The UK Magic Scene From A Cross Cultural Perspective
Since moving to the UK 4-5 years, I have been actively engaged with my local player group and one that has benefited greatly from a lot of dedication from our local store and a talented player pool, which I also suspect has managed to fuel each other. In addition, Magic: The Gathering has given me a reason to travel the country, make friends (judges and players alike) and have a lot of fun.
A recent article on Star City Games discussed the current UK Magic scene. I found this an interesting read based on my experiences establishing a Magic community in the Middle East and being intimately familiar with the Dutch scene. I have also spent several years coming to grip with the UK Magic: The Gathering scene, and how it often seems to undermine itself.
In this article I will try cover several reasons why the UK Magic does not do as well as many others. These ranged from geographic to lethargy to protectionism and size, so I felt it was worth reflecting on these from a cross cultural perspective. This will also be a starting point from which I will address a series of socio-psychological and strategic issues that affect Magic: The Gathering, mainly centring on an academic work in learning, team building and how to continuously develop both yourself and your Magic scene. So to start off with, I want to throw my two cents worth in on these discussions, based on observations from other countries.
I firmly believe that this country has in many ways struggled for its past success. While many other countries had far inferior infrastructure maybe even as recently as 10 years ago, they have invested heavily in order to catch up. In pure management terms, this is a classic case of second mover advantages, as they are able to learn from mistakes the UK made when first building its infrastructure. But now many have, and in so doing far surpassed the UK. Compare the trains in the Netherlands and the UK, and it becomes evident that UK’s first class is comparable at best with 2nd class on Dutch trains. Not only are the Dutch trains faster, more reliable, more spacious, newer, offering free internet, cheaper but it also offers connections throughout Europe, enabling players to easily travel both within and outside NL and so attend many more tournaments. In comparison trains around the South East are at best a nightmare, barely running if at all scheduled. A great example is Sunday’s where the UK seems almost to come to a standstill.
Let us not even discuss buses which stop running after 6:00 pm during week days. In short, infrastructure in this country is appalling. On the other hand, there was no recognizable transportation at all in Dubai, and we had to drive or taxi everywhere. So while infrastructure is a serious limitation, there is always the possibility of driving, especially when keeping in mind the grotesque price of the shoddy trains. Especially when we consider that well coordinated driving can be cheaper, faster, more reliable and more convenient. So, while I fully understand the challenges posed by the UK’s infrastructure, there are means by which to resolve this issue.
Another argument that has been put forward is that the challenge facing the UK Magic community is population. While it is certainly fair to suggest that America and Japan are larger, this is relatively speaking, where the story finishes. Germany and France are roughly equal in population and yet their results dwarf ours (even when accounting for Kai). Fine we may suggest that this is unfair comparison as especially Germanic countries, have a deeper appreciation of adult gaming than the UK.
Sadly this country views gaming as predominately a child’s domain and instead spends too much time drinking. This might explain the population argument but the fact is that the UK is unable to compete with the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium etc. For example my local Dutch gaming group has stacked up almost as many results as the UK combined, although being one of the less successful Dutch groups. I am however proud to say that 3 of my local UK group were in the UK top 16 of Nationals last year, not bad considering that we have a weekly turnout of about 25 players. For this reason I feel that size alone does not suffice to explain the variable results in player performances that the UK has recorded
A further reason suggested is lethargy, while it was initially presented as an unwillingness to travel, I would extend this to other areas as well. In the UK there seems to be a distinct desire to separate areas of our lives. In this respect, the home is very rarely visited by anyone other than close friends. It also means that social activities are divided amongst various social groups, so that drinking mates are different than work mates who are different than Magic mates.
In contrast, the Dutch Magic: The Gathering scene combines all these factors into one. The Dutch tend to go out, stay in, barbecues, etc with their local player group which allows for far more Magic testing, discussions, deck building, etc. As long as two people have a deck there is sure to be testing, whatever the other reason is for socializing including sitting in a bar. This also extends to playing Magic online, which makes it much easier to discuss draft picks, correct plays in games and provide tips on how to build sealed pools etc. It is funny, even in Dubai where we could easily have been arrested for playing Magic and stuck in a Dubai jail, one of the worst places imaginable, there was a much deeper sense of a camaraderie.
This sense of community extends to hospitality, as a UK friend of mine experienced. We had set off to PT Amsterdam, no room booked and only transportation arranged. While he was concerned about sleeping arrangements, I gave him my word that no matter what we crash somewhere that night for free. As we were leaving the venue with a close Dutch friend, we bumped into another Dutch friend who offered us a lift home.
While driving, the plans were forged that we would spend the weekend at his place, just as I had anticipated. This is certainly not the first time this has happened and I imaging it will not be the last, considering we have GP Amsterdam coming up later this year. If we place this in context, my UK friend who had not met any of the Dutch players before was invited to spend the entire weekend, bed and board included, without any request for payment. While in comparison in the UK, I have only twice been invited to a player’s home. This spills over into many other areas as well, which makes their scene so much more successful. Funny when you consider that they are famous for ‘Going Dutch’.
This leads us into the final point, attitudes people have towards each other. While I was recently at the London GP, I was chilling with friends from the Dutch community. (Side note, it is noticeable both how much more organised and willing both the Dutch and Belgians were in coming to the event than UK players who lived 30 mins away by train) Before I knew it, I was chatting with Dutch Hall of Famers, getting their advice on deck building and drafting, being asked about my progress and generally joining in on friendly banter. Compare this with the UK,where even when travelling abroad there is little or no support for each other. Equally, most Dutch players have a close community throughout the country, irrespective of their local playing group. Which means that there are far more resources when travelling to, sharing cards, play testing, etc for tournaments especially large ones. Compare this with the UK and it paints a very different picture. It was noticeable for example that recognized players in the aforementioned article, did not deny their isolationist behaviour. In fact rather than seeking to address it, they seem to accept it as a status quo. Although I believe, this is now changing.
It is important to note that while I have generally highlighted why other countries have posted better performances, I do not think this is a one way street. Both the French and the Japanese player communities have seen important players banned, while the Germans, Swedish and the Dutch, seem to have struggled in developing new talent on par with their past. This also suggests that this might be a good time for the UK establish itself, learn from what others have done well and avoid the mistakes they made during their development.
The UK faces several challenges itself as force in Magic: The Gathering, while some are certainly not self-imposed however many others are. This suggests optimism that the UK community as whole can address its showing on GPs and PTs, and build on past performances. Many challenges underpinning the current UK performances are socially driven, which might be resolved by changing some of our current behaviours. For this the community as whole region, i.e. the UK, needs to be more supportive and open towards each other rather than merely focusing on their local playing communities.
It is noticeable that the Dutch, Japanese, Belgian and French etc. have very close player communities. Examples for developing this would include sharing deck building ideas across the board, closer support for new players at PTQ, NQ and GPT as well as FNM level, care for the wider community, more social interaction between different players, and more focus on integrating the UK Magic scene into our social lives, not just as a once a week get together. This is what we have mtgUK for. In short by copying the great examples already set by our judges who are increasingly recognized outside and inside the UK. They have for examples invested time in mentoring new judges, holding annual events and award ceremonies, recognizing good work and increasing their time through social events.
Other examples would be coordinating transportation from London to European GPs and PTs by hiring a coach, notification of players going to tournaments both abroad and at home to make group travel and board cheaper, easier and more fun, reducing costs by offering players a place to crash when travelling around the country, sharing card collections to make sure players, even outside your group, have the cards they need etc. There is even a dedicated forum on mtgUK for this. At the end of the day, whether the UK wishes to improve as players, a kin to great stride taken by our judges, (thank you DLS my favourite judge), is completely up to us as a community
PS: I would like to thank Kim for appreciating Francois’ efforts in helping the young player. As someone who was slandered in a recent Star City Games article, having explained that I suffered from Dyspraxia, I am grateful for any efforts to assist players with learning disabilities. Bear in mind the next time you play someone, they may face challenges you are unable to see.
Thanks for reading, and I love to hear your thoughts on the state of the UK Magic scene and what we can do to improve it.
David William Brannon