Breaking Through – Watching Magic

Maybe I am late to the party on this one, but I wanted to talk a little about Magic coverage—purely as an observer. This past week, what should be the greatest Magic spectacle took place in the World Magic Cup and the World Championship. I watched on, like most interested Magic players, and jotted down notes on improvements, high points, and comparisons to other spectator sports.

For most Pro Tours and Grand Prix, I am a competitor. This means I don’t really get the ability to watch much of the coverage aside from snippets and the end of the day wrap-ups. By removing myself from that half of the Magic scene and approaching it only as an observer, perhaps some things would be revealed to me.

Many of you might not know this, but I am a huge fan of competitive League of Legends, specifically the North American and European League Championship Series (LCS). While League of Legends coverage is certainly not perfect, they do provide a solid baseline for gaming as a spectator sport.

This is not an effort to humiliate Magic or poke holes in it. I want to help coverage improve. I am a part of this game like all of you, and its success going forward is heavily tied to its success as a spectator sport. WotC has shown an amazing ability to design the actual game, but as we move deeper and deeper into a world where video games are just as important to the viewer as the player, Magic needs to keep up.

Where is the Story?

Every game of Magic has a lot going on. The game presents the player with so many options and choices that there is rarely a time a commentator can’t find something to talk about. While I don’t think we have gotten to that point (which we will discuss later), I do think the idea of it has been taken a bit too far.

This past week, how often did they talk about a player and their personal story? We heard about Shahar’s family, and got to take a look at Reid Duke and his bounce back from last year’s Players Championship. These were awesome moments to witness and brought life to the players that we often get to see no more of than some wrists tapping lands and the occasional shot of someone with their hand on their head. These are people and that is the reason we care about them. We can see ourselves in their shoes, independent of their ability to play Magic.

For the LCS I mentioned earlier, each week is a production. It is not just a series of games for the viewers to watch, even if that is the backbone of the show, but rather a portal to bring you into the League of Legends world. You get to read about how TheOddOne squares off against his brother, FromMapleStreet, on what seems like a weekly basis. You get to see how they interact outside of the game and how one brother’s passion inspired the other to pick up the game in the first place. These get mentioned within a game sometimes, during low action moments maybe, but the LCS does something smart. You see, much like Magic, there is downtime between games. To fill this time, the LCS has a variety of short material that not only keeps the viewer engaged, but actively helps the viewer get to a level where the in-game information is no longer a labor to digest (more on this later). This material includes:

• Player interviews
• Replays of important or exciting plays
• Instructional replays and commentary
• Player and team spotlight shorts (Such as “A Day in the Life” segments)
• Commercials from related merchandisers (gaming equipment etc).

At the Pro Tour level of play, this type of “filler” is becoming more common, but I feel it is still not as smooth or personal as it could be. When it comes to Grand Prix or any other type of Magic competition, everything is centered on the game itself and I think that sells the story short. Magic is a community, just like League of Legends is a community. There is a lot more to being a part of that community than just playing games and building decks.

And someone, if not everyone, at WotC knows this. Do you remember the “Here I Rule” tag line that was popular a few years back in Magic marketing? They understand that the meta of the community and its members is the lifeblood of Magic. However, “Here I Rule” sold a story that people could escape their lives in which they did not rule to find solace in Magic. League of Legends doesn’t do this.

Are they supplying a message with some spin on it? Almost certainly. But the spin comes from the emotional connection you make with these players, these teams, and these people. These people that have real lives. VileRoze, a former member of Team Velocity, was featured in a segment a few months back that featured the way the gaming lifestyle has an influence on his family life. The 22-year-old has a wife and young son and the gaming lifestyle is not exactly traditional.

I am not suggesting that everything become an episode of Jerry Springer or anything, but if you want drama, excitement, depth, and appeal, there are resources that go so far beyond tapping a land or sleeving a deck. Magic is a lifestyle, embrace it!

Knowledge + Excitement = Awesome

The commentator setup has been established for awhile now, and yet so much Magic commentary fails to live up to the standard in this regard. The traditional formula is an analyst and a color commentator, a.k.a. a knowledgeable person and a hype man. The hype man is even better if he also knows the game well, but his job is to keep people excited and to genuinely be excited.

This is an area where League of Legends does a pretty good job. They have dedicated casters that fill specific roles. Jatt and Kobe are a couple of analysts for example. Both are former pro players and their knowledge of the game is extensive and sharp. They can tell you why a team might be doing something and be right most of the time. However, you never see Jatt and Kobe cast together. Instead, one of them is always paired with a color commentator or “play-by-play” guy.

Similarly, of course, you never see two color commentators work together. Riot has identified and labeled their casters to provide the best viewer experience on a game-to-game basis. I think Magic is closing in on this goal. Having LSV in the booth goes a long way toward building credibility and confidence in your in-game analysis. I would like to see an improvement in figuring out which commentators work best together and which don’t, so that every duo can work off of each other to be great.

Information Overload

Magic is a complex game. I think we all can agree on that, and recognize that as an obstacle for any movement as a spectator sport. This is pillar of one side of the argument. However, when people bring up just how complex Magic is, they rarely give counterexamples that actually hold up.

“Magic is too complex. Just look at football as an example of something people can wrap their heads around.”

Uh, what?

Sure, America might be in love with football, but it is not because of its lack of complexity. Rather, it is due to its lack of complexity at its core. The things that matter and the things that are sold as mattering, are not all of the complex things, but they certainly exist. The casual NFL fan has no idea that the following rules exist and yet they can cheer on their favorite team and enjoy a weekly game without that ever mattering! The following example is taken directly from the NFL rulebook with examples and rulings:

Fourth-and-5 on B30. Quarterback A1 muffs the hand-to-hand snap, and while the ball is loose on the ground at the B31, A1
deliberately kicks it, causing it to go out of bounds at the B24.
Ruling: B’s ball, first-and-10 on B40. Illegally kicking the backward pass behind the line of scrimmage is 10 yards from the
previous spot, and a loss of down.

Now, you might have known this ruling to a T, but what is more likely, is that you recognized this happening and knew something was fishy. You might not have known the exact penalty or anything like that, but you didn’t have to. The combination of the referees handling everything, the commentators filling you in on any information you might have missed, and the normal play resuming shortly thereafter means not only could you not know the ruling, but you could miss the play entirely and still continue watching the game normally.

Magic has improved here with giving viewers important knowledge like the contents of the players’ hands, but the way games are told is still a bit technical. In an ideal world, I want to know the goals of both decks going into a match. I want to know the rough plan player B is trying to assemble ahead of time. The NFL, NBA, and LoL all give sometimes hours of pregame coverage where a player who had no idea the league even existed prior to that day can still catch up and enjoy the game before them.

Magic has a lot of meta information required by the viewer to be able to keep up. They need extensive card knowledge and rules knowledge, sometimes due to uninformed casters, but most often because they don’t have a larger sense of the situation. You don’t need to know what [card]Brimstone Volley[/card]’s text is to enjoy the game if you know that the deck he is playing has a lot of “burn” spells in it. The idea being that the general concept of what a burn spell is has already been mapped out ahead of the match for all of the viewers.

Let me jump back to League of Legends, because they do a pretty good job here. Before each match, the commentators evaluate the team compositions of the two teams and describe what the teams will be looking to do. This team wants to engage the other team quickly in 5-on-5 fights. Just that little bit of knowledge to the viewers can take some of the burden off of them knowing the specifics going on. When they see something and can identify, “Hey, that guy is flashing at them because he wants a fight to occur!” despite them having very little mastery of the game.

Similarly, they are sure to have broad names for categories to give the least resistance to newer players. On screen, dozens of abilities, all with different animations, sounds, and particle effects are taking place. While knowing what each one does may enhance your enjoyment of the broadcast, it is not required to retain your attention. The casters refer to things like “Crowd Control,” which lumps any ability that restricts what an enemy champion can do all together. They then are not afraid to talk in a lot of common language—spliced with specific game terms—to keep the audience engaged at all levels. They will tell you that Thresh is looking to “hook” his opponent. It doesn’t take a lot of League of Legends knowledge to imagine what that might look like. The name of his ability is technically [card]Death Sentence[/card], but the willingness to set technicality aside aids a ton of users. This is something I think Magic could improve on.

Wrap Up

I think Magic coverage has come a long way in a short amount of time, but I still think we are lagging behind other sports and eSports. As a community, I am sure one big push will eventually move Magic media a step forward.

If you would like to read a somewhat related piece on some of the moves LoL has done to become more spectator-centric, check out the following link and as always, thanks for reading!

How Riot is using the League of Legends competitive scene to become the biggest eSport in the world

Conley Woods


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