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While networks continue to churn out more and more series focused on fantasy or the supernatural, Syfy’s new competition series, Wizard Wars, prefers to make magic from the ordinary. To start each round, competitors are given several ordinary objects, which they must incorporate into their performances and tricks. The result, to quote an episode of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, is “The battle / For supremacy / Amongst the masters of magic! / Wizard Battle!” (Cue noodling guitar riff).
Wizard Wars is of a similar vein to Syfy’s other creative competition series like Face Off, Hot Set, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, among others. But what makes Wizard Wars different, besides its live studio audience, is its layered competition. In each episode, four competitors are randomly split up into two teams. After a head-to-head competition, the winning team moves on to the next round, where it challenges another two-person team of professional magicians. The results are, once more, judged on creativity, deception and showmanship by a panel of experts. If the amateurs win, they receive $10,000.
There’s something innately unfair, though, about the amateurs being forced to play against the house, especially when the “home team” is made up of professionals. Those professionals, known as “wizards,” include international sleight of hand champion Gregory Wilson, mentalist and runner-up of NBC’s Phenomenon, Angela Funovits, Las Vegas illusionist Shimshi and popular YouTube street magician Justin Flom, who helped co-create the series. On the other hand, it keeps the stakes high, and when the amateurs prevail, there’s a much stronger sense of triumph.
Wizard Wars approaches its attention to magic in ways outside of competition, as well. While the mechanics behind the illusions used by the competitors are not revealed, there is time taken by Penn & Teller, who serve as judges (alongside magic critic Christen Gerhart and the Grand Prix’s world champion of magic, Jason Latimer), to reveal how to do certain magic acts during the show. In the premiere, for example, the duo use host Ellen Fox to illustrate how a trick using tins of mints works, while the challengers and wizards prepare their final routines.
Wizard Wars moves fast, wasting no time in immediately introducing its wizards and their tricks. And unlike Face Off or similar shows, it keeps the chronicling of the creation process to a minimum. In pretaped segments shown to the audience, challengers wander through the show’s “magic shop” to find additional props for their performances, and a few behind-the-scenes moments of prep are revealed. Gone, however, are any anxious dramas about whether or not competitors will finish in time, or if they butt heads over their collaborations, which leaves the focus only on the quality of the final routines.
The spirit of Wizard Wars is of collaboration, mutual appreciation and showing off rad tricks. The layers of competition make for a very crowded VIP section, though, with four wizards and four judges who oversee the proceedings from a lofted area; it can be confusing at first to figure out who everyone is and what role they play. Audience members also are a part of things, as they are seated casually around tables and on couches and almost always kept in view, occasionally being incorporated into the routines as volunteers. This collaborative atmosphere and casual framework may keep Wizard Wars from being the battle royal of Adventure Time‘s “Wizard Battle,” but it’s still fun, as its performers manage to mutate the mundane into magic.
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