(modern) five-colour pirates

yu-gi-oh was so smart. transformers had already proven you could forcibly extract money from parents by pretending your advertisements for children's toys comprised a television show, but hasbro still had to pay for injection moulding. what if they just printed the money instead?

in the yu-gi-oh tv show1, the main thing that all the characters do is play the card game yu-gi-oh2. all disagreements are resolved via dueling3, and even though this is shown to favour the rich, at the end of most episodes the child protagonists justly win and you feel an urge to go to the toy store and purchase yu-gi-oh cards.

the yu-gi-oh card 'mind control'

the show was transitional, a ratcheting down of my unlimited childhood imagination to something more grounded in the real world. not that it was completely tethered to reality. beyond the porn-levels of plot to justify the action, in the beginning, the writers of the show didn't really understand the rules of the game - the early duels feature flagrant rules violations and completely hallucinated mechanics. nevertheless, i loved it. the writers were right in one sense: the rules were unimportant4

to illustrate this, my childhood best friend and i had sheets of cardstock that we would make our own cards with. Shadow Dragon, Night Dragon, Dark Dragon, Lightning Dragon, Dark Lightning Dragon. i wish i had them still. we didn't make any spell cards. all that mattered was that your cards had cool (dragon) names and drawings (of dragons) and that you didn't have too many cards that were stronger than anything in the show. that was another implicit rule that actually mattered - dramatic suspense requires unpredictability. even as eight-year olds we understood that our make-believe yu-gi-oh would make no sense if we were completely overpowered.

the yu-gi-oh card 'pot of greed'
we drew a LOT more than 2

and so the show got us all the way through the funnel but wasn't able to convert. to us, it wasn't where the cards came from or if we'd paid for them. it was if they were fun to play with.

skip forward 8 years and i'm in high school playing magic the gathering with my friends. magic was the inspiration for yu-gi-oh, released in 1993, the first trading card game of its kind. by now the game has a pro scene, a janky official computer game, and a thriving secondary market where people buy individual cards to construct decks with. blah blah. you can just read this new york times article on the history of magic if you care about this stuff.5

my four friends and i were buying cheap cards online. we didn't have much money, and shipping from the U.S. was expensive. this balanced our group, because no one could afford the really powerful cards.6. we each had one deck until that got old then someone bought a new one and we'd play all the matchup permutations we could until it got boring enough for the cycle to repeat. over two years i spent maybe $300 doing this. eventually i moved and sold my cards to a game store for $50. i stopped thinking about magic much at all.

the mtg card 'cut of the profits'

but now it's now. i've been thinking about magic again. i pitched the idea to my girlfriend, we got some introductory decks, and we had a hell of a time! it's a fun game! then the call of new cards began. familiar with where it led, i started to contemplate the alternative: all the cards are available as jpegs online. why not just use a home printer and scissors for the cards i want? a little budget cutting could save me a lot of money!

why doesn't everyone do this?

i searched the internet a little to try and find an answer, but didn't see anyone explain the complete incentive structure as i've come to understand it.

it helps to understand that proxy magic is a mix of forgery and piracy: forgery denotes that the value of the object comes from people believing it to be authentic, whereas piracy is about stealing7 a thing that has instrumental value. this isn't an airtight distinction, but it explains the psychology of, say, branded clothes quite well.8 a large part of the value of having a shirt with a brand logo on it is to show people that you can afford the shirt with the logo on it. and if you're caught wearing a fake, you need to be called out by the people who've paid the full price because otherwise you'll dilute the esteem they get.

the thing is, i don't give a SHIT about what people think about how much paper i have tied up in my cardboard - i'm all about that instrumental value. i just want to play magic.

but like with branded clothes, it's in many people's interests to not let me do this: magic is a trading card game. new cards enter circulation is through gambling on packs of 15 cards and trading them.910 gambling is addictive and people get hooked on pulling rare mythics, rationalized by the lie that they're developing a portfolio which will appreciate. this in turn, fuels a speculative secondary economy in which local game stores invest in inventory to try and make profit on the fluctuations of card prices.11

all of this depends on us agreeing that we need to pay money for magic cards, because upstream is the fact that hasbro needs to pay mark rosewater. if he stops getting paid, he'll stop designing new cards and then there'll be no new releases, no hype cycle, no profit margin for local game stores, no magic journalists, no sponsorship deals from companies that make playmats, no tournaments to fill event centres. if people stop cracking packs, the house of cards will come crashing down. people who have bought into the game have internalized this logic and will probably try to police you if you bring forgeries into any place that has a commercial interest in magic.

the mtg card 'pack rat'

but i'm not interested in going to any of those places. i just want to play kitchen table, so is there any other reason not to use proxies? so far, the only negative i've found is that when every card is free, it's tempting to print some of the really strong expensive decks and these are actually less fun to play. a deck that performs well in the pro scene needs to be very consistent, which makes the experience of playing them kind of monotonous. still. i'm glad i didn't pay $500 to learn that lesson.

thus, arbitrarily, self-servingly, i'm okay with being a free-rider. there are 30,000 unique magic cards. if enough people join me and bring hasbro to financial demise, there will still be plenty of jpegs to go around. anarchic homebrew magic would still exist (even though i admit it would probably never be as well-designed and cohesive as the game is today) and if people really wanted, i'm sure mark rosewater and co. could start a new patreon-funded organization to design copyleft cards indefinitely.

the mtg card 'fork'

would that work? i have no idea, but it'll never happen as long as magic exists in its current form, so i'll happily play the game for free until we maybe one day find out.