Wizards of the Coast’s hit card game Magic: the Gathering has been a fixture of local game stores since its launch in 1993. The game has remained popular for nearly 30 years, with players flocking to stores for each new set release. Lately, the game has been experiencing a massive surge in popularity due to its crossovers with other properties and its massively successful online app, Magic: the Gathering Arena.
Arena has brought in waves of new players over the past two years, but some players have suggested that it’s bleeding players out of the physical game. “Paper Magic,” which is what players call the tabletop version of the game, has suffered in recent years from the disappearance of its professional circuit, the Pro Tour.
Fans of professional Magic are in luck, however: the Pro Tour is coming back after several years off. The eSports scene of Arena replaced the Pro Tour starting in 2019, but after four years, the circuit will make its triumphant comeback in 2023. Crowds are piling back into local game stores to play Magic, and weekly events continue to draw new players who heard about the game online. Believe it or not, Magic is slowly taking over the world.
The Pro Tour Returns
Longtime Magic players have lamented the lack of paper events since the Pro Tour’s cancellation in 2019. Some players loved the Mythic Championship, the digital version of the game’s competitive scene. Wizards of the Coast sought to bring the game up to date with other eSports, showcasing their game alongside popular online games like Hearthstone and League of Legends.
Things got a bit confusing following the lockdowns in 2020. Paper Magic events were rebranded as the Players’ Tour, while Arena competitive play became “Mythic Invitationals.” This confusing series of shuffling events and rebranding efforts completely upended competitive play, alienating viewers and even confusing competitors.
Now, with the circuit’s return on the horizon, players are ready to see the game return to real tabletops. Wizards of the Coast aims to hold the first of three yearly Pro Tour events in early 2023 if health and safety guidelines allow large gatherings then. This will return competitive play to a familiar, established pattern that pros and fans alike remember from early competitions.
The new version of the Pro Tour will feed into the Magic World Championship. Players will be able to qualify for the circuit by performing well in Regional Championships or by earning Adjusted Match Points in other events. There will also be digital avenues to Pro Tour invites, such as winning events on MTG Arena or Magic: the Gathering Online.
Building a Community
In-person play at local game stores is a hallmark of tabletop gaming. Many players prefer to enjoy games like Magic at their favorite game store so they can meet with like-minded players and join an existing community of enthusiasts. While MTG Arena allows players to get games in whenever they want, it doesn’t offer the same community-building experience that paper Magic can.
The return of the Pro Tour is encouraging for paper Magic players because it indicates that Wizards of the Coast is aware of how important the physical scene is for the game. The laid-back, community-minded atmosphere of the paper version of the game is on strong display in the most popular physical format: Commander.
In the Commander format, players build a 100-card deck around a legendary creature. The game is played in a four-player free-for-all, making it a (typically) more casual environment than one-on-one contests. The format also relies heavily on variance, allowing players to only run one copy of each card. This encourages players to enjoy a wide variety of cards from across Magic’s long history instead of funneling players to a small pool of competitively viable staples.
Magic Embraces Wackiness
Magic has expanded its own borders recently by embracing its wackier side. The game long resisted calls from fans to “cross the streams” by introducing Dungeons and Dragons characters in the card game. Wizards of the Coast also publishes D&D, the world’s most popular tabletop role-playing game. However, for years, the two games occupied their own spheres despite their shared themes of spellcasting and fantasy beasts.
Wizards started eroding the tall wall between the two franchises in 2015 with the release of an official supplement for Dungeons and Dragons that allowed players to adventure in Zendikar, a Magic setting. The company followed this release with a series of sourcebooks allowing players to create characters in settings like Ravnica, Theros, and Strixhaven, bringing the worlds of Magic to RPG tables.
Finally, Magic officially acknowledged its sibling game with the 2021 set Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, a Standard-legal expansion that features characters from the popular Forgotten Realms setting. This was just the tip of the iceberg for the company’s looming crossover-heavy future, though, as Wizards embraces the wackiness of its nearly 30-year-old card game.
Crossovers with Other Fantasy Properties
The most straightforward crossovers Wizards has rolled out recently have been its collaborations with Dungeons and Dragons and its forthcoming Lord of the Rings set. The Lord of the Rings expansion will be the first set under the “Universes Beyond” imprint. This imprint will feature numerous crossover sets, which will be considered non-canon in the game’s overarching story.
Still, the promise of using Gandalf or Frodo in a friendly game of Magic is too enticing for most players to pass up. It’s also easy to see how the worlds of Lord of the Rings mesh with Magic: both are fantasy tales dominated by larger-than-life heroes and villains empowered with dark sorcery.
Wizards is also leaning into the popularity of the Forgotten Realms set by doubling down with a new expansion, Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate. This expansion will explore concepts first released in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, like the popular “Dungeon” mechanic. Battle for Baldur’s Gate will center around the fan-favorite Commander format, showing that Wizards of the Coast knows how important the casual format is.
These fantasy-themed crossovers are just the beginning. The long-running game has recently broken its long-held tradition of only featuring worlds with little or no technological advancement. The recently-released Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty expansion showcased a futuristic setting inspired by cyberpunk fiction and modern-day Japan.
Fantasy, Meet Sci-Fi
Magic’s recent fusion of sci-fi and fantasy, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, sees the game at its best. The set is a throwback to a divisive 2004 block, Kamigawa, a world based on Shinto mythology and heavy on bizarre-looking spirits. Neon Dynasty rehabilitates Kamigawa’s overriding weirdness by introducing a healthy dose of trope-heavy ninjas, samurai, and bleeding-edge hackers.
Fans of the original block love the throwback “Saga” enchantments that reference cards from the 2004 set. New players, or those who didn’t care for Kamigawa’s brand of unusual deep-cut Japanese mythology, will instead embrace the futuristic side of the setting.
Neon Dynasty is just a teaser of what’s coming for the long-running game, though. The upcoming Unfinity set, a tongue-in-cheek parody expansion, will feature a cosmic carnival and card art inspired by 1950s retro-futuristic pop art. This expansion sees the game doubling down on goofy in-jokes and presenting new twists on existing characters and concepts. Many fans are excited by the set’s trademark gimmick: a new series of full-art land-type cards that depict planets instead of fantasy landscapes.
Perhaps the most ambitious crossover on the horizon for Magic is the Warhammer 40,000 “Universes Beyond” set. This set will consist of four pre-constructed Commander decks that feature characters from the Warhammer 40,000 setting, a science-fantasy world dominated by grim depictions of the far future.
Warhammer 40,000 is best-known for its tabletop wargame, which features gorgeous miniatures and a deep backstory. Some Magic fans have expressed frustration with the slew of crossovers, with limited-time sets featuring pop culture properties like The Walking Dead and Stranger Things.
Some players also dislike how these limited-time sets, called Secret Lairs, present mechanically unique cards that are locked behind exclusive product releases. Others would prefer to use these cards without buying into existing television properties they don’t enjoy. However, others have noted that the “Universes Beyond” imprint simply allows for a fun new avenue to allow Wizards of the Coast to experiment with unusual card designs in settings that standard-legal Magic sets can’t use.
Magic Is More Popular Than Ever
There’s never been a better time to be a Magic player. The game’s huge emphasis on freedom and discovery allows newcomers to try their hand at editing their own powerful deck full of spells and monsters. The game has over 40 million players around the world and a reputation for having a welcoming and helpful community.
The game is currently enjoying an unbelievable surge in popularity. In 2020 alone, Magic earned 27% more money than it did in 2019. This was despite Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast’s parent company, earning 8% less than it did the previous year. Magic has already been around for nearly 30 years, and it’ll likely stick around for another 30 or more. Are you ready to dive into the world’s most popular trading card game?