What’s good, Spirit Squad! Today we’re gonna talk about one of the most important hot-button topics in Magic: the Gathering and the culture surrounding our favorite game: accessibility.

So what’s with the title, are we not talking about Unfinity?

We are going to talk about Unfinity and mention a few other products like it, but we’re also going to talk on few factors tied into possibly Magic’s biggest problem: the fact it is NOT exactly the most accessible game out there. In fact, it’s one of the least, even if it is the most interesting game I’ve played in my 25+ years of competitive nerding.

(little baby Dre in 2002 having a great time and not really knowing the rules to Magic)

What I mean by this is that Magic does some of the least work in actively cultivating and growing its own community, of any game I’ve played. How many times, for example, have you seen someone describe Magic as nothing more than “that game some kids played at the lunch table when I was in school”, when you know that Magic is incredibly robust and full of fun and intricate challenges.

The game has more than 20,000 unique cards, multiple different ways to actually play the game, and there are tournaments across most of the world! So why don’t more people know about Magic and the value that such a rich game can bring to the world? There are a few reasons for this, and I think I may have some insight as to how to help overcome the game’s obstacles.

No one cares who Jace Beleren is.

Think about it: in all of the other collectible card games that exist right now on paper, there are some of the world’s most recognizable franchises attached to them.

  • Yu-Gi-Oh! has a hit anime, which gave people an instant way to become familiar with its universe and characters for zero investment other than sitting in front of your TV (slash iPad slash smartphone, but the show came out in like 2000 so those things didn’t exist when the show was new). Even though Yu-Gi-Oh! has a smaller footprint in the actual card game sphere in 2024 than it did in 2000, almost everyone you know knows the phrase “It’s Time to Duel!” or “You’ve Activated my Trap Card!”
  • Disney’s Lorcana has some of the most recognizable characters of all time. You can’t go anywhere in the world and expect people to not know who Mickey Mouse is. Even though the game is new, Lorcana has a lot more potential than Magic does based on character and brand recognition alone, and the fact that Lorcana is relatively simple to play certainly doesn’t hurt the mass appeal.
  • One Piece is literally one of the most popular pieces of media ever created. If you want a cool piece of trivia, the manga has literally outsold every written piece of media that isn’t named Superman or The Bible. If you include manga magazines, then One Piece outselling The Bible’s highest estimates isn’t even a stretch (😎), as it’s part of Shonen Jump.
  • Finally, we get to talk a bit about Pokémon, the world’s single most lucrative franchise. It needs no real introduction: between the video games, ultra-hit anime, and Pokémon Go, I would feel comfortable betting every single person reading this money that your oldest living relative knows the name Pikachu.

While it is true that Magic is still the best-selling collectible card game of all time, the brand recognition isn’t even in the same dimension as any of the above franchises. This tells us two things: that the game itself is an amazing product even after more than 30 years, and that there is a ton of untapped (ba-dum-tsh) potential.

OK, what do cartoons have to do with Magic?

Stay with me here: Magic has an extremely high entry barrier.

We know this, we “joke” about how just one deck can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But financial concerns aren’t the only barrier to playing Magic that would-be players have to overcome. Magic also requires you to have a lot of skills: reading comprehension, fluency in the English language, mathematics, problem solving, short-term memory, a relatively long attention span, and that’s just the short list. There’s also a social aspect to, well, the “Gathering” part of Magic: the Gathering, so you’d also need to have somewhat regular access to people who also both like Magic and want to be around you if you wanna play IRL games. This part applies to all games, but you can talk with just about anyone about Pokémon without having to care about the card game.

What cartoons like Disney’s and anime like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and One Piece do is provide would-be players a way to become interested in your franchise without any investment other than “sit in front of a screen for 20 minutes”. You don’t need to own a single Yu-Gi-Oh! card to watch a few episodes of the anime and learn a rudimentary version of the rules. By the time a player visits their local gaming store, that person is already able to be invested in the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise and can buy cards for their favorite archetype or character. In Magic, players can’t walk into a shop and ask for “the Jace deck I saw on the show”, but you can absolutely buy a deck based on Marik or Joey Wheeler.

That person who got into Yu-Gi-Oh! was able to become invested in the ‘verse for $0. The same player, if they were interested in learning about Magic, would have had to pay at least $40, 50 for a Commander or a Challenger deck. That’s a lot of money for a lot of people, especially children… you know, the target audience for these games, and that $40 minimum investment doesn’t even ensure that they end up knowing the rules to the game or have anyone to play with. The Yu-Gi-Oh player already has at least a very basic idea of the rules from having watched the show and can jam games as soon as they find even one other person who wants to play.

This isn’t to say Magic hasn’t tried.

To the credit of Wizards of the Coast, they have made some attempts at making Magic more marketable and approachable. There’s even supposed to be a Netflix show in the making!

Previously, they tried making self-aware sets like Unglued, Unhinged, Unstable, and now Unfinity, all of which are very fun sets filled with beautiful land arts, gag cards, and a generally much more laid-back and goofy experience than you’d normally get from a traditional game of Magic. Who doesn’t like bragging about that time they snuck a Cheatyface into play, right? The problem with these sets is that you already have to know about Magic to appreciate them, defeating the purpose of making the game more fun-looking and approachable.

The approach that is working, on the other hand, is Universes Beyond, the name given to the partnerships Magic has developed with other properties. Most recently, Magic has seen unprecedented levels of success and newsworthiness with the Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who sets, both of which were record-breaking smash hits. With both of these sets, Magic was able to get literally millions of eyes upon the game that would have otherwise never even looked in our general direction, and the fact that an A-list celebrity like Post Malone bought the 1-of-1 copy of The One Ring only served to bring more attention to Magic. If we can even approach this level of success with the upcoming sets involving Marvel Comics or Final Fantasy, the future of Magic will look incredibly bright.

So how does Magic continue this success?

I think the first thing I should say about this is that I don’t believe Magic is going anywhere anytime soon, and I don’t think the game is even close to being unsuccessful. But I do think that Magic could be even more successful. With that said, here are some steps I think Magic could benefit from:

  • A good, animated version of the Magic: the Gathering story. We are seeing a good start between news of a Netflix show and the various new-set trailers we’ve been seeing. But an average one won’t do. There’s a reason most of us have seen shows like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and One Piece but you’d be hard-pressed to find 5 people who have even heard of Magi-Nation or Medabots. There are over 50 books that tell the Magic: the Gathering story, and the fact that I, a content creator, can’t tell you much about the lore tells you just how little marketing has been done.
  • More kid-friendly ways to interact with the franchise. Maybe you’ve been playing for 20 years and don’t care about the characters, but now you have an 8-year-old kid who just isn’t gonna be able to read all of the words associated with Magic. There are exceptions, but “Bruvac the Grandolinquent” and “Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar” don’t exactly roll off the tongue. But if you could get that same kid a Tokidoki-style plushie of Ajani Goldmane or Chandra Nalaar, they’re gonna be a lot more likely to want to play the game Ajani’s a part of when they’re 12 or 13. You can find some third-party stuff on places like Amazon, but the fact that Magic doesn’t even have a Build-a-Bear line yet is wild to me.
  • Making the actual game more watchable. There are a few factors that play into making this realistic, but the end result is that if you don’t already know the rules to Magic and what most of the cards do, coverage is unwatchable. Magic: the Gathering Online has a dated and, honestly, ugly client. Magic: the Gathering Arena is a much more visually pleasing platform to watch, but that still doesn’t solve the issue of an audience not knowing what the cards do. Games like Pokémon and League of Legends are fun to watch because there’s always something happening and they’re action-packed, even if you don’t know all of what’s going on. Pokémon battles on the Switch, for example, have cute characters, dynamic animations, and everyone knows what a health or life bar is. So you can just click on a Pokémon video and generally have an idea of what’s going on. Part of Magic’s nature is that it involves unknown information, but steps can still be taken to make it more watchable.

As for my part, I’m going to keep an eye on Magic and its future, because I honestly believe this game has even more potential than anything we’ve seen so far. Here’s hoping that 2024 contains some of the positive elements I’ve listed, but until then I’ll see y’all on the next one!

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