Pro Tour Dark Ascension Coverage Odyssey
Eight thousand miles
From HNL to SFO to ATL to TPA then
Where ne’er returned to Florida such happy men.
In order to get to Honolulu on the same day I departed I had to leave at 0830. Fortunately I had the most direct flights possible—Tampa to Atlanta to Honolulu. The ATL-HNL leg was ten hours long so I had plenty of time to review the Dark Ascension Player’s Guide as well as eating into most of the rest of Jitterbug Perfume and a third of Gardens of the Moon (which I’m still trying to figure out who recommended to me).
I arrived in Honolulu and cabbed over to Waikiki to check into the Hyatt. My first impression of Honolulu was that it reminded me quite a bit of San Diego (at least the trip from the airport to the hotel) with the high-rises on the left and the bay on the right. My second impression arriving in Waikiki was that this was one of the most tourist-choked places I’d ever been in my life. The good news is that there didn’t seem to be the Vegas-esque excuse for terrible behavior that pervades most beaches.
I scored the last seat at Sushi Sasabune with Scott Larabee Mark Purvis Greg Collins Helene Bergeot and Brian David-Marshall. I like sushi but I’m not over the moon about it. This stuff was insane. Easily the best sushi meal I’ve had. The chef basically kept making stuff until you cried uncle. I think we went to twelve or thirteen courses and included some green tea ice cream to finish.
It was then back to the hotel for Drafto where I was on a team with BDM and Tim Willoughby against Steve Sadin Bill Stark and Rashad Miller who we completely savaged. I drafted Red-White Tempo snapping up two Niblis of the Mist two Crossway Vampire two Doomed Traveler and two Traitorous Blood. I don’t know if it’s an established archetype but in future DKA-INN drafts I’m going for it again.
Thursday: The Prep
This was prep day. We had a production meeting in the morning led by Greg Collins with all the video (BDM Rich Hagon Rashad Miller and me) and text (Bill Stark Tim Willoughby and Steve Sadin) folks for the show to include photographer Craig Gibson and social media guy Jon Hickey. We threw around ideas for stories we’d like to cover and stuff we wanted to make sure got mentioned.
There were a few angles that really interested me from the players’ approach standpoint. The first was to see how the private Pro Tour was going to affect them. Except for the super-teams the social support of players would be very different for this show. Most of the players I talked to said that while it would be nice to have their friends railbirding them it didn’t much matter. Many of them traveled to Hawaii with friends family and/or significant others so they had the moral support they needed since each player was allowed to have a guest inside the hall.
The second angle regarded actual preparation given the short turnover time between the release date and the Pro Tour. I asked "Did you brew or did you tweak?" Going in I'd suspected that the majority of players would simply adapt existing decks. Without the support of Dark Ascension cards yet on Magic Online testing would be more difficult. I was surprised by the overwhelming answer of: "We brewed we brewed and we brewed then in the end we tweaked." It seems like everyone tried to find some new tech but fell short either to there not being anything there or that there wasn’t enough time to find it. No one said that they hadn’t given brewing a try. I followed up asking if they had had another week if there might have been a break-through and the predominant answer was "Probably not."
The best answer came from Germany’s Simon Goertzen who by the way is as smart a person as there is to talk to about the game. His crisp and clear analytical skills seem unhampered by emotion. He talks quite matter-of-factly about what is as opposed to what he wants. Simon said that at this point in the development cycle of the Standard environment it’s natural for aggressive decks to be dominant. "At this point it’s easier to ask questions than to find answers" he noted. He said that he didn’t expect control decks to do well over the weekend because the broad scope of threat density meant that it would be difficult for control to know how to control them all. I’m telling you if you ever have the chance to chat up Simon about the game at its highest levels do so.
We had a webcast team meeting later in the afternoon. Then while Rich and BDM worked on some of the set pieces they were going to run over the weekend and recorded some player interviews I was out talking to players digging up the stuff I mention above.
Thursday evening I went with Head Judge Toby Elliott and some of the WotC folks eight of us in all to a place called Home Bar and Grill. When Guy Fieri takes his show to Honolulu this will definitely be one of the places he stops. It’s a neighborhood bar—it was clear that most of the staff knew most of the customers—with amazing food. We ran through a pile of appetizers—neki toro tater tot nachos fried pork chops and simply amazing smoked pork maybe the best I’ve ever had—before splitting a few sandwiches. There may have also been bourbon.
Friday: Getting Bluffed
Now it was show time. I spent the first round floating and then the second and third rounds in the booth with Rich Hagon. When I say booth I actually mean sweltering hellhole. Something had gone wrong with the temperature regulation and the temp in the booth was probably around 100F/38C. It was miserable but we dealt with it and eventually kind of got used to it. Fortunately they had fixed it by the time we went in on Saturday.
In the some memories die hard file there was a player doing relatively well after the first few rounds so after his match was finished I told him that I'd like to talk to him off to the side. He got a momentary panicked look on his face until he realized that I wasn’t the Head Judge but on the Coverage Team.
There are two regular seats in the booth (and a third for any guests that might come in). The left seat which Rich normally occupies is sort of a mini director’s chair. It coordinates with the head director with things like graphics ("Hey Bruce can we get the Kibler slide up?") and running the pre-recorded pieces ("Since this match ended and we have 20 minutes left let’s run that interview with Conley Woods") reads the commercial spots and generally leads the flow of how things go in the booth.
Rich started showing me how all those tasks are accomplished which I thought was simply a nice introduction into my first shift. Little did I know that in later rounds over the weekend I’d be sitting in that chair (in the rounds that BDM and I were together) performing those tasks. I adapted relatively quickly since this wasn’t my first time in a broadcast booth and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I spent rounds 4 and 5 as the Sideline Reporter. The stage has three Feature Matches on it. The primary fixed camera is on the front match which has a spotter on it to relay life total changes to the graphics production team (and any other data the booth or the production folks need). The Sideline Reporter floats between the back two matches and feeds data directly to the booth like game states interesting plays and match results.
During the Draft there were eight of us recording picks to put into the Draft Viewer. I was on Estratti and watched two relevant things happen. His first pick was Drogskol Captain clearly setting the tone he wanted. His second pick was Stormbound Geist leaving Relentless Skaab and Screeching Skaab in the pack perhaps sending a signal to his left which happened to be Tom Martell that Blue might be available. When he third-picked Tower Geist leaving another Stormbound Geist in the pack I’m pretty sure Tom felt Blue was wide open. He then kind of got shut out of it the rest of the draft and we saw the results.
The other thing was in pack 2 pick 5. By this time I'd picked up Samuele’s rhythm and could tell which cards he was deciding between. This one came down to Invisible Stalker and Blazing Torch. At this point he didn’t really have any combat tricks so I assumed that he was going to grab the Torch. When he picked the Stalker I scribbled a few question marks next to it so that I could ask him about it later. I resolved to ask him about pack 3 pick 2 as well where he chose Angel of Flight Alabaster over Grasp of Phantasms. I get that the Angel is simply a better card but I thought that again he was low on tricks. He got a Grasp in the next pack so it seems to have worked out.
When I asked him about those picks afterward he said that he wished he had reconsidered the Torch over the Stalker since he didn’t have any Equipment yet and had to hope he would get something downstream but he was pretty clear that there was nearly no doubt to him that the Angel was the right pick since he had some pretty saucy Spirits. I also asked him about taking Civilized Scholar over another Blazing Torch and he said that he was 100% sure the Scholar was the better pick.
I went back into the booth with BDM for the next two rounds. Since you can go back to the archives and watch the footage I won’t repeat too much about what happened. I will tell you that when Estratti bluffed Martell both of us missed it when the cut on the monitor flipped from one camera to the other. One second we were on the overhead and I saw Estratti tap then untap the mana the next we were on the shot of the faces. Even so I don’t think I would've gotten where he was going until well after the fact. I’ve heard that some people use this as an example of why we should have a pro player in the booth ("the commentators don’t know the lines of play as well as a pro would") but I would counter with two arguments.
One BDM is an outstanding Limited player and has Pro Tour experience and Rashad has a Pro Tour Top 16 under his belt. There might not be a better-rounded student of the game than BDM who knows both the game itself and its culture extremely well. Two Tom Martell a world-class Magic player got bluffed. Expecting us to pick up on it faster than Tom seems a little unreasonable. The unfortunate timing of the monitor flip left us a little baffled momentarily but I think we hit the relevant points during the interview with Estratti afterward. I think Martell would've been an even more interesting interview but you generally don’t want to rub a loss into someone’s face.
I went back to Sideline Reporter for the last two rounds. We did a wrap-up afterward and by that time it was pretty late so along with a fair percentage of the coverage team we went back to the hotel. We had some pizzas and then there was drafting. I came late and didn’t draft because I was hanging onsite with Scott Larabee Toby and David Williams as they were finishing up a Commander match. During that time Toby Scott and I got a chance to talk with fellow Commander RC member Gavin Duggan about the future of the format sprinkled in with some comments by Aaron Forsythe. You’ll see the results of those chats down the road.
When we got back there was plenty of pizza but drafting had already begun. We hung around an hour or so and then hit the rack.
Saturday: Back in Booth
I was once again behind Estratti for the second Draft. It felt a good deal less cohesive than his first. His first four picks were of four different colors (Fires of Undeath Burden of Guilt Tragic Slip and Nephalia Seakite) and it felt like he just never got to settle into a coherent strategy. The only question I asked him coming out was "Are you happy?" and he simply shook his head no.
I Sidelined for rounds 9 and 10 then was in the booth for four straight rounds two with BDM one with R&D’s Aaron Forsythe and one with Rich. Watching the action was pretty exciting especially as an unintentional draw in round 15 led to more play to get in scenarios in round 16.
One of the successes of Friday and Saturday was our decision (when I say our I mean the coverage team’s although I’m not sure who actually made the decision—I only know that I wasn’t in on it but I was a definite beneficiary) to use Skype chat to relay information between the various elements of coverage—the booth the CoverIt Live team out on the floor the Sideline Reporter and most importantly super-Scorekeeper Nick Fang. Every time you heard us mention results from the non-Feature Matches it was scrolling across our tablets mostly fed to us by Nick (who by the way was also SKing a PT and probably reprogramming half the faulty code for seven different Windows applications). It was simply outstanding to have the extra data feed for when things got slow. I felt relatively well assured that we didn’t have any dead air throughout the broadcast.
Saturday night I hung out with Toby Nick and Show Management where we got reasonably edible room service food and drank some forgettable Merlot. Long days (especially partially spent in the sweat lodge) were wearing so I was in bed at a reasonable hour.
Sunday: The Deviation
Sunday was one of the most epic days in Magic history and while it was thrilling for me to have a front-row seat it’s already been covered in a number of other places so you don’t really need for me to recount it.
I was the Sideline Reporter for the whole Top 8. One really interesting thing I noticed was during the semifinal match between Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa and Jelger Wiegersma. I had stopped to feed the booth life totals and match status when I noticed they were playing—at a pretty brisk pace—but there was no verbal communication between the two of them. I know them both relatively well and I know that they both are fluent in English so it piqued my curiosity. It’s not like they didn’t have a common language to communicate in. My interest intensified when between games they were positively chatty with each other and then once play for game 2 started they both clammed up.
I realized that these guys were using every bit of power in their arsenals—both knowing that they were up against a formidable opponent they didn’t want to give anything away by including an inflection in their voices when the announced a spell ability or combat. I encourage players at all levels to communicate clearly with each other (I see no reason for you to be silent with your FNM opponent) but this was truly amazing. At the elite level everything is about an incremental edge and these two leviathans of the game one already in the Hall of Fame and the other certain to be were playing it to the max.
Of course the Big Thing from Sunday was Head Judge Toby Elliott’s decision to rewind the game in the Finkel-Kibler match. The operative point was over a Wolf that was supposed to have been put in the graveyard and hadn’t been. Normally after a turn cycle has passed we don’t back up the game. Rewinds are extremely tricky and players may have made significant decisions based on the game state as it currently is as opposed to how it was supposed to have been. I can’t reinforce enough that this was a deviation from normal policy that it doesn’t reflect an actual policy shift and is not likely to cascade down to other levels of play.
Our best-case scenario in all games of Magic is that they develop play out and end as organically as possible but we all know that mistakes happen. You can quickly spiral down a bad path with ideas such as broken game state (I still yell at judges when they use that phrase) but these were significant and exceptional circumstances and it's highly unlikely that this perfect storm of events will happen again.
Toby consulted me on this ruling and I agreed with everything he had to say. I’ll let him tell you in his own words what was going on:
"It wasn't much of a deviation honestly. I backed up a game a turn more than would be considered normal and removed a Wolf from play that was supposed to have died when it blocked. I considered the following factors:
* I had near-unlimited time (coverage would go to the other game)
* I had full instant replay available to me (and got to use it)
* Instant replay made me confident that the Wolf had had no impact on the threads of the game and removing it would have no impact beyond restoring two life. It also made me confident in why the error occurred.
* Interviewing both players confirmed that no play decisions had been made or would change due to the presence of the Wolf.
* The only play that actually needed to be backed up was Finkel playing a Dungeon Geists. That meant no new game information would be revealed once we backed up and replayed to the point where I intervened."
If I had a do-over for the weekend it would've been to better explain this when BDM and Rich asked me to come back into the booth to talk about it. I was focused on the "don’t try this at home" element instead of the mechanics of the situation. It would've been clearer to simply break down Toby’s logic and explain the details of what happened.
As the fifth game of the finals started I picked up each player’s sideboard to report the contents back to the booth. This is a common practice so that the commentators can know what’s come in and gone out. I had a chance to look at both PV and Kibler’s opening hands and after PV’s mulligan it was obvious that it was all over but the shouting.
I had dinner Sunday night with Toby and Nick at a noodle house near the venue where I got to try Braised Beef Tongue for the first time. It was pretty much like a denser liver. Meh.
In order to get home on Monday I took the red eye out of HNL and spent fifteen-plus hours returning to Tampa. I was exhausted and spent after the long hours of the weekend not to mention the adrenaline rush of the events on Sunday and the brutal flight home. It’s no understatement that sleep came very easily to me Monday night. Still it was that good tired of satisfying work.
I thought the coverage was fantastic exceeding our expectations of the new way of covering Pro Tours. I know I personally I can get better and I’ll have the opportunity for improvement as I cover Grand Prix Baltimore this coming weekend (with BDM) and Grand Prix Indianapolis (with Rich) two weeks after.
Next week: An EDH deck to honor the Dragonmaster’s (are we going to call him The Huntmaster now?) Pro Tour victory.