Quick Hits

BBD isn’t quite ready to talk about Magic Origins in Standard yet, but there’s way more in Magic going on right now and he’s here to discuss Organized Play changes, how hard it is to figure out what’s good, and the balance between bringing new players on board and keeping the game “pure.”

Later this week I will get into Magic Origins and some of the cards, decks, and strategies that I think are going to be great for Standard. As for now, well, this ain’t that kind of article. I’ve had a variety of topics that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while now, and I figured I might as well knock them all out in one shot. Well, most of them that is. There are a few I’d like to talk about but won’t be able to get to in the space of this article. The rest somehow got squeezed in.

Without further ado, here are my hot takes on these ice-cold subjects.

Magic Origins

I really like the set so far. There are a lot of really interesting and unique cards, and it’s really hard to anticipate how good they will be. A lot of the planeswalkers, for example, are pretty mediocre creatures and pretty mediocre planeswalkers, but they also cost less mana than other planeswalkers. Jace, for example, doesn’t seem very impressive on the planeswalker side, but he’s also a two-mana planeswalker, which is not something we see often and not something that is easy to evaluate.

I do have one huge issue with Jace, though. We used to always refer to Jace Beleren as “Baby Jace.” What are we supposed to do when presented with the information that there is now a “babier” Jace? I for one am at a complete loss at how to proceed. This is gonna be hard.

I think the set is going to be a success, and I don’t think it’s going to be immediately obvious what level of impact it has. Consider me on board.

It’s Okay To Be Wrong

You think we’d figure it out, but we don’t. Not last set. Not this set. Not even next set. Magic is my job, and I still basically have my head up my butt when it comes to new set predictions. I’m like a butt ostrich. That’s a real animal. (I think.) Some professionals have been playing the game for ten, fifteen, even twenty years. And still, we screw it up every single time a new set comes out. We miss cards, strategies, and decks. We overvalue certain effects and undervalue others. Sphinx’s Revelation was a bulk mythic. Tarmogoyf was $2. Aurelia’s Fury was $20.

How is it possible? Well, Magic is an extremely complicated game. Cards are also powerful or weak in context. Some cards are just abstractly powerful enough that they are pretty much going to be good in nearly every context, but most cards are middling enough that in some Standard formats they will be duds and in others they will be all-stars. Hero of Bladehold saw zero play until Jace got banned, after which it suddenly became one of the best creatures in the format. If you looked at the spoiler and were like “Daaaaaaaamn, this Hero of Bladehold card has some sick stats. That thing’s gonna be awesome.” Well, you were wrong, and then eventually right.

Regardless of the why, the point here is that it doesn’t actually matter if we get it wrong. We shouldn’t be looking to show off how awesome we are when we do get it right – you know, conveniently overlooking all the times we got it wrong – and likewise we shouldn’t be trying to shame others who didn’t get it right. It’s not a contest to see who can accurately predict the most cards correctly. Rather, it’s a chance to learn, have fun, and experience the glory of the new set.

I think it’s important for us to remember all the times we got it horrifically wrong the next time we try to put someone down for “being dumb enough to not see how great Dragonlord Ojutai would be.”

This applies to the game as well. When someone makes a giant blunder and loses because of it, it doesn’t really help anything to shove it in their face. We’re all guilty of this at one point or another, but it’s not really a productive thing to do for yourself or the other person. It can definitely be a teachable moment and a chance for that player to learn a mistake to avoid for next time, but there’s no reason it should be a point of shame. I punted and gave my opponent on-board lethal at 9-0 in GP Providence. It happens everywhere, to everyone, at any given time. It’s not possible to correct those mistakes, but it certainly is possible to correct how we handle them, and I think that’s important.

New Mulligan Rule

Starting with Pro Tour Magic Origins, and then maybe to be adopted later, WotC is rolling out a new rule for mulligans. Personally, I think this is a great change and very warranted. Mulliganing to six reduces your chance to win by a decent amount, but mulliganing to five or anything less than five reduces your chances to win by a significant factor. It’s enough to where winning on a mull to five actually feels like a pretty big accomplishment.

The way the new rule works is that if you ever keep a hand with less cards than your starting hand size, you get to scry one before the game begins. So if both players mulliganed to six, they both get to scry one. If you mulligan to five, you still get to scry one (and only one, you don’t get to scry extra for mulliganing deeper).

This new rule is going to make it easier to keep risky six-card hands and have them pay off. It is also going to increase win percentage in games where you do have to mulligan.

Personally, I am all for reducing the number of games in Magic where only one player actually gets to play Magic. I don’t think those kinds of games are healthy or fun or good for promoting the game. It’s why I think cards like Blood Moon or decks like Dredge are net negatives for Magic, even if they aren’t dominant or good in any way.

New Coverage Rule

There is also a new rule that allows for judges to use video to aid in their investigation for matches. Again, I think this is a long overdue and extremely good change. I can understand the hesitation for wanting to use this in the past: it can take a lot of time, and it can create an unfair situation for people who are on camera who will get a different ruling for the same situation than those who aren’t on camera.

However, I am of the opinion that integrity of the game should matter a lot more than anything else. I think that making sure the game is played properly and disputes are resolved fairly in as many games as possible is the best course of action. I think the argument of “We’re gonna have to make a judgment call in a lot of games without having access to all the information, so we should also just make judgment calls in games where we do have all the information to keep things fair” is a poor argument. Let’s make as many games as possible be played as accurately as possible and rejoice in less games decided by uninformed rulings.

Other New Coverage Rule

The other rule for coverage is that players who are on-camera at high level events like Grand Prix, Pro Tours, and the World Championships are required to follow certain rules for how they lay out their cards. No more lands in front. No more upside-down cards, or graveyards placed haphazardly across the play area.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is actually an amazing change. Making Magic a game that looks consistent on camera and that is easier to follow for people who are tuning in is one of the best possible decisions they could make. I want to see Magic become the kind of game like League of Legends: where hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch big tournaments, where we see an improvement in tournament offerings, tournament pay, and quality of tournaments because of how much Magic is growing.

Making things easier to understand, more entertaining, and more watchable for new players or even experienced viewers is a really easy step to take in increasing the visibility of the game and making these goals a reality.

How many people do you think watch a big League of Legends tournament and think “wow, this game looks cool and sounds exciting. I’d like to play!” I bet the answer is a lot. How many people watch a Magic tournament on coverage and think “I have no clue what is going on here. I’ll pass!” I bet the answer is also a lot. I hope that dynamic can continue to change in the future to make things more and more accessible.

This ties into my next topic.

Purity Vs. Marketability

I had a discussion on Twitter a few weeks back with Patrick Sullivan and Cedric Phillips about Sensei’s Divining Top. Someone had suggested the idea of banning Sensei’s Divining Top because of how annoying it is for tournament play. I was strongly opposed to this idea because I didn’t feel like Sensei’s Divining Top was too powerful or oppressive in any way in Legacy. Only a few decks play the card. It isn’t an overpowered card for Legacy, and unlike Modern, they don’t ban cards in Legacy unless they are too powerful for game play. I thought the idea of banning a card purely for the sake of making Magic coverage better was ludicrous.

I have since changed my opinion. Now, I’m still not saying that they should ban Sensei’s Divining Top, as I don’t think that Top is worse for Magic coverage than, say, something like Blood Moon or Choke or Chalice of the Void or Trinisphere that can completely prevent one player from ever casting any spells. However, I am saying that I now believe it’s completely acceptable for them to ban cards simply to make the game easier to understand and follow on coverage.

There is a balance between the purity of the game – Sensei’s Divining Top isn’t too powerful for tournament play, and from a pure “purity” standpoint it definitely doesn’t deserve a ban – and the marketability of the game. Sensei’s Divining Top doesn’t make Magic fun or easy to watch on coverage for the majority of viewers. I’m not sure exactly where the line should be drawn, but I think making the game more entertaining and accessible for new viewers is extremely important.

I want to see Magic become something big, and watching some guy sit there discarding every turn when he has seven Mountains in play with his Deathblade deck while he gets beaten down over the course of 20 turns by an Imperial Recruiter just isn’t fun Magic to watch for someone who hasn’t been ingrained in the game for ten years like many of us have. Even for people who have been playing the game for a long time, this still isn’t very fun Magic to watch. Something like that will turn away viewers and prevent new players from wanting to get into the game.

I think sacrificing one card, like Sensei’s Divining Top for example, so that tournaments will progress faster as well as both be more entertaining and easier to understand is a fair tradeoff. However, there is definitely a line somewhere. At some point, if you sacrifice enough purity the game ceases to be enjoyable and it doesn’t matter how marketable it becomes if it’s just not a good game. I’m not sure where that line is, and I think it’s an interesting topic to discuss, but as of now I think we’re definitely too far on the purity side. I think we could easily move more to the marketability side without losing too much.

I’ve also heard the argument that changes WotC makes, like removing damage from the stack in order to make the game simpler to play, also takes skill out of the game. I don’t think complexity and skill are directly proportional. The game Go is extremely simplistic, and yet there is a ton of skill involved. Just because something is simpler doesn’t mean it involves less skill, and I think that every time WotC removes needlessly-complex rules or interactions in order to make the game easier to understand and more intuitive, they are doing the right thing. Making things easier for new players is a good thing, not a bad thing, even if it does marginally reduce the skill involved.

I think that, as a whole, we don’t care enough about how easy Magic is to understand, how marketable it is to non-Magic players and how many new players are introduced to the game, and that we care too much about preserving the status quo and the archaic rules and interactions that are associated with Magic as we know it today. A lot of those interesting situations are what makes Magic one of the best games of all time, but a lot of those situations are also the kinds of unnecessary complexities that keep new people away from the game.

Update: I wrote this part of my article before GP Lille. With the finals of GP Lille being a Miracles mirror match, I actually saw a lot of comments on Twitter about banning Sensei’s Divining Top. I didn’t watch any of the coverage of the tournament, but my simple question would be this: “did the presence of Sensei’s Divining Top make watching the coverage noticeably worse for the majority of viewers?” If that one card is really making the format unwatchable, then it should certainly be banned. If it’s only a minor inconvenience, and not significantly affecting viewership numbers, then I don’t think it needs to go.

There Will Always Be Something Good

Patrick Sullivan had a great rant about Honored Hierarch at the last SCG Open. The basic gist of his statement is that the card wasn’t very good but it frankly just doesn’t matter. Who cares that it isn’t good? Some other card will be good and you can play with that instead. Why are we so invested in caring about whether or not this one particular card is good instead of just accepting that it isn’t and finding some other card that can be good instead? It doesn’t make sense to get riled up about this card being underpowered instead of just getting excited about the cards that are actually good instead.

I couldn’t agree more with what he said. Not all cards are created equal, and we can never be satisfied if we are always unhappy when certain cards are weaker than others, or vice versa, when we get mad at some cards being better than others.

There are always going to be format-dominating cards. Thragtusk dominated Standard for a year and many people hated the card, but the fact of the matter is that there are always going to be these kinds of cards that are just better than the other cards. If it wasn’t Thragtusk it would have just been something else instead.

“I hate Pack Rat. I hated how it dominated Standard for so long. Things would have been so much better if Pack Rat wasn’t printed.” No. No they wouldn’t have been. Some other card would have taken its place and been dominant and instead of complaining about Pack Rat, everyone would have been complaining about that card. There are always best cards, best strategies, and best decks. Unless they are actually oppressive, there’s no real value in always complaining about them and envisioning “grass is greener” scenarios. I have been guilty of this myself plenty of times in the past, but it just doesn’t really accomplish anything meaningful. The best way to handle this is to either just play the card or work on finding cards and strategies to beat it.

When it comes to cards from Magic Origins, such as our dear friend Honored Hierarch, I’ve got a lot of ideas and first impressions. I’ve started to do a bunch of testing with Magic Origins cards, and I’m really liking what I’ve seen so far. Hopefully later this week I can bring some thoughts on the set, the cards, and some deck ideas to the table. I really hate writing the early hype articles where it’s just a bunch of baseless card speculation. I don’t feel like I am very good at writing those and I also prefer to not try to talk intelligently on cards when I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’d rather jump in later this week with more information and data under my feet after playing some games and be able to provide useful feedback about what has and hasn’t worked for me.