On August 12, 2011, Wizards of the Coast announced their new supported format: Modern Constructed. Tom LaPille announced the format along with an explanation of its banned list. In tandem with that article was an announcement notifying players of Pro Tour Philadelphia that the format would no longer be Extended, but Modern instead. As of the date of these announcements, Pro Tour Philadelphia was three weeks away.
People reacted with the range of responses we can expect whenever anything Magic-related is announced. Namely, some players loved the changes, some were cautiously optimistic, some were cautiously pessimistic, and some promised to never buy another WotC product and/or quit the game forever.
Surprising to me was that the majority of comments focused on the lost Extended format in general, or specific cards in the new banned list. Only a minority of people focused on the timing of the new format vis-Ã -vis the change to the Pro Tour. But unlike everything else in the announcement, it’s that timing that should be the most troubling to anyone with enough competitive presence to be reading this website. WotC’s decision to change the format of the PT was ill-conceived and sets a dangerous precedent towards anyone who plays in or cares about tournament Magic. Banned lists can be amended four times a year. For the players, Pro Tour Philadelphia 2011 will be happening exactly once.
Extended sucks, Modern is probably superior
Before we really get into this, I’ll confess that Modern looks kind of fun, and I despise Extended. For as long as it has existed, Extended has been an abortion of a train wreck of a format. I am not attending this PT anyway, so my comments are strictly from an “interested party” standpoint. But even though I personally probably prefer Modern to Extended, and if I were playing I’d prefer Modern to Extended, it’s still the wrong decision for the game. At this point I’m semi-retired, but I could jump back on to the circuit at some future date. Decisions like the Philadelphia one do not make me eager to rejoin the highest level. Â
But this leads into one of the issues, which is what was WotC trying to accomplish here? Well let’s look at the “official” explanation:
“When we looked at the Extended format data from Magic Online, we decided to make a change to address the imbalance reflected there. Whether we banned cards in Extended or changed the format entirely, we knew we would be affecting the work some people had done up to this point. We chose to make the decision that has more potential upside for players overall, and decided to change the format to something that people have more desire to play and to watch being played. We are excited to see the Modern format in play at Pro Tour next month and believe that the change will give players a healthier and more fun format to play.”
Tom refers to data points in Magic Online, informal polling, and the viability of alternative formats. The data is specious (more on this in a bit), but even if we take it as gospel truth, this does not correlate to Extended being a poor Pro Tour format, or Modern being a superior one. But even that question is a red herring. The real question is whether any of this data justifies such a late-term switch of formats. It cannot.
The switch is a re-skinned emergency ban
It’s not much of a secret that Wizards of the Coast does not like emergency bannings. This article from Randy Buehler makes the point pretty clear, and I haven’t seen anything from any WotC employee countermanding it. There is a quarterly schedule for bannings, enjoy your cards until the announcement.
As the Modern article makes clear, WotC was concerned about Extended’s stagnation and player fun and watchability(?) and wanted to take action to salvage it. That’s a laudable goal in the abstract, but there’s a time and place for that decision. We’ll get to the appropriate timing in a bit, but first let’s look at this link.
This is the announcement for the Standard bannings of Jace and Stoneforge. Prominently is the “no change” for Extended. I don’t know if Extended and the PT were even discussed at the banning meeting, but they probably wish they could revise the “no change” decision.
They found a way. The Modern swap is an emergency banning. Literally in the case of Jace and Stoneforge and friends. But also in cards that were once viable in Extended, but no longer in Modern. I don’t know what those cards are, but I know players have a scant few weeks to figure it out.
As I said, the format probably is better. But that doesn’t justify the deep loss of trust any emergency banning, literal or otherwise, creates.
Who gets hurt?
Since I’m not playing I’m completely unaffected by this change. Except, I’m not. Because I may test for a format in the future, and I don’t want my hard work lost because WotC had an 11th-hour realization their mistakes were too terrible to bear.
Every single person who tested Extended in the last 2-3 months had their work wiped away.
Playtesting is boring. It’s not like draft where there’s the element of randomness and people get to keep cards afterwards. Playtesting is a necessary, but tedious, component for Constructed-format success. You endure it.
The joy of playtesting is in discovery and then completion. The ultimate goal is to find that perfect 75. If you do it early enough you get to rest. For anyone who achieved that goal, congrats to you. Now get out a sharpie and do it all over again. Also you have three weeks.
My job requires 40-60 hours of actual work-time every week. I can adjust when I get those hours in somewhat, but the work still needs to be done.
If I were playing at PT Philadelphia, my playtest time would have been limited. I could make some time, but only some. I’d be looking for the deck I’d be playing so as not make an enormous headache for myself with my real-world life. Once I had a deck I liked, I’d get my cards and get back to that real world. I have to assume at least some of the other qualified people are in similar situations. Any limited window those working players gave themselves to test was just lost. Can they make arrangements with their work and family to get more hours to test? Some probably can, and some probably can’t.
The card situation is another issue. Some people have actually traded or bought the cards they’re going to play with. Good job, but don’t put your credit card away just yet! You’ll be needing it again soon.
Anyone who put any time or any money into preparing for Extended made what is now obvious as The Sucker’s Bet. Your trust was misplaced, and your time and money lost. *
* The title of this piece refers to a legal concept where someone loses money in reliance of someone else’s promise. Whether a player actually has a legal claim in this situation is a little interesting, although I offer no opinion on its merits. But it’s pretty safe to say if such a claim existed the costs of pursuing it would greatly exceed the remedy.
Who gets helped?
Three weeks before the Pro Tour! That timing is miserable.
I didn’t even play the last PTQ format because Standard was notoriously bad and Extended is functionally Satan’s earwax. But I may have made a different choice if I knew it was to be something else. Three weeks before the PT, well after the PTQ season ended? Too late now.
Let’s say someone did qualify for Philly and also loathes Extended and thus decided not to attend. Do they now have the opportunity to get time off work, get a cheap plane ticket, and find a hotel for the PT? Maybe, but again, maybe not. They’ll have to put some effort into it. While it’s impossible to know for sure, I wouldn’t expect PT attendance to go up because of the change.
Retail stores get helped! They get to double-dip on players needing to buy cards again. So I’m sure they’re happy with the change. As a player I don’t like players getting the shaft for retailers’ benefit, but I realize that’s a biased position. Still.
The players who didn’t do a lick of investing in the format had their procrastination justified. That probably is a good chunk of Magic players, so there’s that. Not exactly a character trait that we want to reward though.
Apparently some players lobbied at Gen Con to get the format swapped because Extended was so terrible. I’ll trust their experience with the format because I certainly haven’t played any Extended to know differently. The change clearly rewards them; in fact they may have given the idea to WotC in the first place. But it’s an awfully poor precedent that a vocal minority, even a correct one, can influence such sweeping changes.
What about the coverage? That’s an interesting one.
Clearly under either format there will be a winner, a top 8, best decks, etc. So let’s try a thought experiment:
What is the ideal composition of a Top 8 regarding players?
The actual winner probably doesn’t matter. The ideal top 8 is probably a mix of veterans, up-and-comers, and the “hometown hero.” That hits a lot of goals of marketing, namely giving viewers a known quantity to cheer for, while also allowing aspirants to “put themselves in the shoes” of a player. In other words, everyone likes to see LSV dominating a tournament, but it’s also inspirational to see someone who’s only played for 6 months/someone who’s come back from retirement/a woman/a resident of an underrepresented country/etc. to succeed too. Just like anybody can beat Jon Finkel once, anyone can make it to the top of the highest levels of play (once).
A top 8 of all pros is appealing to a lot of people, but keep in mind the point of the Pro Tour is attracting players. If it looks like only 16 players in the world can play on the big stage, it’s dissuading.
By contrast, a top 8 of complete nobodies makes it seem like the format is random and skill irrelevant. It’s hardly the highest level of play if it’s dice rolls and coin flips to the championship. The Pro Tour is about telling a story. Too far slanted in either direction doesn’t make for a good one.
Does this 11th-hour change make it more likely to create this ideal top 8? Possibly… but it’s impossible to know. WotC might have been able to figure out the best Extended decks (emphasis on might), but there’s no way they could deduce which players would pilot them. Under basic Millstone theory, it’s likely a new random Top 8, but still random.
What is the ideal composition of Top 8 decks?
Like the players, the ideal situation is probably a range of viable decks, from aggro to control to combo. A “wide-open format” means a healthy format.
Modern will probably make a more eclectic mix of decks in the Top 8. Certainly not for sure, but it’s likely. But for this PT it doesn’t matter.
Let’s talk about that Modern banned list. It’s clearly haphazard and very blunt towards creating a diverse metagame. No one knows if it will succeed in doing so* but let’s assume it works.
PT Philly is on Sep 2-4. The next Modern event is at Worlds in November. This is unfortunate timing for the scheduled banned announcement, which is Sep 1. If PT Modern does reveal a serious problem card, then Worlds will have to endure it too. On the other hand, if it’s happy and diverse, Worlds will be too. In essence, Philly and Worlds are linked; they either succeed or fail together. It’s great if the dartboard ban list works perfectly, but how awful if the players have to endure all this upheaval for another stagnant format?
There’s an obvious solution though, and that’s delay the Sep 1 ban announcement to Sep 8. This allows the results of PT Philly to be analyzed so that the ban list is actually reasoned and based on data. It would be public info that the announcement is delayed so no one gets the rug pulled out from under them regarding testing.
This is an obvious solution, and it underscores how unnecessary this change was. In addition, WotC didn’t need to sacrifice a PT to make Worlds better because a new block is released in the middle. So Modern certainly could have been announced as a Worlds format on Sep 1, alongside the scheduled ban list.
To sum up: retailers get helped and people who watch from home but aren’t qualified are possibly helped. Some of the players who didn’t like Extended and thought it would be stale are helped, but anyone who has a contrary opinion was swept aside (or more likely, not asked). All the potential gains are speculative, but for the players who were blindsided, their losses were real.
And all that dovetails into the real injury, which is how can the players trust WotC won’t do this again? The results of their metrics are almost certainly subjective, and those metrics themselves include Magic Online and players complaining. What about those hometown heroes who don’t have a direct line to R&D, or don’t even play Magic Online? If this trend continues they are at the behest of the players who do.Â Â Â 1
Call to action
This was a terrible situation from the ground up. Yes the cards were overpowered, and yes the format was probably terrible. Having the choice between a bad format or demolishing the efforts of pros around the globe is not a tenable position. But Wizards chose the wrong solution, sacrificing goodwill and trust for what was by any account a dead format anyway. One Pro Tour’s coverage may have benefitted, in exchange for actual losses of time and money, and a very reasonable fear WotC will pull the same stunt again. Thus I propose some solutions to solve the problem before it occurs again.
- Apologize to the players and promise it won’t happen again. WotC required the players to suffer a real detriment in exchange for potential or ephemeral gains. Hundreds of players made choices at the PTQ level and up based on Wizards’ announcements about the Pro Tour’s format. Of those winners, who knows how many put time and money into wasted effort? Those players are owed an apology and a detailed plan of how to avoid this scenario in the future.
- Announce that Pro Tour formats may be subject to change. Someone at WotC may be able to pull a “formats subject to change at any time for any reason” posted somewhere, but boilerplate does not equal reasonable knowledge. If players know WotC would liberally change a format essentially any time before a major event starts, then it becomes at least reasonable to hold off on testing until the cutoff point (below).Â
- Announce Pro Tour format will not change once the final set of the Constructed portion is released. Players were correct to wait to test until M12 was released, but after that they had no reason to hold off. Wizards certainly knows the composition of a set before the players, so they have the means to figure out the ideal PT format before its release. Wizards can make all the changes they want before then, but unless it’s obvious that it’s a mystery format (see below) the players should be allowed to test when they have full information.Â Â Â Â
- Alternatively, announce the format won’t be revealed until X weeks before the event. Maybe it’s build your own block, maybe it’s Mirage Sealed. Qed players don’t find out until, say, three weeks before the Pro Tour. Maybe the Limited portion is revealed day of!* I like this plan. Human nature is of the gambling type, so I bet PTQs get a boost if players only know the location of the event rather than the format. “What if we’re playing Rav Block Constructed and and Rav Block Limited?!” Etc.
- Permit a formal method for all qualified players to affect the format. I had no idea WotC was looking at speculative data like MTGO events or anecdotes from players to flesh out formats three weeks before an event. Did you? If a format is still in flux, and it may as well be until the cut-off, send out some surveys to players for their thoughts. Ask them if the format is busted or awesome based on their info available. Likely only the most vocal will respond and WotC has no compulsion to change based on their surveys anyway. But, it’s an above-the-board process that lets everyone affected have a voice. Similarly, if WotC is going to use MTGO data to make such a serious change, tell everyone ahead of time so people can join the queues and let those “voices” be heard. (I will say this is an unfair reason to make a change. If someone did solve the Jace/Stoneforge problem for the Pro Tour, is it in their best interest to show the world through a Daily Event, or save that tech for the Pro Tour proper?)Â Â
* This would probably affect raw sales of the new set, but not as much as you might think. It certainly wouldn’t promote the new set very well. Sure do want to see Pro Tour Grab Bag someday…
The cat is out of the bag that Wizards will make substantial changes to the Pro Tour with less than a month to go, and do so on speculative data. Was the loss of trust worth it? Again, we will never know what the Extended Pro Tour would look like. We do know any player who rightfully invested in solving that format will rightfully resent Wizards for diminishing their efforts. We do know without a formal policy change, no qualified player can ever feel secure while testing for a Pro Tour.
Let Wizards know unilaterally that 11th-hour format changes are ultimately bad for the players and the game. WotC either lets the players meaningfully know their testing may be moot, or WotC lives with their mistakes for an event. Anything else smacks of arbitrary actions and/or favoritism. Considering the stakes and efforts people put into these events, Wizards should do better.