A Different World: What It Really Means To Grind Magic: The Gathering Online
On the weekend of Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 November, Magic the Gathering: Online (MTGO) had a couple of very high-profile, very bad days at the office.
First, Saturday’s MOCS Season 11 Championships failed to complete as a result of technical issues; then, to compound the issue, Sunday’s giant online PTQ suffered the same fate. In the aftermath, Worth Wollpert announced substantial changes to the menu of events which would be available on MTGO, including the suspension of all Daily and Premier events, while work was undertaken to improve the system.
A lot has been written about these problems.
I’m not going to weigh in on whether or not Wizards of the Coast were right to take the action they did, or criticise their software developers, or contend that it’s all Brian Kibler’s fault. I don’t know enough to make an informed comment about the first two points, and I don’t want to dignify the third point with any more airtime.
What I do want to talk about is the way in which my eyes were opened, in the hours following Worth’s announcement, about the true meaning of MTGO to some members of our community.
Just a game? That’s where you’re wrong.
The Bombshell drops
I first discovered WotC’s decision via this conversation in my Twitter feed:
As you might be able to tell from my reaction, this short string of messages was incredibly enlightening for me.
You see, I’d heard about ‘MTGO Grinders‘ in the past, but I hadn’t fully understood what the term represented.
For whatever reason, I had pictured them simply as dedicated players, building up a stock of prize packs and sharpening their game for a run at the GPs and PTQs in their area; or perhaps selling some of their winnings to make a bit of pocket money.
Here, I was being confronted with the idea that not only might a player make enough money to feed their kids through MTGO – but that in a heartbeat, their world had been turned upside-down by the queue changes.
As a Dad, this hit me very close to home.
I decided to find out as much as I could about what was going on.
Meet Carlos, the man behind _Batutinha_
If you follow Magic Online results, or if you read strategy articles that deal with the online metagame, you might well have come across the name _Batutinha_ before.
I’ve encountered his versions of strategies in many articles by American pros, frequently being touted as the baseline for a particular archetype – and I can usually see his screen-name adorning the player list in the Scheduled Events room on MTGO.
As much as one might be tempted to conclude from this that _Batutinha_ is an unstoppable Magic-playing robot from the future, he’s actually a 21-year-old gent from Rio de Janeiro called Carlos Alexandre – and he was kind enough to spend some time answering my numerous questions.
By reaching out to Carlos, I was able to start understanding the Grinder’s life in real terms.
Global Economics: A wake-up call
Initially, the hardest thing for me to understand about the Grinder’s lifestyle was the financial aspect.
How on earth could someone support a whole family from MTGO prizes? I asked myself.
Posting a 4-0 record in a Daily event wins 11 Booster packs, which might (conservatively) fetch $3 each in real-world currency.
There was a problem with my reasoning.
The same inequities of pay which hold true in the conventional labour market – and which incentivise European and North American companies to outsource functions of their business to regions where workers are more poorly paid – are also influential in the MTGO economy.
MTGO and other online economies offer the opportunity for players to overcome traditional, regional barriers to improving their rates of pay.
A virtual booster pack which can be sold as easily from Brazil as from the UK, at the same price, is a much more meaningful commodity for the Brazilian player because it represents more than two hours worth of entry-level work; the UK player can make the same return with a little under 20 minutes of graft.
As anyone who has ever been offered Gold for sale in World of Warcraft will attest, wage inequality provides more than enough incentive for players to dedicate themselves to harvesting value from a game.
The road to the grind
Of course, simply because it’s possible to turn a coin playing Magic doesn’t mean that everyone can do it.
I was particularly curious about how Carlos had moved from cracking his first booster to becoming a successful Grinder.
“A friend taught me Magic in High School,” he tells me,“but it was during a five-year spell at college that I noticed I was winning more online than I lost. I realised that I might be able to make some money that way.”
Borrowing cards from a friend, Carlos started to play Zendikar Block and Standard tournaments. “I didn’t have access to much of a collection,” he recalls. “I had to play with what was available. My first profits were immediately re-invested into my card pool.”
As success continued to flow, Carlos realised that his online profits were becoming a genuine income stream.
“At first, I realised I could support myself without help from my parents,” he says. “By the time I met my girlfriend, I had spent 18 months full-time on MTGO.”
Based on Carlos’ income from Magic, they went on to start a family together.
A day in the life of a Grinder
“I schedule 6 to 8 hours for sleep,” Carlos tells me, “then I’m awake and waiting for the next constructed Daily event.”
We’re discussing his routine. I want to understand the level of commitment it takes, in time alone, to do what he does.
How many events does he have to play to make a decent return, I ask?
“Every day, I play around 10 Daily events,” he replies.
There it is: a spectacular time investment.
At round lengths of 50 minutes, a Daily event can potentially run for close to three and a half hours. To participate in 10 will necessitate quick play and ‘double-queuing‘; this is to say nothing of the tight technical play and presence of mind required to achieve a winning record under such time constraints.
“The first priority for me is to end the day in profit,” Carlos explains. “There’s nothing worse than working for 12, 14 hours and still losing tickets.”
If it’s a good day, he tells me, he can easily make a target of $60-$80.
That’s quite a difference. I’m starting to understand why Carlos chose this life, but when I ask him about the benefits of being a Grinder, money doesn’t even enter the equation.
“To achieve happiness,” he writes, “work with what you love. I work with what I love.”
The impact of the queue changes
As our discussion turns to the new reality, with Daily Queues suspended, Carlos is understandably frustrated.
“How can I support a wife and two children playing 8-mans?” he asks.
“It’s impossible.” He tells me that 3-4 of his friends are in a similar position.
Many readers, like me, won’t have spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between MTGO’s various tournament options – but in the course of writing this article, I’ve discovered that they’re significant.
The first big difference is that Daily Events operate superior prize payouts.
For the same 6-ticket investment, a positive record in a Daily event will generate a better return than winning an 8-man tournament; a clean sweep will more than double the rewards on offer in an 8-man.
The second big difference is that Daily events operate swiss pairings.
In the world of Daily events, Carlos could lose his first match of the day and win his next three to claim a 6-pack prize.
Exactly the same pattern of results will see him knocked out of his first 8-man, obliging him to stump up another entry fee in order to win 5-packs in his second.
I ask Carlos how he’s going to make ends meet during the indefinite downtime.
“I’m already starting to play Poker,” he replies, “plus I’m writing and streaming for a website here in Brazil.”
It’s pretty clear to me that Carlos is no quitter, but he’s facing a big readjustment. When we talk about his hopes for the future, his answers are firmly focussed on going back to Magic.
“Frankly, I don’t know what we’ll end up with as a result of this situation,” he says, “but I hope it’s a better program with more events.”
I press him on the question of whether he’ll keep grinding. “I think so,” is his reply, although he seems uncertain. “I love Magic, but lately I’ve been disappointed, too.”
In the course of our discussions, I’ve come to see the uncertainty about when and if MTGO will resume larger tournaments as a giant issue, not just for Carlos and his family, but for the health of the online game.
All around us, digital card games like Hearthstone and Solforge are springing up, ready to challenge Magic’s previously accepted dominance. Grinders might not be inclined to flock to these games – but as less fully-invested Magic players jump ship, attracted by smooth gameplay, superior interfaces and plain old platform stability, there will be a knock-on effect for everyone involved in MTGO.
It’s clear that Wizards needs to address the swathe of problems which Magic Online has, but they find themselves between a rock an a hard place. Taking too long to give the players a program which is truly fit-for-purpose may deal as big a blow to player numbers as leaving their problems unchecked. It’s not a dilemma I envy.
As we sign off, Carlos is still hopeful: “I could say a lot of things, about how this game changed my life, about how I recognise that change is necessary and how we as players shouldn’t be afraid of it… I really believe that things can be different. What’s going on makes me sad, because MTGO has so much to offer when it’s back up and running.”
The dust settles
Since I first discussed the MTGO issue with Carlos, some optimistic noises have been emerging from WotC. In an update on 26 November, Worth Wollpert blogged that:
If this comes to pass, it will represent great news for Carlos and his fellow grinders – although Wollpert does state that the number and frequency of such events is as yet undecided. The sense of caution from WotC is palpable; even if it means taking a succession of baby steps, it seems they are determined not to suffer another high-profile meltdown.
The reinstatement of these queues won’t impact the way I play Magic a great deal, but I find myself disproportionately invested in their return. Perhaps it’s simply the case that I can’t unlearn what I’ve learned in these last few weeks; that I can’t help but see Carlos as just another Magic player who wants to look after his kids the way I want to look after mine.
In the days and weeks to come, especially over the holiday season, my focus will be on my family.
Nonetheless, I know that I’ll be thinking about the other families which are connected to my own by this game we love – and checking the results of the reinstated Dailies over a turkey sandwich, hoping to see _Batutinha_ amongst the 4-0 decks.
Here’s to the Grinders,