What Would You Like To See From Wizards Of The Coast’s New Digital Game Studio? by Craig “Prof” Jones

Plus Bit Orbit Sealed Deck PPTQ in Shrewsbury

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What Would You Like To See From Wizards Of The Coast's New Digital Game Studio by Craig Prof Jones

What Would You Like To See From Wizards Of The Coast’s New Digital Game Studio? by Craig “Prof” Jones

Right, and now we’re onto the meat and potatoes of what this series is about.

An epic series needs a goal and my goal is simple—Qualify for the Pro Tour.

Nowadays there are two common ways to achieve this. The first requires a 13-2 or better record at a Grand Prix and while not impossible, requires so many things to go right over two days of Magic, it’s not worth targeting. If it happens, it happens. But it’s better to think of it as an additional back door route that only opens if you’re really really lucky.

The other route is to battle through the PPTQ circuit, win one and then go on to Top 4 the following RPTQ. This is the route most players will be familiar with and the original plan for this series was to document the financials of grinding away on the PPTQ circuit. This is to serve two purposes:

1) To give newer players a feel for what it’s like so they can feel more confident about dipping their toes into the more competitive Magic scene (it won’t bite!).

2) To document the whole system, warts’n’all, in the hope it will be a useful resource for Wizards Organised Play for when/if they need to make alterations to improve the Pro Tour qualifying system for all players.

I have some thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, but I’ll save that for a future article, as this week I’ll be discussing the recent announcement about WotC’s future digital plans.

But before then we have the tournament of the week. It’s a PPTQ and it’s one I didn’t have to travel far to as it was held at my local store—Big Orbit in Shrewsbury.

Big Orbit, Shrewsbury PPTQ 21/01/17 – Format: Sealed

Entry: £25
Attendance: 21

This is the first week in the qualifying season for Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, which will be held in Kyoto later in the year. Fortunately, I didn’t have to put on brewer’s hat and source cards for a new Standard deck just yet. The format for this PPTQ is Aether Revolt Sealed Deck with a Top 8 Draft. Hopefully all those prereleases I played last weekend would put me in good stead.

As an aside, when PPTQs first came along and I read about them while living and working on a desert island, I thought the PPTQ stage would be largely be a formality. My thinking was the best player would easily turn over their local store and the real challenge would be at the RPTQ.

Yep…

What I had failed to take into account during my time in exile is that the Magic: the Gathering player base had grown considerably and that there would also be a lot more decent players floating around.

Right, so let’s take a look at the pool I opened:

Deck Construction

Sealed Pool – Shrewsbury PPTQ 21/01/17 (0)

WHITE (16)
Acrobatic Maneuver
Aerial Modification
Aeronaut Admiral
Aethergeode Miner
Aetherstorm Roc
Alley Evasion
Bastion Enforcer
Consulate Crackdown
Conviction
Decommission
Fairgrounds Warden
Ghirapur Osprey
Inspired Charge
Ninth Bridge Patrol
Pressure Point

BLUE (11)
Aether Tradewinds
Bastion Inventor
Era of Innovation
Gearseeker Serpent
Leave in the Dust
Saheeli’s Artistry
Shipwreck Moray
Vedalken Blademaster
Wind-Kin Raiders

BLACK (12)
Dhund Operative
Dukhara Scavenger
Fen Hauler
Fourth Bridge Prowler
Harsh Scrutiny
Ironclad Revolutionary
Night Market Aeronaut
Renegade’s Getaway
Resourceful Return
Subtle Strike

RED (11)
Aether Chaser
Built to Smash
Chandra’s Revolution
Embraal Gear-Smasher
Gremlin Infestation
Precise Strike
Ravenous Intruder
Release the Gremlins
Renegade Tactics
Shock
Wayward Giant

GREEN (11)
Blossoming Defense
Druid of the Cowl
Hunt the Weak
Kujara Seedsculptor
Peema Aether-Seer
Prey Upon
Scrounging Bandar
Silkweaver Elite
Wily Bandar

MULTICOLOURED (4)
Maverick Thopterist
Spire Patrol
Voltaic Brawler
Weldfast Engineer

ARTIFACT (19)
Aegis Automaton
Consulate Turret
Demolition Stomper
Filigree Crawler
Heart of Kiran
Implement of Examination
Implement of Ferocity
Implement of Improvement
Irontread Crusher
Narnam Cobra
Night Market Guard
Prakhata Pillar-Bug
Prizefighter Construct
Torch Gauntlet
Untethered Express
Welder Automaton
Workshop Assistant

It had looked so promising when I’d cracked the packs and saw Heart of Kiran, Saheeli’s Artistry and Aetherstorm Roc. But, as I’ve said before, sealed decks are about more than just the rares and mythics. The biggest weakness here was the lack of quality creatures and a curve that looked more like a wedge.

Blue had the power, but nothing cheaper than four mana. White could fill the lower slots on the curve as well providing some punchy cards of its own, but was also lacking quality two-drops. Green had turn two plays, including a mana elf, but went nowhere after that. Red had bits and bobs and black offered nothing.

Hmm. Problems.

On the positive side, I’d opened this in a PPTQ. I wouldn’t have to squeeze nine rounds out of it like at a Grand Prix, so all was not lost. A good player should at least make the Top 8 of the smaller tournaments most of the time. It’s not a guarantee. Sometimes you get a bad sealed deck or more than one bad matchup/mana screw for the constructed tournaments. No sense taking them personal. Variance happens.

This was a bad sealed pool.

This is what I made of it:

Sealed Deck – Shrewsbury PPTQ 21/01/17 (41)
Island
Plains
Mountain
Aeronaut Admiral
Aethergeode Miner
Aetherstorm Roc
Alley Evasion
Decommission
Fairgrounds Warden
Ghirapur Osprey
Bastion Inventor
Gearseeker Serpent
Leave in the Dust
Saheeli’s Artistry
Shipwreck Moray
Wind-Kin Raiders
Chandra’s Revolution
Release the Gremlins
Maverick Thopterist
Spire Patrol
Heart of Kiran
Night Market Guard
Untethered Express
Welder Automaton

I don’t normally like splashing in Kaladesh/Aether Revolt limited, especially with no decent fixers. In this case I felt like I didn’t have a choice. If your pool is weak sometimes you have to up the power level and hope the boost in power is greater than the loss in reliability. Adding Mountains also meant the Welder Automatons I’d added to have something to play on turn two might have some additional utility in the late game. The Night Market Guard is also there because needs must (and it has three power and can crew the Heart of Kiran).

The other unusual thing you might have noticed is that I’m running 18 lands and 41 cards. This is commonly known as the 17-and-a-halfer. My early game is never going to win or even survive too long, so I can’t afford to stall on three lands. I also felt 18 lands was too much, hence the 41-card compromise. It’s a little loose but I think it’s correct. Feel free to sound off in the comments if you have alternative build suggestions. I always welcome differing viewpoints. It’s a good way to “Git Gud“.

I knew the deck was a bit poopy, but I also knew it wasn’t the end of the world. With 21 players we had 5 rounds of Swiss. If I could just manage to scrape through them with three wins I’d make the draft and then, of course, everything resets.

The Matches

My first round opponent Amy had both Winding Constrictor and Rishkar, Peema Renegade, as well as other counters-matter cards. From what I saw, her deck looked capable of dishing out a severe beating. But thankfully not to me, as she failed to draw her pieces in conjunction, or even the right number of lands and I stabilised to eke out a 2-1 win.

1-0

Round two and I failed my dodge-good-decks plan and Richard Carr utterly pulverised me with a deck that was like mine, but with decent two drops, Angel of Invention and Baral’s Expertise. Not much that can be done about that other than taking it on the chin. A couple of months ago it was me battering people at a PPTQ with a double Renegade Freighter deck backed up with Angel of Invention. That’s how Sealed Deck is.

1-1

Round three and I was paired down against Allen Vespa. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand being paired against the 0-2 deck usually means an easier matchup than being against another 1-1. This ended up being the case. Allen didn’t like his deck much and while the first games were split to mana flood I was able to successfully win the race with fliers and a crucial Welder Automaton ping the turn before his green horde would have flattened me.

2-1

Unfortunately, I knew that being paired down meant the potential back door into the Top 8 of 3-2 plus good tiebreakers was now closed. A second loss would put me out. However, if I won the next round I should be able to ID into the Top 8 draft.

Round four was one of the more interesting games of Limited Magic I’ve played. The first games were split. In the first Johannes got to have a lot of fun with Unbridled Growth and Renegade Rallier thanks to various revolt tricks. I levelled the second with a laboured win over his largely mono-islands draw (it’s always a worrying sign when your opponent has a crippled mana draw and you only just manage to beat them).

The deciding game was a classic. I had Saheeli’s Artistry in hand, but I also knew Johannes had Baral’s Expertise in his deck and I wanted to avoid him being able to come over the top of my Artistry and undo it with the bounce of Baral’s Expertise. After Johannes stole my Wind-Kin Raiders with Confiscation Coup I missed a complicated line of play that involved using Artistry as a very expensive Clone to copy just my Fairgrounds Warden to exile the Raiders. I spotted it a turn or two later when I remembered the Raiders would come back under my control should anything bad happen to the Warden copy. Also, the Warden copy was an artifact and I had a Decommission in hand…

As the game went into extra turns I saw the line that I thought would steal me the game. My plan was to ambush Johannes when he came in to finish me off by destroying my own artifact warden copy with Decommission. This would release the Raiders back to my side, enable me to block his lethal attack and then crack back for a last turn win with the Raiders, Heart of Kiran and a Thopter token. It’s one of those weird situations where you really hope they draw their game-winning card (Baral’s Expertise), because you know your plan trumps it.

As it was, Johannes had a Negate in hand for the Decommission and that was that.

2-2

I narrowly beat Robert Whitehouse in the final round thanks to a key Alley Evasion to keep my Fairgrounds Warden alive in the deciding game, but realistically we both knew we were only playing for 9th or 10th and a consolation booster for missing out on tiebreakers. This was indeed confirmed when the final standings were read out.

Shrewsbury PPTQ 21/01/17
Entry: £25
Attendance: 21
Record: 3-2
Finish: 9th
Swag: 1 Booster (Planar Bridge) + the Heart of Kiran opened in the sealed pool.

Disappointing, but it happens. And to be fair, it’s hard to feel too bad when you get knocked out by a sequence of play that involves you trying to Decommission your own artifact copy of a creature and them Negating it. Fun Magic is always fun Magic.

Originally I was planning to make the weekend a double-header, with a second PPTQ at Global Gaming in Birmingham on the Sunday. Unfortunately the relatively cold climate inside Big Orbit’s store had managed to aggravate a cough or cold I’d been carrying all week. With the Grand Prix in Prague coming up next weekend, I didn’t want to do push things and end up feeling lousy for that weekend. A bit of a cop-out, but I decided a Sunday in bed with the heating turned up was probably the better plan.

 

Digital Goings On At Wizards Of The Coast

So it’s the part of the column where I talk about recent goings on and throw things open for some discussion. This week I thought I’d take a look at the recent announcements about the future of Digital Magic. Changes are afoot. No longer will people be able to #BlameWorth for every little problem with Magic Online as he has moved on to pastures new.

Two weeks ago there was an announcement on the future of digital from new CEO Chris Cocks. You can read it here:

https://company.wizards.com/article/press/making-moves

Some interesting, some promising and some “huh?”

First up.

“We are reimagining digital versions of Magic and other Wizards games. We recently created the Digital Games Studio, a group of all-stars led by industry veteran Jeffrey Steefel. Jeffrey’s team includes experienced Wizards game designers and industry talent from Dire Wolf Digital, Valve Corporation, Cryptic Studios, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Activision, BioWare, and many others. The Magic Online team is now included in this group, as well as digital art and game design. They’re all thinking about how players might tap mana and prepare spells in the future, and I can’t wait for you to see what they’re working on.”

This is very promising. I like that they’ve hired various industry veterans with proven experience at other computer game companies. The computer part is important. For a long time one of the criticisms levelled at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) was that MTGO lagged behind horribly in tech and they weren’t offering competitive enough salaries to bring aboard the experienced and talented programmers they needed to push it back to the forefront. This looks like a decent attempt to rectify this.

I don’t think they’ll turn into Blizzard overnight, but it seems at least an acknowledgement that they need to do something before Hearthstone becomes so dominant in the digital market that Magic ends up being this fuddy-duddy thing with an ugly interface only played thirtysomethings.

The second paragraph:

“We will bring our characters and worlds to other games and experiences. What would it be like to throw fireballs as a Planeswalker in an MMO, or quest for treasure with your friends in a D&D augmented-reality game? We want to play games like this too, so we hired David Schwartz, an industry veteran with 25 years of experience leading projects at Microsoft, Electronic Arts, THQ, LeapFrog Enterprises, and Midway Games. He is building a publishing team to explore partnerships and collaborations that will bring Magic and D&D to unexpected settings, genres, and platforms.”

And this would be the big “huh?”

A Magic MMO where you get to throw fireballs as Chandra? Okay… I suppose.

This is where the fearful bit comes in. I might be wrong, but I thought the glory days of MMOs had already passed. World of Warcraft is still going, but it’s also the market codifier in the same way Magic: the Gathering is for TCGs. MMOs are massive money sinks and have ended up being the graves for companies trying to follow Blizzard’s path. I can see any money piled into this new division evaporating quickly with nothing to show for it if they’re not careful. This is just a risk with any major videogame project.

The big problem for me it that the paragraph is all following. It reads too much like chasing trends rather than setting trends. And not exactly new trends either. MMOs are last decade’s thing. Augmented Reality was a huge smash with Pokemon last year, but even that fizzled out pretty quickly.

Now, if they said they were making some kind of arena team shooter where you got to fling fireballs as Chandra, Nissa and others vs Tezzeret and others, I’d still think they were following, but at least it would be up-to-date following.

I’m also wondering if Magic even has a strong enough IP for spin-offs. Magic is a great game mechanically, but the background and world-building has never been its strong point (although they’ve massively improved on this over the last few years). Can Jace and company sell a standalone game in the same way as Games Workshop‘s 40K Universe?

My instinct would be no, but I also know I’m not in the right age range. I remember GW’s stuff and even D&D’s own Forgotten Realms novels because I grew up with them and can look back on them with the right amount of nostalgia. This is going to add a massive bias filter to what I consider a strong and memorable IP. To compensate for this I’m going to throw it out to the audience, who might have been at that critical age when first encountering the background and lore. Do any of you have fond memories of reading the old Magic: the Gathering novels and want to re-immerse yourself in that world?

This is mainly for Magic, though. WotC also has the D&D IP, and that certainly has a long and illustrious lore.

The third paragraph is more nuts and bolts:

“We will make your Wizards experiences more efficient, connected, and convenient. From getting matched in a big tournament to tracking your achievements to simply getting friends together for game night, there’s a lot that goes into a good experience with a game outside of the game itself. A revamped technology team led by longtime Wizard Arron Goolsbey will be focused on connecting these kinds of in-store and online interactions so you will have cohesive and connected experiences with our games.”

This is actually one area where they’ve been pretty good. It’s one of those things you don’t really notice until you see a Facebook post by Andrew Quinn asking for advice on how to handle pairings in a Final Fantasy trading card tournament and realise how much we take the Magic tournament software for granted.

Then I remember I’ve never actually been able to login to my Planeswalker Points account, or even find the correct page or process to fix what I need to fix to enable me to login to my Planeswalker Points account…

So, still work to do.

Setting aside any D&D-related projects, for Magic I think there’s one major priority:

Make Magic Online good.

This, I think, is what WotC needs to get right in the next one or two years. Hearthstone is massive. Esports have taken off. These are the new spectator sports/games in the same way that darts and snooker took off with TV coverage. Magic, with its twenty-year history, definitely should be aim to be at the forefront of this. If anything, the Pro Tour was a precursor to the big-money videogame events we see nowadays.

It can’t do this with Magic Online in its current state. The interface simply isn’t eye-catching enough. Put a screenshot of Hearthstone and MTGO side by side and a kid’s going to ask you if the latter is a piece of abandonware from the 90s. This is not a good recruitment tool to get kids into playing the game.

So if MTGO needs an overhaul, how to go about it.

The one major pitfall to avoid is the idea of making Magic something else. I read something like this elsewhere:

Magic is a twenty-year old game. It can’t compete digitally because the game isn’t right for a modern audience. It needs to be simplified, made more like Hearthstone

This would be a disaster. Magic’s main strength, the reason it has survived for as long as it has while plenty of other TCGs have gone extinct, is its game mechanics. Duels of the Planeswalkers is a great introduction to the game, but you wouldn’t want that to be the game. Those grinders that battle it out on the lower rungs of competitive play and sink time and money into MTGO in order to get better at the game, they’re not going to be interested in Magic Lite.

There is an argument for overhauling the business model. Originally, WotC didn’t want MTGO cannibalising the print version of the game and so they aimed to duplicate it by making all the online cards collectible digital objects. At the time many (including me) thought they were mad, but it worked out… Then.

Now? That’s a different question. It is very expensive to keep parallel collections in both MTGO and physical Magic. It’s just very expensive period to play MTGO at any sort of competitive level. This no longer matches up very well with the rest of the digital market. Think of how much a typical draft costs for 2-4 hours of play and then compare that to buying something like Terraria, a game with 100s of hours of play, off GOG for a pound.

There is an argument for changing the digital business model, to break the link between it and physical Magic, and coming up with something that better fits modern times.

However, doing this would be extremely controversial. A lot of people have sunk lots of money into building up digital collections. Having that evaporate overnight because WotC changed digital models to some kind of cheaper free-to-play variant with easier access to all the cards would not go down too well. I think it might need to be done, but I can’t see how it could be done without collapsing and driving off the current player base.

Anyway, it’s about time for me to head off to Prague for the Grand Prix. Here at Manaleak.com we like to leave things open for discussion, so this one’s easy:

What would you like to see from WotC’s new Digital Games Studio?

and…

How would you “fix” Magic Online?

Thanks for reading,

Prof.

What Would You Like To See From Wizards Of The Coast's New Digital Game Studio? by Craig

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