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A Labour Revolt Inside ‘Magic: The Gathering’ is Tearing the Community Apart

Lawsuits and fights over fair pay threaten to derail tournaments.

by Bryson Masse
Apr 28 2016, 12:00pm

Image: Oliver Hallmann/Flickr

There's a war brewing in Magic: The Gathering. High-level players, and even tournament judges, are targeting the game's own publisher during their attack phase (ed. That's a Magic joke). Players feel that recent changes in how prizes are awarded have threatened the way they make a living: by playing cards. Meanwhile, tournament judges have banded together in two class action lawsuits, claiming they should be treated as company employees.

It all started after the recent invitational tournament in Madrid. On April 24, high-level players of the collectible card game, which combines complex strategy with goblins and dragons, were stunned to learn that Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary that publishes Magic, was making some big changes to their Pro Players Club. Participants at the highest level warned these changes would crush the professional scene and make it unsustainable.

These changes included a reduction of appearance fees at Pro Tour events from $3000 to $250. To counter this, the currently $50,000 grand prize would be boosted to $70,000 in 2016, and $100,000 in 2017. For angry players, the #paythepros hashtag became a rallying cry to get Wizards to reverse its decision. (Wizards declined to comment further.)

Players were so enraged by this that Wizards of the Coast has already reversed its decision. On April 26, it said it would maintain the current appearance fees for the season and still increase the prize amounts.

To those outside the Magic community, it might not seem like a big deal. But the 23-year-old card game—in which players use decks of cards to summon creatures or cast spells to defeat an opponent—pioneered tournaments that came to look like the emerging e-sport model. These tournaments helped Magic grow into a huge business that pulls in an estimated $250 million yearly, with 20 million players worldwide.

But, that business is under threat with the growth of competing games like Hearthstone and League of Legends. These newer games look to gain a piece of Magic's market share by leveraging the publicity of their high-stakes competitions and the personalities who play them.

Just this week, a documentary following the lives of prominent Magic players during a tournament season was released. Enter The Battlefield features the winner of the 2014 Magic World Championship, Shahar Shenhar, saying he quit college to pursue success at the game. Indeed, Wizards of the Coast would reward participants who achieved the best records with airfare, tournament invitations and appearance fees, which meant that players could focus on creating the most effective decks rather than working to pay their bills.

It isn't just players who are riled. Magic judges are up in arms, too.

In October and in April, two class-action lawsuits were brought against Wizards of the Coast by these tournament managers in California, who are arguably volunteers. (Magic says that fans choose to become judges "for the love of the game.") From the local comic book shop level to the world championships, these judges work to make events happen smoothly and fairly.

In the lawsuits, judges allege that they're essentially being treated as company employees, so they should be entitled to benefits, like meal breaks and overtime.

Lawyer Jeremy Byellin, who wrote an assessment of the case, says Wizards is unlikely to win. The company runs certification programs, provides uniforms and holds complete disciplinary power over judges, he notes, which begins to paint a picture much like another case, in which Uber drivers have claimed successfully to be employees in California.

With the exception of a few big tournaments, Wizards has countered, "Magic events are run by tournament organizers and local game stores who directly engage judges." A statement released by the company on April 20 calls the lawsuits "meritless."

But it's the high-profile players and judges who keep Magic: The Gathering interesting and relevant, just like its millions of players around the world. Wizards should realize that without them, they might kill the magic.