A Look Back at Magic: The Gathering’s Quarter-Century Anniversary

The year 2018 was notable for many 25th anniversaries in the geek world. In the world of visual media, it was 25 years since the debut of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine TV series and the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. Video gamers also first solved the puzzles in Myst and performed barrel rolls with Star Fox 25 years ago.

And in July 1993, players at the Origins Game Fair in Dallas, Texas, tapped lands for mana for the very first time with the debut of the collectible card game known as Magic: The Gathering. The game’s regular release that August was an immediate success, leading to stock shortages and the emergence of other card-based games aimed at board gamers and other geeky fantasy fans. As documented in this article in the New Yorker, in the nearly three decades since, Magic has experienced some low points and high points, and this past year wasn’t any different.

Minneapolis-based professional Magic player Gregory Orange (left) faced off against fellow professional Owen Turtenwald at Grand Prix Minneapolis 2016. Geeking Out About

The Low Points

From the professional Magic player’s standpoint, there were more negative announcements than positive ones. It seemed that publisher Wizards of the Coast didn’t learn its lesson two years ago when it attempted to decrease the appearance fees Pro Tour qualifying players received for their participation in the high-profile tournaments. Starting in August, Wizards announced several changes to the Pro Tour tournament structure. At first, there was a lot of excitement when DailyMTG.com content manager Blake Rasmussen wrote that instead of four Pro Tours in 2019 across the entire world, there would be three in North America, one in the UK, one in continental Europe, and one in Australia.

To balance out the increased opportunity for players to qualify for the those events, however, Rasmussen also revealed that that they would be inviting about 200 fewer players to those events, eliminating Pre- and Regional Pro Tour Qualifying events at local game stores, eliminating Nationals tournaments and the World Magic Cup tournament entirely, moving other tournaments away from the physical realm and into the digital one, and marking the 2018–2019 Pro season as the last to feature the Team Series of tournaments.

Another gaffe on Wizards’ part was the Silver Showcase event at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary, held at the Minneapolis Convention Center from August 3 to August 5. Eight professional players were invited to draft very old and potentially valuable cards from the Beta, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, and Legends expansion sets and play in a tournament for a top prize of $35,000, with four of those players being former Magic players who now play Hearthstone, a digital rival. As professional Magic player Gerry Thompson pointed out in a post on the r/magicTCG subreddit, while he normally would applaud the attempt to get some of those players’ fans to watch and play Magic, he and many others felt that highlighting an older, less flashy, and less interesting version of the game at the 25th anniversary event was a marketing disaster.

For casual fans, some of the products released last year were also very disappointing. In a review published by Tolarian Community College on YouTube, content creator Brian Lewis (“The Professor”) told his audience of approximately 410,000 subscribers—more than Wizards’ official YouTube channel has—that the new Commander decks for 2018 were not worth the increased MSRP of $39.99 because they were not strong enough to even compete with previously released preconstructed Commander decks. His conclusion early on in the video is that they are not a good value for someone who wants to get into the format but doesn’t know how to make their own deck, a claim that directly affected my own purchasing decisions when I bought my first Commander deck. (For the record, I got the Commander 2013 Mind Seize deck for a discounted price of $36.99 CDN at a game store in Toronto, Ontario; the very same factory-sealed deck retails from $50.00 to $70.00 USD at most respected online gaming stores and on Amazon.)

Players also felt some dissatisfaction with both of the Masters sets of cards that were released in 2018. “There were certain segments of the Magic community that [didn’t find] enough value [in the Masters 25 set],” fellow Twin Cities Geek contributor Michael Lee told me. “For a draft experience, I had fun.” Certainly, reprinting cards from over Magic’s 25 years of sets was a great basis for a product to be released in the anniversary year; however, the criticism was over how the cards that were reprinted in Masters 25 and in Ultimate Masters were considered not to be the best representatives from their sets or to be too expensive for a draft fan.

Even a new format that was introduced this year was panned. Content creators Josh Lee Kwai and Jimmy Wong initially had hopes for the single-card format, which was supposed to be an entryway into the Commander format—the focus of their podcast and vidcast, The Command Zone. However, because the rules of the format state that one can only use cards that are legal in the Standard format and the cards allowed in Standard change at least once a year, they felt that it didn’t make sense to brew Brawl decks, as any deck would only be valid for one year and then they wouldn’t be able to use the deck again. I think I disagree with this opinion because, having brewed a 60-card Brawl-style deck in Magic: The Gathering Arena and also turned a similarly sized Oathbreaker deck into a Commander-legal 100-card deck, I don’t think it’s that hard to transfer the ideas from the initial Brawl deck into the Commander format by using cards from the rest of your collection.

The High Points

On a general basis, more people appreciated the return of the Core Set. As head designer Mark Rosewater explained on the Wizards website in 2017, the R&D team realized that by removing that once-per-year basic set of Magic cards, it really wasn’t making things easier for new players to get into the game without a set that could introduce the basic card interactions or reprinting cards that had rotated out of Standard in a quantity that would satisfy the veteran players both mechanics-wise and lore-wise. Starting with Core Set 2019 in July, Wizards resumed the release of the Core Set, which came as a great relief to regular players.

For women who play Magic, 2018 was also a great year in that an Australian player became the very first woman to win the top spot at a Grand Prix. Jessica Estephan and her teammates Ryan Lewis-Jonns and Lachlan Saunders took the top prize at Grand Prix Sydney this year, which also marked the first time that a mixed-gender team won a high-profile Magic tournament. Estephan, who is two years younger than Magic itself, cited the way the game had been traditionally marketed as one of the reasons why there hadn’t been any female Grand Prix winners in the past 25 years. “The thing is, when women my age grew up, we weren’t really allowed to like ‘boy things,’” she told Forbes. “So if I started through my own independent will at 19, but my male counterparts have been playing and thinking about games since they were young, there’s a significant disadvantage there. Women are competitive, it’s just hard to compete at something your opponents have a 10-year head start at.”

I can’t finish off this section without mentioning how great 2018 has been for Minnesota Magic content creators and players. Maria Bartholdi and Meghan Wolff had been crushing it both in on-screen live coverage and blog coverage for Wizards of the Coast at Grand Prix events and making several Day 2 events as players, so it made sense that they have leveled up beyond being the “amateurs” they claimed to be in the name of their former podcast, Magic the Amateuring. In August, they rebranded themselves as Good Luck High Five, relaunched all of their content sites and social media, and already have over 600 people contributing to their Patreon.

Also at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary, the whole event was won by the Hot Sauce Games team, which included Minneapolis-based professional player Gregory Orange, who piloted a Standard White/Blue Control deck featuring four Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and a Torrential Gearhulk to victory for the team along with Ben Hull and Allen Wu. When the live-coverage team moved over to his table for Game 2 (starting here at 21:53), they recognized Orange as being a well-known Control player who countered and shut down his opponent Martin Jůza from Channel Fireball perfectly. This Pro Tour win and the rest of his winnings since 2012 mean that Orange has won over $65,000 playing Magic: The Gathering, and there are no signs of him stopping.

Personal Highlights

As for my personal high points, I’ve written at length about much I’ve enjoyed playing MTG Arena during the latter half of 2018. My enthusiasm for the closed and open beta was so great that I convinced a friend of mine in Canada who hadn’t played Magic in decades to sign up and play as well. To summarize what I’ve written previously, I think MTG Arena helped me feel more confident about how I play, and I can truly say that I played more Magic both online and in the physical world and purchased more cards and accessories in 2018 than I had since 2013. If my experience was anything like the average person’s response to playing Arena, then this is probably the best thing that happened for Magic in 2018.

Another part of what made playing Magic really fun for me this past year were two of the expansion sets that were released: Dominaria and Guilds of Ravnica. Dominaria was designed to both bring players who had stopped playing it a while ago back into the game while bringing newer players like me up to speed on the older lore, characters, and mechanics. The introduction of the Saga subtype of Enchantment was also interesting both from a gameplay perspective, because it was a new way of interacting with the cards, and in the artwork, which was so beautiful that it made you want to own the cards despite not having a deck for them. Guilds of Ravnica helped solidify for me how two-color decks are supposed to work. Despite this critical review of the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica on Amazon, playing the Ravnica-themed D&D one-shot adventure helped me gain a greater appreciation for the lore and the plane itself.

Conclusion

As I sit here in my office during the first weeks of 2019 and look around my office, there are several items on my bookshelves that illustrate how much I enjoyed playing Magic last year. I have all five of the freebie gifts from the Guilds of Ravnica preconstructed decks, two playmats and playmat tubes, two Commander decks in appropriately sized deck boxes, and two Standard decks (one of which I really need to tweak a lot). I even started buying individual Magic cards in order to beef up my decks.

Playing Magic more in 2018 was a hit to my wallet but a boost to my ability to get out of the house and make friends in my community. When I reflect on both the low points and the high points above, I can’t help but think that 2018 was a pretty good year for the casual Magic fan. Here’s hoping that 2019 can bring more of the same.

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