YouTubes Are Go: Why Magic Reporting Sucks

Read The Ferrett every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!For his three hundredth article for StarCityGames.com, The Ferrett has done something special – he’s ventured onto Evan Erwin’s turf and gone to YouTube! Watch The Ferrett explain, in his own voice, why the reporting and commentary at the Magic Invitational and Worlds was, um… Not good.

Two notes before the actual video itself, folks:

1) This is my first video, compared to Evan Erwin‘s seventy-fifth. Be gentle; I know the sound quality could use some work, but I’m still learning.

2) Thanks in particular go to Evan, who has been incredibly generous about helping me out with all of this… Right up to posting it on YouTube for me because YouTube apparently has a hard ten-minute cap on videos for new users. If any of you other folks want to create a Magic video, he is an inexhaustible source of help, and every bit as nice a guy as he appears.

Share and enjoy!

There are times when I think that Wizards could take a large, diamond-studded gold bar, wrap it in hundred dollars bills, and then mail it to the front step of every Magic player in the world, and the forums would erupt with complaints that this damn bar was too heavy. What powers the heart of the Magic community is not the game itself, a constant, black pulse of solid griping. It doesn’t matter what Wizards gives us, we’ll find something to bitch about.

The latest gripe-mania to hit the tubes revolves around the lame coverage at Worlds and the Invitational, which centers mostly on a few minor issues:

BDM and Randy apparently not only had some problems explaining what Garruk Wildspeaker did, but at least one player — that would be Patrick Chapin — could overhear them discussing the game as it happened, potentially affecting the game itself. Oops.

The analysis of Legacy decks at Worlds was supposedly ignorant of the usual Legacy metagame, wherein the reporters touted the “new tech” of decks that had, apparently, been around since the Model T was invented.

There was barely any coverage at all of the Invitational, wherein we locked sixteen of the most vibrant Magic personalities in existence in a room together so we could see… The decklists they played. Yessiree, what better way to celebrate the joy of Magic than by giving us nonexistent coverage that was as dry as a sawdust sandwich?

Now, Wizards is putting more effort into Magic reporting these days, and that’s good. But the truth is that most Magic reporting sucks. And I’m going to explain why Magic reporting isn’t very good by talking about something that’s not at all similar: computer books.

Most computer books suck the rotting moose guts out of dead rabbits. They’re either written in dense, unforgiving language that looks like the Torah just fornicated with a bad JavaScript program, or they assume you’re a one-eyed gimp who’s pounding the mouse against your monitor in a vain attempt to crack walnuts. What you get is either a wall of obscure rocket science that’s way above anyone’s head or an oatmeal flow of insipid beginners’ tutorials.

But why? Why are computer books so bad?

First off, computer programmers make a lot of money. According to CNN, an average Level 1 Programmer makes $52,096 dollars a year. If you’re a Level 2 programmer you can make around $80,000 a year, and when you get to Level 3 you can not only earn $110,000 a year but you have the option to multi-class and become a Level 2 Programmer/1st level Wizard. This allows you to cast Magic Missile once a day, which comes in very handy when you’re on tech support.

But a computer book will net you roughly $5,000 to $20,000 if you’re a first-time author. That sounds like a good deal until you realize how much damn work a book takes. That $10,000 will work out to be about $15 an hour when all is said and done — more than you can earn bagging groceries, to be sure, but when you can earn $40 an hour by clipping your toenails and waiting for programs to compile, you start looking for other ways to spend your time.

And books are no fun to write. Finishing a computer book is both painstaking and tedious, and if you get any wrong then everyone calls you a moron on Slashdot. In fact, the only reason you would write a book is if you’re a bloated egomaniac who wants to see your name printed on everything you can get your grubby little paws on.

But here’s the other problem: Most people hate formal writing. Oh, they’ll drool half-assed comments in a forum until the cows come home, but ask them to put together a full article on something relevant and they scatter like cockroaches when the lights turn on. Writing’s actual work, and stacking together twenty or thirty paragraphs to form a coherent argument is like crawling on broken glass for most people.

Magic reporting? Same deal. On the whole, the pros make more money by playing Magic, since generally the funds you get paid for Magic reporting are not going to pay for your flight home. And even if it did, most pros would rather be playing in side drafts and drinking massive doses of hallucinatory absinthe in foreign bars than being chained to a typewriter trying to explain why “Tarfire” is a good card.

Plus, when you do manage to force a big-name pro to write, there’s no guarantee he’s any good at it. There’s a skill involved in explaining things to people, and the Venn diagram of “good at playing Magic” and “good at explaining Magic” has a pretty darned small intersection. Plus, if you do your job right, it makes your opponents better, making it that much harder to make the top 8 at the next Pro Tour.

This generally leaves us with bad-to-okay players — people who don’t have much to lose by sharing — who are good writers. Unfortunately, Magic is the most complicated game in the world, and you’re given less-than-ideal conditions to report from.

Let me explain what reporting is like: You are squeezed in next to one to two players, neither of whom really want you there to distract them. These players will not, and should not, slow down the game so you can ask, “Wait a minute, what’d you just play? What just happened?” so it all takes place in real time. You have a laptop, upon which you are frantically trying to jot notes, but every time you look down at the screen those bastards play another card. You are ping-ponging back and forth between opponent #1, opponent #2, the play field, and that stupid laptop that’s always running low on power at the last moment.

Oh, and you have to finish now, because the next round is starting up in fifteen minutes and can you hand in your article before then? KTHXBYE.

You are, essentially, trying to fathom the internal motivations of two players who are probably far better than you are, on the fly, without any opportunity for rewinding or revisions. You’re lucky if you can write down what happened in the correct order.

(And if you’re extremely lucky, you don’t knock your glass full of Diet Pepsi over on the table in the quarterfinals, unlike some idiot did while reporting on Rob Dougherty at Grand Prix: Cleveland.)

That hard-to-follow thing can’t be underestimated. There’s a lot going on in any Magic game, and even when you’re the one who’s playing sometimes you forget about the wording on a card or the number of cards in hand. Following two people in real time, when they’re playing decks that you don’t even know? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Plus, as stated, Magic is the toughest game in the whole world. There are strategies within strategies, and understanding those goals are critical to properly marking down what’s really notable about a game. But getting a 1600-ranked player to follow a 1900’s moves is like asking Rosie O’Donnell to comment eloquently upon Stephen Hawking’s science equations.

Even for very good players — and BDM and Randy are good, don’t get me wrong — it’s easy to misinterpret why someone’s doing something, and that leads to embarrassing calls in mid-game. If you listen to people whispering to each other around the edges of a feature match, you’ll hear that even the “good” players don’t get someone’s strategy sometimes — but when you have an open mike, you just derfed it in full view of the whole world. This is not pleasant.

So you have a cramped view, too little time, and the opportunity to make embarrassing mistakes. That’s why Magic reporting is extremely hard to do so that it’s worthwhile at all.

So, you may ask. If this “text” thing isn’t working out, why not have Evan Erwin fly to the rescue with his magical videocamera? After all, video is suited perfectly to Magic; you see everything on the table at your leisure, and you can go back and call out the good plays as you see them. But here’s the thing: Video takes eleventy-billion hours to do properly. To give you the excellent coverage he has done thus far, Evan Erwin locks himself away in his darkened room for eighty hours a week, ignoring his crying children and his starving wife, his skin growing a pale white fungus in the pallid light of his monitor as he edits and codexes and copies for you. He no longer has a job, and in fact subsists entirely upon the love that Magic players around the world radiate to him from afar.

Obviously, this is not a workable paradigm.

So why not put more money into it? Why doesn’t Wizards hire a professional video crew instead of a Mister Orange? Why doesn’t Wizards bring in seven reporters to watch the entire tournament so you can have two or three in-depth articles on each round? Why not slow down the pace of the tournament itself to make sure there’s time to interview the pros to find out what they did — in short, why not treat tournaments like coverage mattered?

Well, it’s because statistically speaking… You’re a freak.

Trust me. I’ve edited this site since the days of the dinosaurs, and I have a decent idea of what turns Magic players on. If you enjoy watching nerds play Magic, you’re fairly marginal. What most people want is the sweet, sticky joy that is TECH. Why schlep through the turn-by-turn comparisons when you can scoop out the juicy new deck that will win you the PTQ? Why analyze the correct way to mulligan when there’s a killer sideboarding plan to be had?

There’s this bizarre mindset in the Magic community that if you can get the right deck, the correct decisions will flow naturally. That’s why people are obsessed with pick orders in drafts, but hardly anyone pays attention to the correct Limited play. Based on my experience at StarCityGames.com, I can tell you that more people want to read about some new, untested deck than who want to read about how to play an old winning deck correctly.

Why is this? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because play skill is damned hard to teach, but handing someone a deck is easy. Maybe it’s because everybody secretly thinks they’re awesome, and if they lose it’s because that meanie deck brought them down. Maybe it’s because the evil titan Gleemax has written the idea that better (and more expensive) cards means more wins, and they’ve inscribed that idea directly upon our very brain cells, causing us to line up like Pavlovian dogs to purchase cases upon cases of Morningtide.

But the end result is that even if Wizards did spend several thousand dollars bringing in reporters to really highlight Magic as it’s played, it wouldn’t actually do that much. By and large, people don’t want to see every card played in a match; they want to boil the corpse of the round down until they can carry away the bare bones of strategy. Who wants to sift through twenty turns when you can just steal its essence?

Most of what people care about is the stuff you don’t need to be there to get. What decks made the Top 8? What Sealed decks went undefeated on Day One? You gotta give the people what they want.

And that, my friends, is why reporting sucks. It’s really hard to do, and there’s not a whole lot of reward even if you do it correctly. Kind of like — oh, I don’t know — spending eleven hours to bitch about Magic coverage.

Signing off,
The Ferrett
[email protected]StarCityGames.com
The Here Edits This Here Site Guy
Now live and in person! On Evan’s account, even!