Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #253 – The Inherent Unfairness of Promo Cards

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Thursday, December 11th – Two semi-related events happened this last week. First, a European behavioral scientist performed a very clever experiment to show that dogs feel jealousy at unfair treatment. The second was some more information on the Magic Online rewards cards, and the fact that Wizards will be giving some away at Worlds. That made the MTGO forum folks bay like a pack of hounds in full cry.

Two semi-related events happened this last week. First, a European behavioral scientist performed a very clever experiment to show that dogs feel jealousy at unfair treatment. We dog owners knew that instinctively, but proving it scientifically was the trick. Good Scientist — have a cookie. The second was some more information on the Magic Online rewards cards, and the fact that Wizards will be giving some away at Worlds. That made the MTGO forum folks bay like a pack of hounds in full cry.

Here’s the experiment, for anyone interested. The experimenter recruited a bunch of people who had dogs that knew the trick “shake” or “paw” — basically extending a paw upon command. The dogs were then randomly paired, and the dogs were both asked to shake, and given a piece of bread the first half dozen times they did so. After that both dogs were asked for a paw, but only one dog continued to get bread. After a few repetitions, the dog that was not being rewarded would stop responding, try other tricks or refuse to cooperate. The scientists also tried the experiment giving one dog bread and the other sausage, but only some of the dogs found that unfair. (The same experiment with monkeys has a higher response rate — which means that monkeys are either a) smarter that dogs or b) picky eaters. Based on my dog, which will eat literally anything, I go with b).

The relationship is that the Magic Online people feel highly jealous of paper Magic, and all the perceived advantages and special benefits “those people” get. Is it not always so?

Back in college, I spent a couple summers as a councilor at a pair of connected Boy Scout camps. The two were jointly run and shared some facilities (like the rifle range), but were otherwise physically separate. There was one difference: a former camper at one camp had donated a huge cast iron pot, which probably held 50 gallons / 100 liters. Both camps had big first day feasts. The camp that did not have the pot grilled cheap cuts of meat, potatoes, and veggies. The camp with the pot made chili. The campers with the pot always complained that the other camp got “steaks,” and all they got was chili. The camp without the pot complained about their “shoe-leather tough horsemeat,” and how the other camp got better chow. In actual fact, the cost of the two meals was pretty much the same, but that never stopped the whining. Both sides knew that they were being screwed.

Actually, a lot of people go one step beyond the dog experiment. They not only feel jealousy when someone else is rewarded and they are not, but they feel jealousy whenever both are rewarded, and the rewards are different. These people seem to know, regardless of the actual facts, that they are getting the short end of the stick.

The forum people were all over that. Several just knew that, whatever Wizards did, they would get an unfair number or amount or value of cards. A fair number were concerned that the promo cards would be not given out to the casual folks, or not to drafters, or not to whatever it was they were. Many of those people were also quite certain that the promo cards should not be given out to the casual folks, or not to drafters, or not to whatever it was they were not.

It was quite amusing.

Whoops — I had better explain what “the promo cards” are. A recent update to MTGO included a bunch of new card image. You could find these by setting “number owned” to zero, then clicking in a tab calls “v3 Promo” or something like that. It showed that MTGO now included a large number of the alternative art and textless promo cards that Wizards has been giving away in the paper world over the last few days. Those are the “promo cards” I am talking about. Wizards has not explained how those cards would be distributed, other than to promote MTGO.

Then Matt Tabak, a WotC employee, summoned Wrathful ForumDwellers (clearly a Tempest-creating card). Matt mentioned that he would be giving out some of the promo cards at Worlds, to the folks that tried out the Magic Online demo there. As I understand it, Wizards will be holding special 4-man Tempest Limited tourneys at Worlds, and each participant will get an alternative art card.

The forums erupted. People were livid that you had to go to Worlds to get the first online promo card. Not only that, but they were even more upset that the first Online promo card was being given out at a… shudder… paper event.

Of course, having been at a number of these “paper” events, I can say clearly that the two worlds are not that separate. A huge number of player (and judges, and coverage folks, etc.) all spend a lot of time on MTGO. If you doubt me, just read the Premium writers, and look at how often they talk about online play and testing. For that matter, series like “Drafting With…” are entirely online.

But let’s ignoring that, and assume that events like Worlds have almost no online players. Doesn’t that make it the very best place to try to recruit MTGO players? Look at it — people at Worlds have demonstrated that they like Magic and understand the game. They want to play. That makes them far more likely customers than random people off the street. That all makes Worlds a great place for recruiting MTGO players.

The problem was that the MTGO forum dwellers saw this as highly unfair. Those other players were getting not just bread but sausage, and the MTGO players were not!

Let’s get something straight.

There is nothing fair or universal about Promo cards – they are PROMOTIONAL cards. They exist to promote or reward specific behaviors.

People get them for those behaviors, not just because they want them.

Paper Magic has special cards that are only available in certain circumstances or for certain activities. For example, if you want the prerelease foil, you have to attend the prerelease. If you want a foil “judge” Cunning Wish, work a premier event as a judge or coverage writer. Some cards are even rarer. I don’t know what you have to do to get a foil Demonic Tutor – I have worked at three Worlds Champs and a half dozen Pro Tours, and I have never even seen one.

For that matter, to get the card Splendid Genesis I think all you have to do is design the game itself, then have your first child. (This card was, if I recall, created for, and given to, Richard Garfield.)

Wizards is giving out special alternative art cards at Worlds. They always do. Wizards has specially designed, alternative art foils. Those are generally available for doing various things. In Berlin, if you played a game / match in the demo area with precon decks, you got a foil card (Exalted Angel or Call of the Herd, I believe). If you stopped by the DCI booth and updated your address and contact info, you got a foil Eternal Dragon. If you won a game in the gunslinging area, you got a card (but I never got a chance to play or watch, so I don’t know what). Now, if you play in the Tempest events on the MTGO machines set up at Worlds, you get an electronic foil card.

The point was to get some of the non-MTGO paper players interested in trying out online play. A free card was just another lure to reel them in.

A lot of the MTGO forums folks never got that. They were so busy being incensed that the “paper people” were getting something they were not that they were alternative between harsh invective, Wizards-can-never-do-anything-right and end-of-MTGO diatribes and demanding free stuff for themselves. Then Wizards announced the card that would be distributed at Worlds.

Foil Tempest-art Circle of Protection: Red.

Yes. Yummy.

The next few posts were a lot milder. Several people actually said, in nearly these words, “Oh, well that’s crap. I don’t care, then.” The controversy died down, then a couple people tried to get back up on their soapboxes. “It’s not the card per se, it’s the principle of the thing. Worlds is Paper, not MTGO…”

Sure, whatever. The purpose of promotional cards is to promote MTGO, not to give stuff to forum dwellers. (Actually, that is mildly ironic. Worth Wolpert just gave out a few packs to long-time forum dwellers who had made an effort to contribute / keep things civil / otherwise do good things. I was one of those who got a Tempest draft set.)

Sure, I’m grateful. I’m also honored to be on the same list with a lot of people who contribute a lot to MTGO and the forums. I’m also human and very cynical: I wonder whether Wizards is so uncertain about how Tempest will be perceived that they decided to prime the pump as it were, and ensure that at least a few drafts will fire.

The reason I use Momir Vig as my avatar online is because he looks like me — a grumpy, cynical old geezer.

Seriously, looking over the list of names of people getting draft sets, I guess it is for services rendered. Thanks, Wizards.

Anyway, back to the promo cards. It is pretty clear that Wizards was not going to choose a hugely valuable card to give away free at Worlds. Players were not going to get a Foil Wasteland. (Wasteland was a promo foil in paper, but it does not appear to exist online, except in Tempest boosters.) What I would have liked to know is whether the furor on the forums had an impact: whether the yelling influenced WotC to change from a Foil Mogg Fanatic to CoP: Red, for example.

My screensaver really does say: No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up. — Lily Tomlin.

It was clear that that sort of give-away is going to be a once-good, but not great, card. The easiest ones to get are always not all that valuable. The “you checked your contact info, have a card” foils are usually something that was playable years back, but never makes decks anymore (e.g. Eternal Dragon.) The same goes for Friday Night Magic foils – a few are playable, but those are often the exception. (Although they are getting better recently.)

The same will be true of online promos. We already get avatars – the online equivalent of prerelease foils. We will probably see the equivalent of the paper player rewards program, and FNM, and possibly others. Time will tell.

Note — I thought about going through the promo cards and rating either past FNM foils (but Ben has already done that), or just the new online promos, but that has also been done, in detail, on another website. I’ll skip that. Get Premium and read Ben’s piece. It’s worth it.

I was going to write this article:

Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #253: Yes, I Suck — but That’s Good

The feedback from my last article — on my Shard draft — ranged from “you suck” to “you shouldn’t write about this.” I won’t dispute the first — I do suck, at least at drafting. I will dispute the second: I think it is important for Magic to have sucky players, and for those people to write about it.

Yes, of course it would be better to be great at everything. Yes, it would be nice to have tech each week. For that matter, it would be nice to win Worlds. Sometimes, though, it is important to talk about the experiences the rest of the world has playing Magic.

It is also the case that sometimes you have great success, and sometimes you fall flat on your face…

I was going to point out that the rest of the world sometimes needs to see that players can have bad days. I was going to point out that even Patrick Chapin has days like his Day 1 at PT: Hollywood. (Of course, Patrick also has Day 3s, which I cannot claim.) I was going to talk about how stores actually make a large portion of their profit margin off impulse buys, and how if we did not have marginal players, we would probably not have enough players to keep the game going, and so on.

It wasn’t enough to make an article, so let me just say that I know I am a crappy drafter, and that sometimes I will write about my crappy drafts. It may be painful to read, but I find out that I, at least, learn a lot from doing so. Maybe I’m the only one, in which case all I can say is “Indulge me — I promise not to do it very often.”


“one million words” on MTGO