Brick and mortar card and board game stores have hosted game nights for players of the popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering for over two decades since the game was first released in 1993. The game has evolved over time, and with it so have retailers. But now, a shift from exclusively cardboard, paper cards to digital play options could be contributing to a rift between traditional card stores and the MTG player base.
Magic: The Gathering Arena is a digital way to play Magic: The Gathering that launched in 2018. The app became available on mobile devices in May, and Guild House Games owner Danny Perez said he isn’t sure if the COVID-19 pandemic or the app has dealt the most damage to in-store player attendance.
Before the pandemic, Guild House Games would typically attract about 16 to 24 players for Friday Night Magic, a game night event where players draft new cards from packs and pit their impromptu decks against each other for prizes. During pre-release events, or events where players can crack packs of cards that haven’t been released yet, it was common for Guild House Games to bring in crowds of 40 to 50 players. These days, Perez said, anywhere from 20 players down to just eight players is common for a pre-release.
Magic: The Gathering offers multiple formats or ways to play. The “Standard” format is commonly played at Friday Night Magic events because it’s constantly changing. Every time a new card set is released, old cards are rotated out of the format to make way for the newest ones.
“Commander” is a different format where decks are constructed with at least 100 cards as opposed to the “Standard” deck size of at least 60 cards. The “Commander” format was popular for Guild House Games. Perez said that pre-pandemic, the store used to bring in 30 to 40 players on Thursdays and Saturdays when that format was hosted. Now, only eight to 12 players – 16 on a good day – come into Guild House Games to play “Commander.”
“I think that will pick up when winter rolls in but they (Arena) have Wednesday Night Commander, so you can build a commander deck right there (in the app),” he said.
So few people were showing up for Friday Night Magic that Perez canceled it altogether. When businesses started to ease out of the toughest pandemic-related restrictions and Perez decided to host in-store events again, at first, the store was receiving a decent amount of attendees.
Twenty-four players attended the first Friday Night Magic event at the shop since the pandemic took hold. But attendance quickly tapered off, he said.
“I thought that I could be more patient with it but we have people that drive in from Pagosa Springs, Farmington, Cortez to go to these things,” he said. “And then no one else would show up. It’s like, that’s just bad business.”
Perez said that it takes only a couple of canceled events to turn traveling players off from attempting to participate in in-store events.
Friday Night Magic works as a promotional tool for Wizards of the Coast as well as the stores that host it. The event usually features newly or recently released card sets, and players who perform well score points that they can put toward more card packs or entry into competitive events, namely tournaments.
But with the release of Magic: The Gathering Arena, players have less incentive to actually travel to physical stores. Not only does Magic Arena contain the same cards released in the newest sets, but it also offers those new cards earlier than retailers can host pre-release events.
By the time a pre-release comes around, Perez said players have already been playing that card set for one or two weeks.
“Then you have to wait a week (for the full release) ... and this whole time they’ve been playing it on Magic Arena,” he said. “By the time the set releases you’re already at least a month in.”
Perez said he thinks the players who use the Arena app get burned out on the game faster than those who have stuck with printed paper Magic. He said someone can play 10 games in Arena in the same amount of time it would take to play just three matches with paper cards.
Perez also thinks there’s less deck variety in Arena compared to in-store events. Despite Arena giving players potential access to most, if not all, cards printed back to at least September 2017, one will quickly begin encountering the same decks over and over again, he said.
“You see what they’re setting up (in the game) and it’s like, ‘Here it comes,’” Perez said. “Whenever you’re playing paper Magic, it’s not as easy to get all the cards. You see more variety in decks because people are going to experiment more, because they’re going to play with what they have.”
On Arena, players can simply cash in credits they’ve earned in-game to get the latest cards and create another deck.
Perez said, he remembers giving many callers promotional cards for the Arena app when it launched. Wizards of the Coast provided brick and mortar stores like Guild House Games with promotional codes for the Arena app that they could give out to players.
Perez remembers receiving a lot of calls about those promo codes, and he also remembers the faces of some of those callers because they used to attend in-store events, although they don’t anymore.
It’s not totally clear to Perez how much Magic Arena has affected the local player base’s in-store attendance versus the pandemic’s impact, but COVID-19 definitely affected Guild House Games in terms of merchandise stock.
Perez said he orders products in larger amounts than he used to because he anticipates shipping and delivery delays. He recalled when Wizards of the Coast sustained delays early into the pandemic because it wasn’t able to print cards on its projected schedule because of worker shortages. But shipping issues aside, he said the store remained in good shape throughout the pandemic.
“As you can tell, I planned well beyond Magic: The Gathering,” he said. “A lot of game stores are made up for Magic: The Gathering. ... Yes, I carry it. Yes, I support it. I put effort into it, I put thought into it. I mean, god, I give two, three, sometimes four or five events in the course of one week. But is that the backbone of my store? No.”
Perez tried out another pre-release in-store event Nov. 12 ahead of Magic: The Gathering’s Crimson Vow card set that was scheduled for full release Friday.