Please remember, this is not policy, and isn't even under consideration by the staff. These are Ron's ideas and opinions.
Join the Revolution or Be Left Behind: Magic Content for the Masses
by Ron Vitale
I’ve written a few Magic articles in my day (over 20 of them) and I wanted to address an issue that’s not directly related to the game, but has severe consequences to the future of Magic just the same:
Before I answer this question, let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine with me. Maybe you’ll remember sites like the theDojo.com and smile thinking of some fond memories of those days long since gone. TheDojo.com was one of the first sites to propel Magic out of the stratosphere and into the unconscious minds of more players than we could count. For better or worse, netdecks started creeping up all over the place. Tournament players were forced to adapt and keep up to date with the latest information or lose miserably at the next tournament.
Follow along and see the evolution of Magic websites and you can understand why publications like “The Duelist” died a slow death and how the rise of sites such as StarCityGames.com, Brainburst.com, MTGnews.com, Londes.com, and a host of others came to be. It’s no secret that Magic players attempt to understand their local metagame so that they can outwit their opponents. It’s also not surprising that after a big Pro Tour Qualifier, a release of a new Magic set, or the announcement of a banning of a card, website content explodes. Everyone and their brother writes an article to explain why certain cards/decks will prove strong in the new format. Such ebb and flow of strategy is what some would say makes Magic such a dynamic game.
At the moment, we’re at a crossroads between the Magic sites of today and those of tomorrow. Brainburst.com and StarcityGames.com would have you believe that by going premium they are the cream of the crop. They have the content that matters and that you should pay for it. Yet on the other hand, you have sites such as MTGSalvation.com and non Magic sites such as TheForce.net and Digitalbits.com. These sites have refused to adopt the premium model. They still contain fresh, relevant, and worthwhile content on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Where do I stand on the whole premium vs. free content issue? I’m glad you asked. People already pay enough for their internet connection. They’re not going to shell out more dough to pay for a premium site membership. I don’t care if you’re the biggest Star Wars fan on the planet (like I am), I’m not going to pay extra for the Hyperspace membership—especially when great content exists on sites like TheForce.net. The same is true with Magic sites. Need I waste precious money that I could spend on cards just so I can belong to a select club with fabricated “exciting” and “new” Magic content? Please. Don’t waste my time with such inane obfuscations!
A Call for Aid
Web hosting fees, paying authors, and bandwidth issues are some of the costs that a website incurs over time. However, let’s break these fees apart and really take a look at what it takes to run a successful site. In 2004, I ran the now defunct www.mtgplay.com and, at the height of its success, the site received approximately 5,000 unique users a week. My out of pocket of expense: $8.95 for the yearly domain and $65 for Web hosting space and unlimited bandwidth. The site did not contain articles in which I needed to pay authors so I did not need to run any ads or raise any other revenue. I paid the fees out of my own pocket and the community thrived.
Now MTGSalvation, from my understanding, is in a similar situation. After a long and drawn out nasty dispute with the staff of MTGnews.com, MTGSalvation.com was born. Why am I writing for MTGSalvation.com without compensation? Easy: You give what you get. Here’s a lesson, boys and girls, and let’s not forget this: If people come together to support this community, the MTGSalvation site can be a force to be reckoned with because with so many members, people can volunteer to provide excellent content. There will be no need for a site of this nature to go “premium” and suck its members dry. Need I remind you that sites like TheForce.net and Thedigitalbits.com have been running for years without going premium? Granted, their struggles to stay afloat have not been easy ones, but they are still thriving.
In regard to MTGSalvation, I believe that because there are so many members that we, the users, can provide content to keep the site fresh and exciting. Add the free forums into the mix and you have a great online area to discuss the articles to your heart’s content. But then this begs the question: Why would any writer wish to give an article to a site for free? Simple: If you use the site and visit, then you can offer your services from time to time. Writing is an exercise in language and communication. A good writer isn’t going to lose sleep over writing an occasional article that they didn’t get paid for. To help enhance a site and to strengthen a community, to donate an article for the greater good of the community is to be commended. If I can do it (and I have been paid for my Magic writing before), why can’t others?
And what about a site like SCG? They expect premium accounts to be the best thing since sliced bread. Let them do their thing. I expect that in the long term, that they will fail. Why do I say this? A “for profit” site that sells singles should not charge money for users to read their articles. The articles on their site are the are the loss leader to offer the user an incentive to buy their cards. There’s no way I’d buy cards from them and then also pay money for a premium membership. It’s just not going to happen.
Which leaves me with MTGsalvation.com. The site has been up for some time and not only are the forums great, but there’s limited tournament support, a new website design, and now articles being provided by the community. Sooner or later I suspect that funding will be needed for this site.
Funding a Site
One thing that I’d like the young crowd to realize: It costs money to run a site. Not necessarily a lot of money, but it also takes a lot of time to fill the site with content. Volunteers often go unpaid to create discussions, manage tournaments, proofread articles, collect spoiler information; you get the idea. Often the admins who run the site put out the funds and the time investment. Initially everyone is all bright and bushy tailed, eager to please. Fast forward a year or two into the future and half the staff have left, the site is falling apart, and the admins have a sour taste in their mouth, wondering, “Should we close the site?” Why is that?
People have lives. You see, they actually go to classes or work, raise families, get married, you know, do things beside playing Magic. Maintaining a high level of content on a site for an extended amount of time takes great commitment and an enormous effort. How can a site avoid going under?
SCG and Brainburst.com chose the premium path. SCG, in particular, is out to make money. They have cards to sell. Thousands of cards. In order to draw you to their site, they’ll need the best content possible. Thus, they’ll have to pay their authors. Now, as a writer myself, I see nothing wrong with paying an author. Heck, making a few bucks on writing a Magic article is actually rather nice. But where is that money going to come from? Remember, the people running the site are already forking out the dough to pay for the administrative costs. They’re not going to have the extra money to now pay for articles. And banner ads? Does anyone really click on those links? I didn’t think so.
What choice does that leave a site? It’s not pretty, and it’s frowned upon in American society, but it’s the true path. People in general want content for free: Movies, mp3s, articles, pictures, you name it. However, a large percentage of a site’s users would pay for content if asked. Now let me explain this before everyone has a bird: I propose that once or twice a year, MTGSalvation hold a pledge drive. During this time, MTGSalvation releases their best content, has auctions on EBay to help raise money, and markets to the community that for two weeks out of the year, they’re going to try and raise enough funds to help the site remain afloat for the coming year.
Am I nuts? No, I’m not. If a site has thousands of readers, then the readership needs to pony up the money to help keep a site afloat. And here’s where I won’t pull a punch: I’ve been part of several online communities in which the general populace visits a site, for free, and gives nothing back. It’s time for that to stop. You see, the choice is clear: Either sites like SCG will continue to thrive with their premium memberships so that they can keep operating, a site obtains funds/volunteers/content from the community at large, or the site goes under. I’m simplifying the equation, but I think you catch my drift.
MTGSalvation can stay ahead of the curve by instituting the following:
- Open call for good writers to offer free content to the site. (This is already being done.) Initially, (we) writers need to step up to the plate and hand some good content to the community to help establish MTGSalvation’s base.
- Community members need to volunteer as forum moderators and admin staff. MTGSalvation needs to clearly state in a section on their Website what volunteer positions are immediately open and what type of help they need. Remember, six months from now some volunteers will have dropped out and moved on. Maintaining a solid connection with your community to inform them what help is needed and why goes a long way.
- Fundraising: I propose that two fundraisers occur during the year: One in the summer and another in December. MTGSalvation explains why the money is being collected (to help pay writers, to cover the cost of Web hosting, domain name costs, bandwidth, paying judges or volunteers, etc.) and how this money will be used. The important point is to explain to the community exactly what it costs to run the site and then show how the money is needed. In order for a bond of trust to exist between the community and those running the site, the line of communication must be honest and clear. Raising money and then keeping the excess to line one’s pockets wouldn’t be a good way to go about this. Explaining that volunteers are being paid X amount of dollars because of the time they put in? That’s a different story. The community needs to get over the fact that people can’t always work for free. Finding a healthy balance for what MTGSalvation needs to stay in existence will not be easy, but it won’t be impossible.
- Auctions: Ask the community to donate some rare and hard to find Magic cards and then auction them off on EBay. Having a signed Mox up for auction could go a long way. If a paying site donates such a rare item, then that site can be featured in a banner section with a link directly to their site. Or, if an anonymous member donates some cards, that person can be thanked appropriately. The point of this is: Brainstorm. Discuss what would work and what wouldn’t and set limits on how many auctions.
- Have a section that shows the tally of money raised thus far. Most places use a thermometer to show what the goal is and how far they have to go to reach that amount. This portion of the site can inform the community how much it costs to run the site through the last year and why the money is needed.
- Sponsors: MTGSalvation can create a package that they offer to a potential sponsor. A sponsor who donates X amount of money can obtain a banner ad on the site with a link directly to the company’s site. Sponsors who donate lesser amounts can be “Friends of MTGSalvation” and will be listed on a page with links to their sites (if requested).
- Donation page: During a pledge drive, MTGSalvation can have a donation banner up on their site that will bring a user to a secure donation page (Paypal could be an option). However, a PDF form for “mail in” donations should also be provided. One of the biggest complaints from SCG users was that they didn’t have credit cards and wanted to pay. By allowing a person to mail in a money order or check, you’re enabling young users to help out.
The choice is fairly simple: Join the revolution or sit back and be force fed premium memberships. In my opinion, there’s a load of difference between seeing all content on a site for free but choosing to donate a small sum over time than having to pay a monthly membership fee. Granted, comparing SCG’s content and MTGSalvation’s is like comparing apples and oranges. SCG is out to make money whereas MTGSalvation (unless I’m mistaken) is a website for the community. MTGSalvation just announced that it’s publishing content, yet I invite the Magic community to embrace the MTGSalvation initiative and bring content to this site.
As a member of the Magic community, you can sit back and do nothing or you can actively take a part in helping sites like MTGSalvation thrive. Want good content? Then either write it or help support it! Want a site to give you spoiler information, great discussion forums, and cool features? Then you’re going to have to take a stand. Stop allowing sites like SCG and Brainburst to corner the market on content by locking it out behind premium memberships. Start supporting sites like MTGSalvation to encourage Magic fandom to drive the content and the evolution of a site. Would you rather have a for profit site lock out the best content or for all members of the Magic community to have access to the articles?
The high school students of today who cannot afford a premium class of membership will eventually be the doctors and lawyers of tomorrow. I’ve been playing the game for 11 years now and I believe in the grassroots effort. Follow the models of sites like TheForce.net and Digitalbits.com and embrace your readership rather than alienate them with lockouts from premium sections. Join the revolution or suffer the slow, debilitating and downward spiral of despair. Use your crystal ball and look into the future: With volunteers, support, and limited funds, how long do you expect MTGSalvation to last? Months, years? Now that you can see the future, what are you going to do about it? Act and help support MTGSalvation or do nothing. The choice is yours. It’s in your hands. Don’t let something as good as MTGSalvation slip away. Trust me, you’ll regret it.