The sound of two thousand people grabbing a card from a deck of sixty is like a breeze disturbing a forest in fall. This was the soundtrack to a weekend of Magic: The Gathering (MTG) in Detroit, where competitors from all over the country vied for prize money and pro standings in one of the trading card games’ many Grand Prix. This particular prix was different – behind the scenes, the on-site team from publisher Wizards of the Coast was nervous. They were attempting to give players in three locations around the globe an experience the company has never tried before.
Magic: The Gathering boasts that it is the world’s most popular trading card game. The numbers back it up. Since releasing the first set back in 1993, MTG now estimates that 20 million people around the world play with its physical (and recently digital) cards. If you’ve never heard of the game before, think of a trading card game somewhere between Risk and Pokémon. With thousands of cards at their disposal, players build decks filled with creatures and spells aiming to bring an opponent’s life total down to zero. Many are “kitchen table” players, who play with friends and family. Others are collectors, forgoing the game to focus instead on the world-class art.
Others still are competitors; players who build decks to win money and earn standing in professional tours. The Grand Prix in Detroit was just one of 54 such events happening this year, and while most of the attendees were battling it out, many were participating in Magic: The Gathering’s latest big risk.
Speaking with me in the bottom of a hotel adjacent to thousands of literally card-carrying geeks, Liz Lamb-Ferro, brand manager for Magic: The Gathering, was describing MTG’s latest undertaking. As the prix was going on, the company was releasing teasers for its latest set in the form of new card images. That’s been done for years. What was new were the puzzles, both physical and digital, presented to players to solve.
“We’ve never done something like this before,” says Lamb-Ferro. “This something that hasn’t been done in entertainment.”
Over the course of the weekend, fans were tasked with combining physical and digital clues in order to release the next preview card from the upcoming set, Shadows Over Innistrad. Popular YouTubers and Internet influencers were sent handcrafted boxes with clues to the digital puzzles (released on MTG’s social channels) inside. At the same time, during the Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia and Bologna, Italy, attendees were working their way through Shadows Over Innistrad-themed escape rooms. Each room was a location in the MTG lore, encouraging fans to dive deeper into the story. That’s exactly what MTG was hoping for.
“There’s been a mental shift to lore in the last few years,” Lamb-Ferro told me. MTG is a game with two decades of story, and Innistrad, the card block that set the stage for Shadows Over Innistrad, was one of the most popular tales. The 40-person line to get into Detroit’s temple-themed escape room attested to that.
A Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix is more like a microcosm of a pop culture convention like Comic-Con than an actual tournament. The cards of MTG are renowned for their art, and some of the artists are usually on hand, signing copies of cards and playmats. Official card vendors sell every MTG card you could ever want, displaying thousands of dollars worth of merchandise on the periphery of the thousands using those same cards at the tables. I sat down with a player known as “The Card Ogre,” who sold over $5,000 of MTG cards to a vendor. He told me he “wanted a new heater for his house.” He wasn’t there to play.
Cosplayers were also milling about, dressed as their favorite characters. Supportive but visibly bored girlfriends and boyfriends sat with their significant others as they tried to make it to the next round. The “kitchen table” players sat interspersed with the crowd of “grinders” as Lamb-Ferro called them, those who were there only to win. Everything came together in a sort of nerdy din, a dull roar of card drawing and judges clarifying and hands nervously shuffling.
The all-female team (a stark contrast to the makeup of the competitors) from Wizards of the Coast was nervously awaiting the end of the Grand Prix’s first day. Coordinating with thousands of people online and two other teams in two different time zones, they had successfully revealed all but the last (and most awaited) preview card. The card would be presented to the thousands of attendees after a select group sitting in the on-site escape room watched a reveal trailer.
After the trailer ended, a huge crash sounded behind those seated and a fantastically dressed cosplayer–dressed as an angel gone mad–slowly walked in. She gestured for us to follow her outside. As we emerged from the cathedral and in front of the rest of the Grand Prix gathered outside, many gasped. The cosplayer was dressed up as the character they were hoping would return–Avacyn, an incredibly powerful character created by one of Innistrad’s famous “planewalkers.” In Shadows Over Innistrad, Avacyn has gone mad, a development reflected in her card’s design. I could hear players collectively freaking out over the card’s double-sided design.
I could also hear the sighs of relief from the Wizards of the Coast team. Nineteen weeks of planning had just come together spectacularly.
Unveiling new cards like this was a huge risk. Magic: The Gathering gives players a few preview cards every time a new set looms, but the Wizards team wasn’t sure they would be enthusiastic enough to solve puzzles before getting them. And it didn’t all go smoothly. One online puzzle was hacked to reveal a card ahead of time, and it was “incredibly challenging” to coordinate online efforts with the on-site construction and implementation of the escape rooms. Even so, the fans responded overwhelmingly positively. Players still attempted to solve the puzzle that was hacked, fans in Japan were translating tweets so that stateside users could fit them into their puzzles. “We’ve never seen this kind of engagement,” Lamb-Ferro told me. “We plan new sets eight to ten months beforehand and we weren’t even close to gauging the positivity.”
For many, Magic: The Gathering is something like Dungeons & Dragons: a super geeky game that you know has been around forever, almost anachronistic in its design when compared to modern video games. To fans, it’s a challenging and engrossing game worthy of that comparison. And to Wizards of the Coast, Magic: The Gathering is a constantly evolving experiment that is setting the bar for what a trading card game can be.
Their latest experiment paid off.
Nerdist is excited to reveal an exclusive card from Shadows Over Innistrad, Wayward Disciple // Pious Evangel!
Check out the gallery below for more key art from SOI’s new Avacyn.
Kyle Hill is the science editor at Nerdist. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.