In 1993, Magic: The Gathering was riding high off of the Alpha and Beta sets. Wanting to capitalize on this and congregate players together outside of tournaments and store announcements, Wizards of the Coast decided to do what every hobby and gaming group did before the internet: They made a magazine.
Titled The Duelist, the first issue came out in the Fall of 1993 to help show off the new Arabian Nights expansion. Originally quarterly, The Duelist was soon bumped up to being a monthly magazine. By 1995, it was found all over thanks to card games becoming accepted as a gaming medium and with people like Magic inventor Richard Garfield were giving monthly columns in it. They did give a little focus to other games like Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and Legend of the Five Rings, but it was by and large Magic-based.
One of the biggest drawing points for The Duelist was the artwork. It seems like every Magic artist at the time took turns creating a unique cover art, often an expansion or reinterpretation of one of their artworks that was used for a card. While other gaming magazines would only use stock photos or a simple copying of a card or still image, The Duelist brought out something unique, a feature that helped boost sales because, let’s admit it, it’s pretty damn awesome. It even helped them win some magazine awards.
A lot of now regular Magic rules and tournament types also came out of the magazine, such as Standard tournaments. In issue #4, there was an article about a crazy new tournament concept where only cards from the last few sets would be accepted. With a proposed name of ‘Type II’, the article even said “We think Type II will become a staple of the tournament circuit.” Type II, of course, was eventually renamed Standard, with the tournament being one of the largest ones Magic was offering within five years. At the same time, things like deck lists from The Magic Dojo and other websites were cast down upon in articles, despite being quite normal only a few years later.
While there were columns by Magic luminaries that were given vaguely game related names (Garfield’s ‘Lost in the Shuffle’ anyone?), there were also articles covering tournaments, price lists, and general Magic strategy. But The Duelist also gave surprises to readers. Taking a page from Sports Illustrated for Kids and their free monthly tear-off sports cards, The Duelist went one step further and actually included the occasional real card inside. These included such gems such as the Nalathni Dragon and an alternate version of Scent of Cinder.
At its peak, The Duelist was large enough to warrant having a newsletter called The Duelist Companion and later a companion magazine called The Duelist Sideboard to focus on Magic tournaments.
For Magic and The Duelist, things were riding high. But then came two unexpected bumps: the internet and Pokémon.
The Duelist had for years been exclusively covering Magic, but Wizards soon had an explosion of new popularity in the late 90’s thanks to their Star Wars and Pokémon games. Video games had also become a focus. With most of the magazine now focusing on other games, and the beloved cover art now being replaced by other games most months, The Duelist was seen by many players to have lost what made it special.
The change over to a more general gaming strategy was made official in 1999 when The Duelist was officially halted and a new magazine, TopDeck, was created. While there were still a few Magic related articles coming out, the internet by this time had come full force and most Magic related things could be found online, even if it was dial-up and took nearly three minutes to load a 200x200 pixel image.
TopDeck didn’t fare as well though, and it only lasted until early 2001. Hasbro had bought WotC by this time and they needed to cut costs somewhere. TopDeck was simply a victim of that.
While Magic hasn’t had a paper magazine since, some of the older Duelist content made its way over to the official site, most notably columns by Mark Rosewater and others. In an odd way, The Duelist lives on at magicthegathering.com.