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matt sperling worlds 2020 review

Reviewing the Coverage of the Magic: the Gathering World Championship 2020

This year’s Magic World Championship, the 26th iteration of this event, was an incredibly fun event to watch. With $300,000 for 1st place alone, a small field of 16 players competing, and a structure that, for all its flaws, was optimized to never show a match that didn’t matter, the stakes were high and the tension was palpable. The best players in the world put on a show, and the production was of a quality that let those players revel in the moment.

I want to breakdown what I thought worked best, and identify the low-hanging fruit for easy improvement to make these events even smoother and more exciting.

The Tournament Format 

The structure was a winding path of winners-bracket vs. losers-bracket quasi-elimination that put far too much emphasis on the order in which you won your matches and made the first two to three rounds incredibly important—to an extent I don’t think the producers intended or are likely to repeat. What was intended was 1) to eliminate tiebreakers, which it did, 2) to eliminate meaningless matches and matches with wildly different stakes for each player, which it mostly did, and 3) to give time and space for multiple matches—not just one—to be used to determine who would advance in key spots, which it did.

All in all, the format was a winner for what it was trying to do to the broadcast, and a loser for what it did to the competitive integrity of determining the best player over three days of play rather than three rounds of draft, which ended up mattering too much. Much analysis has been shared about how it wasn’t quite fair that based on a couple of rounds some people got sent to a bracket that was so much more favorable. Those points are true—but can be fixed. X rounds of Swiss play also doesn’t work for a tiny field of players, so the experimentation here is good for the game long term, I really believe that.

I’m optimistic going forward in the sense that they should be able to keep the good and jettison the bad, but it’s hard not to be discouraged that after 26 or so attempts at this, they didn’t find an expert on competitive integrity to help shape or sanity check the structure from that perspective. But the show was great and some of their choices did pay off in that way.

The Broadcast Production

I have basically only positive feedback to provide on this front. I thought breaks were of reasonable duration, the coverage desk and floor team was great at setting the stage, giving interviews, and presented in a polished and professional way, with Maria and Day9 being standouts at the desk and Becca and Day9 being great on the floor.

Production decisions to emphasize that this thing was happening in Hawaii, not at the Tacoma or Richmond Convention Center, was really smart. This event is the giant carrot for organized play—the stuff dreams are made of. You can take it from me, someone who has been dreaming of this type of thing for literally most of my life, and been lucky enough to live it a few times. It still grabbed me in that way and made me feel 15 again daydreaming about making it to the feature match area, because the team put a lot of care into the spectacle of it, not just the matches or the prize money.

The decision to play old matches which featured Worlds competitors between rounds was sharp as well. Magic’s 25 year history of competitive play is a differentiator. I don’t care how much people enjoy Hearthstone or Legends of Runeterra, those broadcasts can’t cut to a clip of their top players winning a high-stakes matchup 15 years ago. The grainy footage wasn’t a drawback, not to me at least, someone who used to watch this stuff on literal VHS tape. But even for newcomers, the grainy footage avoids confusion about past vs. present and I think hints at something really interesting about competitive Magic that they might later go down a YouTube rabbit hole in search of. Another smart call by the production team.

The Standard Format

Aggro, Midrange, Control, and a Pet Deck. This was great stuff on paper and it played out great. Of course Teferi, Time Raveler is a stupid card and Embercleave isn’t exactly a symphony of cool interactions either, but that stuff mostly washed away when these players prepared this hard and brought this much skill to what they were doing.

Draft Coverage

Draft coverage leveled up at this event as the time delay was an innovation that even in its infancy paid off. If they can double down on what worked here and add some extra features, I think we might see Limited coverage in general transform in a pretty fundamental way, which is awesome since Arena and MTGO continue to host many players who love playing Limited and want to watch the world’s best players do it.

The In-Game Coverage and Commentary 

The production continued to shine technically in this regard, with excellent visuals of each player and each hand—with the ability to pop over to the other player’s full screen to observe a scry or mulligan decision. It felt polished and professional. Arena itself was bug free as far as I’m aware, and the timing inherent in the platform was GREAT. Seriously, the rope kept play reasonably paced even when players went into the tank on tough decisions, which it allowed for. And the total time match clocks came into play a few times but weren’t often decisive, providing a good amount of background pressure on the slowest players without jumping into the foreground much. This left me feeling great about Arena for competitive play.

In-game commentary is where I have more mixed feedback for the production team and the commentators. I thought veteran broadcasters Marshall Sutcliffe and especially Brian Kibler were excellent—making a very hard job look not so hard. And that’s critical to emphasize, just how hard this job is at this level. You’re asking play-by-play commentators to keep pace with the most skilled players in a slick interface that sometimes moves quickly, sometimes not. You’re asking color commentators to try to understand and unpack the highest level of strategy Magic has to offer, in a Standard format that has a large cardpool and pretty damn intricate gameplay (some of which I plan to breakdown on my YouTube channel at youtube.com/MattSperlingMTG—completely shameless plug).

A consistent mistake I saw from multiple broadcast teams was spending too much time and energy trying to predict the next play or the next turn or two, rather than time spent in a react and explain mindset, which would have served them better. Cedric, for example, brings a great polish to the broadcast that I think would be missed if he weren’t included next time around, but I’d like to see him expand his sportscaster-methodology to include not just the cadence and tone which I actually like, but also the fact that when sportscasters try to predict the next pitch or the next play (as someone like Tony Romo is somewhat miraculously able to do), they enter into a tightrope walk with steep penalties for inaccuracy. You really don’t want to be calling, “Here comes a fastball” before the pitch when that’s only happening 50% of the time, only to have to awkwardly backtrack, when simply waiting for the pitch and remarking on what it is will do just fine. The upside of predicting what the best players in the world will do next just isn’t worth the downside.

I thought Eilidh “AliasV” Lonie brought a good energy to the commentary booth, but was actually a more natural fit at the coverage desk where less energy had to be expended playing catch up as the in-game action from world-class players sped by. I also thought Cedric and Cheon, while better on average, sometimes faltered with in-game understanding, showing a lack of deep familiarity with the format, though it varied from match from match based on which decks showed up. At this level of play, not understanding the core strategies and gamestates isn’t something you can cover over with energy or enthusiasm or polish. Some of the cracks were really visible this time, and parts of the broadcast were hard to watch for experienced players and I have to imagine for less experienced players as well as they weren’t accurately directed towards what matters or who was winning or what to look for next.

Paul Cheon generally brings a good mix of strategic understanding and energetic commentary, but could work on consistency with the strategic analysis and more sparing use of the highest-energy play-calls. To again borrow from experience watching sports broadcasts, which I know Paul has, not every call can be a home run or touchdown call. I think if he adds a 6 and a 7 dial underneath his 10 and 11, and does deeper prep like being embedded with a testing team, he could catch up to someone like Kibler, who I think has a more natural handle of things on both fronts.

Overall Score Card

Overall, I give high marks to the team in total and really to each contributor since I saw a lot of polish, professionalism, and sustained effort over a long 3-day schedule. The most important question on my scorecard—was this an exciting and fun event to watch?—has to be answered with a resounding yes. At one point I found myself thinking “I’ll just check in on this while my friend Gab is playing” but was soon glued to the screen and stayed for multiple additional matches.

As much as the format made it a struggle to understand exactly how much each match mattered and a struggle to seem fair once the viewer did get a clear breakdown, the format did show us matches that mattered and the best two of three matches, rather than games, showdowns towards the end led to some exciting battles that took some time but didn’t feel too long for the moment.

I’m excited for the future of Magic coverage.

Lastly, a personal note of congratulations to the World Champ, PVDDR, who is one of the most deserving champions we’ve ever had, and who was able to build a resume rivaled only by a couple other titans of the game, from a home country of Brazil where it hasn’t always been simple to even buy cards, let alone to find local Grand Prix or the like. For as much variance as it sometimes seems like Magic has, you look at how much winning players like Paulo have done, and how good they are when you watch them play, and you realize that improving at Magic doesn’t just mean getting luckier, it means putting in some work in order to be able to play a little more like players like Paulo can.

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