Organized Play Changes - A Store's Perspective

Feature Article from Corbin Hosler
Corbin Hosler
7/18/2017 11:01:00 AM
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What a few days in Magic, huh? We had the Hour of Devastation release, the first round of results from the new Standard and – oh, yeah – a few other announcements you may have heard about by now.

I'm talking about the “evolution” of in-store play. There is a lot here, and much of it is hidden in the fine print of Wizards Play Network materials. But let's be honest, all you really care about is the Friday Night Magic promos – or lack thereof, in the view of many.

For those who don't know, I wear a few hats in the Magic community. Yes, I make fun Modern videos every week for TCGplayer, and I handle most of the back-end editing for the articles you find here. I do event coverage for Wizards of the Coast, write articles for the mothership and host the podcast Brainstorm Brewery.

What people who follow me on the internet or interact with me at events don't know is that back home I have a very different gig – I manage the buying and selling at a local game store in Moore, Oklahoma. Of all the jobs I have, this is perhaps the one I most enjoy on a day-to-day basis, because very few things top watching a bunch of players enjoy their favorite game at their second home and knowing you have a small part in making that happen. My perspective today is driven by those experiences of running tournaments for years and interacting with hundreds of players from all walks of life on a daily basis.

There are a few things I feel I should address up front. For starters, I have two goals here and I don't want this to turn into a discussion about how “good” FNM promos have been. Yes, there have been a lot of duds with only a few gems over the past couple years, but that is just the reality we have been living with at the store. To be frank, if we were reliant on how powerful a card Wizards decided to print to bring players to FNM, we probably wouldn't be in business very long, so from my perspective running a store worrying about the quality of a free promo is not a reliable way to manage a business. I love it when players love the promo, but if they need the promo to get them into the store, we're doing something wrong.

My first goal here is to outline what Wizards hopes to accomplish with the changes, because I think many people hear “FNM promos are dead!” and stop there. We need to understand the intent here to fairly evaluate it.

My second goal is to point out the challenges I believe the current plan presents, and how I see these changes affecting us.

The Problem

Every Friday night, we have FNM. 40-50 people show up to play either Standard, Legacy or Draft, with plenty of casual Commander play thrown in. Most of these players are regulars who I see at the store week after week and travel with to PPTQs or Grand Prix.

Every Saturday morning, we have a novice league. Some of our more generous players (who are the lifeblood of any LGS), come and help out as we teach new players the game with welcome decks or pre-built “casual Standard” decks to help them learn about the game. By a large margin, these players are typically younger, in some cases just learning the skills needed to even play a game of Magic. This is also where some of our budget brewers or kitchen table players who are used to coming to the store to buy cards but not compete in tournaments end up.

These players have a great time; after all, Magic is a great game.

But they never show up to FNM.

As players learn how to play Magic, they begin to “graduate” our Novice League. So where do they go next?

The reality is many don't go any further, for a very simple reason: there wasn't a clear progression. The only step forward available to them was to come to FNM, and we would encourage them to do so. Drafting is a scary experience for someone who's never done it and doesn't know any of the cards or even possibly the mechanics, so they usually end up at Standard with their – as Blake Rasmussen put it – Cat deck they just built.

So they show up to FNM, and they get paired against a Day 2 Grand Prix player in the first round piloting whatever the best deck at the time is. The Cat player casts Pride Sovereign, and is feeling good. Then two turns later they're dead and at a loss for what happened. Sometimes those players learn from the experience and show up the next week more prepared to battle. But more often, they just go back to having fun with friends at home.

As a store, that's not good for us. After all, as Wizards Play Network materials remind everyone, the number one predictor of a Magic player's lifetime value is whether or not they participate in in-store play. While we created our own intro experience for new players, the step up to the FNM level is so intense it makes the fall-off rate far higher than we would like. In case you're curious, this is why casual Commander has become so massively popular – it's exactly where these players usually end up.

When players enter our Novice League for the first time, they are what Wizards defines as “New Players.” As they “graduate,” they become “Interested Players,” which Wizards defines as players interested in improving and stepping up their game. The FNM regulars? That's what Wizards defines as “Engaged Players.”

The Solution

Wizards wants – needs ­– to smooth out that trajectory from New Player to Engaged Player. And the Organized Play team has created a series of steps in an attempt to do that.

The Open House event was created to teach new players to play the game. The concept of Leagues – an exercise in continuous building (but also continuous play) – helps players make a habit of attending the game store.

The next step is FNM, which is where the roadblock occurs. Adding the Open House and Leagues are great for making the transition from “cracking my first pack” to “competing in Standard against a 10-year veteran” a little more smooth, but at the end of the day that jump in skill and experience is still enough of a turn-off that I believe we would still lose a lot of would-be players here.

Faced with the fact that the Interested Player needs a next step to ease their way toward competing with the pros and fully becoming an Engaged Player, Wizards need to do something to separate the two groups a bit more.

Enter the Standard Showdown. They decided that Friday Night Magic should be the casual stepping stone for those Interested Players, and that the Standard Showdown would become the primary outlet for the Engaged Players to get full-on serious.

Of course, Wizards' ability to actually shape that environment in-store is limited. And that brings us to FNM promos. When the promo is Aether Hub or Fatal Push, players know exactly who it is designed for – the hardcore Engaged Players who just want the best cards. Foil double-sided tokens, on the other hand, are much less desirable for Engaged Players (as the community response of the past 48 hours has clearly demonstrated). My experience at my store is that the players more likely to fall into the Interested Player category enjoy the tokens much more than the Engaged Players, and that's borne out by the products these tokens have typically appeared in – Prereleases, Commander decks and Leagues.

Meanwhile, the promos available to the Standard Showdown players are very clearly aimed at the competitive Engaged Player – premium lands in the vein of judge promos or full-arts, and Standard Showdown Boosters that contain premium cards and rares or mythics from the current Standard format.

So Wizards recognizes the need to separate the two player groups to ease the transition, and they believe they can use the promos to signal to each group where they should learn. The next piece of the puzzle here is that Wizards has data that shows that the FNM promo itself is not a statistically relevant factor in a player's decisions in whether or not to play FNM.

I know people have taken exception to this claim – and it's undeniable that there are people for whom the promo makes a difference. But I've seen the numbers for my store, and seen the numbers of some of the biggest stores in the world, and the truth is there is simply no huge correlation year-over-year based on promos alone. One major store that draws hundreds of players a night shared numbers with me – Aether Hub was outdrawn (heavily) by both Sylvan Scrying in 2016 and Frost Walker in 2015. Serum Visions was outdrawn by Abzan Beastmaster and Bile Blight.

Look, I know that all of the evidence of my own store and other stores – no matter how large – is anecdotal. But my point is this – I have seen no statistics to make me doubt Wizards is telling us the truth when they tell us what their data shows.

Wizards looked at the problem present in local game stores, developed what they believe are good solutions to that problem, and took steps use the only lever they have – promos – to signal to players which event is “for them.” The fact they can signal to Interested Players that FNM is their next step without suffering (according to their data) a drop-off in FNM attendance was enough for them to pull the trigger on these changes.

The Problem with the Solution

I believe that Wizards talked to a lot of store owners about this. I believe they used information gathered from focus groups. They used their vast troves of data to justify these moves.

They forgot something huge in the process.

Emotion.

From the loss of the popular Magic Player Reward system almost a decade ago to the constant stream of irrelevant FNM promos to the never-ending focus on Standard (however understandable that may be from a business perspective), Engaged Players feel they are constantly being dictated to and taken for granted rather than embraced.

The messaging of these announcements did nothing but enforce that. While no one should hold the timing of the release against them – it was released on Monday morning in Asia, which happens to be Sunday morning in the U.S. – the release itself was hugely lacking in awareness. “Excited about Fatal Push as a FNM promo? Well, here comes a… TOKEN!” was never going to be popular, and while they did introduce some really cool promos (receiving promo items of unreleased sets is legitimately awesome), they really didn't bother explaining any of the reasons for this move. Without any context, it's really easy to see how Engaged Players viewed the announcement as “forcing” them to play Standard to get the “good” promos, rather than be allowed to participate in the plethora of event types FNM can offer.

If Wizards views this as a necessary change – which they clearly do and don't believe it will affect FNM attendance – the very least they could do is explain clearly to Engaged Players exactly why things are changing in a way asks more of them than before. Clearly explaining the reasons behind a change by no means guarantees that players will accept it, but it sure can't hurt.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with these changes – why are Engaged Players being asked to change their habits they've spent years developing? Magic players are a committed bunch, but they have real lives too. So many players – myself included – have spent years structuring our lives in such a way that we have Friday night to play Magic. Asking these players to give up a Saturday to get their “typical” FNM experience doesn't make sense from a purely logistical standpoint – after all, Interested Players haven't built those same habits over years of gaming.

The biggest hurdle here is the branding of the term Friday Night Magic, which is so tied up into the Magic experience that you can't really dictate that it's this competitive venture only. I get that. But I would like to see stores given the option to run Standard Showdown on Friday night, rather than requiring them to do so on Saturday or Sunday. That's by no means saying that Friday Night Magic in its new, more casual form should be forgotten in favor of “Friday Night Standard Showdown,” (or even that my store would opt for that) but at least give stores the option to do what's best for them. For many smaller stores, this can literally be the difference between having enough players to fire an event or not, and for larger stores, being able to run simultaneous Standard events (one casual FNM, one competitive Standard Showdown) on the same night could even be the right call, if they wanted. I don't know if those ideas would prove to be good or bad, but I know that stores know both their Interested Players and Engaged Players better than a Wizards Play Network requirement, and allowing stores the freedom to do what works best for them would both let them set their own plans and keep Engaged Players from feeling ever more shut out by Wizards of the Coast.

Conclusion

Thanks for sticking with me. As I find the case to be often with major policy shifts, I support the goals Wizards of the Coast is trying to accomplish here – I want those Novice League players to be encouraged to make the jump! – I believe the initial rules set forth have caused unnecessary confusion and frustration.

I think these changes will ultimately be good for us, but I do believe they can be made better with some iteration. I've already seen a big interest in Leagues from the Interested Players group, and I think this is a great step toward getting them in the store regularly, even if it's ultimately just to play casually. There will be players who can't give up Saturdays to play, and there will be players who show up on Friday and Saturday and even some whose significant other will be happy to have their Friday nights back and gladly give up a Saturday afternoon in return. In the end, I believe the players in our store play Magic because they enjoy it and the atmosphere we provide, not because they're trying to nab a $5 promo.

With that in mind, I hope – and I trust Wizards on this – that they will listen to the feedback provided by all groups of players and stores, and with that feedback tweak these new programs in a way that will allow them to achieve the success they deserve.

Thanks for reading,

Corbin Hosler

@Chosler88




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