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Sullivan’s Satchel: Learn And Lesson, NBA Jam, And Organized Play

Patrick Sullivan answers questions about the learn mechanic and Lessons, what he misses from SCG Tour stops, and Organized Play’s woes.

Strixhaven Stadium, illustrated by Piotr Dura

Hello, and welcome to this installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. Last weekend I got the chance to check out a little bit of the Arena championships, of which I was mostly aware only because LSV came by my place the Friday before for some hangouts. The games were dope; it’s easy to take for granted over time, but watching the game’s best play for real stakes, getting to choose your preferred player’s stream — all of that is a great feat. The opacity, the finality of relegation, the system structured in such a way that hopping back in seems like an impossibility — maybe all costs worth paying as discrete elements, but the sum of which left a lot of competitors and spectators expressing disappointment and frustration.

I’m not sure what to do about any of it, if anything. Bryan Gottlieb spoke to all of this recently. I don’t necessarily agree with every point expressed, but it says a lot about community sentiment when articles like that can get so much traction.

I want to remain neutral on the topic for the most part because everything is incomplete until physical play gets reincorporated post-COVID, and the last year and change has engendered so much disruption that some scrambling and ironing out of details is to be expected. Spectators have a desire for a system that is easy to follow and broadly engenders good feelings, and it seems hard to argue that the current structure is doing that. Some stability would be nice too, and the systems have gone through so much upheaval the past few years that I’m not sure another reboot is in order. Still, feels like there’s some room for iteration here.

With that, the questions. As always, you can send in yours to mailbag@starcitygames.com or DM on Twitter @BasicMountain. I answer most of the ones I receive in some order (what we call “nonlinear storytelling” in the business), and I also select one each time as the Question of the Week, the author of which receives $25 in SCG credit.

From Peter Leja:

Hi Patrick, How difficult is it to create a mechanic like Learn/Lesson? Is it difficult to balance making cards you can have access to cards in your sideboard without making the cards too powerful and/or ubiquitous?

I don’t know if learn / Lesson is more challenging to balance than the average mechanic, but with its cosmetic similarity to companion, it’s worth putting this under more scrutiny than usual. Any mechanic that combines card advantage and tutoring is at risk of being problematic on both rate and repetition, but learn / Lesson has a bunch of backstops and potential backstops (not all necessarily exercised in Strixhaven, but just as a theoretical exercise).

  • Rate and range of the Lessons: How powerful the Lessons are in absolute terms matters, as does the frequency with which your package of Lessons gets you out of a particular spot.
  • Opportunity cost of learn: How good are the cards with learn, and how reliably do they do their thing? (Enters-the-battlefield and cast triggers are the most reliable, stuff that only works some of the time is less reliable, etc.) If there is only one powerful learn card for your strategy, it may not be worth playing the fourth-most-frequent / desirable Lesson, but if there are three good ones, the calculus is different.
  • Opportunity cost of your sideboard slots: This can cut in both directions — the rate of the sideboard cards that are available, and the degree to which the best decks require a bunch of sideboard cards. The latter is somewhat managed by the Lessons themselves; a weak-but-tutorable Naturalize might alleviate some of the need for more powerful Naturalizes in the sideboard.

To the homogenous question, I think the bigger thing is trying to ensure that each strategy has one or two appealing Learn designs, such that even if learn / Lesson hits hard, the surrounding cards (both other cards in decks and the Lessons each deck wants to find most frequently) alleviates some of the repetition.

From Friend of the Satchel™ Ben Seitzman:

What do you miss most about covering live magic tournaments? I imagine NBA Jam is near the top of the list.

In no particular order:

  • Post-commentary NBA Jam (Columbus and Indianapolis only)
  • Pre- and post-commentary Carrabba’s (Duluth, GA “Atlanta” venue only)
  • Literally eating at a gas station multiple times a weekend (“Cincinnati,” OH and Orlando venue)
  • Smoking indoors at a spot I only know as “Confederate Bar” (Roanoke, VA)
  • Person coming up to the booth, talking about their profoundly uninteresting round, getting a friendly-but-professional response from Cedric, and then the same person coming by the booth each round thereafter for the whole weekend (all Southern venues)
  • Running through the horribly designed airport in Minneapolis trying to make a 40-minute connection, and then my bag not showing up until Sunday morning (Syracuse, Worcester venue)
  • Being accosted by octogenarian security guards for trying to bring coffee into the tournament hall (Worcester venue)
  • Nicky Blaine’s into Steak and Shake “take five weeks off my life” Sunday evenings (Indianapolis)
  • Richmond’s cobblestone streets
  • The absolutely alien experience of the Valley Forge Casino and Resort, and in particular the Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force parodies hanging out in the sportsbook
  • Ross Merriam trying and failing to find a karaoke bar (all venues)
  • Wrestling pay-per-views back in the hotel room
  • Getting hit by pool cues inside the cramped bar that’s open late (Fort Worth)
  • Matt Dilks’s palpable resentment while clocking another Top 8
  • Andy Boswell reading a book in between rounds
  • Hanging out with Baby Nora
  • The sound of the tournament hall Sunday nights while the staff is breaking down and loading up

From Ethan Ritz,

I saw your tweet the other day about how throwing players to the sharks in (i.e.) Rivals doesn’t count as levelling the playing field, and I tend to agree. Not only does someone trying to break in not have access to other pro friends and playtest groups, but the precarity of the position means they likely have to keep their day job, and can’t afford to go ‘all in’ on magic to the same extent. Under the assumption that the old pro point system isn’t coming back, what could be done to make it better? Like many things, simply giving more money and time could go a long way – maybe new entries into Rivals get two years instead of just one, and pays like a full-time job, so people would be able to make those connections. There could also be cultural changes – maybe enfranchised players and test groups could be highly encouraged to take in new players, simply because it makes the community healthier to cultivate new pro players and bonds between Magic ‘generations’. I’m sure you have some thoughts, and was hoping you could share them.

I don’t think there’s a simple solution, but I see a number of issues with the current discretionary invite system. If Wizards of the Coast (WotC) wants to give discretionary invites to under-represented demographics, that’s all well and good, but invites only go so far, especially for people who aren’t likely to be as good as the people already in Rivals. What’s worse, because of relegation, there’s a powerful incentive to avoid coming in last, making it actively against the incentive of other players to work alongside players who are perceived as weak or less experienced. And since many of the testing connections have been formed over decades of previously crafted social relationships, even someone “good” is going to struggle to get their foot in the door.

I don’t think this is a problem we should hand-wave. It’s all well and good to talk about “representation mattering” and making sure at least some of the prize pool goes to people from different backgrounds, but absent the full sum of resources someone needs to compete (to say nothing of their starting disadvantages of being less skilled and/or experienced than your average Rivals competitor), they are disproportionally at risk of relegation, not only dampening the “representation” but also giving quarter to the entitled semi-pros excluded from the current system and to the chuds who are ideologically opposed to such redress. These reactions were on full display after the previous weekend.

With all the caveats about not working in Organized Play and not knowing all the externalities, my initial “solution” would be to reorient Rivals into “teams” with some contractual obligation to work with at least one person with a discretionary invite (X discretionary invites, X teams, or whatever), with team performance informing prizes and maybe even promotion / relegation somehow. In short, not only giving these players access to professional levels of testing but an incentive for established players to “level up” their discretionary invite teammates. I think there are a bunch of variations of that system (including WotC just mandated certain testing arrangements as contractual obligations) that could make massive strides towards a more just system.

Lastly, the Question of the Week, and winner of $25 in SCG credit, from Donald Taylor:

My question involves the childrens.

I have a young daughter whose precociousness has me eager for the day I can teach her to play Magic (unless she decides to play blue, then she can save up her allowance to buy her own Forces).

Have you attempted to introduce the game to your minions, and if so, do you have any advice for other fathers attempting to do the same?

I’m in a weird position with my children wherein they are too young to play Magic (my eldest is almost seven, so maybe closer than I’m giving credit for) but they’re aware that it’s a major part of my life and therefore are generally curious. My situation is probably different from most Magic-playing dads in some respects but it’s probably not altogether that different.

My biggest advice in terms of introduction would be to just have the cards ambiently around their environment. I know of no one who loves Magic who doesn’t find the cards beautiful and fascinating, and that experience can resonate at an early age. My eldest recently asked to own one of my cards because she loves the artwork so much (Cathedral of Serra; she didn’t mind when I told her it was weak in practice), and that might lay the foundation for additional curiosity, identity with a favorite color or creature type, etc. Depending on the age of your kid, Magic cards can also be a way of introducing more advanced vocabulary; I know I learned a lot from reading cards when I was in middle school.

All the elements that inspire love or curiosity before the game is taught is helpful. Kids are a lot more engaged with subject matter that spark a desire to learn (adults are too, for that matter), and the more the cards seem cool on their own, the more likely they are to slog through the frequently complicated and laborious aspects of learning a game as complicated as Magic.

Assuming their foot is through that door, I think getting a preconstructed deck (ensures a certain level of complexity and balanced experience) and then allowing iteration through a booster pack a week or thereabouts is more fun and digestible than handing someone 1,000 cards and telling them to go to work.

I say this as a parent who isn’t really trying to get my kids into Magic. If they happen to, that’s great, but I don’t see it as an especially good use of time compared to a bunch of other academic or athletic pursuits and I only want them engaging with it if they really love it. To that end, I’d like to start with the elements that are simple but a prerequisite for that love, and see if it takes them anywhere.