Feature Interview: Freddie Tan of Neutral Grounds (Part 2)

Feature Interview: Freddie Tan of Neutral Grounds (Part 2)

0 2021

In this second part of the interview (the first part can be read here), Neutral Ground‘s Ambassador of Geek, Freddie Tan talks about pro gaming, digital Magic and their participation in this year’s Laro Convention.

30lives: In your opinion, is it feasible for people to go pro in TCGs (trading card games) in the Philippines?

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Just a normal day in Neutral Grounds

FT: That’s difficult for us primarily because we’re in a region that doesn’t really give a lot of opportunities to get into the pro player bandwagon. I think that’s a wrong way of looking at things. Number one, when you get into this hobby or whatever game you get into, it is because you like the game and it’s fun. The pro aspect is I think putting the cart before the horse. If it’s available to you then that’s good, but if it’s not, as long as you enjoy the game [then] that’s all there is to it. If you’re enjoying the game, whatever organized play there is, it’s a plus. Locally, we run a lot of events [and] we give out really good prizes, but I wouldn’t really suggest any Filipino to quit their jobs and go at this full time. It’s the same thing [as] I wouldn’t suggest to a kid to quit school and play basketball the entire day even if we have a professional league like PBA here. No parent would tell his child “Okay, quit school and just concentrate playing basketball”. That doesn’t make sense. It’s the same thing with this hobby. We probably have talent here, but I wouldn’t suggest [to] anyone to quit their job and just play. Bottom-line, if you like the game and you enjoy it, then just play it. If you win or lose, it’s just secondary. The most important thing is you’re playing the game, you’re enjoying it, [and] you’re enjoying the company of the people you’re with. It’s not about making a living out of doing it. I always joke with people who want to make a living out of this, [I tell them] “Open a store”. That’s a bit more realistic than “I’m going to go to the Pro-Tour”.

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MTG Grand Prix in Hannover, Germany

Even if you are in the States, it’s really hard. It’s kind of like golf, or basketball, or whatever sport . There’s a very small percentage of people who can actually make a living out of doing that. A lot of people play basketball, but how many people get to play it professionally? I think it’s the same thing. But there are a lot of people from the Philippines who like to travel, go abroad, and play. When you do that, these people don’t do it and have the mentality that “I’m going to make a living out of this”. For example, in Hong Kong [Grand Prix], we had like 70 people go. That’s a lot of people going [out of the country] just to play a tournament for Magic: The Gathering. I don’t think these people go there, of course at the back of their minds they want to win, but they don’t go there because they want to go pro. They go there because “Oh, I’m going with these guys, my friends, we’re going there to do something that we all like to do and we get to see the world at the same time”. So they’re playing, they’re going around different countries just like going on a road trip. I think that kind of mentality is healthier than thinking about the money, the competitiveness, and it puts things on a better perspective. It doesn’t put you in a frame of mind that will probably turn people off when playing against you. If you’re really just about winning, then you’re probably not very pleasant to play with and at the end of the day, it’s [just] a game. It’s not work. The reason that you got into this hobby to begin with is because it’s something you enjoy. The moment you start looking at it as work, then you’re in the same boat as I am (laughs).

30lives: My next question is actually sensitive. You can opt to not answer it or go off-the-record. There are special sets like FTV (From the Vault), Planechase, or special decks that are sold online but I cannot order if it’s going to be shipped to the Philippines. I’m curious, is there’s a special reason for that? Or is it because the official distributors are being protected?

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FTV 20 has the highly coveted Planeswalker card, Jace The Mind Sculptor

FT: It’s not about protection. The thing is those items are reserved for stores that are running tournaments. The reason for that is it’s a reward system [for stores]. The people who put effort to grow the market are given those specific items. Like for example, not even all our stores get those products. The FTV, only the 3 stores of Neutral Grounds have it. The other stores that do not run tournaments can’t sell it. Each store only gets a specific amount [so it is] very limited. This is also the reason the prices of these things go crazy online. We at Neutral Grounds want other stores to follow what we’re doing. We’re not selling it at ridiculous prices that eBay or other online stores sell it for. For example, for FTV we’re selling ours near the SRP (suggested retail price) but we’re not just selling it over the counter because if we did that, the first guy who comes in during the release date will just buy everything. If our allocation was 20, somebody can just easily buy it and resell it high. What we’re trying to do with it is use it to tie it with organized play. That way, we get more mileage out of it and we don’t feel like we’re gouging our customers. Our cost is really based on the retail price and of course we can sell the FTVs for, I think some people are selling it for PHP 9,900 or something like that. I don’t even check the prices on eBay, but I think it’s being sold higher than what it is being sold here in Manila. We sold ours for PHP 2,000. We could easily sell it for more but we don’t want to do that and we’d really like for other stores to copy what we’re doing which is stretch it out, make it tied with play experience and not just selling it outright [and] making a killing [for a] short term. You just made it faster for you to earn and get a big profit. It’s so easy to do, but we don’t want to take the easy road.

I know a lot of players are not happy with what we’re doing by tying it with organized play, but I think especially with games, the most important thing is the play experience. It’s not about making a quick buck, like some people are focusing more on the trading rather than on the game. We’d like to focus more on the game and not the trading aspect. Of course there are lots of people complaining with what we do, on how we raffled it out to people who joined the tournaments, but at the end of the day it’s fairer. I’m not condemning the other stores for selling, it’s their thing. But we’d really like them to follow suit. So focus more on the play, rather than the trading part. It’s actually very transparent. The reason why you can’t buy it on online stores is because they can’t have access to it. It’s not a protection thing or whatever, it’s WotC (Wizards of the Coast) basically rewarding the stores who put an effort to grow the market. Let’s admit it: online stores, they do jack squat for this hobby. If anything, they hurt the brick and mortar stores. They can do deep discounts and the brick and mortar stores obviously have higher overheads. They can’t beat the deep discounts the online stores do, and I guess this is the only way WotC to reward the stores that help promote [them]. It’s also the reason I want to tie it into organized play rather than just sell it at a huge profit. That’s how you grow the market, you sell the experience, and not just the product.

30lives: So this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of Magic: The Gathering. What are your events to promote this milestone?

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Happy 20th birthday, MTG!

FT: Well this year, we’ll be having the Spartan Cup. We’re partnered with Laro Convention. It’s going to be the first local tournament that’s going to give that big amount. It’s like PHP 300,000 worth of prizes, so that’s the first time this is going to happen. There’s going to be 300 people invited to the event. Towards the end of the year, we’re going to have our usual Gold Rush tournament [which will have] PHP 100,000 in prizes. It’s going to be open so anyone can join, it’s not invite only. First place, because we call it Gold Rush, last year we started giving out jewelry. Actual gold (laughs). Last year for the first place, we gave out a ring like an NBA championship ring. This year, I’m still thinking what kind of jewelry to do, probably a ring again. I’m toying with the idea of a bracelet like a WSOP (World Series of Poker) bracelet but if it’s more expensive, maybe not because that usually needs a lot more gold than a ring but we’ll see. Every year, around September, there’s an MTG celebration where people can play for free. We give away free products. It sort of coincides with MTG‘s anniversary although it’s really in August, but [WotC] celebrates it in September.

30lives: It is said that about a third of MTG’s revenues are from Magic: The Gathering Online and 2/3 is in Paper Magic. Do you have customers who also play MTGO?

FT: Yeah, we do. When MTGO first came out, I had apprehensions. I felt “Oh my god, WotC is going to compete with us”. But now I don’t really feel that threatened.  1/3 is a really big amount for them, but we’ve never really felt that MTGO hurt our business. We’ve never felt a dip [in growth], there were years that were flat in our business. The people who play it, they don’t leave the paper game. It is something they can do when they want but at the end of the day, the people they play with in MTGO are not their friends, [they’re] not the people they know. It’s not the people who know you by name. They know your handle, like you’re R2D2-PH, they know that, but they don’t know you. I guess people still want that relationship when they’re playing these games so that’s how I see it. It’s really a big business for WotC, but it’s something that I have no idea [about]. There is no way for me to tap into that market [so] I just look at it as it’s keeping people in MTG even if they do not have the time [to play Paper Magic]. But with the online element, at least they have somewhere to go to. Eventually if they have the time again, they can go back to the shop to play Paper Magic again.

30lives: Ah, so you view it more as complementary.

FT: I think it is. It probably competes with [Paper Magic]. Everyone has a set amount of money that you can spend in a hobby. It probably competes in that aspect, but you don’t really lose players to it. If anything, it probably complements it.

30lives: So what do you think are the pros and cons of playing the digital version?

FT: Recently, there’s this game called Duels of the Planeswalkers (DotP).

30lives: Yeah, I actually learned the game through DoTP 2010 on the XBOX 360.

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My MTG training wheels: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2010

FT: Through that? See? It’s a digital game that on the surface looks like it’s competing with the paper game. But I think what happens is people download the game and realize that “Hey, I CAN actually play this game!”. Because before when they see it at the shop, it looks intimidating. Now what happens is when they see it on the app store, “I’ll download the free demo copy so I don’t have to pay for it”, and then [they realize that] “Oh, it’s not that hard!”. Sometimes people are afraid to ask when they go in the store and see people playing “How do you play this game?”. DotP allows them to do that even if they’re shy, [just] download it, play the game, and [realize] “Ah! It’s not hard at all!”. Now when they go back to the shop, they’re a bit more confident and then they ask about the game. So I think things like that help grow the game and not deter people from it. I like to look at it as positive rather than competing with the paper game. Even WotC has a program that if you download it…

30lives: You’ll get a special card for free.

FT: So what do you do with that card? You have it play it in the paper game (laughs). So they’re doing that to help promote the [paper] game.

30lives: Just to share, DotP actually enabled me to play Paper Magic. I learned how to play the game through it and eventually I wanted to also own the actual cards of the Planeswalkers in the game. I decided to play Paper Magic although casually, but still I got to buy the cards in the stores and it also made me curious to try and build my own decks. So it’s really more of an enabler.

FT: Yeah, I think that’s what it is. The first time I heard about MTGO, I was really worried. After sometime [though], I realized that it’s not going to be a problem. It’s actually synergistic with what we’re doing. Even DotP, it only gives you a taste of what Magic is. Even if you download the game and you pay for it, it’s not a full game. It’s a limited game and eventually if you really like it, then you’ll go to the paper game. I think it’s doing a great job at it.

30lives (Alex): That’s what frustrates me about DotP.

FT: It leaves you hanging? (laughs)

30lives (Alex): Yeah. And you can’t really make your own deck. It’s not like the old MTG game, the one with Microprose that plays like an RPG.

FT: Yeah, you go around, and every time you beat somebody, you get extra cards. I love that game.

30lives (Alex): Yeah, you can build your own deck there.

FT: And you can also make broken decks. Like if you have 20 Lightning Bolts, you can put them all in your deck.

3olives: So it doesn’t have restrictions in the number of cards, like now you can only have 4 copies in a deck?

FT: It doesn’t have restrictions. It’s more of an RPG, every time you beat somebody, you get a card. So if you get the same cards, you can just put everything in there.

30lives: Wow, you can make a super broken deck.

FT: Just put in 15 lands and 45 Lightning Bolts. (laughs)

30lives: Bolt everything!

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MTG RPG Shandalar

FT: It was a ridiculous game but it was fun. It was called Shandalar.

30lives: What do you think of the people who are more into trading the cards to make a profit than actually playing the game? Are you affected by them?

FT: I think they’re a part of the system. The reason they’re there is they are providing a service that the community actually needs. If nobody patronized them, they wouldn’t be there. There’s a need for what they’re offering, and that’s what they’re catering to. My relationship with them… I don’t see them as parasites, except when they are actually starting to hurt the shops. Some of them do, like if they start competing with the shop directly. However, most of the time, I think the relationship is commensal. They hang around the shop, they don’t really hurt you but they add to the attraction. It’s not something that I view negatively. There must be something positive that they bring.

30lives (Alex): There cards must have come from somewhere. Maybe from hustling? (laughs)

FT: Exactly. Yeah, it’s really like that. In any ecosystem, no matter how lowly you are on the food chain, you’re still doing something. And if we take it out, the whole food chain crumbles. They’re part of that whole trading card game ecosystem and in any part of the world, it’s the same thing. There are really professional card traders.

30lives: Yeah. I’ve heard something although I’m not sure if it’s entirely true. There’s a guy who bought a lot of Jace TMS (The Mind Sculptor) before here, and then he went to Singapore and sold it for double the price he got locally.

FT: Yeah, that’s true. It’s kind of like the stock market. If you know what you’re doing the returns are actually even better. But you really have to know what you’re doing, there should be due diligence. You’re not always going to get a lucky break. There are also people who get burned. At the end of the day, you just need to be true to yourself and ask “Why did I get into this?”. Is it because of the hobby? If it is, then you enjoy it. If you get into it because you think it’s a [profitable] business, then do your business ethically and professionally. Walang basagan ng trip. The moment that you start doing something and start hurting somebody else, that’s the only time that it becomes negative. Even when you’re playing, you can’t have fun at the expense of somebody else. You can’t be rude to your opponent if he’s losing and you’re taunting him [all the time], that’s not good. If I see someone doing that, I’ll throw him out of the store. I don’t like to see you cussing your opponent, both of you cussing each other. That’s not tolerable [behavior]. We’re all here to have fun, and it’s the same thing with the traders. As long as you’re doing your thing ethically and you’re not hurting anyone, by all means. You’re part of the whole thing. This hobby has many facets: some people are good at collecting, some people are good at playing, some people are good at trading, and some people are good at posting in Facebook about it (laughs). It’s different things. Whatever you take out of this hobby, as long as you’re having fun, and you’re not hurting anybody, it’s your right.

30lives (Alex): We heard that you’re releasing a card game or was it a board game?

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It’s about time we see a new PH-developed board game!

FT: Actually, I am in talks with two game designers and we’re finalizing stuff. One guy is finalizing the art, the other guy needs to finalize the gameplay. Once it’s done, I plan to publish the games because right now we have a lot of Filipino gamers and I’m pretty sure there are a lot of aspiring game designers but they don’t have the outlet or the avenue, or anybody who will take them seriously. I think right now Neutral Grounds is in a very good position to actually enable these people. If they have a good idea, I’ll publish their game. Anybody out there who thinks that they have a good game idea, as long as they’re not sensitive, because when they present it to me I will criticize it. I will tell you if your game is shit. I don’t know if you can publish that (laughs). But if you’re not too sensitive, go ahead and approach me [and] show me your game. If I believe it’s a good game, then we’ll publish it. If I think it’s a good game but it needs some polish, I’ll tell you. I’ll give you [my] inputs. That’s what I want to happen because I think the last serious board game that came out from the Philippines was Games of the Generals, and that’s a long time ago. Recently, there’s one released called Mismo, the name itself [though] limits it to the Philippines. It’s a trivia game about Philippines. Right off the bat, they’re limiting their market. I’m thinking of making Filipino-made games and then try to market it outside.

30lives: Make it accessible globally.

FT: Yes. There’s no reason why Filipinos can’t make games.

30lives: We’re big fans of games.

FT: We love games. So there’s really no reason we can’t make it. I’d like to give these aspiring game designers a chance.

3olives: Is this going to be a physical product?

FT: I want to make physical board games. I am not really familiar on how to turn it into an app. That’s not where I am in a sense, I’m more familiar with the actual, physical game. But of course once we publish it, I’m open to the idea. If it’s easily portable to an app, why not? That’s perfectly fine. If I can get partners who can do that, I’ll do business with them. Why limit? But right now if they come to me, my idea is really to publish it physically. That’s my pet project right now; this is something that I really want to happen. Hopefully by next year, I’ll have something out.

30lives: Right now there are a few options?

FT: There are two games I’m looking at right now. One is a board game, the other one is a card game. It’s not a trading card game though, it’s just a card game.

30lives (Alex): You’ve mentioned earlier your participation in Laro Con. Can you give us a rundown of what to expect from you in the event?

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Freddie Tan with Alex of 30lives

FT: There’s the Spartan Cup with the PHP 300,000 worth of prizes. 300 players. We’re keeping it within the 300 theme, that’s why we called it Spartan.  There’s also Warhammer Mega Battles, these are purely casual, big games. People just [need to] bring their stuff and just play. It’s not really like a tournament, it’s just going to be fun. We will also have a Cardfight!! Vanguard tournament. We also have free play for board games and demos, mostly [to get] people to play. So that’s what we’re doing on our part for the convention.

30lives: By the way, the cosplayer booth babe that you had for the convention, is she still going to be there?

FT: Christine is still going to be there.

30lives: Have you finalized what costume she will be wearing for the event?

FT: I think she’s going to be Akroma, Angel of Wrath.

30lives: Was that chosen by the community?

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My whole vampire deck will be pretty much annihilated by this.

FT: Partly. But we also pushed it to be an angel [creature] because what the convention organizers wanted to do was have a pictorial with Christine and make an angel token (card). We’re sort of set [with the fact that] it has to be an angel character. It was just a question of “Which angel?”. Akroma seems to be the most popular angel among the fans, so we chose her. She’s going to be carrying a big sword. She’s also going to have [to wear] wings.

30lives: I’m more of an Avacyn fan (laughs). And Liliana. That was initially what I was hoping she’d cosplay.

FT: The only reason why we had to rule out Liliana because we can’t really make Liliana tokens. We wanted to give fans a souvenir that they can actually use in the game. The only logical choice [left] is an angel token, so we limited ourselves to angel characters.

3olives: Will there be a photo opportunity with her?

FT: Yes, she will be in the booth. She will be demo-ing, but most of the time I just expect her to be having pictures taken with the fans.

30lives: Well, thank you very much for providing us with your time to talk with us! We had a lot of fun.

FT: You’re welcome. Thank you.

We’d like to thank again Freddie Tan for giving us time and sharing with us his thoughts on the local gaming scene. You can visit Neutral Grounds here, and like them on Facebook here. Please look forward to our interview with the organizers of Laro Convention 2013 tomorrow!