Local filmmakers tackle Magic: The Gathering in Planeswalkers documentary

Planeswalkers aims to illuminate the Magic: The Gathering subculture.
Planeswalkers aims to illuminate the Magic: The Gathering subculture.

With more than ten million players worldwide, a twenty-year history and a tournament circuit that awards hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the top players, it's fair to say that Magic: The Gathering is a juggernaut in the gaming industry. Despite that, it's never garnered the same kind of attention lavished on other gaming phenomenons like World of Warcraft, perhaps due to the complex nature of the game and the insularity of its community. Local production company Broken Science Productions aims to change that with Planeswalkers, a feature-length documentary that digs deep into the game and the people who play it. Before the film premieres in May, we sat down to talk about the film with producers Ray and Vince Cruz and director Karen Cruz.

See also: I'm a sports nut for Magic: The Gathering

Westword: Are you Magic players?

Vince Cruz: No.

Karen Cruz: I'm barely learning.

So if you don't play, how did you come to make a documentary about the game and its culture?

Vince Cruz: I was looking around for a comic-book shop and Googled up a shop that happened to be in the same strip mall as a Magic shop. We pulled up to what I thought was a comic-book store, but when I went in I didn't see any comics. I saw all the tables full of game players. There was a competition going on. I was like, "What the hell is this?"

I went up to the counter to ask where the comics are, because it looked like a comic store. There were toys and stuff everywhere; it looks pretty similar. The guy was like, "Yeah this happens all the time, it's at the other end." Instead of leaving, I walked around and checked it out, looking at all these people coming and going, carrying these binders and backpacks. So I called these guys and said, "Hey, you have to check this out. This is awesome." You could tell there was kind of a culture going on, an energy, a vibe.

Karen Cruz: I've been interested in shooting a documentary for years, just kind of wondering what it should be. When Vince told us about this shop, I remembered all my friends who used to play, and it was really intriguing. It's very complex, but also so much fun. We talked on it and decided we should shoot this, maybe just as a small web series. Ray [Cruz] and I went in and asked the shop owner at Above and Beyond Games if we could shoot and he was very receptive and open. We started shooting there and it snowballed into something so much bigger. We're here a year later and we have a feature.

Ray Cruz: What we noticed is there were so many different people playing. Professionals, people who were clean-cut, others who weren't -- just different kinds of people. We were like --

Karen Cruz: There's a story here.

What is the scope of the documentary? Is it the Denver Magic scene? Or the game as a whole? Something in between?

Karen Cruz: We found out that Denver kind of has a niche. We have a ton of gaming stores, like 28 to 30-plus. Even though that's kind of a microscopic view, I think that can be relatable and applicable to other parts of the country. It fits great. It's niche enough that it's like, "This is Denver Magic," but broad enough that someone in sees this in Illinois, or California or New York will say, "Yes, this is me! I have friends like that, I have stores like that. I know people like that and I go to tournaments like this." It all fell together very well.

Vince Cruz: The documentary at this point is about Denver and the people in Denver who play Magic. We realized this was going to be a huge feat. We've had people comment on our boards, "Why didn't you go out to here? You're not telling the story of this or that." We're not trying to tell that story. We're trying to tell the story of the little niche we found here in Colorado. That's really where it's at.

Did you run into any issues along the way?

Vince Cruz: A couple comments were made [about our first trailer], some of the people were like, "That's your typical Magic nerd, we don't want to be seen that way." Well, he happened to be a Magic player and we interviewed him, sorry. We had to cut another trailer to show that we're not going to be biased, we're not trying to focus on the nerds of the Magic community. It's about everyone. Some people loved it. Other people were like, "Hey, that's not us." We wanted to be sure to tread lightly on that, not to only showcase who we thought were characters for the film, but showcase real Magic players -- professionals, normal people, [all of that].

Karen Cruz: I'm sure that there was trepidation on their part, letting these people into their world. We listened to people's feedback and used that to branch out a little more. We were always planning on branching out -- that trailer was cut within the first month of filming. People were interested in seeing how the footage looked and what we were capable of. It turned out to be a good experience because we listened to the feedback and we responded to the criticism well. We also realized, "Hey, these people are probably a little nervous to let us film them and let people in." Keep reading for more on Magic: The Gathering  

Director Karen Cruz watches the game unfold.
Director Karen Cruz watches the game unfold.

Who do you see as your audience? Karen Cruz: There is a balancing act between the cinephiles who love film and see a lot of documentaries and the people who play and love Magic. Obviously we want them, too. It's a balancing act between educating people about the game, but then showing people's lives. I think what appeals to both audiences is showing the lives outside of Magic, and the drama that goes on between people. We met washed-up pros. We met underdogs. The one female Magic player we followed is an amazing girl. She's so intelligent, so smart. She doesn't really have a chip on her shoulder, but she knows she's part of something that's predominantly male and she wants to prove [herself]. She has all these goals and aspirations that we found incredible and inspirational. I'm sure there are dozens of female Magic players just like her, but these are the people we're exhibiting so people who watch the film, whether they're part of the film crowd or Magic crowd, can identify with those struggles and life events.

Now that you've gone through the process of making this documentary and learned how to play, what do you think of Magic as a game?

Karen Cruz: I like it. It's fun.

It's a very addictive game.

Karen Cruz: It is addictive.

Do you play a lot of games? Board games, card games, video games?

Karen Cruz: I play a lot of video games. I love video games. Some card games, mostly just because I have grandparents. I play with them, but I don't really play outside of that scenario. This, though, it was so ... it's not a simple game, but once you're bitten by that game... I started out just playing on my iPad with Duels of the Planeswalkers [Editor's note: an introductory version of the game made for tablet, console and computer play] and as a new player, I was nervous to play with another player. It can be intimidating.

I started out with that, then bought some cards. I'm hoping to continue. The images on the cards and the creativity that goes into it [are great], but also the left-brain portion of it. There's a lot of calculated moves you have to do and be thinking about what they have in their hand and what you have to fight that. In high school I had a lot of friends who played and I always wanted to learn, but I was intimidated. That's part of why I knew this would be perfect [as a documentary subject].

You're aiming for a May premiere?

Karen Cruz: Yes, late May or early June. It kind of depends on post-production, and then what theaters are available to show it. It's something we want to get done on time, but you don't want to rush it and make it mediocre. We've been nose to the grindstone for like three months.

After the premiere, what's the plan? Do you have distribution lined up? Will you be submitting to festivals?

Ray Cruz: That's the thing we are looking into right now. We're trying to get in touch with Wizards of the Coast, who make the game, to make sure it's going to be okay to release it.

Karen Cruz: We feel a lot of it falls under fair use, but we're just making sure, covering our asses, asking permission instead of forgiveness. But after that, starting in June, there's film festivals that I think would love to have this.

Vince Cruz: Of course there's the Internet, too. We've looked into Netflix and how they acquire documentaries and what kind of documentaries they have on there. And there are players who want to see it, we may be doing digital copies. We're trying to get some kind of online distribution via streaming.

Karen Cruz: If there were some way to distribute it to Magic shops, that would be great.

What else do you want to say before we're done?

Vince Cruz: We're very proud of where we're at, what we have in our hands. It's going to have the right message and it's going showcase the community in a way that non-Magic players can appreciate and a way the Magic community will say, "Hey, they did a good job."

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