Sullivan’s Satchel: Competitive Aspirations, Theros Beyond Death, And Modern Bannings

Hello and welcome back to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. Lots of news this week, with updates (and retractions) to Organized Play, plus one of the most significant updates to the Modern banned list both in terms of metagame impact and financial implications. I also announced my contracting gig with Play Design.

I’m not sure exactly what that’s going to look like just yet, but hopefully it won’t come at the expense of giving my honest look at the landscape. Threading the needle on not getting cancelled both there and with this column will be tricky, but I’m up to the challenge. Keep the questions coming at mailbag@starcitygames.com. My inbox is officially flush, so thank you to everyone sending in questions and keeping this humming.

Patrick,

My name is Victor Kurz, and I am a 23 year old from Ohio, living in NYC (shoutout nepotism) who is beginning his foray into the dreaded “real world.” Well maybe.

To give some context: I recently graduated from university, and am less… excited about projected career path than I once was. Currently I am considering going back to school to earn my masters, find a general job elsewhere, or something entirely different.

Contemporarily, I have been trying to figure out where I should position magic in my life relative to my goals, which ultimately boil down to finding something I believe I can feasibly do without totally hating life. I am certainly a competitively oriented player, whose unable to attend nearly as many tournaments as they would like. I have player tour aspirations, love SCG tour events, and have even begun to workshop a magic podcast with a friend. Going forward in life, I would like to end up in a place that would allow me to attend a large tournament once every month or so.

To put a bow on this, I will ask an actual question:

How would you advise a competitively minded player with a passion for the game to position Magic in their life as they work towards a career? I look up to one such as yourself who appears to have things “figured out” following a youth of grinding.

I get questions like this one often, at shows or from people trying to get a break in the game design industry. I think partially that has to do with the last sentence of Victor’s email—that it looks like I “made it,” that after a young adulthood of Mendoza Line production at the Pro Tour, I parlayed that into a career many Magic players aspire to—game design, commentary, a column that doesn’t require me to actually create anything or win games of Magic. There is some truth to all that, but some further context may be helpful.

When I was nineteen, I attended Seton Hall University with a major in Diplomacy and International Relations. I was heavily involved in debate team activities in high school and they offered me a partial scholarship, so it seemed like a good fit. One year of talking to people who worked in the field was enough for me (one professor literally said “the policies don’t matter, only winning does”). Combined with some serious mental health issues, and in short order I had dropped out of college, ended up in a hospital, and was kicked out of my parent’s house. I was light on options and really just wanted to be screwing around with Magic anyway, so I started working at TOGIT full-time and playing Magic with all my spare time.

I spent years with a destabilized living situation, regularly slept on the floor of the card shop, and was irregularly homeless. After years of living this way I was offered a game design internship by Upper Deck Entertainment, largely because a bunch of my friends already worked there and they wanted my then-wife to move to their office in San Diego to work as an editor, and they were willing to give me a look to sweeten the pot. One contract turned into another (barely) and then a full-time offer (again, barely), and I’ve been in the industry ever since, now fifteen years and counting.

I know my circumstances were much different than Victor’s but I say all of this because—please do not look to me as some sort of template for your own career. I relied on the charity of a bunch of people, caught a lot of breaks, and avoided catastrophe when the circumstances of my life lent themselves to absolute ruin. I did work hard in some spots, I had some aptitude that I leveraged—I hustled, for lack of a better word. It wasn’t just a roll of the dice. But it wouldn’t have taken that much bad luck (or lack of good luck, more accurately) for my life to have turned out much, much worse.

I think making a career out of Magic is similar to making a career out of most pursuits—strive for stability. That means divorcing yourself from tournament earnings as much as possible. For starters, the amount of money in the pool relative to the number of skilled people competing for it is bleak math, and even if you’re good the infrequency of big payouts makes it hard to plan very much. To the extent you can, create a net of steady earning—streaming, articles, sponsorship deals, and so on. Getting these elements to be lucrative usually necessitates some amount of tournament success so the events are still valuable, but hopefully more as a way of building up equity in your other pursuits rather than for what the tournaments themselves offer (though if you happen to spike some, all the better).

I also think that these adjacent pursuits are more likely to yield something “professional” than just doing the tournament grind. Podcasting and streaming gives you some informal training to broadcast. If you can write about Magic, you can probably write about other things, too. Speaking only for myself, were I to give an internship to a designer and could choose between someone who had done well in tournaments and someone who has done well writing about and creating Cubes, I would hire the latter without hesitation. Magic is a curated experience that goes far beyond Standard and Draft, and designing Cubes gives someone a better framework for curation than spending your weekends deciding whom to target with your Thought Scour.

The short version of this: the wider that you can cast your net, the more opportunities you can find in Magic, and the more opportunities you can find for yourself adjacent to Magic. Being all-in on the tournament thing doesn’t let you pivot as easily, and keep in mind the possibility that you might sour on it over time. I started doing commentary once playing in tournaments had started to lose its charm, and that has made playing in the occasional tournament a lot more fun. Your experience in college has probably reminded you that you aren’t the same person with the same goals and interests now than you were five years, and that usually keeps happening.

From Liam Cahalan:

Patrick,

Now that we’ve seen all of the Theros: Beyond Death cards, what’s your first impression of the set?

Without getting too detailed about any individual designs, I mostly like what I’ve seen. I have some reservations about “Enchantments Matter”—there is a wild imbalance with how the colors engage with them and they don’t produce the most interactive games at a baseline, and trying to alleviate that by tagging a bunch of creatures as enchantments is a little hokey. But I think devotion is among the better mechanics in Magic’s entire history — it leads you down a path while still being open-ended, and unlike other threshold mechanics (delirium, uh, threshold), devotion cards are more likely to scale up and down or toggle on and off over the course of the game. It creates a different value on permanents on the battlefield, so you do things like use removal on an objectively worse card but that happens to be providing a lot of devotion, which is novel.

I like Escape, too, as far as those kind of mechanics go. Since both the mana cost and the card requirements create a bottleneck, it’s a lot more likely that a bunch decks will play one or two escape cards instead of building “Escape decks,” and I dislike the incentives that come along with decks playing entirely out of their graveyard. And there is no shortage of flavorful, evocative designs. Too early for me to speculate on how Standard is going to look, but I’m optimistic about the general structure and mechanics of the set.

Jim writes:

What are your thoughts on the recent Modern bans?

I don’t have strong opinions on Mycosynth Lattice. The combo with Karn, the Great Creator is slow and to the extent that you want to allow such things, I’d rather permit the one that can be engaged with via creature combat. But the joke gets old pretty quickly, and it isn’t great if a card that supposed to be a high-rate toolbox ends the game the same way over and over again. I could take it or leave it, no reason to shed tears, etc.

Oko, Thief of Crowns had to go, I think. Within a few months of set release it had become a ubiquitous feature of the format, and to be frank the games it produces suck. The games in which both players have an Oko are unbearable, which is a rough characteristic for a ubiquitous card to have. The format that “evolves” to “manage” Oko probably involves a lot of spell-based combo, Primeval Titan strategies, or other decks that entirely ignore the battlefield while setting up a one-turn kill. If that’s the “win” scenario, just move on.

Mox Opal is the toughest case. Not on pure merit — the card is busted and pretty boring and has been that way since the inception of the format. It has been trivial to make the case to ban it at almost any point in Modern’s history. But because it could have been banned so many times and wasn’t, and because it was worth so much money, had been reprinted in a Modern-branded release, it gave off the signal that Mox Opal would be legal in perpetuity — that it was something that Modern would be balance around, a pillar of the format.

Some cards, like Dark Confidant or Tarmogoyf, tend to get less powerful as more cards are added to the format. The games get faster, more powerful, more extreme, and those kinds of cards have a low value-over-replacement compared to other things you can do for two mana.

Some cards, like Aether Vial, tend to scale up. The collection of cards that interact with Aether Vial and with one another tend to benefit from a large card pool — Aether Vial would be totally innocuous (probably unplayed) in your average Standard format.

Mox Opal is an even more extreme version of Aether Vial — Wizards of the Coast (WotC) makes a lot more artifacts and a lot more cards that are busted to put out ahead of schedule than they do creatures that are powerful to Vial out, and that Opal is a five-color enabler expands the range of interactions. This is a known issue, and has been for years, leading even more credence to the belief (conscious or otherwise) that Mox Opal was here to stay. If not five years ago, then when?

Mox Opal is the root of a lot of problems, both on rate and because the surrounding cards (cheap artifacts, usually that either make mana themselves or draw cards) are typically really boring.  I do think the format will be healthier long-term, but I don’t know how it washes out on the balance sheet against the players who have to bear the material loss. I have nothing useful to say to those players — there were times in my adult life when my net worth was less than a playset of Opals, and had something like this happened to me twenty years ago I probably would have quit for good. People can say “it’s just a game, these cards aren’t investments” but that plainly isn’t the way people behave, nor would Magic be a sustainable commercial product if people did. Against such a loud, lengthy, tacit declaration from WotC that Mox Opal was here for the long haul, I can only offer my deepest sympathies.

If there’s anything to be gleaned from this, it is to try to be understanding about bans that feel “pre-emptive” in Pioneer among cards that have a high risk of ubiquity, scale better over time, etc. while the format is still getting off the ground. I really like the gameplay of Smuggler’s Copter and thought they were too hasty to ban it, but if they really believed the format couldn’t be balance around it long-term, better now than in five years. The opportunity costs only go up — even cards that play well get boring after a certain amount of time and ubiquity, you have to ban cards that “surround” the real problem, and players start believing that certain cards are off-limits, and behave accordingly. A decade of such action informs the reaction to the Opal banning as much as anything else, so better sooner than later.

Thanks again for reading, and please send your questions to mailbag@starcitygames.com. Until next week.