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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.