Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #240 – MTGO Constructed Tournaments

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Thursday, August 21st – The Wizards forums have an interesting thread, titled “What Would it Take to Get You to Play Constructed Tournaments.” The topic is a good one, because Constructed play is hurting online. The Sealed PEs fire, as do most of the Standard and Block Constructed events. Other events – Extended, Classic, Momir Vig, etc. – don’t reach 24 players, so they do not happen. This is bad, and something has to be done.

The Wizards forums have an interesting thread, titled “What Would it Take to Get You to Play Constructed Tournaments.” The topic is a good one, because Constructed play is hurting online. The Sealed PEs fire, as do most of the Standard and Block Constructed events. Other events — Extended, Classic, Momir Vig, etc. — don’t reach 24 players, so they do not happen. This is bad, and something has to be done.

Not having Constructed events happen creates a number of negative outcomes. First, Wizards loses the TIX revenue it would get from the events. Second, the lack of events means that players have less incentive to get the chase cards that are necessary for truly competitive decks, so the demand for those cards falls. The result is that card prices fall across the board. MTGO card prices are dropping for a number of reasons besides the lack of Constructed events, but the lack is a contributor factor.

Finally, the lack of events means that people have fewer ways to amuse themselves on MTGO. The program desperately needs more players, and having fewer options for play limits the chance that new players will be excited and come back for more. I’m not saying that a lack of Extended PEs will keep new players away, but it will be one more factor for some players to quit.

The last thing that the brown-screened, trade bugged, user unfriendly, netdeck haven that is MTGO needs is another way in which it can disappoint players. (That’s hyperbole for humorous intent, of course. MTGO’s not that bad. MTGO actually lets you play Magic, by the rules, online. I have found that all the bugs and annoyances are quite tolerable — at least while I am winning.)

Right now, MTGO needs some new mechanics for getting players to play in Constructed events online. The forum has some ideas, and I have some more. Let’s look at some of them.

I have looked back over my play history. I play on MTGO a lot. I like Constructed. I play a lot of Constructed in the practice rooms. However, looking back over my last couple years online, I think I have played in just two Constructed PEs. I expect I am the sort of player (disposable income, big card collection, likes Constructed) that Wizards would want to attract to PEs, so I’ll also analyze what it would take to get me into some.

First, let’s look at some of the problems that players have identified with PEs.

Time Commitment

PEs take a long time. An event is going to run at least five rounds, plus an additional two-three rounds for the Top 8 — three if the finalists don’t draw. Figuring an hour a round, that means that a PE is going to take the better part of a day. A number of forum commenters mentioned the long duration as being “well beyond the time budget of most people.”

It’s a problem for me, too — especially when the tournaments fire at inconvenient times. Even when the times are fine — if they start at 7pm, just after I get home from work — eight hours means I would still be playing at 3am, assuming I make the finals. That’s tough when you get up at 5:30am.

I don’t have an answer to the time issue. The rules for Swiss rounds are pretty straightforward – the number of rounds depends on the number of players, according to this table from the Tournament Organizers Handbook.

4-8 players = 3 rounds of Swiss
9-16 = 4 rounds of Swiss
17-32 = 5 rounds of Swiss
33-64 = 6 rounds of Swiss
65-128 = 7 rounds of Swiss
129-226 = 8 rounds of Swiss
227-409 = 9 rounds of Swiss
410+ = 10 rounds of Swiss

Online PEs have a 24 player minimum — without that number of players joining the event, the event is cancelled. The maximum number is probably defined by the hardware, but it will also be defined in practice. When people see that the number of players enrolled pushes the even over the 12 hour mark, they start dropping / not signing up.

I would also note that Wizards has been offering “casual” Sealed events as part of the Eventide release. These events run five rounds, and have longer build times and longer match times. They are not popular. While the flatter prize structure and less clock pressure may be of interest to more players, they simply take too long to finish.

One option that does not involve quite as much pressure would be smaller Swiss events. Some forum-goers have recommended cutting the minimum to 16 or lower. This would affect prizes — Wizards can’t make a profit if the payout remains the same, but the number of players playing is much smaller. Adjusting payout is possible (see below), but a simpler option would just be to make 8-man events Swiss instead of single elimination. The payouts could be the same, entry the same, just award prizes based on the final standings after three rounds of Swiss. The outcomes will be pretty much identical — anyone going 3-0 in a Swiss 8-man event will win and the player losing to him will come in second on tiebreakers. The difference will be that someone could lose the first round, then win the next two and still have a shot at prizes. More importantly, for people like me, the cost/benefit ratio of playing in an 8-man will go way up if I am assured of playing at least six games, instead of being eliminated after losing just two.

Some players have suggested that 8-man events be changed to Swiss with any win being worth a pack — the so-called “321 format.” While that might be appealing, I don’t need to go that far. I have played in just one or two single elimination events online in 2.5 years, and have never played in a paper single elimination event in paper (except for Grinders at U.S. Nats and so forth.) I have played in hundreds of Swiss events in the paper world, and I would be all over smaller Swiss events online, even with the current 4-3-1-1 prize structure.

Cost of Decks / Entry

A majority of forum posters stated that the cost of competitive decks was keeping them from playing in PEs. Here’ a typical response, from petkos, “What keeps me out of the format is the $200-500 required to build a competitive deck, which then needs to be entirely re-vamped 1 year later. (Not to mention changes as individual sets come out.) Solve this, and I’m in.

Playing Constructed is expensive. A tier 1 deck is going to cost a bundle, given that it pretty much requires rare lands and other chase rares. Even “cheap” decks, like Mono-Red or Kithkin, are going to contain multiple playsets of $20 cards (Figure of Destiny, Mutavault, etc). Sure, people can play cheap decks, or play without the chase rares. However, people can also enter stock car races without spending money on high-performance parts, too. They just don’t win.

People have made various suggestions about reducing the value of cards. They are not going to happen. Wizards is not going to allow proxies, or print extra copies of chase rares to drive the price down, and so on. All the available evidence is that they will push the rarity of chase cards up. Look at Masters Editions — MED 1 moved Force of Will from uncommon (in Alliances) to rare. MED 2 previews are starting, and the second card was Sea Drake, a Portal uncommon moved to rare online.

Spikes & Netdecks

The flip side to expensive decks is that a lot of what you face in PEs are netdecks and tournament caliber players. Each event will attract the best players with the best decks, because they are most likely to make a profit from playing in the tournament. As Jimbov put it: “The problem, in my opinion, is that every PE is a PTQ level event online. There is no FNM equivalent because every single FNM type event that you hold is open to every single spike on the whole server.

PEs use prizes and rating to attract players. That means that the majority of players in PEs are motivated by what they can win — and those players are not likely to bring subpar decks. They are also not likely to be very considerate of players with subpar skills — and even if they were willing to allow “take-backs,” MTGO does not. That does not make for a very friendly atmosphere for more casual players.

I have spent a lot of time writing about the entire pool of decklists and players in large paper events, like Regionals, PTQs, and States. In these events, the player base can be sorted into the seriously competitive players and more casual players. The serious players are playing to win/qualify, and will drop once they have two losses. The casual players are looking for a day’s entertainment, and will typically stay in for most — often all — the rounds, regardless of their record.

In paper events, I see the numbers breaking down something like this.

* 25-35% pros, who have a very strong shot at winning, and who drop at X-2.
* 30-40% good players, who have an outside chance at Top 8 and who don’t drop until their friends want to leave.
* 30-40% casual players with no real chance of winning the event but who play for the social aspects and the chance to play the game. These players stay in forever, if they get enjoyable games.

In paper Magic, good TOs make some efforts to keep the more casual players happy, and keep them coming. Once you get a critical mass of these players, then they become self-perpetuating. They may face spikes with netdecks rounds 1-2, but once they have a couple losses, they will be playing with other more casual players and enjoying the rest of the matches. That’s why paper PTQs can attract 100+ players — and why online PEs cannot. Online PEs do not have that critical mass of casual players. Playing against nothing but spikes, and interacting via an awkward interface, do not provide sufficient entertainment for these folks. They stay in the casual and multiplayer rooms.

kssarh made this point quite well, in his analysis of PEs, when he wrote: “There is no real social scene. Approaching Constructed MTGO online is done very similarly to online poker. No matter how much you like the game, without the social aspect, at some point you need to start doing very hard cost/benefit analysis and there is no equivalent to penny tables in MTGO.

If the only reason to play is what you win, then people with marginal skills and/or decks won’t pay to play. The entry fee is high and the expected return for these players is very low. That needs to change.

I have looked at the people entering some online Constructed PEs. In general, they seem to break down as follows:

For a given Constructed event, I’m guessing that:

1) Half to two-thirds of the players joining the event are PE regulars. These folks have experience, complete decks and a reasonable chance of making Top 8.

2) Another quarter or so are solid players with PE experience and decent decks who play only occasionally.

3) A small number (5-10%) are first time PE players testing the water. I further assume that very few of these players return.

4) Another small number (5-10%) are generally casual players who want a different challenge.

In the recent months, the number of regular players has held steady at a dozen to a dozen and a half. The occasional players have appeared less frequently. The result is that events frequently do not hit the magic 24 players, and get cancelled.

One option to getting the numbers back over 24 is to increase the number of tournament players. That would require increasing the prize payout, so that more spikes and near spikes will find it rewarding to play regularly. In effect, that would require enough prizes so that the lesser skilled spikes would win enough to “go infinite” — or at least make a profit. Since the dozen or so players with a very solid chance to make Top 8 are still around, that would mean that the prize payout would have to be raised enough that a player who can expect to make Top 8 maybe once in three tournaments would also break even.

The problems with this approach should be obvious. For one thing, the players who regularly make Top 8 will get most of these extra packs. That means that Wizards has to pay out a lot more in prizes to get enough packs to the marginal players to keep them coming back. Not a good plan — and it does nothing for the casual crowd.

The casual crowd — not the almost-good-enough tournament players — is what Wizards should target. Right now, it seems like a couple dozen players at most are dedicated to playing Constructed PEs. Thousand of players play Constructed Magic in the casual rooms. If Wizards could get even a small percentage of them to play, then the Constructed PEs would fill every time.

The question is “how?”

Prize Support

Some forum posters have suggested more prizes, higher prizes, and entry fees, broader prizes, etc. In the end, these all can be summed up by A_J IMpy’s semi-humorous comment “Essentially, bribe me with guaranteed or near-guaranteed cards or packs (and I’ll play).” Yes, that would get more of us to play, but Wizards still needs to make money on the event. Let’s look at how event prizes are now structured for Premier constructed events. The entry fee is 6 TIX. The payout is:

First place: 12 packs
Second place: 9 packs
Third & Fourth place: 6 packs
Fifth — Eighth place: 3 packs

Total payout: 45 packs — or roughly $180 worth of product
Total entry fees at minimum attendance: $144
Break-even point: 30 players

Note that many events are listed as 2X or 4X payouts — meaning that the prizes are doubled or quadrupled. The break-evens in such events will be similarly increased.

Basically, Wizards is already paying out more in prizes that they are taking in through entry fees. At present, Wizards has made pretty much every Constructed event (except Momir Basic) a 2X event, and these still often don’t get 24 players. Having more prizes is not really an option.

Some players have proposed increasing both the entry fee and the prize payout. Again, this works for the players that play in these events because they expect to make Top 8 and expect to win packs, but this is self-defeating. Raising the stakes will reduce the number of marginal players entering the event. The people Wizards needs to attract are the rest of the player base, not the serious gamblers.

What Wizards needs to experiment with are methods of attracting more casual players. If Wizards could attract just 1% of the casual Constructed players to any given PE, they would have way over the 24 necessary to run the event.

Wizards has tried introducing more casual Sealed events, with long build times and long clocks. They also pulled the prize structure down — even a record of 2-3 won packs. These have not worked. They began at the rate of every four or so hours (compared to every hour or less for regular events) at the start of the Eventide release. In recent days, they have not fired at all.

It is hard to tell whether these events are unpopular because of the reduced upper end prizes, or because they take so very, very long. I would bet on the later. I played in two of these. I have also listened to the comments both during and about these events. No one complains about the prize structure. A lot of people complain about going close to six hours for a five-round event.

The Paper Cut Award

Pulling prizes down to Top 12 or even Top 16 are not going to attract casual players. Casual players — and by that I mean players with decent decks and skills who play mainly in tournament practice and other casual rooms, not PEs — are not really expecting to make Top 8, or even Top 16. That means they are not motivated by the prize packs. They play because they are enjoying the games. To keep them playing, you need to keep other players like them playing.

In short, Wizards needs to provide rewards for players staying in events, even if they are out of contention for Top 8.

One of the most effective such rewards is the “paper cut” award — a tradition at Legion Events PTQs. The paper cut — the story behind that name some other time — gives a booster pack to any player still in the event at the end of Swiss rounds. The result of that award is that the drop rate for Legion Events is low, and the number of casual players at PTQs is high.

The same sort of thing could work online. Wizards could offer some inducement for players to stay in through all of the Swiss rounds. This would mean that players like me could be assured that, even if we brought our homebrew decks that don’t have half the rares we need, we could expect to play another 0-3 player with a similar deck in round 4, instead of whatever netdecking Spike at 1-1-1 got paired down.

Providing one pack to any player still in at the end of Swiss could mean a higher prize payout — but not necessarily. Let’s assume that such an award added just 1% of the casual Constructed players to a PE. I don’t have exact numbers, but I just popped into MTGO, and there were about 800 players in the casual play rooms. One percent of those players would add 8 to the average PE — a number which should assure that the events fire. If the paper cut award could induce 2% of the casual players to join the PE, then it is almost guaranteed to go past the break-even point of 30 players. At that point, the paper cut award would more than cover its costs.

At 6 TIX, the cost to enter is greater than the value of the booster pack — and not all players would stay in. Those playing purely for profit will still drop once they are out of Top 8 contention. Those having a really bad run, or who realize they have a really bad deck, may simply drop to limit the pain. No one will stay in just for the pack — that would be the equivalent of working for $1.50 to $2.00 per hour, and most people won’t do that. As an inducement to stick around even when you are not winning every match, though, it can work.

Originally, I had thought about adapting the “random half box” — a prize awarded by Legion Events in 32 pods at prereleases. Basically, at the prerelease, someone gets a half box at random. My first thought was to award a number of booster packs, at random, to someone who was still playing in the final round, but who did not make Top 8. That could take more packs, and could be harder to code, than the paper cut / single pack idea.

If not Packs, Player Rewards

Wizards should also look towards developing some sort of player rewards system — something to reward players for participating in PEs. Wizards has tried special cards, like Kjeldoran Outposts and Unhinged lands. They are nice, but not all that special. A few players like to add a lot of bling to their decks, but most don’t care much. (I draw the line at playing all MED lands, because I still love me the old card face.) Still, tracking the events that a player plays in, and later rewarding them with special premiums (like the textless spells and foil Damnations in the last paper rewards packs) would be nice.

To get the casual players to stay in and develop that play base that would support larger events, then Wizards should give double rewards credit for everyone still in the event at the end of Swiss that did not receive prize packs.

For that matter, it would be a great idea for Wizards to automatically adjust the prize pool if the event got more players. For instance, for events with 24-40 players, the prize pool looks like this.

First place: 12 packs
Second place: 9 packs
Third & Fourth place: 6 packs
Fifth — Eighth place: 3 packs
Everyone else still in at the end of the Swiss rounds: double player rewards points

If the event gets 41-80 players, the prizes stretch down further:

First place: 12 packs
Second place: 9 packs
Third & Fourth place: 6 packs
Fifth — Eighth place: 3 packs
Ninth — Sixteenth place: 1 pack
Everyone else still in at the end of the Swiss rounds: double player rewards points

If the event gets 81+ players, the prizes are:

First place: 12 packs
Second place: 9 packs
Third & Fourth place: 6 packs
Fifth — Eighth place: 3 packs
Ninth — Sixteenth place: 2 packs
Seventeenth — Thirty-second place: 1 pack
Everyone else still in at the end of the Swiss rounds: double player rewards points

Wizards could simply create a set prize for accumulating reward points and send it out to players, the way they do in the paper world. Better yet, they could make the rewards points usable at the online store. Players could spend rewards points to buy things — giving them more options for rewards. The choices might include special promo cards, special bling for your avatar, free entry into an event, etc. The possibilities are endless; it just depends on Wizards doing the coding.

I haven’t decided on whether the rewards points should be tradable or not. I could argue that either way.

Having thought about this for quite a while, I think Wizards should immediately implement a minimum prize of 1 pack per player still playing at the end of the Swiss for all Constructed PEs as an interim measure to get the PEs running again. Over time, they should transition to player rewards — and to award double player rewards points for any players still playing in the final Swiss round who does not win packs. Those rewards points should then be redeemable for useful bling, free tournament entry, promo cards, maybe even the ability to upgrade a normal card to foil. The goals are twofold. First, player rewards should provide additional incentives for all players. Second, the double rewards points for non-prize winners should help attract more casual players — the non-spikes. That, more than anything else I can think of*, can help save Constructed PEs online.


“One Million Words” online

* Okay, I can think of better incentives. A better interface, free pizzas delivered to your home during the match by bikini models, large gobs of free cash, etc. Paper cut packs for now, and player rewards later, are the best practical ideas I can think of.