Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #229 – Is MTGO Magic Done Right?

Read Peter Jahn... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, June 5th – I don’t have any useful Regionals tech. Sorry. Instead, I want to hit a couple of topics. Many of these will be controversial – but Green versus Blue will not be among them. Promise. Instead, I will talk about conclusions from Pro Tour: Hollywood, MTGO’s drafts, chess clocks and lack of intentional draws, and the new Mythic Rarity.

I don’t have any useful Regionals tech. Sorry. Instead, I want to hit a couple of topics. Many of these will be controversial — but Green versus Blue will not be among them. Promise. Instead, I will talk about conclusions from Pro Tour: Hollywood, MTGO’s drafts, chess clocks and lack of intentional draws, and the new Mythic Rarity.

Firestarter: Rules Lawyering and Narrow Formats

Let’s start with something I noticed at PT: Hollywood. I got a lot more judge calls about picky stuff. I’m talking about calls trying to force a player to complete a sub-optimal play that the player started, but stopped and tried to change. For example: player A says “activate Mutavaults,” taps his Vaults while pushing them into the red zone, then starts to tap two other lands. Player B calls a judge and argues that the player tapped his Mutavaults to pay for the activations, so they cannot attack.

I just made that example up, and I don’t want to get into how I would rule on it (if you want to work it out, review the rules sections on procedures, timing, shortcuts, the article on ruling by intent, etc.).

The point worth noting is that this example is typical of the sort of calls I saw in Hollywood. I had four or five of them before noon on Day 1. Several other judges mentioned having similar calls. At the last Extended Pro Tour — and during the Extended portion of Worlds — I got zero such calls. Other judges I talked to also had similar experiences.

Here’s my question: are such calls more common in narrow formats — or at least in formats that are perceived as narrow?

Going into PT: Hollywood, the format was commonly described as Faeries versus the decks that beat Faeries. It may actually be wider, but that was not the perception. The players — at least those calling for judges in these situations — tended to be either playing Faeries themselves or playing against the Fae.

Personally, I think that such judge calls are, indeed, far more common in formats where the players are having less fun. They are sick of playing and testing certain matchups, and see the format as nothing but work. They are playing purely to win, and are looking for any edge they can find. Alternatively, with more mirror matches, and no new mirror match tech, the coin flip nature of the game forces them to try to exploit marginal play errors. The result — more such calls.

Seeking support for this thesis, I talked to a number of other judges about these sorts of rulings. The judges identified a couple of other formats where they remembered large numbers of these sorts of judge calls. The most commonly cited format was Masques Block Constructed (especially Pro Tour: Lin Sivvi). Also high on the list was Odyssey Block Constructed, with Mono-Black Control and UG Madness, and certain Limited formats. If you lived through them, you may have had the same experience.

I have no way of proving these points. Many of these calls result in rulings that do not assess a penalty (the judge either rules that the player made the incorrect play, or that the player was still in process of declaring, or that the players intent was clear, or whatever. In most of these cases, no rules infraction has occurred — just a misunderstanding by one player as to game state). If there is no penalty assessed, then these are not tracked in DCI reporter, so there is not data trail. Without hard data, I can’t prove or disprove my thesis. But based on my experiences, and those of the dozen or so other judges I talked to, it seems to be the case.

Interestingly, as the weekend wore on, and as people realized that a number of different decks were actually doing well, the number of such calls seemed to decrease. Again, just an observation, but one that makes me look forward to Regionals.

Express your thoughts in the forums. I don’t know that we can prove anything either way, but I’d be curious if players have had the same experience.

Shards of Mythic Rarity

Wizards has just announced that, starting with Shards of Alara, we will now have a new Magic rarity. (The articles are on the flagship site — Rosewater’s article has the most info.) Basically, in addition to common, uncommon and rare (and basic land, and Timeshifted, etc.), booster packs from Shards onwards will have either a standard rare or a “Mythic Rare.” Mythic rares will appear once every eight boosters.

Wizards has also announced that they will include a basic land in each booster. The article explains why. I have no problem with that — the fifteenth pick is never any good anyway.

I do have some concerns about the Mythic Rares, however.

I’m a Constructed player. I have a good income. I also get a number of booster boxes as prizes and for judging events. Even so, my Regionals deck choices are going to be driven by the cards I don’t own — and decisions on whether I want to shell out for them.

Mythic Rares make that even worse.

For Lorwyn, someone needed to bust 320 booster packs to open a playset of Cryptic Commands. That means one playset for just under every nine booster boxes opened. Put another way, assuming my luck did not suck, if I opened 9 boxes of boosters, I should get playsets of everything.

For Morningtide, busting 200 booster packs would, on average, generate one playset of Mutavaults and one playset of Bitterblossoms. Five and a half boxes should generate playsets of everything. (I’m bitter about Bitterblossoms, however. Ingrid and I have busted six boxes, and have two. On the flip side, we do have nine Battletide Alchemists. That’s just our bad luck. Statistics say that stuff happens. They also say that somewhere, someone else must have the reverse. Lucky stiff.)

Wizards has said that the Mythic Rares will not include “utility cards” like dual lands, or cards like Mutavault or Char. They may, however, include Planeswalkers, Legends, and “epic-feeling creatures and spells.” Oh goody.

Look over the PT: Hollywood decklists, I think these cards would definitely be Mythic Rares: Garruk Wildspeaker; Venser, Shaper Savant; Profane Command; Primal Command; Crovax, Ascendant Hero; Teferi, Magus of Zhalfir; Sygg, River Guide; Ancestral Vision; Cryptic Command; and Doran, the Siege Tower. These cards would probably be Mythic Rares: Tarmogoyf, Chameleon Colossus, Sower of Temptation, Scion of Oona, Reveillark, and maybe Mistbind Clique and Vendilion Clique.

No idea if Thoughtseize would be Mythic. If Mythic is merely a way to make money, then it would be. If Wizards is telling the truth about what will be considered Mythic, then cards like Thoughtseize will not. We will see.

No matter how you sort them, it is pretty clear that 50-80 of the cards in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour would have been Mythic Rares, if Wizards had been printing Mythic Rares in the last couple sets. [While I have my own issues with the idea of Mythic Rares, I must say that Pete’s list of current cards that could be classified as Mythic is a lot longer than my own. — Craig.]

Doing some quick math, based on the announced Shards cycle of 101 commons, 60 uncommons, 53 rares and 15 mythic rares, it looks like you will need to open 242 packs to get a playset of a given rare, and 480 boosters to get a playset of mythic rares. In other words, to get playsets of everything in the set, you will need to open roughly 13 booster boxes — up 50% from past sets.

Wizards also provided numbers for “Paper,” the smaller set to follow Shards. That will break down as follows: 60 commons, 40 uncommons, 35 rares, and 10 mythic rares. Getting a playset of everything will require opening roughly nine booster boxes of product, up from about five and a half booster boxes for Morningtide. (Or, if you want to argue that you will just trade for your playset, then someone has to have opened all those boosters in order to have the playset available for trade.)

Mythic Rares means, basically, that we have to open about 50% more product to get our playsets.

This game is getting far too expensive.

A side note: I always wondered how Wizards was going to handle the Power Nine in MTGO Masters Edition II and III. I guess now we know.

Looking at Cards during Drafts

In paper drafts, according to the official rules at least, you cannot look at the cards you have drafted while picking. You get one minute at the end of each pack to review your picks. On MTGO, you can see your picks all the time.

I commented on this to a Wizards staffer, and he said that this was a deliberate choice, not just a difference. In the paper world, we cannot allow people to review their picks, mainly because of the potential that people may switch cards — for example, if your third pick was useless, and you saw two good cards in the fifth pick booster, you could “swap” your third pick for both good cards. That is cheating, but it is very hard to spot. The solution is to not allow people to handle their picks while cards were circulating.

Not handling the cards also prevents other problems, like having someone confuse boosters and drafted piles, combine them, or accidentally pass their drafted cards. (Yes, I have seen all of the above happen.)

In short, being able to see your picks as you draft is how Wizards would like real life Magic to work, but allowing it to happen in the paper world just isn’t possible. I think there are a few other areas where this is also true.

No — not brown-on-brown color schemes, trading being about as enjoyable as trying to put out a burning manure pile on a hot day (a notable lesson in spontaneous combustion and olfactory overload I will never forget), or the pathetic excuse for a navigation system. Let’s set those aside for another time. I just want to talk about areas where Magic Online gets it right — maybe — and paper does not.

No Failure to Agree on Reality

As a judge, the among the worst calls I get are those whether the players disagree about something fundamental. They may have differing life totals, be uncertain whether someone has played a land this turn, or don’t know how many turns a card with cumulative upkeep has been in play. Judges can — and do — deal with these calls, but it takes time and effort, and handling them is never much fun.

Magic Online handles all of these issues automatically. You can’t get confused about life totals on MTGO. The program displays it at all times, and does not make subtraction mistakes nor forget to record a painland activation. The program never forgets (or decides not to bother with) cumulative upkeep tokens.

Questions about game state are another messy category, but these get more complex because of the communications rules. For example, take the power and toughness of a Tarmogoyf. That is not just a rules issue — the creature does have a particular power and toughness. However, a player is not required to help his or her opponent play the game, so they do not have to help them calculate that power and toughness (other than letting the opponent see/know what they have in their graveyard — and with the caveat that at Regular rules enforcement level events, they actually do have to help calculate the number.)

I’m not trying to write a primer on the communications guidelines (we have one of those in the “Ask the Judge” archives, IIRC, and on the flagship site), I’m just saying that, since MTGO calculates that sort of thing automatically, it does get around the whole issue of derived information and what you have to calculate for your opponent.

Chess Clocks

This one is a bit more debatable, but the chess clock method used in Magic Online may be the optimal method of handling issues of slow play and stalling. The Magic rules require that both players have to have an opportunity to play out their game, and if a player is taking more than a reasonable amount of time to play, they need to be penalized for that.

Here’s the definition of slow play from the March, 2008 version of the Penalty Guidelines (a new version should be out soon, but it is not as I write this — and I don’t think this section will change.)

Players who take longer than is reasonably required to complete game actions are engaging in Slow Play. If a judge believes a player is intentionally playing slowly to take advantage of a time limit, the infraction is Cheating — Stalling.

As you can see, calling slow play requires a lot of judgment — words like “reasonably required” do not lend themselves to a hard and fast definition.

MTGO, on the other hand, gives each player half the time in the match, and whichever player runs out of time first loses. This works — and is reasonably fair. I know I moaned about it when I first started playing because I had troubles with the interface, but that was my problem, not the program’s. The MTGO clock also creates a problem with infinite loops because the program does not have a method of handling loops well. That aside, this is probably a better method of handling timing and slow play issues than what the paper world can handle.

Note that I am not saying that the paper world should adopt chess clocks. That simply cannot work. One of the questions commonly asked in higher level judge tests is this — on turn 1, if the active player plays a land and neither player plays any spells or abilities, how many times is priority passed? (I’ll let you count them — the secret is to remember that, if no attackers are declared, you skip declaration of blockers and assignment of damage, but not end of combat.) The point is that players would be punching a chess clock more times in a single turn in Magic than most players would punch the clock in an entire chess match.

A long time ago, I used to play competitive speed chess. I remember the chess clocks from back then — they were expensive, somewhat fragile, and they eventually broke. They broke most commonly when players were slapping quickly because both players were nearly out of time. What I don’t remember is the level of frustration in a chess match that I often see from players in a Magic game — frustrations (like mana screw) that could result in a player slapping the button on the chess clock a bit too hard.

The analog chess clocks I played with back then were probably not as solid as today’s digital chess clocks, but I doubt the new ones are indestructible. Magic play would put chess clocks to far more abuse than they are designed for — and even the cheapest clocks are running over $30 each, even when bought in bulk. If chess clocks are to be supplied by players, then we would have to deal with the “Judge — he hit my clock too hard and it broke” issues. (Besides, players are supposed to supply tokens and means of keeping life totals, and they cannot even do that consistently. The alternative would be to require organizers to provide chess clocks. That would mean that the TO might need to invest a couple of grand in chess clocks to run a PTQ, and then pay more to replace the stolen ones.

Neither option is very good.

The other important issue is that chess clocks work on Magic Online because you can set — or skip — a lot of stops, and change your stops during a game. I generally skip the upkeep stops — but set it back to “on” if I am playing Mistbind Clique. You cannot do that with a chess clock. Requiring both players to hit the clock 20 odd times a turn — even for pointless things like end of upkeep and EoT passes on turn 1 — is unrealistic.


The main result of not using chess clocks in paper matches is that you can run out of time for a match, but you cannot identified which player used too much time. This means that paper magic needs an “end of match” procedure to resolve the match, and even then the result may be an unintentional draw. The alternative would be untimed matches. Untimed matches are impossible in a tournament setting: imagine a nine round event if every — or even every other – round involved a match like that between Gabriel Nassif and Tiago Chan in the Paris Worlds Top 8. That match went over three hours. Untimed matches would mean that the Swiss portion of the a PTQ could easily become a two-day event.


The lack of chess clocks leads directly to the whole “Time in the round. Active player finish your turn and proceed to the five extra turns” thing. Not optimal, but there are very few feasible alternatives.

I was going to segue into the intentional draws debate at this point, but this article is already overlong, and I have thought of a few more issues on intentional draws I want to work through first. Next time — or maybe a couple articles off if I have anything to say about Regionals.

Swiss Drafts

I want to finish with one thing that I think MTGO has wrong: Swiss drafts. Right now, all the drafts on MTGO are single elimination. A single loss knocks you out of the draft. I know that single elimination drafts are simpler to run than drafts with all the players playing in all three rounds. However, this is only really an issue at Prereleases, conventions (like GenCon), or at large events, where a single judge is often running half a dozen drafts simultaneously.

Judge availability is not an issue on MTGO, where the program runs the event automatically.

The question is not whether Swiss drafts — where all players can play in all rounds, and winners are paired against winners — can work. They do: most FNM events I have ever seen follow this format. The Swiss format is designed to produce a unique winner after the set number of rounds. The deeper question is whether Swiss drafts would attract more players.

I am not necessarily a typical player, but I think I can draw some points from my own experiences. I have been to a lot of events where single elimination drafts are being offered. I have attended GenCon for years, plus had free time to draft at many of the Worlds, Pro Tours, and Grand Prix I have attended. I have also scrubbed out of far too many PTQs and so forth. Looking over my match history, however, I find that I have played in very few single elimination matches; maybe three in the last three years, and two of those were because I had coupons for a free draft.

In the same period, I have played in 100 or so Swiss drafts at FNM, and a lot more team drafts on casual nights. Online, I generally only draft in three situations: 1) in release events, to use up the packs I won in sealed events, or 2) when I want to write an article about drafting, or 3) when I have packs and want to rare-draft. I simply don’t like paying $15 or so for an event which might end after just two games of Magic.

I’m not the only one. At the end of PTQs and other events, getting even a single elimination draft to fire is an iffy thing. However, I often see groups of players doing team drafts — or just drafting for fun. Those drafts are never single elimination.

Most players like playing, and most want to play all three matches with any deck the draft.

Personally, I believe I would draft online at least once a week if drafts were Swiss instead of single elimination. Right now, I drive over an hour, round trip, to do that sort of draft at FNM. I would do that on other nights if I had the opportunity.

Wizards does not even have to change to a “one pack per match win” prize structure, as many people have proposed over the years in various forums. Wizards could keep the 4-3-2-2 payout structure they now use, but just base the prize payout on the final record after three rounds of Swiss. Swiss pairings, and the fact that MTGO chess clocks mean that you cannot get unintentional draws, would ensure an undisputed winner after three rounds.

Players in a Swiss draft can still drop — they just fall to the bottom of the standings. You could drop if you drafted really badly and had no chance. On the flip side, a new player could get enough experience with a deck to actually learn something about the format — three matches teaches you far more than one — even if they had drafted or built poorly.

Wizards has long looked for a way to let newer players draft without facing pros all the time. They tried the 1700 room, splitting off 8-4s and fast drafts. Those didn’t work. Making 4-3-2-2 drafts Swiss, while keeping 8-4s single elimination, might solve those problems. Newer players could draft and know that, at the very least, they would get three rounds of experience with their draft decks. Pros would be more likely to stick to 8-4s.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Feel free to debate these issues in the forums.