My musings on different political topics relevant to America today.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Magic: the Economic Gathering

Friday night I played the card game, "Magic the Gathering," at a comic book store.  If you ever played the Pokemon card game back in the day, then you pretty much can extrapolate from that how you play Magic.  However if you didn't, all you need to know is that its a card game in which players customize the cards in their deck then battle each other.  Much like playing Pokemon back in the day, what makes Magic fun is the community.  You can talk tactics and the pros and cons of your deck with several other ardent Magic enthusiasts.  Also like Pokemon back in the day, the community is large so you can always find events to go to and people to play against.

While playing Magic my friend mentioned that another game Warhammer 40k, was dying out.  He said that people were quitting the game because its too expensive, plus the ever shrinking community made it less appealing than Magic, whose community was growing.  He probably was over exaggerating his point, but afterward I checked online and the spirit of the two communities seems to justify his attitude.  Warhammer fans tend to be disillusioned at the company that makes the game, and continually complain about how expensive it is.  Meanwhile Magic fans are more like rock star groupies, endlessly fawning over how awesome the game is.

This comparison made me question why Warhammer was failing lately while Magic keeps growing.  Warhammer more or less fits the conventional wisdom that physical gaming will be taken over by digital, while Magic seems to defy it.  There are three main factors in my mind that seem to be driving their divergent fortunes.   First, Magic better adapted to the digital age, preventing the exodus of younger players.  Second, the recent recession and its gut wrenching effects on middle class income destroyed demand for higher priced commodities.  Third, I believe that Magic the Gathering is what Economists would call, and don't take this the wrong way, an "inferior" good.  I will further explain in the third paragraph after this one.
What Warhammer 40k looks like...expensive.

In terms of digital adaptivity, Warhammer actually did adapt...but in a way detrimental to the physical game.  A Real Time Strategy game was released, "Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War," and it was very successful. 7 million copies of the game have been sold.  However the success probably came at the expense of the physical game.  In other words, instead of complementing the physical game it served as a substitute.  One, it did not take as much time.  In the physical game you had to customize your army and paint your pieces, which takes a huge time investment.  Meanwhile, in the digital game you are limited to only a fraction of the types of units in the physical game, plus all the "pieces" are already "painted."  Two, the game only cost around $50, while buying enough pieces to get started in the physical game, easily costs $200.  Thus instead of serving to draw people into the game, it probably drew potential younger fans away from the game, leaving only the most invested and hardcore Warhammerites in the fold.

Magic did not make the mistake Warhammer made when it released its digital version.  Part of this was unintentional.  None of the games that came out were smashing hits like "Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War," and therefore did not challenge the physical card game.  However one game did come out in 2002 that was a hit in the magic community, "Magic: the Gathering Online." (For more about games based off magic, check out this wikipedia page: Magic:_The_Gathering_video_games)  It was essentially an online format of the physical game.  In addition, people could buy digital versions of the cards online.  Since the format was the same as the physical game, and the costs and time involved was essentially the same, it served as a complement  rather than a substitute.  Releasing this version was a stroke of genius, because It opened the door for younger online gamers to get involved and they eventually became consumers for the physical game.

The recession also had a clear effect on physical gaming.  Since the recession gutted the middle class, the typical Warhammer gamer now had less income to spend on his super expensive army.  Since war hammer, like most collectible community based games, slowly fazes out older units and implements new rules that force you to buy new pieces to stay competitive, it became very difficult during the recession to stay up to date, leading many to quit the game.  In the comment section of this article  ( a commenter summed this up nicely:
prices need to come down. People aren't buying the products - increasing prices and putting out a high volume of too-expensive, badly designed (rules) product won't get more people buying.
Meanwhile, Magic is fairly cheap by comparison.  You would really only need $30 to get started, and even though it can be an expensive hobby, as some players spend hundreds of dollars on it, the decision to spend heavily is a free choice after you start playing.  As one commenter said in response to this nbc article (
Yes if you want to compete at the events you have to spend money, but if you have friends or groups in your area where people already have a ton of cards and are just looking for casual play that is a blast too. They'll usually be willing to share or have built multiple decks and loan them out at a get together to have more people to play. Just a search on places like Meetup and see what's in your area.
Meanwhile, in Warhammer, its  a prerequisite to playing.  The high barrier to entry prevented many from joining the Warhammer community, and since new expansions and new rules force even veteran players to buy new pieces, the barrier to entry is consistently reapplied to its members, new and old alike.  Combine the lower purchasing power that came with the recession with the high and constantly renewed barrier of entry that came with Warhammer, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Inferior and cheap...sounds like my type of game.
Lastly, the difference in the nature of the goods dealt the final blow.  Magic is, I believe, an "inferior" good.  By inferior I mean that its the Little Ceasar's of collectible gaming.  An inferior good that has demand for it increase as people's income declines because money the consumer's would have spent on higher end goods is spent on lower end cheaper goods instead.  Thus when the recession hit, many people decided to opt out of investing in Warhammer and other higher priced games like it and decided to take up Magic the Gathering instead.

Now this can all change.  Assuming middle class incomes are restored in the future, Warhammer may regain much of its lost following.  In addition Magic the Gathering may lose a lot of its following as gamers with boosted incomes decide to take up more expensive "higher end" games instead.  Nonetheless I don't believe this will likely happen unless Warhammer can change itself structurally to appeal more to younger gamers.  Its high barrier of entry prevents most new potential players from trying the game out.  In addition young players, without a complementary digital entry point, may not consider it for that reason as well.  Therefore I think even as the the middle class recovers (assuming it does) Magic's relative position, compared to Warhammer at least, will continue to remain strong.  


  1. Great analysis. A couple of your points are lacking some pieces though. Probably the most important is, in my opinion, why Magic the Gathering Online has seen so much success: the online game and the physical game are interchangeable. The online cards can be traded in to Wizards of the Coast for physical versions of the same cards. Also, MtG isn't like Pokémon, but the other way around. Magic was around long before Pokémon, and Wizards actually created the Pokémon trading card game to try and draw younger fans into the TCG scene. Cool stuff, though. My wife and I both have been on a recent MtG kick and have been playing nonstop. Nice to see we're not alone.

  2. Right right, I didn't fully understand how interchangeable the two games are so that is a very good point. And yes you are totally correct Pokemon copied off of it. I was more using that as a way to describe the game to people who haven't played the game. I started playing recently because I was given several decks by a guy that quit. However most of them are out of date so I will need to buy some more. Thanks for the comment its nice to get feedback on these posts.