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Gathering the Magic at PAX Australia

Magic: The Gathering Logo

While I prepared for PAX Australia, I’m sure I made a mental list at some time or other of what I expected to see. There would be cosplayers, there would be indie games I’ve never heard of, there would be gaming merchandise and big screens with recognisable trailers or matches of League of Legends blaring – basically a cornucopia of gaming delights which bedazzled the senses and intrigued the mind.

One thing I didn’t expect to see so much of was Magic: The Gathering.

Maybe I should go back a little bit. On entering PAX Australia you are escorted into a large “Queue Hall” which serves as a starting point for participants. Here is where your ID is checked and your R18+ wristband is attached, as well as being where you can meet and greet some online gaming personalities or see some official cosplay. It was also where you picked up your PAX loot bag (which was unwieldy as hell and didn’t make getting through the packed crowds any easier).

And the main ingredient of that loot bag (besides a few dodgy coupons for touristy things in Melbourne and an anime sampler DVD) was a starter deck for Magic: The Gathering.

Now, in case anyone has lived under a rock their entire life, Magic: The Gathering is a trading card game which has been around for about 20 years at this point – and was the predecessor to Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon cards or whatever other trading card game was all the jazz whenever you discovered the concept (the new one is apparently called Vanguard according to the card shopkeeper at PAX, go figure).

Anyway, obviously someone over at the Magic corporate office had the brilliant idea of using the twin guns of a captive audience numbering in the tens of thousands and the unmistakable allure of free stuff to introduce thousands of potential players to their ranks – as well as expand their demographic to include basically anyone interested enough in video games to attend a convention.

And boy, whoever that person is should be getting either a promotion or a medal (and probably both).

It seemed crazy to me at first glance that they were handing out 20-30$ starter decks to their game for free to anyone who came up to the table (and I know firsthand you could easily pick up multiple decks if such was your want). But as the convention wore on I began to see what a clever move this was overall.

Firstly, the Big Top area where people were free to play whatever games they wanted (digital, table top, card game or otherwise) was at least 60% full of Magic players at any point in time across the three days. This included several stations set up specifically to teach new players the game, as well as multiple tables of players hanging out and duelling with their decks with signs attached that said “Come and play: we would love to teach you”.

Secondly, both during and since leaving PAX I’ve seen dozens of online comments or Facebook updates from people saying some version of “I learned Magic this weekend because I already had the cards and thought what the hell”.

It really goes to show you what you can achieve with a little bit of intuition about the crowd attending one of these events and a bit of investment capital that you don’t mind waiting for a return on.

It sure didn’t take me long to go from “what a waste of money, throwing away all those starter decks” to “maybe I should buy the game on Xbox and give it ago” or even asking my girlfriend “where/when did you pick up those booster packs and how much did they cost?!”.

So all in all I have to (a little begrudgingly, I have a past as a Yu-Gi-Oh player) tip my cap to an opportunity well used by Magic: The Gathering. On the one hand, they probably contributed a large amount of carboard to Melbourne’s trash pick up over the weekend – but on the other hand they have potentially converted thousands of new players who could be playing this card game for years to come.

Touché Magic: The Gathering, touché.

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