Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Abstract Iterations #2 - Cleaning Out My Closet

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  As regular readers will already know I'm not overtly enamored with generic strategy articles or opinion/editorial type pieces here on this blog.  This is because I prefer more information orientated articles that focus on specific decks, cards and tournaments.  I generally believe that people who're reading about Magic on the internet are already plugged in enough to form their own opinions about the game and thus readers would rather I focus on cold hard facts when I post an article; information is power while opinions are like... nevermind you know the saying.  With that having been noted however I've recently found myself participating in a number of fascinating, emotionally charged discussions about Magic on Twitter with other players quite literally from all over the world.  While none of these discussions merits an article on it's own I thought it might be useful to group my thoughts on these subjects together into one article here on the blog.  For those of you looking for hot draft action or a Standard decklist; sorry to disappoint and I promise to get back to my typical fact orientated writing as soon as I get a couple things off my chest here.

On the New Phyrexia Pre-release Format: While personally I was unable to attend any of the local NPH pre-release events here in Toronto I had a number of friends both locally and on Twitter who attended multiple tournaments and I have to say folks; they weren't happy.  After reading a whole weekend's worth of complaints I had to see for myself and I managed to sucker a couple of them into playing the sealed format with me despite their general objections.  Unfortunately nothing about my play experience allowed me to disagree with the majority on the subject; the format is particularly bad because the wrong packs were chosen to form the sealed pools.  Simply put not only do I no longer need any of the rares/mythics in Scars the set has almost no synergy whatsoever with New Phyrexia without Mirrodin Besieged to bridge the gap.  This is particularly noticeable if you open a significant number of cards that say Metalcraft or Infect on them; the first trait is virtually nonexistent in NPH (Dispatch and?) while the SoM Infect cards require a constant stream of poisonous bodies which meshes poorly with the slow controlish Infect style favored in New Phrexia.  Additionally the common infect creatures in NPH just aren't as good as the common Infect creatures in SoM and the trait is spread out over all 5 colors instead of being concentrated into 2 like before.  While there are definitely powerful cards for either decktype in the format (Legionnaire, Tanadon for MC/Reaper of Sheoldred, Triumph of the Hordes for BG Infect) this simple truth is the lack of synergy made most of these cards "dead" in the pools they were opened in.  This in turn forced an absolutely huge number of people into playing 3 color control decks; typically Jund (B/G/R), Grixis (U/R/B) and Naya (G/R/W).  While I'm certainly not saying this is a bad result the truth is that 3 color control decks are *always* pretty good in sealed and changing the pack composition would have opened up other deck types in my opinion.  After finding the 3x SoM/3x NPH format frustrating several friends and I decided to play 6x NPH as an excuse to open more packs and found the format way more exciting; even with the presence of decks that had 3-4 copies of multiple strong common/uncommon removal spells (Volt Charge, Blinding Souleater, Dismember, etc).  While the decks were certainly a little overpowered to a man (woman) we agreed that the format was WAY more fun that what WotC had offered the previous weekend.  I don't want to be a whiny mcwhinerson here but I have a sneaking suspicion that the mix of packs chosen for this format had a LOT more to do with selling a whole pile of Scars packs than it did with providing the most fun release environment possible.  This is just my opinion of course but there's no question 2/2/2 with MBS included or just 6x NPH would have been a more enjoyable format.

On Qualifying for Nationals by Rating: Okay so technically I'm not actually qualified for nationals yet; due to some glitches in WotC's new tournament software they extended the cut-off date for Nationals Invitations to June 1st.  At this point however my rating is high enough that I do not believe enough people can catch me in time to prevent me from being in the top 100; I'm currently 45th in Canada with a 1971 Total rating and I believe the person in spot #100 is more than 30 points behind me.  Recently qualifying for this event has become a major goal in my life and once I realized that my rating was high enough to grant the opportunity I spent a great deal of time, energy and effort in making sure I stayed within the top 100 in Canada.  While I'm certainly happy to have accomplished my goal (I set out to qualify for Nationals the day after GP Toronto) there are certain aspects of the experience overall that I consider hugely negative and will probably never repeat.

For starters I would not purposely set out to qualify based on ranking ever again; simply put the DCI ratings system is horrible for a game like Magic and fails to account for the random variance inherent to the game itself.  While I won't bore you with complicated math the simple truth is the formula used to calculate your rating is based on completely unrealistic expected win % numbers when comparing two players 200-300 points apart on the rating scale.  You can learn more about your rating in this excellent article by Jeff Till at but suffice to say when some of the best players in the history of the game have career win percentages of 60-63% (Kai Budde, Jon Finkel, etc) it's pretty unrealistic to assume I have an 85% chance of beating *anyone* who's even reasonably competent at this game.  In my situation this problem is compounded by the fact that I mostly play Limited against hardened Magic veterans who have been playing for over a decade but absolutely do not maintain their ratings, so while the computer may think I have an huge edge over my opponent in terms of talent and experience that simply isn't true.  Finally further exacerbating this issue is the fact that due to poor health and a busy work schedule I have a hard time traveling to larger Magic tournaments more than once or twice a year.  This of course means that the vast majority of my events are standard LGS Drafts or 8K Friday Night Magic events; between the low K values of these tournaments and the vast disparity between my rating and the average rating in the room it's actually been incredibly hard for me to get anywhere within the system.  At this point losing a single match can cost me as much as 13-14 points while winning an entire 4 round tournament rarely gains me more than 9 points.  You don't need to be a math major to understand that the "Law of Diminishing Returns" is at work in this scenario and I have been playing with absolutely no margin for error since at least the beginning of March.  This may shock you to hear but the truth is *never* being allowed to lose isn't exactly a fun way to play Magic and I honestly feel just winning a National Qualifier tournament would have been much easier.  After all to win a 100 man qualifier you only have to be the best player in the room for a single day; to maintain a 1950+ rating while constantly playing in 8K LGS events you have to be the best player in the room all the time.  Frankly I doubt I'm up to the task; my local environment has a lot of very good players and the current streak I am on comes down as much to luck as any sort of playskill on my part.

This leads into my other major issue with qualifying on rating; the fact that right now it makes more sense for me *not* to play in sanctioned Magic tournaments than it does for me to keep playing the game I love at a competitive level.  Now before you dive all over me and say "it's your choice whether to risk the points or not" or "sitting on your rating is so lame" you need to understand one thing; it's not all about me anymore.  In fact I decided sometime in early March that I was going to keep playing despite the odds against me simply to at once prove to myself that I deserved the invitation and to maintain practice/focus for what will no doubt be the largest tournament in my life.  I did exactly what everyone on Twitter suggested; I cowgirled up and kept rolling the dice and somehow against all odds I kept coming out the winner.  A funny thing happened on the road to glory however; I started to notice that my friends and playgroup weren't having much fun playing against me.  You see like true friends none of these guys wanted to jeopardize my chances of attending Nationals and each of them were fully aware that even a single loss at this point in the season to someone with a low enough rating would likely cancel my ticket immediately.  In fact I began to suspect that they'd made an unspoken pact to avoid beating me for this very reason and when my good friend Kelly decided to "go home and get some sleep" rather than play me in the 2-0 bracket of a Thursday Night Draft I couldn't ignore the uncomfortable position I was putting my friends in any longer.  It was obvious to me that none of these guys intended to beat me before we sat down and while not everyone I played with was a friend of mine enough of them were that my participation in a given event meant a whole lot of people I cared about wouldn't be allowed to play to win.  This realization made me feel terrible about Magic and with a heavy heart I decided to stop playing until June 1st when things would go back to "normal" and I could stop caring about my rating.  Once again I'm left with the idea that simply winning a qualifying tournament would have been far less stressful and would have allowed me to keep playing Magic with my friends guilt free these past few weeks.

On the Proper Training of Jedi:  Recently on Twitter I found myself participating in a detailed multi-person discussion about introducing new players to tournament level Magic that quite frankly left me a little upset and confused.  While the discussion originally started with a friend of mine suggesting I shouldn't loan out my spare decks for FNM as often as I do eventually it evolved into an epic argument over how best to help aspiring card-floppers develop into strong tournament Magic players.  I'm certainly not going to repeat the argument here but I felt strongly enough about the issue that I wanted to revisit my philosophies on training new tournament partners in more than 140 characters.  After all nobody plays forever (except me) and sooner or later I'll need to find new people to play with if I want to keep playing Magic!
First and foremost I think it's important to help new players establish clearly defined, attainable goals that reflect what they want to gain out of the Magic experience.  In essence I ask them "are you a brewer or a jockey?"  For many aspiring tournament players building/playing interesting decks to 2-2 finishes at FNM is all they really want out of this game and for them a little advice on how to make their epic homebrew masterpiece "suck less" is all it will take to start them along their way.  These players a likely the future mad brewers and combo maniacs of your environment and will as a general rule be self starters and rugged individualists; they don't want answers they merely want a little guidance towards the path that will help them find the answers on their own.  Unfortunately the path of "trial and error" that most brewers have to walk is both the most arduous and time consuming; left to his own devices it can take a new player potentially years to "level up" far enough to consistently win tournaments with their own homebrews and as the losses mount up it gets pretty hard not to become discouraged.  The simple truth is that most people don't have the dedication, thick skin and emotional detachment necessary to be a truly successful brewer and when I meet someone who has these qualities I try to provide as much encouragement as I can while taking a hands off approach and providing card/theory advice only when asked directly.  You can't rush genius and typically a brewer is going to have to fall down 100 times before he can really dance anyways.

Most players however enter the tournament scene because their competitive nature has taken them past kitchen table Magic; they want to battle with other competitive people and they want to win those battles.  I affectionately refer to this type of player as a "jockey", short for "deck jockey" because much like a professional racer they are more concerned with winning than which horse they're riding while doing so.   Typically this type of player will be asking for help because what he's trying at the moment isn't working and he's prepared to try something, anything else so long as it produces the desired result; match and tournament victories.  These players may have started out as brewers but by now their losses will have started to mount and along with them their frustrations.  This can be a struggle in and of itself because many times when you meet a jockey he (or she) will already be thinking about giving up on Magic altogether and be suffering from a severe lack of patience with the game overall.  They may be lacking confidence from losing all the time and I've even encountered a few players who were beginning to question their own intelligence in the face of mounting match losses. 

Unfortunately the only way out of this downward spiral for a true jockey is to start winning matches and preferably as fast as possible.  To this end I believe the best way to help this type of player is to "hook them up" with as much information about the format as possible; links to key strategy websites like , or are a great start but if you really want to help someone get better at tournament Magic they are only a beginning.  I try to encourage aspiring "jockeys" to spend the necessary time and effort researching the decks that are actually winning tournaments right now with a specific emphasis on higher K value events like Qualifiers, Regionals, Pro Tour events and Star City Games Open events.  I also encourage them to keep up with the daily tournaments held on Magic Online because generally everything you will see at your local FNM seems to show up on MtGO at least a weak before it breaks into the general environment.  You can find these lists by visiting the What's Happening page on the Mothership site and looking for the Event Coverage box on the right side of your screen.  While my primary focus is and will remain Standard as you can see MtGO holds numerous events in all kinds of formats and you can get complete decklists for each deck that performed well (3-1 or better) by clicking on each specific tournament. 

Once a player has shown the willingness to do a little research I encourage them to actually *play* as many of these tier 1 decks as possible and this is where the lending out my decks part comes into play.  It is simply not realistic to expect a starting Magic player to run out and buy a 300-500 dollar Standard deck sight unseen without a test drive and frankly most people just don't have the patience to build 75 cards out of mostly proxies.  I on the other hand as both a game store manager and a complete Standard junkie typically have slightly tweaked copies of all the best decks in the format lying around simply to test against.  Since I can only play one of these decks at a tournament I'm typically willing to loan them out on a tournament by tournament basis to any of the local "jockeys" who I know are still trying to break into the format.  This allows a new player to test out a number of top decks in the format before making an informed choice about which deck he wants to play while simultaneously allowing him to practice with a great deck and learn why good players before him built it the way they did.  I even occasionally loan these decks out for several nights at a time if trust is not an issue so that the player can put in the necessary repetitions to learn the deck inside and out before tournament play.  This type of "training" has several advantages for the aspiring "jockey" because it forces them to focus on fundamentals and actually learning to play high level Magic while also providing reassurance that they are on the right path; after all if hundreds of pros are winning tournaments with Caw Blade why can't you?  It also tends to lead to actual wins much faster if the player in question is actually prepared to put in the time and effort to learn the format as a whole.  This in turn helps wash away the frustration and despair that comes with losing and provides the player with a real basis on which to build his understanding of the format as a whole; personally I think of it as throwing a fellow warrior a lifeline across a falling bridge but I'm kinda nerdy like that. 

Unfortunately the downside is that I have to face my own decks in tournaments all of the time but to be fair I don't really mind; most of the time the decks I loan out merely represent a starting point for the people I'm trying to help and within 2-3 sets they are already off on their own with opinions and ideas that differ from mine.  The larger point remains that I know have another player to compete with in my local environment and I'm more than happy to have helped him learn the very basics of tournament Magic.  If I said I was doing anything more than that I'd be a self aggrandizing liar and I'm just happy to have someone else to play Magic with. 

On the Sorting in New Phrexia: As a veteran of *many* other CCG's where this is not true I have always felt that Wizards has some of the finest mechanical card sorting in the industry.  Typically a MtG product will break down almost *exactly* by the numbers over the course of a single case and as both a player and a store manager I have always opened these products in case form just to guarantee an even spread.  At this point however I have to say that I think something is seriously wrong with the sorting in New Phyrexia.  I have now opened 2 cases for the store, 4 boxes for myself, 2 fat packs and loose packs adding up to 4 drafts and 3 sealed pools; combined with reports from a number of friends who also opened 3-6 boxes each I feel pretty comfortable that it's not just "variance" either.  Here is a short list of problems I've seen with my own eyes:

  • Multiple Fat Packs were opened with 6 uncommons in some or all of the packs inside.  These took the place of common cards so I doubt anyone is complaining but it certainly makes "drafting out of a Fat Pack" a little trickier.
  • Entire boxes with only 2 uncommons and an extra common in each pack.  Guess that's where all the extras from the fat packs came from?
  • A box that produced 9 copies of Norn's Annex and 4 copies of Jin-Gitaxias.  Based on my understanding of CCG print runs I don't even know how this is possible but I definitely saw it with my own eyes.
  • Boxes that contain either all the good mythics or all the bad ones.  This is of course a somewhat subjective complaint but it's becoming disturbingly uncanny how often Sword of War and Peace/Batterskull/Karn come near each other in the same box but the box with the Blue, Green and White Praetor rarely seems to turn up any of those cards.  I want to dismiss this complaint but I'm looking at too many Swords/Skulls in my trade binder to really argue the point.
  • Boxes that contain 10+ copies of certain uncommons and 2- of others.  This may not seem very relevant but when you open 2 Mental Missteps in a box and you play Legacy that's pretty frustrating.  
  • A box that contained no Mythic rares whatsoever.  Again based on my understanding of how CCG's are made/packaged this should not be possible.
  • Packs with 2 copies of the same common but no foils involved.  Again not a big deal but pretty annoying if you're trying to run a fair draft; I would hate to accuse someone of adding cards because of a packaging mistake.
  • In 4 boxes and 3 fatpacks I have somehow opened 11 Norn's Annex, 11 Omen Machines, 10 Hex Parasites, 10 Birthing Pods and a grand total of 2 Spellskites/Caged Sun's.  As you can imagine I'm not that upset about the Caged Sun but the absence of Spellskite in multiple boxes + Fat packs is starting to wear thin.  
  • Also personally I have opened exactly 1 copy of Urabrask the Hidden (in foil no less) but 5 copies of Vorinclex and the aforementioned 13 mythic equipment.  This very well could be normal variance but when combined with the other problems I *know* are real it certainly doesn't feel like it.

Overall I think it's safe to say that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" in regards to New Phyrexia boxes and I for one hope Wizards quickly returns to their usually *flawless* sorting as soon as possible; it's pretty hard to justify opening more boxes to find the cards I need until I know this problem is fixed.

On Passing 25,000 Pageviews Yesterday: Back when I started this blog at the end of August in 2010 I really didn't know where I was headed with it or for that matter how long I would continue blogging.  I certainly had no idea if people would actually *read* the articles I was writing but I felt the need to reach out and start writing about Magic anyways.  Well folks I am proud to say that sometime last night The Cardboard Witch passed 25,000 all time pageviews proving without a doubt that someone out there is reading and my writing is reaching someone.  I can not stress how gratifying and at the same time humbling it is to know that other Magic players find this blog at least worth checking out from time to time and I promise to keep trying my best to make it a place worth visiting.  It's just a number on the pageview counter but knowing that so many people are reading or have read The Cardboard Witch truly inspires me to galvanize my efforts and for that I am very grateful.  To anyone who's reading this right now; thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Well folks that's certainly enough rambling out of me for one day; as always thanks for reading and I promise to avoid op/ed pieces for a little while now that this is out of the way.  I really do sometimes wonder if having a Twitter account is bad for my writing so I decided to expand on a few things that were "sticking in my craw" so to speak; my bad won't happen again.... for a while.  :)  Until next time gang always remember playing Magic is more fun than not playing Magic and you'll get by with a little help from your friends.


  1. Congratz on the reader milestone !
    Is it possible to forward your concerns to WoTC about the odd sorts in boxes, packs, etc. ?

  2. Thanks a lot, despite some ribbing from friends (and a random duder on twitter) I was actually pretty proud of hitting 25K :)

    I dunno what good it would do me to complain to WotC, by now they know the sorting is bad but admitting something is wrong would likely cost them too much. They aren't going to give me back packs I've already opened because that'd set a pretty insane precedent right? I assume they'll just deny it and move on so I won't waste the time or long distance minutes.