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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.

https://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/flawed-header.pnghttps://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/flawed-header-150x150.pngJohn SweeneyOpinionTrading Card GamesTraditional GamesMagic The Gathering,MediaWe 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…
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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.