Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #319 – Bringing a Real World Feel to MTGO Tournaments

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Thursday, April 1st – At Pro Tour: Austin, I had some time to talk with Lee Sharpe of WotC about WotC’s “Merging Tournaments” program, and got further details at the Magic Online Community Cup Challenge at Renton. The broad goal of the MT program is to unify the online and paper tournament experience, in the hope of cross-pollinating both. I got this information on the condition that I keep silent until second quarter, 2010, to allow them to complete their installation. It’s now the second quarter of 2010, so here’s what I know…

At Pro Tour: Austin, I had some time to talk with Lee Sharpe of WotC about WotC’s “Merging Tournaments” program, and got further details at the Magic Online Community Cup Challenge at Renton. The broad goal of the MT program is to unify the online and paper tournament experience, in the hope of cross-pollinating both. I got this information on the condition that I keep silent until second quarter, 2010, to allow them to complete their installation. It’s now the second quarter of 2010, so here’s what I know…

First, my sources. At PT: Austin, I had a long discussion with Lee Sharpe, who was doing MTGO programming for Wizards at the time. He provided most of the initial information. I also talked to several other WotC folks, some from Organized Play, some from R&D, and some from the online side. While they would not provide specifics, it was clear that they were familiar with the proposal. You may also remember that Adriana, Wizards GUI interface expert, was demoing some of the features of the next generation of MTGO, which will run in a browser. I got additional information on features from her and Mike Gills.

In November, I was invited to Renton to participate in the Magic Online Community Cup Challenge. (We beat Wizards, as detailed here.) While there, I was able to get further details from Matt Tabak and several others.

I also got additional reminders not to release this information until the second quarter of 2010. I assume the reason was that Wizards had intended to announce this themselves. If it was delayed, I expected to get some sort of extension to the NDA, or other “keep silent longer” missive, but I haven’t received any such thing. I probably should have called and checked, but I have been sitting on this for almost 6 months, and that’s really tough to do. They said second quarter of 2010, so this is going up at midnight of the first day of the second quarter of 2010.

Actually, of course, I expect that we will see an announcement on the mothership. I had expected one already, but maybe they will come simultaneously. Or, since I have to write and submit this well in advance, maybe it was in Maro’s Monday article.

First, let me say that Wizards likes a lot of things about how each form of tournament runs. Both online (MTGO) and the paper (MTGP) events have good points. At the same time, both have features that could be improved.

Paper tournaments generate a feeling or a sense of being part of a group all engaged in something together. It is like being involved in team sports. More technically, paper events create a number of subtle effects that psychologists refer to as group or crowd dynamics. People in crowd feel part of something larger than themselves. The downside of crowd dynamics can be a mob mentality, but the upside is the feeling you get when you are part of a winning team, or part of the audience cheering a good band at a rock concert. What Wizards wants to do is bring some of those positive feelings to MTGO. They want MTGO to feel more like an MTGP tourney.

No, they are not planning to put a bunch of smelly, sweaty, unwashed Magic players into your den or bedroom or wherever you have your computer. That certain funk that sometimes develops at large events is not considered a positive part of group events, and Wizards is try to eliminate it wherever possible. Wizards encourages TOs to use venues with air conditioning, etc. Instead, what Wizards if trying to do is to recreate some of the experiences of MTGP to MTGO. The theory is that the specifics will trigger the appropriate associations. You know how certain songs can trigger certain memories, and vice versa? It’s like that. For example, the art to this card, always reminds me of a certain 1980s song.

At the same time, Wizards is also working to bring some of the advantages of MTGO tournaments to MTGP. Yes, MTGO events can have bugs, but when they run correctly, they run efficiently, with rounds starting promptly, no repairs, and no lag or crush to get to the pairings sheets.

I don’t have a lot of details on what features of MTGO Wizards will be bringing to paper tournaments, but I think we can see the beginning of that process in Wizards Event Reporter, the upgrade to DCI Reporter software that Wizards released last year.

While I don’t have much information on what else will be added to MTGP tournaments, I can tell you what won’t.

First of all, Wizards has no intention of adding the bugs that can still plague online tournaments to paper tournaments. Actually, many of those bugs can affect the software that runs tournaments, but a decent scorekeeper can usually fix those without too much trouble. At worst case, the scorekeeper may have to repair the round, but if you have some skill with DCI-R or WER, that is often not necessary.

Wizards is also not going to add chess clocks to paper events. We have talked about the practical problems of using chess clocks before, but the main problem is just the cost and logistics. Chess clocks have come down in price, but a chess clock rugged enough to handle the punishment a mana-screwed player can dish out is going to cost at least $25. That would be a $200-$400 investment for stores running FNM, and an event like GP Madrid would need to have over 1,000 chess clocks. It’s just not happening.

Let’s get back to bringing the real world tournament experience to MTGO.

One of these is an upgrade to the sounds built into MTGO. Right now, the sounds are, aside from a few sound effects like shuffling, the coin flip, and dice rolling, mainly the “musical” things that announce phases and attacks. (Remember those? Odds are you quickly turned them off, for good reason. In the current version of the software, they suck, but they will be made better. The new version of the interface will have improved sounds — and improved options for turning them on and off.)

For example, at large events, like Pro Tours and Day 2 of Limited GPs, a judge “calls” the draft. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could play a recording of that during a draft (and turn it off when you want to listen to music or something). My only question is who they should record calling a draft. I would vote for James Elliot, with his Scottish accent.

Wizards folks were also talking about recording the background sounds of various sized events, and of having those toggled based on the size of the event you are in. If you play in a draft, you could hear the background sounds of a store during a FNM. If you play in an online prerelease, you would hear the sounds of a prerelease. Large events, like MOCS and other biggies, would play the background rumble of a GP. It might even be possible to have layered sound effects, which you could toggle individually. For example, having a judge announcing the start of rounds for another event is definitely a sound of any large event, if is distracting. Moreover, since Wizards is not going to record several hours of sound but just produce a short, generic recording an loop it, the announcement would get repetitious. It might be fun to toggle it on once in a while — but just once in a while.

In all probability, this would just be a short loop recording of the sounds of a GP, which would get louder in proportion to the number of players in an event. All of this is assuming, of course, that the newest version of the client can handle larger events.

Here’s something I had not realized: a significant number of people like to play with really worn cards. I have always known that five-color players liked beating the heck out of cards, and that some casual players at local shops also prefer to play without sleeves. Apparently, this is a widespread phenomenon, and even some WotC folks like to play casually with cards worn almost windowpane status.

Who knew?

I guess it is like the coin flip cards — there is a contingent that likes them, but I’m not part of that contingent. I don’t get it, but maybe I’m not supposed to. I guess those cards, and the whole worn cards look, is aimed at another market segment. Whatever — the point is that MTGO is going to allow digital cards to acquire a “worn” look as you play them. If you like having really worn lands, now you can get them.

The primary advantage to allowing digital cards to appear to be “worn” is that it will be another way of distinguishing yourself online. We don’t have many now. Wizards has removed the ability to see opponents’ ratings, because of bullying and so forth. They have also had to hide data, like the date you first played, or created your account and so forth. Being able to play really worn cards will be a way to show that you have been playing for a while — it will be a sort of Veteran’s Badge.

However, Wizards also understands that some players will not want to see wear on their digital cards, and will offer a “digital sleeves” function. All players will get an initial set of sleeves for free, and additional sets of sleeves will be available in the store for a nominal cost. At first, just the default “clear” sleeves and some solid colored sleeves will be offered, but Wizards said they had hoped to offer picture sleeves by mid-summer. If that can be accelerated a bit, then the default option offered to all players may be the official Magic sleeves with a back that looks almost exactly like existing card backs, but with a palette that “pops” a bit more. UltraPro makes these for MTGP, and they are what Wizards has said they wished the real card backs had been all along. It they can pull it off, that could well be the sleeves provided for free at the start of the program.

I hope so.

Using sleeves would be easy — Wizards has no desire to recreate the annoyance of having to sleeve and desleeve individual cards. Instead, you would have a simple check box in your options page to play “sleeved” or “unsleeved.” Once Wizards has introduced various colors and picture sleeves, then you will be able to choose among the sleeve patterns much like you can now choose among your avatars and backgrounds. Alternatively, you can play clear sleeves, and the appearance of your cards and deck will remain unchanged.

Sleeves would wear over time. From a programming standpoint, the simplest way to do this is to use the same “wear” function which will be applied to cards, but to apply it to the sleeves instead. However, the wear will be applied uniformly to your set of sleeves, which would be represented as a single digital item, instead of to individual cards. This has a number of advantages. First, if you buy a “set” of sleeves with, for example, a picture of Sarkan Vol, you would have one set of Sarkan Vol sleeves. That set would be enough to “cover” whatever deck you are playing. If you are playing in a draft, that one item will cover your 40 card deck. If you play a 256 card Battle of Wits deck, it will sleeve all the cards. The wear will be applied uniformly, so you won’t have to worry about having less worn sideboard sleeves. Best of all, the sleeves will never break, and will be instantly available for every deck you have without, as I said, resleeving.

I talked about the “wearing” function earlier, but Wizards will also offer an option to significantly reduce the amount of wear — playmats! Initially, these will just be special backgrounds that you can get from the online store, but that should change in the future, and players will be able to get limited-edition playmats.

At present, players can get special playmats for playing in various events. Wizards and TOs have produced playmats for Grand Melee at GenCon, for States and Regionals, and for some GPs (in the case of GPs, it was usually the TOs that have supplied the playmats, but you get the idea.) Online, though, special playmats would be available for purchase in the store, and eventually for participating in special online events. For example, everyone in the Top 8 of a MOCS event might get a custom playmat.

It may be possible to customize playmats, as well. In MTGP, players can take a blank playmat to an artist and have that artist draw on it. That is probably not coming to MTGO anytime soon, since that would also require some special coding to ensure that no one created obscene drawings, etc. (Yes, you could, in theory, have some sort of official pre-approval process, but that would probably be prohibitively expensive.) However, a lot of players customize their playmats by pinning their PTQ Top 8 pins to their mats, and something like that might be possible. It would be cool if you could earn a digital pin / badge for making Top 8 at an online PTQ or MOCS event, and could then apply it to your playmat.

For that matter, it would be cool if you could get souvenir online playmats for attending real world events. I have playmats from a couple MTGP World Championships, and it would be cool to use future versions of them online, as well. It would also be a cheap way for Wizards to reward paper players at Worlds, and to push them to play online as well as in paper. True, the vast majority already do, but not all…

In addition to sleeves and playmats, Wizards is looking at other ways to bring the MTGP tournament feel to the online world.

Wizard discussed another possible innovation related to the size of events. In general, Wizards has a decent estimate of the number of people who will play in the event. Online, you rarely have any idea whether that estimate was met, or massively exceeded. In the real world, players know. They know when the judges are scrambling to find tables and chairs, and they can see the crowds. They know that they are part of something “big.”

Wizards is looking at visual ways to bring this feel to online events. One thought is to add black bands to the sides of your screen, to narrow your digital “play area.” This would be the digital equivalent of four matches to an eight foot table. Personally, I’m not sure that I really approve of this proposal.

One change that I do like is to let players chat a bit more after a match. Right now, as soon as the match ends, a pop-up window appears, and if you click “enter” you are out of the match. In real life events, players often sit and discuss their match. The simplest method of allowing this is to not have the end of match pop-up get priority, but simply wait onscreen until the players affirmatively click the “leave match” button. Of course, this could mean that players would continue to chat while the rest of the tournament waits, so the thought is to use “judges,” just like the paper world. When the other matches were done, a “judge-avatar” would break into the player’s chat with something like “please end your match, so we can start the next round.” The program would have some stronger wordings, if that did not work, then presumably force closure at some point.

Wizards has some other uses for the “judge—avatar.” One would be to pop it up periodically in the “watchers” window. Another could be to indicate that an authority figure / WotC employee is monitoring the room — sort of like having an ORC appear in a room. The judge-avatars would be more of a program function, thought, rather than a real person.

Judge-avatars could be used to close things like abandoned game requests. If a game request was open for more than, say, 20 minutes, with no action, a judge-avatar might appear in the chat box and ask “are you still looking for an opponent?” If the requester did not respond within some reasonable amount of time, the program would close the game request.

Judge-avatars would also appear in tournaments rooms occasionally. Fortunately, they will not have to pick up trash. However, they may penalize for worn sleeves / marked cards. If an unsleeved card, or a sleeve, is excessively worn, they might tell players to buy new sleeves. It would not be more than a warning, however, since the MIPG entry for marked cards/sleeves has been revised in the newest version, possibly to remain in sync with the MT program. More importantly, since the MTGO program will not include any way of deliberately marking cards or adding a pattern, you won’t have to worry about a DQ for deliberately marked cards. Of course, the program might upgrade repeated “get new sleeves” warnings, or penalize for failure to obey official instructions.

Here’s another use WotC has considered for the judge-avatar. First, though, some set up.

For years, players have asked for a way to throw away excess cards. In Limited paper events, players frequently leave their leftovers — such as spare commons and sometimes uncommons — on the tables after drafts and sealed events. At most events, the judges end up cleaning up those cards, but sometimes kids find them and get free cards. WotC is planning on implementing the same sort of thing online.

The way this is supposed to work would be that, at the point a player would leave a Limited event, players would see a couple options in the pop-up box. These would include “leave commons” “leave uncommons” and “leave all cards” and “add all other cards to my collection.” You could check each box, to leave whatever you did not want. (I don’t think there is any plan to choose to keep individual cards at present, but maybe in some future version.) Anyway, the cards would be left “on the table.” Players could enter the rooms for each event and type something like “/me looks for cards on tables.” If anything was left on the tables, then the player would have those cards added to his/her collection. The program would periodically eliminate the cards still left on tables — whenever it popped a judge-avatar into the room.

I suggested that anyone who had cards listed for sale in the store not be eligible to get cards this way. I doubt that serious dealers are going to waste time trolling for commons, so that’s probably not that important an addition, but the Wizards folks are free to use the idea, without restriction.

I also heard that Wizards was considering including a “take your deck” button you would have to push whenever you left a room, and if you didn’t your deck would be considered “left on the table.” If someone forgot his or her deck, other players could “collect” it. That player would have an option to “turn it in to the judges” or “keep it,” but if they kept it when a judge avatar was present / appearing, then they would have their account banned for theft. I have to say that, while this might indeed make things feel like a real event, I’m not sure I like this part of the plan.

But maybe Matt Tabak was pulling my leg on this one. I kinda think so.

Either way, let us know what you think about the “Merging Tournaments” program in the forums.