Not many things are as universally feared and rejected as change. Change represents the unknown, and the unknown is scary. Wild and crazy things can happen in the unknown. Bad things can happen in the unknown. So can good things, of course, but why would any of those ever happen to us? Am I right, or am I correct?
A mysterious, mostly benevolent and all-knowing entity known simply as "they" are often credited as saying the phrase "knowing is half the battle." However, what "they" don't tell you is that not knowing is the other half of the battle, and that's the half of the battle where you lose horrifically and see everything you care about stripped away in the process. Not knowing really sucks. If you're happy with the way things are right now, change represents the possibility for the things you are content with to go away. It's pretty natural to reject it.
Personally, I hate change for one simple reason. It's annoying to carry around. That's why I always use a credit or debit card for purchases, when applicable. And with that, I'm a...quarter...of the way to reaching my horrible joke quota for the year. Cha-ching!
In all seriousness, change is actually a good thing. Nothing can ever progress without change. Nothing can ever get better without change. Magic can continue to be a good game, but without change happening, it can never ascend to being truly great.
Magic players have been notorious for being resistant to change. Some of Magic'sbest improvements to the rules and to how they make cards have been met with cries of "The scry is falling" or that the new change is simply heralding the end of Magic: The Gathering as we know it. Thankfully, Celine Dion put it best when she belted out: "Our game must go on" as part of the soundtrack to the hit movie Titanic Misplay.
Today, I want to talk about some changes to Magic. Specifically, I want to go over some things that I personally want to see changed, big and small alike. Are these great ideas? Should these actually be implemented? We truly can't know the answer to that question. You can never really know how good or bad something is without trying it, and these are things I would like to see tried differently at some point.
I'll start with what is likely a fairly easy one to get behind. I'll preface by saying that designing a flawless tournament structure that nearly everyone can agree on for events with thousands of players who all have wildly different goals and expectations of what they want out of it is a monumental task. Some may even say it is impossible.
With that said, there are some easily identifiable flaws with the current structure. There are three basic things to know about the current structure. The first is that they made them a static number of rounds, 15, to make things easier on the tournament organizer, judges, and players to know what to expect. In a Swiss pairing structure, like what Magic currently uses, you are supposed to vary the number of rounds based on the number of players, but Grand Prix do not do that.
The second is that they restructured the payouts over the last year. In an effort to make Magic more appealing to people outside of the game, WOTC altered Grand Prix payouts to be more top heavy. Having a $10,000 first place prize looks a lot more appealing to non-Magic players than a $4,000 first place prize, even though the total prize pool hasn't changed. WOTC wants to be taken seriously as an esport, and having a $4,000 first place purse in a tournament that brings in thousands of players can be seen as a joke. I honestly don't think $10,000 looks that great either, but an extra digit is certainly an improvement, regardless. The restructuring of the prizes meant that prize money was taken away from players from 65th place onward, and even the top 64 prize (33rd-64th) is only $250, which isn't much.
The third thing is that they changed Grand Prix from 7-2 or better making Day Two to 6-3 or better. This drastically increased the number of players who make the second day of competition, which drastically increased the number of players who come into the second day to compete for a prize.
When you combine them all together you get a static number of rounds at a Grand Prix that doesn't change based on the size of the event, an enormous increase in the number of players who compete for prizes and a significant decrease in how many players receive prize and how much they get for GP prizes outside of the Top 8. Basically, you have more players competing for a dwindling prize purse outside of the Top 8, making a higher percentage of players come away empty-handed. Because of the static number of rounds, this also means the players who do and do not receive prize is decided heavily by tiebreakers.
This creates situations like GP Shizuoka, where a couple of players who went 12-3 missed Top 64 and got no prizes, despite that record generally being good enough for Top 16 or Top 32. In this specific Grand Prix, 12-3 went from 20th place, good for $500, to 33rd place, good for $250, to 66th place, good for nothing. Routinely, we see situations where a small handful of players who go 11-4 get Top 64, while the majority miss. It all comes down to tiebreakers.
If they played more rounds to appropriately reflect how many Swiss tournament rounds should be played, this would even itself out. However, I don't think that is a good solution because of the strain it puts on players, judges, and the event staff to figure out logistics for an event with huge variance in run time. We have to look elsewhere.
I think when you look at them individually, changing GPs to where 6-3 makes Day Two and changing GPs to have a more appealing prize to market Magic as an esport are both good changes. The flaw is that they simply do not work well with each other. Increasing how many people compete for a prize and then decreasing the likelihood of achieving a prize don't mesh.
I don't have a perfect solution for this problem. I don't think anyone does. However, I do think a fairly easy improvement is to just have the prize payout and the number of players who make Day Two match each other. If you want a top-heavy payout, then have a top-heavy qualification system for Day Two. If you want a flat payout, then you can have a higher number of players make Day Two to compete for a higher number of places that receive prize. This mix-and-match thing where you have a flat qualification for a top-heavy prize isn't working out.
One of the most frequent things I get asked in Magic is: "Why do you roll three dice?" When I sit down to play a tournament match of Magic, I try to always get to the table first and get my dice out first so I am in control of the process of how we roll to see who goes first. I ask my opponent if high roll is okay, and if they say yes, I roll three six-sided dice to start things off.
Why do I care so much about being in control of the process and why do I roll three dice when the norm is two dice? I do it to protect against getting cheated. I used to just roll two dice and let my opponent dictate the flow of rolling to see who goes first. I started to notice that people oftentimes will just pick up two dice and drop them instead of actually shaking them up in their hand and rolling them across the table. Nobody does that with three dice. Everyone always shakes them up and rolls them.
When you just pick up dice and drop them from a short height, it's pretty easy to control what numbers you get. After losing again to my opponent rolling an 11 off of two dice where they barely picked them up and then just dropped them onto the table instead of rolling them, I decided I was done dealing with it. Whether or not people are actually cheating dice rolls, I'd rather not have to deal with the possibility of it being a thing. Almost every judge call that results from a dispute over rolling dice results in bad blood between the two players playing. I mean, if you can't even agree on how to roll dice, what is the rest of the match going to look like?
Things would be much simpler if I didn't have to do all of this, and indeed there is a way. WOTC can just automate who wins the die roll. When they post pairings, they can also just randomize who gets the choice of going first and post them there as well. This takes away any opportunity for players to cheat or create disputes over the die roll, and while that may not be a widespread issue, why not do this?
Automating the die roll also allows for the possibility to change the structure for going first altogether. Being on the play is extremely important in today's game, and when you have situations like me losing 14 out of 16 die rolls at Pro Tour Aether Revolt really affecting my tournament result, it can be annoying to be on the bad side of that.
If they start automating the die roll, they could even take it a step further by implementing a system for professional events where the player who has won less rolls over the course of an event gets to go first. So if you get paired against someone in Round 2 and you lost the Round 1 die roll and they won it, you get to go first. If you both won the roll, it's random again. Over the course of a long event, this would even out to going first approximately 50% of the time, creating a more balanced tournament experience for everyone involved.
The Coin is a card in Hearthstone that is functionally identical to Lotus Petal in Magic. Going first is a huge advantage in many games, and Hearthstone mitigates that advantage by giving players on the draw The Coin. The Coin is an extra card in their hand that generates +1 mana that turn to give the player on the draw an opportunity to catch up. It's pretty effective. Back when I played a lot of Hearthstone, it was never clear to me whether going first or second was actually better, and I imagine it came down a lot to the matchup. Some decks, like various Mage or Rogue strategies, had cards that produced effects when you cast spells and The Coin being a free spell that generated mana allowed for some sweet turns. Those decks actually often had an increased win percentage on the draw than the play, which I found cool.
Right now, especially in Standard, going first is an enormous advantage. The same is generally true in Modern as well. Being the first player to draw a card isn't enough of an edge to make being on the draw worth it. It's arguable that it isn't even an edge at all. Let's say you're on the draw against an aggressive deck and they kill you on their fifth turn. On that turn, they draw their fourth card of the game. Having played four turns, you've only drawn four cards as well, the same amount. You are only ever up a card on your own turns, making being on the draw not really an extra card, but more like half of an extra card.
I'm not literally arguing that we should give players The Coin for being on the draw in Magic. A free Lotus Petal is way too good and easily abusable by some of the most broken decks in Magic. However, I do feel that the current system isn't doing enough to help the player on the draw. In a perfect situation, decks would have the same likelihood of winning on the play or the draw, making it far less important who won the die roll. In our current game, oftentimes the winner of the die roll is also just the winner of the match based on how the games play out.
I don't have the exact solution. I don't know exactly what a fix should be to make it more balanced between going first or second. I just know that right now it is very unbalanced, and I think Standard, for one, would be a lot healthier if there wasn't such a giant disparity between being on the play or draw. I would love to see WOTC experiment with ways to address this issue. I'm sure a solution exists – They just have to be willing to change things up and try new ideas.
These are some of the main things I'd like to see changed in Magic. It's certainly not an exhaustive list by any stretch, and I have a number of other things that I'd also like to see changed that I may flesh out in future articles.
I chose these to talk about because they were foremost on my mind and if you squint closely, you can notice a fairly common theme to all three suggestions. That theme is the idea of increasing consistency. For players who play in a lot of events, consistency is a good thing, and having some level of consistency added into Magic can go a long way toward making it feasible to attend and play in a lot of Magic events.
Now, I think variance is a great thing and a large part of what makes Magic the successful game that it is. I don't want to actually reduce the variance in the cards or the game itself, but I do want to reduce external variance, things like die rolls winning matches or tiebreakers deciding whether you get $500, $250, or $0. I'm perfectly happy getting mana screwed while my opponent rips Bonfire of the Damned three turns in a row to destroy me...as long as the die roll was fair and my resulting 11-4 finish means something.
- Brian Braun-Duin