So Many Insane Plays – The “So Do You Wear a Cape?” Book Review

Enthusiast Titus Chalk has authored a brilliant, page-turning history of Magic: The Gathering sprinkled with entertaining anecdotes, remarkably deep insights, and journalistic treasures. Chalk’s brisk narrative, brimming with behind-the-scenes stories that reflect painstaking investigatory work, traces the broad arc of Magic’s 20+ year history. Chalk sketches the development of the game, its unbridled growth, and the myriad debates and issues surrounding it, from the complaints of fundamentalist parents over the ‘demonic’ elements of the game, to the emergence of the Pro Tour (with its heroes and villains), the business of the game, from its initial financing to its sale to Hasbro (with Richard Garfield pocketing a cool $100 million, no less), to the growth of the secondary market, to the wrangling over the Reserved List. It’s all covered.

Beyond rote facts, Chalk brings the perspectives, tensions, and anxieties of the game’s designers and players into sharp focus. Chalk paints an intimate and revealing portrait of important figures, from Peter Adkinson and Jesper Myrors to Jon Finkel and Mark Justice. From salacious anecdotes of Wizards’ corporate retreats to tales of bullying and cheating in tournaments and beyond, Chalk illuminates the duet of shame and pride, the stigma of ‘nerdiness’ and the legitimacy of professional money, that the game’s players have uncomfortably toggled between since Magic’s inception. The recent bullying episode involving inappropriate photos of seated players at GP Richmond is a perfect coda to many of the themes and incidents discussed in the book, including the infamous Gizmodo rantings of Alyssa Bereznak that triggered communal-wide angst, yet was deftly handled by Jon Finkel. Chalk’s wide lens – bringing into view social controversies, business, and finance, makes for an accessible read to people who have no understanding of the game, but can appreciate its significance, attraction, and enduring power.

The narrative has a frenetic pace animated by the author’s ambitious journalism and a striking, but unusual prose. The author’s sometimes complex syntax is remarkably lucid. Moreover, Chalk’s sense of pacing and dramatic tension is responsible for a surprising number of page-turning moments. Gripping moments include the early stories of the game’s dramatic near stillbirth, as a late arrival of cards at GenCon 1993 threatened the game’s debut with a mountain of debt hanging over the fledging company, a janitor’s hard won investment that helped the start-up company, and the drunken and drug-induced spiral that doomed Mark Justice.

Encumbered with a quirky and obscuring title, this book is more than a great yarn or an assertion of legitimacy, although it is both. It is replete with deep insights about the game itself. One of the more daring connections is the assertions that Chalk advances about the significance of Magic in the development of the early Internet. Yet, his evidence at least partially sustains the seemingly dubious claims. To take by one example, as the daily headlines about MT Gox (formerly, one of the world’s leading Bitcoin exchanges) illustrates, Chalk points out that the company acquired its name from the eponymous game. The description of Wizards as a dot-com-era Silicon Valley start-up before Silicon Valley eventually ring true, as Chalk carefully relates the growing pains of Wizards of the Coast with those similarly faced by tech companies struggling to balance a creative environment with the realities of corporate demands.

Tucked into other pockets of the book are a number meaningful insights about the game. In one passage that prompted a second read, Chalk writes:

Magic could at times prove a frustratingly one-dimensional way of getting to know people. Of making “Magic friends” instead of genuine friends…Magic has at times made me feel more isolated rather than less, by accentuating my otherness and dangling a tantalizing, frustrating facsimile of friendship in front of me, which precisely because it is defined by only one thing – Magic – feels bereft of the richness I search out in my adult life. Of the variety I enjoy and want to enjoy with those around me…

The dualities of connection and isolation, of community and stigma, of “otherness” and yet belonging to something rich and meaningful, are brilliantly teased out of a nuanced narrative. I had never before recognized the paradoxical ways in which Magic can be so richly communal and yet strangely isolating.

Having authored a 10 year (thus far) history of the Type I/Vintage format, what I found most remarkable about Chalk’s narrative is his investigatory prowess. I’ve played the game since 1993, and I found new facts and anecdotes in every chapter. Chalk has interviewed countless people involved in the game’s history, including its founders. Chalk’s revelations about the development of the business side of the game, including the marvelous story of the artists who pioneered the look and feel of the game, is largely new territory for me, and I suspect will be for most Magic players.

A wide lens also means many details are obscured or missed with a cursory glance. Chalk glosses over many of the details of the game, perhaps rightly so, in order to craft a story comprehensible to non-Magic players. For that reason, this is the perfect book for friends or family who are curious about your hobby. Yet, it also means that many interesting aspects of the game’s history are omitted altogether.

The stories of the “Degenerate Era” and “Wild Magic” that preceded the standardization of the tournament game is an important tale that I cover in Chapter 1 of my History of Vintage series. While Chalk discusses the first Magic World Championship at GenCon in 1994, he overlooks the major tournaments that preceded it, including the enigmatic victory of Bo Bell at the first US Championship at Origins 1993. Given Chalk’s evident journalistic skills, I was disappointed that I would not learn more about the often unknown and extremely obscure early days of the tournament game that runs from late 1993 to mid-1994. These were months and days of bewildering change, with huge tournaments, rapid introduction of new expansion sets, and perpetual sense of discovery.

Similarly, Chalk’s book rarely delves into the brilliant breakthroughs in technology and strategic insight that shaped the game over time. The game’s strategic diversity and fascinating design insights remain almost entirely opaque to the reader, but this is perhaps a necessary tradeoff for keeping the narrative accessible to readers unfamiliar with the game’s mechanics. With the exception of a chapter on Brian Weissman and The Deck, no major strategic development is explored in any detail. For that reason, works like my History of Vintage serve as a wonderful and natural complement to Chalk’s book. As important as these matters are to those of us fascinated by the early game, they are understandably beyond the scope of the story Chalk seeks to tell.

Each chapter in So Do You Wear a Cape? focuses on a different aspect of the game within its two decade history. Yet, in this twenty-nine chapter book, there are, by my count, at least two chapters missing – two stories that would not only have fit seamlessly into Chalk’s narrative, but strengthened his thesis. The first is the proliferation of formats and ever-growing number of ways that Magic is experienced, and the second is the gradual aging of the average Magic player, and an inner exploration of what it means to play a game into middle age and beyond.

By framing his story as a community’s grasping for legitimacy, Chalk binds his tale too tightly to the Pro Tour. Chalk calls Magic “the greatest game ever,” and I agree with him, but he uncharacteristically circles and dances around the reason why. What gives Magic infinite replayability is not only its modular design, but the literally infinite formats that can be created as a vehicle for experiencing it. Magic is the only perennial game I can think of that has no ‘default’ or ‘standard’ way of playing it. This is the simple and critical fact that makes Magic so different from most other games. Chess, football, and even games like Monopoly can be played in many forms: tournament chess, correspondence chess, blitz chess, and so on. But each of those games has a ‘default’ or standard form, and then ‘variants.’ All Magic formats are “variants.” There is no format that constitutes a “majority” or even a “plurality” of the way that the game is played. There is no Magic format that is played by a majority of people the same way. The division of Magic into Constructed and Limited illustrates this, but the array of limited formats (Sealed deck, Solomon draft) and constructed formats reinforce it. Even rules change from two-headed giant, commander, etc. Although High School, College and Professional Football differ in many small ways, those differences are not nearly as radical as the difference, say, between Invasion Sealed Deck and Commander. The differences between Magic formats is enormous. A large part of the growth of Magic in the last 20 years has to do with the incredible array of ways in which the game can be played from Limited to Constructed, from Cube to Type 4, from Commander to Two-Headed Giant, multi-player casual to Bring Your Own Block. Magic has far more ways of being played and experiencing it than any other major game.

Without requiring his reader to have greater knowledge of the game, Chalk certainly could have conveyed a sense of the myriad ways in which the game is experienced. The story of Ben Bleiweiss’s Cube and Tom LaPille’s Cube, and eventual hiring by Wizards, would have made a compelling chapter and fit with his broader narrative. Likewise, these stories would have provided a descriptive tapestry beyond the Pro Tour and professional Magic, yet illustrated the many ways that the game is experienced and enjoyed. In the early years of the game, and I suspect still at most kitchen tables, multi-player was a dominant form, where friends gathered around to battle each other in group games. Chalk would have benefited from a story or tale that centered around these kinds of experiences, without needing to delve into the mechanics or description of format particularities.

By emphasizing the Pro Tour experience, Chalk not only submerges these more familiar forms of casual communal experience around Magic, but even omits the evolution of the many tournament forms. The old Masters series, Magic Invitational, and State Championships are omitted altogether. The author’s narrative brings in to focus so many aspects of Magic, but fails to really explore the deeper questions embedded in the narrative, such as why Wizards didn’t expand the Grand Prix experience earlier – or whether it should be made even more central. Wizards has acknowledged trying to foster a better balance between grassroots play and Professional level play, yet Chalk rarely critically inspects whether it has struck the right balance. Are 40 Grand Prix tournaments a year really enough for a global game? The StarCityGames series meets a demand for large scale, public tournaments that reflects a gap in the game’s organized play structure, which was weakened with the elimination of State championships organized by Wizards. Yet, Chalk does not cover these topics. As a result, the book does not explore adequately the growth of the game into various niches beyond card shops or larger tournaments associated with the professional circuit.

Chalk incisively inspects Magic’s persistent gender gap, and briefly notes the fact that there are now players playing Magic born after the game was created. Yet, what Chalk completely ignores the significance of the aging of the game. The average age of the Magic player has steadily risen, a trend especially prominent in Eternal formats. When I visited Wizards of the Coast, they featured on their walls a series of player profiles that inaccurately (from today’s perspective) described the life cycle of the Magic player.

The Magic community still has failed to grasp this critical insight, and yet it’s laid bare in Chalk’s own story: Magic is not only a game that could endure for decades if not centuries, but more importantly, it is a game that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. Wizards of the Coast’s own original supposition that players will eventually “quit” or “age out” on account of lifestyle changes or family or career is no longer valid. Magic is no longer a game largely reserved for teenagers or the collegiate-aged. As the Hall of Fame and Eternal formats both illustrate, players can continue to enjoy this game at a high level beyond one’s 20s or 30s, but into middle age and hopefully beyond. A business and service delivery model constructed around the opposite supposition has, I believe, been a contributory factor to adult-decisions to leave the game beyond. Unattractive, unappealing settings and travel and diet, combined with long and inconvenient hours and a demanding grind for constantly rotating formats is less appealing to career or work and family-oriented adults.

A model constructed for adults would recognize the desire for high-level competition, as Grand Prixs do, without needing to keep abreast of all of the constantly shifting metagame dynamics. With Limited and Eternal formats, players can play casually a couple of times a year, or can take long breaks from the game, and come back many years later. What the aging of the player means is as of yet not fully understood. But what I’ve believed for the last few years is that if Magic focuses as much on retention and re-entry as it does on new players, the game can grow beyond our wildest expectations.

While many players take breaks from the game because of life changes (career, family, etc.), and a good number will “quit” for those same reasons, a vast number of them will encounter opportunities to re-engage the game at some point. I’ve witnessed countless players “sell out” with the intent to quit, yet return a few (or even many) years later. After all, it takes as little as a set of draft packs or a sealed deck to get back in. Whether they get back into the game more fully depends on a number of factors, including whether the play environment is attractive to older adults, something Eternal tournament organizers have expertise in. New players need not replace older players, but add to them. When a model for tournaments and gaming that is structured around this recognition becomes fully embraced, then Magic will reach its full potential. And, as Chalk points out, Magic Online is a venue that offers older players prized flexibility while avoiding unappealing social environments. As Magic online improves as a player platform, it will contribute to, if not drive, growth at the older end of the player age spectrum.

In 2010, I predicted that “[t]here is no reason we couldn’t hit 5000 player GPs within a decade if Magic markets itself well.” With Grand Prix Las Vegas, we are almost there. The thrust of my article containing that prediction was that Magic had been inchoately marketed, and that Wizards and other TOs failed to recognize that there are players who aren’t hardcore PTQers, yet seek a fun, competitive tournament experience with potential to win real money. Had they done so, they could have made changes earlier that have only recently been implemented. Eternal formats cater to those players, but they aren’t the only demographic seeking that experience. Because it can cater to this crowd, and it is not hampered by the Reserved List, Modern has the potential to be huge.

Speaking of this, one of the key topics covered in this book is the Official Reprint Policy (commonly known as the Reserved List), and I thought Titus did about as good as job covering it as you can. He cites my prediction about the inevitable effect that the decision to strengthen the Reserved List would have on Legacy. As I wrote in 2010:

The fundamental problem for Legacy is dual lands.

Dual lands are to Legacy what Power 9 is to Vintage. You can enjoy the format without them but to compete in the long-run you will need them. Yet dual lands are quickly becoming unaffordable.

Dual lands which were about $20-40 per land for years have doubled in price in the last few months. By the end of 2010 it is not inconceivable that dual lands could each be approaching $100.

Those words weren’t prescient – they were common sense. Just a few months ago Underground Seas were hitting $200, and are now $300 at some popular online retailers. My prediction was bullseye dead-on in terms of my concerns about the effects the strengthened Reserved List would have on Legacy.

Dual lands are the fundamental building blocks of Legacy; you need them to compete in the long-run, to build anything other than mono-color decks. The price of Legacy is now rivaling what Vintage once was when SCG gave up on its Power Nine series. This is simply unsustainable in the long run. A broad based format can’t have a $3000 barrier to entry and continue to grow. You can still hold Legacy Grand Prixs and have decent attendance, but it’s not a growth format, and it won’t keep pace in the long run. That’s why Wizards made the concomitant decision to focus on Modern. Those plans have come into full bloom this year with the release of a Grand Prix schedule with six Modern Grand Prixs. Legacy finds itself in the same place that Vintage was five years ago, with a younger, sexier, and less expensive alternative knocking on the door.

Chalk’s narrative brings all of these issues, and many more, into focus. It is a story that allows the reader to reflect on the history of the game, the decisions made by and for it, and to contemplate its future trajectory. Magic is a game where critical decisions shaped the game at every point, from the choice to not change the backs of Arabian Night cards, the decision to separate Constructed Magic into two formats, to the decision to strengthen the Reserved List. These decisions have implications that unfold through time. So Do You Wear a Cape? is a book that I encourage every Magic player to read, not only because they should be aware of this history, which will undoubtedly enrich their experience of the game, but because it brings into view the pivotal decisions that have shaped the game and will continue to shape it. It is a participatory project for all of us. The history of the game illustrates the significance that the game holds in people’s lives, and the mere fact of the existence of this book itself is evidence of the mainstreaming of the game. I look forward to reading more books like this in the future.

This brings me to a final note. The idea of a book on Magic is oddly quaint. I’ve published nearly 400 articles on Magic: The Gathering in over 12 years of writing, and I’m proud to say that this is my first book review. As a game that came of age with the computer revolution, it is a game that quickly superseded print and fully arrived with the Internet. The rhythms of the metagame are matched only by the information flows of Internet writing. The production time frame of print has never meshed well with the two more important and fundamental forms of Magic writing, the tournament report and deck primer. For those reasons, most of the books about the game appeared in the first few years of its existence, as the three George Baxter books, the Mark Justice book, and a few others attest. Yet, in the last few years, book-length treatment has returned. Patrick Chapin has authored a pair of books, and I’ve done the same, along with a few other authors out there. Given the quantity of information, insights, stories, and the history now available on this game, the book-length treatment is a welcome return to early form.

I wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up Titus Chalk’s brilliant history of Magic: The Gathering, and share it with friends, family and loved-ones who may be curious about a game that occupies a special place in our lives.

Until next time,
Stephen Menendian

So Do You Wear A Cape? – The Unofficial Story of Magic: The Gathering is available from Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and all good e-booksellers.