of tournament that excludes legacy cards. Otherwise, you're pitting your deck against people who've been chiseling at a deck for 15 years, spending hundreds of $s on ebay to get the most rare and game-breaking cards... It doesn't leave a lot of room for a casual player like me, with not a ton of $ to throw at it. Luckily, I've gotten my 14 year old son addicted.
    Unfortunately, this past weekend it became obvious the student has become the master. So I spent probably 5 hours yesterday building and refining a Green/White deck to counter the insane Black deck he's built.

  9. I found it fascinating to understand a bit about how those types of card games work, and about the money involved. Helps me understand Big Bang Theory better ;-)
    As always, great analogy. I think if you're a writer, you're a writer and can write anything you want. If all you're trying to do is please your audience, then that is going to affect your story, even dictate it (romances have to have a happy ending for example). Write what you want to write. It's great if people want to read it.
    I just sent in another column, and had to totally wing it since my source changed her mind at the last minute and didn't want me to write about her anymore.
    I explained to the editor what had happened, and she said, "This is great. I'll take anything you write." Made me feel good even though it was NOT the type of story I was "hired" to write...
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

  10. This was exactly like listening to my hubby after he's been to a Magic tournament. Like you, he only goes two or three times a year. And that's usually to sell off some cards.

    I can relate to you about writing. Not so much about my book but about my blog. I had changed it up a bit when I thought I was losing readers because of my content. I started to write what I thought they'd want to read. Then, I realized it wasn't that, it was the time of year, summer.

    People don't just start reading a blog, then stop reading it because they hate it. The readership just falls off naturally. For me to change the content was dumb. I was trying to please them instead of me. I don't do that anymore. Like you said on my blog the other day - write what you know. Also, what you enjoy.

    Oh, just a heads up, lots of action going on in House. The whole family is involved after D&D. *wink*

  11. Alex C: Yeah, they took out a lot of the old staples: Terror, Lightning Bolt, Dark Ritual. At the time, it was to slow the game down. Of course, now, with the way they're working the rares, it's sped it back up, just in a different way.

    JeffO: That's true. But when you trap yourself into writing just one kind of story, people will peg you with the "just a."

    Emma: Yeah, I don't understand the desire to write just one kind of thing any more than I understand the desire to read just one kind of thing, but I know a lot of people who just read .

    Briane: I like new ideas. Or old forgotten ones.

    Jean: I think when you do just one thing, all of your stuff becomes just that one thing. Like with David Eddings. Once you read The Belgariad, there is absolutely no reason to read anything else by him. It's all just lesser versions of that story.

    Pat: Yeah, that's the problem and why it's so easy to fall into that trap.

    ABftS: Well, I'm not thinking I'm going to try everything, but trying many things is certainly a good thing.

    David: There are a lot of categories. The place near me really only hosts Standard and Modern tournaments, though.

    You should get some of those Loxodon Smiters. heh

    Tina: If a romance doesn't have a happy ending, is that when it becomes a tragedy?

    Elsie: On my blog, I tend to just write the things that I'm thinking about. Or have been thinking about at some point, since my idea list hasn't been under a dozen in... um... two years?

    Ah, so you're at all of the really exciting stuff!

  12. I loved the first Xanth book but they definitely got weaker as they went along. Night Mare was the last one I read.

  13. TAS: I went through... I don't know. Book 15 or so.

  14. Wow! There was a great piece on Piers Anthony on NPR not long ago - a true story about a boy who ran away from home to meet him.

  15. That game sounds so complicated--for me at least. I never played any games like that.

    I'm like you. I wouldn't want to be stuck writing the same thing. That's probably why I keep my blog eclectic. And why I have 4 blogs. I love variety.

    Tossing It Out

  16. I don't begin to understand Magic, but I do agree that people shouldn't get stuck writing the same thing all the time. Mind you getting in a rut applies to other things in life and are always a bad thing to do and difficult to get out of.

  17. I think authors can easily be pulled into traps like this. Basically, they can focus in too much on writing just one kind of thing because that appears to be where the money is. They lock themselves into just writing fantasy or just writing romance or just writing... whatever because "that's what people want." Usually, by the time you've realized you've put yourself in a box, it's too late to get out. As Anthony says, publishers don't want anything else from him anymore.

    That's such a sobering thought. I've seen many good authors go this way. I haven't written enough to be stereotyped, but I can see how this can mess up an author.

  18. I hope you do experiment more. I've seen the advice a lot that for the sake of "brand", you shouldn't write outside one genre unless you're using multiple pen names, but I don't agree with that. To assume that a reader will only enjoy one genre ever in their life or in their "relationship" to you is like suggesting a baby will only ever eat carrot mush, and will never try anything else.

    Great post. :)

  19. I read 14 Xanth novels over the span of one school summer. I didn't see much of the outside world during those days.

    It's great you're not limiting yourself! Creativity is much more powerful when it isn't held by boundaries.

  20. TAS: WOW! I'll have to look that up. He was always good at inspiring his fans, and I have to respect him for what he's done for authors rights over the years.

    Lee: I'd probably have four blogs if I could keep up with writing that many, but I think that's beyond me, at the moment. But I do cover a variety of topics on here, so I guess I'm good.

    Jo: Yeah, ruts are easy to get into whatever you do.

    D Biswas: You don't have to someone else stereotype you. People are plenty capable of doing it to themselves, too.

    Alex H: Well, I don't like the idea of pseudonyms. Why deny the part of your audience that likes the way you write (as opposed to just like what you wrote in a particular story or series) access to other things you've written by hiding it under another name?

    Loni: Well, honestly, I probably around 50 Anthony novels when I was in high school.