[Author's Note: This is a work of parody based on the book World War Z by Max Brooks. In last week's article, I explored why a crash in the Magic market isn't terribly likely, but I still had fun coming up with some possible reasons why a Magic apocalypse could come to pass. With all of the December 21st doomsday nonsense heating up, I decided to write some apocalyptic speculative fiction this week. What became clear to me early on was just how hard it was to craft a swift and believable end to the game. Magic has proven exceptionally resilient. In an interview last week, Mark Rosewater spoke about how he believes the game will outlive him. I'm starting to believe that as well.
All character and company names other than Wizards of the Coast and several of its employees are purely fictional. This article isn't attempting to satirize anything or anyone specific, save a couple of tongue-in-cheek Mark Rosewater jokes. Oddly enough, this isn't the first article like this on SCG, so props to Gavin Verhey for inventing the genre, as it were. Enjoy!]
The story of the Magic: The Gathering apocalypse has mostly gone untold.
When Time put out their "Top 100 Apocalypses of the 21st Century" list last year, Magic didn't even make the cut. (Ironically, the Mayan Apocalypse on December 21st, 2012 that didn't actually happen came in at #63.) As the years continued to pass, it began to seem less and less likely that someone would finally sit down and piece together what actually happened when the Magic: The Gathering markets came crashing down.
The following article contains several excerpts from my upcoming book World War M: An Oral History of The Magic Apocalypse. The book will be available for iRetinal download and on the Braindroid HUD store as of March 28th, 2044. Mostly taken from previously classified interviews conducted during and after the Magic apocalypse, World War M attempts to piece together what it would have been like as a Magic player during the worst days of the crisis. What actually happened to the game? Could disaster have been prevented? With Magic back on the digital shelves as of early next year, is history doomed to repeat itself?
Let's start at the beginning.
Las Vegas, NV - June 22, 2013
Javier Corrado was the kind of Magic player most commonly referred to in his day as a 'grinder.' He spent most of his free time traveling around the southwestern US attending qualifier tournaments in the hopes of getting that elusive Pro Tour invite. In the summer of 2013, Javier was 24 years old. A clean-shaven Hispanic man with jet-black hair and thick-rimmed glasses, Javier looked more like a musician than a Magic player. These are his own words, transcribed several years later by an unknown employee of the US State Department.
I remember driving up to Vegas after work on Friday, stopping for a burger in Barstow, and trying to make it to the hotel by 2 or 3 AM. Traffic slowed to a crawl once I crossed the Nevada state line, though, and it was bumper-to-bumper for more than fifty miles. I was thinking to myself, "These people can't all be here for the Magic tournament, right?"
They weren't, of course, but it sure felt that way. Everyone knows now that GP Vegas was the largest Magic tournament ever, but the guys at Wizards sure didn't see it coming. They capped signups at three thousand, and there were still a couple hundred players turned away at the door. My buddy Bruno made the overnight drive from Denver and was sent right back home—what a dagger, right? There were rumors flying that Wizards didn't have enough packs and were sending lower level judges to all the retail stores in town in search of more product. No one was shocked when we were told that the prize payout would be in Dragon's Maze, not Modern Masters.
I was just hoping to bust a Cryptic Command since it was the last card I needed to finish off my Modern deck, but I figured I'd just buy the card at the end of the weekend if I didn't crack it. Prices on Modern junk had been coming down since the season ended, but one of the larger stores back in San Diego was holding a 5K so I was still brewing. I always liked off-cycle tournaments better anyhow. Most of the local chumps would just show up with last season's decks and assume their tech was still good.
I was sitting 3-0-1 when things started to get crazy. I ran into Jamie in line at McDonalds—he was a chill dude who ran a store down in Phoenix. He told me that that Last Resort Games—one of the big vendors—had just offered to buy his entire stock of Modern singles straight up at retail. "Go check their booth," he told me. "They're just handing out cash. It's nuts."
I gave up on food and walked back to the hall, but I couldn't get within a hundred feet of the Last Resort booth. It was just a mob of people—like a mosh pit at a metal show or something. Most dealers have, like, three or four buyers on site, right? Those stone-faced dudes who sit there with a grid and make up reasons why your cards are in bad shape and are only worth half of what you think. Last Resort must have come into the GP with a plan because they had 20 or 30 guys behind their booth making deals as fast as they could. People were abandoning their matches to stay in line—I think the head judge later admitted he gave something like a hundred match losses over the next couple of rounds.
You all know the rest of the story. We thought that Modern Masters would cause the price of Modern cards to go down, but it just added to the panic when people realized that the set was sold out everywhere. It didn't even matter that none of the other dealers followed along with Last Resort's new pricing at first—they put their cards out at what the old retail price was, and people just bought them out immediately and put the cards up on eBay.
And why not? The mandate from Wizards that Modern was the future of Eternal was clear, so why couldn't Thoughtseize be a $100 card? What was keeping Tarmogoyf lower than $250? We couldn't fault Last Resort for pushing the issue—people kept snapping up the cards at the new prices.
After losing early in Day 2, I went searching for that last Cryptic, but no one in the hall would trade Modern at any price. I couldn't find one on the sales floor for less than forty bucks, either. I ended up selling my whole Modern deck to one of the smaller dealers who was trying to out-maneuver Last Resort—their owner offered me 25% more than the deck would have sold for at his table the day before. Mise well, right? Paid for my weekend and then some.
Boston, MA - September 21, 2013
Angela Brewer was fourteen years old when she attended the Skies of Pyrulea Prerelease at White Knight Games in Somerville. This interview was conducted two years later, when Angela was sixteen, as research for a Boston Globe article on women in gaming that was never printed.
Why did you decide to go to White Knight Games that day?
Duh! It was the Prerelease! I spent, like, every day the week before looking at the spoiler and thinking about which cards I wanted to open. How could I not go?
The hard part was getting a ride. My brother had football practice early in the morning, and I couldn't drive yet, so I had to find someone who would take me. Most of the people I played Magic with at school were boys, and my mom didn't really want me to be alone with them. After begging for a few days, I was finally able to convince her that it wasn't like that. [Thinking] Or maybe I just snuck out. I don't really remember. [Laughs]
So which cards did you want to open?
I really liked Elder Skywing—I was going through this whole girly girl rebellion thing where I was all about the Dragons and hated the Angels, so he would have been a good one to have for my red deck. I knew I could get one easily enough, though.
Like everyone else, I mostly just wanted to open a Countermark. I mean, it was selling for a hundred bucks! That's almost as much as a box! When I opened my last pack and found a foil one staring back at me, I swear, I almost wet myself.
You were excited.
Well yeah! My coolest card before that was the Vampire Nocturnus promo that I got for buying the Duels game on my Xbox, and that card isn't even good. I'm pretty sure I let out a shriek and jumped up and down for like five minutes straight when I saw the Countermark. Some guy offered me two hundred dollars for it, but I told him the card was all mine.
When did you first notice it had gone missing?
I didn't notice it was gone until I saw it saw it in someone else's binder. It was this fat, old guy—he was thirty at least—and he had it next to a bunch of dual lands and stuff. I asked him if he opened a foil Countermark too, and he just kind of shrugged at me and walked away. That's when I checked my deckbox and noticed it was gone.
I told the storeowner what had happened, and he called the old guy over. When he opened his binder again, though, the card wasn't there anymore. The owner asked him if he had taken any cards from me, and he said he hadn't. I could see it in his face, though. He was lying.
My head started to swim, and the next thing I remember I had tears streaming down my face. I'm pretty sure I reached out to try and hit him in the stomach, but the owner pulled me away. My friends calmed me down outside while he called my parents. By the time they came, the thief was gone.
At school the next day, I went online and read about similar stuff happening at other Prereleases. I don't know why people went so crazy about Countermark, but something about there being a hundred dollar card in packs must have turned people into thieves. Or maybe thieves came to us because the cards got so expensive.
Did you file a police report?
My parents took me down to the station on my way home from the store. I told them what had happened, but they didn't seem to care all that much. That night, my parents told me I couldn't take my Magic cards to school anymore. I wanted to yell at them, to tell them that they were being stupid and who would I play with if I couldn't play with my friends at school, but I just nodded my head and stayed silent. I knew they were right, and besides, I didn't feel like playing Magic much anymore.
Pocatello, ID - October 8, 2013
Ryan Hart is the wiry mastermind behind Magicspec.com, a site that gained infamy a few months later when it was revealed that the people who orchestrated the dual land flood were denizens of its forums. The statement below is part of a larger article released by Ryan in December of 2015 upon his closure of the website.
You have to understand, our system was foolproof.
The whole thing was based on PECOTA, the algorithm that made Nate Silver famous. He used it to predict the success or failure of a given baseball player based on historical comparisons. The idea was that you could quantify a baseball player's ability based on a couple dozen factors—on base percentage, power, and so on—and compare him to everyone else who had ever played the game. That way, if PECOTA predicted that a rookie was likely to have the same career trajectory as Joe DiMaggio, a smart general manager could try their best to trade for him before everyone else figured it out.
It wasn't long before Ted Graham and I realized we could do the same thing with Magic cards. All you'd need to do is to use historical pricing, input a bunch of categories like casting cost, rarity, and so on, and you'd end up with a program that could accurately predict where a card's price would end up.
Return to Ravnica was our test run. The algorithm predicted big things from Sphinx's Revelation, so we bought in big—$1,000 worth at first, but after a week or so the price went down so we doubled our investment. I'll tell you, we sweat that one out good before it finally started to move. We spent deliriously at Fogo that night, and it had never tasted so good.
Gatecrash, Dragon's Maze, and M14 brought us progressively bigger buys. It was clear that the system wasn't perfect—we had pegged Avian Bombardier as a $5 card, and you know how that one turned out—but it was deadly accurate when predicting which cards would be among the two or three most expensive cards in a given set.
Even crazier, our system's long-term pricing models were scarily good. As players, we like to think of the metagame as this wild, unpredictable thing, but really it's just the same 75 variables repeating over and over again. By the time Skies of Pyrulea spoilers began, we were ready to really make our move.
Everyone knew Countermark was going to be good, of course. How could it not be? When Card Advantage started preselling it at $40, though, people were still fairly skeptical. Without the algorithm, I know I wouldn't have given buying in a second thought.
By this point, though, we had total faith in our system. And when our system told us that this would be the first $150 Standard card, we decided to go all in. I figured that it would likely get banned long before hitting $150 of course, but even if it hit $100 like Jace, the Mind Sculptor did, I was poised to make a whole lot of money.
My grandmother had passed away a few months earlier, and as her only surviving relative she left me everything. I sold her house for $250,000, and she had almost $500,000 worth of GE stock that I cashed out. Between that, the money from my earlier specs, and Ted Graham's savings, I had almost a million dollars to spend. And I was going to spend it all on Countermark.
At $40 per I could rack up 25,000 copies of the card, but I knew that once I made my move the price would start to climb. I hit all the major retailers at once and then moved on to eBay. Ted and I slept in shifts, buying all preorder copies of the card as soon as they were listed. By the day of the Prerelease, we had succeeded in driving up the price to $100 a copy just by ourselves.
At this point, I wanted to see how high the card would go. We had only spent about half our cash, so despite Ted's reluctance, I just kept clicking 'buy.' At this point, people had begun tracing online purchases to our series of accounts and putting it together that we were hoarding the card. I even got an angry call from Wizards PR telling us to cut it out.
Things didn't really come to a head, though, until all eight decks in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Skies of Pyrulea ran four copies of Countermark. Not only was the card as good as our program predicted, but we owned more than half of the copies that existed. The next few weeks were bedlam.
My legal team has advised me not to talk much about this, of course, so I won't go into too much more detail. Rest assured that we did not expect the price of boosters to triple on the secondary market while distributors ran dry. I'm pretty sure the after effects of Hurricane Jean had something to do with how short-printed the set was, but the price of Countermark was a major factor as well. People cracked thousands and thousands of packs just to fill demand for that one stupid card.
I know most of you basically couldn't draft for four straight months and that caused some of you to quit the game entirely. All I can say is that I'm sorry. I didn't expect things would turn out that way. My father always used to say that all actions have consequences, and now I know that without a doubt he was right.
But let me be clear—I am not even partially responsible for what happened next.
Salt Lake City, UT - January 13, 2014
Josh Lawrence was a buyer for Supernatural Games, a small Internet retailer that specialized in Magic: The Gathering singles. Supernatural set up a booth at large Magic events in order to buy and sell cards to players in the event. Josh, a large, affable man with a broad smile and a bushy, black beard, was in charge of purchasing cards from players looking to make a few extra bucks.
I was working the Supernatural booth at GP Salt Lake City in January of '14. It was the first major tournament of the new year, so all the pros were there hoping to take an early lead in the Player of the Year race. Wizards had just emergency banned Countermark, so Standard was wide open. Attendance was down, I remember, but we hadn't begun to get worried yet.
Things weren't right from the start of this one. Dozens of players kept coming over to my booth and selling me their dual lands. Now, you have to understand, we were a small retailer. We generally only brought ten or twenty grand in cash to one of these things unless we had a collection buy lined up, and getting a bunch of dual lands from multiple people was basically unheard of. That weekend, we ran out of cash the night before the event even started.
Don—the owner—hit up the bank first thing Saturday morning and withdrew the store's entire operating budget for the following month. To this day, I don't know why he took that risk, but again, we were a small retailer and buying dual lands at our prices was like printing money. I think he thought that he could ditch the lands on eBay for a 20% premium if nothing else.
By noon on Saturday, I was getting really suspicious. After I rang my 30th Tundra into inventory, I asked Don if he knew what was going on. He told me he had no idea but that he had just been approached by the president of one of the other retailers—Last Resort, I think—and asked if he was interested in buying out their stock of duals at our buy prices. Apparently we were the only dealer on site still taking them. After this, we were under strict orders not to buy any more dual lands—not for any price.
By mid-afternoon, we thought we had figured out what was going on. A rumor was going around online that Wizards was going to reprint the dual lands in M15 in flagrant violation of the reserved list. Not only would they be in the set, the rumor said, but there would be one in every pack instead of a basic land. Players began flooding the dealers' tables with their duals, hoping to cash out before the coming crash.
When we stopped buying, people got mad. At one point, an irate player jumped our table and rushed at Don, demanding we honor our buylist. I had to restrain him until the police arrived. The head judge had to stop the tournament for a full hour.
Meanwhile, the Twittersphere was exploding. MOTL and eBay were flooded with dual lands, and it was starting to look like every single Legacy player was dumping their collection in light of the rumor. Playsets of Underground Sea, which had been selling for over $700 earlier in the day, had started to close on eBay for under $20. A bunch of the finance guys started buying them up in case the rumor proved false, but there seemed to be no end to the dual land auctions that kept showing up.
It wasn't until about a week later that we found out what had actually happened. Turns out that a group of rogue Magic players somewhere in the Midwest had gotten ahold of one of Carta Mundi's old printing presses from the mid-1990s. With financial backing from someone in China and a professional grade scanner, they began cranking out hundreds of thousands of dual lands that were indistinguishable from the original Revised print run. They had been slowly selling them all over the country for months without anyone catching on, flooding the market one buylist at a time. Even though the WotC reprint rumor was unfounded, it caused a dual land economy that had been primed to fail to come crashing down in a single afternoon.
I was let go as a buyer two weeks later, and Supernatural closed their doors at the end of February, along with more than two dozen other retailers that made the same mistake we did.
Renton, WA - July 1, 2014
Mark Rosewater was the head designer for Magic: The Gathering from 2004 through 2016. For most of that time, Mark communicated with the game's fans through a weekly column on the Wizards of the Coast website entitled 'Making Magic.' Below is an excerpt from the most read article in the history of his column.
Ch.. Ch.. Changes
People hate change; it's in our nature. The Sixth Edition rules change was unpopular at first. So was the new card face. So were the M10 rules updates. When people first found out about the double-faced cards in Innistrad, I got hundreds of emails from Magic players around the world telling me that the game had finally gone too far.
When I was writing for Roseanne, I learned that one of the hardest things about television was to keep evolving the characters and story while still giving the people the formula that they craved. If you change too much too quickly, your audience will turn on you. If you don't change at all, the show will become stagnant, and people will stop watching. It was a tough nut to crack. A season four episode of Roseanne shouldn't be able to fit seamlessly into season one, but a viewer who hadn't tuned in since the premiere episode should still be able to grok its Roseanne-ness.
I will admit that there were some golden rules of Magic that I never thought we'd break. Right there at the top, of course, is the biggest one of all: compatibility. For 21 years, you could shuffle up Magic cards from any set in the history of the game and play with them seamlessly together. Starting with Magic 2015, that will no longer be true.
Outside the Mox
I was as shocked as anyone when I found out about the Magic counterfeiting ring that was happening back in January. In many ways, though, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. The US Treasury goes to great pains to make sure our currency cannot be easily copied, and they haven't made any bills larger than the $100 denomination in over fifty years in hopes of discouraging counterfeiters. With many of our oldest cards selling for twice that much on the secondary market, it makes sense that someone decided to exploit that. I was happy to see the perpetrators brought to justice so quickly, and I expected that would be the end of it.
What I didn't expect was our new CEO, appointed by the chair of ABC Disney's Hasbro Northwest, calling me into his office a few months ago asking for an R&D solution to the problem.
The first thing they had explored was changing the ink and card stock slightly in order to make any given Magic card harder to copy. This worked well, but it didn't solve the underlying problem—people had been counterfeiting older cards, not new ones. Even if we changed our printing process, counterfeiters could still reprint Wastelands and Force of Wills to their heart's content.
Magic, as it turns out, is uniquely susceptible to this problem. There are other paper products worth more than Magic cards, of course—Superman #1, for example, or a Babe Ruth rookie card. The problem is that these cards are valuable precisely because they are rare and collectable. Their value is fully tied to their authenticity. In Magic, collectability is secondary. While we do have an avid collectors market, it is just a tiny fraction of the player base. People buy Magic cards because they want to play with them. Because of that, there is far less oversight—and far less outcry—over counterfeit cards. We simply cannot ask our judges to search for the minute differences between counterfeit and legal cards at every single tournament. The fakes are just too good.
That's when I knew I had to think far outside the box. What if we finally pressed the big red button and rebooted the game entirely? That would allow the real older cards to retain their collectable value while allowing us to take back control over card printings for organized play.
That night, I began to sketch out the very first version of what ultimately became the new card back and front. I know this will make some of you mad at first, but I promise you this: whatever the cards look like, this is still the same Magic you know and love. How many of you are driving the same car you had in 1993? Listening to the same music? How many of you were even alive when Magic first came out? Just give us a chance—we think you will love the changes as much as we do.
Tallahassee, FL - February 8, 2015
Sandra MacArthur was the owner/operator of Joker's Wild Comics and Cards in Tallahassee, Florida. She ran the store with her husband, Jim MacArthur, who passed away in 2010. Sandra was 54 years old in the winter of 2015.
Joker's Wild held our last FNM last night.
Truth be told, I probably should have pulled the plug a couple months ago. Back when Jim was with us, we'd get 30 or 40 people every week and more for Prereleases. This past year we couldn't get eight. For the last couple months, four or five people might straggle in around six and ask if anyone else was signed up. When I told them no, they'd go on home. The past couple times, they didn't even look surprised or disappointed. It's like this everywhere I think.
I have a regular named Dino. He comes to my shop every day. He's been coming here like that since we opened. Nicest guy you'll ever meet. Heart of gold. I knew Magic was done the day he handed me his shoebox full of cards and asked me if I would buy them. The sad part is I told him I wasn't interested.
People say that Disney forced Wizards to change the game when they bought the company. They say the counterfeiters were an excuse to speed things along. Things were bad before that. No one played Skies of Pyrulea Standard because Countermark was expensive and oppressive. No one played Skies of Pyrulea Draft because we couldn't order boxes from our distributor for four straight months. We had a pretty good Legacy scene going for a while, but the dual land thing scared everyone away from buying a deck. The game change thing was just the straw that broke the camel's back. No one wanted to start their collection from scratch, so they just moved on.
We don't need Magic to do well as a shop anymore. People mostly come in and play Pirouette now. Even though it's a digital game, they sit across from each other and play on their tablets so they can still experience real human interaction. They still buy cards from me even though the cards are just computer codes. Strange new world. It did let me sell some of my bulkier display cases for more table space. People liked that.
I never thought the game would die so quickly. Magic seemed like one of those things that would always be there, like Super Mario or Snakes and Ladders. Turns out that everything has its day in the sun.
Los Angeles, CA - September 2, 2023
Chas Andres was a television writer for several decades in the early 21st century. In his mid-to-late-20s, he also wrote about Magic on a series of community websites. This post was taken from his personal blog.
The 101 was jammed again today. I'll be happy when they finally get the autodrive lane installed, but it's been three years now and the thing still isn't done. At this point, they should just drill a tunnel through the hills or something. I don't know how I ever lived in the valley—getting to and from Burbank is such a freaking haul.
The reason I spent my Saturday morning driving to Burbank was in order to fulfill a promise I made to myself a long time ago. It's time to teach my son how to play Magic.
The first place I tried looking for cards was at Mountain View games, the store where I played FNM almost every week for most of my 20s. The shop was still there—how many small businesses can say that?—but they informed me that Magic was no longer an in-print game. I wasn't shocked, even though I had heard that Wizards was still churning out expansions long after they forced Mark Rosewater out of R&D. Magic had clearly become an afterthought.
I ended up walking down Magnolia, checking out thrift stores and retro stores, until I eventually found a set of M10 Duel Decks on the back of a dusty game shelf at the American Way. They were $40 each, but I felt so lucky to have found them that I ponied up the cash without hesitation.
I still have a bunch of Magic cards myself, of course, but I was always a fan of complexity in my deckbuilding. That's fine when you're an advanced player, but when you're starting out, you just want to see what happens when your Serra Angel takes on their Shivan Dragon. Anything more than that would be overkill. I don't want to have to explain Commander our first time out. The M10 decks will be perfect.
My mom always liked to tell people the story of the first time I saw Star Wars. Apparently, I sat on the edge of the couch with my mouth open for the entire second half of the film, enraptured by what was happening in front of me. After the film, she expected me to turn to her and thank her for introducing me to the awesomeness that is Star Wars.
Instead, I was mad. "How could you keep that from me for so long!?" I asked her. "How could you know that movie existed somewhere in the world and NOT show it to me until now!?"
You never know what stuff your kid will bond with, I guess. My son might just roll his eyes at Magic and put his HUD rig back on for another round of Zombie Rollup. Based on his reaction to the other games we've played as a family, though, I doubt that will happen. Maybe this will be his Star Wars. Maybe it won't be. But Magic has meant so much to me at various times in my life that I can't wait to let him in on the best game ever created by anyone.
Plus, just wait until he gets a look at Nicol Bolas. If that guy doesn't blow his mind, nothing will.