Greener Pastures

On a Prodigious Return to Magic: The Gathering and What Pokémon Can Learn from the Industry’s Best

Hello SixPrizes! My name is Patrick Casey, and I am a Pokédad on the 6P Forums (@Patrick1865) and a TCG competitor with my son and daughter at events on the Atlantic Coast. As a dad that plays the game, I’ve come to enjoy it far more than I ever thought I would. While I have become accustomed to being the oldest player at just about any Pokémon tournament we attend, I am young enough at heart that I don’t mind losing to — and learning from — the friends of my children!

Recently, I have spent some time playing Magic: The Gathering, and I believe that there is much Pokémon can learn from the industry’s most popular TCG. At the suggestion of several who heard my story, I have documented my experience in MTG for the purpose of showing how Pokémon can develop and grow as a game system.

. . .

A favorite from back in the day.

Our journey into the Pokémon brand started several years ago. I led my family into Pokémon for measured and intentional reasons. As a young man, I came of age playing MTG in the late 1990’s, and I enjoy many fond memories in the game. I loved traveling with friends, anticipating big events, relishing great victories, and commiserating over painful defeats. I competed at the Pro Tour level, was renowned for my skill at drafting, and I wanted to enjoy this experience and range of emotion with my family.

When my children were very young, I reviewed the idea of TCG fun with my wife and we agreed it was a good idea. My goals were quite clear: 1) Connect with my children; 2) Connect with new friends; 3) Compete with my family. But I wasn’t keen on MTG. As a young man, I was not disciplined enough to segment my thinking and concentrate on what was important at any particular moment in time. My school, work, family, and church life were all affected as I constantly affixed my thoughts on decks and deck building. I was obsessed with Magic: The Gathering in an unhealthy way. Moreover, I found the theme of MTG objectionable to my young children. So I filed Pokémon away in the back of my mind as the game of choice when the time was right.

Then, when my daughter was seven and my son was five, I bought some theme decks. Oh, how we loved Samurott and Druddigon! Over time, we grew in the size of our collection and our skill level until it was time for us to hit the tournament circuit. Now, we are veterans of our local tour, and we thoroughly love Pokémon.

. . .

Last summer, when my son and I were headed home from Boston Worlds, my son talked about how fun it would be for us both to compete in Worlds 2016. He excitedly considered that perhaps his sister could even qualify since it would be her second year in Seniors! He asked me to stop playing my own home-brew “stupid decks” and actually do my best to qualify for Worlds, so I promised I would compete at the highest possible level my schedule allowed. I started seriously training, and in the process, our whole family got better. Going into September 2015, I planned on attending 6 Regionals (two per cycle), at least 10 Cities, and 3 States events. I really wanted to travel this year, and I was thoroughly looking forward to spending some time with my children on the road.

All I needed to do was schedule my year.

And as I waited …

… and waited …

… and waited …

… and waited some more …

… for information on when and where the various Regionals would be played, when and where Nationals would be held, and when and where Worlds might be scheduled, I remembered:

We are playing Pokémon.

ash confused derp 3-2
So, how about that tournament schedule?

I am an executive at my place of employment, and I have a very flexible schedule — I can attend events provided I know when those events will occur. By that I mean: I need to know at least two months out exactly which weekends in Oct, Feb, and May I will need to be off so that I can plan to ensure my work obligations are met. Unfortunately, as we all know, Pokémon does not reveal event dates until the latest possible moment. The result: As a family, we attended 1 Regionals, 7 Cities, and 1 States. I accumulated 90 CP out of that run (an accomplishment I am actually quite proud to announce given that pitiful number of competitions).

As you may imagine, I was quite frustrated, and, to be perfectly honest, thoroughly disillusioned. Early on in my frustration, when the opportunity was slipping away for me to take my family to a Winter Regionals since I didn’t know when the events would be held, I figured I would check Magic’s Grand Prix schedule to see how well MTG communicated to its player base. In November of 2015, I was able to find the Grand Prix schedule through the end of 2016. This led me to a very dejected feeling, and I asked myself:

Why are we were playing Pokémon? We can’t even play because we don’t know when the events will be held!

My frustration simmered during our Cities run. When Cities was over, my son was easily qualified for Worlds, so I did the math to calculate how many points I would need to get out of a States run to earn my Worlds invite with my son. So I started training, and I was genuinely looking forward to States.

That is, until the schedule was finally revealed.

. . .

I live in Central PA, and I was intending to go to three out of the five local States: PA, DE, MD, NJ, and NY. I figured over the four weeks of States, we should easily hit three events. When I discovered that PA, NJ, and MD were all on the same day, and that we would only be able to attend one States, I stopped caring about the 2015–16 Pokémon season. At that moment in February, I lost my passion for the cycle.

The reason should be obvious: I have invested countless hours of thought life and thousands of dollars into a card collection for a game that does not meet my intended objectives: We are not connecting as a family in the game; we are not connecting with new friends; because we do not have opportunity to compete.

So, after our one States event, I told my son we would not be going to Worlds. As it turned out, the only Spring Regional that was close enough to us was over Memorial Day weekend (we had a planned family retreat); Nationals was held during our scheduled family vacation; Worlds was out of the picture. I was not about to drop $3,000 for airfare, lodging, and food for my son to play in a tournament where the top prizes have value to us nine years from now.

We looked at the calendar in mid March, realized our next competitive match would be around October, and I put the cards on the shelf. At this point, I resolved not to be pissed off. I could not control these circumstances, and as such, I purposed to react rationally.

return to the ranks magic
Magic, we meet again.

As I reflected on the next logical step, it struck me that I am not obligated to play Pokémon. There are other games. In fact, the structure of MTG Organized Play provided the perfect opportunity for new players to come into the game through its Standard format. A new rotation was coming in early April that allowed for cheaper decks and strategies that were quite accessible.

So, without much reflection, I purposed to buy a Standard deck and attend some tournaments over the summer. I had three specific goals with this endeavor. First, I wanted to see if the game was as fun as I remembered. Second, I needed to know if the theme of the game was still objectionable to me. And third, I was hoping to discover if the time was right for our family. If the game is fun, and the theme is appropriate, and my children can experience success, then why not consider a run at the TCG that actually pays out cash for excellence?

. . .

The first thing I did was find all of the websites I needed to know in order to obtain the information necessary to be competitive ASAP. I landed on these four: Magic’s article page on its corporate website;;; There are countless others out there — and many of them could be much better than the four I found. But I settled on these for the following reasons:

  1. The MTG site casts a daily blog that links the most popular content across the web. I love this feature, and I love that MTG supports its secondary market this way. I don’t need to set favorites to every possible site, or set up alerts from reasonable sites. I just let MTG link the most popular content. For your reference: this is why I don’t spend much time on Reddit — if something happened that blew up Reddit, MTG would let me know from their home page.
  2. Channel Fireball is a secondary market website that uses content to drive traffic to the site. They have many of the most popular players as writers, and they have a great website that allows for very easy deck/card buying.
  3. Star City is home to MTG’s premier tournament circuit that does not award Pro Tour points. SCG has its own series with its own season-ending invitational. This is a series that is independent from MTG’s Pro Tour series. Many great players for both the Pro Tour and SCG Tour are aligned with Star City, so I wanted to stay on top of their content.
  4. TCGPlayer is the home to MTG’s highest ranked player right now, so I always wanted to know what he had to say.

Once I found these websites, I started studying the content and watching videos.

Pokémon Contrast 1: Unlike Pokémon, where the best content is all subscription based, MTG has such tremendous competition for web traffic that it has numerous sites that provide free content that is truly first class.

All of the YouTube channels, and all of the article content really helped me acclimate myself to the game very quickly. The only website I found that charges for a premium section worth buying is Star City. I subscribed for a few weeks just to see if it were worth it, and I was very impressed with the content. The free section is fantastic, so I would subscribe to the pay-to-view section only if I were seriously committed to the game.

Once I spent a few weeks getting myself familiar with the web content, the next thing I did was create an MTGO account. This is a big deal because MTGO and PTCGO are different in one very important respect:

Pokémon Contrast 2: MTG is pay-to-play for the online client.

If you want to buy a pack of MTG cards in paper, it will cost you $4 at your local game store (LGS). If you want to buy a digital pack of MTG cards for your online collection, it will cost you $4 at the Wizards of the Coast (WotC) online store. Readers who are paying attention should have alarms going off in their heads: If you want to play MTG both online and in paper, you are going to have to open up your checkbook (or get a new credit card). The vast majority of players (i.e., non-pros) play either online or in paper. The expense of playing both is so great that it’s cost-prohibitive for many to pay for a deck twice.

For me, I was committed to playing online and in paper — for a single deck. Since I have no connections in the game, and my schedule does not allow me to practice at the LGS, my only training option was online. So I downloaded the client, and started researching. To my surprise, there are aftermarket retailers committed exclusively to digital cards. A person may buy, sell, or trade with a digital retailer for any singles needed for deck building. And after a bit of investigation, I realized that online is not quite as expensive as paper. Despite the fact that the packs actually cost the same amount of money to buy, a digital deck will be cheaper (anywhere from 15–40% depending on the deck).

With this in mind, I bought a Pauper Sliver deck. I wanted to learn the client before actually buying a Standard deck. And what I discovered was shocking:

Pokémon Contrast 3: The MTGO game client fails all contemporary usability tests for 2016 online gaming interfaces.

Like — really badly. PTCGO’s interface is sooooo much more fun to play. And after playing a few games, I came to understand why the online interface is so antiquated in its look and feel. The thing that makes Magic: The Gathering the best TCG in the market is the fact that a player may play cards on the opponent’s turn. While Magic is a turn-based game, certain cards may be played any time a player has mana available. This game mechanic sets Magic apart from all the rest in terms of game dynamics — and it has to be a nightmare for the software writers to code.

The fact that MTG was designed as a paper game — without consideration of what an online interface might look like — creates a very unsatisfying online experience.

Moreover, the amount of code that must be written to support all of the cards and their interactions with each other is mind-boggling to me. I completely understand why MTGO feels like it’s from 2001: the expense of a game client overhaul seems like it would be cost-prohibitive. All this being said, it only took me a handful of games with my Sliver deck online to realize:

Pokémon Contrast 4: Games on the MTGO game client are actually worth playing!

Unlike PTCGO, where I feel like I am wasting my life with every game played on the Versus Ladder, MTGO has highly competitive players. I was not ready for this because I had given up playing on PTCGO. I grew so weary of taking my meta decks through the Versus cue on the PTCGO client and obliterating non-meta “fun” decks, that I abandoned the game. On MTGO, there are highly competitive open-play games, and there are leagues that cost $12 entry wherein players may earn prizes that 1) allow them to continue playing in pay-to-play leagues for free; 2) gain access to paper Pro Tour events; 3) win digital packs. I quickly realized that I could lead a satisfying MTG life playing completely online — including the ability to play in great tournaments — despite its horrendous and highly outdated interface.

As I was studying the meta and learning the online game, Shadows over Innistrad (SOI) was approaching, so I decided to play in a prerelease event.

Pokémon Contrast 5: MTG may be played in a Limited format.

This is a significant advantage MTG has over Pokémon in my opinion. The ability for a game system to be played in a limited context provides opportunity for the most skillful players to shine, and for the entire set to be played. The issues herein have been expounded upon by others, so I will not rehash them here. Rather, I shall comment on the community:

Pokémon Contrast 6: MTG has a robust community featuring persons with wide-ranging interests in the game.

At the one prerelease I attended, I encountered:

  • A fellow in his mid 30’s who does not play with sleeves, and the only OP events he attends are prereleases “where everyone is on the same playing field.” He annihilated me.
  • A fellow in his late 20’s who builds common and uncommon sets of each release, and then cube drafts them with his friends. The only OP events he attends: prereleases.
  • A retired fellow who was highly regarded in the event as one of the best Limited players in our area. When I interviewed him, he informed me he doesn’t chase the constructed formats as they are (in his opinion) luck based. Since matchups determine so many outcomes in constructed formats, and the player has so few opportunities to outplay the opponent, he plays only Limited formats. In his opinion, Limited is the best test of a player’s overall skill and talent. I tend to agree.

I ended up going 2-3 for my prerelease experience and had a great time at my first MTG event in 17 years.

Since the SOI release date was the week following, I figured it was time for me to seriously consider which Standard deck I would be buying and what my event schedule would be for my foray into MTG. After searching the MTG event page, the Star City event page, and some LGS Facebook pages, I came up with the following itinerary for an early April–late June time span:

  • PA State Championships (a Star City event)
  • 2 Grand Prix Trials
  • 1 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier
  • Grand Prix Pittsburgh

All I needed was a deck. And upon watching the stream of the first event with the new format, I decided to play a White Weenie aggro deck.

Pokémon Contrast 7: Magic cards are tournament legal on release date.

The first event of the new format was a SCG Baltimore Open, and it was a day after the release of SOI. The fact that there is no distance between a set’s release and its playability creates an interesting dynamic for the Standard environment: it takes a bit of time for people to figure out what the good decks actually are. This breaking in period rewards creativity and innovation. It also creates some spiking in secondary card prices: until people figure out what is actually good, players can buy into cards at the wrong price.

MTG Insight 1: Wait until the Pro Tour event before buying into Standard.

MTG releases new sets quarterly. In conjunction with the new set release, there is a Pro Tour event, and the PT is played around 3–4 weeks after the new set is released. If you are an established MTG player, you have a collection and the release of a new set supplements your collection. But if you are new to the game, and you are looking to buy into it, you will want to wait for the pros to play the format for two reasons:

  • First, there is a greater supply of cards. SOI was released Friday 8 April. Baltimore Open was played Saturday 9 April. The ability to acquire cards for an event like this is obviously very difficult because there was only one day to accumulate them! By waiting until the Pros play, you’ve got 2–4 weeks for greater supply to develop through booster drafts, collectors breaking boxes, and LGSs breaking cases, etc.
  • Second, the pros will define the format. Since they are pros, they have the time, resources, and team structure to build the format-defining decks.

With one decision, I made two big mistakes when buying into Standard: I bought my deck immediately after Baltimore Open 1) when SOI cards were at their most expensive; and 2) the pros hadn’t defined the format. The impact ended up being that I had a tier 2 deck the week after PT SOI (because the pros designed the tier 1 decks), and I paid way too much for it. This being said:

MTG Insight 2: Decks are not as expensive as they appear to be.

This may seem counter-intuitive, especially when decks can cost in the thousands of dollars, but I guarantee it’s true. This is most easily understood by considering the eternal formats. Constructed MTG is played in several formats, but the most common tournament formats are Standard, Modern, and Legacy. The Standard format is identical to Pokémon: sets rotate in and out with predictable frequency. Modern and Legacy are eternal formats (meaning that the formats have established start dates, and all new releases are added to the available card pool).

Due to the astonishingly large card pool available for deck building, the eternal formats have metagames that rarely change with new releases. If WotC were to put a card into a new release that would have a dynamic impact on the eternal formats, it would immediately be an extremely expensive card as it would be in demand for at least four tournament formats (not to mention all of the casual formats). WotC simply does not create cards like this. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is the last card that was playable in all four formats, and it was peaking at $100 for a single copy at its point of highest demand. Therefore, the decks in Modern and Legacy are fairly stable in price. If you were to spend $2,500 for a Modern Jund build, it’s quite likely that in three years, your deck will be worth $2,750-3,000, and you will have spent about $30-50 per year in maintenance updating various sideboard cards.

All this to say: There is risk associated with the eternal format buy-in. WotC does issue bans that impact deck prices. So is a $2,500 deck expensive? In a sense the answer is an obvious yes, but if you can cash it out in three years with the opportunity to break even (or make money), is MTG actually more expensive than Pokémon? I dare say that I will never come close to recuperating my Pokémon deck costs if I were to cash out …

Standard decks, on the other hand, are much more volatile in price, and it can be argued that Standard decks are more expensive than Pokémon based on sticker comparison. But even then I have to argue that Standard MTG is cheaper than Pokémon for one simple reason: I can play my Standard MTG deck far more frequently than my Standard Pokémon deck. By virtue of the number of opportunities I have to play, I can say that my per event cost of a $450 Standard deck is far cheaper than a Pokémon Nationals deck that I will only play once. At the time of this writing, the MTG BDIF right now is $400. You can play the second best deck for $325. The third best deck is $175 (and could be $135 with two different sideboard cards). Tomoharu Saito finished top 32 at a Grand Prix with a deck that cost $87. It is quite certain that these cards will not retain their value when rotation occurs, but I don’t see these prices as being cost prohibitive for entry into the game. And for that matter, has anyone checked the eBay “Sold Prices” recently for Shaymin-EX? When a playset of regular art Shaymin-EX is more expensive than the third best MTG deck of the SOI format, I have a really hard time saying MTG is a more expensive game to play than Pokémon.

One final word about deck costs:

MTG Insight 3: If you want to buy into MTG as cheaply as possible, learn how to snipe eBay auctions.

Without question, the cheapest way to buy expensive MTG cards is through eBay auctions. Here’s how you do it. First, you find the deck you want to play. In my case, I have decided to buy into Modern, and I will be playing Infect. If you were to buy this deck in its entirety from a site like TCGPlayer, you would pay about $1,000. You would get the deck in about 2–3 days, and all of the cards would be in perfect condition. You could buy on a Monday and be ready for Friday Night Magic. However, If you are willing to take your time, deal with the hassle of buying through a bunch of individual sellers over a span of weeks/months, take the risk of buying cards in a condition slightly worse than what was represented, etc., you can save a fortune.

In my case, I have purchased eight cards toward my Modern deck: 4 Inkmoth Nexus and 4 Noble Hierarch (quality averaging slightly played) for $228.35. As of this writing, if I were to buy from:

  • Troll & Toad they would be $308 (slightly played)
  • TGCPlayer $257 (moderately played)
  • Star City $320 (slightly played)
  • Channel Fireball $320 (near mint)

Given the condition of my purchases, I believe I saved anywhere from $60–90 on these eight cards by just taking my time, looking at “Sold Items” on eBay to determine what I should pay, staying committed to my price, and sniping the right auctions. With subtle changes to the mana base that will not affect playability in any respect, and by sniping eBay auctions, I believe I will be at $550–$600 for a deck with a retail cost of $1,000. And it will likely take me three months to get there. If you want to play Primal Groudon with 4 Tropical Beach in Expanded, tell me my Modern Infect deck is “expensive.”

Back to Standard: Once I bought my Standard deck in paper and online, I started preparing for my first constructed tournament: PA States. For about a week, I was annihilating people in the “Tournament Practice” open play setting. In fact, I was getting match concessions after turn 3! I was feeling very confident. Given the significant success I was experiencing, I figured I would try a constructed league two days before States. I paid my $12, and promptly went 0-5.

MTG Insight 4: The best players play in competitive leagues online.

I did not realize this, and developed a false sense of confidence. If I would’ve known that the best meta decks were played in leagues, and tested for just a week in this capacity, I know I would have done better in PA States. As it stands, my first constructed tournament since my youth landed me 16th with a 4-2 record. I was able to earn my entry fee back in store credit and I was delighted with my finish. This tournament gave me several contrasts with Pokémon.

Pokémon Contrast 8: Magic tournaments run very efficiently.

PA States had a published start time of 10:00am. I was actually playing Magic at 10:15am, and after six rounds of Swiss play, I was awarded my prizes at 4:30pm. I was blown away by how quickly the rounds turned in this event. (Note that this tournament was indicative of every event I attended.)

Pokémon Contrast 9: Magic Tournaments are quiet.

I have actually considered wearing earplugs at Pokémon events because they are so incredibly loud. But MTG events are much quieter. When the event started, I could hear cards shuffling and lands tapping. It was amazing to me that the din of the room was such that I could hear people whispering.

Pokémon Contrast 10: Magic has a completely different attitude toward decklist information.

At one point, I finished a round super early and had opportunity to walk around the event to watch people play. Before doing so, I went to the Tournament Organizer and asked, “Is it okay for me to watch some of the games as a spectator while playing in the event?” The TO and his associate looked at me like I had just asked a question with an answer so obvious that I was worthy of ridicule. He replied, “You can make a photocopy of that tournament roster, walk to every single game being played, and write down every card you see each person playing beside their name.” And then he qualified, “You just can’t look at that paper during game play. You can only look at it between rounds and during sideboarding.” I was dumbstruck as I reflected on the number of times I was asked to stop watching a Pokémon game at a tournament.

Later on I discovered that in the top 8-of major events, players are given access to the entire decklist of their opponent (including sideboard). The reason should be obvious: In a culture of deck secrecy, the highly connected player that has a network capable of acquiring deck information on an opponent is at a tremendous advantage over the less well connected player. In order to combat this scouting advantage, MTG just makes the entire deck available.

Pokémon Contrast 11: Unlike Pokémon, MTG players are entrusted with the knowledge of how many minutes are remaining in the match.

There are multiple clocks everywhere with digital countdowns of time remaining in the round. I have no idea why this cannot be the case in Pokémon.

I drove home very happy with my tournament success, and put my thoughts on my next event: a Grand Prix Trial for GP Pittsburgh.

Pokémon Contrast 12: MTG awards byes for its Grand Prix events.

A Grand Prix is like a Pokémon Regionals in the sense that it is a big event open for any participant paying entry fee, but there are several differences:

  • Attendance is rarely below 1,500 for a GP in North America
  • Entry fee is $60–75 for the main event
  • Top prize is $10,000
  • Top 8 players get a paid trip to the next Pro Tour event
  • Players are awarded byes based on 1) Pro Points and 2) having earned byes through a GP Trial.

Byes for a Grand Prix are absolutely fantastic. All players 6-3 or better on Day 1 get to compete Day 2 at a GP. So if you have two byes, you only need to go 4-3 in order to play Day 2 and compete for some great prizing. Moreover, when you have multiple byes, you are practically guaranteed to be playing meta decks when you enter into the tournament. Nothing is more frustrating than traveling to an event, and having to play in what I call “Landmine Rounds.” These are the first 2–3 rounds where you can get matched up with an opponent playing a non-meta deck who has absolutely no shot at finishing with a winning record, but has a great matchup against your meta deck. With byes, successful MTG players can avoid these Landmine Rounds, and enter into the event playing decks that are tuned to beat the decks that they anticipate playing.

GP Trials are events that are held at the LGS level, and the winner of the event gets two byes at a specific GP (as well as other store credit or pack prizing). In this particular event, the entry fee was $30, and there was some great pack prizing for top 8 finishers in addition to the GP Pitt byes. My result: 1-2 Drop. I would’ve stayed for the last two rounds to get some experience playing my deck, but I got a distress text from my wife, so I left.

You can’t win them all, so I set my sights on my next event, which was a Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier.

Pokémon Contrast 13: MTG has a Pro Tour.

There really is no Pokémon comparison here. MTG’s Pro Tour is an invitation-only event that is populated by the top 400-ish players in the world. WotC invests about a million dollars per event, and their largest single expense is travel stipends: If you qualify for the PT, you get a paid trip as part of the invitation. Moreover, the top prize for a PT is $40,000. My best shot at a comparison: It’s like a Worlds event that happens four times per year. Invitations may be obtained a number of ways, and the manner by which players like you and I may gain access is through the Pro Tour Qualifier series. First, you have to win a Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier. This is comparable to a small Cities event (30–40 players in my region). Once you win that, you have to top 4 a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier in order to make it to a PT event. A Regional PTQ is an invitation-only event that is for anyone who won a PPT, and is very similar to a Pokémon States (125-ish players). There is a consolation: If you finish top 5–8 at a RPTQ, and there are more than 128 players, these spots get an invite as well. Otherwise, your consolation is an invitation to the next cycle’s RPTQ so you can try it all again. In summary, it’s really hard to grind onto the Pro Tour, and it’s even harder to score well at a PT event. But if you do, you earn automatic invites to subsequent PT events.

In preparation for my PPTQ, I started aggressively training at $12 leagues on MTGO. Leagues are a series of five matches that can be played at your convenience with other players that have paid to enter the league. The $12 league has the following prizing structure:

  • 5-0 record: 10 digital packs of product; three qualifier points (by accumulating QPs, players gain access to MTGO Championships); free entry into a league
  • 4-1: 6 digital packs of product; one qualifier point; free entry into a league
  • 3-2: Free entry into a league

So I played three leagues in preparation for my PPTQ, and I had a collective record of 3-12 in match play. Some of my losses were the result of misclicks, and others were because I just didn’t want to commit to $50–100 in some of the digital cards I knew I needed. But the cold hard truth was right there for me to embrace: My deck wasn’t good, and the meta was staunchly set to beat it. So when I went 1-3 drop at my PPTQ experience, I was not surprised. I knew I had the wrong deck, and I knew I didn’t play it very well. Looking back on this experience, I now realize:

MTG Insight 5: If you are entering into MTG, your best winning chances will be to netdeck an exact 75-card list.

I made way too many changes to my deck that deviated from its core strategy. My experience with Pokémon led me to think that these subtle deviations were to my advantage since the established decks would be known by prepared players. But my mistake was to confuse the two game systems.

Pokémon Contrast 14: Pokémon is a “Full Deck” strategy game system; MTG is not.

By “Full Deck,” I mean that Pokémon is a game system wherein there are cards that give you access to your entire deck to develop a strategy (the various Poké-balls, Battle Compressor, Skyla, etc.). Those types of cards are very rare in MTG, and are practically non-existent in Standard. It is far more advantageous for new players to just copy a great 75-card list that was built by a pro who dedicates 60–75 hours a week to the game.

I had one more GPT before GP Pitt, so I really wanted to earn a bye for my GP experience. I went back to the $12 leagues for my training. It started out badly — I went 4-11 in match play over three leagues. But about this time, two important things happened: 1) I discovered a much better list; 2) the meta started to shift toward beating decks other than White Weenie. So I entered two more leagues, and finished with a match record of 5-5. I went to my GPT with a bit of confidence, but after a 1-2 drop performance, I was starting to feel really dejected with the whole affair. But then it struck me:

MTG Insight 6: Take the time to learn your local meta.

It’s easy to skip this step because events in MTG are so much larger than Pokémon. I made a very subtle mistake with my last GPT: I presumed my opponents would be highly connected to the best available lists. I had spent so much time watching YouTube videos of Pros playing the game that I assumed my opponents at the LGS would be similarly invested. This was surely not the case: I didn’t play a single meta deck in my final GPT. Why? The LGS had scheduled the GPT as an event that was featured for players who dropped out of a Modern event. The Modern event started at 10:00am; the GPT started at 1:00pm: The players that dropped out of the Modern event would be playing the GPT. I was tuned to beat meta decks and was sorely disappointed.

In the days following my poor performance at the GPT, I seriously considered canceling my plans to go to GP Pitt. Why should I spend the time and money to go to an event where I would just get obliterated? After a few days of healing, the saltiness dissipated and I went back to the MTGO League, and promptly earned my first 4-1 record! I was so incredibly energized by playing meta decks and actually beating them. After one more league (where I went 2-3), I decided to make the trek out to Pittsburgh.

I got out of MTG shortly after the birth of the Grand Prix format, and attendance back then was somewhere around 700 players. GPPitt had registration of 1,450 competitors, which is on the lower end of a GP attendance. My goal was straightforward: make Day 2. In order to make the second day of a GP, a record of 6-3 (or better) is required. Summary: I finished 5-4, and drove home. I had a great run.

I started 3-1, and had multiple game-winning chances to make Day 2, but it just wasn’t my time. In the end, my finish is not surprising. MTG has a game mechanic that I have not used since the late 1990’s: sideboarding. While I have been playing TCGs for several years now, and I have great combat math experience through lots of Hearthstone, I regularly found myself unsure of exactly how to configure my deck after Game 1. To wit: My record for Game 1 on the day was 7-2 (and one of the two losses was a mulligan to 5 that was an unplayable auto-loss against a favorable matchup). So I definitely had the chops to play, but I just needed a bit more experience with the deck in a big tournament.

Moreover, several times during the day, I found myself not entirely sure of the best play. Given my deck selection, the second and third turn sequencing can be extremely difficult. I firmly believe that if I had just a bit more experience, I would have a tale to tell about Day 2. In two of my four losses, I had my opponent to 1 life in Game 3, but just couldn’t close out the game. That being said, many around me were absolutely shocked at my performance when I would respond to their conversational question, “How long have you been playing?” with the answer “Two months.” So I left the venue very satisfied with my performance, and completely at peace with my 2016 MTG experience. I firmly believe that if I were to commit to the game, and dedicate my time and energy to it, I could once again compete at the Pro Tour level.

greener pastures mtg 16-9
There’s a lot to like about Magic.

And here is where I end my story. What does this mean for my TCG future? When I purposed to buy into MTG Standard four months ago, I thought I would be selling my cards as a part of the closing narrative. I assumed I would tell a tale of gearing up for the 2016–17 Pokémon season. But I am quite surprised to announce that I will not be selling my Magic cards — rather I will be completing my Modern Infect deck and competing locally in both Standard and Modern as my schedule allows for the indefinite future.

The reasons are quite simple: I like the game, and I love being associated with a brand that communicates so clearly with its players. And I can tell that my children will like the game. We are already playing theme decks and fun decks (as we did with Pokémon back in the day). Here’s a true story: I was watching an SCG Open Finals on Twitch, and my son walked up next to me to observe the match. He stood by me for about a minute and I said to him, “The winner of this match gets $10,000.” He turned and looked at me and said, “You mean Magic players win money? Not just packs and bragging rights?” I laughed heartily at this as I have never denigrated Pokémon prizing, and I assured him that many earn their livelihood through the game.

By means of conclusion, I will list the 10 things that Pokémon could learn from the MTG OP model (in no particular order):

1) Introduce an event at the LGS level that awards two byes at a Regionals-caliber event (among other prizing). This gets traffic into the LGS, gives the players tremendous value — along with another opportunity to compete with their decks.

2) Decentralize the Regionals schedule. Instead of clustering the Regionals events into three calendar months, spread them out across the year. I propose two Regionals per month for 10 months Sep–June (July Nationals; Aug Worlds).

3) Fix the ridiculous (bordering on absurd) prizing issue for a Regionals event. I am not traveling across the Atlantic Coast for a “fun experience” to compete in a Regionals. I am traveling to win. If I can spike a GP to win $10,000, what possible kind of incentive is winning a Regionals at three boxes of cards? Sure — it’s harder to wade through 1,500–2,000 players, but I would much rather play a game system that has me pay $60–75 to win $10,000 than pay $25 to win three boxes of cards.

4) Pokémon desperately needs to decouple a Worlds invite from the culture of Pokémon competitive play. When I first got into tournament Pokémon, I quickly realized that a Worlds invite was the means by which competitive persons evaluated their stature in the game. Pokémon is in a rather awkward spot where playing — and winning — any particular tournament (other than Nationals and Worlds) has no intrinsic value other than how it positions a player for Worlds.

Coming from an MTG background, where winning an event had great financial benefit along with the community cred that accompanies a big win, I could not comprehend the “Worlds invite” mindset. After three years in the game, I completely understand this mindset, and it yields such an unfortunate outcome. So often I read in 6P articles (and other places on the Internet) a narrative about a player that has had to effectively retire from the game because that person does not have the discretionary time to compete for a Worlds invite.

At first, I could not comprehend what I would be reading. I would think, “If you don’t have time to compete for a Worlds invite, I get it. But you can still compete to win!” I believe that making a Regionals worthy of being won through real prizing would keep people in the game much longer, and would promote a much more healthy mindset about competing for the sake of competing rather than competing for the sake of attending one event in August.

5) Pokémon needs regular — monthly — tournaments that are compelling (the Cities monthly rumor is a great start). Players need more opportunity to play the decks they have paid to build.

6) Pokémon OP simply must publicize event dates and locations months in advance. The promotion of the Regionals, Nationals, and Worlds schedule is dreadful. And quite frankly, unacceptable in the year 2016. I am appalled that an assiduous forum reader could sleuth his way to the Pokémon Worlds venue before it was reported to the players. TPCi: Players are begging for you to communicate with the base in a meaningful way!

7) Aggressive penalties for cheating simply must exist. I get so sick of cheaters in Pokémon. MTG recognizes that cheating exists, aggressively polices cheating, and empowers players to expose cheaters. During my brief run in MTG in preparation for this article, MTG banned Fabrizio Anteri for deck manipulation. This was such huge news that there is no real comparison in Pokémon. It would be like a regular Worlds Day 2 Qualifier that had won multiple significant events getting banned from the game until Dec 1, 2017. Pokémon must understand that competitive players want cheaters to get kicked out of the game.

8) PUBLISH THE TIME LEFT IN THE ROUND. The fact that we can’t know how many minutes is left in the round is actually offensive to me. This is such a basic expectation for a game system, I can’t believe we are denied knowledge of this mechanic.

9) Make PTCGO competitive. PTCGO is such a wasted resource in my opinion. Pokémon has a beautiful interface, and the ability to give competitive players a reason to play at a very high level, but chooses not to do so. I don’t understand it, and I don’t play it as a result. But I do keep my collection up to date just in case they one day commit to a competitive option!

10) Communicate with the player base. MTG regularly communicates with its players, and it’s so refreshing. They have an established schedule of when they will make big announcements, and they are willing to backtrack on big decisions in the face of community unrest. More than anything I would wish that Pokémon would communicate with its players in a way that shows respect to the persons playing their game competitively.

Please leave comments in the forums — I will respond in due course. Thanks for reading!

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