You Lika The Juice? – MPR: More Honey, Less Vinegar Plzthx

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Wednesday, March 26th – My life is full-tilt boogie busy, but I’ve been making an effort lately to play in more sanctioned tournaments, for all the usual reasons – it’s fun, it helps keep my play skills from atrophying further, and gives me at least semi-relevant stuff to write about. One side benefit I was looking forward to was an increase in the number of Magic Player Reward cards I’d get mailed to me…

“So BlockHead gets out on bail, as he apparently had anticipated this sort of eventuality. However, in his infinite wisdom, he did not see it necessary to bail out my two female friends. Did I mention he is a great guy? I bet he would play Tron in Extended.”Patrick Chapin in this week’s Innovations article

I just wanted to call this out as one of the funniest Magic-related things I’ve read recently, perhaps because it’s totally what would have popped into my mind. Apologies to those Tron players out there who don’t see the connection…

Anyway, on to the column-proper…

My life is full-tilt boogie busy, but I’ve been making an effort lately to play in more sanctioned tournaments, for all the usual reasons – it’s fun, it helps keep my play skills from atrophying further, and gives me at least semi-relevant stuff to write about. One side benefit I was looking forward to was an increase in the number of Magic Player Reward cards I’d get mailed to me, since I’ve pretty much been on the bare minimum mail out for a while now.

I really like the concept of MPR’s textless spells, along with the full-art cards they used to give away at the Champs tournaments (R.I.P.), because they’re cool looking and they aren’t foil. Foil cards are nice in theory, they often look wonderful, helping the art “pop” and all, but I hate playing with them. Unless you’ve got a fully-foiled deck – something that’s pretty well impossible for most of us if you’re interested in playing competitively – foil cards make for poor randomization, at least the way I shuffle (I both pile and thoroughly riffle shuffle my deck). I had noticed the problem to some degree when Magic foils first started being made, but it didn’t hit me until I once ran a Mono-Black deck and my buddy let me borrow a bunch of foil Swamps. For my first six games (going 0-2 three games straight) I got constantly mana screwed or mana flooded and mulligan several no-land hands. Once I swapped out the lands for non-foil swamps, the deck drew normally and I went undefeated after that. That sold me that playing with foils was a bad idea. Foil cards are noticeably thicker than regular Magic cards, and even sleeved I’m convinced there’s an impact on randomization through shuffling. Maybe I’m superstitious, but whatever. I just don’t do foils, so I’m always much more interested in alternative versions of cards that are printed on regular card stock.

On a side note, Forsythe ran a poll back in 2006:

What is your favorite of the following styles of promo cards?
MPR textless spells 4093 37.7%
Champs full-art 4078 37.5%
DCI alternate art premiums 2695 24.8%

Forsythe’s conclusion was that the votes for each of the styles of prize cards were roughly the same. Me, the message here is clearly 75% of Magic players prefer the non-foil prize cards.

The full-art cards I’ve seen have generally been prizes worth having – Urza’s Factory, Imperious Perfect. These are cards you like to have in your collection whether you are a competitive player or a casual player. And that should be the point of these sorts of “reward” cards, right? If Wizards is going to print up something special to give to people as a thank-you for participating in their sanctioned events, then the thank-you should be something that makes you feel good. As the old adage goes, you get more flies with honey than vinegar.

So why would Wizards mix in some vinegar with the honey in their Magic Player Rewards program?

Here’s a list of the current crop of textless cards Organized Play is “rewarding” us with for playing in their sanctioned tournaments: Mana Tithe, Harmonize, Damnation, Wrath of God, Psionic Blast, Mortify, Cruel Edict, Recollect, Condemn, Pyroclasm, Lightning Helix, Incinerate, Tidings, Disenchant.

On the whole, there are some nice cards in the mix; Damnation, Wrath of God, and Psionic Blast are all rares of good value and highly sought after in tournament play. Mortify and Lightning Helix see plenty of play in Extended and in casual play. Harmonize has been on the rise in the G/x Mana Ramp style of decks, so that’s good to see, and Cruel Edict is a particularly welcome sight given how relatively few of them are floating around as compared to other reprints in the base set (since Cruel Edict was originally a Portal card, if I remember correctly). And of course who doesn’t love Incinerate, particularly the fantastic 10th Edition artwork?

Reading the forums recently as I was waiting for my MPR package to arrive, I noticed people were generally happy with getting these cards, often in multiples. And you know something? If you’re getting 10 or more MPR cards, you don’t mind the occasional clunker if the rest of them are somewhere between pretty good to amazing. In a way, for them it’s like getting a free booster pack of textless Magic cards, and like Magic boosters you’re going to have some great cards, some cool cards, and some duds (a.k.a. “skill testers,” Johnny-bait, or beer coasters).

But let’s say you’re not one of those players who plays in every single sanctioned Magic tournament within a 100 mile radius? I dare say that most Magic players would fall into that category. Isn’t Wizards of the Coast making a push to try and reel those players in, to pull them in to competitive play, to make them want to play more Magic? Say these players have decided, what the heck – why not give tournament Magic a try? So they get a DCI number and go down to their local FNM a few times a month… and one day they get an envelope from Wizards of the Coast.

A Magic Player Rewards letter! And the letter sounds very encouraging, talking about these cool cards you’re going to get, and the more tournaments you play in the more you get, and if you play in enough of them you get a special premium textless card!

“Hundreds of thousands of players around the world are playing in DCI-sanctioned Magic tournaments. To support these players and encourage sanctioned play, Wizards of the Coast has the Magic Player Rewards program-dishing out never-before-seen textless spells and copies of a special premium card based on a player’s tournament play in the DCI database.”

Dishing out never-before-seen textless spells! Special premium cards! Sounds pretty good, don’t it? So crack open your package and see what you got!

Just as an example, I’ll use what I got this last time:

Mana Tithe and Pyroclasm.

If you’re like me, and you’ve got at least a little bit of Magic under your belt, you grimace, likely mutter a few choice words if you’re children aren’t in earshot, and then you double check the envelope in the hopes that there’s something more in there.

But there’s not. That’s it. That’s your reward. Thanks for playing!

If instead you’re rather new to the game, and have just started getting excited about tournament play, you may be a little perplexed. It’s likely you’ve never seen anybody actually play Mana Tithe. So you take the cards down to your next FNM and talk with some of the more experienced Magic players, and show them your Magic Player Rewards.

“Dude, you got hosed!” they laugh. They point to the Mana Tithe – which has great artwork – and tell you it’s crap, you’ll never play that, and it’s highly doubtful you’ll be able to trade it off. Pyroclasm, they tell you, is a decent sideboard card. Which means that, even if you do get to play with it, you may never actually see the card in action because you’ll only occasionally board it in.

So your reward, these cards with really cool artwork: one is going to sit in your trade binder gathering dust until the end of time, and one is going to occasionally see play in your sideboard and maybe, on rare occasion, actually show up in your hand.

What’s the point of having a really good-looking “rewards” card that you never get to play with?

That’s just the luck of draw, Bennie, you may say. You could have gotten Harmonize and Incinerate, and you wouldn’t be bitching. And that may be true. But that’s not the point. The point is – why bother commissioning good artwork and special printing cards that are worthless crap? Shouldn’t the point of a “Magic Player Reward” be getting the player excited and wanting to play more? If the new player in my example had gotten a Harmonize and Incinerate, he’d be stoked and maybe he’d start making time to play in more tournaments. If he got a Mana Tithe and Pyroclasm, why would he be motivated to get more Mana Tithes and Pyroclasms?

Ah, but next time maybe he’ll get one or two of the cool cards you may reply, and you may be right. Or he may get a Tidings and another Pyroclasm, which is what I got in last Fall’s MPR mailing. That Tidings artwork is out of this world amazing… and it’s been riding unplayed in my trade binder gathering dust since last Fall and will likely be there until the end of time.

Looking at the available cards, the Magic Players Rewards system right now is set up to deliver roughly 3:1 honey to vinegar. The more sanctioned tournaments you play, the more honey you get, but occasionally you’ll get some vinegar too. If you don’t play much, you might just get vinegar each time.

What’s the damn point of having vinegar MPR cards at all? It’s not like it costs Wizards more to print Incinerate or Cruel Edict over a frickin’ Mana Tithe or Disenchant.

And speaking of Disenchant… what’s the frickin’ point there? It’s not like we don’t have 15 or so different versions of Disenchant available to us! It’s been printed in 7 base sets and 8 expansions/specialty sets — all at COMMON — and has had at least one really cool alternative art printing (the Arena Disenchant).

Wizards has been pushing a new focus lately on “acquisition” — see Mark Rosewater recent article Assume the Acquisition, and I think their goal is an admirable one (though it still pains me that my beloved Champs tournaments got the axe, which I’m still convinced was a hideous mistake). Mark broke down their strategy into three parts: Acquisition, Retention, and Reacquisition:

“Acquisition — This group of people are those who have never played Magic before. Our goal with them is to entice them to learn about Magic, teach it to them, and then hope that they enjoy it enough to start playing.

“Retention — This group of people are our current players. Our goal with them is to continue to make a game that interests them such that they keep playing.

“Reacquisition — This group of people are former players. Our goal with them is to reintroduce them to the game, catch them up on whatever they’ve missed, and encourage them to start playing again. Some people list reacquisition as a subset of acquisition, but as the groups are very different and require different approaches, I’m listing them separately.

“The goal for each group is essentially the same: encourage them to play Magic.”

So, how do cards like Mana Tithe and Pyroclasm help with each of these groups of players?

For the acquisition group, these are brand new players who have put in the time and effort to learn the game and even made the leap to tournament play. And they get cards that people “in the know” laugh at when they bring them up to the game shop. This sort of negative reinforcement doesn’t sound too smart. If the player hasn’t been lucky enough to get the random FNM drawing, and then gets crap cards for his MPR mailing, he may very well toss up his hands and stop playing in the sanctioned tournaments. What’s the point? Isn’t it just more fun to just play casually around the kitchen table?

For the retention group, you’ve got three types of players: those for whom the joy of the game is on the rise, those who are at a satisfying plateau (enjoying the game and not contemplating quitting), and those who’s interest is waning. Getting an MPR pack like I did in the mail can be a killer: dampening the enthusiasm for those who’s joy is on the rise, kicking someone off their plateau, all the way down to being the straw that broke the camel’s back for someone who’s been dissatisfied with the game for a while now.

For the reacquisition group, these are people who walked away from the game before for some reason. They’re going to realize these cards are crap; a white Force Spike and a Pyroclasm?! WTF?! Do you really want to give them a reason to wonder why they bothered to come back to the game?

There’s absolutely no excuse for these sorts of cards. It’s not a difficult task to look at the base set or expansion sets and see loads of candidates for MPR cards that would be home runs every time. I’m sorry, every single one of the MPR cards should be a genuine reward, something that a player is somewhere between happy and thrilled to have gotten in the mail. That’s how you encourage people to play more Magic, to keep playing Magic, and to come back to Magic. You give them cool stuff when you say Thank You For Spending Your Hard -Earned Cash on Our Product.

Okay, I think I’ve been up on my soapbox long enough. But I think this point needs to be made as loud as my little column can make it. What do you think? Let’s rock the forums with your feedback, and maybe someone over at Wizards will take notice. Maybe someone will bring it up in a meeting. Maybe someone will ask Organized Play “Why do you make crap MPR cards anyway?” And maybe OP’s reply won’t sit so well with the higher ups. Who knows, we might be able to move the mountain here just a little bit in a positive direction. Wizards does have a pretty good track record of being responsive to their customers.

Alright, I had been planning to talk about my Thousand-Year Elixir adventure at the last FNM, as well as how the Elder Dragon Highlander game went, but then I got my MPR mail out and went on tilt. Since I’d like to keep the focus of the forums on this issue, I’ll hold off on that other stuff until next week.

Take care!


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com