Youth in Magic, and the Price of Gaming

Hello. Many of you may not know me, unless you’ve seen me at events in Spain, My name is Juan Vilar, and I’ve been playing Magic since the release of Fourth Edition. Magic: the Gathering has come a long way since then, and it has been a joyful part of my life for a long time. As an old school player I’ve had the opportunity of seeing so many different metagames and format changing events.

Manta RidersI remember back in the day when I was younger, and fish was called fish because of Merfolk, and the best Merfolk they played was Manta Riders, often with Curiosity attached to it to draw extra cards. I remember when people would play Oath of Druids to get a Masticore into play, or when blue control would just play a Morphling that would own the board. People would cast Triskelion and gaze at the opponent’s eyes knowing that probably meant the end of the game. And in each tournament you would find something completely different. Without the Internet to help us, metagames were very different in each part of the world, or even in your own city. People would come along with very unique and bizarre deck ideas that could win any tournament, and even though this marvelous feeling has disappeared with the ongoing netdecking that recurs more and more nowadays (and that I won’t discuss today), whenever I go to a big tournament I get to have the same feeling I used to have 15 years ago, and wonder what will my opponent be playing.

I don’t think it’s an understatement to think that many of the current players have played Magic for a long time. I started when I was a kid, and most of my friends with whom I started playing started too when they were my age back then. I am under the impression that the vast majority of the Magic community started playing when they were quite young, and that’s what’s troubling me today.

This weekend I attended the Grand Prix Valencia Standard tournament, and the lack of youngsters playing was astonishing. I’m not only talking about kids (which I saw none), but young people, aged 16-17. To the normal eye this might have passed unnoticed due to the great attendance and the incredible organization, but to the keen eye, when looked closely, the average age of players must have been around 30. And this isn’t something I’ve noticed just today. The more tournaments I attend, the fewer youngsters I see playing. Each day the young Magic player community appears to be diminishing.

Whenever I’ve played Magic at my university I’ve been criticized over and over about the fact that Magic is a “kids game,” but the facts actually show the total opposite. And that got me wondering, why do youngsters no longer play? What is wrong with Magic nowadays? Why do 30 year old people play a “kid based” game? It seems to be that kids these days are losing their interest in collectible card games in favor of the on growing industry of computer games.

It didn’t take me that much to figure out what was going on. Analyzing Legacy, a few years ago I would have paid 20-25€ for a Volcanic Island or Tarmogoyf, but nowadays the average price is roughly around 75€. And this phenomenon is not only limited to dual lands. Wastelands cost me 13€ each back then, and now they cost around 30€. And it’s not only about the expensive decks, but even “cheap” decks like Death and Taxes (which is way cheaper than RUG Delver, for example) will still cost you round about 600€ or more.

I figured out maybe Legacy wasn’t the right format for kids to start playing due to the high prices, so I wandered around seeing of the Modern format, and so on. The average Jund deck in Modern (which I’d say is an expensive common deck) is roughly around 900€! And even a cheaper deck like Affinity will still cost you around 200-300€ (and most of those cards aren’t even rares). Even though you can get a cheap mono red burn deck for 50€, you probably don’t want everybody playing mono red burn.

Maybe Modern wasn’t the right format for young people either? I’ve never been a fan of Standard, but I’m convinced that Standard decks must be way cheaper than Legacy or Modern (even though they totally change every three to six months). But still the average price for these decks is still around 300€, and that’s without taking into account that the value of most of these cards will drop to just a fraction of their initial cost when they rotate or the deck becomes unpopular. So then you have to start over and buy a new Standard deck, making the true cost of Standard also very expensive.

I guess a limited format isn’t the right choice for kids either (especially if they cost 50€ for one tournament); at the last GP in Barcelona back in 2009 I saw many kids and youngsters around playing, and back then Magic was already becoming more expensive, but not like it is today.

CODGhostsCould it be that youngsters and possible new players find Magic too expensive for what it’s worth? Take into account if a new young player was to buy a Tropical Island, he’d roughly manage to get a heavily played one for around 60€. Or he could take that same money and buy the new video game Call of Duty – Ghosts. And that’s only a single Tropical Island, when he’ll often need 3 or 4 more. A fully competitive Legacy or Modern deck (and let’s forget Affinity or Mono Red Burn for a moment) will often cost between 800€ to 1200€, which is way more expensive than the new upcoming Sony PlayStation 4, and a whole slew of brand new games along with it.

And that is only one comparison. Not to mention many other popular board games like Dominion (which ring in at 30€ for a boxed set), or even other collectible card games like Yu Gi Oh which are way cheaper.

Would you still consider playing Magic? Lately I’ve had a new friend wanting to join us Magic players and play Legacy, however I cannot in good conscience advise him to spend 800€ or 900€ because he is way out of pocket! I’d love to get many of my non-Magic playing friends to play with me, however with such high prices for Magic cards (and always on the rise), and with so many other alternatives, I can barely think to suggest that they play Magic at all!

Without many new players to join in, the Legacy community will slowly fade off and die. Needless to say, as long as cards keep on the rise as people keep netdecking more and more, players will buy less and less cards, and therefore will never build new decks nor risk their investments with new non net-decked ideas that could fail on tournaments.

As a matter of fact, the more tournaments I play, the more I realize how many people – even myself – rarely change their decks or play anything new. And even though you can find better deals on cards on websites such as MKM, their prices have still risen incredibly up to a point that many players cannot afford (or simply don’t want to) to switch decks much.

I love playing Magic, and I’ve been a hardcore fan ever since I started, but we must spot the elephant in the room. I feel Magic cards are not worth what they ask for. I fear there is a huge bubble around Magic cards that will one day burst. And as long as Wizards of the Coast doesn’t take any measures to avoid card prices from rising so rapidly (which at the moment they are far from doing well; see Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant in Modern Masters as the latest proof) the Magic: the Gathering community will eventually shrink.

This reminds me of the eternal discussion I’ve always read about on forums and Magic the Gathering websites in the Internet regarding Vintage. Many players talk about the need to encourage the use of proxies to allow the Vintage community to grow, but many others are against this. I get that Wizards of the Coast re-printing old cards will piss off many collectors and storeowners, but thinking only in the game itself, I’d rather let my expensive cards get cheaper so I can buy more of them, than letting them get very expensive and play the same cards every year (until a point that Force of Will is so damaged you can’t play it). Sure it would piss me if the BB Tundras I bought two weeks ago would drop in price, but I’d be happy to see how this encouraged more and more people to buy more and more cards and play newer and exciting decks.

I don’t really know the formula, but unless we all want to see our game die and wear off as time passes, Wizards of the Coast must do something to realistically lower the barrier of cost of entry to the game to increase the number of new young players that can grow with the game.

  • Nat

    This is interesting–a thoughtful, well-written article. I’d like to see more hard evidence, beyond personal observation, that the game is having difficulty attracting and keeping younger players, though. Seems like older players are likely to keep playing just because they’ve played for so many years and have since built up resources (money, time management) that allows them to continue. Maybe we (as Eternal players) just don’t see the younger crowd because we don’t play in the same circles?

  • dabio fozio

    I thank you for this article and, most of all, for the resounding honesty coming out of it. It takes guts to pose a question such as “Would you still consider playing Magic?” , although I find it a bit of hypocritical to post it on a platform full of “pimp” topics.

    Your thoughts are the same that lately I am experiencing about this game and about the vitious, money-driven circle it seems to have begun to go through.

    Your points are surely valid, but you seem to miss the most important one, which is the real elephant in the room: this game is part of a business.
    Wizards of the Coast has had the skill (or luck) in circa 2007 (Lorwyn era) to increase its client-base to a point where the demand has grown so high that prices starting to inflate was the natural consequence. Of course, they didn’t oppose at all to this; nor they will in the future, because frankly, would you care about your product having become inacessible to a small part of your customers as long as the others keep on cashing?

    The real problem beyond age-driven financial constraints (which isn’t the status quo, I live in Italy which is financially as precarious as Spain and yet the Magic scene is full of kids with a shitton of money from parents), to my eyes, is that money is becoming more and more a decisive factor in one’s success in the game. Certain cards are so good that you can’t possibly skip on them while deckbuilding: think of Liliana in Modern for black-based midrange, Dual lands for Legacy, and the latest hot card just spoiled for Standard.
    If you want to excell, you *must* have those cards; but if the latest asshole-designed blue rare from Commander which is stellar in Legacy gets sold at 35 euros each, some are cut out of it.
    Not only young players, but also habitueès which don’t have all that money will find difficulty in keeping up with the pace of such prices, resulting in both discouraging new players and forcing some of the already-present ones to leave because of.. “financial non-optimal avaiability?”

    This game is being more and more determined by whether or not you have the amount of money to afford the best. I think you’re right when predicting that such circle will lead to nothing but a general empoorment, bad external reputation and discouragement to join.

    The times of free-experimentation and general “timmyness” that you nostalgically remember are long gone.

  • I have to disagree.
    The price-point of Magic is off-putting, but there are plenty of ways around that. The least lucrative, but more enjoyable, way is cracking packs and Drafting. Sure, you may hit a money card every fifteen packs or something, but you’re still building up a pool of cards. My Standard deck was made by almost literally jamming a bunch of red cards together and then tossing in some land. I decided that I was not going to spend more than $5 per card on the deck, and so far I have a fairly decent RDW deck with Chandra’s Phoenix and Ash Zealot.
    And besides, Drafting is great fun! It’s practice for when the time comes to graduate and it builds up a pool of friends (the importance of which I will explain later).
    The less fun, more lucrative, but more time-consuming part is trading. Investing in a playset, watching the prices, and then selling when they go high. That involves studying the metagame of various countries, attempting to predict the cards that will be good, snatching up a ton, and then selling when everyone else catches on. A friend of mine (a contributor to this website) did just that. After years of doing this, he’s able to spend almost no money (at least money that he won’t get back) in building a deck by trading what he has. I explain simply, but it is a long, difficult process, but obviously worth it in the long run.
    The third less lucrative, less time-consuming, and slightly more fun way is having friends. Friends are a GREAT way to build a deck. That same friend I mentioned has helped me piece together two different Legacy decks. He’s given me discounts or out-and-out given me the cards I needed. I’ve still had to spend money (Wastelands, man), but that just takes patience.
    I suppose I understand the frustration if one expects to go to their first tournament shortly after he has decided to play, but if something’s worth doing, it’s worth waiting for.

  • Speaking as someone who has played on and off, but mostly on for the last 10 years, I wouldn’t start playing Magic, at least not competitively, nowadays. I’d play Commander and Casual with my friends at home. Legacy is insanely expensive nowadays, especially given the current economic situation in Europe and the USA. For example, I recently bought AoE2:HD on Steam for $5. I’ve already played almost 24 hours on it. I also bought Hitman: Absolution for $50 when it came out, and logged over 100 hours on it. The reality is that Magic is competing against many forms of cheaper entertainment. That spells doom, unfortunately, for formats like Legacy.

  • Alex

    I started playing during the first Mirrodin block when I was 8, I’m 18 now and even though I’ve been playing for so long, I can’t afford to really play any format competitively. I try to play standard, but especially right now with mutavaults being a necessity in (almost) every deck, it’s just dumb. Yeah, I can try to build some cheap homebrew, and even if it’s good for being a budget deck it still won’t win any events. It just sucks because I’ve devoted so much time and effort into this hobby with no reward. I didn’t have the money as a kid to buy packs and build up a collection and even though in the past couple years I’ve gotten a pretty good trade binder, I still don’t even have more that 300$ worth of trades in it. Even now, I have a job (that only pays minimum wage) and I still can’t afford to invest in it. I almost feel like quitting completely but I enjoy the game so much that there’s no way I could just drop it.

  • Raja479

    Being a relatively young and new player, of the age 16, I understand what you say, Cost is far too high for me to do anything competitive without dumping the limited resources I have (being jobless in the school season and having a girlfriend who takes priority). I try to play FNM and would like to move up from there, but lacking in anything that could compete with tier 1 decks, just having a single standard grixis control with an incomplete mana base, I can’t really move on. Eternal formats are even more terrifying. The only thing I would want to play is manaless dredge because it costs around 1/20th of a normal Legacy deck. Most friends I have also do not wish to empty their pockets on cards, and I am generally the most competitive in our little playgroup. I hope that my account contributes somewhat, but hey, I’m 16, who cares for my opinion?

    Aj Arriaga