Game Show Marathon

In the game of Magic, what are you doing right now? JDB takes a look at how we play and grow within Magic from a different perspective, sharing some insights from different games and applying them to the meta-meta-game of Magic.

With the exception of certain periods of my life in which I consumed too many of them, the game show has been one of my go-to genres when I watch TV. Kick back for an hour or a half, watch some folks compete for fabulous prizes, and occasionally shout “you dolt!” when a contestant blunders? Sounds like my idea of a good time. I’ve even tried out for the occasional game show, but unless one counts the 1998 Indiana State Geography Bee finals (which I’ve heard was broadcast on local PBS stations, though I’ve never actually seen the program), I’ve never made the televised big time.

So why all the game show chatter? Well, I’ve decided to do my very own Topical Blend, borrowing from Mark Rosewater and Gavin Verhey, except without that pesky voting-on-topics thing. Dictator Beety doesn’t do sham votes. He just jams Autocrat.

So, game shows. Let’s blend it with…eh, do I have to? Game shows and “Magic lessons.” Broad enough. On to it.

Find the Good in the “So Bad”

Game Show: Survivor

Early on in Survivor‘s history (or Expedition Robinson, if you want to go with the original Swedish version), a specific style of gameplay centered around making and controlling alliances was pioneered by Richard Hatch and deemed “correct” by game-theory aficionados. Players who controlled alliances were “right” and players who didn’t work that way were deemed “bad” or “wrong.”

There is, however, one fly in the proverbial ointment. Her name is Sandra Diaz-Twine, she won two editions of Survivor in two appearances (players have participated three times or more, but there’s only been one two-time winner), she’s the all-time winningest woman in U.S. game show history… and she doesn’t subscribe to the “control the alliance” theory at all!

Instead, her approach to the game was mercenary, offering her vote to anyone so long as she wasn’t the target. By moving between established alliances, helping the first pick off a member of the second and then the second pick off a member of the first, she whittled down her opposition like the Man with No Name from A Fistful of Dollars (or, if you prefer the original, the ronin Sanjuro from Yojimbo) until she made it to the finals, where she then convinced the jury to award her a million dollars over her competitors. Twice, I might add!

Not many are fans of her gameplay (including devious alliance-crafter Russell Hantz, who trash-talked her after her second win), but she’s proven herself a success and her mercenary approach to the game at least has to be taken seriously.

Being completely results-oriented is just as wrong-headed as insisting a certain long-successful style is the only correct approach. Sandra’s mercenary style isn’t the One True Way to play Survivor any more than alliance control is. Even so, rather than dismissing Sandra’s gameplay, I recognized it for what it was: a metagame call that paid off brilliantly. Alliances are the most populous strategy? Play something that smashes them!

When a Burn deck wins a Legacy Open (as it did in Las Vegas), the correct response is not to mutter “ugh, so bad” but to ask why the deck won. Did the metagame shape up so that burn was favored in most of its matchups? What were the luck-points that could have turned the results upside-down (like defeating the quick Combo Elves matchup in two games)? There isn’t always a great and glorious lesson to be had, but the habit of asking why will yield a lot more information than shrugging and feeling smug.

Respect the Various Skills

Game Show: The Genius Game (South Korea)

Warning: I am not responsible for anyone mysteriously losing thirteen hours of life after clicking on the link below.

The Genius Game.

For those of you who declined to click and get sucked in, here’s how the show goes: thirteen celebrity players of varying professions, smarts, and abilities (pop idol, poker champ, former StarCraft pro, politician, etc.) come together at the start of each hour to play a previously-unknown game. The rules are laid out and a certain amount of time is given to mingle, strategize, and so on. Usually there’s a salient point to the game hit upon right away by a sharp strategic player, who forms the Level One strategy. Then other players riff on it, applying game theory and alliance-building to formulate moves and counter-moves. The game plays out, and someone does the worst and is up for elimination; that player then chooses another person (not the winner) to face elimination as well, and then they have a skill-testing or alliance-testing challenge to determine who is eliminated.

Strategic skill is not enough to win; players also must have the people-skills to convince others to go along with their plans. Conversely, simple people-skills aren’t enough, either, as a person without any strategic sense could repeatedly go up for elimination due to poor play. Becoming a visible target is unwise, but trying to sneak by can also be seen as threatening behavior (“what are you hiding?”) and also result in a trip to the elimination round.

Imagine a nine-player non-celebrity version of The Genius Game. Your foes are a marketing executive, a small-town mayor, a homemaker, a room service delivery guy with model/actor dreams, a math professor, a retired Coast Guard officer, a grad student, and an art appraiser. You want to form an alliance with a couple of players early on to avoid being totally “on the outs.” Whom do you approach?

Well, for starters, you don’t have nearly enough information just going by professions. Still, what can you glean from those professions? Well, the marketing executive is probably good at selling people on a particular plan. The math professor’s background could come in handy, especially if she’s good at probability and statistics. The retired officer is used to leadership and making decisions.

Of course, the others could have their strengths. The room service delivery guy might be a member of the Triple Nine Society because MENSA costs too much and lets in too much riffraff. The grad student might be in her 50s, finally pursuing an educational dream deferred to help raise her nieces and nephews. The art appraiser might have a World Series of Poker bracelet. And so on.

If you were to unofficially ally with the marketing executive and the math professor, I wouldn’t blame you, but what would you bring to the table? Are you a numbers whiz, a control-Magic ace who’d rub the math prof the wrong way? Are you a natural leader, ready to butt heads with the marketing executive (who’s also used to being followed) episode after episode?

As you progress in Magic, find people who have the same goal as you but are also complementary. A group of all technically proficient players without any innovators will struggle on the Pro Tour. A team of all social glue will have a great time but get little done. A lot of smart teams have figured out that a division of labor and mixed strengths are key to good professional performance. Those strengths aren’t necessarily all out in the open, though. Sometimes it’s important to probe and find hidden talents… in others, and within yourself.

Differentiate Yourself

Game Show: The Crystal Maze (United Kingdom)

In the long term, making a living exclusively by playing Magic is a pipe dream. Nobody could sustain it – not Jon Finkel, not Kai Budde, not anybody. In any case, people with the aptitude to be top-shelf Magic players usually move on, whether it’s to poker or investing or game design or maybe just a nice, boring desk job with a Fortune 1000 company somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with any of them.

But suppose you’re a pro or a semipro or a wannabe pro right now. How many people know about you? What do they think they know about you? How are you seen?

How are you different from the legion of male teens and twentysomethings who have the exact same dreams as you?

Game shows come and go; one that is remembered ten years after its airing is lucky indeed. The Crystal Maze is pushing twenty, and still it is one of the best-loved shows in the UK.

The concept behind The Crystal Maze – a team playing individual games toward a common purpose in an exotic environment, with a prize at the end for a high score – was not new in The Crystal Maze‘s time. In fact, the makers of The Crystal Maze wanted a version of the French game show Fort Boyard, now a quarter-century old classic, but they couldn’t book the fort for filming, so the creator of Fort Boyard adapted the game for a TV studio.

The Crystal Maze didn’t have an awesome isolated sea fort for a setting. What did it have? Richard O’Brien.

For those who aren’t Rocky Horror fans, Richard O’Brien is Rocky Horror. He wrote the play, acted as Riff Raff in the movie, and all-in-all was one of the defining eccentrics of the 1970s. With Richard O’Brien presenting The Crystal Maze and bringing all his personality and improv skills to bear, the show pulled through moments of threatened tedium and jelled into a quivering mass of campy afternoon fun enjoyed by children as well as the adults who were the original target audience. (Most shows had adult contestants, but by popular demand, children played one game per season, aired around Christmastime.)

The Crystal Maze lasted four seasons with Richard O’Brien and two more without; the replacement host, while a respectable performer in his own right, just wasn’t Richard O’Brien and the show lost a great deal of its energy and specialness.

The Crystal Maze, for its first four seasons, was “Rocky Horror Game Show” (minus the cross-dressing). Patrick Chapin is “The Innovator.” Kai Budde was “The German Juggernaut.” Accomplishments help with getting sponsorships, writing/video gigs, and so on, but in the end, Magic will take you no farther than the brand you build. How are you different and what do you bring to the Magic community?