Magic Clubs and Retailers in the UK are Losing Sanctioned Status, is Organised Play in Jeopardy?
A few weeks ago, Sabina Browne, Tournament Organiser for Richmond Magic Club, made an unexpected discovery. As she attempted to log into the Magic: The Gathering tournament reporting program for the Wizards Play Network, she was surprised to find her DCI number wasn’t working. Apparently, she was no longer a sanctioned Tournament Organiser.
Browne contacted Rob Dunbar, Wizards Play Network Senior Store Lead for Wizards of the coast Hasbro UK. Dunbar replied that Raygun Comics, the store through which Browne registered her Magic club’s tournaments, had lost its WPN status because the store did not have a table at which people could play Magic: The Gathering.
Browne explained that Raygun Comics is housed in a tiny building, too small to host its own events. “I had always run my events elsewhere as the store has always been tiny,” says Browne.
Just a few days ago, while this article was being written, Raygun Comics regained its WPN status and the Richmond Magic Club is once again allowed to run sanctioned events. This is a positive step, but many other Magic: The Gathering playgroups are losing their sanctioned WPN status across the United Kingdom. As a result, organised play in the UK could soon be in jeopardy.
They Walk Among Us
Over two decades ago, Sabina Browne co-founded They Walk Among Us, a comic shop in Richmond, a suburb of London. The shop started selling Magic in 1996, and started a Magic club in 1997.
Magic clubs are common in the UK, as retailers are often too small to house tournaments. They are often founded by a local store where members go to make purchases, and the Tournament Organiser (TO) is often affiliated with the store in some way, such as an employee or owner. Until recently, Magic clubs registered their tournaments through the store but would meet at a separate location due to the store’s limited space.
Browne’s Magic club has been running regular weekly events since it was founded. The club retained the name of the original comic shop even after the shop was sold in 2010 and renamed to Raygun Comics, though the club’s official name on social media is the Richmond Magic Club. Sabina remained the official Tournament Organiser for Raygun Comics and Richmond Magic Club continued to run sanctioned events through the store.
“I think Wizards believes they are losing out on sales by not holding tournaments in house,” says Nigel Rathbone, a veteran of the Richmond Magic Club. “The fact is dedicated players are always going to require product and will buy their cards from [their favourite] suppliers.”
Browne explains, “I have always worked closely with the store. I send people to the store to buy product and they send people to me to play.”
A big part of the issue is limited space in which to play. “The store is very small. One pushchair fills it. It is not practical to play in the store,” says Browne. “[This problem] is very common. There is so little space available in London. Most stores are very small with no parking.”
“I think they may be trying to go down the Games Workshop model,” Browne continues. “That doesn’t work in London where rents are very high and you need to squeeze as much product as you can into your space to make it work.”
Because of limited space within the store, patrons of the Richmond Magic Club meet up in an upstairs room in a pub once a week, located less than 150 yards from Raygun Comics, and prereleases and other bigger events are hosted at Sabina’s sports club. The pub allows younger players upstairs as long as they stay upstairs and do not drink. This is a common practise for Magic clubs in the UK.
“The prereleases are a mini festival,” Browne explains. “Members of the club that have moved away come back to join in and they bring new people. This keeps the club alive and growing.”
Browne received an outpouring of support from the Magic club. “About 20 people wrote to him saying they did not want to lose the club,” says Browne. “Over the years many women and new players have told me that mine is the friendliest most welcoming club they had been to. Some of the bigger tournaments can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated.”
Dunbar agreed to a meeting with the shop owners, which took place Friday. As a result of the meeting, Raygun Comics regained its WPN status and Richmond Magic Club is once again allowed to run events in conjunction with the shop, on the stipulation that the shop start running its own weekly Friday Night Magic events.
“I am very happy that the club can continue and that Wizards can see that I am working very closely with the shop in order to provide the best service possible to the local Magic community,” says Browne. “I am also really grateful for all the support that I have been given by the wider Magic community in this matter. It is wonderful to know that the efforts put into running these events does not go unnoticed. It has made me feel very proud to be a part of it.”
Requirements for WPN Organised Play
This is a positive step for Wizards of the Coast, but the status of other playgroups across the UK is still up in the air. For some stores, the issue is limited space for events. The solution, according to the Wizards Play Network Frequently Asked Questions, is to register an external play location. This public venue must have adequate space and amenities suitable for organised play. This is likely the solution that was arrived at with Raygun Comics.
For other stores, the issue is limited time with which to accommodate casual play, or their ability to consistently introduce new players to the game.
According to the Wizards Play Network website, there are four store levels within the WPN. Gateway is the basic level and among its requirements are 15 unique registered players and three players who are new to Magic: The Gathering. A store is upgraded to Core level after reporting at least 24 events, 30 unique players, and six players new to Magic. Once a store has reached Core level, it gains access to Friday Night Magic and up to three Prerelease events and one Game Day event per Magic expansion. Beyond these levels are Advanced and Advanced-Plus, with increased requirements and rewards.
After a store has been a part of the WPN for 12 consecutive months, the store may no longer remain or drop back to Gateway level. The store’s WPN status is revoked if this happens. It is clear that Wizards of the Coast’s goal with sanctioned stores is continued growth. Some requirements, however, are hard to meet.
For example, a sanctioned store must be able to accommodate casual play seven days a week. Recently this has become a problem for several Waterstone’s store locations.
Waterstone’s Organised Play
Many Waterstone’s stores across the UK host organised play for Magic players in the absence of a local game store within a suitable driving distance.
“Most contain a coffee shop,” says Ben Cottee, co-host of Ten Minute Magic and patron of Waterstone’s in Basingstoke, England. “This is the space that is commonly used to hold the Magic tournaments. Generally, the TO is a Magic playing Employee willing to give up their time after store hours.”
Last week, the Tournament Organiser for the Basingstoke Waterstone’s location posted to the local Magic group on Facebook: “It is with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you all that as of this moment I am no longer a WPN store and will not be running events anymore. To say that I am devastated is an understatement. Unfortunately I was unable to convince Wizards of the Coast that I can accommodate new players. I am sorry I have let you all down. The last three years have been a joy and a privilege. I would like to thank each and every one of you for your support and the wonderful battles we have had.”
“It was due to not having a dedicated playing space that was available 7 days a week,” says Cottee. “They want people to be able to drop in and play Magic.”
In the comments of the Facebook post, another patron of the Basingstoke Waterstone’s writes, “Waterstone’s was required to run multiple events per week, with casual Magic being available seven days a week. FNM was run out of the coffee shop in the store whereby [the TO] was required to be there in order to host and lock up. As he cannot give up every night of his week to host MTG events, this ultimately means we cannot fulfil the requirements.”
Another Magic player writes, “This is something going around the country. Our club is also looking to survive this recent new policy of Wizards’. Though I can see the drive, it’s a terrible way to treat players.”
This is not the only Waterstone’s in danger of losing their sanctioned status. A Tournament Organiser at another Waterstone’s expresses concern for their location. “I’ve been told regarding my own branch that they want a commitment of three events a week,” says the TO. “Unfortunately three events a week is a bit of a logistic nightmare for us and we can’t provide that.”
“If we went pop, all sanctioned MTG in the area would cease.”
Recently, Wizards has made a push for sanctioned stores to report all play that happens within its walls, even casual play. A distinction is made on the WPN website between “Ranked” and “Casual” play. Ranked events require a minimum of 8 players and 3 rounds, whereas a Casual “event” requires only two players and no rounds. Ranked play awards the typical rate of 3 Planeswalker Points per win and 1 point per draw, and Casual play awards 1 point per player.
“We have a cafe in store that a lot of my group use to play MTG – but I don’t have the resources to report those as casual play,” the TO explains. “We’re toying with the idea of a sign in sheet to satisfy the requirement but none of my regulars actively want to report play – they’d do it to help me out but it feels a bit forced at that point.”
“Players seem to love these stores – they’re enjoying playing Magic in a way that suits them and the store, which often is the only one in the area,” says the TO. “I know for a fact if we went pop, all sanctioned MTG in the area would cease, which would be horrid for both our community of more advanced players and our younger players.”
The Future of Organised Play in the UK
Store locations across the UK are affected by this new push to enforce Wizards of the Coast’s policies concerning sanctioned stores.
Dan Hill, Tournament Organiser of Grimsby Wargames Society, shares his experiences. “Since we have taken on the club leadership in October last year, we’ve doubled attendance to events and the number of events we run,” says Hill. “We’re also just one step away from reaching Advanced.”
Hill continues, “We were contacted by our Wizards rep who knows we operate as a club, in fact he’s very much behind us. This came as a surprise. The emphasis seems to be moving away from using brick and mortar shops as just postboxes for Magic promotional material, even though many stores don’t want anything more than this. In return if the shop cannot accommodate casual play, they lose privileges and entitlement – as do the players who utilise the store.”
“The emphasis seems to be moving away from brick and mortar shops as just postboxes for Magic promotional material.”
On Reddit, a thread has been started where more and more people are sharing stories of their local UK stores losing their WPN status. A petition was started on Change.org from a Magic club in the same situation.
Wizards of the Coast is clear in its definition of a sanctioned store. For example, a business that sells Magic product is not necessarily a “store” based on their definition. As a result, retailers that sell out of booths or stalls in a marketplace have applied for sanctioned status but were denied. Understandably, this is not the kind of store Wizards is interested in sanctioning.
But how practical is Wizards’ definition of a sanctioned store in the UK?
The Magic Scene in the UK
Wizards of the Coast is based in the United States, where large local game stores are common. Many of these stores regularly host Friday Night Magic events of 50 or more players. Store space is seldom an issue for stores in the US.
“What we have to keep in mind is that the UK is a very small place when compared to countries like America,” says Tu Nguyen, owner of Manaleak.com. “Historically, towns and cities in the UK normally start from a central point and sprawl outwards, this central point is normally referred to as the town or city centre. Rent in these areas are often prohibitively expensive for a niche business.”
“There is also a higher density of Magic players in the UK,” Nguyen continues. “The USA tends to be more spaced out, and culturally, it’s normal for people in America to drive everywhere – 30 minutes to one store, then 20 minutes to another store on the same day to do their shopping. In England, people do not tend to drive as much and instead rely more on public transport; we tend to prefer to travel to one area, e.g. the city centre, where we can do all our shopping, leisure, entertainment, etc., and this can affect our attitude towards playing Magic.”
Ultimately, it becomes problematic to attempt to copy and paste the US local game store model directly to the UK Magic scene. “Historically, Magic clubs are often ran in pubs, hotel function rooms, cafés, anywhere where the tournament organiser can find cheap space that is accessible for everyone,” explains Nguyen. “In fact, this is how my friends and I started playing Magic.”
“This tended to happen a lot before local game stores (LGS) became a thing,” says Nguyen. “More local game stores are popping up now, which is great, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to an LGS. It is sometimes the case that the LGS does not have facilities to host good Magic events, again as rent in England is expensive for the location that these LGS’s needs to be in to thrive, and retail space is often at a premium. Then there are some LGS’s that do have the floorspace but who are simply just not that interested in running Magic events, and that’s fine, but it does mean that the Magic players in that area will be missing out if these are their only options.”
“There is often enough interested Magic players to justify a small non-profit club, but not enough to support a niche retail business on the High Street.”
The primary differences between Magic in the UK and the US is the attitude towards driving, and the cost of owning a shop. “Rent is not cheap on the High Street in England,” Nguyen stresses again. “Magic: The Gathering is a niche interest and there just aren’t enough Magic players in a regular town or city to pay for High Street rents and rates. There is often enough interested Magic players to justify a small non-profit club, but not enough to support a niche retail business on the High Street.”
“I think Wizards of the Coast wants you to be a games store with a lot of space for Magic: The Gathering events, which is not always feasible in England,” Nguyen continues. “For something so niche to work, you’ll need somewhere central that can be served by public transport, which often means prohibitively high rent.”
There is much work yet to be done to restore organised play in the UK. Many Magic players in Southern England are worried that organised play will cease altogether if the Waterstone’s locations continue to lose their WPN status. It is all but impossible for stores in more concentrated areas such as London to have the amount of room Wizards of the Coast is requiring of them.
Restoring the WPN status of Raygun Comics in Richmond was a step in the right direction. Hopefully Wizards will continue to work with Tournament Organisers to ensure that Magic: The Gathering continues to grow in the United Kingdom.
We have reached out to Wizards of the Coast asking for their comments on these matters, however this request was declined as it is their policy not to comment on specific cases or stores, especially when this is an ongoing discussion with the stores in question.
If you are part of one of the affected stores or Magic clubs, you can reach out to your WPN representative by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: Dan Barrett from Wizards of the Coast has recently written a post addressing these issues. You can find the article here: Addressing concerns about WPN stores in Europe
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