Why do we play competitive Magic?
Personally, I play for the thrill of victory. The moments when everything is on the line and someone truly great is across the table from me. I've found plenty of outlets for this competitive drive over the course of my life, from sports and academic competitions to Magic. It just so happens that Magic is the most compelling source of competition I have encountered and plays to some of my natural strengths.
In all my years of playing competitive Magic, I have never played in a more stressful, adrenaline-ridden tournament than the StarCityGames.com Players' Championship last weekend. Every round, from the first to the last, was fraught with tension. Nearly every match had some direct, realizable effect on the rest of the players so even when I wasn't playing I was anxiously watching or pacing the tournament floor, trying to find the right song to calm my nerves.
At a swiss tournament, I am rather calm outside of the few rounds against other known players or when playing for or in the elimination rounds. And that's the rub, isn't it? At the Players' Championship, every round falls into one of those categories. Part of that is due to the elite field for the tournament, but much was due to the unique structure of the event.
For those who are unclear on the exact structure, consult the following:
First, I would like to applaud SCG for their willingness to design a new format for this tournament. Not only do I believe it was a significant improvement on a swiss-style event, it added to the uniqueness of the tournament experience.
Swiss-style events are designed to appease players by whittling down large fields as quickly as possible. With some exception, players go into the tournament knowing they can only lose one match before the top 8, and if they have only one loss going into the final round, they may be able to intentionally draw. It is quite good at what it does, but for small events it has significant issues. Because you cannot play the same player twice in the swiss rounds, pair downs become common and the built-in patterns that should take shape in the results become distorted.
Moreover, while these patterns are taking shape, each round has essentially no predictable effect on the outcome of the tournament. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it takes a while before the seemingly arbitrary assortment of pieces forms a coherent image.
The philosophy behind the Players' Championship was to design a tournament specifically for viewers rather than the players. That meant finding a way to increase the level of drama and making each match have a clear and immediate impact on the tournament. The structure we had last weekend accomplished this goal admirably. I cannot remember having a tournament with so many high-stakes matches, whether I was participating or watching. It made for truly great entertainment, and that is what high level Magic has been lacking. If the price for that is having a tournament where two players at 2-2 have different results because of the rounds they won, then I will gladly pay and so should you.
In reality, any structure is going to have inherent weaknesses to exploit. The system we have now creates too high an incentive to draw the later rounds, which is horrible for coverage. It also biases tiebreakers towards those players that lose later in the tournament, making it more difficult to recover from early losses or draws. There is no perfect tournament, so when evaluating any structure I find it much more important to look at how well the most important goals were executed. In the case of the Players' Championship, those goals were creating drama early and often, making every match relevant, and leaving each person in control of their own destiny.
On the first two points, the tournament was a complete success. Some may argue that the first cut happened too early or that overall the tournament needed more rounds to come to a stronger conclusion on who the strongest player was, but those criticisms miss a key point: no tournament can conclude who the best player is. There simply is not enough time to reach an appropriate sample size. Over multiple tournaments the cream always rises to the top, but in the short term it is best to focus on entertainment.
I do have one serious issue with the first elimination, and it is one that was raised over the course of the weekend-that several players were eliminated from contention before playing Legacy. In a tournament billed as dual-format, players must be allowed the chance to compete in both. To be honest, I was under the impression that the round four elimination matches would be Legacy until the player meeting on Saturday morning.
That brings me to my other major qualm about the tournament: poor communication about the format. It is true that this new structure was somewhat convoluted, as each stage had slightly different rules. Explaining each stage to the audience as often as possible was paramount, and could have been done better. I will not harp on this anymore since I know the coverage crew knows this and will work to improve in the future. I imagine the structure will be tweaked to add more continuity between the rules of each stage and make communication much easier.
It may seem strange that I, a dedicated player, am staunchly arguing for making tournaments more viewer-friendly, and thus, presumably less player-friendly, and at first it felt odd to me as well. But as I thought about it I had an important realization: that which is good for the viewer is ultimately good for the player!
Tournament Magic is operating on an unsustainable model of collecting entry fees and selling cards to finance events. The problem is that the cost of running events is outpacing the added revenue from increased attendance. Monetizing the entertainment value Magic can provide is a crucial next step for the evolution of the game we love, and I for one, welcome any and all genuine attempts to take this step. The Players' Championship was the most successful attempt I have seen yet, and while there are obviously improvements to be made, I was beyond excited to be a part of it. Magic has the capability of being a great spectator sport, which this tournament has shown.
As a competitor, the Players' Championship exceeded all of my expectations. While there was plenty of down time as the coverage crew worked to get as many matches on camera as possible, the drama and intrigue the structure created captivated us all, as we were (read: I was) frequently chastised for discussing the matches too loudly when watching outside the feature match area on the provided television screen. Fortunately, they were smart enough to put us on a twenty second delay, and I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut when watching close by.
I only played seven rounds of the tournament, but each day felt like ten. I did not sleep well before the second day and was running mostly on adrenaline. Once Brian Braun-Duin knocked me out and the adrenaline wore off, I completely crashed. While initially disappointed to be knocked out by what I felt was a favorable matchup, I certainly exceeded my expectations for the tournament. I knew going in that Elves would be poorly positioned but could not bring myself to switch. I was very lucky to draw some of my better matchups in the field (i.e. not Joe Lossett or Kent Ketter. Seriously guys, Reanimator with maindeck Firestorm? What did I do to you? Whatever it was, I'm sorry) and even had the pleasure of killing Stephen Mann on turn 2. (Not that they would ever catch that on camera.)
I was also on the favorable side of tiebreakers on day one as the only player to win a pod with a 2-1 record, so I couldn't really be upset when I didn't catch the same break on day two. (Although Tom Ross picked a hell of a time to lose to Miracles for the first time in his life. A fact that he so graciously informed me of later that night.)
I certainly could have played better at times. I made a poor keep in game 1 against Jeff Hoogland, misordered my spells on a key turn in game 2 against Joe Lossett, and missed several winning lines in the epic game 2 against Reid Duke. Despite the seemingly too few number of rounds, the best players were there at the end, which is another endorsement of the new format, albeit a small one.
Looking back on the weekend, this was the most fun/rewarding tournament I have ever played, and I am excited to see it evolve further.
So where does that leave me? I'm going to take a few days off for the holidays and get some much needed sleep. I have no events currently planned, as I wanted to focus all my efforts on the Invitational and Players' Championship, but I have put some thought into my goals for the coming year. 2014 was my most successful year in Magic, but I have never been one to rest on my laurels.
1) Reduce the number of sloppy mistakes I make.
I feel this has become a real issue over the last two years, as I've relied on my increased tournament schedule to keep my technical skills sharp. I'm just not putting in the hours necessary to consistently play my best Magic and that has to change.
2) Win Season One and qualify for the 2015 Players' Championship.
This should be attainable, as I am currently in a tie for first, but it will take some commitment and perhaps some extra traveling. Kevin Jones already took one plaque from me, and I'll be damned if I let him take another. There is some added urgency since I will lose a lot of points once Season Two of this year begins and my points from SCG Providence last June fall off the leaderboard, so qualifying early is important.
3) Achieve at least Silver in the Pro Players' Club.
I have six pro points from two Grand Prix finishes and am qualified for Pro Tour Fate Reforged in Washington D.C. which is a fine start. The easiest way to realize this goal is to finish with an 11-5 record at the Pro Tour, which would earn ten pro points and re-qualify me for a guaranteed three more points. At that point, a single extra point gets me to the twenty required for Silver, netting another qualification that could lead towards a run at Gold. I have a great team for Pro Tour Fate Reforged, and testing for that will be my primary focus for the next month, so prepare to see me playing Modern on the Open Series when I can.
4) Win a Premier Event.
I am counting Invitationals, Grand Prix, Pro Tours, the SCG Players' Championship, The Magic World Cup, and The World Championships. In 2014 I did all my best work at Opens, and it got tiring to come up short in bigger tournaments. While it may be safer to set my sights on simply making the top 8 of one of these events, I like the idea of pushing myself with one of these goals, so I am going for more. Plus, I really like trophies.
As much as my results have improved this year, the most exciting development of my Magic year was starting as a columnist here, so I will end by thanking everyone that has taken the time to read, share, and comment on my articles over the last several months. Writing has connected me to the community in a deeper and more meaningful way than I ever imagined possible, and your support means more than you know
Happy New Year!