The Top 5 Things WotC Organized Play Must Fix ASAP

Between COVID-19 and self-inflicted wounds, Bryan Gottlieb sees Magic’s Organized Play in a sorry state. He lays out his Top 5 must-fix issues.

We’re all entitled to a do-over of the last year and two months. I don’t care if your relationships, diet, career, Magic performance, mental health, and every other measurable indicator of achievement and success faltered. You are here. You are making it through. And you deserve to forgive yourself.

The first rays of hope are beginning to push through the clouds of this pandemic, and for some of us, that means we’re thinking about getting our affairs back in order. It’s cool if you’re not there yet too. Rebuilding from unprecedented catastrophe is going to take time, and a lot of tragedies that have befallen ourselves, our friends, and our families simply can’t be undone.

It feels like one of the best ways to facilitate healing is to be supportive of everyone around us, and to extend the type of kindness that we can all benefit from. And yeah, I want to extend that kindness to Wizards of the Coast (WotC) too.

No matter what business you’re part of, you’ve had to adapt in some way to the impacts of COVID-19. I know for me, my article writing became more sporadic. A lot of the video and bonus podcast content I was making became impossible to produce. I lost a travel routine that was quickly becoming a core part of my identity. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like I was able to produce my best on a week-to-week basis. My world flipped overnight.

I watched my wife lose the structure of her office environment and be forced to learn how to manage a team remotely when she had only been a manager for a couple of months. I watched so many of my friends in the hospitality industry struggle to even keep their doors open, and when they succeeded in doing so, they had to subject themselves to extreme personal risk.

If you don’t think the employees of WotC put up with many of the same circumstances, you’re just fooling yourself. It’s important for me to lay this all out because, well… I’m about to do some complaining. As always, I’m trying to do some purposeful and useful complaining, but I recognize it’s complaining nonetheless.

So, before I do that, I just want to be clear that I don’t blame anyone at WotC for the fact that Organized Play (OP) has gone completely sideways over the last couple of years. There’s a good chance that many of the gripes I’m about to make could have been avoided if there wasn’t a need to glue together a program that was shattered by the impossibility of in-person gatherings. I’m sure nobody intended the system to look like what it does now.

But we’re here. And things are not good. I’m not here to lay out a long-form rebuild of the entire system. First, I don’t think that’s a one-person job, and second, I just don’t have access to most of the information I would need to even take a stab at things. Instead, I want to offer my opinion on the five largest problems that OP currently faces.

The key word there is “opinion.” I understand that OP doesn’t have to be built to serve my needs. There’s probably a successful model that ignores what I want altogether. However, I think that I can speak for my peer group of long-enfranchised Magic players who seem to be almost entirely disillusioned at this point.

Yes, they’re a small percentage of the overall player base. Yes, Commander play is doing far more to drive the sales and health of Magic these days. However, I genuinely believe that Magic was able to reach its current state of mass market adoption because of the players who bore the torch for it as a lifestyle brand for over twenty years.

WotC should take the money while it’s there and market to its new and expanding player base, 100%. However, doing so doesn’t require them to abandon the support that can carry them through the moments where the cultural zeitgeist isn’t as firmly pointed in their favor. You can give back the dream of professional Magic, and some of the changes I’m advocating for won’t even cost a single cent (not to say that you couldn’t use some of those newfound cents to spruce up the professional scene, but that’s an article for another time).

Without further ado, here are the Top 5 things OP must fix ASAP:

1. Fix Magic Arena

In some ways, Arena has been a tremendous step forward for Magic. A whole new audience was exposed to the game, and many rediscovered a love that they had let slip. I‘m in awe that I can play real Magic on my phone now, and even the economy kind of works for me (though I appreciate it is not ideal for everyone).

However, Arena is not a complete program. There are basic things like chat and Sealed Deck building that it handles very poorly. If you don’t allow yourself to get invested in the ladder grind, stakes worth caring about pop up rarely. Most damning though is an inability to ensure legitimacy of competition. Bugs and disconnection issues routinely impact the experience of people playing the online offerings.

When it comes to the hallmark tournaments, we’ve seen multiple matches derailed at moments of the highest stakes.

And then… there’s spectator mode.

If you’re not familiar, a WotC staff member was recently driven off social media after posting about how a focus on a spectator mode didn’t make sense given how few people care about watching tournament play. First, the behavior of those who harassed this person was abhorrent. There’s never a need to make these things personal, and so many in the Magic community could benefit from learning this lesson.

There is room for respectful disagreement though, and I must point out that spectator mode is a tool to create the interest that WotC believes is currently missing. If there are continued problems with the presentation of live events, of course numbers will show a lack of interest. Let’s not even talk about what the .25% figure means or where it comes from. Are the millions of people who watch League of Legends broadcasts every week “using” spectator mode? Or is it just the one person logged in and creating the broadcast that we are counting? What kind of games are we talking about? There are just so many variables here.

Furthermore, the issue was framed as staffing-related. The argument went that the people who would have to make spectator mode are the same people that are currently programming the cards. This is just an attempt to reframe profit-taking as a human concern. While there are real limitations like scale-up time on capacity to add staff, if you’re willing to allocate more money to fixing these issues, there’s always more that can be done.

I’m not saying it’s easy or can be achieved overnight, but if you continually make decisions that reduce the focus on OP with the justification that “no one cares about OP” you’ve created a real “chicken or the egg” scenario. There are decades of history, millions of miles traveled, and infinite memories that prove people do care about OP… when they have a reason to.

2. Timing Is Everything

I just finished watching the MPL and Rivals Strixhaven League Weekend. This creatively named tournament occurred a week before Strixhaven released, overlapping with a Qualifier Weekend and an SCG Tour Online event. There was a main WotC stream, but also every single player was required to stream the event. Combined with the Players Championship, this was the second weekend out of the last three where the best players in the world were playing a format that nobody in their right mind cared about anymore, because Strixhaven previews had already begun.

Under those circumstances, how is anyone supposed to care about the Players Championship or this final (and incredibly impactful) League Weekend? They occur at a moment of waning interest, against ample competition, including from the competitors themselves. I promise, if you go through the last year of events, you’ll find situations like this occurring time after time. Key events overlap, making participation in both impossible. Exciting changes are rarely highlighted. It seems like nothing is scheduled with thoughtfulness or purpose.

Get staff from Arena, Magic Online, and live OP in the same (virtual) room. Conference call in your major partners that are providing invites to your key tournaments. Post a schedule of all releases, virtual and paper. And just talk through it! It’s not a particularly cutting insight that a Players Tour is a great way to show off a new set. It just seems like the planning to make it happen is not occurring. When PTQs were localized, it wasn’t a big deal to give up the portion of your audience that lives within four hours of a certain game store. When everyone on the planet is supposed to care about the same online event, the math changes.

3. Allow Events to Tell a Meaningful Story

Again, I’m not here to try to craft a replacement for the MPL and Rivals League. I can point out a huge reason it’s failing though. The MPL framework is not set up to tell a compelling story. So much of traditional sports storytelling is “favorite versus underdog.” Who can realistically be sold as an underdog in any of these leagues? The players are all so incredibly talented. Maybe when gauntlet play finally occurs you can craft some “pro versus semi-pro” takes in the MPL versus Rivals scenario, but you only get that payoff once a year.

Another big problem with the MPL/Rivals structure is that it’s much more about avoiding the disastrous outcome than achieving the great outcome. The players fighting to keep their jobs are the ones with the most at stake, but to tell that story you need viewers to buy into the ideal that they should be more interested in the players who aren’t performing well in a tournament/season. Situations like relegation avoidance are supposed to be an interesting side note, not the focal point. With the old Pro Tour, the results of a good performance were far clearer. A win in any given event could very well launch your whole career. Now, who knows what a win is worth. Where does Arne Huschenbeth stand heading into next year’s events? I honestly have no idea. And this segues well to our next point.

4. Restore Commonality

Everyone I speak with who isn’t one of the 24 MPL or 46 Rivals members feels utterly disconnected from the professional Magic scene. I never had a meaningful status in the old Pro Players Club. But, maybe only due to my own delusion, I always felt like I was an ancillary part of the Magic pro scene. I’d occasionally show up at a Pro Tour and make a little money. I had beaten a lot of the best in the world at various Grand Prix. A lot of the fixtures of the scene knew my name. It felt real and attainable in a way that the current system of play absolutely does not.

Part of this problem is that the people in the MPL and Rivals are just always doing different stuff from the rest of us. We all used to play the same GPs. We all used to focus on the same formats for the entirety of a PTQ season. Now we’re all out here doing our own thing, with no rhyme or reason. It certainly makes content creation an absolute nightmare. Previously I could understand what a competitive player would want to hear about on a given week. The weekend’s event or the season at hand would always be your guidepost. Now, I often find myself at a loss.

Also, so much of competitive play was about seeing the success of your friends and local community. I’ve been in the LGS that’s glued to the screen, watching a store regular making a deep Pro Tour or Grand Prix run. It’s an electric atmosphere, but more importantly, we can all envision ourselves making that same kind of run. There need to be open-entry, hallmark events, and they need to lead to a clear launching pad for future success.

The competitive Magic community was founded on a bunch of people pursuing dreams and goals that often make no sense to those outside of our sphere. We spent too much money chasing too little money, and often hated ourselves for doing it. We found sanity in the fact that we understood each other, and everyone from PVDDR to me was showing up in the same places with the same goals. Competitive Magic needs that commonality back.

5. Give Us a Sign

Here’s what scares me the most about our present OP situation. I haven’t seen anyone at WotC actually acknowledge that something is wrong. There’s no openness. No accountability. No State of Organized Play. There’s just a bunch of confusing articles that announce something is changing every few months.

Magic’s use of brand social media lately has not been fantastic. A Tweet this weekend seemingly confusing Ally Warfield’s deck predilections with those of some of the other non-male competitors was insulting to all parties involved, especially given Ally’s tremendous success over the past year.

They also recently stirred up a hornets’ nest when they threw some unprovoked shade at Modern Tron players.

There have been plenty of other accusations of tone-deafness and missteps over the past year from brand accounts (all in stark contrast to the personal accounts of the many individuals at WotC who I routinely have fantastic interactions with). Frankly, under a lot of circumstances I’d say the criticisms of the corporate accounts are overblown.

However, WotC currently has a problem that I see quite often on social media. They are treating people like their friends and peers without taking the necessary steps to establish that relationship. If I thought the Magic brand social media presence was one that loved and celebrated its fans and players, occasional missteps and jokes that don’t quite land would be way easier to overlook. But they’ve given us virtually nothing in the way of meaningful access for quite some time now. No “we hear you” or “we’re working on it”. No prompt responses to oft-reported issues. No illusions that they are on our side.

And ask yourself, who do you think is most likely to be interacting with the @MagicEsports account? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s those same enfranchised players who feel most left out in the cold by recent changes. They’re supposed to laugh off the jabs when they’re worried that the competition they love is disappearing before their eyes? Now, keep in mind that none of this excuses abusive behavior on the part of the Magic fanbase and I’ve got zero tolerance for anything of the sort. But if a lot of previously invested people are either respectfully laying out complaints or leaving the game behind… I get that.

Under previous OP regimes, specifically when things were headed by Helene Bergeot, it always felt like WotC was at least listening to concerns. Helene was extremely available on social media, despite routinely facing some horrid abuse from the community. She really gave so much to competitive Magic and deserved so much better than what she got back from players. That’s not to say everything was handled well by OP, or that there wasn’t plenty of controversy. It just seemed like the parties in charge really wanted what was best for the longevity and health of competitive Magic, and WotC was happy to make money while advancing that goal. Now, at least as a competitive player… it kind of feels like they just want my money.

As far as where I stand now on the use of social media by the Magic brand, I really don’t think it’s fair to ask any person to attach their name to a corporate account or Tweet on behalf of the company from a personal account these days. Quite frankly, they’re just not being paid enough to put up with that bullshit. Therefore, I wouldn’t want to see any individual reprise Helene’s forward facing approach. However, if you’re going to use branded accounts, you have an ability to interact with the player base anonymously, and also an opportunity to curate messaging. Turn off replies when you need to. Block liberally. Hell, move the conversation off Twitter to a place that feels more productive! I’ve got a well-modded Discord server full of some of the smartest, most invested players in the world, and I will personally guarantee that if the folks in charge of OP want to come on and host some chats, they will be treated with the utmost respect.

Right now, what used to be a bright spot of communication that responsible members of the community could rely on for support has become an absolute black hole. I just want to know that someone on the inside is as concerned as I am.

Again, I’m granting absolute clemency for the events that have led us to this point. But the reason this is time to start talking about potential changes is because WotC is on the cusp of a major opportunity. When Magic is greenlit, it’s going to be at a moment when people are desperate to gather, when loads of new people sunk themselves into the game over the course of the pandemic, and where there is a clear breakpoint with which to start Magic anew.

The time to start preparing for a return to greatness is right now. Don’t miss this boat again… because it’s not going to sit in port forever.