How Coverage Writers Get It Right – A Response to The Ferrett’s Video Article

Eli tells us exactly what he wants to see from the Magic coverage establishment and throws down a gauntlet. Will you be the one who takes it up?

Recently, The Ferrett, esteemed SCG guru and dabbler in video, penned a screed against everything he found disagreeable about the event coverage at Wizards’ official site. It was a wonderful piece and sparked a lot of very insightful commentary on the forums. Go read the article here, and follow the discussion here.

My brain kicked into overdrive when forum users Aceman 22 and ed_ification commented about what sort of person would be best at doing coverage. Because in order to get the best coverage, you need the best skilled, prepared people at the helm.

Aceman22: The idea that only a pro could properly cover an event and provide analysis is plain wrong. We see a lot of sports and, with the huge craze lately, poker being covered by people that love the sport without being good at it. To think that Wizards couldn’t open a position that paid and covered flights for two people to cover events is shortsighted. I may not be the best Magic player, but if something like that ever opened up I know I would love a shot at it.

I don’t work for Wizards. I’ve done pieces for them at events. But freelancing is not the same thing.

Incidentally, I think I know a fine way to go about getting a shot at doing coverage. See below.

Back to Aceman22:

Not only that, but the Magic community wasn’t upset because they missed some nuance of Magic that had to be deduced and figured out by cryptic reasoning. Instead they failed to realize how a very popular card in Standard worked. The fans were rightfully upset about that. Then a player being able to hear announcers talking, who know what both players are holding… that is a serious concern, although one not the announcers’ fault but more on the side of the technical.

Everyone screws up here and there. Sometimes it’s a roll of 1 on the D20, and sometimes it’s just a little short. You, the consumer, have the right to get upset as much as you like, but keep in mind that we’re only human. When you’re making an impact on the outcome of the match, though, it’s a problem. I trust that Wizards should be able to figure out how to improve floor layouts in the future in order to facilitate video coverage by Randy and BDM without letting active matches in on information.

From ed_ification: The best people to do coverage might actually be judges, because they MUST know the cards to do their jobs correctly. Or, perhaps, arm the Pros doing coverage with an Oracle-loaded Palm (like Peter Jahn has stated that he uses), so we avoid flubs in the future.

I don’t buy that. Oracle is handy, but a good old Fat Pack booklet or two usually does the trick passably enough. Judges are trained to pay attention to many things, but the details of a match when viewed from the writers is a horse of a different color. I’ve seen judges cover a match and jump away from furiously typing for a brief second to actually intercede to fix game situations before they get out of hand. But wearing a coverage reporter’s hat requires paying attention to things like dramatic potential, the pace of the game, expressions, and so forth. That isn’t the typical sort of activity judges get their fingers into.

So why do the best succeed? I’ll try to tell you how they do it. Here’s four traits that separate the Magic coverage geniuses from the laymen.

1. A coverage writer needs confidence.

A coverage writer needs confidence to be able to know that he or she is telling the truth and sharing a valid, if not perfect, analysis of what’s going on. Second-guessing yourself when time is tight is not a path to getting pieces done accurately or comfortably. So there is a minimum level of game competence involved. The top priority is getting the piece readable, accurate, and in on time. Anything that detracts from that needs to be considered very carefully.

What’s the threshold for being deemed ‘competent’…? Well, you tell me. I’ve got a GP Top 8 to my name. BDM hasn’t ever had a GP Top 8. Josh Bennett hasn’t made money in a professional level event, to the best of my knowledge. And yet they’re awesome in my book.

The people who are best at doing written covering Magic (which is primarily what Ferrett is talking about) don’t have to be as good as, say, a Raphael Levy or a Tomohiro Kaji, but they do have to be reasonably proficient enough to have a good understanding of recognizing what the game plan of each side is and how well they’re doing when it comes to executing their strategy. They can get away with not knowing what some of the cards do (tell me how fast it takes you to remember exactly how Chain of Vapor works) if they’re resourceful enough to have a copy of MODO running on their computer so that they can check card text on the fly. (It took me a while to do that.) They also have to know the right procedures to make sure that their writing follows protocol (following standard procedures for card names, actually knowing how to punctuate Golgari Grave-Troll properly) while not taking infinite amounts of time to make sure everything’s squared away.

Most pros work extremely hard at their game and put hours and hours of work in. Some of them take that and couple it with crafting articles to make a buck, or for the love the game and their fellow gamer. They’ll work very hard to compartmentalize the different theories and strategies involved and frame them into a working model that’s very personal and very efficient.

Taking those mental models and turning them into lucid, terse, efficient writing in real time is a path most pro players who write would shrink at. “I’ve worked hours and hours on this format for this precious knowledge, and now I have to give it away? And make it shine?!? Are you mad?” Most of the time that you see them chained to the keyboard, their work tends to be flawed. Which is fine, really. No one hits a home run every time they swing a baseball bat.

2. The best coverage reporting demands excellent time management.

The best coverage reporting requires a keen sense of who to go to when asking questions, because that’s extremely relevant. Some spectators give accounts laced with large amounts of non-relevant information larded in. And they have to ask for information kindly and politely while still being able to get at the heart of the matter. The keen reporter slices through the noise and gets right there. And sometimes you’ve got to be a jerk and be like Han Solo when he shot the prison cell’s audio receiver. Don’t actually say “it was a boring conversation anyway,” but know when to have that thought ring off in your head.

Magic’s been around for a good long while. If you’ve read this website, there’s about a one percent chance you may have actually put pen to paper and opened up the veins, letting your thoughts fly. And if you haven’t, there’s the chance that you’re a forum user. If you haven’t written Magic coverage before but have managed to have some of your thoughts published, try to write a relevant article with a strict deadline of 45 minutes. That includes editing, proofreading, and all the tools you’re usually packing in your writer’s toolbox. And watch how well you do with these restrictions.

3. The best coverage reporting demands professionalism.

That means knowing if one should get involved in a match (for example, watching cheating during a feature match go unreported and calling another judge) or not. That means making sure that no one is made out to look unwarrantedly negative (and most of the time, good Magic coverage shouldn’t be about negatives, but about who managed to pull out the win through clever thought and superior strategy). That means knowing when to focus on one player’s That means being able to make sure that Magic gets presented in a way that respects the game without being artificial and pre-packaged. That means knowing when to zoom the camera in and when to keep the wide angle open. Will your readers understand the match better if you know what’s in both players’ hands? Or can you get more insight through channeling the tension by not knowing all the facts when players bluff? A little personal interjection can make readers’ brains tingle with pleasure. Or the reader can get irritated and click away.

Professionalism also does entail taking risks. One of the most satisfying pieces of feedback I’ve ever received from writing is from last year’s Japanese Nationals, when I was profiling Ryou Ogura. I’m a big fan of the guy and have had the pleasure of watching and sometimes facing off against him on a regular basis. When a new set comes out, I usually beat him in Friday Night Magic or low stakes Sunday drafts at my local shop. I haven’t lost a game against him at Prereleases. But give him a month and he’ll usually be back in the business of stomping my sorry rear end.

In my profile piece, I wrote: I’m sick and tired of him beating the crap out of me regularly at Friday Night Magic.

I don’t like using foul-toned language like that, but it was a genuine sentence. It was an emotional outburst.

BDM loved it.

Good writers know when they can get away with that sort of thing. Me? I was shaking in my boots when I wrote it, and those shakes intensified when I handed the thumb with the file off.

(Also, scroll down and look at my awesome Coffin Puppets. They’re so sweet!)*

Coverage writers need to be constantly aware on varying levels and make good decisions. This task includes going out on a limb on occasion.

4. The writer who covers Magic must be a Fanatic, serving two harsh mistresses.

The best coverage reporters know the absolute essentials that their audience wants, the decklists and raw statistics and metagame breakdowns to help solve the format. The best coverage reporters also know that even though the typical reader doesn’t know he wants to have well written, engaging storytelling, the reader deserves to get it, because the game of Magic deserves to be captured in text and chronicled through the turns and tension. Magic merits that adoration, and writing about the game requires an unquestionable, clear passion. That passion should bleed through the readers’ monitors and sink into their eyes. And that passion should sing and dance and tell a funny story. Luckily, well trained passion tends to amuse readers paying attention.

There is the reader, and there is the game. The difference between coverage writing and playing the game or judging is that the reader comes first.

Enough of this list of demands. I’ve got an idea for those of you who want to write Magic coverage. Here’s the gauntlet thrown down in your face. If you’re in a single elimination tournament (as some FNMs occasionally are), consider sitting down and writing down the events of a match. Instead of watching your friends play and giving them pointers afterwards, grab a pen and paper and write down notes of what happens. You could even watch Magic Online replays, but the amount of human interaction there is severely filtered thanks to the interface. So being there in person’s best. When you’re there, take notes, and try to tell a story and understand what happened in the matchup and why it went down. It improves your Magic game directly as well as improve your writing skills and attention. But try to take that condensed wisdom, distil it into easily grasped wisdom, and do it with flair.

Just do it. If you want to make a name for yourself as a Magic writer, follow the Nike credo. Go out there and do your best. Maybe you’ll just be getting your friends’ names (or your friend’s rival’s name) out there. Maybe you’ll just find out that Magic coverage writing isn’t something you love doing. Maybe you’ll just try to make a name for your store. Maybe you could possibly teach the public something, by Jove. And maybe you’ll find that you love doing it, like I do. Just get out there and do it.

Heck, I’ll give the best amateur coverage guy twenty-five bucks. Nah, make it fifty U.S. dollars. By Paypal. If there are ten or more participants, the second and third place pieces get 5 Portal Three Kingdom rares of my choice mailed to them. I’ll give you guys a deadline of March 10th. (Man oh Manischevitz, a deadline of almost two months! That’s infinity, in coverage time terms. Or double infinity.) The piece I enjoy the most gets the money. Here’s the rules for the challenge.

0. Unless things change, this is entirely my contest. SCG isn’t giving anything away for this. It’s all me.

1. You have to submit the name of the participants, date, and place. You must include your by-line. (Nothing’s more saddening than writing a great piece and having it doomed to the graveyard of ego, attributed to “Sideboard Staff.” It’s happened to me. Don’t let it happen to you.)

2. You have to write all events in sequence in the past tense except where deemed appropriate. Punctuation errors and misspelled words ding you slightly. All cards must be appropriately capitalized and punctuated. Using Autocard is helpful, but not mandatory.

3. You must write about a DCI sanctioned match of Standard, Lorwyn Sealed or Draft, or Extended between two players. No 2HG. No metagame breakdowns, interviews, or color pieces. Just Feature Match goodness. When Morningtide’s legal for use in tournament play, feel free to include it. And if you’re writing about Morningtide cards before they’re legal for use in tournament play, then shame on you! Jerk.

3B. You can’t write about one of your matches. A by-line should be enough self-promotion anyway.

4. You must write in English. All player non-English dialogue must be represented in English. People who have written more than 10 event coverage pieces on the Mothership are ineligible.

5. All entries must be submitted in the SCG forums in the appropriate category (that’d be the Standard, Extended, or Limited Tournament Announcements, Reports, and Results sections). When you post an entry, If you PM me on the forums (I’m turboeli), I’ll probably look at it in less time.

6. You may submit up to 5 entries. Quality is the top priority, but quantity is a tiebreaker. Using well known pro players is not a negative, but it isn’t necessarily a positive either.

6B. There is actually a rule 6B. However, it has the same functional ability as substance. That is to say, none.

7. I pick the winner. There will be only one winner. My ruling is final. I may or may not give feedback on pieces.

Wizards does read some of this stuff. Maybe they’ll pay attention to this little competition.

Believe me, I’ve got significant flaws as a coverage writer. I don’t have the ability to do eight stories in eight rounds. My time management skills are good, but not that good. I have a tendency to run around too much when covering team events. So don’t model your coverage writing after mine. Most of the pro players I have a good rapport with are Japanese, since they’ve seen me hovering over their shoulders enough at GPs. My social network isn’t all that good with Americans or the Euros for the most part. Those are handicaps. I don’t write nearly as funny as blisterguy does. I look at myself as merely a humble journeyman who occasionally gets to jam with the venerable masters Josh Bennett, Teddy Cardgame, BDM, Keita, or Rich Hagon. Do well, and who knows where it can take you?

So I’m not where I’d like to be as a coverage writer, and I need to improve. So what? I’m going to doff my coverage writer hat and slip on the coverage junkie fez. Mike Flores may be the undisputed master of Deck Game, but I won’t take second best for loving coverage. Here’s the deal. I’m willing to put my money on the line as a fervent fan of the game and a fan of the coverage of the game. Don’t emulate me (unless you really like my work) and don’t rip off the greats unless you see a way in which doing so will benefit the piece. I am hoping this experiment in coverage junkie decadence pays great dividends. Fifty bucks is a very modest buy-in.

And have fun doing it. That’s really the most important thing. Magic is just a game, right?

On a personal note, expect a couple of articles from me in the next few weeks. After that, I’ll be making yet another jump across the Pacific, and this time my boots will probably sink into the American mud, and I’ll have no idea when I’ll get back to writing. Flinging brain droppings from the lofty perch here at SCG has been an absolute pressure. Pleasure. Pleasure, damnit!

I need to get back to America.

Eli Kaplan
turboeli on the SCG forums and MTGO

Utterly jonesing for Morningtide

* Go down to the Kitayama/Iyanaga match. BDM threw in some sort of reference to some film named Dodgeball. I don’t get it. He deserves the credit for that bit. Whether it’s good credit or bad credit, you tell me.