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We have a problem when it comes to the way Magic the Gathering products are reviewed and covered. The lines between retailer, reviewer and adviser are not so much blurred as non-existent. The most famous of these retailers turned editorial platforms are Star City Games and Channel Fireball who — outside of Wizards themselves — make up the bulk of Magic the Gathering content out there.

Advice of a Salesman

These sites do a lot of valuable and high-quality coverage, especially Channel Fireball who give excellent game play advice and really help players to understand limited and constructed environments. The way sets are “reviewed” is different than in almost any other kind of product review. I would go as far to say that none of what Star City Games or Channel Fireball offers is impartial consumer advice. They review cards within their limited and standard environments but this is mostly just to highlight the comparative power-level of individual cards and give game play advice and predictions.

flawed side 1There is this gaping hole I see in most Magic coverage where purchasing recommendations should be. They offer set reviews but they don’t give product reviews. Perhaps this closeness with Wizards is why they don’t feel confident giving out explicit, product review style purchasing advice. But whatever the reason, it simply isn’t done by the top sources of Magic content. It’s really quite rare to find somewhere that will give you a breakdown of just what the cards in something like an event deck are actually wroth. The product is often opened, shown off and some elements commented on, but the evaluation of how worthwhile a product is rarely makes an appearance. Born of the Gods, for example, was a very low-impact set that held little to no financial value. Whilst I personally found the set somewhat interesting as a casual player, buying the box was a giant waste of money as almost all of the rares and mythics could be picked up for pennies throughout all of the set’s life-cycle. This isn’t always apparent right away but it became obvious to many the set was just a financial and power-level stinker and this wasn’t being said. This is also true for pre-built decks that feature little or no useful cards for standard or modern formats.

The problem is structural: so much of the content Magic players consume is either run by, or sponsored by, these two massive card retailers. You can’t expect a retailer to give honest advice that would hurt sales or alienate their biggest supplier and that’s the biggest part of the problem from where I sit. The sheer dominance these two retailers have on coverage exacerbates this. This isn’t even about specific cases of wrongdoing; it’s about the realities of selling a product whilst covering a product and the pitfalls that come with that.

It’s like all of the coverage of videogames coming from Game Informer, who is owned by the retailer Gamestop. I’ve explained in my “Death of Games Journalism” series how this complete lack of independence coupled with a few eyebrow-raising review scores led to Game Informer being a less than trustworthy source of news to consumers.  Big gaming sites, with all their problems, at least have the illusion of separation between developers, retailers and those who shape coverage.  In Magic the Gathering there is no separation between salesman and journalist, between store and editorial, for some retailers. Imagine how much more suspicious you would be if IGN or Kotaku also directly sold games to people [Editors Note: Which is part of the reason why the FTC recently tightened guidelines on affiliate links]. That is the reality of the position of Channel Fireball, Star City Games and other retailers of Magic. There are very few independent voices loud enough to compete with these outlets and I don’t understand why that doesn’t deeply worry people. These places have become their own form of games media and should be held to the same standard as we hold all other entertainment media.

Benign Conflict of Interest?

The big card retailers not only benefit from selling singles and large volumes of sealed product. They also run large sanctioned organized play events. In doing so, they can’t help but be extremely close to Wizards of the Coast. Magic the Gathering is worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars to Hasbro, this isn’t some niche game anymore — it’s a huge international business. Finding impartial coverage is vital for making informed purchasing choices where products routinely run into the hundreds of dollars. Consumers with finite resources need to be protected from predatory practices and inferior products.

It’s very rare to see anyone on a large MtG focused website criticize Wizards of the Coast or give a negative opinion on a new product.  As an example, let’s look at coverage of a recent event, the packaging controversy for Modern Masters 2015. A lot of people had legitimate negative experiences with the set — not just limited to the packaging but extending to misprints and missing rares/foils. Both Star City Games and Channel Fireball were absolutely silent about this this issue whilst many independent voices were loudly decrying the poor launch of a supposedly premium product. But why would they inform readers about packaging errors? They were selling the dammed things — the more the better. This is just one example of the way being a retailer hamstrings editorial. This is a status quo most Magic players have become very used to but it deserves looking over with a critical eye.

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Hasbro is very conscious of their brand image and this feeds into the cautious nature of sites like Star City Games. So when apparent controversy hits, they need to think more about sales and brand image than they do about editorial integrity. Most of my harshest criticism is directed at Star City Games, whose exploitation of their unfairly advantageous place in the MtG market is well document and the subject of some resentment by many Magic players. Poor behavior from Star City Games writers has been par for the course this past year, from the comments made by Geordie Tait to the witch-hunt initiated by Drew Levin against player Zack Jess — an attack that culminated in a talented player being arbitrarily banned from competitive play (a subject which will doubtless be the focus of a future article). It seems that keeping Wizards — and by extension Hasbro- – happy is their main concern.

They give very little regard to the opinion and interests of the community, except when it has no obvious negative financial ramifications for them. The removal of the piece by Jim Davis demonstrates this editorial spinelessness; bowing to pressure from a mob is easy when it won’t affect the bottom line of your retail business. And make no mistake, I feel that retail business is orders of magnitude more important to them than the integrity of their coverage. I don’t know how many times I can say this; don’t trust Star City Games.

What’s the Solution?

Put quite simply: the solution to this problem is the emergence of more high-profile outlets that are completely independent from Wizards/Hasbro and to support and grow them as best we can.

flawed side 2The Professor at Tolarian Community College has done a heroic job of taking the mantle of actual consumer adviser on himself. He gives frank and honest advice about the financial realities of Magic the Gathering products. Many of us rely on his comprehensive reviews of Magic accessories as a guide for what to avoid and what to seek out, information hard to find outside of hit and miss forum posts and word of mouth. If we just relied on the big sources of MtG coverage then we would make most of our purchasing decisions nearly blind. Vigilant people in the community like MTG Lion have long been interrupting the product hype news cycle with uncomfortable truths.

I’ve made negative comments about the way crowdfunding can be misused in the past but it has been one of the only ways independent Magic the Gathering coverage has been grown and established. The high profile complete set reviews by Brad Nelson and Evan Erwin have moved away from being sponsored by Star City Games (although both of them are still affiliated with the company) to being sponsored by Patreon, as have some of Evan’s other shows. Another good source of of independent advice, The Mana Source, has also switched to a crowdfunding model.

We need more people to be able to call out bad products and highlight poor investments when it comes to Magic. This is a very finically taxing game for many players and making your money count is vital. Someone needs to be able to point out low-impact and low-value products. We need people calling a turd a turd. Higher profile independent voices have shouldered the burden of deilvering the advice we need to evaluate products correctly. Outside of our online peer-groups, if advice isn’t offered by one of these emerging voices then it can be very difficult to find a trustworthy source of information.

The lesson here is that putting your faith in the ability of retailers to impartially cover products they want to sell you is fundamentally flawed. These are businesses interested in selling as much product as humanly possible and you should never mistake them for you friends. You should never take what they say on blind faith. The opportunity for, and appearance of, impropriety should be greeted with the upmost suspicion, even outside of high-profile scandals. Whilst much of what they do is useful, it needs to be supplemented with truly impartial advice that plugs the gaping holes in what they don’t cover. As a consumer it is your job to protect yourself and it should be the job of the gaming press to help you make informed purchasing decisions. Magic the Gathering is no different from any other product or game in that regard.

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a terribly British man with a background in engineering. He writes long-form editorial content with analysis of gaming, games media and internet culture. He also does the occasional video game retrospective with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good measure. He also does most of our interviews for some reason, we have no idea why. A staunch supporter of free speech and consumer rights; skeptical of agenda driven media and suspicious of unaccoutable authority but always hopeful for change.