It's easy to be pessimistic about the future of Magic (or of anything!) in September 2020. If you're a competitive player, your outlook is probably especially marred by the absolute erasure of Magic Organized Play's structure. On top of that Wizards of the Coast has already doubled down on its replacement, seemingly before determining if its core audience even cares about it. Despite innumerous bans in 2020, competitive play at every level is still dominated by cards that hit shelves (remember shelves?) in 2019.

COVID and the restrictions it imposes has forced tabletop play to take an indefinite hiatus. Its inevitable return is not only somewhere in the distant future but also feels pretty dubious. With one exception—last Friday morning at quarter after six in the morning, as a matter of fact—I personally haven't eaten a meal inside a restaurant since March. As much as I miss Magic tournaments (for whatever reason) I can't take on the kind of risk participating in a paper tournament entails with a clear conscience. I don't claim to be the arbiter of Magician risk tolerance but I don't think I'm the only one who's going to have a tough time with the calculus around whether or not to go to a Grand Prix, even post-vaccine.

A shift card in design philosophy that started with War of the Spark has resulted in a lot of cards getting banned, and the cards left from the FIRE era that haven't gotten banned yet are still having an outsized impact on metagames. To put that claim into perspective, here's a graph of all the cards to get trophies (5-0 a MTGO league) in Modern as of July 28 (provided by the inimitable @ajlvi), sorted by the year they were printed:

This distribution is what power creep looks like. 2019 and its ensuing calamities is its own discussion, but the tl;dr of it is that competitive players have borne witness to an unprecedented level of influence that recent cards have had across all formats, even the non-rotating ones.

Without marquee tabletop events on Twitch that largely serve as advertising for wildly complex organized play structures, the tentpole events have shifted towards Arena. Despite Arena's intended function as a way for Magic to seriously encroach on the esports space, the online events have demonstrably failed at getting players excited about Magic. It doesn't help that Standard, the only format Arena has been able to really showcase all year, has been solved every time a marquee tournament has put a magnifying glass on the format.

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With the sudden void in meaningful tournaments, it seems as though every card retailer, tournament organizer, and content creator is trying their hand at running a regular tournament series. As a result, Magic and deck access in general feels more fragmented than ever. Not that things weren't already trending in that direction; the creator-wide adoption of enclosed community tools like Discord and Patreon tend to compartmentalize communities despite their utility as engagement platforms.

The fragmentation is also top-down. The Pro and Rivals leagues are high-retention by design. The two leagues, especially the MPL, feel roped-off and unattainable. Those players play in their own metagames, removed from the ignominy of being required to climb the ladder. Because of this, the results of in-league play are largely irrelevant to everyone. Even the decks that come out of them aren't valuable to the player base at large because in-league play requires its own perspective on metagaming and deckbuilding. Weekend warriors don't even have a PT invite spike to hope for, not because Regional Players' Tours don't hold the same cachet, but because the best-case scenario result of the PT invite is an endless stream of Arena tournaments that at the end of which you are still highly unlikely to be a member of the MPL. The previous organized play structure likely selected for willingness+funds to travel more than anything else, but professional status still felt attainable there. There was enough plausible deniability to get by. The optics of the MPL, especially when viewed within the context of growing contemporary awareness of and dissatisfaction with systemic equity gaps, are at best undesirable.

Despite all of this, I'm bullish on the future of Magic. Without getting into too much detail, TCGplayer has been doing very well since March. Perhaps it's a result of being a marketplace amidst a sea of massive retailers; as large entities were forced to temporarily shut down, our network of smaller vendors was able to satisfy the influx of demand that supply suddenly couldn't meet. Perhaps it was an exceptional slate of releases since March—Ikoria, M21, Double Masters—that buoyed us through typically dreary summer months. Those are assumptions. The thing I can verify, though, is that TCGplayer is doing well.

Sol Ring has been our best-selling card for three out of the last five months (Shark Typhoon in May, Urza's Tower in August). My takeaway is that players are starting to realize that casual play will be the only tenable form of tabletop Magic for a while. Diving deeper into the top sellers from each month, the further we move away from April, the more we see a focus on the types of cards that typically only see casual play. I'm not giving away the top 10s here—they're in our email newsletters that go out at the beginning of each month—but casual cards are driving sales. The twist is that that isn't a recent development.

Every WotC misstep around Organized Play compounds. Together they take on an urgency and peril that, while likely fueled by bad-faith actors on social media who have figured out that scolding yields engagement, is also wholly avoidable. Magic Twitter feels compelling from within, with each calamity reverberating off of its walls till users move on to the next one, but there are business decisions in play here. Refusal to justify the business decisions to consumers is its own business decision. WotC doesn't need to be more transparent than it is; we can assume that the company would be more transparent if it was necessary.

It is rare that Twitter selects for the funniest, cleverest, most thoughtful people. More often the folks who grow their brand exclusively through Twitter have figured out how to game the platform. The tenets of marketing since time immemorial—manufactured urgency, calls for engagement, a strict adherence to a specific style—aren't something Twitter was privileged enough to get to avoid. The meta idea of Magic Twitter is most often maligned by its own participants ("this thing I opt into every second of every day SUCKS") because of this. Between the nature of Twitter and WotC's understandable disinclination to engage with a room full of bad-faith actors too meaningfully, every compounding WotC gaffe feels like the sky is falling, no doubt fueled by the mild, steady dread of living through a global pandemic.

Those are a bunch of reasons why Magic feels like it's dying. There are lots of reasons to have faith in Magic's future as well. The chief reason is that competitive Magic doesn't really impact Magic's bottom line too much in either direction.

For years it was easier for Magic content blogs to avoid discussion of casual Magic altogether because it was totally subjective. Since then, though, Commander has proven extremely adept at defragmenting the casual player base. From this perspective, competitive and casual players are on the same road going in opposite directions.

Commander's ruleset is weird enough to sell itself. Because of its constraints on deckbuilding and its multiplayer component, Commander gameplay doesn't get too repetitive, and once it does, buying one copy of each card for a deck feels far more palatable than buying four, even if the deck is 99 cards. Commander is pliable, scaling up, down, and sideways to accommodate players of every stripe. You can spend as much or as little as you want on a deck, and your friends can agree upon a baseline power level each deck should shoot for that you can iterate on as a group. Commander is the safety net in place to catch new players who get rules-lawyered or angle-shot out of their first FNM.

As much as it feels like a liability post-COVID, the tactile, in-person nature of Commander is one of its greatest attributes, especially when more and more games are going digital.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that Game Knights is the standard-bearer of Commander content. What Josh and Jimmy do really well is convey the joy Commander can facilitate, bringing on influencers of all kinds to play Commander with them.

Few tabletop games can match Magic's longevity, and each successive product release is an influx of new game pieces, meaning Magic gets the best of both worlds. Magic's relative stability also serves as its own reason to go as far down the rabbit hole as you like; the game pieces double as assets that can ostensibly be liquidated at your discretion.

Magic has been resting on the shoulders of casual players for longer than anyone could've guessed, and Commander is more than capable of bearing the load. Magic's not going anywhere. Competitive play is another story, but whatever its fate ends up being, Magic will be just fine.