Magic: The Gathering just celebrated its 15th anniversary. It’s awarded millions of dollars on it’s Pro Tour. But its greatest accomplishment was also its first: It launched an entirely new type of game, collectible card games (CCGs.) Mash the addictiveness of trading cards with the strategy and competitive spirit of chess and you’re certain to find something amazing.
There are three people who have built their reputations on the franchise. One is the head of its research and development team. The second is its champion, the name every competitive player knows. And the third is our story’s “villain.”
Mark Rosewater got a degree from Boston University before going on to pursue a career in television as a writer. He served as a staff writer for Roseanne and is even credited with two episodes. How, then, did he become the head of R&D for the granddaddy of all CCGs?
In 1994 Rosewater began doing some freelance work for Wizards of the Coast, the creators of Magic. Largely he came up with Magic puzzles that Wizards of the Coast ran in their monthly magazine, The Duelist. In 1996 he began working on Magic full time. He still consistently writes the longest column on the Magic: The Gathering website and shares insights into the R&D and design process.
While he joined Wizards in 1996, it wasn’t until 2003 that Rosewater ascended to the throne of Lead Designer and publicly took the helm of the game. His job, in his own words, is to make the game fun through a mixture of passion, energy, excitement and a bit of kookiness. He insisted on a joke in the latest block of cards revolving around goats. (It’s had little impact on the game, but he felt very strongly that it would enhance the game for a certain group of the game’s fans.) Only a person who is as deeply involved in the game and its community could take the risks that Rosewater has.
Regularly he tells his column’s readers that he is an avid follower of unofficial Magic writings elsewhere on the web. He strives to be the most connected and aware follower of the game out there. It is his livelihood, and if he doesn’t keep his finger on the community’s pulse, his job could be on the line.
Since he’s assumed the lead position, the game has taken several sharp turns in its development. These changes have been scrutinized and criticized, but so far they have turned out for the best. He’s always looking for new design spaces that the game can explore, never letting the game stagnate. In fact, he’s focused on continually pushing the evolution of the game and challenging the accepted limits of its mechanics.
Outside the Wizards of the Coast offices, there is a faithful throng of fans consumed by a desire to compete and win at Magic. In the mid ’90s, Wizards of the Coast launched the DCI, the Duelist Convocational International. The DCI is Wizards’ competitive play governing body, which manages their Pro Tour featuring over $1,000,000 in prizes annually.
Of those that have competed in the DCI’s Pro Tour, there is one name that everyone knows. Jon Finkel has been featured in Wired Magazine as recently as April of this year. He’s been interviewed on national TV and has made a name for himself as a competitive poker player. He’s also perhaps the most intelligent person you’ll ever meet.
His keen mind has made him the winningest player of Magic in its 15-year history. While another name sits atop the lifetime earnings list, Finkel has become the face of Magic, earning him the nickname “Jonny Magic.” He’s the incarnation of a pro Magic player: calm, collected and smart as hell.
Finkel won the first Pro Tour of this year, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, adding another title to the trophy case. He has 13 top-eight finishes at Pro Tour events; he’s been crowned World Champion; he led the U.S. team to victory at the annual Worlds event in 2000; he was among the first inducted to the game’s Hall of Fame. The list goes on.
Finkel is the Tiger Woods of Magic. His mere presence in an event demoralizes his competitors, pushing them further down the prize pool. He’s given amateur players someone to idolize and an example to follow. But he also stirs up the competitive field, which works in Wizards of the Coast’s favor: The more competitive the game, the more product they’ll sell because players will always be buying more cards.
There have always been those who questioned Magic‘s validity as a game of strategy. The randomness of shuffled decks leads some to believe it’s a game of chance. But Finkel’s dominance is undeniable proof that the game relies on skill and not luck.
If Jon Finkel is the hero of Magic, then Mike Long is its villain.
When Magic was still a nascent competitive game, Long was pushing the envelope of sportsmanship in his search for a competitive edge. His will to win led to some questionable tactics that branded him forever as a cheater, a mark which would keep him out of the inaugural class of the Magic Hall of Fame and possibly bar his induction permanently.
Long was among the best competitive players of his time, racking up four top-eight finishes and winning Pro Tour Paris in 1997, but that win wasn’t without controversy. At that event, he bluffed his opponent into conceding by representing that he had the game won and needed only to play it out, when in fact he could not possibly win the game. It’s not cheating to bluff in Magic, but Long’s victory was the most flagrant example of the tactic to date. Many players felt Long was thumbing his nose at the game.
Next year, it was the National Championships, and Mike was found to have a key card of his deck on his chair. He claimed it fell and was overlooked. It’s considered one of the most shocking cheating infractions of a high profile player.
But this sort of player has to exist for the health of the game. It’s that classic “good versus evil” scenario: When evil ceases to be, good starts looking less and less noble. Long’s actions stand in stark contrast to good “clean” players like Finkel who rely purely on their skill.
Long also has the ability to polarize the Magic community. When the Hall of Fame ballots were being counted, the community chattered continually about him and his role in the history of the Pro Tour. Those who supported him held their line and pushed back against those who derided him as a big-name cheater.
Long challenged the status quo and always pushed the envelope of competitiveness. That willingness to gain an advantage took him into questionable territory a few times, but his impact on the game remains undeniable. He challenged the institution and earned himself a place among the highest profile players of Magic‘s history.
Magic is, at its core, about change. The game undergoes a renaissance every few months with the release of each set, as new concepts and cards are introduced and the competitive formats continually evolve. But even with this constant shifting of the landscape, these three men all continue to impact the game with their drive, determination and passion.
Patrick Jarrett publishes a weekly video podcast about Magic the Gathering.