The end of every year is a time when people around the world take a moment to look back and reflect upon the past, as well as to look ahead and plan for the future. While there's a part of me that feels like tying reflection and resolutions to the date on a calendar is foolish, there's something to be said for the force of culture and traditions. For the past few years, I have made a tradition out this kind of article, and I see no reason to stop now. So let's take a look back at Magic in the past year, and ahead to what 2015 will bring.
Here's what I put forward as my hopes for Magic as a whole in 2014 in my article last year. Let's see how they stacked up to reality:
Improved Grand Prix Structure - There are already some positive changes coming for Grand Prix in 2014, including no onsite registration on Saturdays and expanded cash payouts for large events. I'd like to see additional improvements made in terms of efficiency, like Sealed Deck pool preregistration and an earlier Saturday start time in order to facilitate adding more rounds to events that require it. The move toward a maximum of fifteen rounds for large GP events has led to some pretty ridiculous situations over the past year, including players with 12-3 records receiving no prizes at GP Las Vegas. While that's clearly an outlier and will be somewhat mitigated by the increased payout structure, I think it's important for Grand Prix to have tools in place to support the growth we've seen without harming the experience for players. It's really disappointing to be on the wrong side of tiebreakers and miss out on cash and Pro Points, and running too few rounds just exacerbates that problem.
I'd say this one is a win for Wizards overall. While we didn't see the Sealed Deck pre-registration that I was perhaps overly optimistic to hope for, the overall improvements to the Grand Prix program generally made events run more smoothly and end at a reasonable hour. There were some exceptions, of course, including some big snafus like underage players being denied entrance to GP Vienna and a poorly advertised cap at GP Madrid, but WotC took decisive action and revoked that particular organizer's right to run any future Grand Prix, demonstrating clearly that they really do care about the experience of the players.
Angry mobs of players denied entrance to tournaments aren't the only squeaky wheels that managed to find grease for Grand Prix change this year. The concerns many pros had about the importance of tiebreakers on prize money and pro point payouts in the ever growing Grand Prix were clearly heard, with larger prize pools for larger events coming first, and then later pro point payouts based on match points rather than final standing. While it still takes a better overall record and good tiebreakers to make Top 8 in a huge event, we're not going to see players missing out on prize money and pro points entirely in one tournament with a record that would easily cash in another, like what happened with Grand Prix Vegas in 2013. And that's certainly a good thing.
Improved and Expanded GP Coverage - Just a few weeks ago StarCityGames announced a core coverage team for the Open Series that makes me excited to actually watch their events. Whenever there is an SCG Open and a Grand Prix on at the same time, I watch the SCG Open because the coverage is vastly superior despite the level of play frequently being much worse. WotC can learn a lot from what SCG has done by having a consistent stable of knowledgeable commentators. I don't expect commentators to be top pros who know the ins and outs of every matchup-though that would be nice-but I do expect them to know what commonly played cards in the format do. On top of that, there's the little things like starting coverage with the first round-and on time-and the level of professionalism in the broadcast. The official coverage should not be shown up so dramatically by a third-party tournament circuit, to say nothing of comparing it to League of Legends coverage . . .
I'd say this was another area where Magic has clearly improved in the past year. I still think the StarCityGames coverage team is the best in the business, with Cedric and Patrick doing an incredible job every weekend, but the Grand Prix broadcast teams are doing their best to catch up. A big part of this has come from the North American coverage team following in the footsteps of the European crew and bringing on more pro players as regular commentators. LSV has been the most notable and frequent of the bunch, and he's been great, but Ben Stark, William Jensen, and Eric Froehlich have also made a number of appearances on camera and have done a great - if much less pun-filled - job.
I've expressed interest in possibly joining the commentary team for a few events next year myself. While I love competing in tournaments and playing Magic at a high level, I've lost a lot of my motivation to play in Grand Prix. Since I'm in the Hall of Fame and don't have to worry about accumulating enough points to stay qualified, I'm only really happy with my result at a Grand Prix if I make Top 8, and it's become increasingly unlikely that happens as events have gotten so big. Given the expenses involved, especially since I didn't make Platinum this year and don't get an appearance fee, I pretty much have to make Top 8 to pay for my trip, so it's hard to justify going to nearly as many Grand Prix as I did in the past. It's simply too expensive, especially coming from southern California.
I still plan on going to events on occasion - I went to San Antonio last month, and I'll be in Denver this weekend - but I certainly won't be flying across the country to play Sealed Deck with 4,000 of my closest friends.
Stable and Functional Magic Online Client - Please?
Hah. While Magic has been doing great on many fronts, Magic Online is certainly not one of them . It's been over a year now since I got disconnected and dropped from the MOCS where I was undefeated and a lock for Top 8 , and as I'm writing this, MTGO is in the midst of some issue that prevents people from connecting if they're in a time zone where it's already 2015. Perhaps the programmers couldn't imagine anyone still using the client in the distant future of the year after it was released. It's pretty hilarious to me that despite the Y2K scare passing without incident fifteen years ago, here we are today.
The state of the Magic Online client sapped my interest in Magic this year, and certainly dramatically decreased how frequently I play. Earlier in the year, I was streaming Magic Online on a regular basis, in addition to making my weekly strategy videos for SCG. Around this time last year, I was one of many itching to play as much Holiday Cube as I could before it went offline, having a blast sharing my experience with my viewers.
Lately though, I've stopped streaming Magic entirely, and even stopped making MTGO videos for several months because I just didn't want to deal with the new client. And I'm certainly not alone in my frustrations. Other regular streamers like Michael Jacob and Dzyl have all but quit as well, and even the perennially positive LSV shut down his stream in frustration on multiple occasions recently when he ran into gamebreaking bugs.
I have been playing and streaming a lot of Hearthstone recently, which has led some to ask me if I've quit Magic. I certainly haven't quit Magic, because I love the game, but I have pretty much quit Magic Online. I think Magic is a better game, but Hearthstone is vastly superior to Magic Online as a video game.
As someone who has experienced the struggles of digital development firsthand with my work on SolForge and Ascension Online, I'm sympathetic to the challenges that come with the territory. In particular, I recognize that Magic was not designed for digital and is a paper game first and foremost, which brings with it an entirely separate collection of problems. That said, it's sad to see the extent to which eSports are exploding these days, with Hearthstone players regularly pulling 20,000+ viewers on stream even outside of major events and attracting major brands as sponsors, with Magic Online - and thus Magic, and Magic players - lagging far, far behind. If Magic Online were run by a scrappy startup with a shoestring budget, it would be one thing, but WotC is a subsidiary of Hasbro and certainly should have the resources necessary to keep Magic Online from being embarrassing, at least.
Outside of Magic Online, I think Magic has had a great year. While the first half of the year was plagued by Lifebane Zombie, Pack Rat, Mutavault, and friends, Standard has been perhaps the best it has ever been since the release of Khans of Tarkir. We've seen tremendous diversity, with new decks not only cropping up regularly but taking down titles as well. It's a good thing too, since the shift to three Standard Pro Tours each year starts soon, and it would be a disaster if the format were as stagnant as it was when Mono-Black Devotion ruled the roost.
Now let's take a look at my personal goals from last year:
Win Something - My most recent trophy is Pro Tour Dark Ascension in 2012. That's almost two years ago. My shelf is getting dusty, and I need something else to put up there.
Nope - didn't get there. In fact, 2014 was my worst year of competitive Magic since I started playing again. I did not make a single Top 8, and I only finished in the money at one Pro Tour. I think a big portion of the dip in my performance can be attributed to stubbornness, since I kept trying to play green creature decks in a field of Lifebane Zombies and Doom Blades. I did nearly make Top 8 of GP LA right after my Lifebane Bonfire, at least.
Some of my slipping performance is certainly due to the fact that I just don't play as much Magic as I used to. I don't really play paper Magic outside of tournaments except in the testing period immediately leading up to a Pro Tour, which means shying away from Magic Online leaves me playing very little overall. I've certainly found myself less prepared than I'd like at several of the Grand Prix I've played in over the past year, which can be easily attributed to just playing fewer games than I used to. I'm not a preternatural talent like Jon Finkel, who can get away with barely playing the game - my strength has always been in superior preparation and deckbuilding, but I did not leverage those strengths as much as I could in 2014.
Make Platinum - I want to say "Qualify for Worlds Again," but I want to be more realistic. I'm already far behind in the race for PT points thanks to my poor results so far this season. Making Platinum again would help me justify continuing to commit time to playing Magic competitively. It would also get me a free flight and hotel room for the next PT Hawaii, which would make it much cheaper for me to take Natalie there like I've already promised.
Yeah, this didn't happen either. I didn't even make Gold actually, so I'm quite thankful that being in the Hall of Fame gets me invited to everything. PT Hawaii ended up being quite expensive, since not only did I bring Natalie with me as I had promised without a paid flight or hotel, but I also had to get a ring and a party bus filled with a bunch of champagne to propose to her.
So while I may not have made Platinum, I still consider the year a win.
Expand My Blog - My blog was something new this year, and it gave me a platform for discussing any number of topics, from my critique of the reprinting of Thoughtseize to my thoughts on the design of other games like Hearthstone . I've really enjoyed sharing my thoughts that might not be appropriate for articles here, and I have a ton of things I want to write about that I haven't gotten to yet. Want to hear about how Magic nearly got me kicked out of school? How about the story about how I got into competitive gaming growing up? Or maybe a behind-the-scenes look at the design of the World of Warcraft TCG? All are planned articles that I want to get around to writing for my blog.
This is something I have certainly done, and I actually got around towriting pieces about two of the three topics I mentioned last year. I even launched my own web store, selling the ridiculous "Lounging Kibler Playmat" that literally exists due to popular demand - and is now even available as a licensed product here on StarCityGames! Most of the writing on my website is about Hearthstone, since StarCityGames is where my Magic strategy content lives, but I always post my decklists from Magic tournaments on my site as soon as the event is over, and I often address major community issues there as well, so be sure to check it out!
Have Fun - Most importantly, I want to keep enjoying the place Magic has in my life. That's something that I let slip last year thanks to the interminable Grand Prix schedule. My life is awesome, and Magic is an awesome part of it. I want to be sure I can keep maintaining that balance throughout 2014.
I definitely feel like my relationship with Magic was a fun and healthy one in 2014, although a big part of that was maintaining my distance from Magic Online, which set me off more than once. Magic took me to a variety of fantastic locales, including the open sea on the Magic Cruise, and set the stage for my engagement to my future wife in Hawaii. It's certainly hard to complain about that.
Now looking forward, these are my hopes for Magic and my goals for myself in 2015.
Keep Standard Fun - Right now, Standard is great. There are a wide variety of different decks that are all competitive, so you can pretty much play whatever kind of deck you want and have a good chance to succeed. That's pretty much the perfect environment. I think Wizards has a really smart and talented group doing design and development, and last year's stagnation was the exception rather than the rule. So far, Fate Reforged spoilers look pretty awesome, and the next set is actually called Dragons of Tarkir, so I have high hopes for awesomeness ahead.
Improve Magic Online - Please? Pretty please? The state of Magic Online has been an ugly blemish on an otherwise great year for Magic, and has significantly detracted from my personal enjoyment of the game. The release of V4 was received negatively across the board, and since then, it still feels like we've just been playing catch up to old problems.
Since "make it better" is uselessly vague, this is specifically what I hope to see for Magic Online in 2015, in order of priority.
- Stability improvements: Let's not have this ever happen again.
- Fix card/interface bugs: No means No, Ponder.
- Improve streaming friendliness: Streaming is the future of games, and Magic Online is living in the past. V4 is terrible for streaming, with everything from layered windows to hard-to-read cards to confusingly oriented and sized pop-up windows to events that involve more waiting than playing. In one of my last Magic streams, I was live for almost five hours, and less than two of that was actual gameplay. I've heard promises of leagues to help with the latter problem, but at this point, I'm not holding my breath.
I'm not sure I can overstate how important this last point is. Despite Hearthstone having miniscule tournament prize support compared to Magic, there are many professional Hearthstone players who make their living from ad revenues and sponsorship dollars because of their visibility from streaming. If Magic streaming could attract even a fraction of the eyeballs that Hearthstone does, being a professional Magic player would be a much more realistic proposition.
In some ways, Hearthstone is a competitor to Magic, but in some ways the relationship is symbiotic. Hearthstone is exposing millions of people who have never played a TCG before and likely never would have picked one up to the genre, which is great for Magic and games like it. I've had more than one person tell me they started playing Magic after reading my posts about it after coming to my website via Hearthstone. I don't expect Magic can reach the level of smoothness and polish that Hearthstone has as a video game, since it's not designed for the medium, but if it can even get above "embarrassing" in the near future, the boom that Hearthstone has created for the category could do the game a world of good.
Short list, isn't it? I think Magic is in a great place, and I think the most important ways it can grow are all related to its digital presence. It all starts there.
As for myself:
Grow my media empire - I use this term jokingly a lot, but I've really enjoyed working on my own site and on my stream and YouTube channel this year. I really enjoy doing broadcast and content creation work, and I hope to expand both the amount and the kind that I do in 2015. Oh, and I need more merchandising, like new playmats, t-shirts, and sleeves. Preferably with Shiro on them.
Win Something - I'm a competitor, through and through, and even if I have taken something of a step back from Magic in the past year, I still want to win.
Have Fun - Just yesterday, a friend of mine told me that I should play U/B Control in GP Denver, because he thinks it's the best deck. I told him there was no way I would do that. He asked if I would play it if I knew it was the best deck and all of my decks were bad, and I told him if that were the case I just wouldn't go, because I'm only going to have fun, and I don't think I'd have fun playing U/B Control.
Maybe I'm stubborn, but I know what I like.
Here's to a new year filled with good games, good times, and good dragons. Please, WotC - the set is called Dragons of Tarkir. Give me some good dragons, and I'll wear this to the Pro Tour.