104 FNMs - Bait and Switch

Feature Article from Jon Corpora
Jon Corpora
7/19/2017 11:00:00 AM
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“You know what I think? I think you need to think about the starter-level game. That's just what casual players like, and there's no way—no way at all—to move people from there to what Magic has become today. They bear no resemblance to each other. There's no stepping stone at all from Portal: Second Age to Hatred and Rec-Sur. Starter-level players would be aghast at moving to that type of deck.”
-Alan Webster to Mark Rosewater, Summer 2000

I have vivid memories of my first-ever Magic tournament. I was 11 years old; the year was 2000. Prophecy had just been released. Round one, I sat down across from my 13-year old opponent and played my first land: a gold-bordered Plains from Brian Hacker's gold-bordered deck from 1998. They called the store-owner, Fran over who asked to see my deck. It was full of gold-bordered cards. Faced with the unenviable task of crushing a pre-teen's spirit, Fran informed me that my deck was totally illegal for tournament play. When Fran opened my first LGS, Area 51, I don't think that gently explaining why gold-bordered cards are illegal to an incredulous eleven-year old was part of his dream, but that was part of his duties on that summer day in 2000 nonetheless.

I had another deck on me that day that happened to have no gold-bordered cards: a mercenaries deck (the much, much worse foil to rebels) full of Spineless Thug and and Cateran Brute to find them. The deck was complete trash. I, of course, had no clue it was trash at the time. But I was about to find out.

The format that day was Vintage (Type 1 back then), but no one was really playing with power. Some of the regulars I'd come to know each had their own piece of power — Dana had an Ancestral Recall, Joe A. had his hilariously beat-up Black Lotus — but for the most part, Fran encouraged the regulars to play decks that relied on Standard-legal card interactions (The first deck I'd end up building by myself was Stompy with a Lotus Petal and a Zuran Orb).

That 13-year old kid I got paired against was playing a Replenish deck. There you have it: the first match of Magic ever was played against one of the better combo decks the game's ever seen I fondly remember having no clue what was going on at any stage in the game till I was dead. Parallax Wave locked down my creatures, Parallax Tide locked down my lands, Lilting Refrain countered all my things, and they kept doing stuff with this card called Attunement until they finally cast the deck's namesake, getting back a ton of enchantments and attacking me with them thanks to something called Opalescence. With the exception of Parallax Tide, a card I had opened in a pack of Nemesis I bought at the gas station and immediately dismissed as terrible, I had never seen any of those cards before.

To be clear: my opponent could have cheated and I wouldn't have known the difference. For all I know, they did. I literally had no idea what was going on. The memory of that day is really lucid in my mind; back then, it appeared to me as though they were just moving cards around at random, but I know now they activated Attunement a ton and basically stunted on me, putting their entire deck in their graveyard before killing me for no other reason than that they could, since I was playing a pre-constructed deck with some small changes.

Part of what makes Magic Magic is that the game has an abundance of cards that are just a worse version of something else. The dirty little secret about Constructed Magic at the tournament level is that most of the cards are actually bad and you don't want to play them, and that envisioning all the scenarios in which a given card will perform well is not the whole card evaluation process, but rather, a small part of it.

My inability to get “hype” during any given preview season harkens back to that damn mercenary deck. And the legacy of that stupid, ineffectual, never-do-anything-that-matters-till-you-lose mercenary deck lives on in every terrible pre-con we've been fed before and since. Pride Sovereign and Regal Caracal might as well be Rathi Assassin and Cateran Overlord. Pull the lens on the timeline back far enough and you can see the cycles start to repeat themselves, which takes some of the shine off of new sets.

When time is a scarce resource, navigating all the traps Magic has to offer and subsequently getting crushed when you miss something can get tedious. This is why casual is so appealing: there's no such thing as a trap there! You and your friends are just hanging out in Magic, trying to make chicken salad out of chicken scratch. This is why I enjoy Bruce Richard so much, both irl and every week.

On the other hand, those traps are not only baked into Magic as part of its overall identity, but they're something professional players rely on in order to get an edge on the competition. Be that as it may, try telling that to an 11-year old kid that just blew his meager allowance on a new game he's not even sure about only to get dunked on left and right.

Do pre-constructed decks have any responsibility to be FNM competitive? Years and years ago, I went 4-1 at FNM with one of the old pre-constructed Event Decks. I played the deck as a lark, but it ended being an enjoyable experience. Event decks have since been discontinued, but their goal was to offer a new player something to build on in order to compete at FNM. The buyer wouldn't necessarily get the keys to the kingdom, but they'd have the beginnings of something competitive as well as the capacity to gain experience with the deck and iterate on it themselves. The fact that the decks often came with very good Standard cards, cratering their secondary market value, was icing on the cake. Perhaps that led to their discontinuation. It's unclear. All I know is that with an Event Deck, it felt like I had a shot. The mercenary pre-con was a setup bound to fail at an MSRP of $9.99.

Yesterday, Corbin Hosler touched on three groups of players: New Players, Interested Players, and Engaged Players. It was a fascinating look into WotC's logic and strategy towards acquiring and “hooking” new players, but it's worth noting that there's no strategy for getting players from Point A to Point C other than pointing at a myriad of LGS events and asserting that they do, in fact, exist. Truth be told, there seem to be plenty of initiatives for Engaged Players but relatively few for anyone else, with a progression that could be charitably described as “murky.” I'm not buying the progression because of the same problem that have plagued the game since the Pro Tour began: the way Organized Play is set up, a player's transition from Interested to Engaged can only involve lots and lots of losing. The path to becoming an Engaged Player can really only be:

1.) Pick up the game
2.) Go to FNM
3.) Get beat, find out everything you knew about the game was a lie and all these cards you spent money on are useless
4.) ?????
5.) You're an Engaged Player now!

I get that fun isn't just about about the sum of a game's upsides and a game's downsides, but the trajectory through the stages of Magic's engagement are arduous and, quite honestly, conducive to Burnout. Also it's a massive time sink, and who the hell has time for that?

On the other hand, waving off inefficient cards and classifying them as “traps” is problematic; just because inefficient cards aren't for me doesn't mean they're useless. A big part of Magic, for better or worse, is that it's open for exploration. This gives it a richness that its contemporaries lack, but is not all upside. It's clear that WotC wants their guiding hand on New and Interested players to be a gentle one, and as a result, these players are left free to fail and discover Magic at their own speed. As it exists today, Magic is only capable of hooking Interested Players that not only really enjoy the game's core mechanics, but have the ample spare time and determination to navigate the game's plentiful landmines.

* * *

Hour of Devastation Limited is so, so great. I've been having a total blast with it. Here's my third-ever draft of the format:

Spoiler Alert: The draft portion went about as well at it could have possibly gone. Rewatching it, I'm pretty happy with my picks. The deck turned out to be a total world-beater.

Here's a Scattershot snapshot of my very early findings from the draft format, after ten or so drafts under my belt: Blue is the color of doing sweet stuff. Vizier of the Anointed is extremely real, and as a result, so are any cards that exile stuff in graveyards, such as Scarab Feast, Ruin Rat, and Disposal Mummy. Green can play aggressively, as you saw here, but its cards are much more suited to buying time and building up towards big spells. The creatures are overall worse quality and slower in Hour of Devastation, so expensive point removal like Torment of Venom and Puncturing Blow aren't super great, but obviously Puncturing Blow gets some more value against the blue decks that subsist on going long and taking over the game with a sea of eternalize monsters. White's fine, but has no real focus. Red's the best — its cards are good in any speed of deck. Black's pretty underwhelming — its uncommons are lackluster and Torment of Venom, one of the best black commons, isn't as good as it looks; it's rarely mana-efficient and its punisher ability is pretty terrible.

I haven't really gotten a handle on the speed of the format, but I haven't felt like I've gotten very punished for durdling yet. The creatures are a touch worse in Hour of Devastation, meaning not only is it easier to stabilize, but blocking is no longer a fool's errand. Decks of all speeds and sizes exist, and they seem to be pretty much all real. I've been having a ton of fun with the set — it makes me wish I was going to Toronto.

Instead, I'll be at a Modern PPTQ held a store my friend owns. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Jon Corpora
pronounced Ca-pora
@feb31st




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