You Lika The Juice? – The Amateur Spark (and the Problem with City Champs)

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Last week I was reading various articles on Lorwyn Limited in order to bone up for my first foray into LOR draft at FNM, so of course I checked out Nick Eisel’s Limited Lessons columns on this here site here. In his first article on Lorwyn (Approaching Lorwyn) there was a paragraph he wrote that really got under my skin…

“Magic is like Frogger; creatures tend to die.” – Devin Low

As someone who has logged in a lot of time on Frogger, both the arcade version and the one for Atari waaaay back in the day, Devin’s recent quote amused me to no end. Not least of which because it’s so true. Anyway…

The Amateur Spark
Last week I was reading various articles on Lorwyn Limited in order to bone up for my first foray into LOR draft at FNM, so of course I checked out Nick Eisel Limited Lessons columns on this here site here. In his first article on Lorwyn (Approaching Lorwyn) there was a paragraph he wrote that really got under my skin.

“Yes, this deck was drafted at a prerelease with a pod of mediocre players at best. It’s likely far better than the average deck you will draft if the other players at the table are competent.”

Now, I don’t know Nick from Adam, but these two sentences are positively dripping with elitist scorn for the casual Magic players who make up the overwhelming majority of Wizards’ customer base. People will defend Nick’s statement by pointing out what he’s saying is basically true, and it is — compared to most of the competitive players who subscribe to StarCityGames Premium in order to read Nick Eisel articles, the prerelease crowd’s play skill is lower in general – at least in regards to standard competitive formats. The problem I have with Nick here is his attitude towards these players. In Nick’s eyes — according to what he wrote here — prerelease players are mediocre and incompetent.

Again, I don’t know Nick personally, so I don’t know if he actually thinks that or not. If he doesn’t, would it have been so hard to write this instead?

“Yes, this deck was drafted at a prerelease with a pod of mostly casual players who come to these events just to have some fun and get a taste of the new set. It’s likely far better than the average deck you’d draft at a PTQ Top 8.”

The book I’m currently reading right now is called A Thread of Grace, written by the incredible Mary Doria Russell (if you haven’t read The Sparrow, do yourself a favor and pick it up at your next trip to the bookstore, you will not regret it; I consider it the best book I’ve ever read). There was a passage in it I read a few days ago that reached out and grabbed me by my Magic-playing heart, connected to how I had felt reading Nick’s column.

Renzo Leoni watches, face hard, until the old lady harrumphs and leaves. “That is exactly what I’m talking about,” he says, slamming the door. “You are all amateurs!”

Leto Girotti neatens his desktop, papers here, pens there. Folds his hands. Looks up. “Amateur,” he says. “From the Latin amator — lover. Thus: one who engages in an enterprise for love, not money…”

I went to Dictionary.com and looked up amateur there, to find this similar definition—

1. a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons.
Origin: 1775—85; < F, MF < L amator lover, equiv. to ama- (s. of amare to love Latin source, amator, "lover, devoted friend, devotee, enthusiastic pursuer of an objective.)

In America’s hyper-competitive culture, where the winner is God and everyone else are a bunch of Losers, the term “amateur” has a definite negative connotation. But I think we should take it back to its roots when it comes to thinking of Magic players.

One who engages in an enterprise for love, not money… a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure…

I have the pleasure of helping the Star City gang run their prereleases, and I see huge numbers of people there who never come to the PTQs or Regional Championships. These are the Amateurs — the “Amators” — coming out to play because they love the game. And they truly love the game. They love cracking packs and trying out goofy synergies and combos on the fly. They love the prerelease cards given out that are typically sneered at as “bad” by the more competitive players; I usually get “cool!”, “wow!”, and “awesome!” when I hand them out at registration. They loved their Oros, the Avenger at the Planar Chaos prerelease, they loved Wren’s Run Packmaster at the Lorwyn Prerelease. They are thrilled to find out, after going 1-3 in the first flight, when signing up for their second flight they get another prerelease foil! Many of these people don’t regularly read the Magic sites online, many of them haven’t seen the spoiler over at MTG Salvation. These folks are experiencing the thrill of opening Magic packs and seeing brand new cards for the first time, and win or lose they’re having a ball.

Remember those days? That excitement?

Most of the major Magic sites tend to be dominated by Pro-level writers who are trying to share their insight for the competitive players out there who are striving to reach that level. Much of Wizards efforts to promote the game tends to center around hyping and glorifying the Pro Tour, with all the cash and perks given to the very top players. But the Pro-centric way of looking at Magic shifts the fun away from playing the game to winning games. Playing the game no longer becomes an end in itself, it becomes just a means towards an objective.

You know you’ve lost touch with that amateur spark when you’re not going to a tournament to play Magic, you’re going to a tournament purely to win. If you go to a tournament to play Magic, and you play Magic, you’ve “won,” even if you go on the most ridiculous losing streak with your pet deck. If you go to a tournament to win and you don’t win the tournament, you’ve “lost.” Since there can only be one winner (or in larger tournaments, prizes to a select top few), the majority of the time you’re going to be bummed by the results.

I find it incredibly sad when I run across these hyper-competitive players who get no joy from Magic if they’re not winning. Many of these guys stop playing Magic altogether if they can’t maintain their competitive edge and win a lot more than they lose.

There was a moment some years back that deeply moved me to realize the problem with that sort of attitude. Back then I played Magic at Total Access Games in Mechanicsville, Virginia, and we had weekly Standard tournaments that occasionally pulled in players from other game stores. Former Pro player Kyle Rose played in a store in nearby Chester, but he would sometimes come to play at TAG. One morning he got there early, and when they opened their doors he shuffled on it and sat silent at one of the tables, his deck box sitting in front of him. For those who don’t remember Kyle, he was a rather large fellow. Anyway, this small kid plops down across from him and pulls out a stack of unsleeved Magic cards. “You play Magic? Want to play a game?” he asked Kyle, enthusiasm punctuating every word.

“Naw,” Kyle drawled. “This deck isn’t much fun.” And that was it. The kid sat there for a minute, confused, but eventually found someone a few tables over to play. Why was he confused by Kyle’s answer? Because for the kid, the act of playing Magic was the end goal, it was inherently fun. For Kyle, what was fun was winning the tournament. He wouldn’t have fun playing a quick little game with this kid, and he wouldn’t have fun if he went X-2 at the tournament.

Unsurprisingly, Kyle hung up his Magic hat not long afterwards to instead make more money playing Poker. Players like Kyle went even further away from that amateur spark – playing Magic wasn’t itself and end, and winning at Magic tournaments wasn’t itself an end, what was “fun” was winning and making money at playing a game, and Magic just doesn’t pay like Poker does.

Thankfully, I think there might be a bit of change in the air, and much of it seems to be resulting from the changing of the Magic R&D Director from Randy Buehler to Aaron Forsythe. From a man who played “unfun” but dominating decks like Buehler Blue and Necro, to a man well known for casting Deranged Hermit at every opportunity (and designing the awesome Eternal Witness). I love going back and reading his “farewell” columns on Magicthegathering.com (How I Got Here, Parts 1, 2, 3). The man has risen through the ranks, through the Pro Tour, and inside Wizards, and yet you can still feel he’s got that Amateur Spark. Evidence of that can be found in his decision to extend the Invitational to include non-Pro players:

“We have legions of players, judges, writers, and fans who aren’t pros and who would positively kill to be able to participate in something like the Magic Invitational. They eat, sleep, and breathe Magic, and do marvelous things for the game and its community. We don’t fly them anywhere, pay them $500 for showing up anywhere, or put their mugs in tournament packs. But they are awesome and should get a chance to shine. I’m sure they’d appreciate it, make a big deal about it, and give everyone like them someone to really cheer for. Everyman deserves a seat—maybe more than one—at the table.”

The Storyteller ballot ignited quite the controversy, with heat from both sides of the Joes versus Pros divide. Forsythe went to the mat on this one:

“Understand that this is contentious here at the company, and I can’t just wave my hand and make it so. Heck, I might be wrong. People might not want to watch a writer play against the best pros at all and would rather keep it all about those with the best finishes. At least it’s worth talking about.”

That’s Aaron’s Amateur Spark talking. Yes, it is worth talking about, and I’m glad he started the conversation. Here’s hoping it was just the start, and not just a fluke.

So, if you find yourself not enjoying Magic so much, especially when you’re not winning, try and get in touch with that Amateur Spark, that love of gaming, and the joy of just playing Magic. Don’t drop from the tournament after your second loss, rating points be damned. Keep on playing, since you’ll find yourself playing with those who do have that spark, who’re playing for the fun of it. And you just may have yourself a grand time, playing a wonderful game with other gamers, instead of working your mind-numbing job, or doing yardwork, or whatever else you’d be otherwise doing if you weren’t out playing.

Okay, continuing on with the “amateur spark” theme…

2008 City Champs — WTF?!
Initially, I thought the concept of City Champs was awesome… but the execution left a real bad taste in my mouth. Last year’s City Champs roared out the gate last year with a whimper, hitting a relatively small number of Cities in its Beta season. I raged against the machine last year on how dumb it was to be so timid with a program that had already proven to be a big hit in Europe, but the Powers That Be had already made their decisions and rolled it out for just a few “hand-selected” stores. Okay, I was willing to wait and see how things went, and I looked forward to hearing from Wizards about what Beta taught them.

So what did they learn from the experience? The evidence shows apparently nothing, since they’ve not said anything about it, they just rolled out the new season. Again, we’ve got just a handful of Cities represented, just 34 total. THIRTY FOUR? Let’s see, taking a look at the map, we see 50 States. So are you telling me that there are 16 States that don’t have a city or two of dedicated Magic players that would be willing to compete for the title? You’ve got 16 Cities where people play Magic, and in between them is a vast empty wasteland of non-CCG gamers?

I ask that facetiously because it’s painfully obvious why Wizards has selected 34 Cities—it’s because we have roughly 34 Regional Championships. Since City Champs feeds into byes for Regionals, it’s “logical” that you set up 34 “hubs” each of which feed into a particular Regionals.

The Powers That Be have benevolently decreed that outlier stores from around the State can also hold qualifying tournaments that will enable the top 2 players to go compete in the hub City Championship. In my own state, Star City Games out in Roanoke will select 2 players to go compete in the hub city Virginia Beach City Champs… 400 miles away.

I think there’s been a massive disconnect from the idea of City Champs to its execution. The idea of City Champs is where you play at your local store, rack up points and eventually qualify to play against the best players in your city for local bragging rights. It’s a way to get more casual players involved in the fun of the tournament experience, those people who don’t travel up and down the interstate hitting PTQs and Regionals at every opportunity. Getting byes to Regionals and Nationals is a nice bonus, but it shouldn’t have been the primary focus as it’s obviously become. Instead of City Champs what we’ve now gotten is a mini-Regionals. How excited is someone from Roanoke going to be taking home the Virginia Beach City Champs trophy? The only appeal there is the bye to Nationals and whatever prize packs might be given out.

You live in Virginia Beach and you’re the Virginia Beach City Champ. Your grandpa comes to visit and sees your trophy, and you explain there’s this game you play and you’re the City Champ. Your grandpa is proud of your accomplishment!

You live in Roanoke and you’re the Virginia Beach City Champ. Your grandpa comes to visit and sees your trophy, and you explain there’s this game you play and you’re the City Champ… of a city 400 miles away. Your grandpa is confused…

What’s needed is to get back to the original concept of City Champs as a way to develop local competition, rivalries and bragging rights. Any City/Metropolitan area that has two or more stores where Magic is played regularly and with a decent number of players should be eligible to hold a City Champs program, whether it’s New York City or Topeka, Kansas. Now, I know that raises a problem, namely – if you expand the City Champs program, aren’t you going to have way too many people qualifying for Nationals, flooding it with this new way of qualifying? I have an easy solution – take away the Nationals qualification… sort of.

Here’s what you do – at each City Champs, give away a certain number of byes to the next Regionals tournament, like three byes for 1st, two byes for 2nd, and one bye for 3rd & 4th, etc. Make the focus of the tournament more about the prizes – a trophy, booster boxes, maybe some unique art cards, a set of promo cards, etc. The byes for Regionals is a nice bonus but not a sure thing; you still need to make Top 4 or Top 8 at Regionals to qualify for Nationals, just like it’s always been… BUT, you also award an invitation to Nationals to the top performing City Champ at each Regionals who doesn’t otherwise qualify through normal performance in the tournament. Kinda like the top Amateur Prize given out a Grand Prix and such.

I know the people over at Wizards are great at making this fantastic game, and they are usually good at setting up and running tournament programs. I’m not sure why City Champs seems to be so awkwardly executed, but that doesn’t detract from the concept, which is incredibly cool and I think is still obtainable. What do you think?

So how did I do in my first foray into Lorwyn draft? Sadly, just 1-1-1. I was going to post my card pool and elicit some advice on how I could have built the deck better, but I didn’t want to distract from the “issues” presented here today, so come back next week and tell me how I screwed up!

Take care,

starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com