Yawgmoth’s Whimsy # 191 – Lessons Dreamblade Teaches

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A year ago, Wizards launched Dreamblades minis game at GenCon with a $50,000 tournament, and a full schedule of big dollar events. This year it held the $50,000 World championships at GenCon, but also announced that Wizards was ending support for organized play. Since Dreamblade was based on the same model that drives Magic, what does that say about Magic the Gathering?

A year ago, Wizards launched Dreamblades minis game at GenCon with a $50,000 tournament, and a full schedule of big dollar events. This year it held the $50,000 World championships at GenCon, but also announced that Wizards was ending support for organized play. Since Dreamblade was based on the same model that drives Magic, what does that say about Magic the Gathering?

No, it does not mean Magic is dying.

Dreamblade is a really good game. It is deceptively simple (emphasis on “deceptively”). The miniatures have power and toughness, and can move and attack. You score points by eliminating minis, and by controlling key parts of the map. Combat occurs one square at a time.

Combat is resolved by rolling a number of special six-sided dice. The faces are miss, miss, one damage, two damage, three damage, Blade. Rolling a Blade activates a mini’s special abilities, like critical hit, a ranged attack against another square, a fumble or — and this is the most valuable — moving a miniature into another cell.

For example, it is possible for a miniature to be involved in combat in the first cell, roll a blade and use a move ability to move into the next cell — then continue moving this way and so become involved in every combat (assuming you roll well and the mini does not die) during the turn.

In the finals, the match was won when a player rolled a blade in a combat over an insignificant cell, and used the blade to move an enemy out of a critical square — giving him control of the square and the win.

The point is that it is the special abilities that make the minis playable, in much the same way the abilities make creatures playable in Magic. Think about it — people do not play Brine Elemental because it is an overcosted Spined Wurm, do they?

Besides, the minis just plain looked cool. Wizards spent a lot of money on design, and it shows.

Here’s Unwishing Well, a widely mini.

One problem, though, is that the game is hard — much harder than Magic.

Sam Black, a Madison player who won a PTQ and last year’s 50K Dreamblade tournaments on consecutive days, commented that you can easily play Magic for 10 hours at a stretch, or play 20 hours a week or more, and enjoy it all. Long sessions of Dreamblade, on the other hand, are just grueling.

I agree, playing Dreamblade is more taxing than playing Magic, or comparable CCGs like World of Warcraft, Vs, and Spoils. Playtesting Dreamblade is hard — and like any collectible game with drafts and Constructed events, playtesting is critical to success.

Dreamblade is also a collectible game, with the minis sold in booster boxes. Each booster has seven minis, with a rare, uncommons, and commons. Dreamblade “warbands” are the equivalent of decks, and are composed of 16 minis. That means that, technically, you could buy three boosters and get enough figs to play the game. However, Dreamblade boosters retail for $14.99, meaning that you have to spend $45 to field a warband. In Magic, you could get a sixty-card Constructed legal deck by buying four boosters, for a total cost of about $16.

We all know how playable such a deck would be. It’s about the same with Dreamblade.

Of course, in Magic you would also need lands to build the deck. In Dreamblade, you need the map and dice — but those area available in the starter set.

Dreamblade also released new sets every three months. That matches the four sets per year Magic has been accomplishing in recent years — and plans to do next year. Dreamblade sets were slightly smaller than Magic sets, but the higher cost of the boosters meant that Wizards expected the cost of collecting playsets of the minis to be about the same as keeping current in Magic. In short, the concept behind Dreamblade was to have the game cost about what Magic costs.

Does that seem reasonable? Does that raise any eyebrows?

A year ago, Wizards launched Dreamblade at GenCon. A part of that launch was a couple high profile, big money tournaments — culminating in a $50,000 event. To make sure that the tournaments would run correctly, Wizards recruited a number of experienced Magic judges to run the events. Those judges had to pass a Dreamblade rules test, etc. – but the end result was that a bunch of experienced Magic judges ran the events at GenCon last year.

Wizards also held a special Dreamblade launch party at GenCon, which featured a Q&A session with the game’s designers and corporate staff. All of the judges attended, and we talked about the set. Several of us questioned whether that level of spending was sustainable. I was especially concerned, because I had just written a couple articles about the cost of Magic, responding to the recent (at that time) release of Coldsnap.

A large part of the release event Q&A was an announcement of the tournament support for the game. Wizards had released other CCGs and minis games. Some, like D&D minis, were thriving. Some, like Hecatomb, had failed. What Wizards believed, at that point, was that the other games had failed because of insufficient support for high level tournaments. For Dreamblade, Wizards announced a series of 1K and 10K tournaments, all of which paid out cash, as well as provided qualification points for the annual 50K Championship at GenCon.

A 1K tournament paid out $1,000, a 10K $10,000, and so forth. Wizards also announced that local stores could hold “edge” tournaments that would provide smaller numbers of qualification points and pay out boosters as prizes. Structurally, this was very similar to Magic’s GPs, PTQs and FNM — but it was possible to qualify even if you never won a tournament. If you accumulated 1,000 points, simply by playing in a zillion Edge tournaments, you could play in the 50K.

With Hecatomb, Wizards had tried, and failed, with a cool and innovative game that did not have significant prize or tournament support. In Dreamblade, Wizards decided to try a full-court tournament blitz. In addition to great game mechanics and cool minis, Dreamblade had — from day one — a full complement of tournaments, a core of trained and experienced judges, a solid and innovative rating systems, and very good prize support.

A year later, Wizards declared that it was abandoning the 1Ks and 10Ks, and would only support the Edge tournaments and next year’s 50K — and that continued release of new sets would be determined by the sales of current sets. In the interest of full disclosure, here’s the message:

July 17, 2007
As you prepare your warbands for Augusts’ Dreamblade 50K championship, many of you may be wondering about the future of Dreamblade Organized Play (OP).

When we designed this game, we envisioned highly competitive organized play as one of the key things that makes the game great, and we provided robust organized play with Dreamblade. Despite our best efforts however, we didn’t get enough tournament players, and we can’t continue supporting the game with the same depth of OP that we’ve offered in the past. As a result, we will no longer be supporting the 1K and 10K events. The August 50K event will continue as scheduled, as will Edge Tournaments. We love this game and we know you do too. It’s a painful change but a necessary one.

Night Fusion, Dreamblade’s fifth set, releases in September and promises to be our most exciting set to date. It includes a number of new features that we have been reserving for Dreamblade’s second year. The success of Night Fusion will be very telling for Dreamblade as we gauge demand for the future. We hope fans come out in droves to support it!

Thank you for your passionate support of Dreamblade and your patience during this time. We hope to have the opportunity to continue to bring you this innovative and revolutionary game experience for some time to come.

Jonathan Tweet
Lead Designer, Dreamblade
Wizards of the Coast

Dreamblade may not be dead, but the “use tournaments to drive it” model certainly is. Since that model was clearly based on Magic, what does that say about Magic’s longevity?

In short, not much.

Magic’s success is based on two separate legs: tournaments and casual play. As much as the tournaments players and casual players may dislike each other, both are critical to the success of Magic. Tournament play keeps people interested, and drives the Internet coverage. Without tournament play, websites like StarCityGames.com would get far fewer hits — and websites like StarCityGames.com are great marketing for Magic as a whole. Casual play, on the other hand, drives sales.

You see, booster drafts aside, pros don’t really buy cards. This was also true of Dreamblade. Sam Black bought some boosters to build his first warband, for the first GenCon Constructed events. Since then, however, his play in Limited events has given him enough minis that he hasn’t had to buy anything since. That’s also true of some other high-level players I have met.

Equally importantly, I don’t think Dreamblade drafts were ever very popular. You can draft Dreamblade, but the cost is $45 a player and the drafts are, by necessity, Rochester. I have never seen a Dreamblade draft start spontaneously. Without drafts, you don’t move a lot of product.

Although Dreamblades did support constructed and tournament play, it did very little to nothing to support casual and introductory play. Dreamblade did not have precons or other methods of showing how a basic warband could be constructed. It did not have a base game that you could buy, and play the game with a friend. Instead, you needed to buy two starters — doable, but awkward.

The tournaments soon devolved into the really good players pounding the new players. The game has a steep learning curve, and it does reward skill and preparation. That is good — but not when you are trying to use tournaments as a primary driver. In my area, we had Sam Black and his cohort — people who were very strong bets to win any tournament. We did not get very many others showing up.

For example, last spring, Ingrid was running a tournament at a local shop. About a half hour after the tournament was supposed to start, I got a call on my cell. It as Ingrid, asking if I was in the area. The tournament had just three participants, and they needed a fourth to be sanctioned. Asked if it was Limited, since I did not have a warband with me, and when she said yes, I came over. I was a little surprised when she had me pay full price for my product — but that was nothing when she handed me a 1K Top Four pin when I scrubbed out.

Pros, alone, cannot make a game successful. It requires a lot of dedicated players. In a few areas, those pockets of dedicated players did appear — but mainly because a store owner or enthusiast pushed the game, helped nOObs build warbands, gave away minis by the handful, and otherwise got new players up the learning curve.

In relying solely on pros and prizes to push the game, Wizards was locking itself into a bidding war with other games. People who play CCGs primarily for prizes tend to play the game with the biggest return. Vs. was huge while UDE poured an endless stream of cash into the events. However, I spent some time talking to Vs. players and judges at GenCon: they are seeing a significant die-off of causal Vs. play. Without causal play, Vs. may not sell enough product to keep going. I heard several players speculating about whether this year’s bog Vs. event at GenCon would be the last.

In the end, of course, CCGs like Magic, Spoils, and so forth are also competing with Poker for players. No matter how much money a company can throw into the prize pool, poker will always offer more.

On the flip side, GenCon is full of game companies trying to make a game successful purely on game play and casual interest. The vendor hall has an endless supply of companies demonstrating their games. As always, I played a couple, and bought one. The lineup keeps changing. Even brilliant games, like Management Material, tend to appear one year, stay popular for a short while, then fade. The competition is fierce.

Right now, Magic is in the sweet spot — with a flourishing casual play community and a first rate set of competitions. It is golden, but it will take a lot to get another game into that position.

Judging Dreamblade at GenCon

I do not have much Magic tech this week. I had a very small chance to play EDH, and none to play any formats people might actually care about.

Ingrid was invited to judge at GenCon as soon as Wizards started planning the event. She, along with Jeff Vondruska, head judged most of the 10Ks last year. Wizards also invited most of the previous 50K judges. Wizards offered Ingrid and I airfare, a hotel room and a GenCon badge in return for judging Dreamblade.

Sounds sweet, eh? It was.

It had its downsides, too. The first was that Wizards needed a judge for one of the grinders on Thursday. The late one. I was basically getting up at 4am to make my flight, flying to Detroit, then Indie, heading to the hotel, then heading over to the venue to pick up my badge and start running an event that started at 10pm. I was going to be up for almost 16 hours before I started the tournament.

The “good” news was that we only had eight players. That meant single elimination, three rounds, and we were out of the hall by shortly after 2am. Not so great for the players, but good for me.

Friday I had off, which let me sleep on a bit, then check out GenCon. I played some puzzle games, some Allies & Axis minis, and a bunch of other games. I also spent a couple hours in the vendor hall.

A note: if you ever have the chance, go to GenCon. It is amazingly big. The vendor hall along is a couple acres in size. Literally. The list of games is a couple hundred pages long. It is a gamers’ paradise.

Saturday, the work began. The Dreamblade 50K started, officially, at 10am. Judges got there between 7:30 and 8:00am. We set up and numbered tables, determined where pairings and standings would be posted, got oriented (as a judge, you need to be able to answer questions like “where’s the bathroom?”) and spent some time going over various special rules and likely issues. At 9:45 the players’ meeting began, and pairing went up slightly after 10.

We had a little under 200 players.

The first three rounds were Constructed. The players built warbands in advance, and played those. It was pretty straightforward, and easy to judge. The judge calls were few.

Dreamblade sounds different than a Magic event. The difference is immediately apparent: when the head judge says “you may begin” the sound of dice is everywhere. After that, the tournament is strangely (to a Magic judge’s ear) silent. People are concentrating on the game, and you hear far less banter. More significantly, you don’t hear shuffling and people flicking cards.

Another difference is that Dreamblade players are amazingly polite. I had one tough ruling. A player clearly wanted to do something, but was screwing up the steps. His opponent had called me over to watch the play develop. The player even asked if each step was legal. They were, but the result was not going to be what the player wanted — he had the process screwed up. (For all three of you interested in Dreamblade, he was trying to trample into a cell, but was also going to Skirmish the trampler into that cell.) I had to explain that what he wanted to do didn’t work. Then I had to explain that, no, he had done it, so he could not go back. He appealed, and the head judge upheld my ruling with the comment “you are responsible for knowing how to play your minis.”

Here’s where Dreamblade and Magic players vary. The player not only did not swear and grumble, he actually thanked both of us for the rulings, and for judging. What’s more, that type of behavior is typical of Dreamblade players. They are just amazing people.

Rounds 5 through 9 were booster draft. In Dreamblade, draft pods contain four players. Each player gets three boosters, and each opens the booster, then everyone helps rip the plastic off the minis and sets the minis out. The drafting itself is basically Rochester — but without the bounce.

The problem is that DCI Reporter — the software that runs tournaments, calculates tiebreakers and creates pairings, does not handle four player pods. We had to create eight player draft pods, then manually break them into pairs. Pairings, for each draft round, then had to be created manually.

Scott Larabee, a Wizards employee, was scorekeeping for the event. He had the worst job imaginable. Once we started the draft rounds, I created a new judge position, that of scorekeeper protection. I basically intercepted anyone coming near the scorekeeper, to allow him to devote himself to manually pairing the 90 or so pairings each round.

Another difference between Magic and Dreamblade players — Dreamblade players don’t drop. Even late into day 2, we still had over 150 players, and many of those were long out of prize competition. They were just playing because they love the game.

Because of the problems with the software, and the fact that we were doing nine rounds, with three different drafts, the tournament ran late. We finished about 2am. Sixteen hours, on your feet on concrete almost all of it, is a long time — but several of the judges not only kept working, but we almost had to break their legs just to get them to take a break.

One reason I like the judges — we worked incredibly long hours, and no one gripped or complained, and almost everyone was still working flat out at the end. Of course, we had some examples to live up to: at the lower tables were a pair of twin brothers who had qualified. They were six. Their father was also playing — he had won a grinder. The kids were happy and cheerful at 2am, and back in their seats for the player meeting the next morning.

The software problems also made for some long turn-arounds at the end of the rounds. One round was particularly bad. We had one match go to time, plus extra turns, then have a complex judge call and appeal happen in overtime. After that was resolved, then Scott had to create pairings — and all that took time. Magic players would have been lynching judges by then, but the Dreamblade players were still being polite.

Another example of what Dreamblade players were like — an eleven year old lost his Constructed warband. Unfortunately, stuff like that happens. However, once word of that spread around the hall, the Dreamblade players pitched in, and by the time the drafts ended, the players had contributed enough minis to completely replace the warband, rares and all.

Sunday was, if anything, anti-climactic. Judges arrived a bit before 8am, we had the player meeting just before 9am, and played three rounds of Constructed Swiss before cutting to the Top 8. I table judged a Top 8 match, and the only difficulty was staying awake. I had to stand — sitting would have put me to sleep immediately.

The finals ended about 3:30 — just in time, because the CCG hall closed at 4. We spent a while helping take down and pack up stuff, and load it on pallets, then headed back to the rooms to shower and change before heading out to a great dinner and EDH until 3am or so.

I lost one EDH game where I made a boneheaded play, and won the other.

Next time — more Magic content.