A statistical analysis of popping off in Magic. Also, stories about human connection, competition, and vulnerability.
Editor's Note: This article was written in mid-February, before concerns about COVID-19 caused in-person Magic events to be cancelled for the foreseeable future. If this article's criticisms seem overly harsh given the kinds of events and coverage that are possible right now, they should remind us of the opportunities that were missed before the rise of COVID-19—and which we will have again once we make it through this challenging time.
There are too many of us and we are all too far apart.
Whether we like it or not, Magic: The Gathering Arena has ushered in a new age of fighting each other with cards for some mix of money and nebulous reputation. As the game we all know and supposedly love continues its march into the Twitch coliseum to become one of the Top esports, its most glaring weak points remain exposed. There is a major problem in high-level competitive Magic, and yes, it is the one you're thinking of: it's boring.
Let me explain myself.
This single issue is what I have identified as the biggest wall the competitive Magic scene faces on its path to having more highlighted success on the level of other esports such as Hearthstone or League of Legends. So many people often ask, "Why aren't more people into watching Magic?" I ask the same question of myself as I sit alone in my apartment watching the same four infographics between matches of the Mythic Championships constantly. It couldn't possibly be because boardstates often look like this:
This scenario is easily understandable and readable to any viewer jumping into the middle of a match. New innovations, such as card descriptions when you hover over the cards on Arena streams, have only further lightened the burden of furiously typing card names into Scryfall (open in a second window) to try and make sense of what's happening. Commentators spend most of the matches only talking about strategy, possible draws, and lines of play, so a lack of understanding clearly isn't the problem.
This leaves the question, is something wrong with the game itself? Absolutely not. Ask any MPL player and they will tell you how Magic: The Gathering is a perfect game that has zero flaws. If Dota 2, a game born from a mod that makes Absolute Zero Sense to everyone (anyone who says they know what's happening is lying) can peak at 1 million Twitch viewers during its premiere event, why can't Magic?
This leaves us with only one remaining factor.
Magic has the misfortune of playing younger sibling to other "intellectual sports" like poker and chess, and we see this reflected in the players' attitudes and habits. Silent, careful observation of boardstates from chess becomes Grand Prix competitors taking way too long to make a play. Nervous tics like chip shuffling in poker becomes card flicking. People argue online about how much more skill their decks take to play and rank themselves with letter grades to prove they're superior to others, as if the American academic letter grading system wasn't already a joke. All of this seems deathly serious for a game about people pretending to battle armies of wizards and goblins or whatever.
Magic is a weird game. Magic players are strange people, myself included. The popularity of Magic exists because of the near-undying love of the people who play it. The game shop rats who form lifelong friendships over their mutual devotion to an archetype. The people crammed into a hotel room together, staying up until 3am talking when Round 1 starts at 9am the next day. The die-hards who put up with the god-awful user interface of MTGO because they just want to play the game they love so badly. Like any activity where money gets involved, almost everything great gets sanded down and erased.
In sponsored streams, I see people half-interestedly clicking through their turns while asking for a "poggers" in the chat to fuel that delicious Engagement. In coverage, I see people lifelessly tossing spells at each other while (most) commentators regurgitate card names and jargon into microphones. When I see promos of players standing in front of dark grey backdrops with their arms folded, trying to look tough, I wonder what happened to those lovable dorks that got me excited to play in the first place.
The first Pro Tour I ever watched live was PT Khans of Tarkir in October 2014. At that point in time, I hadn't watched much coverage to really know any specific players. In Round 16, I watched Lee Shi Tian play for his Top 8 life. I had never seen him play before that day, but I was an unquestionable lifelong fan by the end of the round.
Within the final three turns of this match, an entire play's worth of drama unfolds. Lee Shi Tian takes his turn, doesn't draw the spell he needs, and passes while looking devastated. His opponent attacks, plays a Siege Rhino in typical Abzan fashion, and passes the turn with Lee at 1 life. Lee knocks the top of his deck and draws his card blind. He slow-rolls himself in the most agonizing way possible, to the point that the coverage team is ducking down right behind him, anxious to catch a glimpse of the future. Before we can even see the card on screen, Lee starts tapping the perfect trinity of Jeskai mana. He slams the Jeskai Ascendency down, but that's not the end of the match. Now, he must start casting more spells to try and loot his way out of losing. Every new draw an agonizing door to opportunity for victory or failure.
Nerves are clearly on display from both players. They're fighting for a spot in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. They know each other's decks and can read the board. They both know the entire match will unquestionably be decided in this one turn. Why wouldn't they be emotional? What is there to hide? What difference does it make if Lee Shi Tian is "giving away information" by putting what he feels on display?
After a few spells, Lee finds a Dig Through Time which finds him the two combo pieces that allow him to go infinite and win. In an incredible show of strength, he puts both the cards down on the table face up and flashes his opponent a devilish grin before he's even finished resolving the spell. But it's still not over! His opponent has two mana up and didn't concede at the sight of the combo, so Lee now has to scour his memory for any possible way he could lose. Ultimately, he determines that he must go for the win regardless and assembles the infinite loop. As he begins drawing every card in his deck, his opponent interrupts him to shake hands. Lee pounds on the table and screams with exasperated joy. He explodes out of his chair and runs off the stage and into the arms of his friends. This match is the reason why I primarily play combo decks to this day.
An entire emotional arc ranging from heartbreak, panic, joy, panic again, and elation is on full display in this match. This is a professional wrestling story with no fabrication. You cannot write what happened. Every step of the way, we can see our memories and experiences reflected in Lee Shi Tian's, no matter how small our own may be in comparison. Every Magic player who has played for a decent amount of time has at least one Story About This Unbelievable Match That You Have To Hear, whether casual or competitive.
What makes watching sports compelling to outsiders is their ability to tell stories like this and feel connected to these players doing something we'll, most likely, never be able to do. People who never play a sport like basketball can still be dedicated to watching it. The courtside antics, the players' styles coupled with their skill, the use of emotion to show your dominance in high pressure situations.
These are all the hooks to draw people in and keep them coming back. Emotions and stories are the lifeblood of any sport's success, and Magic is no different. So then, why does competitive Magic play almost always look so uniform and lifeless?
There's an ongoing battle about respectability politics in Magic. I stopped following Magic players on Twitter for my own mental health (HIGHLY recommended) after seeing non-stop discourse about a different topic people mutually decided to get upset about each day. One of the last big discussions I remember was surrounding various forms of personal expression in Magic, like post-game celebrations. A lot of the discussion was centered around how these are universally bad because of various reasons: making people feel bad for losing, bad sportspersonship, or "I don't like it."
There will always be a winner and a loser. Everyone in the final round of a big tournament has worked hard to get there. Everybody in that spot wants to win. However, in the eyes of most, expressing your excitement is a bridge too far in Magic. For whatever reason, this fear of potentially making someone feel bad miraculously disappears during Top 8 announcements where the people who miss on breakers are right there watching the victor celebrate. These incongruities are everywhere.
The culture surrounding competitive play is incredibly conservative. There's lots of factors: overabundance of masculinity, narratives surrounding "intellect over emotion," culture being primarily defined by relatively few people. Everything is quite insular. The stories that get told are primarily determined by what the major broadcasters and Magic sites decide to publish, which tends to be content written by and showcasing a small group of the enormous playerbase.
However, the truth of the matter is that homogeneity among players isn't the only answer. There's no objectively "right" way to play Magic, it's nowhere near being solved. For whatever reason, there's a general consensus behind "any talking, emotion, or personality is giving away information" in the competitive scene, even when there are clear examples to the contrary.
I stood behind a player who bluffed being upset at drawing a blank to bait their opponent into playing out their hand for an alpha strike to win Game 3 of the finals of a PTQ. I watched LSV's famous token trick for the Settle the Wreckage blowout happen live, at the edge of my seat. I've seen Chapin's pen trick. There is an incredibly high probability that if different players were sitting in the seats of each of these examples, the outcomes would have been different. Emotion can be wielded as another tool to show your mastery of the game. Why are so many players hung up on having any sort of differentiating style or showing emotion when some of Magic's most memorable moments are built around them?
All of these examples harken back to poker, where players use talking and emotion as a strategic tool. There are right and wrong places to talk, and knowing how to use your emotion to get a read on your opponent is often what separates a good player from a great one. LSV building up his opponent's sense of security with his token trick could have gone awry if he oversold it, but he shows his skill in walking the line while nudging others over the edge. The reason he is able to do this is because he has built up his personality and style over the years as being such a shining jewel in the community. People love LSV, they love him so much that he's able to lead people who trust him too much astray and into a trap. LSV isn't the only player allowed to do this, so why is he basically the only one? How many other players can you say similar sentiments about?
There's a hunger to know more about the people we spend so much time watching. It's why you see players with strong social media followings. It's why you see the non-MPL-pushed streamers who are full of charm thriving. Why do people have to do so much digging around to see the human element of Magic?
There's a concept in marketing called "friction," which refers to the layers of hassle someone has to deal with before they can get what they want. This is just a disgusting, capitalist way of summating human behavior to statistics (as all marketing is *AIRHORN*). All it means is, "You need to make content easy to access if you want people to care." If you want someone to listen to a song you've made, tweeting a link to a YouTube video rather than embedding the video to the tweet is one layer of friction. Having an ad on the video adds another layer of friction. Each of these increases the likelihood someone will stop paying attention before even trying to care. Because Magic tends to be slower and calmer than other high action esports, the stories and emotions that drive the game are behind layers of friction, usually hidden in scattered interviews and tweets from the players.
And so we arrive at a "chicken or the egg" problem: are players themselves too reserved and guarded in showing emotion due to the culture, or is the content production behind the showcasing of players lacking? The root of this issue doesn't matter to outsiders looking in for the first time to try and understand why Magic is special. All they see are the shortcomings. So how do we determine what the problem is? Well, since all of you Magic players love math so much, this is where we can use its unquestionable authority to prove exactly how boring Magic is.
pop off (n): an immediate and powerful post-game celebration in reaction to a hard fought victory
Ever since Lee Shi Tian's monumental pop off, I've been paying close attention to the final match of every major tournament to see similar emotional moments. I am usually left disappointed, save for a few exceptions. Despite this drought, the most famous videos in Magic's history have two elements in common: topdecks and pop offs. The Lightning Helix, the topdecked Bonfire of the Damned, the called-shot Cruel Ultimatum. Let's look at the Bonfire of the Damned video as a case study. Magic R&D Director Aaron Forsythe's warped visage in the background of this clip says it all.
I had seen this clip before I ever started playing Magic and loved it. People who have never played Magic before can watch this clip and understand why it's hilarious and exciting. Someone had one chance to win, and they did. There's no need to know the life totals or boardstate. Does anybody even care about everything that came before this moment? It's not about the Magic that was being played. It's about the pop off. It is the core of the emotional hook to reel people in for the long-haul.
I hypothesize that the relatively lower viewership and viewership retention of competitive Magic in comparison to other eSports is due to the lower quantity and quality of pop offs from players, which limits both the players' and broadcasters' ability to tell stories as a result of their actions. Therefore, more pop offs and player expression in Magic would result in more long-term viewers. I derived this hypothesis from my careful observations, which resulted these equations I've determined to be true:
HUMAN CONNECTION = LONG-TERM VIEWERS
GAME + HUMAN CONNECTION = LONG-TERM GAME VIEWERS
If Magic coverage is able to show off more of the humanity and personality of the players through pop offs, we can expect to both pull in more viewers and have rich emotional moments to show for it.
To provide a backdrop for our pop offs, I pulled similar data from Super Smash Brothers: Melee. I chose Melee because it is also a game that is over eighteen years old and primarily played by die-hard weirdos. Melee has had a higher average peak viewership on Twitch over the past four years than Magic, despite not having a series of tournaments directly paid and run by the game's parent company. Also, the overall playerbase and prize pools for the major events in Melee are much smaller than Magic's, which raises the question of why Melee can pull more viewers despite being an entirely grassroots community. Additionally, I have followed both of these games extensively for 5+ years, so I am somewhat comfortable with drawing conclusions surrounding them.
I wanted to include Hearthstone in this study, but I decided against it for a few reasons. Firstly, Blizzard/Activision has had much more experience in the major esports broadcasting arena and dumped more mountains of money into gaining viewership, so a comparison to Magic feels unfair. Secondly, the tournament structuring of Hearthstone made determining which events should or shouldn't be counted quite difficult. Finally, I would have had to scrub through hours of Hearthstone videos to find the pop offs in incognito mode to avoid destroying my YouTube recommendations, and that would have required me to watch an exorbitant amount of ads, a fate I would not wish upon even my most devoted enemies.
You may be asking: why are pop offs important? A foolish question from the uninitiated. A cursory Youtube search for "best Melee pop offs" will reveal several videos with hundreds of thousands of views. A similar search for "best Magic (The Gathering) pop offs" revealed absolutely zero. Pop offs are the emotions in games sharpened to their finest point. They happen at the climax of the competition, so if emotional threads aren't present there, the rest of the competition is more than likely also lacking. Why am I using statistics to prove this point? Well, I had to take a lot of college statistics courses and I desperately want to prove to myself that they amounted to something, no matter how ridiculous. I'm asserting that because Melee has higher viewer peaks during its tournaments than Magic, we can expect to see Melee have a higher number of pop offs, as well as higher quality, at the conclusion of tournaments.
Now, if we're going to be charting these pop offs, we need to come up with a codified system in which to categorize them. Like almost everything, pop offs are not a binary but a spectrum. This is where my long-developed, rigid rules of determining what separates a "bad" or "non-existent" pop off from a "good" or "legendary" one comes into play.
Every pop-off begins with zero points and has a potential for three points. One point is assigned for a "strong vocalization," one point for an "explosive action" such as fist pumping or jumping out of a chair, one point for "overwhelming emotion" such as crying or any other action I deemed appropriate. To note, this does not include moments like being rushed by friends unfortunately. All of the actions must be self-determined for this study.
Here are some clear examples of each level of pop-off:
0 Points: PV winning PT Hour of Devastation.
1 Point: Antonio Del Moral Leon winning PT Fate Reforged.
2 Points: Ondřej Stráský winning MC VI.
3 Points: The Pop Off God of Magic, Javier Dominguez.
From this study, I should be able to pull any number of conclusions that will prove the points I want to make, like you do with all good data. These conclusions will let me answer the burning questions on everyone's minds:
"Are even Magic players not immune /
to the desire for empathic connection? /
Are we not all storytellers in our own right /
but too constrained by the culture we've constructed /
that constricts our ability to express ourselves? /
Or are we nomads /
forever wandering the deserts of convention center halls /
for the faintest of touch /
in the form of an obligatory post-game handshake?"
Whatever, let's get this over with. Here's some math.
If you were unsure of whether this article was a joke or not, let this image be your answer.
Wow, I'm ready to call this one an open-and-shut case. With a sample size of 29 events between both games, Melee has almost double the average pop off rating. An interesting note is that Magic has been seeing an increase of viewership in the past couple of years. Some detractors may foolishly correlate this to the release of Arena and the increase in spending that Wizards of the Coast has been doing, but this graph shows the truth. Following Javier Dominguez's incredible display after winning Worlds 2018, we can observe an overall increase in frequency and magnitude of pop offs in his wake, resulting in higher view counts. That's enough proof for me, no need to look at any other external factors that might interfere with this data! I'm done thinking about this forever.
It looks like we're all going to have to start making a concerted effort to be more expressive during matches and popping off afterward. To Magic players everywhere: let's start making things spicier. Start talking with your opponent and get to know them more! Make the game be about the struggle between two people and not just the cards in your hand! Most important, let 'em know what's up when you've won. How else will people know how much winning means to you?
If you are on the receiving end of a pop off and become agitated, a prolonged discussion with a licensed psychologist could help you consider how it would feel to be in your opponent's shoes in that situation, strengthening your ability to form empathic bonds with others. That skill even has use outside of Magic!
When you root around down under the thunderdumpster with a rat as big as me, you're gonna find some weird trash.
When I first started playing Magic, I made a lot of mistakes. Not just in my play, but in my interactions with others. A few friends approached me asking to learn to play when my obsession was at its peak. I tried to teach them the basics of the game while also explaining optimal strategy, cool decks that work through weird stack interactions, and older formats. All of them dropped off within a few days. They didn't care about Magic or why I thought the complexity of the game was unparalleled, they just wanted to have a shared activity between us.
Both Magic and Melee are games that are incredible because of their adaptability. They're great because they can just be a party game or a competitive sport with near-unlimited depth. There's an emotional core to both games, but in Melee it's on full display. When you see two players with a long standing history face off in Melee, the tension between them is beyond palpable, and the commentators do an incredible job of making the stakes clear. No matter who is playing, no matter who wins or loses, there's a story to be told somewhere. But for whatever reason, most competitive Magic coverage seems to only have a desire to grind all human elements of the game down to paste: how to improve your game, total earnings, win percentages. An endless sea of arbitrary numbers. One of the recurring phrases I heard when searching the Magic videos for pop offs was commentators justifying the players' lack of emotions with "it's just another day at the office for them." Really? Is this what we want to show about this game? That players winning the biggest tournaments around isn't even exciting to them?
When I see the wannabe-pros trying to rank themselves in relation to others on Twitter, my heart breaks. When I see Arena players get hung up on their Ladder Ranking, I want to grab and shake them. When people discuss others only in ELO ranks and deck choices, I give up. As I evidenced above to prove a point, you can't represent the complexities of humanity with simple and boring math, as much as our current world wants us to. Humans are messy and beautiful, and I love everyone for it.
There's only a few incredible stories in Magic that I can remember seeing over the past few years, and almost all of them happened by happenstance. Look at Autumn Burchett winning the first Mythic Championship. You have the first openly trans player winning the first Mythic Championship to mark a new era of competitive play, coupled with WotC's ongoing campaign to push for more inclusivity and diversity in competitive Magic. You have them being rushed and embraced by their friends immediately after shaking hands. This story just fell into coverage's lap, and I am grateful for it.
Images like this feel scarce in Magic's history. In this single frame, there's so much vulnerability. It's so human. We see a turning point in the game's history. We see an incredible Magic player, exhausted but victorious. We see their community propping them up all around, the friends gained from playing. We see whatever we need.
There are moments like this anywhere or inside anyone. You can find them. Sometimes they exist only in the memories of those involved. Sometimes they leak out in ways we can see, like Christian Calcano's tearful speech after making a Pro Tour Top 8 being interrupted by his friends' cheering.
(Skip to 08:52:47)
I had never met or followed Christian before watching this moment live on stream, but I cried seeing it happen. I cried again finding the clip for this article. I cried for someone I will most likely never meet, with only a love for Magic in common, all because a camera happened to be there to see his tenacity over the span of years all crystalized into one moment.
These are the moments that keep me coming back to watch Magic, not the cards or mechanics. The truth is Magic isn't always good. Just look at Oko Fall or Eldrazi Winter. I remember messaging one of my friends who was at Mythic Championship VI following Oko's printing about how the event was going. He told me that by the middle of Day 2, the players who had no way of securing a Top 8 spot had taken on an entirely different vibe. Players who were usually stoic were now casually chatting with their opponents, talking about how ridiculous it was with almost every deck playing Oko, laughing together about the state of the game they all loved. If moments of vulnerability like that can still bloom after playing seven or eight miserable Oko mirror matches, they can happen anywhere.
Wizards of the Coast will not broadcast moments like these, the heartfelt moments that paint the state of their game in a bad light. They are ultimately a company that cares about their brand image more than the people who make their game exciting to watch. They will only show off emotional stories when it is convenient for them, when it comes to them already packaged. It's up to players to show why they care about the game by showing it in coverage or making coverage of their own that include the complex realities of how they feel about it. One of the reasons Melee shows off the human side of the game so well is because it only exists due to the love of the players, not because Nintendo is pumping money into tournaments and player sponsorships. In turn, Melee players put their entire heart into everything they do, whether it be making their own documentaries, streaming, playing local weekly tournaments, or duking it out on the biggest stages. I'd like to think this is possible for Magic players to do too.