Reflections on the 2017 Magic Online Championship

What a tournament. On Sunday, four of the best players put on the best display of Magic skill I have seen in years, and an elite team put on the best display of Magic coverage I have seen, period.

When great things happen, it is worth asking how it all went right, so we can do it again. Three things were super impressive, so I’ll talk about each on their own: The coverage, the skill testing matchup, and the players being ludicrously good.

If you have not watched the Sunday coverage and you watch Magic coverage, watch it. You won’t regret it.

I finished the original version of this article on the Wednesday, March 8th. In a case of Great Minds Think Alike, Mike Sigrist noticed many of the same things I did, and wrote his own analysis of what went so right and what is to be done. He is less willing to bite certain bullets than I am, but otherwise I agree with everything he says. I have updated the text here to incorporate a few of his insights that I had not originally included.

Players Being Ludicrously Good

Josh Utter-Leyton and Lukas Blohon put on a clinic. Josh made some plays that did not work out, especially when deciding to take his shields down and when to leave them up, and I am confident that almost all of them were correct. Lukas regularly maneuvered his games in ways I wasn’t even considering. Marcio Carvahlo and Ryoske Urase were not quite at the same level, but that is a crazy high bar. They still played great. Congratulations to all of them.

What did we do right to allow this to happen?

First, we have players who are focused in on Magic and on the format, given the time to practice and become experts, and then given enough time for the best to rise to the top.

Modern-era Pro Tours give participants a few weeks in which to master two new formats. Even for those who dedicate weeks to prepare, there are not enough hours in the day. Some very good decks emerge from that process, but most make what are later considered elementary mistakes, and many players go into the tournament having played only a handful of games with their deck. Often the choice is to play the best deck one knows about, with almost no experience, or to play a deck that is clearly worse but that you understand. There is certainly no time for a deep understanding of post-sideboard games in key matchups. The result is not top quality.

The other problem is that with a field of hundreds of players and only 10 Constructed rounds out of 16, several of which are sometimes intentional draws, these tournaments do not have the selection power necessary to find the best deck/player combinations in the field. Multiple players will usually make the Top 8 of a Pro Tour with mediocre Constructed records on the backs of Limited mastery, or by simply getting lucky. Often the best deck will be on the outside looking in.

For the Magic Online Championship, the players had the time to prepare for the matchups that matter. There are excellent reasons to not want a 2-3 deck format in Standard, but when those decks offer lots of play and interesting deckbuilding and sideboarding decisions, it allows the players to go very deep. With only 16 players, there was plenty of time for the best to rise to the top, and those 16 themselves were already selected to be an outstanding group.

Causation runs the other way as well. If you give players more reason to excel, they will take their play to another level.

Top-Notch Coverage

How did the coverage team hit it out of the park without even leaving the house?

It always helps to have great material to work with! The games were great. Magic is a better spectator sport when played at a high level, and a better competition when skill can reliably shine. Therefore you also get the “every match is a feature match” effect where you can consistently show two top players who not only play great, but also have compelling storylines and histories. There is a reason that top Hearthstone, Dota, and League of Legends broadcasts, not to mention all of sports, filter out the non-elite players before the show begins.

Step two is to gather a group of elite players who are experienced broadcasters. They prioritized elite Magic players over color commentators, and \didn’t care about getting them into the same physical location as the players, or the same location as each other. It turns out that none of that matters. This makes sense, since aside from a few features, the broadcast booth is off to the side anyway so that the players can’t hear or see the coverage.

Step three is to let those players talk almost entirely about the details of the games. Mike Sigrist called this the Vintage Super League style of commentary. There was so little color or standard-issue hype that what little we did hear, justified and heartfelt as it was, felt jarring, like it was a sacrifice to the gods of broadcasting to keep them satisfied. In a way, it was, and there was sufficiently little of it that one could see why it can be useful—rather than a chance to roll your eyes.

We also didn’t need to spend time trying to figure out what was happening. Magic Online shows us both hands and the details of every play, whereas a large percentage of any broadcast of a non-online tournament must be spent by the commentators figuring out what’s going on to make sure the audience also knows the situation. Without knowing the game state, deep analysis is impossible.

Step four was to pick up the pace. I will always prefer to play Magic in person rather than online, but there is no question that online games go much faster. This is especially true when moves are forced. Without a clock, many players seem to feel obligated to burn time for no good reason, such as before drawing their card for the turn. Shuffling, slow-rolling yourself, concealing which card was just drawn, explaining your actions, and reconciling the game state is an invitation to dead air. Time is also “wasted” on human interaction and having a good time. I hate to list that as a downside. Alas, there is mostly no way to experience that joy vicariously during the coverage—it has to be thought of that way.

When Magic moves too slowly to present interesting game states, our attention wanders, we stop tracking the exact situation, and when the interesting things do happen, we miss them. By keeping things moving fast enough and providing enough to dive into, it’s easier to hold our attention.

Step five, which Mike Sigrist reminds me of, is to make all the deck lists available from the start, and let us watch sideboarding. Having this kind of full information greatly enriches the experience. Watching players sideboard teaches you what is going on more than almost anything else on a per-minute basis.

Magic Online is the way forward. If we take that as given, we can work on getting it up to the task. Nothing is impossible when you have heart.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but what Sunday reminded me of most was sitting back for a Mets game and listening to our world-class broadcast booth for a well-played, close game. Ron, Gary, and Keith aren’t afraid to share their opinions about anything, or to geek out or rant about little details, or to relax and tell you stories. Like Magic, baseball can be slow at times, pausing quite a bit between actions, and it suffers when it gets too slow. Also like Magic, if you are not interested in the details, strategy, and atmosphere of the game, it is boring. Those who go out to the ballpark and do not watch the game are skipping the game because it’s boring, but it’s boring because they are skipping it by not giving it the attention it deserves.

Magic is the same. If you are not invested in and familiar with the game, and willing to dig deeper, Magic coverage is not going to do much for you. It will simply be “something on,” the way a baseball game is “something on” if you have it on in the background and are not thinking about the players or pitch sequences. If you don’t pay close attention, you miss most of the jokes, and the rest of what makes Magic the best game ever.

We should accept that, do what we can for new viewers without sacrificing the experience for knowledgeable viewers, and have other streams available for newcomers to help them get up to speed. One concession that must be made is to find room for rotating zoom-ins on the cards so viewers can read them, as we see in paper events.

Also worth noting: Modern has given players the long-term incentive to invest in mastery of their preferred archetypes, which I think is one reason it plays so well on camera when we aren’t spending 10 minutes shuffling for fetchlands, but the sheer amount of dead time is suffocating. Magic Online is the solution to that.

If we want to succeed, the future of top Magic events is on a rebuilt and improved Magic Online with small fields chosen in advance, with some combination of larger qualifying events, specialist slots, and point races.

Yes, there is lots more to do, including making Magic Online actually work. New tournament structures and designs should refine from what we know through Magic and from outside Magic, and the prize pools need a serious boost that is long overdue—they are embarrassing, have been for years, and would pay for themselves several times over almost immediately. There is so much more we could do to take our game into the future. That work is yet to come. Think of how much better things have the potential to get!

And in case anyone was asking, yes. If I don’t have to fly in, I am available most weekends.

That’s it for today! In Part II, I’ll discuss a little strategy with some details of the matchup.

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