An Open Discussion Between Jack and Pale Mage Concerning Hurting Cats

“There is still tech available. There’s just a lot more noise.”

“We didn’t need pros. We needed writers. And I didn’t need to be good. We were wrong.”

The Ferrett, Hurting Cats

“Ward, I’m worried about The Ferrett.”

“What’s that, dude?”

“Aagh! Jack, I wish you wouldn’t sneak up on me like that.”

“Dude, sorry.”

“I thought I was alone.”

“Hey, don’t get your panties in a wad. Whatcha doin’? Writing again?”

“No, I was reading.”

“Another bad habit you should break, man. Whatcha readin’?”

“An article by The Ferrett. It’s called ‘Hurting Cats’.”

“Man. Now I’m worried about The Ferrett. That’s sick.”

“He’s not talking about hurting cats.”

“Oh. What’s it about then?”

“Well, a lot of things. In the end, he’s talking about playtesting groups.”

“Is this more of that Magic thing you’ve been sucked into, dude?”

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

“I’d better sit down.”

“I’ve been letting a lot of people suck in serious formats… And that’s wrong.”

The Ferrett, Hurting Cats

“The beginning of this thing had me in a panic. The Head Rodent In Charge is talking like he’s done something wrong with StarCity. In his original vision, he claims all he needed were writers, and now he says that’s wrong.”

“He is wrong. No one needs writers… Not unless you need more coffee or the check.”

“You’re thinking of actors, Jack.”

“Oh, right, I forgot. Writers don’t have the ambition to wait tables.”

“I’m serious about this, all right? It took me a minute to figure out, but his point is reading Magic articles will not make one a better Magic player.”

“That makes sense, even to me, and I don’t play the game.”

“Right, but here’s the thing. Once upon a time, there was this thing called The Dojo. It was an internet site that published articles regarding Magic. Strategy, theory, etc.”


“Now, Magic started in ’93. The internet was not a ubiquitous entity then. Time passes, the game becomes more popular, and then serious competitive play comes into the equation – a la the Pro Tour. At the same time, internet access is becoming more widespread. Also at the same time, theories are being discovered and developed on the game that change the way players play. These two things, the maturing of competitive Magic play and the growth of the internet meant The Dojo was gold.”

“I don’t get it, man.”

“Look at it this way, Jack: Suppose you were playing on a football team in the first half of the last century. Everyone is handing the ball off to other players and running.”

“Right. Got it.”

“Now suppose some stranger walked up to you in between plays and explained the concept of the forward pass. Do you think you might have an advantage over the other team?”

“Maybe. Am I playing for the Saints?”

“You would have an advantage. You would also have a similar advantage if you were a pitcher on an 1890’s baseball team, and someone said these simple words to you: Batting is timing, pitching is upsetting timing. Then, that same someone showed you how to throw a curveball and a changeup. You see, The Dojo was that someone. The Dojo had tech.”

“Cool, man. Why aren’t you reading stuff on The Dojo instead of this net rag?”

“Jack, The Dojo is no more. Gone. Pushing up the daisies.”

“Oh. So that means no more tech, huh?”

“It’s not that simple: There are really a couple of issues that have contributed to the so-called demise of tech on the net. The first issue is growth. More people are on the internet today then ever before, and there will be more tomorrow. There are more people playing Magic today then ever before, and there will be more tomorrow. There is also more money to be won on the Pro Tour than there has been in the past.”

“Wait, let me see if I know where you’re goin’ with this.”


“More people are on the net.”


“More people playing Magic.”


“Man, that seems like it would mean more tech, not less… Oh, I got it. The money. No one wants to tell me how to throw a curveball, because the Yankees might sign me as the new reliever and not him.”

“Very good, Jack. That’s where I was going. And that is what the Ferrett is saying.”

“Dude, I don’t buy it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I don’t buy it. That ain’t it.”

“Nobody, except for amateurs looking to make their names, is going to publish a fully-tuned deck that beats everything.”

The Ferrett, Hurting Cats

“Look, dude, you said this game has been getting play since ’93, right?”


“Okay. Now, this whole thing is pretty much a geeky endeavor. Frankly, I think you’re suffering some kind of mid-life crisis for even taking it up, but nevermind. Geeks and scientists and everybody else good at math make it seem like revolutionary things are happening all the time. And they aren’t. That’s a load of crap. If you look at anything people have come up with in this world, including games, you’re going to see the biggest improvements in the first five to ten years. Sometimes twenty, but a lot of that has to do with how fast information travels. Let’s face it; the internet is fast. After the first big jump, everything holds steady for awhile. Then some geek comes along and notices one small thing no one else has thought of before, and you get another big jump.”

“A quantum leap.”

“I figured you’d have a fifty-cent word for it, yeah. Another thing about geeks is that they are power hungry little goblins: Knowledge is power. They just love to show you how much power they have. And the only way to do that is to tell you what they know. Trust me; if someone out there had an idea that would change how people think to play this game, everyone would know about it.”

“Okay. So your position is that the quantum leaps have been made, and now we’re waiting for the next one to come along?”

“Sure, dude.”

“All right. So anyone who is any good at this game already has the original tech. They know about the forward pass, etc. But there are still tons of articles posted on the ‘net every day. Following your line of thought-“

“You’re following me now? I’m scared as hell.”

“-what we have are the people standing on the shoulders of giants, trying to move the boulder forward inch by inch. Anyone going onto the net looking for the next ‘lever’ article, the next quantum leap is not going to find it.”

“Right. There is no tech.”

The Ferrett seems to agree with you. But there’s a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“There is tech.”

“Prove it.”

“Okay. On April 13th of this year-“

“The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Two.”

“Don’t interrupt. On April 13th, the Regional tournaments were held in the United States. Big tournaments, lots of slots in the National tournament to be given away to lucky winners, okay? Everywhere I went on the internet in the weeks prior to the tourney, someone had a brand new Braids deck.”

“What’s a Braids deck?”

“Braids is a card. Here she is.”

“Dude – I think I dated her!”

“Jack, we all dated her. Anyway, Braids was supposed to be the hot deck that would qualify tons of folks for Nats.”

“Okay, so Braids was tech.”

“Nope. That’s not tech. That’s noise, and a lot of it. The week of the Regional tournaments, Sol Malka published an article called The Million Dollar Man. It was a decklist of his own creation with basic play theory, including sideboard choices against all the expected major archetypes, such as Braids.”

“Why is that tech?”

“Because when the dust settled, several people qualified with The Million Dollar Man Deck. It didn’t become a major archetype, but it achieved success. Some folks went out, found his article, built the deck, played it at a major tournament within a week, and qualified for Nationals. Meanwhile, many more people played with Braids decks (although not as many as expected in most regions), and did not qualify. I haven’t run the numbers, but if you compared the played-to-qualified ratio between the decks, I’d bet real money Mister Malka’s deck had better results. Actually, you would need to break the Braids decks into the different styles, but I’d still bet real money.”

“Again, why is it tech?”

“It was an experienced pro player making information available that would not otherwise have been available before a major tournament.”

“Got it. But what’s that prove, dude?”

“There is still tech available. There’s just a lot more noise.”

“Did this Malka guy qualify with his deck?”

“Well, he wasn’t playing in that tournament. He already has an invite to Nationals.”

“Uh-huh. I’m gonna ask you this again, very sweetly: Why is that tech? Let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a sec – if this guy wasn’t already qualified, do you think he would have posted this ‘tech’ on the web? I don’t think so. He would be giving away his entire strategy, and possibly blowing his chance to qualify himself for the brass ring.”

“Jack, that’s a good point, but I think he would’ve posted it anyway. For crying out loud, his signature on discussion forums is ‘You know what I’m playing…beat me if you can’. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays that deck on the first day of competition at Nats. I don’t think he changes decks that often, based on the tourney reports of his I’ve read. He picks a deck he feels will win him matches and just goes for it.”

“Maybe so, dude, but I think you’re missing the point of your furry friend’s statements. Even if what you say is true about this Malka guy, he would be the exception. I don’t think folks would post tech they didn’t believe most other players would already have. Isn’t that The Ferrett point, anyway? It doesn’t sound like he’s saying there isn’t stuff out there; just that the stuff out there isn’t going to greatly benefit the major competition. Anybody looking to read an article and wake up the next World Champion is in need of psychological help. Make sense?”

“Okay, you may be right. Anyway, I think what I was trying to say is that there can be good information if you look hard enough. I don’t believe you’re going to find a machine gun before a knife fight, though.”

“That’s a pretty violent metaphor for a guy like you.”

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“Because ‘Hurting Cats’ isn’t really about tech.”

“Oh. What’s it about?”

“It’s about trying to become a better player. A Pro Tour Player.”

“Experience is more important than boredom.”

The Ferrett, Hurting Cats

“Jack, the only way to get better at any game is to play against the best competition possible as often as you can.”

“Yeah, dude. That’s obvious.”

“Yes, it is, but it’s the obvious things that people screw up. The two best guys to ever play this game (so far) are Jon Finkel and Kai Budde. Jon Finkel stopped playtesting in any serious way some time ago. Kai Budde playtests in his sleep. Jon Finkel just lost his auto invite to the World Championships; if he wants to go, he’ll have to qualify through Nationals. Kai Budde is going to be Pro Player of the Year for the second consecutive year.”

“You don’t have to convince me, dude.”

“Even the Pros who do test can always improve. Did you ever hear of the Magic Colony?”

“No, but I think I’m about to.”

“Simple idea. Stick a bunch of Pro Tour players in a house for month and see if they can come up with the killer deck for Odyssey Block Constructed. Send them off to a Pro Tour event in Japan and see how they fare.”

“That would tell the story.”

“Yeah, but not the whole story. This month, there was another Pro event in France. It was Odyssey Block Limited. Peter Szigeti, one of the players from the Magic Colony experiment finished twenty-third, I believe.”

“So what?”

“Peter Szigeti had never seen the second day of a Pro Tour event in his life, much less placed in the top thirty-two. I don’t think he’d turn in that performance without the Magic Colony experience. The point being, for a month he was playing Magic consistently with a small pool of players who are probably better than his usual crowd, overall. Either that, or the group he normally tests with have fallen into a pattern where he fits a predefined role that he needed a break from.”

“Okay, which is it, dude?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why not?”

“Because no one talks about how they test.”

“Ah. It’s that geek knowledge is power thing. A single geek has to tell you what he knows. A small group of geeks can keep a secret.”

“Jack, could you stop calling people geeks?”

“Sorry, dude. I thought geek was a good thing these days.”

“All right, so The Ferrett is going to kill two birds with one stone. He wants more tech on his site, and the only tech folks are really hoarding is how they test. He wants to be on the tour, or more accurately, he wants to not suck.”

“I see where this is going.”

“Right. Form a team. Publish the tech gathered by aforementioned team.”

“Great. Can we start drinking now, dude?”

“Nope. This is the part where I say to myself ‘Ward, I’m worried about The Ferrett.'”

“I’ll bite. What worries you?”

“Well, he seems to be a big believer in metrics. He’s got a database he’s going to fill, and he’s told us what is going into it. It looks good. And he seems to be asking himself the right questions, and in most cases answering them, but…”

“What, dude?”

“…he’s already running into the organizational problems. He compares it to herding cats.”

“Oh, that’s not good.”

“Nope. But there’s more. He goes on to say that people are behind on their matches played per week, which is one of the guidelines for team membership. In fact, he mentions he’s going to need to ‘crack the whip’.”


“Perhaps, but should The Ferrett crack the whip? I don’t think so. More to the point, I don’t think he has enough hands to hold the whip, let alone give it a good snap. Let me propose a theory here. Let’s just say that playtesting has a lot in common with other human endeavors, some of which have been around for centuries. I’m going to compare it with theatrical rehearsals.”

“You just want to force me to listen to you talk about actors.”


“I hate you, dude.”

“Bear with me. Okay, let’s say one guy is starting a Magic team for playtesting. Let’s call him the director. He is the ultimate authority when it comes to all artistic elements in the production. In the case of Magic, that is going to be the decks that are tested. When the director says ‘Go play the U/G Madness deck,’ that’s what you do. A lot. It is also going to be the director’s job to cast his talent. Over time, he’s going to notice a player who tweaks better than the others or is better with a particular type of deck. He must identify that early, because it will help cut down test times. In other words, if I want to run a new deck against beatdown, I want the beatdown player in front of me. Not the guy who likes to play beatdown, the guy who is good at beatdown. But I need someone to tell me who he is. That’s the director.”

“All right.”

“Now, here’s the other thing: A project of this size needs another person who gets to play the bad guy a lot. He’s the guy who finds out if you’ve played your matches.”

“Couldn’t they just send reports in?”

“Remember – in this messed-up metaphor the other team members are actors.”

“Right. Nevermind.”

“So this other guy, let’s call him the stage manager, checks to make sure the nuts and bolts are getting done. The assigned decks are getting tested. The reports are coming in. He identifies who the problem children are early. Typically, he’s going to have better administration skills than the director. He is also the whip. If butts need kicked, he kicks them.”

“And he fires people.”

“No, absolutely not. The director fires people. The director is the madman, he’s the driven one. He’s the one holding the candle and yelling at the other inmates, ‘This way, boys and girls!’ He must be the one who looks the other person in the eye (or sends the email), and asks ‘do you really want to be part of this project?’ Ultimately, he must be the one that says, ‘Sorry, but we need to go in a different direction’.”


“Necessary in a project this size. Anytime you get more than seven people involved in anything, if someone doesn’t quit or get fired, someone is doing something wrong. But having a set number of people is good. Once that threshold is reached, no one else is in until there is an opening. Keep the slots filled, unless evidence supports the threshold is too high.”

“Great, dude. So you’re advice is to find someone to do the management stuff, and focus on the direction of the tech?”

“Bingo. It’s the only way to be successful in any given rehearsal process, and that is what playtesting is, rehearsing. That’s why teams that switch decks at the last minute lose big time. ‘Hey, guys, I know Macbeth is good and all – but don’t you think Hamlet is better? Let’s do Hamlet instead’. Good luck with that. If you wanted to do Hamlet, you should have been rehearsing it all along. Let the director make these decisions. Let him decide what decks to test and test against. Obviously, everyone has a certain amount of input, but in the end, it’s one guy’s call. Set the policies on taking back moves, playing with hands revealed. Answer all of the pesky questions that need to be asked. In short, define the process. It will change given time, because the team will discover what is working for them and what isn’t, but the team needs to have a starting point from which to grow. Decide other tests, as well. For example, how quickly can each team member identify when an opponent is playing Zevatog? How quickly should a team member be able to identify it?”

“Gotcha. So, what do you think about The Ferrett experiment?”

“I think it’s a great idea. I just don’t want to see him bury himself before he gets moving with it. I really like all of the goals he’s defined. Fifty-percent on the tour by the end of next season is setting the bar high. That takes brass ones. Plus, think of how many players there are in towns without a lot of other players to test with. This would be a great opportunity for any ambitious card-flopper to get involved on the ground floor with people who want to improve themselves. The vision is there, the mission is clear. Too bad he isn’t seeking volunteers.”

“Dude, is that something you would want to do?”

“Hmm. Nope. Besides, the SOB didn’t ask me. I may suck, but I’m stubborn, too. I’m already too far down my own road to switch, even if I had the chance. I’m going to stick with my plan to get qualified this season.”

“Which is?”

“Suck less. A lot less.”

“Yeah, good luck with that.”

Pale Mage.

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