For the last six months, I have been seriously considering retiring from the game of Magic. If you’ve read my column regularly for a few years, you might have sensed this. I did not want to discuss it until I understood why I felt that way. I love Magic too much to walk away, so I wanted to see if I could figure out what I was missing— if I could find some other way to continue playing the game.

The problem is this: I am a Spike, Tournament Grinder. I play Magic to prove myself. There is no venue for those of us who want to prove ourselves but don’t have time to play Magic for more than a few hours a week outside of tournaments. I play almost no Magic other than tournaments these days because they are the only form of Magic I enjoy, but outside of grinding Magic Online tournaments (which I hate) there is no way to pull yourself up to the Pro Tour level anymore.

I first discovered Magic in July of 1994. I was thirteen, and my two favorite hobbies were collecting baseball cards and playing video games like Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. Upon seeing Magic, I realized I had found something I loved more than both that replaced both. For the  competitive Spike, finding one thing to do in place of two different things is one of the greatest joys in life. It is a two-for-one. Magic is the ultimate two-for-one. Unfortunately, the game has progressed to the point where that isn’t good enough to win tournaments anymore.

Magic is expensive to make, and expensive to play well. That is its fatal flaw. Either it will overcome that, and enter the pantheon of eternal classic games, or it will die once enough people stop being willing to pay for it. Magic is very similar to no-limit poker, which is the only other game I love as much as Magic, but is one I rarely play. Spikes are the most price-conscious of the psychographics, because Spikes care about value. We feel insulted when we are lured into losing our money.

Dear Wizards of the Coast: Spikes don’t want to be Tournament Grinders. The ones who will tolerate the grind end up proving that they are the best, while those of us who will not eventually give up. It’s not because you have to be young to play Magic well. It’s because you have to be young or foolish to be a Spike and also be willing to waste your time grinding. Final Fantasy games figured this out decades ago, when they linked enemy encounters to the level of your party. Various e-sports have intelligent pairing systems for exactly this reason. Magic has nothing remotely of the sort, other than competitive leagues online, which are viciously competitive for the prizes available, and not worth the fun they provide. You can look at my account history to see what I mean.

Spikes also don’t want to play with banned cards. Spikes are the ones who demand that cards be banned, because those are cards that degenerate the game and ruin the competition. Perhaps R&D was joking when they designed Spike, Tournament Grinder, on the idea that the “real” reason Spikes argue for cards to be banned is so they can play them in their Commander decks. Maybe there are some Spikes who want to prove things like “I own a Beta Black Lotus” or “Reflector Mage would fail as a GDS3 submission” or “Skullclamp is effectively Time Vault, and neither are much fun to activate.”

I can’t imagine that a Spike designed this card. The real Spike card is Richard Garfield, Ph.D., as fellow Spike Rich Stein so wisely pointed out to me. Spike wants to prove things through the game, not have flashy experiences; nor particularly do Spikes enjoy playing combo decks where you tutor both pieces on turn one or two. Spikes want to be challenged. We found Spike, Tournament Grinder challenging for a couple hours or days, while we figured out the worst cards we could get with it, because those are the most fun. And then we forgot it existed. Rich is a silver-border-loving Spike, so I have to check with him because I’m a black-border-loving Spike. We’re on the same page.

Here’s one more thing about Spikes: they value their time highly, and they don’t play Magic unless they can prove things through the game. Magic Spikes tend to be very smart, because you probably can’t prove much by playing Magic: the Gathering if you aren’t. That doesn’t mean they are good technical players, or that they actually play in tournaments, or that they have any desire to do so. It does mean that they can tell when you don’t understand who they are, and they feel disrespected when they are intentionally or ignorantly misportrayed.

Magic sustains its supply of Spikes by constantly finding new ones, after it spits out the old and jaded. Almost all of us give up on the game once we realize it isn’t worth the effort anymore. If there’s nothing I can realistically prove that is worth proving, then Magic is pretty useless even though it looks cool and is fun to play. I love a lot of games, but I only have time to care about one at a time. How many Spikes play for decades? How many of them compete seriously for that long? People who play Magic for other reasons stick around longer, because the game is better at satisfying their desires. Spikes convert resources freely. We quit one game and move to another where the value is better. We are quitting Magic even though we don’t want to because tournaments aren’t worth the effort.

Spikes used to enjoy PTQs and Grand Prix, which are open to anyone who shows up and pays the entry fee and who isn’t banned by the DCI. This is where you go to prove yourself, regardless of skill. Not anymore. Now, the only Spike I know of who can play less than ten hours of Magic per week and still prove himself is Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. I don’t think Jon Finkel can anymore, which is why he has been struggling at Pro Tours recently. Luis Scott-Vargas might get there—we’ll see how he does this season. Who else can? Paul Rietzl? Tom Martell? Gaudenis Vidugiris? Paul Cheon? Shahar Shenhar? Jacob Wilson? Matt Sperling? Patrick Chapin? Gab Nassif? Alex Bertoncini?

That’s a problem. Spikes love Magic. Spikes think Magic is the best game in history. Spikes who quit playing Magic do so because they realize they were duped. Those Spikes have names like Matt Jones and Rich Stein and Jess Stirba—my friends and three of the most integral contributors to Hipsters of the Coast. They also have names like Hugh Kramer, Li Xu, Hunter Slaton, and Gabe Reale—friends who haven’t quit playing necessarily but wish they could convince themselves to play more. I can name them for days. By contrast, the number of people I have ever encouraged to play Magic is approximately zero. Only if they persist in the face of my advice to stay away will I show them how fun it can be.

The Brooklyn Team Draft League was made by Spikes for Spikes. That’s why we got players like Jon Finkel, Jamie Parke, Christian Calcano, Dan O’Mahoney-Schwartz, and others to play for a season or two despite them having nothing to prove to us. The league survived multiple leadership teams, but it did not survive tournaments becoming worthless. And guess what, my friendly draft group here in Denver, which includes various wonderful Spikes including Simone Aiken, hasn’t gotten together in months. I’d love to draft some Ixalan, or really anything, but I don’t think I can prove anything so I don’t. Maybe I’m proving how valuable this picture is, except it used to be more valuable before I sold most of my good stuff.

Many Spikes have known this for years. We call them women. R&D tried to depict them in the art, but they forgot to depict Spike in the rules text. If the card did things Spikes enjoyed, most Spikes wouldn’t spend time thinking about the art. If the goal was to depict a woman as Spike, the only thing that suggests this on the card is the name Spike. Even phyrexian mana is a false Spike mechanic. We pay two life because you let us, not because we want to. We want to win the tournament to prove it should be banned, so we do not have to play with it any more.

This is also why female Spikes leave the game more quickly, or never start playing in the first place. Being rude to a Spike is disrespectful. It makes us not want to be there. And furthermore, when male Spikes harass female Spikes, the men are discouraging their competition in a way that’s wrong but that they think they can get away with. Harassment is cheating.

Poker is not expensive to make, because it’s essentially already made. It stays “unsolvable” because the money to be made playing it encourages constant metagaming and innovation by brilliant minds. However, no-limit poker is the most expensive game to play because you use your money to manipulate the odds you get on your bets. The best no-limit poker players are either independently wealthy or are so obviously good that they can convince others to give them money to play with. The game remains popular because most people can enjoy it without being good, especially if they can afford to lose money doing it as a hobby. Most no-limit poker players don’t use their chips to buy the odds they want to get on their bets, because most people play poker to blow off steam or hang with friends rather than to prove something.

I play my best Magic and my best poker when I become singularly focused on proving something. Here’s an example, Grand Prix Philadelphia 2014, and my favorite Limited format, from back when tournaments were still inspiring enough for me to feel I could prove my worth through them. I learned quickly but understood only now why I finished this tournament at 10-5, in 105th place or whatever, and won nothing but wisdom. I didn’t realize what exactly I was proving. It wasn’t that Adam Jansen is worthy of being a Pro Tour regular while I am not. That has not been proven at all. But I did prove why R&D has struggled to design cards for the last year and had to ban so many and needed the advice of us Spikes, even the ones they don’t know exist. I’m glad I at least got to have this conversation with Ben Stark and Brian David-Marshall. BDM says hello, but not many tournament players do, at least not the ones who play at Pro Tours. They probably think they’re smarter than me, or understand Magic more deeply. I respectfully dissent.

While I used to believe that Magic was a cheaper hobby than poker, I now believe the opposite is true. It cost me a lot of money to learn this. I am now trying to save others from that expense.

What does it mean to be able to afford to play Magic? The greatest expense in Magic, both for design and for play, is time. Time is money, as they say, but that’s not exactly true. For example, I can afford to play poker as a hobby. I can fly to Las Vegas for a weekend and break even on my travel costs if I play poker for twenty hours. Sometimes I make a couple thousand dollars, and sometimes I lose a few hundred, but my travel expenses are just part of the rake. You can’t come close to breaking even on Magic tournaments anymore unless you can repeatedly post 12-3 finishes with two byes or fewer. And I do not think any Spike can do that without being either a true master of the game or dedicating a ton of time to prepare in the days leading into the event.

There was a period of time when it was affordable to fly to a grand prix based on the cash payouts, so long as you could hit 11-4 reliably. I trained myself to reach that point, and it was great. Even if I was losing money, I was not losing much, and I could justify that loss as “education expenses” to help prove myself later. Grand Prix are no longer fun because they are a huge waste of money to me, and I am being insulted by them. I think there are a lot of Spikes who know what I am talking about.

So why is this a problem that can be fixed as opposed to a structural flaw of the game? Because this hasn’t always been true, Magic has recovered when it faced extinction before, and I think I know what is causing it to wither. Spikes play to prove themselves. We go to tournaments to do this. We do this to seek out players who are at least as good as us, to compete against them, and prove that we are worthy. We don’t play Magic to socialize, and we don’t want to have to socialize to find a worthy opponent. Many Spikes enjoy socializing, but those Spikes (like me) prove themselves through competition to find friends instead of making friends the way most people do, I guess, by talking to them and stuff.

Right now, tournaments cost too much for Spikes to be willing to go to them, which makes Spikes less willing to go because there will be less Spikes in the tournaments if they do go. I canceled my plans to attend Grand Prix New Jersey at the last minute because I decided it was a waste of my time even if I lost the money I spent to book it. I managed to get back all but $200 of my sunk costs, and I decided I would pay $200 not to have to go to a grand prix.

Spikes have been saying that Ixalan limited sucks, or that Standard sucks, or Modern, or whatever format they prefer isn’t as fun anymore. It’s not because R&D has made worse Limited or Constructed environments. Those are better than ever now that they took our advice on some bans! I love all the games I play against other players at my level or higher. I just can’t find many of those games anymore, and the ones I can are too expensive to be worth playing even though playing them is one of my favorite ways to spend a weekend. Ixalan isn’t as great to draft as Hour of Devastation, but it’s nowhere near as bad as even the above-average draft formats of a decade ago or more. What’s changed is the joy Spikes get from tournaments. As that is the way Spikes most enjoy Magic, the fact they are not enjoying them is attributed to the card design when it is actually a lack of financial incentive to reward Spikes for their effort.

How can we fix this? Here are some suggestions that would help:

  1. Triple the size of the Pro Tour. If Spikes don’t believe they can play on the Pro Tour reliably enough to smooth their variance, they won’t bother. In the past, there were fewer capable and interested Spikes than slots in each PT. That is no longer true. Make more room.
  2. Make all Pro Tour qualifications last for a year instead of only one tournament. It is not worth the Sisyphean effort to qualify for a Pro Tour, only to go once and never get back unless you happen to be lucky in addition to prepared. Qualifying for the Pro Tour is too difficult unless you can play enough of them to roll pro points and stay on the train. Most Spikes aren’t on the train, and few of them can get onto it under the current qualification structures. Why have a pro tour at all if the people who do the right things can’t qualify?
  3. Make grand prix prizes two-tier or something. Maybe Pro Club players get higher appearance fees in lieu of byes, and the cash prizes are spread back down to at least all the 11-4s. As Owen Turtenwald has demonstrated, that is the bread-and-butter finish of a Spike. If that pays no cash prize, Spikes will stop playing. Pro Club players play GPs for the pro points, but only those players benefit much from pro points. For most Spikes, ten points for Bronze is a realistic goal, but the only reward—free qualification to a year of RPTQs—is easier to get through local PPTQs than traveling to grand prix.
  4. Make a second type of grand prix, one that rewards no pro points, only cash and PT invites. Make the cash prizes enough that Pro Club players won’t bother. In other words, bring back PTQs but make them multi-invite open events instead. Maybe instead of giving two byes at grand prix for accumulating enough planeswalker points, those PWPs could turn into qualifications to play in these new PTQ/GP events. That can keep the events more like the old WMCQs, and avoid needing to play so many rounds of Swiss. Maybe this would result in more Pro Tours, say eight a year, with a qualification getting you to the next two, but replacing the GP schedule we have now with regional PTQ/GP events.
  5. Stop “rewarding” Spikes with team tournaments. Unless you are on the train or intimate with those who are, you have approximately zero chance of winning anything in a team tournament. Forcing us to make teams for PPTQs isn’t going to change that even if we can actually win a team tournament that way. Gabe Reale, Hunter Slaton, and I cashed Grand Prix DC two summers ago. I got fired from my job in part for being there and telling a law firm partner I did not respect that I would get back to him on Monday after he waited until I was on my one day of vacation that month to try to give me work I asked him to give me a week prior. I have made plans and then canceled those plans for both GP Columbus (or Cleveland, whichever it was) and GP Providence during 2017. For the first, I was going to play with Brandon Nelson and Shawn Sloan. For the second, Dom Neitz and Derek Gallen. All of us agreed without real discussion, in two parallel moments, that the tournament was not worth the hassle of preparing for it. And we were right, and Magic is a worse game because we are too smart to accept being Spike, Tournament Grinder. And it has nothing to do with gender.

I quit playing Magic in 1996 because I didn’t even know there were competitive opportunities. I didn’t come back until 2010. And I’m a white guy who isn’t afraid to walk into a new store for the first time and register for a tournament. You wonder why women don’t have more tournament success? It’s because women Spikes are less able or willing to waste money or suffer insult to play the game they love. Instead, they choose not to love it, or not to play it even though they love it. And you know what? Me too.

Let me know when this starts to change. I have better things to do, like editing the wonderful writers at Hipsters of the Coast, and trying every combination of words I can find to try to convince people to demand better leadership everywhere, from Renton, Washinton to Washington, DC.

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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