If you've followed this blog at all, you know that I'm ga-ga for Magic: The Gathering. I've played other TGCs (trading card games) in my life, notably Decipher's late-lamented Start Trek: The Next Generation CCG, but nothing, for me, has had the staying power that MTG does in terms of its complexity, its focus on fostering a community of players, and its adherence to both continuity and innovation in its gaming mechanics.
As you might expect, there are plenty of MTG podcasts out there, but my favorite by far is The MTGYou Podcast. Recorded weekly by five entertaining gentlemen in the great state of Utah, the podcast is well organized – its segments are based on the phases of a typical player's turn in MTG – and does a fantastic job of looking at the current trends in the game, making thing understandable for beginners and wildly enjoyable for us veterans. These guys care about their listeners, and it shows.
So I decided to do an interview with MTGYou's host, James Berghout, to talk about the show's origins, what makes Magic tick, and the mystical force that is 'geekery'.
Super PopCultureCube: So, how did MTGYou come about?
James Berghout: Do you want the long story or the short story? Well, too bad...I'll give you the long one. I started podcasting back about 2004-2005...I don't remember when exactly. I used to have two shows. One was called NavelCast. It was just personal stories from my childhood that I felt were entertaining. The other show was called Face the Music. It was a podsafe music showcase that focused each episode around a theme. I kept this up for a while, but soon ran out of steam because I realized that the best way to keep podcasting is to have two things...co-hosts and an audience. I had a small audience, but it's hard to stay really motivated without a co-host.
Needless to say, those shows fell by the wayside, but I had a lot of fun making them, and always was looking for another show that fit.
Fast forward to 2013. I had taken up MTG for the 3rd time in my life. This time was different, because I had a son that was old enough to go to LGS's [local gaming stores] with me to play. I'm basically a recluse. I'm not great at social interaction. But I met (Justin) Blades and we talked about podcasts that we liked to listen to. I recommended a few shows that I liked to listen to and he did the same. Our mutual interest in podcast listening and Magic is what mostly drew us together first. A few months past and I hadn't been to my LGS for a while. But I was formulating an idea for a show (at this stage it was just an idea. Nothing set in stone). I asked Blades if he was interested in podcasting with me. Somewhat to my surprise, he was interested. I'm kind of picky about who I would podcast with. I was looking for personality, and he has a truck load. The owner of our favorite LGS overheard our conversation and said, "Hey, if you're going to podcast, I know a guy you need to talk too." He told us that Daemon is a guy who would be great to podcast with. He keeps up on all the articles and the community chatter. Blades new Daemon and agreed to ask him if he wanted to give it a try. Daemon agreed and suggested his friend Rich also be on the show. Rich was already one that Blades had considered approaching about it. So it just fell into place.
We met to talk about our ideas. Rich and Daemon were already considering something on Youtube, so it wasn't much of a stretch for them. The hardest part was probably coming up with a name. Our friend Ian, who has been on the show, was the one that suggested MTGYou. It stuck. Everything has just been about brain storming. Great things don't just happen. They have to be built one thing at a time. I work as a programmer for a living. Programs start with one line of code and then you tweak that line to make it do something new or something better. Podcast are the same way. You have to start somewhere. Even if your first show is crap, at least it's a show. Get the first 10 or so shows out of the way. And just try to make each show a little better than the previous one.
SPCC: I remember first starting to play Magic about five years ago, and at times it can feel overwhelming as a new player. You've come back to Magic after a few years away. What brought you back, and what was it like coming back?
JB: Magic can be super overwhelming! That's one of the reasons we do the podcast. New players are crucial to the longevity of Magic, so we as a community need to do everything in our power to encourage and nurture new players. It's a Catch-22 because Magic is a competitive game, so that has a tendency to make people posture and not be as nice as they could (should) be.
I started playing Magic back with Onslaught. I gave it up and then started again with Zendekar. Then gave it up again. I remember drafting Zendekar for the first time. (It was the first time I had ever drafted.) I didn't know what I was doing and I didn't know anyone. Nobody gave me the time of day. I never went back.
Third time is the charm I guess. I bought Duals of the Planeswalkers on my iPad and in the app there was an offer for a "free" pack of cards. All I had to do was go to my LGS. I went in, got my pack of cards and ended up spending a few hundred dollars over the course of the next few weeks on booster boxes, etc. Hmmm...that pack didn't turn out to be free after all.
What kept me playing this time was the people. That is the only reason that people will keep playing. If you aren't having fun with people that are good to be around, then what's the good in that?
It's not easy meeting new people, especially in the geek culture we live in. Most of us have at least a little social anxiety. So it's incumbent on those that are already comfortable with the Magic scene to help others become comfortable with it. The best way to do it is to talk to the new players. Everyone wants to feel special. Make new players feel special in some way. Learn their names and greet them by name when you see them. Even introduce them to others. A little kindness goes a long way.
I went back and forth between two LGS's when I started back. I was looking for the one that treated me the best. That is what it came down too. Both treated me well, I just wanted to feel like somebody.
I think if we treat everyone that comes into the LGS like the folks on Cheers treat Norm...the Magic community and the world would be a better place.
SPCC: What does it take to keep a podcast like yours running smoothly and drawing in listeners?
JB: Those are two different questions.
As for the first one. Planning is the key. Having topics for future episodes planned in advance is best. Ideally, I want to know what my next 4 episodes are going to be about. So every week we spend a little time talking about the upcoming topics. I use Google docs to hold show notes. This part can be done in many different ways. I create a show skeleton and share it with the crew. And then we just fill in ideas as we go.
Having a regular recording schedule is crucial. It's okay to be somewhat flexible. But it's more important to us to get a show out each week than to make sure that everyone is always on the show. Life can get in the way of podcasting, so you have to be flexible but consistent. We get our thoughts down in the document and then talk through it in a pre-show.
The pre-show is just as important as the show is, I think. It gets us warmed up and ready to talk. It's a great time to catch up on the past week, bounce ideas off each other and feel connected. That makes the show itself run better. I record the pre-show, for lots of reasons. Sometimes I get good material for the outtakes, but also, when people know that their being recorded, but aren't necessarily going on the record, they can be very funny and spontaneous.
Now for drawing in listeners: a listener base is a hard thing to build, and I think I could do a better job of building it. But I believe that the best way is to do as much outreach as possible to get your name out there. First and foremost you have to have a good product. People look for production quality, consistency and content. If you don't have that, people might give you a quick listen and then drop the podcast, never to listen again.
Building a podcast is a lot like building a Magic community. Be nice to people and get involved.
Probably most importantly, realize that it takes time. You might only receive feedback from 1% of your audience. So if you only receive a single email telling you that you are doing a good job...realize that might be representative of a much larger audience that is thinking that same thing, but just not telling you.
If you have a good experience at a store, you MIGHT tell one person. If you have a bad experience at a store, you WILL tell 10 people. Human nature just works that way.
SPCC: I think Magic is one of those games that has developed an entire culture around it – probably the only other comparable game like that is Dungeons & Dragons. What elements do you think really define the Magic "culture" in your mind?
JB: Magic is a lot of things to a lot of different people. That is why Mark Rosewater came up with the psychographic profiles of Timmy, Johnny and Spike. I started to play magic simply because the cards looked cool. I loved the art. Each one was like a little masterpiece. But I don't think that can keep people for long. If that is all they are interested in, they might as well be collecting stamps. So the art was my gateway to the culture, but for me it's the people that keep me here. I want to have fun. I'm not a highly competitive person. I'm much more of a Johnny than a Spike.
Spikes are critical to the culture to make it what it is. But Spikes can also be part of the problem with the community. The thing that bothers me the most about the community is the 'us and them' mentality. I'm not really a sportsball player, but I think this is one of the same things that happens in sports, the idea of teams, the "we are better than them" attitude. Granted, this is a healthy way of looking at things. It sure would be sad if teams acted the other way around. "Everyone else is better than us" is not a good team slogan. But I really wish there was more mutual respect between all Magic players regardless of their skill level, store they play at or any other method of categorizing people.
Magic is a competitive, complicated game. What other game has upward of 15,000 playing pieces? It's also a game of chance, which can be both comforting and aggravating. It appeals to fans of fantasy art and literature. It's steeped in human psychology (i.e. the interactions with the color pie). And, most importantly, it's a game. And games are for having fun. I don't know of another game that has so much to offer. (Maybe D&D...but for different reasons)
SPCC: It looks like card games are coming back – there are a lot of Living Card Games (LCGs) out now that seem pretty popular, like SmashUp, Android Netrunner, and so forth. However, besides things like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, there doesn't seem to have been much to challenge Magic's primacy on the TCG/CCG side since the mid-1990s. What do you think makes Magic so enduring?
JB: Richard Garfield came up with something new and special. He got it right right from the beginning. Part of what makes Magic so successful is that it was the first of it's kind to market.
There is an investment of time and money that goes into it, even more than most other games. So people gravitate toward it because that is where the user base is. It makes sense to play the game more people are playing because there will be a healthy ecosystem, and the chance that more people will share your specific interest in the game.
If people go away from the game for a while, they come back to the same game because they just have to take their cards out of the closet and dust them off and they are good to go again. Magic hit a critical mass early enough in its lifetime that its too hard for other games to make big enough inroads to compete.
This doesn't mean that this will always be the case. Everything has a lifespan. I'm not predicting the end of Magic. I'm just saying that it's inevitable...eventually. I can see online games like HEX doing very well. Magic has paved the way for them. And now they are in a position to do things that Magic can't because Magic is also still a physical game.
SPCC: It seems for a lot of people, "Geek Life" revolves around pop culture - comics, movies, gaming, etc. What facets of geek life do you think just don't get enough attention? What "geeky" things are you into that don't often seem to "make the cut" in popular geekery?
JB: Geek culture is an interesting idea that is misunderstood. I like the quote, "fantasy football is Dungeons and Dragons for guys who used to beat up the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons." So really anything can be considered geek life if it's on the fringes.
The idea that something is popular goes against geekery. Geekery is by definition something that isn't mainstream. Once it becomes mainstream, it's should no longer be considered geeky.
Here are some other things I enjoy doing:
I collect and listen to my music on vinyl.
I tinker with electronics. (visit MyTronX.com)
I make sushi. (i've spent many years perfecting this art form...many bad words have been spoken when I have failed)
I camp in a trailer. (I don't think trailers get enough respect from people who think that real camping is done in tents)
I speak Japanese.
I keep a journal.
I draw and paint.
SPCC: What's next for MTGYou? Where do you and the guys hope the podcast goes?
JB: We have a lot of plans. Many I don't want to talk about, because I don't want to set expectations that possibly won't be met. But in general, beyond the podcast, we want to make MTGYou into a trusted place where people can come to feel at home in a friendly thriving MTG community