Two Years, Times Eight

Posted in Serious Fun on February 27, 2007

By The Ferrett

Considering that Pro Tour Cleveland 2007 marks the second anniversary of Multiplayer as a sanctioned format, I thought I'd interview Scott Larabee about the origins of Professional Multiplayer and its success and controversy as it's evolved.

So how did Multiplayer get established as an official PTQ format?


Scott Larabee: It actually started with a conversation with [Level 4 Judge] Gis Hoogendjik after Pro Tour - Barcelona in 2001. He had always been a big fan of casual multiplayer games, and he asked why we hadn't come up with official rules for the format. I said that it was a lot of work to come up with a new set of rules for a format that wouldn't actually qualify anyone… At which point he asked why there couldn't be multiplayer Pro Tour Qualifiers, and maybe even a multiplayer Pro Tour.

And that's when you devised the idea?

SL: Not at first. There were very good reasons not to have multiplayer PTQs, a lot of which were brought up at the table - the first being the well-known "cluster" problem. If we make "eight-man multiplayer" the official PTQ format, what happens if fourteen people show up at a PTQ at the local shop?

It was a complex issue, because tiebreakers are enough of a pain in normal duel formats…. And that's got a clear winner (or no winner) in every match. If we had an eight-player match, it was obvious that coming in second in that match was more impressive than coming in eighth - but how much more impressive? If one player wins a six-man game and another player wins an eight-man game, how much heavier do we weight that victory?

Then there was the issue of settling on rules. Multiplayer had a number of questions that needed to get hammered out - what sort of range did players have? Did a Pyroclasm affect all creatures on the table, or just the two players to either side of the person who cast it, or some other compromise? Would a player's spell effectively fizzle if he was killed before it resolved, or was there some other timing issue? What about sideboards, or would we just have one game with winner take all?


Gis was enthusiastic, but a lot of other judges were violently against the idea. Not only was multiplayer just asking for trouble from a strict timing perspective - players in two-man formats had problems effectively communicating when they had passed priority, and eight-man games where everyone had to "Yea" or "Nay" every spell would be an issue - but the length of the games would also cause problems from a logistics perspective.


SL: Yes. Multiplayer matches by nature are longer than duels, and at the time we weren't sure whether players would tolerate getting to participate in few games in the course of a day. Either we established some sort of arbitrary cut-off time -

- which you did -

SL: - which we did, at ninety minutes a game, or else risk seven-hour matches eating up whole Grand Prix. But the time cut-off led to other problems: A duel always ended in a clear tie or a victory. We've got it solved now, but the initial hurdle of deciding how to assign points when there were three players left in an eight-man game once time ran out was a nightmare. "Highest life total" wouldn't do it; that'd just encourage people to stall.


Then there was the issue of throwing games. It'd be ludicrously easy to have a teammate who was losing decide to take out other non-allied players at the table to boost his pal's standing - was that kosher? Did we want to encourage that? And if we didn't, how could we prevent it?

There was a lot of internal resistance from the TOs [Tourney Organizers]. They were afraid of long games that weren't much fun - and remember, nobody was sure whether multiplayer would even be popular. It seemed like a lot of work for very little potential gain.

So what changed things?

SL: Well, Gis went to the public and wrote an article for [who he was writing for at the time - T.F.] asking whether the people wanted sanctioned multiplayer qualifier formats. And that was a brou-ha-ha as well. All the big sites at the time - SCG, Mindripper, Meridian Magic, CCGPrime, The Pojo - wound up having fierce debates on the issue.

A lot of casual people felt it would ruin the game, turning it into a very sharklike format. Others thought it would lend credence to multiplayer and would give it better resources to work with.

[Full disclosure: I was all for it at the time, and wrote several articles pushing the idea of multiplayer as a sanctioned format - T.F.]

In the end, Wizards thought that if the idea of FNM Multiplayer could stir up that much passion online, they might as well try it.

But not all the way, right?


SL: Correct. In late 2002, we rolled out the first Two-Headed Giant format tournaments - it was our toe in the water to see whether anyone was interested in even a limited form of multiplayer play. As it turned out, those tourneys were a great success; people liked the idea of teaming up, so we rolled it out into States.

There were still a lot of problems in bringing multiplayer into formalized tournament play, which meant that behind the scenes a lot of people were working to hammer out the official multiplayer rulings to see whether we could make this work. Oh, man, you wouldn't believe how many online arguments we had over how to work eight-man game tiebreakers. There were times we almost gave up… But by then, there was a groundswell of interest by people who wrote a lot of articles online, and a lot of fertile suggestions, so again, we thought we could try it.

The first multiplayer Pro Tour (with multiplayer PTQs feeding it) was in January 2005. The format was Constructed, because we thought the games would take enough time and we couldn't risk throwing in the Limited deck construction time on top of that. We picked a site on the East Coast, where there were a lot of population clusters, just to see if we could maximize attendance.

Pro Tour - Buffalo.

SL: Yeah. It was a disaster.

Care to elaborate on that?

SL: Not really. (Laughs) The failings are, sadly, well-known at this point. The attendance at the PTQs was up - up a lot - but the actual format had a lot of issues, and we got a lot of complaints that it wasn't fun at all.

Hokori, Dust Drinker

[NOTE: Pro Tour: Combo was famed for its "unfair" format, because beatdown was a weakened strategy - you had to use creatures to distribute a hundred and forty points among seven players - and control wasn't strong enough to counterspell or destroy everything that came along. That left two decks to rule the format: Lockdown and Combo. As Anthony Alongi noted in his Pro Tour wrapup at the time, "The best strategy was to sit back behind a few walls and wait for your opportunity to go off."]

The next year didn't help, either.

SL: Yeah. I should note for the record that the tournament side doesn't have any involvement in the banned and restricted list, but our concern at the time was that it was too easy to go passive. Wizards was as on top of it as they could be throughout 2005 - we held FNM multiplayer tournaments in cities and counted the results closely - and you may note the immediate swathe of bannings -

- in March, and then June, then October and November -

SL: Uh-huh. Wizards was trying to prevent the prevalence of combo by banning each combo card individually, but that wasn't working on two levels. First of all, the idea was that you could take a Standard deck to any multiplayer table and fire and forget, but the new Standard Multiplayer list was such a radically different format that it was getting hard to keep track of. And secondly, R&D (or, actually, D) couldn't get ahead enough of the curve - they'd ban one set of cards, and the next would show up. In a slower format, that's hard to deal with.

So Pro Tour - Birmingham in 2006?

SL: Better, but not great. We'd weakened combo, but a combo deck still won the whole thing, and people were getting weary of it. Plus, the problem - as predicted - with allied players throwing games to their friends was an issue, and there were a couple of high-profile judge calls on that topic that we probably would have made differently these days. Even Gis admits that. But the real problem was the format: the combo thing was killing us.

Ironically, we'd pissed off the pros, who thought the politics were killing them, and then irritated the casual players who felt that "unfun" decks were ruling the format.

But then Paul Sottosanti came up with an interesting idea.

The "Eight Bound" rule.

SL: Yup. It's famous now, but it generated a lot of controversy in Summer 2006 when we rolled it out. Any unbounded combo can fire a maximum of eight times in the course of any one game. You can go off with something else as long as it involves a different set of card names - but again, that combo can fire a maximum of eight times and it's gone.

Intruder Alarm

And just to clarify, since this still caused some confusion, even at the Pro Tour:

1. Yes, the eight-bound limit counts against you even if you have different cards on the table. If you've gone around eight times with an Intruder Alarm/Yadda/Yadda combo and then lay down a second Yadda later on, you don't get to enter a second loop. That's it. You're done.
2. The fact that you have entered a loop eight times doesn't block other players from entering their loop. If you've burned up your Alarm/Yadda/Yadda combo, that doesn't stop the player to your left from entering his eight-bound. Even if he's doing it with an Intruder Alarm that he's stolen from you with Dichotomancy.

It still caused some problems with storm spells.

SL: Oh yeah. But we managed to ban those cards, and by then R&D had begun to see how to design cards for multiplayer and had begun to generate some serious answers for lifegain and combos involving tons of spells on the stack. And yeah, there were decks that were designed specifically to go off with different three-card combos, but the eight-bound rule made them weak enough that they could be disrupted.

So why eight?

SL: I dunno. I asked Paul about it, and he said "It just felt right." Kind of like seven for threshold, I guess. But it worked out. I'm proud of Cleveland.

Thanks, Scott!

Pro Tour - Cleveland Wrap-Up

I was glad to see Magic rolling back into my town again after a five-year absence, and never happier to see the new multiplayer format rolled out. I managed to sneak in with a last-minute Q at one of the local shops, but alas! I finished poorly, in 216th place.

Still, I talked to a lot of players and here are some of their impressions:

Jeroen Remie (296th place)
This format is complete crap. I hate to say it, but it all comes down to who can look the least threatening, so whoever's known as the best player at the table gets knocked out first. How does that reward skill? And considering that the people who won at Buffalo and Birmingham and Cleveland have never been heard from before (and, in the case of Buffalo and Birmingham, never been heard from again, that makes me very suspicious of the format.

Plus, the fact that there's no sideboarding gives you one shot to take it, and if you're even a little off, you're gone. It's stupidly unforgiving.

Josh Bell (5th place)
Serendib_Sorcerer I dunno whether I like it or not. I mean, I like winning the money - that was nice - but the silence at the table is all weird. You have a lot fewer options politically; if you've ever finished in the money, everyone at the table will target you first. And if you talk a lot to try to get them to go elsewhere, people realize you're influencing the table and try to target you. It's a lot less political than the games we played at Ferrett's place to practice.

[Which is probably why I got such a drubbing! - the loudmouthed Ferrett]

Nick Eisel (14th place)
All the people who say it's about politics don't understand how it works. It's like poker times a thousand: You have to play the other players, and if you can't do that then maybe you should stay home.

Kenji Tsumura (144th place)
I think it is a good format for newer players with good deck designs. It is hard on name pros in this format, but if you come up with an interesting rogue design and come from nowhere, you can go far. I think I like it, but maybe not for me.

Stijn van Dongen (1st place)
Obviously, I like it. But it would be a lot better with an Extended card pool to work with; the Standard pool's way too limited for any real creativity here. I know my deck will show up as a netdeck all over the place now, and that is not good.

What is 'What If?' Week?

It's "What If?" Week here on, and in the spirit of Planar Chaos, we're presenting you with a variety of "What If?" alternate reality scenarios. Some of them, like Mark Rosewater's column, explain the premise up-front; others, Kelly Digges’s feature article, encourage you to figure out the "What If?" on your own. Ask Wizards and Card of the Day are in on the fun as well, containing implied "What If?" questions, but Arcana is "normal" – we didn't feel alternate reality scenarios would play well in that format. Thanks for reading, and enjoy "What If?" Week!

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