Sullivan’s Satchel: Organized Play Ideas, Jake The Snake, And Hardboiled Eggs

Patrick Sullivan’s mailbag returns with questions about his ideal Organized Play structure and much more!

Second Sunrise, illustrated by Greg Staples

Hello, and welcome back to Sullivan’s Satchel, your home for self-aggrandizing masked as commentary. I’m back after a brief holiday hiatus, which fortunately gave my inbox a little bit of time to catch up to my prolific pace of content generation. Now that I’m a content creator, this boost of energy and material is extremely important, so thank you one and all. As always, questions can be sent to [email protected]. With any luck and/or an especially dry week of questions it could be you that inspires a thousand word monologue. With that…

Tommy Ashton writes:

What type of Organized Play structure would you want as a game designer? How does this differ from what you look for as a participant?

Implicit in this question is the suggestion that these are two different things: that my desires as a person who has engaged in Organized Play as a player differ from my goals as someone tasked with designing them professionally. This is true, and as to the first question so much falls out of the goals for the product; I don’t think there’s some universal answer.

Magic’s Organized Play has changed so much recently, and so much of that has to do with the digital platforms at the forefront. Magic Online (MTGO) has a powerful fidelity to paper Magic — cards come out of booster, the boosters cost retail price, you pay entry fees to play in events, you can buy, sell, and trade cards, etc. Combine those elements with, shall we say, a less than ideal merging of visual elements, UI/UX, smoothness of client, etc., and it stands to reason that MTGO is a much more effective tool for further monetizing already-engaged players than capturing new ones.

From that starting position, it makes sense to use MTGO as a way to strengthen your preexisting Organized Play (remember, the product disproportionately appeals to captured players), which is more or less what has happened. MTGO runs PTQs and their equivalents because it assumes its users are interested in paper PTQs, and MTGO strives to be as analogous to paper Magic as possible. I was surprised that they never tried to orient your MTGO account to Planeswalker Points back when they were a critical element of grinding physical Magic.

Magic Arena does not strive to be as loyal as possible to paper Magic. It uses a monetization and distribution method entirely divorced from paper Magic. You can’t spend $10 to play in a League, go 5-0, and then sell your winnings for more than $10 in actual money. It is a digital product that happens to be about Magic rather than a Magic product that happens to be digital. All of these decisions speak to a goal of engaging new players rather than servicing older ones; that the most ripe demographic are people who are fluent in other digital and mobile games, rather than the person browsing board games at their LGS.

The changes made in Organized Play post-Arena reflect the differences in products. The new users brought on by Arena probably don’t care that much about the lengthy history of Magic’s Organized Play or the greatest individual players of all time. They want to watch something fun, engaging, and entertaining, which doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as watching the best players in absolute terms. The MPL provides the credibility and the discretionary invites provide a bunch of other positive things, and even if the sum of it is a little strange, it makes for good television. Arena has some high-stakes tournaments in-client, so the idea that you could be up there one day seems possible, and becoming a popular streamer is an achievable path for some people who can’t reasonably aspire to be one of the 50 or so best players on the planet.

As an aside, my take on the “merit” conversation: It is both true that the players in the NBA are among the 500 or so best basketball players on the planet, and also that you can look at the demographic composition of the players in the NBA and conclude that the same resources are not available for each person on the planet who wants to pursue basketball competitively. The previous Organized Play systems for Magic were similar to the NBA in this way, and I would argue produced a less diverse mix of “top” players than the NBA does, even hand-waving that women are disqualified from playing in the NBA in a way that they are not fundamentally blocked out of playing Magic. I have empathy for the players who aren’t quite MPL-level who feel frozen out of the new system, but any conversation about “merit” that doesn’t engage with the homogeneous nature of the previous pro players isn’t that interesting to me.

Speaking to my own experience, I grew up in a town with a bunch of hobby stores. Some of them were quite shady; one had weirdly good prize support for local events but eventually it got shut down because it was an organized crime front. My parents had no misgivings about me hanging out there because I was hanging out with a bunch of other boys who grew up in the same place, more or less. My hometown is fifteen minutes from both Princeton and New Brunswick, and you can do a lot worse than cutting your teeth in college towns. New York City had a landmark store in Neutral Ground where I got to spend my weekends (and sometimes weekdays) playing against some of the greatest players of all time. There was a drivable PTQ every weekend — New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and on and on.

So, I am a lot better than most people who have pursued Magic competitively, and my finishes are some reflection of a blend of talent and work, but also I got a lot of opportunities other people didn’t, that the pro community was and is saturated with people with a similar experience, and that I think it is noble and appropriate (and good business) to try to balance the scales, even if the methods WotC uses can be clumsy or imprecise.

My preferences as a player align pretty closely with what Magic does now; I’m sure I would have been disenchanted with the recent changes when I was playing Magic to the exclusion of every other activity but I don’t think that’s the person you should be optimizing for, anyway. I think the following elements are important for a good system even if they can be executed a number of ways.

  • Transparency: It should be obvious what you need to do and it shouldn’t be a prerequisite to follow every tweet from every WotC employee to stay informed about what’s going on. With Arena-related OP, ideally all the pertinent information should be available in the client. I think WotC broadly creates systems that are too complicated and assume too many people are reading each announcement, so I would point to this as an area for improvement.
  • Tie all behavior to a larger picture: Grinding games on a ladder should somehow lead you to a tournament or some chance at something bigger. I think Planeswalker Points are good in theory (maybe not in the exact execution) for making each random match of FNM feeling like it’s a tiny step towards getting to the top levels of the game, which can make random, low-stakes games feel more exciting than they otherwise would.
  • Clear thresholds, avoid Top X: As much as possible, make the goals tied to firm, transparent benchmarks (1800 ELO rating for one Grand Prix bye) instead of ambiguous lines (Top 1,000 ranked players get to play in Special Event X). The latter systems are stressful and falling short is significantly more disappointing than in the former.
  • Tie to calendar year: Magic’s Organized Play has sometimes been tied to weird seasons and unclear stop-and-start points; part of this has to do with their set release cadence but a lot of it isn’t. It’s just easier for everyone, participant and spectator, to following a calendar year instead of starting when the new block came out or whatever. 
  • Blend sustainability with opportunities for new players: It should seem possible that you could stay a Magic pro for as long as you wanted without the promise of being qualified forever if you happen to have one good event or season. Not sure what the correct percentage of MPL carryover should be but it’s not 10% or 90%.

Justin Hemmings asks:

Hey Pat,

Long time no see, hope all’s going well these days.

1.  As someone who “quit” Magic and got pulled back in by Arena after a 20+ year hiatus, I find myself conflicted as an adult about whether or not to buy back in to paper magic and playing at a local store.  On the one hand, the social aspect of the game has always been an appeal; on the other, the thought of buying into (and learning the cards from) a non-rotating format seems high, as does getting involved in a rotating format like standard, and it feels very difficult to make an informed cost/benefit analysis of either choice.  Any thoughts on the pluses/minuses of transitioning from Arena to one or more paper formats?

2.  What’s your Mount Rushmore of Professional Wrestlers?

Justin and I used to play Magic together more than twenty years ago, so this was a surprising get. Hope all is well with you, too.

To the first question, I think it is worth considering that digital games can be profoundly lonely and that you won’t always find Magic fun to play. Ask any longtime Magic player what keeps them coming back and you’re likely to get an answer about the people they’re connected with through it. That isn’t an infinitely valuable good and it is worth a lot less to me now at my age than it was when I was 22, so I don’t know if I would use it to justify a jumping-on point. But physical Magic is a different experience, I think in many ways a better one, and if you have any aspirations to improve your play there’s no substitute with collaborating with other like-minded people in the same space, watching each other’s games, and so on. If I was in your position, I would be much more interested in finding the right store or physical environment to meet your needs and goals than making the decision before that.

My Wrestling Mount Rushmore (going to keep this just to people who worked in big promotions):

  • Ric Flair
  • Shawn Michaels
  • Stone Cold Steve Austin

All transcendental blends of work, charisma, and impact. I put Michaels at #1, slightly edging out Austin due to longevity (not Austin’s fault of course, but you have to draw lines somewhere). My fourth submission is a little niche, and maybe bad:

  • Jake “The Snake” Roberts

His work was good not great and it would have helped if he lifted a weight once in a while, but he was so far ahead of his time in terms of personality, charisma, and blurring the lines between heel and face. He had a threatening, menacing posture that was not at all cartoonish, in contrast to just about every other heel before or immediately after. In terms of expanding what was possible from a character, I don’t know if I could name someone more influential, and that matters to me just as much, if not more, than how good of a match someone puts on.

Dearest Patrick,

When can we expect a drive to work video featuring your hardboiled eggs?


Ben Chamberlain

On a recent broadcast I mentioned doing dashcam videos while smashing hardboiled eggs on my dashboard for breakfast, the latter of which I already do, so we aren’t talking about that much additional work. I’m happy to announce that I’m working as a contractor-consultant for a number of design studios in 2020 (plus my work with Star City Games, of course) so I might get started on this project fairly soon.

That’s all for this week. Again, please submit any questions to [email protected], and tune in next time, assuming there’s a next time, Cedric was kind of wishy-washy about it, etc.