Goals for the State of Competitive Play in 2019
As we're nearing the halfway point of the season and still don't have any idea how Organized Play will be structured, it's been very difficult to come up with personal goals for 2019. While we wait with bated breath for the next announcement, I've decided to instead focus on the state of competitive Magic itself. I believe that there's a perception at WotC that people just like to complain. They can't please everyone and it's hard to filter through the noise and identify legitimate concerns. Rather than spew random suggestions into the aether, I've decided to rank the top ten issues or improvements I'd like to see addressed over the next year. Of course, these are my personal opinions and not necessarily representative of the community, Gold and Silver pros, my sponsors, or anyone else. They are simply things I'd like to see happen that I think would make competitive Magic even better.
(Edited by moderator Duncan)
10. Elimination of Die Rolls
Especially with the new style of PTQs that are essentially single elimination, losing a series of die rolls can easily derail your entire tournament. It can be a frustrating experience and is completely unnecessary. I've brought this up before and the main reason it's still on my list is because of how easy it would be to fix. At least at competitive rules enforcement and higher, I'd like to see choice of play/draw determined by tournament software and displayed with an asterisk on the pairings sheet. It would be tracked throughout the tournament with priority each round given to whichever player has had choice a lower percentage of time up to that point. Chess tournaments already use this system successfully to balance the inherent advantage of having the white pieces, and there's no reason why it wouldn't work just as well in Magic. As a side benefit, it would also make it easier to get to your seat at a large event like a GP, as it could be established that players with asterisks next to their name would be facing a certain side of the room.
9. Philosophical Adjustment of the Rules Committee
The priority of the Rules Committee should be, first and foremost, to protect the integrity of the game by defining a set of rules that are unambiguous, enforceable, and not subject to exploitation by unscrupulous players. Only when this strict standard is met should they consider casual appeal, simplicity, and ease of implementation. Over the past few years, we've seen them instead focus on policies that seem to work fine on the surface, but fail to account for corner cases that can come up in high level play, or the possibility that players will try to take advantage of loopholes to get an unfair advantage.
The rules for drafting with double-faced cards are a good example of their failure to consider the ramifications of a simple solution. Where you are seated at a rectangular table affects your access to what should be free public information. We are simultaneously instructed to look around the table to see where the DFCs are, while being told to keep our eyes focused on the pack in front of us. A lack of clarity also glosses over situations where players sitting next to each other both want to wait until the other drafts to make their selection.
By their own admission, rewriting the combat shortcut introduced a loophole where the active player can use ambiguous communication to gain an unfair advantage. Sure, it works fine in practice when two honest players are battling, but you only have to get caught once by someone manipulating the shortcut to fish for information to realize how bad it is.
Most recently, the new takeback and trigger rules put a lot of onus on judges to evaluate intent and the extent to which information was gained. These are both difficult to assess and will often lead to erring on the side of caution, making it is easy for opportunistic cheaters to avoid punishment by claiming ignorance, as long as they don't do it too often.
I'm all for making the game more accessible to new players, but the Rules Committee has a specific job of ensuring the fairness of competition, and I would like to see them return to treating that as their primary objective.
8. Cumulative Tiebreaks
Missing Top 8 on tiebreaks has to be one of the worst feelings you can have at a tournament, especially when it's the result of an ill-advised intentional draw. Tiebreak math can be complicated and daunting for new players, and the issue is compounded by the fact that you have to fight your way through a mob in order to even get a few precious seconds to look at the standings before the round starts.
A solution to this would be to use a simpler tiebreaking mechanism so that players can quickly figure out the potential ramifications of their last round match. WotC tested out a system called cumulative tiebreaks that actually does a really good job of this. So much so, in fact, that complaints about it centered around it being too easy to figure out that you were mathematically eliminated. Truthfully, though, this was more a feature of the World Championships being a small field where most of the players at the top of the standings had already played each other. The way it works is that the player who most recently had more match points after a round wins the tiebreak. In other words, you stay ahead of players who catch up to you, and need to surpass those ahead of you to jump them in the standings. There can be a debate about which system produces the more deserving Top 8 through strength of opposition, but pairings are random and cumulative tiebreaks make it much easier for players to figure out where they stand.
7. Organization of a Player Committee
After the #paythepros scandal a few years back, WotC has made various attempts to consult with pros about upcoming changes, even going so far as to hire some of them as ambassadors. These efforts were mainly used to field test prospective changes, however, rather than as a way for players to bring their concerns to WotC and have them addressed in some official manner. When something is a problem, we still have to rely on creating a social media storm in order to get anyone's attention. With the announcement of the MPL, this situation is exacerbated by the fact that pros with the loudest voices are now under contract to promote the game.
I would like to see players qualified for Mythic Championships organize themselves in order to consolidate their most important concerns and select representatives to meet with WotC officials on a regular basis. While they would not necessarily have any power to affect change directly, it's important to have player driven discussions about the state of the game, and for us to all get on more or less the same page. WotC would also need to be amenable to this dialogue and attempt to address concerns in an honest and transparent manner. They need to be able to understand what players are most concerned about, and be a little more open to solving them together, or at least in coming clean about their shifting priorities.
6. Player Ranking System
There were some serious problems with the way Elo was implemented for Magic, but I've always enjoyed trying to increase my rating and achieve a new personal best. Done correctly, it can be a great motivator and a way to gauge your progress as a player.
Unfortunately, the high K-values introduced a large recency bias as you would often experience a massive rating swing after a good or bad tournament result. The way it was used for qualifications forced players to sit out tournaments in order to protect their rating, and created situations where those who did play felt compelled to take every match very seriously because of how costly a loss to a new player could be.
Getting rid of Elo was the correct decision at the time, but I'd like to see the introduction of a new system to rank players that only considers professional events like Mythic Championships and adjusts slowly over time to maintain a sort of equilibrium with a player's ability. One of the unseen problems with pro points was that the Top 25 leaderboard was not necessarily representative of who the best players actually were. Of course there was some correlation, but Platinum was often achieved by spiking a small number of tournaments and then being willing to attend an inordinate number of events to pad your stats. As a result, players at the top were often temporarily overrated and forced to double down on an already unhealthy travel schedule in an often futile attempt to maintain their status. While some amount of turnover is both desired and expected, a more accurate and stable ranking system would go a long way towards helping players make long-term plans and realistic assessmenents, something that's particularly important with the Magic Pro League on the horizon.
5. Improved Communication
The manner in which information is currently disseminated to players is nothing short of a joke. It could be in a YouTube video, part of an announcement on coverage, in an e-mail, on social media, or buried deep in an ambiguously worded article that may or may not have a relevant title. The answer you find in a dated article might not even be correct, as WotC has shown a willingness to go back on their word and change things retroactively. We need a central hub for official policy that is organized by section and easy to reference. There should also be someone appointed as Player Liaison who players can reach out to for clarification. As it stands right now, e-mails to Premier Play can go unanswered for long periods of time, and access to information is often determined by whether or not you know someone who works at WotC.
Rules governing Organized Play also need to be provided in a timely manner. Whether they do so in a legal manner with a promise like the Reserved List, or simply adjust their way of doing things, WotC should make a commitment to announce the policies and structure of Organized Play at least a few months prior to their implementation. Players make all sorts of travel decisions and sacrifices based on knowing what goals they're trying to achieve and the associated benefits. The current situation of being mid-season without knowing what we're playing for is inexcusable. If they need some time to evaluate public reaction, they should make announcements even earlier and allow a transparent period of adjustment before policy becomes official. Keeping us in the dark or applying benefits retroactively and arbitrarily leads to player frustration and the feeling that who you know is more important than how well you play.
4. Improvements to Arena for Competitive Play
There's a lot of a excitement about MTG Arena and for good reason. Game play is quick and it makes for much better viewing than paper Magic or Magic Online. As the goal is almost certainly for Arena to be integrated into high level play, however, it needs to provide better options for players who are looking to use it as a tool to prepare for their next paper tournament.
The first improvement I'd like to see is the ability to customize your stops like you can on Magic Online. I understand the desire to streamline play as much as possible to make it attractive to new players, but, at higher levels, you need to preserve your ability to respond to your opponent's actions even if there's nothing you can actually do. Magic is a game of partial information, and it's not acceptable for the system to telegraph that you have a spell in hand, skipping through your priority when you don't. The alternative of playing on full control mode is just not a reasonable option when you have to pass priority ten times per turn and click on each individual mana to cast your spells, all while your rope timer is running down. You should be able to set persistent stops that don't clear every turn, and enable the ability to be given priority any time your opponent casts a spell or an ability gets put on the stack.
If players are going to use Arena to prepare for tournaments, Arena needs to support the same formats that are being used in competitive tabletop play. I have nothing against Best of One as its own entity (I actually really like the idea), but you need to be able to play the same format that you are preparing for, not some approximation with altered decklists to compete in a skewed metagame. Bot drafting also leaves a lot to be desired. I understand enough about artificial intelligence to know that programming card evaluations and a set of basic rules won't come anywhere close to replicating human drafting behavior. You would need a sophisticated machine learning algorithm to even make an attempt. In its current state, bot drafting is extremely exploitable - a much different perspective than you would get from drafting with other players.
Lastly, I have some concerns about the quality of opposition and how to ensure reasonable opponents for tournament practice. Magic Online does this by charging entry fees and financial incentives, but with no way to get money out of the system on Arena, competitive grinders simply won't exist. Ranked ladders offer a partial solution, but you would need to spend hours working your way up just to get to a point of being able to get to an appropriate level, where you would then be punished for trying out new decks. Arena has a lot of visual appeal, but the program I'm looking for is one that would allow me to jump in and immediately start playing against decent players, even if I have to pay for the privilege. I don't know if Arena can provide that right now, but that's what I'd like to see happen.
3. Pro Club Benefits for Players Outside the Top 32
Player contracts for the top players was a huge step and a demonstration that Wizards wants to support a pro lifestyle as part of marketing the game as an intellectual sport. As of yet, however, they have not announced any support whatsoever for pros, semi-pros, and grinders who missed out on the somewhat arbitrary, retroactive cut. They have unilaterally dismantled programs like Nats, the World Magic Cup, RPTQs, the Team Series, and even the entire pro points system, and have not offered anything as a replacement other than some vague promise of future announcements. Will there even be an equivalent benefits package for players who were Gold, Silver, or Bronze?
I think it's shortsighted to take the attitude that only the stars matter. Individually, grinders may seem replaceable, but the whole class of player is not. People don't drop hundreds of dollars on Standard decks just to compete at FNM for a few booster packs and promos. The entire competitive community depends on a path to pro play and the idea that they can work their way up some ladder of achievement. Whether it's qualifying for an RPTQ, getting enough points for Silver, or making it all the way to the World Championships, competitive players at every level are always striving for that next step. Milestones like these drive the hobby and form the backbone of the entire competitive community. With what's been announced so far, I don't think the average player qualifying for a Mythic Championship really sees a feasible path to the MPL. At some point, with nothing to work towards other than individual qualifications, the financial realities have to set in, and if grinders start to disappear, it will have a cascading effect all the way down the line.
My hope for 2019 is that WotC recognizes the importance of maintaining this ladder of achievement, and announces a new Pro Club system that supports players at all levels as they work their way up towards the elite status of the MPL. I'm hoping that the new focus on personal branding, streaming, and the digital experience doesn't have to come at the expense of the organized competitive play that has helped Magic grow and allowed it to exist for as long as it has.
2. Increased Efforts to Catch Cheaters
It bothers me every time I hear someone naively claim that cheating was a problem of the past and that the game is mostly clean. In any sport or high level competition, there will be people willing to bend or break the rules for personal gain. The only way to prevent or minimize cheating is by rigorously trying to catch it and weed it out. Discussions on how to address this has typically centered around the need for longer suspensions, but, for me, a bigger issue is that players only seem to get caught when they're dumb enough to cheat on camera.
In addition to a robust set of rules for competitive play, more resources need to be invested into actually catching cheaters on the tournament floor. Every Premier event should have a small task force of judges specifically mandated to try to catch and disqualify cheaters. More needs to be done than just walking around and responding to judge calls. Just like they do deck checks, I'd like to see this task force randomly assigned to secretly watch specific players for peeking during a draft, or to try to catch people running opportunistic cheats. It's not an easy job, but we have some great judges who care a lot about the integrity of the game, and I'd like to see them put to better use.
1. Fixed Rules for Slow Play and Stalling
These are the entire rules for slow play and stalling in the official tournament rules:
Players must take their turns in a timely fashion regardless of the complexity of the play situation and adhere to time limits specified for the tournament. Players must maintain a pace to allow the match to be finished in the announced time limit. Stalling is not acceptable. Players may ask a judge to watch their game for slow play; such a request will be granted if feasible.
Think about this for a second and try to wrap your head around the idea that "players must maintain a pace to allow the match to be finished in the announced time limit". Taken literally, this implies that any match that results in an unintentional draw must have involved this rule being broken. By both players. Obviously, if it didn't finish in time, players didn't play at a pace that would have allowed it to. Sadly, this is the only guideline we have to go by. There's nothing about how long you have to think for each action or turn, or how long you can take to sideboard and shuffle. Judges have their own heuristics to determine slow play, often based on simplistic rules like how long it takes them to get bored or parse the game state. Not only is that subjective, but it directly goes against the requirement that players play in "a timely fashion regardless of the complexity of the play situation".
The possibility of getting an unintentional draw because my opponent played too slowly is, by far, the thing I hate most about Magic tournaments. Calling a judge rarely solves the problem. They can't get you back the time you already lost, and, as mentioned, they are trying to subjectively enforce a rule that is glaringly unenforceable. Have you ever tried to call a judge to watch for slow play five minutes into the first game? More often than not, they'll just flat out refuse because they simply don't have enough staff to justify spending an entire round watching a single match.
Fixing this problem will require a complete overhaul of how we think of a timed match, and may involve fundamentally changing the way the game is played. Consider the simple solution, for example, of saying that a game of Magic can last no longer than fifteen turns, after which it is resolved by life totals or considered a draw. In 50 minute rounds, this essentially allocates one minute to each turn cycle, and players would effectively be allowed 30 seconds each. Players could track turns and judges could start to monitor for slow play if and when a match starts lagging behind. After all, slow play should really be considered a crime against the smooth running of the tournament moreso than against their opponent, and should be enforced as such. There's nothing more unpleasant than being forced to harass your opponent to play faster when they feel they are playing at a reasonable pace. This change might cause control decks to run more win conditions and get things like infinite Nexus of Fate loops out of the game, but is that really a bad thing? This is only one of many possible solutions, but something absolutely needs to be done.
Well, there you have it. These are the ten issues I'd most like to see addressed in 2019. Some of them are more likely or feasible than others, but that's what makes it my personal wish list. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree, or if you think there's an important issue I left out. Thanks for reading!