Sullivan’s Satchel: Pro Tour Regrets, Pinback, And Matthew Dilks

Patrick Sullivan opens the mailbag for questions on his Pro Tour days, his favorite SCG Tour competitors, and how game design is like making music.

Boros Charm, illustrated by Zoltan Boros

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Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. I’m writing this the day that several companions were banned in older formats, including what amounts to the first power level ban in Vintage in Lurrus of the Dream-Den. This wave of bans was coupled with the declaration that more extreme measures, like functional changes to the mechanic, could be explored if these bans proved insufficient. A change to the rules is an extreme measure, but maybe it’s preferable to scattershot bans across some or all of Magic’s competitive Constructed formats. Companions are the perfect mechanic for 2020, where every day feels like an eternity. I would take “settled” over “optimized for the most fun” with whatever the ultimate decision is, at this point.

I do stand by the position that companions had their heart in the right place. I point to Obosh, the Preypiercer as the model for what could have been. A real deckbuilding requirement that made people dig deep to fill out a list, dynamically changed the cards you played with once it enters the battlefield, and expensive enough such that the games involving it don’t play out the same way over and over again. Alas, the cards that exist are what they are, and it’s disappointing to me that this will probably prevent future exploration of this mechanic for a very long time, at the minimum.

As usual, you can weasel your way into this column by sending a question to [email protected] or DM’ing me @BasicMountain, though you’ve nearly worn out your collective welcome on the latter platform. With that:

Stephen King asks:

I spent the better part of a decade trying to play in and succeed at Pro Tours, and when it was over I ended up falling well short of the expectations I had set for myself. I mostly remember it as a positive experience with a tinge of regret that I wasn’t more successful. When you look back on your time as a grinder, do you feel satisfied with where you ended up?

I’ve had a few tournaments that went pretty well and a handful of memorable matches, made a bunch of life-long friends, and parlayed that time (at least in part) into the paid work I do now. I can read that and acknowledge it worked out okay, but I can’t help but look at the accomplishments of some of my contemporaries and wonder what could have been if I worked a bit harder. I think I played five Pro Tours where I made a good-faith effort to prepare, and clocked in two ninth-place finishes in teams and a 32nd-place finish at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. I don’t think I had the talent to put together a Hall of Fame career even if I had my life in order, but a Pro Tour Top 8? One year in the Top 10 for Player of the Year? I think something like that could have happened, and it would have been a nice bow on top, something cool to look back on.

You don’t get the counterfactual, though. What if I had done just well enough to convince myself to keep going? I put competitive Magic on the back burner when I came excruciatingly close to stringing together multiple invites a few years back to focus on commentary instead; is my life really better if it had gone the other way? Many of my friends who are at the top of this thing describe feeling rudderless, a sense of ennui, not able to make a clean break but also not knowing what the future holds. I’m afflicted with all that even without the Pro Tour; I doubt it looks better with it.

I never had a sense of “expectations” for myself so I’m not happy or disappointed against some imagined bar. I believe I could have done better, but I’m not sure if I’d be better or happier today had I done better. With age and family it all feels like literally a different life, something from an imagined past, and so disconnected from anything that defines my life now that it’s hard to cobble together much of a feeling about any of it.

From Danny Jessup:

Who are your Top 5 or so players you enjoyed to cover the most? Top 5 best SCG regulars would also be cool.

Great question, though “five players I enjoy covering the least” might be more fun. Anyway, I seek out a blend of proprietary skills and style — better to be known for one deck than kind of playing whatever, creative flourish, quick pace of play, and a certain command of the table. I want to limit this to at least semi-regular SCG Tour players. With that:

5. Andy Ferguson

Relatively unknown Ohio-area player who was more regular a few years back but still periodically shows up. Usually plays aggressive decks, quick pace of play, good ambient style, but what makes him really stick out is that I’ve never seen him miss those “Fervent Champion into your Arboreal Grazer” 0.01% to work bluff attacks. Committed to the craft.

4. Brad Nelson

Tight technical play, absolutely domineering presence at the table. The “play the best deck extremely well” thing can be quite boring but Brad has such command of everything in his environment that it takes on a “David versus Goliath” type of tone, with Brad’s opponent as David each time.

3. Ben Friedman

Ben plays very well but somehow always this vibe that he’s on the precipice of catastrophe. A ying to Brad Nelson yang.

2. Tom Ross

Innovative deck and style with proprietary elements in craft and play. Cool and calm with a little bit of riverboat sleaze. My favorite player to watch when he’s on top of everything.

1. Matthew Dilks

Expressionless other than a hint of utter contempt for his opponent, known for playing particular decks, and some spectacular one-liners (“I decide what’s stock” in response to someone calling his deck “stock” is an all-time classic).

From Mason Clark:

Do Magic players complain more now then they did “back in the day” or is it social media having it more in our face? It feels like a lot of people are hitting a breaking point with Magic and complainers.

I have two working theories on this. One is social media absolutely raises the ceiling on how much we can indulge our hobbies and grievances. I started playing Magic in 1995, when the Internet was a fledgling place, a few Magic-related magazines existed, and The Dojo was the lone source for online content unless you were in the chat room scene. It was literally impossible to engage in Magic conversation for eight hours a day, and now doing that is trivial. The notion of even knowing who the designers were, much less reach out to them, was impossible, and now you can @ the Play Design team with whatever’s ailing you at all hours.

The other is, I think, that Magic has been around long enough to have the counterfactual. I know I didn’t like Control Magic when I first started playing but all the cards just were what they were, like the weather or something, and the notion of not having those cards as part of the experience didn’t register as a possibility, especially when Type 1 (Vintage) was the only supported format. There’s now a sufficient body of work that you can point to ways you wish (or think you wish) it was done differently, which gives people a firmer base with which to register complaints.

Also, at least in the United States, the current moment is making everyone lose their minds for good reason and it’s healthier to think that Uro is the root of your unhappiness than staring into the abyss.

From Harry Huberty:

Thanks for your thoughtful response to Bryan Gottlieb‘s article on constructed Magic. I wanted to ask for some additional clarification around what you wrote regarding Bryan’s #2 False Conclusion, in speaking of new entrants (or external contractors) to design teams:

My experience with design hires it that it usually takes about six months for them to not be actively harmful to the process, assuming they have potential. Pro players usually have massive blind spots around play patterns, incentives, and other elements of the game you stop caring about once you’re playing for stakes.

I don’t think I fully understood what you meant here, so I was wondering about blind spots you’ve seen and the impact they’ve hand.

There are a lot of ways in which it’s problematic, but there are two that I’ve encountered with enough frequency that I believe they are systemic.

1. Low empathy. A lot of game design involves sympathizing with the person who is losing, and how to improve their time in spite of losing. The winner is presumably pretty happy with the outcome of whatever is happening; they are winning, after all. Commander is fun in large part because it is such a powerful vehicle for socialization and self-expression that plenty of people play and literally do not care what the outcome of the game actually is, so long as they get to show off their stuff and have a moment or two where the spotlight is on them. That doesn’t translate cleanly to competitive, one-on-one play, but it is a strike against invasive or otherwise “unfun” design space that most pro players either don’t care about or actively enjoy.

2. Bad/inefficient work. There are a lot of ways that working in design can resemble testing for the Pro Tour, and that’s only a fraction of what’s going on, but without very active management most pros will fall into that pattern initially. Too much time sunk on iterating specific versions of decks, too much certainty with their perception of the metagame rather than trying to balance around a distribution of possible outcomes, too much advocacy for their “pet deck,” too hostile to dramatic but necessary changes to the file, and so on.

This week’s winner of $25 in SCG credit, Steven Murray, asks:

I recently started listening to Pinback at your (indirect) suggestion and have been enjoying it. Do you see much overlap between producing quality music and quality card design? (Btw, if picked any SCG credit goes to my Beta Stasis fund because I’m a degenerate).

I’m a big fan of cross-pollination; I think it’s foolish to assume your field has a bunch of proprietary, specific concepts that don’t translate into other fields. I don’t know much about music from a technical or theory standpoint, but I think making an album and making a file both involve composition, a sense of progression and tone, threading the needle between “variety” and “cohesion,” trying to not inundate the experience with too many things to pay attention to (Future Sight is a very messy “album”), and so on.

It’s not a direct translation because each Magic set is both its own thing and part of a greater “catalog,” and a multiplayer, potentially competitive user experience isn’t analogous to experiencing music, but I often draw parallels between my favorite albums and favorite sets, and the vocabulary I use is often the same.

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