The Mythic Invitational Wasn’t Perfect—And It Was Still a Smashing Success

A million dollars. 64 players. The biggest prize pool in Magic: The Gathering history, the biggest names in Magic Esports, and the debut of high-level tournaments on MTG Arena. The Mythic Invitational lived up to the hype.

In this article, I will evaluate the event coverage, fascinating bluffs, the “Sudden Death” rule, and the Duo Standard format. My aim is to praise the good aspects, criticize the bad ones, and to provide some takeaways and lessons for the future.

Coverage Was Largely Excellent

Let’s start with the best part, which I summed up in this tweet and accompanying highlight video.

If you somehow missed the entire event and only have time to watch one game, then make it Game 3 of the semifinal between Piotr Glogowski and Savjz, as that one was epic. But while Arena made for a slick viewing experience, the coverage had several technical issues:

  • Day 1 had a rocky start with shaky cameras, connection problems, Windows activation prompts, a surprise Hall of Fame induction, and poor transitions. These issues could have been avoided with some extra hours of rehearsal and preparation. As they largely disappeared as the event progressed, they are illustrative of the learning curve with a new coverage product, and they emphasize the value of having consistent (or even better, full-time) coverage teams and setups going forward.
  • During the first three days, there was continually distracting noise and annoying yelling in the background, which made it difficult to listen to the commentary. The reason for the background noise was understandable: the event was held in the middle of the PAX East hall. But this should have been anticipated with either a soundproof booth or a different location for the casters.
  • The latest bracket was hard to find and rarely up-to-date. Moreover, the text coverage page lacked an RSS feed and was set up overlappingly and illogically: Some information was under “Events,” other information was under “News,” and the “Latest” section in the News tab didn’t actually contain the latest news. As a final problem, the deck lists on the website lack an “Export to MTG Arena” button.

Other suggestions for improvement:

  • Feature match choices should focus more on interesting-to-watch matchups. Esper Control mirrors aren’t exciting for most viewers, especially when half of their deck consists of dead creature removal spells and their main win condition is to loop Teferi. Sure, there was one epic game where Matt Nass beat a Teferi emblem with Unmoored Ego, but that was an outlier. I would have liked to have seen fewer Esper mirrors and a wider variety of decks on camera. For instance, in the first round of the Top 16, they could have chosen any of the 6 players without an Esper deck in their line-up, but instead we got a feature match between two Esper players, which I found disappointing.
  • The deck layout on stream had unreadable cards sorted in random order. Sorting cards by mana cost, increasing their size, and changing key card names into actual card images would be much better.
  • To reduce downtime and to show more Magic in the best way possible, it would be great to have a setup where the second feature match is recorded and Time Walked in full right after the first feature match. Instead, we got quick game reviews with Kibler and Day[9], which were good, but not as good as complete Time Walk matches with hand and player cams. Nor as lengthy, which is important when trying to reduce dead air.
  • Mythic event coverage should be announced and promoted in the MTG Arena client. I only saw an out-of-date “Compete in Preseason 2 to qualify for the Mythic Invitational in March” panel on the home page of my MTG Arena client, whereas this should have been a “Watch live on Twitch” panel.
  • I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here, but I would again encourage the devs to add the option to skip the stop in your own beginning of combat step (as it only slows down the games with unnecessary clicks) and to reveal the exact details of the hand smoothing algorithm (as it’s unappealing to have huge tournaments without disclosing the rules of the game).

I am critical by nature, but given that this was the debut of Magic esports on Arena, some teething problems were to be expected. They can be fixed in the future. What’s important is that Arena made for an appealing, error-proof viewing experience.

To continue with praiseworthy aspects: Ad breaks were visually and auditorily pleasing as they didn’t use the same old music loop as the Pro Tours. The CardBoard.live integration was awesome and should be used for any live event once deck lists are public. And all the casters and reporters added a lot of energy to the broadcast. As a competitive player with experience in the expert commentator role, I particularly liked how both David Williams and Paul Cheon fluently explained the reasons behind seemingly unusual lines of play.

So my overall assessment of the coverage as a viewer is positive for sure. If Wizards takes some lessons from this event to make Arena coverage even better in the future, then I’m looking forward to the Arena Mythic Championships.

Arena Leads to Fascinating Bluffs

Barring stops or full control mode, MTG Arena automatically passes if you have no legal plays (other than mana abilities). This can lead to a bit of a tell: if your spell or ability resolves without delay, then you know your opponent has nothing. And if there is a small delay, then you know your opponent had to click “Resolve” first. As the Mythic Invitational showed, this opens up a new high-level strategic dimension.

At the tournament, due to time constraints, full control was only allowed for special cases such as responding to your own spells—not for bluffing purposes. But putting stops was within the rules and achieves the same, as Ondřej Stráský found out the hard way.‏

In this clip, Stráský’s Mastermind’s Acquisition takes a while to resolve, which led him to believe that Hayne must have Absorb. As a result, Stráský selected Duress from his sideboard. After Duress revealed that Hayne had no legal responses in hand, Stráský thought that Hayne had used the forbidden full control mode to bluff. But as the resulting judge call revealed, Hayne had put a legal stop in Stráský’s main phase, producing a similar pause. This was a super smart move by Hayne, as it caused Stráský to select a useless card from his sideboard.

In this clip, Kowalski puts a stop in the main phase, pays 2 life to play Breeding Pool untapped, thinks for a while, and passes the turn. This way, he perfectly represents Expansion // Explosion, which is a beautiful bluff. Indeed, it baits the Thought Erasure from TheAsianAvenger, which he might not have played otherwise. As a result, when Kowalski drew an actual Expansion // Explosion on the next turn, TheAsianAvenger no longer had the discard spell to take a relevant card.

There were plenty of other sick bluffs in the tournament, but exploiting the Arena stop system takes bluffing to a whole other level. At the same time, it incentivizes players to put stops liberally, which can halt the game to a crawl.

Deciding Matches on Life Totals is Not Ideal

The first round of the event ended in a bad way.

Gerry’s concession was due to the “Sudden Death” rule, which states that in timed elimination rounds, if the game score is tied at the end of additional turns, then the player with the highest life total wins. Neither the survival guide nor the casters (who may not have been aware that time had been called) prepared the viewers for this eventuality, so Gerry’s concession came out of nowhere.

The “Sudden Death” rule itself has been around for quite a while. It’s a reasonable one because things like board position cannot be objectively judged and a victor has to be decided somehow. But it’s rarely applied because timed elimination rounds are so rare.

The last time I recall being in a timed elimination match was at the Masters Gateway at Pro Tour Chicago 2003, where it led to bizarre outcomes such as players losing because they had to tap Underground River for colored mana or players boarding the anti-Burn Delusions of Mediocrity in the Psychatog mirror match. I experienced all of this first-hand, and it cracks me up every time I think about it. But it also strengthened my belief that tournament structures where this “Sudden Death” rule might be invoked should be avoided for high-level tournaments.

So I question the decision to have timed elimination rounds at the Mythic Invitational, especially with a round time set to a tight 45 minutes—even shorter than a Grand Prix. I understand that PAX East may come with strict hall hours and that alternative solutions to deal with a venue’s closing time have their own downsides, but I have to wonder if there wasn’t a better solution.

Offering a suggestion is difficult, as I don’t know the constraints and considerations that factored into the decision. But my first idea is that I would have preferred a Swiss-style format where timeouts resulted in draws. Not only to avoid “Sudden Death” but also because more rounds increase the consistency at which the better players rise to the top. To illustrate: A player with a 75% match win rate is 46% to go at least 12-3, the record required to ID into the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. This same player is 47% to advance to the Top 4 of the Mythic Invitational under the 64-player double elimination brackets. So the percentages are similar, but since the Pro Tour has 500 players, its tournament structure is far better at selecting for skill. Hence, I would have liked a similar Swiss event.

If that was not an option (perhaps because it would require too many computers or because IDs look bad) then increasing the round time from 45 to 55 minutes while implementing an overflow system that could already start the majority of the subsequent round if one match lingers—an approach that has cut down round turnover times at recent Grand Prix—may have prevented the likelihood of “Sudden Death” while satisfying schedule constraints. But I’m no event planner, so let’s turn to something that I’m better at.

Running the Numbers on the Duo Standard Format

In line with expectation, MPL members defeated Challengers (i.e., all non-MPL player) 36-30 overall. The win/loss records by invitation method were as follows:

  • Magic Pro League member (30 players): 68-62
  • Arena Top 8 qualifier (8 players): 18-18
  • Special invite (26 players): 50-56

Next, let’s break down the Duo Standard choices.

Deck combination Number of players Match win rate
MonoW + Esper Control 17 50.7% (36-35)
MonoR + Esper Control 10 53.2% (25-22)
Esper Acuity + Temur Reclamation 5 54.5% (12-10)
Gruul Warriors + Esper Control 3 50% (6-6)
MonoR + Gruul Stompy 3 40% (4-6)
Golgari + Esper Control 2 50% (4-4)
MonoR + MonoU 1 75% (9-3)
MonoR + Selesnya Tokens 1 71.4% (5-2)
MonoR + Simic Stompy 1 66.7% (4-2)
Esper Control + Esper Acuity 1 62.5% (5-3)
MonoW + Golgari 1 62.5% (5-3)
MonoR + MonoG 1 60% (3-2)
MonoW + Selesnya Tokens 1 57.1% (4-3)
Naya Angels + Temur Reclamation 1 57.1% (4-3)
Gruul Stompy + Rakdos Midrange 1 50% (2-2)
MonoR + Jund Midrange 1 50% (2-2)
MonoW + Grixis Midrange 1 50% (2-2)
Esper Control + Esper Control 1 33.3% (1-2)
MonoW + Jund Warriors 1 33.3% (1-2)
MonoW + MonoW 1 33.3% (1-2)
Selesnya Tokens + Esper Control 1 33.3% (1-2)
Esper Acuity + Esper Acuity 1 0% (0-2)
Gruul Stompy + Esper Control 1 0% (0-2)
Gruul Warriors + Golgari 1 0% (0-2)
MonoR + Gruul Dinos 1 0% (0-2)
MonoW + Gruul Deck Wins 1 0% (0-2)
MonoW + Gruul Warriors 1 0% (0-2)
MonoW + MonoR 1 0% (0-2)
MonoW + Sultai Midrange 1 0% (0-2)
WW Reinforcements + MonoR 1 0% (0-2)

Esper Control and an aggro deck were the most popular approach, and midrange decks were nearly non-existent. The best overall record was held by Piotr Glogowski’s Mono-Red Aggro plus Mono-Blue Tempo configuration. He was the only player to have registered Tempest Djinn.

Tellingly, all players who registered two copies of the same deck did poorly. As my game theoretical analysis suggested, two copies of the same deck puts you at a disadvantage for game 3. It’s better to have a balanced combination where one archetype covers the other’s weakness.

The resulting best-of-one metagame differs vastly from the best-of-three metagame. At the Mythic Invitational, there was only one Sultai Midrange deck, zero Nexus of Fate decks (because it’s banned in best-of-one), and only one Mono-Blue Aggro deck. By contrast, these were the most popular, second-most popular, and fourth-most popular deck choices at the Mythic Championship in Cleveland.

These differences are not bad per se, but because as many as 42 of the 64 players (65.6%) had some kind of Esper deck in their line-up, Duo Standard generated lots of Esper Control mirrors. And since players did not have the option of boarding out all of their dead creature removal spells, the resulting games were not fun to watch. I agree with MPL member Lucas Berthoud’s take in his Mythic Invitational report, which is worth reading. Best-of-one is a perfect mode for quick, casual, fun games. But the highest-level events should use sideboards, as they add strategic depth, dynamic game play, competitive balance, and an additional way to leverage skill and to outmaneuver opponents.

R&D’s Aaron Forsythe, in an article that explained the rationale behind Duo Standard, wrote: “An important ingredient to having our Esports leagues and events be compelling for the rest of the MTG Arena-playing audience is to have it mirror as closely as possible the experience they have themselves when they play the game.” As someone who played soccer on a street corner as a kid but never expected the World Cup to be played under similar conditions, I disagree with this philosophy fundamentally.

Even if sideboards would be “challenging to understand,” as Chris Clay shared in the same article, this is not a point in favor of Duo Standard because every player with Mastermind’s Acquisition still needs a sideboard. It was fun to see all the sideboards of Mythic Invitational competitors with Dire Fleet Daredevil or Expansion, but I hope that the Arena Mythic Championships will allow players to make sideboard swaps in between games.

I would favor Traditional Standard, but even a Duo Standard variation that allows players to board cards in and out for game 3 would already be an improvement. Ideally, this sideboard option would be presented after both players announce their game 3 deck choices and play/draw is determined.

Congratulations to Andrea Mengucci!

ChannelFireball’s own Andrea Mengucci only lost one match throughout the entire Mythic Invitational—a deserving champion. Amusingly enough, he wrote an article titled “Why I’ll Never Play Control Decks Again” right before winning with a control deck in his line-up. But it just shows that he knows when to bend his self-imposed rules when the format calls for it.

Esper Control

Andrea Mengucci, 1st place at the Mythic Invitational

4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Watery Grave
4 Isolated Chapel
1 Swamp
1 Island
4 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
1 Kaya, Orzhov Usurper
3 Kaya's Wrath
2 Cry of the Carnarium
4 Thought Erasure
1 Mastermind's Acquisition
1 Moment of Craving
2 Cast Down
3 Mortify
4 Absorb
3 Chemister's Insight
1 Negate
3 Vraska's Contempt
2 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin

Sideboard
1 Ixalan's Binding
1 Nezahal, Primal Tide
1 Cleansing Nova
1 Lyra Dawnbringer
1 Clear the Mind
1 Demystify
1 Duress
1 The Mirari Conjecture
1 Unmoored Ego
1 Healing Grace
1 Sanguine Sacrament
1 Sorcerous Spyglass
1 Mass Manipulation
1 Devious Cover-Up
1 Ethereal Absolution

White Weenie

Andrea Mengucci, 1st place at the Mythic Invitational

20 Plains
4 Venerated Loxodon
4 Benalish Marshal
4 Tithe Taker
4 Snubhorn Sentry
4 Skymarcher Aspirant
4 Dauntless Bodyguard
2 Rustwing Falcon
3 Unbreakable Formation
4 History of Benalia
3 Conclave Tribunal
4 Legion's Landing/Adanto, the First Fort

Although viewership numbers were allegedly inflated because the stream was embedded in ads, the Mythic Invitational smashed previous records.

An image showing Magic as the highest viewed live stream.

As I argued, I believe this was despite the Duo Standard format, not because of it. When so many new things are being tried at the same time, it can be difficult to unravel the aspects that actually shaped the success, and I hope that my article contributes towards drawing the right lessons. In any case, it was exciting to see Magic as the most-viewed channel on Twitch.

What’s more, the War of the Sparks trailer became the most-viewed video ever on the Magic YouTube channel in just a few hours. The stream had no sound when it was shown on Sunday, which was a bit of a hype killer, but the trailer itself is extremely well-done. My conclusion from all of this is clear: the future of the game looks bright.

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