The bodies lie in the back corner, fresh axe wounds in their back. Blood, moist and sticky, slides down the walls, making hideous traceries as it seeps across the wallpaper. The two corpses, a man and a woman – well, they USED to be a man and a woman, anyway – lie with their arms outstretched towards the back door, hands twisted into claws from their final, fatal effort to crawl to safety.
At the front of the house is a wide-eyed child, holding a massive fireman’s axe behind her back – it looks so large in her tiny hands – staring at a team of police officers who are grimly facing her down. She does her best to manage a weak smile, shooting a winning grin at the lawmen…but there is a clot of gore wedged between her lily-white teeth.
"But you HAVE to show mercy on me, officer," she says. "I’m an orphan!"
So here’s another house: Searchlights sweep the front lawn; half-starved dogs patrol the grounds, slavering hungrily. The doors are festooned with baroque padlocks, webbed tight with burglar-proof chains, ratcheted shut by huge bars. The pros are sitting in the back of the house, clutching their customized "tech" IBC decks tightly to their chest; occasionally one will leap up and furiously wave an electronic scanner about, hunting desperately for bugs and taps placed by rival pros.
One speaks up.
"You know," he says, "There aren’t any good articles on the internet anymore."
When I went to Pro Tour: LA to watch the festivities, the one thing I was amazed at was how wide the gulf between what I saw on the internet and what went down on The Big Boat.* I mean, hey, I’m the editor of one of the largest Magic sites on the internet – I wasn’t fooling myself that I would be privy to any high-skills tech, but I should at least know the basics from the hundreds of articles I’ve edited, right?
What I saw there had no basis in the ‘net reality I lived in. Everyone agreed, by consensus, on certain facts in Invasion drafting: The mana curve should be appropriately low and aggressive. The two-colored Zombies and Knights were highly valued. Likewise, certain "rules" that had come to be common among the scrub crowd were in doubt: U/B/R was, perhaps, NOT the way to go (and in fact, a W/U deck with a black component that he was forced into is what won the Tour that day).
Everyone had come to these conclusions independently, and not one of them had written a word on it.
It was scary and revealing, seeing how utterly out of the loop I was. If anyone should have been able to cobble together basic playskills from sheer internet knowledge alone, it would be me – and in that instant, the futility of my plight was hammered home.
Peter Szigeti was right: The internet IS useless.
There was, quite literally, nothing out there to feed the pros. The world that you read at Mindripper and the world of the high-level Magic player barely intersects, if at all.
So, putting on my editorial hat, I asked the pros if they’d try to connect us, to write articles on the basics of high-level strategy.
I asked for articles on the approaches they took to drafting, a primer on high-level strategy that was a notch above "Go with the good cards." I wasn’t asking for specific color combinations they preferred, or even Invasion-specific strategies; just their basic approach to the art of drafting, kind of like when I wrote up my "Casual Player’s Guide To Surviving The Prerelease" guide.
They all stammered, or outright refused – and keep in mind that I wasn’t even asking them to write this for ME in most cases. Just to write it in general. For anyone. Everyone, really.
So I took a different approach; I asked for someone to write a primer on the art of playtesting. If you’re not willing to give away specific ‘tech, can you at least give the folks a basic outline at how you get better at understanding the cards? What strategies stop you from spinning your wheels and wasting time on bad decks? What groups tend to work best together?
Blank looks. Vaguely embarrassed stares. Mumbles of, "Well, testing is pretty proprietary, you know…"
I felt like the reporter who asked President Clinton, "So, didja feel her up or what?" Not only was the question kind of impolite… But I was a dummy for even expecting a response.
So – realizing that I couldn’t pry an advanced article out of this crowd with a crowbar – I asked why this was all so hushy-hushy.
"Testing is VERY secret," admitted one pro, a very famous writer, who shall go nameless.** "Everyone comes up with their own methods of testing, but really it depends on the strengths of the team members… But if I were to talk about it, I’d be cut off from my own group in a heartbeat. And these tours are money. I can’t afford to write articles on it."
"Wizards schedules the tours at the same times as the PTQs, which is stupid," said another pro.*** "That means that I can’t write about strategy for the current format without every other pro in the world knowing what I’m doing – and I’m not doing that. If the schedules were different so I wasn’t competing at the same time the scrubs were, then I might try it… But otherwise, it’s slitting my throat."****
Back in the day of the Dojo and small prizes, the days of Great Advancement and Wondrous Articles, it was a smaller crowd and easier to share. Not everyone knew the net was a source of power. As such, you could get away with posting there and not having everyone in your tourney scene know exactly what deck you were playing.
But now? The net is a large pool of information for the beginners and (sometimes) the intermediates, and any leakage of "tech" will result in a shockwave of netdecks in PTQs across the nation. The cost of sharing has risen, and most pros aren’t willing to pay the price.
If Zvi Mowshowitz came up with the idea of the Fundamental Turn nowadays, he wouldn’t share it – that’s tech! Likewise, the idea of the "metagame" rock-paper-scissors-grenade would be a useful tool for players… And they’d keep that sucker buried down like Jimmy Hoffa until it was such common knowledge that it would be a pathetically easy article to toss off for the Sideboard.
And this secrecy? It’s a Good Thing.
This is high-level competition, chum. There are thousands of dollars at stake. The pros pay good money to fly out to these things, spend hundreds of dollars buying cards for drafts and whatnot, and their outlay is considerable. They need to maximize their chances of winning – because otherwise, they LOSE money.
As such, trade secrets are a Good Thing. They are vital. They are the difference betwixt profit and the poorhouse. Hey, you pro-type people might notice that I don’t advertise every change that StarCity is making in advance; that’s because I don’t want anyone else ripping off our ideas before we implement ’em. I’m ALL about the secrecy. That’s business.
Lately it has become fashionable for pros to talk about the "good old days."
They long for the days when internet articles were useful for everybody. Said pros are flooding IRC with their yammering, clogging up perfectly-good bandwidth on mailing lists, whining how "Internet articles used to be good." Ripping on the scrubs for not knowing their elbow from their earhole.
How dare you?
HOW THE HELL CAN YOU SIT THERE AND BITCH ABOUT THE STATE OF INTERNET ARTICLES WHEN *YOU* ARE THE CAUSE OF THE DAMN PROBLEM?
You ARE the reason why internet writing sucks. Your terror. Your fear of being cut off from the internal flow of information, the inside gossip. And it’s your silence that keeps everyone else dumb. Until you’re willing to prove that you CAN do better – and by God, I wish you would – then just suffer in silence and realize that the good old days are over.
Put more simply, if you’re not willing to step up to bat and write your own good articles, then shut the hell up about everybody else’s.
Because frankly, we intermediates need the help. There are a lot of mid-level strategies that still need to be covered that NOBODY’S touched, and I bet since everyone’s working in isolation even the Big Guys could learn something from a couple of bomb articles.
Sure, I know what everyone says – "Articles don’t do it. Playtesting is what gets results. Just play and you’ll get better!" And don’t get me wrong, playtesting IS key.
But there’s two major problems with just playing a lot:
1) When you make a group and playtest on your own, you’re reinventing the wheel. Starting from scratch every time means you chase bad ideas down rabbit holes and waste time. Not to mention that you may not realize that your fundamental assumptions are incorrect – do you playtest in hardcore tourney style with no takebacks and risk skewing your deck matchup data thanks to game losses that competent play would have won, or do you play with "Whoops, didn’t mean to do that" rules and possibly encourage bad habits? How do you analyze the matchup data? How much does it take before it’s meaningful?
These are not insignificant questions. Get them wrong, and your whole team could be punctured for months on end.
2) Not everybody has high-quality competition. This is who the net was made for. Rizzo has had the fortune to fall in with the CMUers, and he doesn’t have to read articles – he has high-grade competition all the time. He can’t HELP but get better if he tries. Likewise, playing at Your Move Games with Darwin Kastle, Chad Ellis, Michelle Bush, and Rob Dougherty is gonna up your level quickly.
But hey – I live in Alaska. I don’t have a big pool of good players to play with, and I don’t always learn from them. For example, I am a better Sealed deckbuilder than fellow columnist David Phifer. (But, yin to my yang, Dave absolutely wipes the floor with me in Constructed.) When we play, I tend to beat him on a consistent basis; one night we built decks and I beat him 5-0. Then we switched cards to build new decks, and I beat him 4-1… And that last one was when he burnt me out with an eight-point Ghitu fire.
Now is that really going to up my level of deckbuilding? David’s a solid player, so the games were challenging, but I’m not going to really learn a lot about the art of Sealed deckbuilding from him. Likewise, come Constructed time, David will be getting zippo advice from me.
Playtesting against weaker players doesn’t make you better. It may even make you less of a player, since you tend to play sloppier unless you watch yourself. Why, just the other day I was playing David and accidentally drew my entire sideboard, even though I never would have won anyway…
The importance of articles is that they serve as a surrogate mentor, the advice of a friend who knows more than you do. Not everyone has one locally. The purpose of Magic writing is to help those in need, and playtesting alone doesn’t serve that function.
We need help. We don’t even need specific block advice… But the basics. The CONCEPTS that you’ve all absorbed without even thinking.
But the stakes have been raised to the point where you pros are terrified to even share the basics – the fundamentals and theory that help bridge the gap between the intermediate and the advanced player. The things that USED to be shared freely. The theories and the advice that raised the boat for everyone are now locked away, and God knows we may never see ’em again.
So I hereby put out a dare to every person who’s mocked the internet community: Write something better. Break free of your chains. Yeah, a lot of what we write is redundant and misguided… Show us the way. Bring the Magic community to the next level.
But I understand why you’re nervous. It’s a small community. You were born in a small town. So I give you a choice: Keep your secrets… Or keep your mouth shut.
Because you can’t. Have. Both.
Member, Team AWWAJALOOM (http://www.theferrett.com/theteam.htm)
As a side note, thanks SO MUCH to everybody who voted for your nonassuming editor in last week’s CCGPrime contest! My gosh, I was so surprised that you all voted for me! Really, all I ever wanted was to knock off Alex Shvartsman… But thanks.
* — Aaron Forsythe has some excellent stories about said boat, which I hope he deigns to share with y’all.
** — Ooo, but the temptation to name him is soooo big. But I’m nice. See? Even I’M too much of a coward to break the silence, and I’M NOT EVEN GETTING ANY FREAKIN’ TECH! What kind of an idiot am I, anyway?
*** — This guy goes nameless, but that’s because I forgot his name. Or maybe not.
**** — The other common excuse was, "Hey, I’m practicing. I don’t have time." Totally valid. I feel the same way about theferrett.com.