For years, the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering has allowed players become powerful wizards. These mighty Planeswalkers have duelled one another throughout the decades for fame and glory. But now, they have turned against their own creator. Wizards of the Coast, the game’s publisher, is under attack from pro players and tournament judges alike. And like all wars, it all comes down to money.
On the 24th of April, top-level players flocked to an invitational tournament in Madrid. There, they learned that Wizards of the Coast were making some drastic changes to the pro scene.
One of the most worrying for the players was that that Pro Tour appearance fees were being reduced from $3,000 to $250. An appearance fee is simply a cash incentive for the top players to show up and do their stuff. It ensures that they’ll still make a living without having to win every tournament going. Essentially, the vast majority of the pro scene stood to earn less than 10% than they do currently.
The fact that Wizards would be increasing their $50,000 prize pool to $70,000 in 2016 and $100,000 in 2017 did little to placate players. They took arms on Twitter with the #paythepros hashtag. They argued that this change would benefit only a few players while hamstringing most others. This would make the professional scene unsustainable in the long-term, as most players earn a living through the game.
Indeed, this was a hard point to argue, and so Wizards reversed their decision only 2 days later on the 26th of April. Appearance fees would remain the same, while the prize pool would still increase. This is far from the end of the story, however.
Last October, and now again in April, two class-action lawsuits were filed against Wizards by tournament managers in California. They, as well as many tournament judges, argue that they are treated unfairly by the publisher. And this is where things get a bit less clear-cut.
Most Magic judges are former players, and become so voluntarily. For the most part, they don’t earn a salary, and any cash they make is negotiated on a local level, ie. Individual tournaments, big and small, rather than as a company-wide policy. They are not Wizards employees, the publisher argues, and do what they do “for the love of the game”.
However, as Lawyer Jeremy Byellin points out, tournament judges are subject to certification programs, uniform regulations and can face disciplinary actions from the company. They are employees in all but name, and the fact that they are not reliably paid.
This ongoing conflict between judges and publisher may not be directly related to #paythepros, but the two parties have certainly sparked a fire in each other. Both of them stand firm in solidarity against Wizards of the Coast.
Unlike with #paythepros, Wizards are not so quick to change their policies here.
“Magic events are run by tournament organizers and local game stores who directly engage judges” they argue. They go on to say that the lawsuits are “meritless”.
Of course, if that is truly the case, then Wizards are effectively admitting that their game is not really in their hands. That it is judges and players, not them, that keeps the scene strong. If it's judges who are the lifeblood of the scene, Wizards shouldn’t look to dismiss them so readily. Time will tell what becomes of this eternal conflict. Will victory come to the Planeswalkers, or those who forged them? Or will the ravages of war cause Magic to crumble at its foundations, leading to the 23-year-old game’s ultimate demise?
One thing's for sure, with online collectible card games like Hearthstone gaining a lot of steam as a spectator sport, Wizards no longer have a monopoly to rely on. For most of its 23 years, Magic was, quite literally, the only game in town. But as times go forward, Wizards would do well to fix its rigid way of thinking.