Emptying the Mana Pool

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In many ways, last Monday’s events were as predictable as the heel turn in the last episode of Game of Thrones. The foreshadowing was everywhere, starting with last year’s Silver Showcase and the general malaise that the competitive scene has felt towards the direction taken by the “esportsification” of Magic. In case you’re blessedly living under a rock, Gerry Thompson dropped out of the MPL, citing displeasure with the way Wizards of the Coast is treating its players, as well as their unwillingness to communicate, plan ahead, or even fully flesh out their new competitive ecosystem. Gerry and Yuuya Watanabe — recently suspended for cheating at the Mythic Championship in London — were then replaced with Jessica Estephan, a Grand Prix champion, and Savjz, a notable Hearthstone pro who has held the #1 Mythic slot on Arena.

All this has made many people very angry, sad, or just simply defeated. We’re going to talk about why, but first, let’s take a trip through the history of this dreadful discourse.

Who Framed Yuuya Watanabe?

Our story begins in the weeks following Yuuya’s shocking disqualification. The worldwide community considered him to be the paragon of good sportsmanship, and I, for one, appreciated his undying devotion to his anime waifu, Azusa Nakano. Yuuya was unceremoniously kicked out of a Top 8 finish on one of Magic’s biggest stages, and it seems like nobody really knew how to react. Personally, I was in disbelief, feeling that it was just as likely that an overzealous judge staff made a huge mistake than that my otaku idol betrayed the trust I had placed in him. Over the next few days, he claimed innocence, his sponsor backed him up, and then he incomprehensibly posted pictures of his obviously marked sleeves. At this point, it seemed like a closed case, but Cygames continued to suggest malpractice on the part of the judge staff.

This is where things started to get heated. You see, there’s always been some geographical tension hiding just beneath the surface of pro Magic. A group of American players would accuse a French or Portuguese player of cheating, and their local communities would come to their defense, accusing the American pros of racism. There was a time when the hegemony of American pros considered Japanese players to be less than clean, with notable cheaters like Katsuhiro Mori ostensibly proving their point. There’s always been underlying global resentment of this America-centric power structure in Magic, and it manifested itself again with this case, as a not-insignificant number of people chose to believe that not only was Yuuya innocent, but that he was set up.

Is there any merit to this conspiracy theory? Almost assuredly not, but the resentful sentiment behind it will be important for understanding the fallout of Monday’s fateful announcements. That said, subliminal racism exists everywhere, and there’s no doubt that the North American community judges foreign players poorly for explicitly race-related reasons. Look no further than last year’s Hall of Fame discourse, and specifically the accusations of cheating levied at Lee Shi Tian. Regardless of whether there was any basis to those accusations, the optics of a bunch of American pros accusing a popular Hong Kong player of cheating played out very poorly. Zen Takahashi explored this topic very well in a blog post:

Diversity and Representation

Diversity is good. Full stop. The contrarian opinions of reactionaries have no place in this conversation, and they must be discarded before we can move forward. It’s great to have access to the lived experiences of different people, because it enriches our culture as a whole. But what does diversity consist of in the context of a competitive card game, and more importantly, what is Wizards of the Coast’s role in influencing that diversity?

I’ve spent a fair share of my life playing Magic tournaments in convention centres around the continent, and so when I tell you that the archetypal Magic player in North America is a white man, know that I’m an expert on the matter. This can differ regionally, and has been steadily improving over time, but is still observably true. When coupled with the pervasive culture of toxicity in gaming as a whole, tournament Magic’s lack of diversity relative to society as a whole doesn’t look so hot to prospective shareholders. So while we can take it for granted that we, as players, want to see a wider range of people interested in this game we love, we also have to be aware that corporate America is increasingly enamored with the concept of diversity — but notably not much more than the concept.

Before we continue down this rabbit hole, we need to remind ourselves of the purpose of Wizards of the Coast: to generate revenue for Hasbro’s shareholders. While they might produce card and role playing games in order to do so, the goal of any publicly-traded company is to be as efficient as possible, as profitable as possible. We’ll come back to this later, but it is certainly in the interest of Wizards of the Coast to make their product appealing to as many demographics as possible, in order to sell it to as many people as possible.

Diversity is therefore in the interest of all involved parties, minus some angry nerds on Youtube, but is only occurring organically at a snail’s pace, at par with society as a whole becoming more welcoming and less, well — full of slurs. That means that we want to promote growth in diversity, and the most accepted way to do so is through increased representation of minority groups. WotC has been doing this for quite a while, making sure we know that Narset is neuroatypical, that Ashiok is non-binary, and so on and so forth. On Monday, they announced that they were taking this one step further, and actively inviting minority groups to the Magic Pro League and Arena Mythic Championships at an increased rate.

What is Meritocracy?

This made a lot of people feel a certain way, and unsure how to express themselves about a hot-button topic that’s very difficult to discuss. Wizards of the Coast has burned through a lot of good will as of late. Enfranchised players had spent the last six months watching the world of competitive Magic that they had grown to love taken away from them, replaced with a brave new world of esports, an elusive, opaque, and immensely valuable Magic Pro League. The pro scene in Magic has always had its faults, with goalposts moving year to year, and those goals being difficult to achieve in a game where all but the most dishonest players are subject to runs of bad luck. Despite this, it has always appeared to be a meritocratic system, where those who win the most, those who are the best players, will be rewarded.

Of course, as with everything, it’s never been that simple. Players from more remote geographical areas are disadvantaged, with flights to tournaments being prohibitively expensive from places like Brazil and Australia. Many countries have lower wages than the places where Magic events are predominantly held, making repeated travel to those places equally impossible. There’s always been a problem of accessibility, and on top of that, we have social factors at play. Remember how the American pros spent years convinced every Japanese player was a cheater? Surely those same pros wouldn’t then go and work with those Japanese players. This isn’t limited to race and geography — there’s always been a huge barrier to entry for non-male players. This topic has been discussed in depth before, but needless to say, pro Magic was only ever a meritocracy for those with the prerequisite privileges. Feel free to apply this same logic to society as a whole.

Notable good-take-haver Ross Merriam mirrors much of this sentiment and elaborates even further in his Twitter thread on the subject:


Regardless, the impression was that the Pro Players’ Club was built on merit, and thus that was the prevailing sentiment, incomplete as it may be. This was removed, and the top 32 players from a seemingly random point in time became the Magic Pro League. Confusing? Sure. Frustrating? Definitely, but still vaguely merit-based, as it was top players. Then, the Mythic Invitational was announced, featuring the MPL players, eight qualifier slots, and… a pile of discretionary invites used mostly on popular Twitch streamers. The largest Magic tournament to date, with invites going to people who certainly hadn’t put in the hours to qualify for the vaunted Pro Tour. There were some bad takes involved here, but the community generally agreed that this was a promotional event for Arena, and that it was only reasonable to include influencers in order to maximize hits. After all, the Pro Players’ Club and its meritocracy was still alive in well in the Mythic Championships and the Magic Pro League, was it not?

That illusion is now gone, and let me be the first to say, good riddance. Nothing in this god-forsaken world is based on merit, and so long as Jared Kushner is tasked with solving the Israel-Palestine conflict, we should stop pretending otherwise. That said, I still take issue with Monday’s developments, but for much different reasons. The first, more personal, and ultimately less important complaint, is that I love playing pro Magic and would like there to be a roadmap of some kind to participating in that. As of right now, it’s the MPL or bust, and it appears to be cannibalizing itself at a truly impressive rate. I unironically think it’s good that some of the players in the most visible tournaments in Magic esports are going to be women and minorities, and I don’t feel slighted in any way that this might make it more difficult for me, a white man, to take part in it. My identity grants me plenty of privileges in the Magic scene as is. But please tell me how to fight for one of the remaining slots.

I have another gripe with Monday’s announcement, however, and it’s a slightly more complex topic to cover.

Intersectionality

Alternatively, “diversity doesn’t mean only including diverse groups of people who are economically well-off in American society”. That just wouldn’t make for as punchy of a section header, you know?

Monday’s announcement was fairly explicit in its intent to promote specifically women as part of the push for diversity, but it really should go without saying that diversity consists of a lot more than just gender diversity. If we’re looking at the Mythic Invitational’s invite list for inspiration, we’re going to see a whole lot of white or white-passing women included, and so long as Cedric Phillips stays on the broadcast team, not quite as many black people. Now, it’s obviously good that they’re improving the gender diversity of the pro scene, but it’s just as obviously bad that they’re doing this while surreptitiously removing opportunities for people of colour and other minorities.

You see, travel awards were removed from Mythic Championship invites, replaced with a tawdry $500 prize. Who does this disadvantage the most? Is it the American grinder living near a Delta hub, with easy access to cheap flights to Richmond, or is it the Brazilian player unable to pay two grand for the privilege of losing money by attending the tournament? This decision from Wizards of the Coast flies in the face of their claim to care about diversity, as placing an increased economic burden on players will always take a greater toll on the economically disadvantaged, who are predominantly people of colour.

I explained earlier how diversity was in the interest of the corporation, but here we finally get to expose that interest as truly fraudulent. They have no interest in diversity as a matter of altruism, they only want to sell their product to the maximum number of profitable consumers. The product of Magic cards, and specifically the competitive Magic lifestyle, is a luxury good by design — just think about how much money you’ve spent on this game. When you keep this in mind, it’s easy to understand why this cynical marketing strategy only targets economically advantaged classes of people with their diversity. The corporation has no interest in encouraging people of colour to play Magic, because the economic system makes it so that people of colour aren’t as likely to be able to afford to play Magic as others.

This is a systemic issue, not one specific to Wizards of the Coast. Corporate America is acutely aware that performative diversity sells, and is eager to cash in wherever possible. I’m going to pivot back rather than go deep on this, but if you’re interested in exploring the topic further from a well-intentioned leftist perspective, I can’t recommend this hbomberguy video enough.

The Dreaded Discourse

Well, here we are. Once again, we’re faced with a contentious subject that we’re ill-equipped to discuss on Twitter, a website famous for its structural inability to provide a healthy discourse. I hope I was able to bring up some interesting questions and add some perspective to what’s been going on in the Magic community as of late without coming across as too much of an insufferable contrarian. If you work for Wizards of the Coast, and you’ve somehow made it this far without closing the window and adding my name to the Magic Online blacklist, please do me a favour and prove me wrong. Nothing would make me more happy than for things to be good, but that’s just not the way the winds seem to be blowing.

Oh, and one more thing. Be nice to people caught in the crossfire. Savjz is getting fire for admitting that he has little interest in playing paper Magic despite being in the MPL, and Jessica is a woman in a gaming community, so I can only imagine what she must be wading through. Save your hate for the economy that uses them as tools to create value for shareholders.