There And Back Again – Examining the OP of Other Games

Monday, March 10th – When Wizards of the Coast made the recent announcements about changes to their Organized Play programs, it seemed everyone and their mother had something (unkind) to say. A month later we’re still waiting for the gang in Renton to hit us with what they’ve cooked up for replacements. While those program re-designs are in more than capable hands, today we’re going to look at the OP programs of two card games which have sought to compete with Magic directly to find out if there’s anything Magic might benefit in learning from them.

When Wizards of the Coast made the recent announcements about changes to their Organized Play programs, it seemed everyone and their mother had something (unkind) to say. A month later we’re still waiting for the gang in Renton to hit us with what they’ve cooked up to replace fan favorites like the State Championships and the Magic Scholarship Series. While those program re-designs are in more than capable hands, today we’re going to look at the OP programs of two card games which have sought to compete with Magic directly to find out if there’s anything Magic might benefit in learning from them.

Looking at the VS System

U.S. National Team member Michael Jacob managed to sit down and explain how the VS system’s PCQs (for VS, PC = PT and PCQ = PTQ) work; considering his history with the game, there are few better to talk to. Like Magic, the VS professional circuit paid out what amounts to Pro Points. Unlike Magic, however, the points didn’t accrue infinitely, paying you dividends when you reached higher and higher thresholds. Instead, qualifying for a PC cost a certain number of points which you “spent” to attend, coincidentally the exact amount you won for taking first at a PCQ, and it wasn’t terribly difficult to rack up enough points over a PCQ season to qualify even if you didn’t actually win a slot outright.

The reason for that was the manner of payout. According to Jacobs, PCQs offered a single point simply for showing up, meaning you only needed 10 in a PCQ season to actually qualify for the PC. The better you did at the event the more you got, but it was entirely possible for a player to actually qualify for a PC by simply slugging it out on the PCQ circuit and make it even without making Top 8 at a PCQ. To many Magic players that will seem a bit extreme, but such a system does offer some unique benefits. First and foremost it encourages participation at a game’s PTQ-style events; after all, you only need to hit 10 of them to qualify for an event. Second, it increases the amount of prize money awarded to the game’s best players by encouraging those who aren’t so good to play at the Pro Tour level (as best as was explained, VS’ Pro Points stayed saved up over multiple seasons) and, presumably, lose. Imagine if the PTQ stalwart who made it to every PTQ for Hollywood in the Midwest but failed to so much as Top 8 showed up in California simply because she or he had accrued the 10 points necessary to qualify. Sure, it’s possible they’d catch their lucky break and release the Magic guru inside them, but overwhelming odds indicate said player would simply be a roadblock for pros on their way to the big prizes and glory.

It’s worth noting that the VS system also benefits players who accidentally win a Constructed event by allowing them to spend their points on attending the Limited Pro Tour if that’s the format they’re more comfortable with. That’s not a bad side effect, though when a player gets to the point in which they can be choosy over whether or not they want to attend a Constructed or Limited Pro Tour, it seems unlikely they’re going to be the target audience to entice with tournament play programs.

So would incorporating some of the differences from VS build Magic and get more players involved with the tournament scene? It’s impossible to do more than speculate, but the program seems primarily geared towards tournament players and not towards enticing players to give the scene a shot. That’s not to say the system doesn’t offer any benefits. The possibility of qualifying for a Pro Tour simply by slogging your way through 10 PTQs, regardless of how well you place in any of them, might convince some players to give it a shot. A player willing to commit to attending 10 events, however, is unlikely one who hasn’t already considered tournament-level play to begin with, and isn’t within the target audience that the new OP programs from Wizards are supposed to be targeting.

Finally, it’s important to note that for whatever positives there were about the VS system, the game itself has not been doing well of late and the Organized Play portion of the game has all but been suspended. This is a lesson that will be repeated when discussing The Spoils, but it’s an important one: while the Organized Play program’s success or failures do not specifically correlate to how well a game sells if we’re looking to improve Magic to help it grow as a game, it’s important to examine the failings of the systems we’re looking to benefit from just as we look at the potential positives the systems offer.

Looking at The Spoils

Some local players helped elucidate The Spoils professional circuit (thanks to Tim Lyons and Clayton Mooney), and, even more than the Versus System, the game offers some interesting takes on keeping players involved with the tournament process. The single most fascinating aspect of their system is that they’ve functionally split the PTQ system into two tiers and moved the first tier out of the hands of regional tournament organizers and into those of local TOs.

To qualify for The Spoils version of the Pro Tour you have to win, essentially, a PTQ. Unlike what we’re used to in Magic, however, that tournament isn’t simply open enrollment; you actually have to qualify to play the PTQ via tournaments held at your local store. Finish high enough at the local level and you qualify for the PTQ. Finish high enough there and you move on to the main event.

This take on the professional qualification circuit is actually pretty fascinating, and you have to give the folks at Tenacious Games a bit of credit for coming up with what is effectively a marketing strategy for their upstart card game. How? By removing the tournament circuit from the hands of regional TOs who may or may not be invested in a store (and certainly aren’t invested in every single local community within a region) and putting it into the hands of those that are – the local TOs – you give them direct commercial benefit to make your game successful. Why does a local TO care about Magic being popular if its marquee amateur tournaments (PTQs) aren’t available for them to run and profit from? Good question (presumably the answer lies in the fact Magic’s stranglehold on “top game” status after being first on the market and dominating since that point in time make the game profitable because it’s so popular, but given an even starting line it seems The Spoils would definitely have the advantage).

That take on things is actually a very intelligent effort, to take a fledgling game and make it popular by allowing store owners to directly influence their own bottom line as a result of supporting the game. With the recent downturn in the economy, it makes more sense than ever for Wizards of the Coast to pay attention to such a shift; after all, small niche businesses like local game stores risk being some of the hardest hit by an American recession that may lead to a global follow-up. If unemployment and money issues go up, who has the resources for something as menial as a $4 pack of enjoyment? To get through the tough times, it would make sense for Wizards to invest in the companies that peddle their products to the masses, transitioning PTQ level tournaments to local stores as a double whammy: first, stores get to increase their profits with new tournaments that promise to bring players into the game, which leads them to continue pushing the game on their customers; and second, Wizards potentially attracts new/keeps current customers who find it easier to participate in the PTQ scene when they only have to drive to their local store instead of a metropolis city five hours away.

As an added incentive to such a program, the line between who is perceived as a “hardcore player” and a player who plays “for fun” becomes remarkably more blurred. Players who enjoy trying to win at their FNM, but find the plethora of players they don’t know who confront them at an event like a PTQ too intimidating for “serious play,” will find themselves questioning that position when the PTQ starts to resemble their FNM much more than it had previously. Soon those players begin realizing that “hardcore tournament” isn’t actually all that different from FNM in regards to enjoyability, even if the talent pool is higher.

Of course (and like VS), whatever can be said of The Spoils’ system, the reality is that the company is to all appearances floundering. The game isn’t threatening Magic: the Gathering on the market, and had the poor fortune of being released at almost the exact same time as the World of Warcraft TCG. Players who have won significant prizes, particularly cash, are waiting on payment as much as 14 months after the fact. Again, it seems obtuse to contend that that fact is solely because of the company’s Organized Play structure, but in examining other systems’ successes to see what Magic might gain from them one should at least pay cursory attention to whether those games are successful.

So, who wins?

Both the Versus and Spoils systems offer interesting paths that it would behoove Wizards to analyze before making any final decisions about OP changes. The possibility of getting to play at a Pro Tour despite never winning a PTQ, like VS provides, might potentially entice players to be involved at the PTQ level even though they don’t find great success there. The Spoils, with its multi-tier PTQ system, might better serve to incorporate local store owners into the PTQ system influencing them to push Magic for their own benefit, as well as sending a small lifeline to Mom and Pops during an economic downshift, which benefits Wizards in the long term.

Of course, Wizards as a company may not be able to afford the public’s perception of radical OP changes that effectively mimic what other games have done. Expect the company to possibly incorporate similar ideas but with their own special twists or takes on them. What might those be? Time will, of course, tell (and if you have ideas or suggestions, you should most certainly offer them up on the forums attached to this article, as those crafty Wizards folks read the Internet whether we believe they do or not), but you can bet they will be something, and that we won’t see an identical duplicate of any other game’s system coming to Magic’s any time soon.

The moral of the story

Now that we’ve gotten through all of that, we have to address a cold reality: the changes to the Organized Play programs aren’t looking to make the Pro Tour bigger directly. What we’ve discussed so far from both The Spoils and VS would essentially do just that, but the PT is already the largest and most successful it’s ever been in the history of the game. Instead, and Wizards employees have stated as much, the programs they’re re-designing are designed to bring in players who don’t go in to local stores for whatever reason, or when they do they certainly aren’t there to play tournaments. The OP programs are going to target the individuals who are, as you’re reading this, captivated by a huge circle game in their dorm lounge, or trading with their four friends who play Magic for the Grapeshot Catapault which will just destroy friend number five’s Mogg deck (not Goblin… Mogg. Who knows how the Catapault pulls it off…). Getting those players to the gaming table is the true challenge, and Wizards has been constantly re-focusing efforts to do so for years.

It’s actually hard to imagine there are programs out there that don’t repeat things that they’ve already tried. Teaching programs, like the “popular” (players loved it for the free stuff, but its success level seems spurious at best) Guru program, have limited impact. Such programs ostensibly entice current players to teach new players the game in exchange for goodies. Unfortunately, they generally devolve into current players gaming the system in whatever way they can to wind up with pricey promos like the old Guru lands without doing the honest work to earn them. Furthermore, the applications of such teaching programs are limited; who are players supposed to teach? We already teach our friends how to play Magic simply for the sake of sharing something we love with people that we’re close to so we can enjoy it with them. That leaves “others” to teach it to, and that’s a hard challenge simply for the fact that few Magic players, if any, are inclined to teach Magic to people who are not otherwise connected to the game or the player teaching them.

Other efforts Wizards has tried seem more appealing. Take, for example, the innocuous text on the back of the token cards snuck into each pack of Magic cards you buy now. Most of us are just excited to get tokens to trade/use/whatever, but the previously alluded dorm dwellers and casual players are exactly the type who crack packs for the sake of opening them (one shudders at the sacrilege) and then use their tokens or build decks to do so simply because they’re “neat.” Every time they do, there’s a tiny reminder that the Shadowmoor prerelease is coming up and, oh look, wouldn’t it be neat to get to play with a brand new set before it was on the store shelves? It’s no different than the type of brand marketing Adidas, Nike, and Reebok utilize when adorning all of their marketed goods with their own brand name, and over time it pays a decided return by filling tournament seats with casual butts.

And of course, still other opportunities for improvement exist. Perhaps a special series of tournaments for players playing in their first event, or first X events, to convince them to take a run at cool prizes against a similar caliber of opponents? How about prizes for bringing someone in to a store to register for their DCI card? Additional foils for players at FNM that reach a specific threshold in a region, influencing them to get their friends to tournaments so everyone can enjoy more free stuff? Ideas are almost endless, but finding the correct ones is key as the pressure is at an all-time high for the new OP programs to knock the community out of the ballpark with their success.

Hopefully, by starting a dialogue and examining where other games have gone wrong or right, Magic will be better prepared to go right (and if you have ideas or suggestions, sound off in the forums).

Bill Stark

[email protected]

Bonus footage

I attended the Chicago PTQ this weekend, running the MBC list I posted in last week’s article. My 1-2 performance, for which I blame poor sideboarding decisions and mistakes in play, was disappointing particularly considering the matchups to which I lost (The Rock and Domain Zoo). I’m not willing to call the deck a failure, but I would no longer advise readers who trust the things they read to play it. It’s a risk, a big risk, and one I would feel guilty for encouraging others to take without being certain it was correct. That said, I did adjust my sideboard from last week in the hopes of improving matchups I saw at the cost of “unimproving” matchups I didn’t see, most noticeably Dredge. Here’s the new board:

4 Duress
3 Thoughtseize
3 Bottle Gnomes
2 Slay
1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
1 Death Cloud
1 Tsabo’s Decree

The discard package lets you cut more dead cards against matchups in which the creature removal is mediocre, though you do sacrifice most of your hopes of winning against Dredge entirely. Considering how little Dredge is seeing play from where I’m sitting (namely the Midwest PTQ scene), I’m perfectly happy with those changes. Your matchup against TEPS is still pretty bad, but the Death Cloud/handkill package actually gives you a solid game against Ideals. You simply need to keep them off of Ideal long enough to Cranial Extraction Form of the Dragon (or make sure you don’t die to it) in time to find Boseiju and Death Cloud. Considering how long the matchup goes, that’s a perfectly reasonable game plan.

If I play the deck in Minneapolis, something I have not yet ruled out, I will probably cut the Thoughtseizes for Extirpates; that card is actually just fine in the format, and very good in a number of matchups. I’m not willing to concede the deck is a failure, but again I would caution anyone from playing it unless they feel they really get it and understand the risks they’re taking. I’m a huge proponent of deck designers taking risks with the design space they occupy, but I’m also a believer in being responsible with an audience about your (or in this case a deck’s) failings.