Serious_Fun

The case for sanctioned team play

Type Two, Times Two?

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Note to the gentle reader: The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Wizards of the Coast or its employees. I am laying out an opinion that I think bears discussion – on the message boards, on other Internet sites, at local stores, and perhaps even within the DCI. Wizards is under no obligation to care what I say on the matter. They’re big boys and girls, and they’re the ones whose salaries are on the line when they make decisions on these matters. Keep that in mind as you read this.

I don’t often do “issue” pieces. But this has been on my mind for a while, and I’d be interested to hear the conversation it sparks. We’ll return to funky decks and formats next week – though in a very serious way, this article is about those kinds of formats and decks.

By the time this article goes up, a large number of Magic players will have fond memories of the previous weekend’s prerelease. And not for the first time, a huge infusion of Magic players who only attend prereleases will have driven the emotional and financial success of these prereleases. Across the world, prereleases regularly bring in the largest crowd among any sort of tournament in the game. Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grands Prix, local shop initiatives – Prereleases outperform them all in sheer volume of players over a given year.

There are a couple of reasons why large numbers of players – so many of them self-described as “casual” – show up at these particular events. No doubt, the excitement of a new set is first and foremost. Another reason would be the easy-going nature of most prereleases – such tournaments have a low “K” value (that is, results don’t weigh too heavily on your sanctioned rating), so even hardened tournament players can relax a bit and let their opponents take back the occasional move.

But there’s something else going on here, as well. I saw it clearly for the first time during the Mirrodin prerelease, when Wizards first sanctioned team sealed events at prereleases. The attendance numbers in our little corner of the world (Minnesota) were stunning and unprecedented – tables upon tables of teams stuck around, after a full day of playing individual sealed matches, to play with their friends.

I’ll repeat that last part: to play with their friends.

Magic: The Other Team Sport

We often enjoy (or deride) a stereotype of Magic players being “lone wolves” who don’t (or didn’t) quite fit in well during high school and made their own social and academic opportunities. We’ll discuss the accuracy of this and other stereotypes some other time; but for now it’s enough to know that this picture is, at best, incomplete even where it applies. Humans are social creatures. We seek out new friends, and enjoy opportunities to strengthen ties with existing ones. Recreation of any kind is a favorite way to make that happen. It’s easier to relax and enjoy the social interaction when you’re not on deadline, or piled up in homework.

In that seemingly simple sense, Magic players are no different from basketball players or soccer players. While individual achievement is meaningful, very little can replace the feeling of working together as a team to reach a goal. (Whenever my wife sneers at the team sports I watch on television, I point out to her that I would never have come out to Carleton College, and therefore never met her, had I not participated in many extracurricular activities, including intramural team sports. I don’t know if this elevates or lowers her opinion of such sports; but it does quiet her down long enough for me to catch the instant replay.)

Professional Magic players say, over and over, that team Rochester is their favorite format. (This format still requires players to face each other as individuals; but they select cards and build decks as a team.) They point to at least two things: the higher role that skill plays relative to many other sanctioned formats, and the chance to work together with friends to accomplish a goal.

Again: to play with their friends.

The Way To A Corporation’s Heart

Quick Explanation of the Formats
“Two-Headed Giant” involves two two-man teams. Teammates sit next to each other, and attack the opponent opposite them. There are no limits to targeting permanents or players, and no restrictions on universal effects.

“Emperor” most often involves two three-man teams. Teammates again sit next to each other, with emperors between their own lieutenants. Lieutenants may only attack the player across from them (until they burst through and can attack the enemy emperor). There are targeting limits – usually a range of one or two – and often restrictions on universal effects as well.

To practice both formats, you can always visit Magic Online, which has supported them since its initial release.

So imagine you’re a DCI dude (I’m afraid even as a Level I judge, I don’t know the official staff title) looking for ways to increase tournament attendance. After all, you’re always trying to grow your market and maximize profits. You might seriously consider a format that:

  • tapped into Magic players’ natural affinity for team play;
  • appealed to that huge potential market of “casual” players; and
  • had some experience with company support.

Which is why you would have to seriously consider true team play – either “Two-Headed Giant” or “Emperor” – as the next sanctioned format.

Let’s look at the multiple benefits to Wizards and the Magic community of a sanctioned “team-play” format:

  1. There’s a market for it. I’m a big fan of statistical data, and I’d be happier if I could point to a slew of market research and focus group results on the topic. But even without that, we can all count with our eyes at Prereleases, and players at Magic Online can vouch for the numbers there. In addition, Wizards has made no secret of the fact that the masses of casual players dwarf the numbers of existing regular tournament players. They’ve also been open about the fact that tournament players tend to spend more. (Imagine if they could find a way to get more casual players to spend as much as the average tournament player!)

  2. It’s well-practiced. Many downsides to bold ventures tend to hinge on a company’s inexperience on new ground. Ignorance increases risk. Here, that isn’t a problem. Magic Online has supported team formats since the roll-out, and both two-headed giant and emperor were well-established casual formats before then. There are vast stores of knowledge as to what would work and what wouldn’t (for example, an Emperor format with one-player universal spell range would have real and lasting problems with the way certain cards, e.g. New Frontiers, played out).

  3. It would electrify the rank and file. Much as the boldness of Invasion’s approach to card design, cost innovations, and color play re-energized the game and community (and brought back so many veterans to the game), so a bold move in tournament format should pique interest among all kinds of players – tournament enthusiasts, casual heretics, and yet more dormant veterans. Fans of this game love it when Wizards makes a clear effort to appeal to the “heart” (read: flavor) of Magic. And that’s what this would be.
    Sure, there would be sassy critics who would make their name hating a popular move, just like there are ornery fellows who nitpick the Lord of the Rings movies so they can look and feel different from everyone else. But when you think about it, they need something like this as much as the rest of us. They just need it for different reasons.

  4. It would result in even fewer “wasted” cards. One of the great successes of today’s limited formats is the way it puts additional value into every purchase of every pack. Players can stretch their enjoyment of the game by using commons and uncommons (and rares) that simply don’t measure up in constructed tournament play.
    This benefit extends easily into a newly sanctioned team-play format. Just yesterday (as I write this), my friends and I played Mirrodin emperor draft for the first time. (Six players, emperors sit opposite each other and between the two opposing lieutenants to draft; the lieutenants opposite each other will shuffle seats after drafting and play opposite each other.) The strategy involved is terrific. Isochron Scepter, which has high constructed value but very debatable limited value, vaults back to the top of any emperor’s list. Meanwhile, a lieutenant to an enemy emperor’s right has to weigh whether a Vulshok Battlegear will make it past that emperor and into a teammate’s hands. Loxodon Mender is better than Fangren Hunter to one-third of the drafting table. Folks, that’s crazy talk! And we could all enjoy it together.

Bottom line, there’s an opportunity that could expand Wizards’ market, increase revenue per customer, and make the customers more satisfied with every purchase.

So what’s wrong with this idea? Actually, quite a few things.

What’s Wrong With This Idea

As an analyst by day, I get paid to consider pros and cons. I’m doing a faster job on this issue than I generally do, since Magic is just a game to me. But I can still see several reasons why Wizards would hesitate to sanction team play. Here are the issues proponents must face:

  1. Wizards lacks an obvious need for another sanctioned format. Randy Buehler laid out a convincing case why there really isn’t room for another sanctioned format on the Pro Tour when he talked about the potential for Type I Pro Tour a while back. The basic logic: a sanctioned format means a great deal more if there’s Pro Tour support for it; there are a limited number of Pro Tours in a given year; the current (and greatly successful) slate of sanctioned formats just barely fits as it is. So, one might reasonably ask, what would Mr. Team-Happy take away?
    My answer would be to investigate increasing the number of Pro Tour stops, since that is the “easiest” variable to change in that string of logic. But I also understand such a step is more complex than it sounds. Wizards needs an excellent reason to change the strong system they have. I just happen to think the reason exists, in the form of lots and lots more money.

  2. Sanctioning a casual format will “ruin” the casual format. I admit to making a general case around this point in one of my early articles, about two years ago. I said something like, why would casual players want Wizards messing with their formats? And many casual players agree, and go a step further: casual formats are casual formats, and pro formats are pro formats, and never should the twain meet.
    But in that instance above, I was responding to a letter-writer who wanted to know why Wizards doesn’t do more to structure casual play – to hand all casual players around the world a list of formats that are “approved” and “acceptable”. Such distinctions are nonsense to me. You can encourage casual players to be creative without Wizards’ help, while also suggesting to Wizards that they invest in one of the most stable and creative formats casual players have to offer.
    Anyway, the argument that Wizards would “ruin” the format doesn’t hold much water. Having many more players play a format doesn’t “ruin” it. Even if some of the players you attract are obnoxious (and I would suggest I’ve discovered obnoxiousness among casual players in equal proportion to what I’ve unearthed among pros, or pro-wannabes), it doesn’t prevent you from playing the format tomorrow, with your friends, exactly the way you play it today.
    Bottom line here is that sanctioning a format does nothing to hurt casual players who enjoy that format. We casual players should have faith in our ability to overcome popularity.

  3. People will cheat in team play. There are numerous ways to gain advantages when you have a teammate. You can show each other cards, ask each other for advice, give clues on what to kill, and so on. How can Wizards put a stop to this?
    As someone who works in public policy, I know a little something about where regulation works and where it doesn’t. Functioning regulation requires (a) moral authority and (b) enforceability. (That’s “should” you do it and “can” you do it.) On moral authority, we should ask ourselves what we’re willing to tolerate in a team-play tournament. If you can communicate in some fashion with your teammate, do you really care if your enemies are also communicating? You knowing what’s in your enemy’s hand is an unfair advantage. You knowing what’s in your friend’s hand is an advantage, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unfair.
    Then add in enforceability, and you quickly see that trying to stop people from communicating with each other is pointless. There are all sorts of non-verbal communication that can lay waste to your plans. Judges can’t monitor this.
    We can do an entire article (and subsequent message board!) on the topic; but I think three basic guidelines would keep team play clean:

    • Teammates may not touch each other’s permanents, hands, or libraries. This minimizes the possibility of opportune “land-sharing”, or extra card-drawing, or whatever else. Of course, you may need to do so to resolve a particular spell (e.g., Lobotomy, though I wouldn’t consider you much of a teammate if you cast it on me).
    • Teammates may communicate with each other non-verbally. This would follow procedure for team Rochester draft, and would add a layer of interesting strategy to the game. It’s pretty enforceable (either you’re talking or you’re not), and judges have experience with it.
    • Teammates may not show each other their hands, or other information exclusive to them. You end up with people spending more time looking at and pointing to each other’s hands than actually playing the game. Plus, it just plain feels wrong. But it’s not very easily enforced – at least with consecutive seating. This creates a problem, especially for Emperor format. (Two-headed giant teammates can always sit opposite one another, which makes revealing hands a lot harder. I mean, if the guy wants to dip down his hand so everyone can see, that seems less offensive.)

    There are more issues that would need attention, and more possible solutions. They don’t make for very exciting articles, though. Bring ‘em to the message boards. I’ve touched on this long enough to show that the floor rules changes are a challenging obstacle to introducing a sanctioned team-play format.
    So do we sink team-play formats because we’re afraid someone might flash someone else their hand? No. There are plenty of rules in current tournament duel Magic that are very hard to enforce – did a player look at the top card of his library? Did a player announce a spell correctly? What was the life total before combat damage struck this turn? Did a player finalize his block, or was he just thinking when the attacker rushed onto the next step? All of these situations and more get very tricky without a judge there every moment of every game – and sometimes even a judge’s presence doesn’t make “he said, she said” any quieter.
    We just have to work on this. So let’s get to it.

A Modest Proposal

To move forward with a new format, Wizards will need at least three things (and I’m sure they reserve the right to add to this list):

  • A compelling reason to add a new sanctioned format;
  • Some assurance this is a good business move;
  • Solid, clear, enforceable floor rules.

I think there are two fabulous ways to test the water for all three, and it doesn’t have to cost Wizards a single additional dollar. (In fact, the research might make ‘em money.)

Fabulous Way #1: Later this year, Wizards will continue its annual tradition of the Magic Invitational. Mark Rosewater runs this high-profile event, which takes 16 of the best players in the world and makes them play in all sorts of unconventional formats.

Two-headed giant teammates Diego Ostrovich and Carlos Romao
Only once has this included a multiplayer format - The 2002 Invitational, which included 2-headed giant. Beyond this article, I haven't seen much in the way of the "results" of the format: what did we learn works? What did we learn didn't? Was Wizards studying the format for possible sanctioning? Did it occur to them that they might be on to something? (It's okay if it didn't. Goodness knows people can't think of everything. For my own part, I forget to take out the trash virtually every Monday evening, which leads to an embarrassing bathrobe-on-ice spectacle every wintry Tuesday morning as the truck pulls up.)

It would be great to hear more about what Wizards learned from this experience, and whether they plan something like it again. And it would also be great to have Mark, and Randy, and the other good people at Wizards and the DCI share what they learned from seeing pros do it a second time. And while we're at it, it would be super-duper great to hear from the pros who have done it, and would do it again, and see the strategic possibilities (and problems).

Dave Price and Chris Pikula have been teammates so long, they don't even need to look at each other
I plan on calling Mark and telling him so. You should not call him; but you should email him. (Now don't feel bad for him if he gets flooded even deeper than he already is! He keeps telling us how much he wants to hear from him, and for all we know I just helped him write his next two mailbag columns.) Bear in mind that while Mark does not respond to every email, he does commit to reading each one. So whether you like this idea or not, tell him.

Seriously, would it kill the 16 best players in the world to buddy up and play? Well, let's go back to the 2002 videotape: no, they're all still alive. And I'll bet they'd love the chance to do it again. They're really lovely people, these pros. And if they hate repeating the experience, well then, we'll have learned something, won't we? And the pros will live with the disappointment. It's not like they didn't get a free trip to Australia, or the Galapagos Islands, or Mars, or wherever the game is played.

Fabulous Way #2: Wizards should encourage local tournament providers to test a two-headed giant format, unsanctioned, at a Prerelease this year. (I say two-headed giant because I believe it’s the less complicated format, with less opportunities for grey-area behavior.) The timing would be great – the next “big” set’s release will be within a month of the Invitational. Those local tournament providers who want to give a cool, exciting opportunity to their customers – or maybe just those who want to discover a new revenue stream – will gladly volunteer.

The only additional burdens would be some administrative time – adding a publicity line to their web site, registering one additional side event, setting up pairings (by hand, so cap the participation), and then providing a brief, two-page report to the DCI on what their customers liked and hated about the format, and what they see as the benefits and challenges. Maybe there’s more to it than that and I don’t see it. Maybe some local organizers wouldn’t want to do this even if it was simple. Maybe some would, and I’d give them free press before that Prerelease weekend. The world is full of maybes, isn’t it?

While this market research wouldn’t be perfectly scientific, it would give Wizards about as nifty a sample of customer demand as you can get for free. And it might make them, and your local organizer, more money as well.

So, in the interests of making Wizards and your local tournament organizer more profitable, I urge anyone who likes this idea to contact both Mark Rosewater and their local tournament organizer and ask them what they think. Email them politely, and send ‘em this article’s link. (If you don’t know who handles the prereleases in your area, ask around at a local gaming store, or query a knowledgeable friend. NOTE: I am your friend, but I am not knowledgeable!)

If absolutely nothing happens, we casual players will still have these wonderful team-play formats to treasure. On the other hand, if something does happen, we can rejoice that Wizards and the Magic community will be richer for it – both literally and figuratively.

You may email Anthony at seriousfun@wizards.com. But please try to post opinions on this topic to the message boards, where actual Wizards staff can read them as well!

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