Nathaniel Holt is a filmmaker, actor and longtime player of fantasy-genre card game Magic: The Gathering, which launched in 1993 and has over 10 million players worldwide. In 2011, Holt and friend Shawn Kornhauser began making documentary videos about the game’s Pro Tour. Their resulting popularity on YouTube attracted the attention of Magic manufacturer Wizards of the Coast, who hired the duo to continue their series, Walking The Planes (WTP), and produce other video content for the company’s website and YouTube channel. Among those who have appeared on Walking the Planes is Magic’s head designer Mark Rosewater, in the episode “Called Shot”—during a comedic fantasy sequence wherein he plays for the Magic World Championship against Holt’s recurring WTP wizard character, “The Planeswalker.” The four largest Magic Pro Tour events of 2015 each feature a $250,000 pot, with $40,000 for first place, and competitive play reminiscent of poker tournaments that currently dominate the paper card game landscape. Yet Magic has carved out a popular (and profitable) piece of that market, in part, due to the value of the cards themselves, whose collectible rarity is closely controlled by Wizards of the Coast. The players who collect those cards take different approaches to their level of gaming competitiveness, and their various psychologies are explored in WTP episode “Spikes and Casuals.” I interviewed Holt in the wake of Vice’s May 2015 short video documentary, “Magic: The Gathering—Inside the World’s Most Played Trading Card Game," which focuses on the big money pro tournaments, but begins with a nod to the game’s more humble origins: Two players silently facing each other across a simple household card table, with one deploying Magic’s first famous rare card, The Shivan Dragon. Holt discussed that and other famous cards, the artists who decorate them, and the process that goes into creating the copy that appears on them – including recurring characters, evolving narratives, and changing styles. Moreover, we talked about Magic’s popularity as a tactile paper card game in an ever-evolving digital world where fantasy-loving youths are tempted by a vast variety of immersive videogame content.
On Vice’s Magic Report
I thought it was awesome. A little bit of me felt like, "Oh man, those guys are like more professional versions of me." The people making that, they're a legit media outfit. When we saw them at that Pro Tour, they had the same camera as us, but they had these insane lenses on the camera – just gigantic and beautiful. I asked Shawn, because we spend like $1,500 on a lens, “How much do you think those guys spend on those lenses?” Shawn was like, “I don't know, but I bet it'd be $10,000.” I was like, “No way.” So we go and we ask them, and just the lenses on the camera, not even the body or anything, $40,000 a piece. So they have a legit production budget, and a real team, and stuff like that, which made me kind of jealous. Shawn and I are basically a two-person team that sometimes asks for help from our friends. But [the Vice report] was really well-made. I think it was a real good blend of humor and exposition to introduce the game to people who aren't familiar with it. That's the kind of stuff that we usually do. We try to bridge the gap between the casual fan and the hardcore fan. I think they were trying to go even a step further, and reach out to the mainstream public. I thought they did a really good job with that.
On Magic Card Creation
My understanding of the way creative is structured at the company is that there are the game designers, and then there's the creative department, which is linked up with the art department. So Mark Rosewater is not really thinking about artwork, or flavor text, or anything like that. But he is focused on creating a game world where the cards that you're playing feel the way that they're supposed to play. So there could be a one-mana creature that's a 1/1, but it has Deathtouch, so that everything it touches dies. The way to represent that is with a diseased rat. It's small. You can kill it very easily. But if it bites you, you're dead. That's the kind of stuff that Mark thinks about – how to translate an in-game action to a flavorful experience that resonates. So a rat biting somebody, they die, and you have a game card that does that. Then it gets passed off after the design to creative, which will come up with the name for that rat. So Mark knows he wants it to be a rat, but they end up calling it Typhoid Rat. There have been many names for diseased rats throughout Magic history.
I'm just choosing one random example. I could talk about anything, but there's been Plague Rats, Typhoid Rats, Relentless Rats. There are rats that swarm, rather than do the disease touch thing. They multiply, and breed and stuff like that. Creative will then choose the name for it. They say “Okay, Typhoid Rat,” and then they’ll commission an artist. They don't have in-house artists. All of their stuff I believe is commissioned from freelancers. But they have relationships with a lot of them. They say “Okay, we know that Matt Stewart is great with rats, so we'll let him illustrate it.” They give them bullet points of certain things, like “Rat must be biting somebody,” and “Maybe there's a corpse in the background.” So they'll give them that direction, the artist will submit a few sketches, they'll choose one, and then they'll come back and give you the full painting. Most of the paintings are done with a digital pallet. But a lot of artists still work in traditional media, such as oil on canvas.
Then there's a whole other group, where the creative team will also come up with what's called the “flavor text” on the card. It'll be Typhoid Rat, rules text, one mana, one power, one toughness, Deathtouch. Then flavor text would be some one-liner, or a little thing like “Liliana used her rats only when desperate. If Garrick was hunting her, she would send her rats.” It would be something like that. So that's a very brief summary of the process of what it is to design a Magic card from beginning to end. Mark starts at the beginning, and passes it along down to those other teams to help fill in those details.
On Magic Flavor Text Style
I think it's fair to say that they've gone through different approaches to flavor text. When the game first came out back in the mid-'90s, they were all about using classical literature, with a lot Shakespeare quotes, Edgar Allan Poe quotes. You know, famous old dead writers who didn't have copyrighted work, who were like open source to just lift text straight from their thing. One of my favorite cards that I have from my childhood is this card called Karakas, and there's an Emily Dickinson poem quoted on it [“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,/ One clover, and a bee,/ And revery.”]. Then they moved away from that, and there was this era in the middle of Magic's period where it was all kind of what I would call the New Yorker caption contest style, where it was kind of snarky, quippy, little witty things. Or sometimes it would be very silly. It was pretty clear that the people writing the flavor text had access to the artwork, and were just trying to think of something funny. A simple example is there's this card called Gorilla Titan, and it's this gorilla, and he has his arms outstretched as though he's about to pound his chest. But the flavor text is, “I want a banana this big!” So there were some really cheeky flavor text writers, and it was clear that they were just doing it for laughs. I don't think that's what the artist painted thinking of that. But then they kind of moved away from that, and nowadays the flavor text is very much about the mythology of that particular world or set. That was kind of always the case, but now they're really focused on building characters.
One of their most famous characters is this wizard named Jace Beleren. So there is a card, Jace Beleren, and it's a powerful card. But then you'll see on the flavor text of other cards Jace referenced. Something like, “She looked in Jace's eyes, and soon her mind went completely blank.” Or there will be a card called Jace's Ingenuity, where the card isn't Jace, but the picture is of Jace. Then the flavor text is presumably Jace's subtext, or a line of dialogue where he says, [“Brute force can sometimes kick down a locked door, but knowledge is a skeleton key.”] You know, so that it has character to it, and you feel as though that character is saying that line. So I think that's where they come from now. I don't know how much of their flavor text is written in-house, versus through contractors. I believe it's a mix of both. Any of the readers that you have, they can probably send a whole bunch of submissions or something to Wizards. I don't know how much they pay if they use one of your things, but it's something people I know say, “Oh yeah, I tried. For three years I sent them submissions, and they finally took mine, and here's a magic card. It has my flavor text on it.” I don't know if it's a great income generator for people, but it is like this badge of honor, so that a lot of writers take it upon themselves to try to submit, and get their words immortalized on a Magic card for the rest of time.
On Magic Card Artists
Some of them have really stuck around. New ones come and go. There's some that haven't made art in years. But you can go to gatherer.wizards.com and do a search based on the artist, and you can get just a list of all of Jeff Miracola's cards, or all of Terese Nielsen's cards. So they do like to have loyalty to their contractors with their artists, as long as their artists are willing to meet the tasks that they're given, and to adhere to whatever style guides the art department wants for that particular set. I know that, say, Typhoid Rats was a card in a set called Innistrad, which is based in Gothic horror. So they wanted like German-looking houses, and forests, and full moons, and little castles and keeps. The Typhoid Rats were in some old dusty kitchen with a bunch of leaden pots and pans collecting dust in the background, so that it'd give the feel of Gothic horror.
Then the year before that, they'd done what I would call the Ridley Scott Alien block, where it's like the invasion of the Phyrexians, which are kind of like a mix between Aliens and the Borg from Star Trek. They're just going to come and take over everything. So everything took on a very different aesthetic for that – like real harsh photo-realistic things, so you could see the glimmer of light dripping off of the goo off the alien. They switch up the style a little bit from set to set, but fantasy art is kind of its own sub-genre of visual art that has its own parameters. [WOTC] do attract some of the best fantasy artists. It's generally considered a fun gig to work for Magic.
I have so much attachment to the old school cards from when I was kid. They resonate with me the most. So I really liked Ron Spencer and Mark Tedin. I don't think they paint anymore for WOTC. But cards like Terror, Demonic Hordes, Mindstab, Thrull Champion, they were kind of like black cards with really twisted gross things, or like a corpse shriveling. I liked black magic a lot, and I loved those guys' old school art. For today, I think Terese Nielsen does really interesting work. They kind of let her go outside of the style guide a little bit, just because she has this cult following where she can do more abstract pieces. Whereas I don't think they let a lot of artists have that free reign. I really miss the work of Rebecca Guay. She was a really great artist who painted primarily in watercolors, She was doing this great watercolor stuff, but at some point [WOTC] decided that they didn't like that look anymore, which I thought was really too bad. There's a lot of people like me who would like to see them hire her again. But if I had to go favorite of all time, I'll lock in and say Ron Spencer.
On Valuable Cards
[Shivan Dragon] is a very famous card. The Vice piece opens with this scene of two guys sitting at a table playing, and one of them plays a Shivan Dragon, and the other one kills it with a spell called Terror. Shivan Dragon is definitely a famous card. Pretty much any Magic player is going to know it – even players who are newer, because it has been reprinted a bunch of times. If Shivan Dragon was the most valuable card when you played, then you were playing very early on. Over time, Shivan Dragon quickly became much less valuable. Its value dropped a lot, as well as the other “money cards” from that time, like Lord of the Pit, Force of Nature. These were gigantic creatures. A Shivan Dragon was another gigantic creature. But as tournament play evolved, the hardcore competitive gamers discovered that large creatures were not a very effective strategy in tournament play. Rather, they were inefficient. They were very powerful if you got to cast them. But they required so much mana that it was more efficient to build a deck around cheaper spells. So the price of those cards dropped as they saw less tournament play. What really rose in price are lands. If you have any of the old lands that are like “tap for two different colors,” those are worth a lot now, hundreds of dollars each. Underground Sea is a land that taps for blue mana or black mana. Those cards quickly showed themselves as having such great utility across such a wide swath of decks. Shivan Dragon goes into a certain kind of red deck, but Underground Sea can go into any deck that is blue or black, whether it's a creature-based deck, or a spell-based deck, or an aggressive deck, or a controlling deck, or a mid-ranging deck. All of those decks really like those cards. That said, those cards are only legal in a very small number of tournaments. WOTC knows that they're very expensive, and very few players have them. So their approach is to let those people who have those cards and love those cards play them in what are called legacy tournaments, or vintage tournaments. They have a few of those every year, where the collectors who have all the old cards and want to play them can show up. But WOTC more aggressively pushes the newer formats where the barrier of entry, cost-wise, is lower. It also means people are buying the more recent sets. They're not in the business of selling the old cards that they don't print anymore. They're in the business of selling the new cards that they just freshly printed, and are trying to move off the shelves. Most of tournament play revolves around selling the new cards. But classics like Shivan Dragon, they'll reprint them every once in awhile. I think Shivan Dragon was in the Magic 2014 set, because it's a classic and people love playing with it. So they bring it back from time to time.
The lands I mentioned are very valuable, but the most valuable are this group of cards called “the power nine.” They are these nine cards that are considered the rarest, most powerful, most expensive cards of all time. Just off the top of my head, there are the five Moxen: Mox Emerald, Ruby, Sapphire, Jet, and Pearl—one for each to the five colors. That's a zero-mana artifact that taps for mana. Then the other four are Black Lotus, which is the most expensive rarest card of all time; Timetwister, Time Walk and Ancestral Recall. Basically, a few super-broken blue cards that were quickly banned from tournament play, because they were just so incredibly powerful that there was no point in not putting them in your deck, and not many people had them. So tournaments became uninteresting, because it was about who had those cards. If you didn't have them, then you weren't going to win, and there weren't many copies of it out. So they just banned those from tournament play, which of course only added to the allure of them as collectible items. “The cards so powerful that they had to be banned.” Nowadays, you can still play with them, but only in the vintage format, which is played very, very little. In Philadelphia once a year, they have a Vintage World Championship. There's probably only 300 players that play, but they come from all over the world, and they come with their vintage decks. Contrast that to the tournament we had in Vegas where there were 7500 people playing. So there's a big discrepancy. They're not really played all that much, because of how rare and expensive they are. But they do get a lot of attention based on the fact that they're like unicorns. They're these mythically rare special collector's items, and you can look up YouTube videos of a guy opening a pack, and getting a Black Lotus and freaking out. His hands are shaking, and he's screaming to his wife in the other room. That's the kind of thing that I think helps drive the mythology of Magic as a collector's card game.
On Less-valuable Magic Cards
Magic sets are printed on these big sheets, and then they're cut into individual cards, and they have what's called commons, uncommons and rares. So on the sheets, there will be a ton of copies of the commons, and these are the cards that end up being worth like $.10, or $.05, or $.02. They're worthless as collector's items, but they are still played in decks. But the sheer supply of them far outweighs the demand, such that they don't command any value on the secondary market. The uncommons, you can see ones that cost $1, or $2 or $5. Then rares cost anywhere from $1 up to $50, and in some cases $100. But the commons are just so ubiquitous that If you go to a tournament, and players are sitting around doing what's called a booster draft – where they crack open a bunch of new packs, build decks out of them and then play for prizes and whatnot – what they do with their commons afterwards is just throw them in the garbage. There are a lot of magic cards that get thrown in the garbage. There's certainly been some times where if I'm traveling, and I'm in a hotel room and leave behind a stack of worthless Magic cards that are worth like two cents a piece, and housekeeping will come and be like, “Oh sir, you forgot your Magic cards.” People hear the stories about Magic cards being worth $1,000. Then you say, “Oh yeah, sorry. I meant to throw that in the trash,” and they look at you like, “What? I saw this on YouTube,” or “I heard the NPR story. I thought these were worth a lot.” I know that they all look the same. They're all the same size. The artwork is just as cool on the commons as it is on the rares. But that's their business model. That's how they sell packs. They make desirable cards rare just so that more packs have to be opened in order to fulfill the demand that there is for those cards to see tournament play.
On Spikes Versus Casuals
Spike is just a competitive player, somebody who plays to win. That actually comes from Mark Rosewater. I believe it's a term that he coined. He kind of introduced to WOTC the idea that there were different “psychographics” – that different types of people buy the cards, as far as gamers go. So Timmys, Johnnys, and Spikes were how he broke it down. Spike is somebody who just wants to win. Doesn't care whether they're playing vampires or rats. Doesn't care if they're playing soldiers or goblins. Whatever the strongest deck is, they want to win. They're not in it so much for the social experience of sitting at a table and having a laugh and a beer with somebody, and playing whatever cards and, “Oh sorry, you wanted to tap your mana the other way? Go ahead and do that. Because we're just trying to have a fun game here.” No. I know they like to show up to tournaments where, if you tap your mana wrong, there's no takesies-backsies. You call a judge, and say, “Hey, sorry, this guy tapped his mana this way, and he tried to take it back.” And the judge will say, “All right, I’ll find out what happened, and make a ruling.” So a Spike is like the classic tournament player. Timmy is a player who is often identified as being like a young kid, or maybe an adult with the joie de vivre of a young kid, where they just like big epic things like “The Shivan Dragon! It's huge! It breathes fire! That's cool!” They don't really care if it's the most efficient deck possible. They just want to do something crazy, something big. They really focus on that as a way of having fun. Johnny is more of the creative deck builder who likes to be clever, likes to think of combos of cards that have never been thought of before. They really go in and do some archival research on what kind of Magic cards there are out there. Even if it's not a tournament, and it's just around your coffee table at home, and people are hanging out drinking a glass of wine or whatever, a Johnny loves to come with a deck that they have made that is original, and they're trying to impress people. They're trying to knock people's socks off, like, “Holy crap! I never thought about combining Soul Conduit with Shaman of Forgotten Ways. How did you discover that?” You know, it's an instant win combo, as long as you set up A, B, C and D. They're more into making unique creations, and winning that way. So those are three psychographics that Mark Rosewater identified.
So Spikes and Casuals is basically a simpler breakdown, where Spikes are competitive players and Casuals are casual players. Casuals don't care whether they win or not. They're in it more for the social experience of playing a game with friends. They'd rather cast the spells that they like to play, rather than the spells that they “should play.” They're less concerned with the “correct play” in a certain scenario, and more wanting to make the play they want to make, and have it tell a story. There's kind of a cultural divide there. There are some people who certainly can enjoy both. I've played in tournaments before. I've played in competitive settings before. So I find a little bit of each in myself, and I think a lot of Magic players do. But most Magic players could tell you what side of the spectrum they're on. I'm definitely more on the Casual side of the spectrum. I prefer to play at home with friends, and obviously the guys on the Pro Tour are very much the Spikes.
On Famous Spikes
Inarguably, there are two greatest players of all time, and I don't know who's number one and who's number two. That's something that people debate about. One of them is named Jon Finkel. He's still a very good elite level player. He's 37 years old now. He lives in New York, but he grew up in New Jersey. He has the most Top-8 appearances of any player ever at the Pro Tour. Top-8 is kind of like making the playoffs. In a lot of ways, making the playoffs is a better indicator of somebody's skill than actually winning the tournament, because there's so much luck involved. Making a Top-8 multiple times shows that you have a lot of skill, whereas it's very rare that people win Pro Tours multiple times in their career when you're at that high level. However the other guy, his name is Kai Budde. He was a guy who Top-8ed seven Pro Tours in a row, or something like that. He also won five of them. Something ridiculous. So who's better? Finkel had more long-term greatness in terms of accumulating stats over a long period of time, but Budde had a better peak. He had a two or three year run where he was unstoppable. His nickname is “The German Juggernaut.” So those two guys are the best players of all time. But as far as nowadays, the famous Magic players I guess would be like Brian Kibler, who's kind of like the handsome suave guy who's trying have a more mainstream look than your average basement-dwelling nerd. Luis Scott-Vargas is another super popular name in Magic. He was probably the best player in the world from 2008 to 2011. Nowadays, he creates a ton of content. He’s always making videos, podcasts, streaming stuff on Twitch, doing commentary in the booth at the Pro Tours. So he has a ton of visibility, and he also still plays at a high level. Those two guys I think are probably the most famous Magic players currently.
On the Art of Deck-building
Choosing the right deck for the tournament is very important. Now, it is very rare actually that these high level players will have created their own deck. Creating a deck and playing a deck are kind of considered two separate skills. So the people who are the best at creating decks are not usually the best players. It's very rare that somebody is extremely versatile as both a deck creator, and as a “pilot.” It's like “the guy who designs the F16 is not the guy who flies it” kind of a thing. But choosing the right deck is extremely important, because of the meta-game for any given tournament. That's part of what makes Magic interesting. You're expecting a certain number of people to show up with aggressive decks. You say, “Alright, this deck is pretty popular right now. So we don't want to lose to that deck. But there's also this other deck that plays a bunch of dragons that has a lot of late-game power. We don't want to lose to that deck either.” So you start thinking about choosing a deck, or making a deck that is expected to do well against the field, that's like a guessing game. You don't know what percentage of the field is going to play any given deck. You can only take your best guess based on the data that exists from previous tournaments. As for creating a deck, part of what makes the game so amazing is that it's very difficult to solve. I can't imagine an algorithm that could exist that would apply to any tournament ever. The game is always changing. It's always morphing. It might be that playing a bunch of creatures is good in this tournament, and bad in the next tournament. Different strategies call for different things. New cards are always being made that have effects that have never been studied before. So you try to weigh, “Well, now there's this new spell that kills two things at the same time, but only if I'm controlling a dragon. Is it worth playing a bunch of expensive dragons, so I can maximize the effectiveness of this spell?” There are always these new questions. So part of why I think some of the best minds in gaming are drawn to this game is because it is always changing. It's not solvable. There are certainly conventional wisdoms about building a deck and piloting a deck. But they're just that. They're conventional wisdoms. In the same way that basketball right now, it used to be just having the tallest guy was the best thing you could have on a basketball team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal – those are the most dominate players of their era. Nowadays, it's much more about three-point shooting. It's about the way defenses have changed, and the way shooters have changed. There's more of that. It could be that if basketball continues in that way, defenses could adjust to really defend the three-pointer, and then be vulnerable in the interior. In which case, the counterpunch is to then put a really tall guy on the team, and try to beat them like that. So there's kind of this cat and mouse game of strategies that evolve and change over time. But as far as the top guys and the famous Magic players, mainly what they're known for is piloting – making the in-game decision for how to win the battle.
On Rules Adjustments
There was a pretty significant rules change in 2009, where combat damage was taken off of the stack. Their mana burn was eliminated. Mana burn used to be this thing where if you tapped your lands, but you didn't use the mana, that you be dealt damage to yourself. They did away with that, as well as some other minor changes, and that definitely changed the way the game was played. It changed the way in-game strategy worked. It changed the way decks are designed. But also, just by the fact that Magic is printing new cards, every card has its own rules. Every card affects the rules of the game in its own unique way. The general principle is that there's all these rules to Magic that apply to all situations, but that they're all subservient to the rules changes that are on the card itself.
So normally, you play a creature, you're not allowed to attack with a creature the first turn it's in play. You have to wait. It has what's called summoning sickness. You have to wait until the next turn. However there's a whole bunch of cards that say your creature is unaffected by summoning sickness, go ahead and attack with it on the first turn. Or maybe the creature has that ability itself, or you have another card that grants your creatures that ability. So there are all these cards that end up breaking the rules, but that's the whole point of them. They are a magic spell that allows you to bend the rules of Magic. Those rules changes are always happening with the printing of every set every three months, because the cards have different rules text on them, and it takes the players a long time to figure out exactly how best to rearrange their strategies in order to accommodate the changes on the new cards.
On Paper Magic Vs. Video Games
I think that people like the in-person experience simply because it's an alternative to the digital gaming space. We all know what it's like to get stuck on your laptop too long, or to be hypnotized by your phone too long. There's no dearth of opportunities to waste time on a phone app playing some phone game. Sitting down with friends, or competitors, takes some time and arrangement, and it's kind of like a date that you set up. You mark it on your calendar, “Tournament in Atlantic City. April 30th” You look forward to it, and you show up and you do it. It's a kind of entertainment that's in person. Sort of like going to a concert, or getting sports tickets at the arena, only it's more participatory. It spurs your intellect more than the passive entertainment of, say, going to a movie. It’s a way for people to relate to one another.
Also, there's this stigma that exists that gamers – be it Magic: The Gathering, or video gamers – are often a little bit on the autism spectrum, maybe lack some social skills. One thing that's really been proven effective is that when people have a structured way to socialize, it makes things easier for those people than just going on a blind date, and having dinner, and trying to figure out what this person's turn-ons and turn-offs are. If they like Magic, and you like Magic, you show up. You have something in common, and then you're talking to somebody at a table over something that you enjoy, and you don't have to think about the next thing you say. You know what to do. You draw your card, you tap your mana, and you say you're going to cast a spell. You attack, and then the other person says, “I'll block like this, and I'll take three damage.” Then you write it down, and then it's their turn, and you go back and forth. It's fun, and by the end of it you've socialized with somebody. You've gotten to know them, and you can make a lot of friends that way.
People kind of treat the local game store like a bar. Rather than going having drinks and talking with strangers, you go and you play Magic and talk to strangers, and you make friends. Some people talk about playing in tournaments kind of like speed dating. The last tournament that I played in, I started out playing one guy who was really shy and really nice. Then a couple rounds later, I played against a guy who was fucking absolutely bat shit insane. I mean, he was talking to his cards. He screamed when he didn't draw the card he wanted, and kind of raged on it. I was like, “Oh, sorry.” He was like, “No, it's not your fault! It's my fucking deck! It sucks!” You really have this whole range of experiences over eight rounds of a tournament. In that sense, it's something that video games don't offer. They don't offer the in-person experience, or the social experience. I know that people can play multi-player games, or online, but it's different when you're actually sitting at a table and looking at somebody in the eye.
Interview by Christian Niedan
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.