Chatter of the Squirrel – Organizing Prereleases

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Wednesday, July 16th – A key element of the “acquisition process” that, it appears, has been one of WoTC’s many buzzwords for 2008, is making the process of playing in a tournament as fun as possible for the people that choose to do so. A well-run event provides an air of professionalism to Magic that suggests the people behind the game really do know what they are doing.

I’m fairly certain that the denizens of the “anarcho-capitalist” forums on 2+2 owe me at least two months worth of time on my Cingular phone bill, because a certain Brian Davis has been calling me absolute nonstop wanting to “debate” the merits of his newfound panaceanic libertarian ideology. Like a nightmare sprung from a love-child of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and David D. Friedman, this well-meaning system ultimately relies upon a network of private courts to enforce the monolithic virtue of property, sculpting in the process a truly remarkable proposition: that the transfer of indefinable rights, delineated by unknowable laws subject to transient majoritarian influences, enforced by an ephemeral and unsanctioned market-driven executive, will in practice constitute a workable utopian social and legal order. Nice system.

You’d think that, having completed my first semester at SEASSI, I’d have a chance to relax. Nah. But a man has got to preach the virtues of liberalism somewhere, and I love me a BDavis too much to let him succumb to the seductive tendrils of property-ism.

But light, LIGHT, there is at the end of the tunnel. For beneath the shimmering summit of the Misty Mountain, Steve Port’s massive Midwest Mecca of gaming and good-times, a true and virtuous PRE-RELEASE TOURNAMENT was held this Twelfth of July, in the year of our Lord Two Thousand Eight, and I was treated to a Magical experience that I shan’t soon forget.

Madison has figured gaming out. In short, let people do their thing: charge reasonable prices, give out decent prize support, let Shapiro – proxy Dan Bock -=sit in the back and buy cards, serve reasonable food, start and finish rounds on time, and provide a venue that doesn’t involve a hundred cramped gamers packed like sardines and sweating in turn all over one another trying to find table-space to roll a die. Both the tournament and judging staff were friendly, knowledgeable, and competent, and everyone seemed to be genuinely interested in providing a fun experience for all-comers. The venture was treated like a business, and was set-up to provide the RPG-ers in the back with their own space, the MechWarrior crowd with their awesome little arcade machines along the side, and the main event-ers with plenty of time to stare in awe of the new cards. Pairings were posted clearly and without the ritual Mobbing of a Bottlenecked Column that routinely scars every event I attend, and result slips were collected promptly at the conclusion of every match for processing. Perhaps most importantly, at no point were any members of the event staff pissing about aimlessly without a task at-hand – and yet, they seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as anyone else there!

Perhaps it’s through my friendship with Steve, as well as my new acquaintanceship with StarCityGames’ Ask the Judge columnist Chris Richter, that I’ve become more interested in the mechanics of organizing a tournament, but I want to let all the TOs out there know that we, as the players, really do recognize and appreciate a job well-done. The nature of gamers is unfortunately such that we’re not going to tell you about anything you’re doing right, while we’re all-too-eager to slam on anything that ever goes wrong, but it’s becoming clear to me that there really is a science to the whole process. A key element of the “acquisition process” that, it appears, has been one of WoTC’s many buzzwords for 2008, is making the process of playing in a tournament as fun as possible for the people that choose to do so. A well-run event provides an air of professionalism to Magic that suggests the people behind the game really do know what they are doing, and thus the investment of time required for tournament play will be rewarded with mutual appreciation in the end.

Some suggestions for TOs around the nation re: the running of prereleases, bearing in mind of course that most of you are MUCH better at your jobs than I could ever attempt to be, and I’m not trying to say that I’ve figured out how to run an event over the last weekend. But I’ve played this game for awhile, and there are some steps you could take at very little cost that in my opinion take an event to the next level, and more importantly do wonders for (especially newer) players’ image of the Magic tournament as an institution. The reason I call out prereleases, incidentally, is that they’re many players’ first exposure to the tournament scene. If we’re going to put our best foot forward anywhere, it really ought to be there.

1) Make sure that people can eat food. Whether it’s as simple as stationing the venue adjacent to an eatery, or as time-consuming as providing the food on-site, nothing sours an event like a missed opportunity to eat lunch. I sound like such a fat American when I say this, but people wake up early and drive to the event trying to hit the first flight at 8 o’clock. Very frequently they’ve missed breakfast, and by the time the first flight ends people are famished. If people can’t grab something to eat somewhere, it seems like very often they’ll head out to grab something and never come back, or will just remain grumpy the entire time and have a vaguely negative experience. Remember: people aren’t gaming machines at first, aren’t Sam-Blacks who can go for days with nothing but Magic as sustenance. Pre-release players may be old-schoolers coming out of the woodwork, friends-of-players who are being introduced to the Magic scene for the first time, significant-others (this surprised me, but there were at least eight of these this past weekend – nothing says “aww, precious!” like a couples 2HG-game, apparently*), casual players, new players, and tournament-hopefuls who are looking to experience organized competition for the first time. Whatever the narrative, appearing together enough to cater to your players’ basic needs makes you look as if you’ve thought through the process from the perspective of your customers, and people appreciate that.

2) Along those same lines, have pens and paper ready for use as counters, life-pads, etc. I guarantee you that 90% of new players have no idea they need to show up to a Magic tournament with anything but a deck. And why should they—it’s a card game, after all? One of the more confusing things for Anna when she just started was the nature of what a token or a counter was actually supposed to represent, and how it interacted with the other elements of the game. While obviously a TO can’t sit and explain the rules, at the very least you don’t want people fidding about trying to find some way to represent that their Hatchling isn’t a 6/6. Life pads fall along similar lines; new players have no reason to believe they’re responsible for recording, publicly, every change in life totals, and they aren’t necessarily very likely to have a pen-at-the-ready in order to do so. Having these materials ready on the front end clears up a lot of needless hassle. It also familiarizes players with the tournament-environment necessity of keeping track of life with pen-and-paper, not the d20 so many players are familiar with using.

3) Along those same lines – and I know a lot of people will disagree with this one – require players to at least register their deck before playing with the cards (register the total column, not the actual cards played). This accomplishes a number of objectives. First, obviously, it’s at least a minor disincentive to cheat. I don’t advocate random deck-checkings at prereleases, of all things, but it does offer solace to a player whose opponent just went “Firespout, Incremental Blight, Demigod, Deus” to say, “Judge, can we check this guy’s registration to make sure he didn’t add these afterwards?” – particularly in a late flight where the guy may have been trading throughout the day. It’s more difficult to add cards to the spells you register on the sheet when you’re surrounded by other people – and even if that difficulty is minimal, which it certainly is, it does require a player to actively want to cheat before adding cards. That is to say, having a decklist present introduces the idea to a new player that you’re only supposed to be playing with the cards you open in front of you. Magic is marketed, fundamentally, as a “Constructed” game, so it might seem natural to a newer player who just had a huge bomb played against him to try and get a hold of one to put in his deck.

Second, the very presence of the decklist allows a veteran player to explain to a new player why they’re necessary – to prevent cheating, adding cards, etc – which affords the TO (and Wizards Organized Play as an institution) the opportunity to look professional. It’s not exactly a stretch for a player to ask, “gee, how do they prevent players from just adding whatever they want to one of these Sealed Decks?” (once the idea of a set, limited amount of product is introduced) and having a pre-emptive answer to that question conveys the appearance that the tournament organizer is interested in the well-being of his event. Furthermore, it quells a new player’s anxiety over getting cheated, because it shows Wizards (as well as the local TO) are taking measures to stop it. The nature of the measure isn’t important – the awareness of the problem is.

Finally, filling out a decklist at a prerelease makes the process less jarring when that player decides to attend a PTQ, GPT, release event, or whatever. Obviously the additional element of having to register “cards played” will be a bit of an eye-opener, as will the notion that you have to begin each round with your initial combination of forty cards, but at least it won’t be entirely foreign. Easing that transition process I think is vital; something as simple as a deck registration sheet doesn’t seem that complicated to we players who have been doing it awhile, but my experience working with newcomers at any endeavor, whether it’s Magic or Mock Trial or a new academic subject or a new business proposal, is that the single greatest barrier to someone’s continued interest is confusion about what’s going on at the outset**. When I’m giving a presentation at County about the long-term benefits of solar power, it’s essential to clarify what I mean by “long-term,” what the benefits are, what the costs are, and what specifically I’m trying to market. If I don’t do that, people stop listening, because it’s overwhelming. When we teach people how to deliver a closing argument, we don’t just tell them to start talking, because the amount of information processing necessary to do that is daunting and they’ll just shut down. Magic, similarly, is a very complicated game by itself without all of the tournament-related specifics to attend to. Saying “just tally up everything you open in these packs of cards” is simple enough to do at a prerelease tournament, and saves the overwhelming confusion of “alright, here’s this sheet, fill it out, and now we’re going to take all the cards back and redistribute them and give back these lists and make you write new stuff on them and OK go” at a slightly-higher K-value event. Prerelease deck registration sheets can mildly alleviate that confusion.

4) Clearly post the number of rounds to be played and the prizes awarded for each finish somewhere very visible at the beginning of the flight. People want to know what they’re playing for, and they especially want to know what they need to do to hit their target. I advise tournament players against focusing too heavily on their record, but for a newer player unused to the idea of winning anything as a reward for their strong performance, it’s a powerful motivator. I remember shortly after I started that I marveled at the idea of being paid, albeit in booster packs, to do something I enjoyed. Even with Pro Tour success a distant glimmer in my eye, I was drawn to local tournaments because instead of having to pay infinite dollars to cobble together all of the decks I wanted to build, I could just win a few tournaments and earn all my cards that way. It’s reason enough to be driven – and to return to more events, which I’m sure TOs everywhere love to see happen.

5) Acknowledge gratitude to the players who have decided to spend their Saturday attending your event. This doesn’t have to be an awkward “um, thanks y’all,” but it reflects itself in the demeanor of everyone on your staff. It is decidedly non-normal behavior to spend an entire Saturday in a windowless room sitting at crowded tables frenziedly cracking packs, but people are doing it because they want to be part of a certain type of experience. The game’s amazing, sure, but that’s only half of it. As judges and tournament organizers, you’re the framework of that experience, the organizational structure that is making it all happen. A well-trained staff and a well-run event acknowledges to the players that our commitment is appreciated, and will be reciprocated by trying to ensure that our experience is as enjoyable as possible. Your judges will know rulings and will be able to explain them clearly and concisely. Your staff will be able to handle problems in a rational and sensible manner. Any glitches that inevitably arise will be tackled as-they-come in a systematic enough fashion that allows the event to run as smoothly as possible given the circumstances. Have parking. Make sure there are enough tables for people to sit in a sensible manner in their chairs (it’s amazing to me how frequently this problem arises…round one starts and there are literally not enough places for people to place their behinds). Make sure the tables are labeled in a manner that makes sense – don’t, for example, have more than one “table 1” in a given room, especially when two flights are situated close to one another.

Little things, sure, but they add up. I’ve been attending prereleases since Urza’s Destiny, and there’s a lot I’ve loved. Nevertheless, this experience in Madison ranks as one of the most fun times I’ve ever had at a tournament, and little factors like the ones I’ve mentioned in this article contributed greatly to the experience. I know that with Wizards’ recent announcements, the entire tournament dynamic is bound to change considerably. Still, principles like these should contribute to streamlined, effective tournaments that are hopefully maximally fun and minimally stressful for everyone involved.

Next week, I’ll talk about Magic cards again


*Yeah, I know.
**Remember that sentence well, entrepreneurs.