When the Professor launched his first ever Kickstarter campaign last week, he was ready for a long, busy day monitoring progress and putting out fires. Instead, he found himself “watching a movie of someone else running a successful Kickstarter”, as his next-generation TCG deckbox attracted over $1 million in pledges in 12 hours!
With three weeks still to go in its campaign, The Academic deckbox is already entering the leaderboard for all-time top-grossing tabletop Kickstarters; an astounding story for a project which was set to be funded at $50,000.
But it’s believable when you consider that through his Tolarian Community College YouTube channel, the Professor has the largest online following in Magic, bigger than WotC themselves. A following that he built largely through his scrupulous, passionate product reviews for every deckbox and card sleeve on the market.
The Professor’s videos have shaped the market for deckboxes for nearly a decade, so announcing his own signature design seems long overdue. But as he explains:
“I had always been told I should do a deckbox, but I didn’t just want to stamp my logo on an existing deckbox. But I don’t know how to design a deckbox, or how to contact a factory to manufacture it, or any of that. So I just never thought it would happen.”
This conundrum had no solution until a year or two ago, when The Professor became familiar with celebrated product designer Adrian Alonso. Alonso was doing impressive work through his new company Gamegenic, but Prof soon realized the same man was also behind the revolutionary product line that had helped Ultimate Guard break into the spotlight years ago.
“Although I had been giving glowing reviews to many of Adrian’s products for years, it was not until a few years ago that I ever met him or even knew that he had designed so many of my favorite products across multiple companies.
When I did, the idea of having him help me to design my dream deck box began to enter my head, but I started small by asking how open he would be to maybe putting my logo on one of his Gamegenic boxes. He refused, saying that he would only work with me if we created something new, and that’s when I knew we were both of a like mind and destined to make this deckbox.”
The respect and desire to work together was mutual. Alonso, for his part, claims to have been watching Tolarian Community College since its very first sleeve review. Even before they were properly introduced, he’d contacted The Professor to ask if Gamegenic could quote TCC’s review scores on their packaging. So despite his own impressive track record with deckbox design, Alonso was committed to letting Prof guide this project. As he described in a video recorded for the Kickstarter, he wanted the box of the Professor’s dreams; his wants, his must-haves, and with the features that Prof had loved from Alonso’s previous deckboxes.
Shaping the Idea
So what was the first goal The Professor laid down for designing The Academic?
“My first biggest priority was to create a deck box that was as universal as possible. I didn’t want Modern players to say “Oh, that’s really just for Commander players” or vice versa. I wanted to make something to wow Flesh And Blood and Digimon players alike. Beyond that, I expressed that some players want to put smaller deck boxes in such a product, and others do not. That some want top loaders, and others want decks sleeved in KMC Perfect Hards and room for tons of tokens. We just kept going from there.
I was thinking of what made all of my A, and A+, and even a few A- deckboxes over the years great, and could there be a box that handled all of that? For example there’s vast differences between a Boulder and a Satin Tower and a Watchtower – is there a way that all three can essentially be made into 1 deckbox? That was a lot of the thinking: I really wanted the all-in-one deckbox, one box for everybody.”
Trying to create a single product which caters to such a huge variety of users is a formidable task, but The Professor was uniquely well equipped for it. His visibility and approachable persona have long made him a lightning rod for consumer feedback and questions regarding the accessories he reviews, and he took pains to ensure everyone’s fundamental needs would be accommodated by The Academic. He carefully chose its internal dimensions to accommodate the actual decks – and other accessories – he knew people would pack into it.
“I said I want a deckbox that I can also put deckboxes in! Because a lot of people want to take all their Boulders or a myriad variety of single-deck boxes, and they just want to put them inside this box. And then some people would just want to put their cards in it. So I said, “It would be great if it could do both – fit the deckboxes as well as the cards, as well as toploaders, and have that modularity! But I don’t know how to do that, I’m not a designer”. And I could see a reaction in his eyes of “Oh, goodness, what is this guy asking for…”
In fact, Alonso was able to achieve the desired modularity, thanks to a plastic divider which can be re-slotted around the compartment to fit the current contents. The maximum capacity of “133 double-sleeved cards” was then decided using manufacturer calculations for card and sleeve thickness. This ensured it would fit even the bulkiest triple-sleeved foil Commander deck (or just an ordinary double-sleeved Commander deck, plus some space for tokens).
The Professor was equally deliberate when designing The Academic’s smaller drawers:
“What was interesting about that was finding ways that the needs of different communities could come together. For example I really liked that as a Flesh & Blood player I could have a Blitz deck – which is one of my favorite ways to play Flesh & Blood – in each of the Academic’s two trays. Which is great for being able to give one to a friend or have two to switch between myself.
But the fact we made the trays that size also means you can divide an extra Commander deck between the trays, if it’s single-sleeved. It’s not ideal, but a lot of people like to keep a low-level or precon Commander deck on them, for a friend or a new player to play with, and they tend not to double-sleeve those anyway because they’re just not that valuable a deck.
I liked the idea that in the same way a Flesh & Blood player might have a couple Blitz decks in those trays, a Commander player might have a low-level deck in them. And of course for players who need to carry a load of dice or tokens, you can do that. So it starts to tick a lot of boxes!”
With The Professor as its aware and compassionate overseer, it suddenly seemed reasonable that the project could create “a deckbox for everyone”. But it was wholly reliant on Adrian Alonso being able to innovate the design features which could realize that vision – like that clever little divider. The Professor wasn’t kidding when he told Alonso “You’re the only person I could have done this with.”
While designing deckboxes for Ultimate Guard, Alonso was credited with innovating many of the features which defined their brand. Their wraparound “flip” lids reduced wear on deckboxes, made them space-efficient, and prevented them from being jostled open. The adoption of internal trays eliminated all sorts of small pain points when moving cards in or out of the deckbox proper.
Of course, these innovations were quickly adopted by competitors, becoming a new industry standard – which means that for the Academic, Alonso’s goal had to be surpassing his old work. Now the flip lid can fully detach and magnetize neatly to the box’s underside, keeping it safely out of the way while you get at your cards. And those internal trays now sport magnetized side walls, which fold down so you can easily lift out the contents instead of prying or shaking them loose. While The Professor may be the one staking his name on this project, it’s clear that his co-creator invested great effort to ensure The Academic would represent the leading edge of deckbox technology.
Still, the general shape seen in the flashy Kickstarter previews is very reminiscent of those famous Ultimate Guard products – aside from the Tolarian Community College branding. The decision to refine current deckbox designs rather than revolutionize them is one of the early criticisms The Professor has been faced with:
“A lot of people have commented that the Academic isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to deckboxes, but I didn’t want that – I just wanted a wheel that fit on every car! But we did at one point have a design that I think was trying to do that, and when I received that first prototype we had to go into further conversations about it. Because I think when you’re in that territory it’s a real tightrope that you’re walking – it might not end up being a deckbox for anybody! Because it is just so drastically different…
… I think we went through about 3 major designs and their iterations before reaching the final product. At one point we were very close to pulling the trigger on something that looked nothing like the current Academic; it was METAL, for example, and had a very different function!
But it was extremely expensive, and I was insistent on it using even more expensive materials – and it just kind of fell apart as a viable option. It was very innovative! But when I got the prototype it just didn’t feel right.”
Material costs have been a constant concern through The Academic’s design process. The Professor has had to take on all financial risk for this project himself, with Alonso and Gamegenic merely supportive partners he’s retained to handle design and manufacturing. Keeping costs down is simply prudent for this adventurous first Kickstarter, especially when The Professor is dead set on offering The Academic at the price point he thinks is fair for a “premium product”.
Both Prof and Alonso have repeatedly employed that phrase when describing their goals for The Academic and its position in the accessories market. For Alonso, the “premium” label isn’t tied to a specific price point, but rather a product which delivers ideal value and function for the price it’s sold at. His video interview on the Kickstarter page includes a handful of anecdotes which show how that ideal value is achieved: attention to detail. At one point, Alonso claims to have personally spent two long workdays at Gamegenic’s factory just perfecting the sound of the deckbox lid closing!
For The Professor, the specifics of price and quality are simply a reflection of what his audience deserves from The Academic – nothing more, nothing less:
“My goal was not commercial success so much as it was the success of the product. I wanted to show what I could do, what I could bring to the table. Combining the highest quality materials at the lowest prices was difficult, and many urged me to add 5-10 dollars onto the price to more easily cushion my own pockets, but that wasn’t what I was interested in doing. I know the deckbox is not budget, but I feel proud knowing it is still in what i feel is a very reasonable price point.”
Currently available with any Kickstarter pledge of $45USD or more, The Academic is definitely landing towards the luxury side of the deckbox market. But this does seem like a natural fit for such a special, limited-edition and feature-rich product as fans of Tolarian Community College would surely expect. As The Prof described it:
“I know a lot of people do have six, seven commander decks. They also have that one special one… the one with the Locust God alter, and the special tokens, and the inner sleeves, or whatever their special thing might be. And (The Academic) is the home for that one.”
A Community Campaign
The instant success of the Kickstarter shows The Professor has judged his audience correctly with this kind of luxury deckbox. It’s just further confirmation of a remarkable talent for connecting with and rallying the online public; one which can be seen not only in his long-term Youtube success, but also in how he has organized and promoted various charity drives in the Magic community. Last Halloween, Tolarian Community College coordinated a mass giveaway campaign that raised $142,689 dollars for Trans Lifeline in just one weekend.
That knack for entertainment and keeping a cause fresh in the mind will be essential to prolonging The Academic’s momentum on Kickstarter. On that note, the Professor is very excited to share some of the planned incentives and stretch goals for backers:
“There’s a LOT of really cool extras for the Academic to be revealed through Kickstarter, both as stretch goals and as add-ons. We’ve already unveiled the Size-Morph Divider: an adaptive divider which provides an additional buffer which keeps your cards safely in place in the deckbox. This is a really cool innovative accessory that again, was developed based on my telling Adrian “it’s really too bad that if I have something smaller like a Modern deck in this and it’s jiggling around, it might fall over!” But then people have different-sized decks and different sleeves, so how do we find a way to keep all of them snugly fit? And so the Size-Morph Divider was developed!
There’s many other accessories, big and small, which we developed as fun add-ons that will be unveiled over the course of the campaign. As well as some special extras and thank-yous. So stay tuned!”
While naturally riding high at the moment on his momentous launch and the outpouring of community support for his signature deckbox, The Professor is still quietly sure that this adventure won’t end up distracting from or derailing his #1 project: the Tolarian Community College Youtube channel. There are no immediate plans for further marketing and distribution of The Academic (so get in and back the Kickstarter if you want to own one!), nor for any follow-up collaboration with Gamegenic.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he jokes, “because nothing like this has ever happened before, and I have no idea if it can ever happen again!”
Instead, Magic’s most respected faculty member will go right back to reviewing the deckboxes and other accessories he is now technically competing with. Does he think his newfound perspective on the industry and its challenges will affect the videos?
“No, I’ve been doing this for close to 9 years now and I pretty much know what my process is; that hasn’t changed from this experience. I’ve never approached things, whether it’s a Magic: The Gathering product or an accessory, and let any behind-the-scenes stuff I know influence my feelings.
I always come at it from a consumer standpoint – just what am I getting for the money, and what do I think of that? And that’s how I’m going to continue to do it.”
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.