Welcome to Pro Tour Dark Ascension Week!
I've got to say, I'm not really the kind of person most people would describe as "muted," "understated," or "subtle." So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I'm so excited about this weekend's Pro Tour.
Well, for one, I've got a soft spot in my heart for Pro Tours in Honolulu, Hawaii. I can't decide what I like best—the six-dollar steak places, the beach houses, the karaoke joints, the one-of-a-kind tingly feeling you get when you cascade a Bloodbraid Elf into Wall of Omens. TOO MANY CHOICES. I guess I'll have to pick option E, the $10,500 checks...
Ahem. Gratuitous self-gratification aside, there's a whole lot else to look forward to. We're rolling out an entirely new coverage strategy, with three whole days of streaming video and unprecedented access to cutting-edge deck building technology from your favorite players. We're featuring Dark Ascension cards hot off the presses in only their second week of play, without a month's worth of netdecking and a hard drive's worth of draft videos to spoil players' appetites for innovation. And we've debuted a Fantasy Pro Tour Facebook app so you can be part of the action from the comfort of your own home.
What will I be up to? Well, I can’t resist an opportunity to run my mouth in front of a video camera, so I’ll be popping into the booth to talk about development of Dark Ascension Limited and highlighting sme of the more creative Standard brews from around the world. In all likelihood, I'll also be losing a lot of side-drafts to players far better at the game than myself. "A learning experience," I'll call it. Or more accurately: "A beating."
I could list a million reasons why the Pro Tour is such a captivating experience. It's been a part of my life for as long as I can remember—from the Perkins restaurant inside which I got Darwin Kastle's autograph in like 1995, to my debut at PT New Orleans 2001 at the tender age of fifteen, to the present day, in which I now watch players sling my own cards beneath those sweltering Feature Match Arena spotlights. But it might surprise y'all to learn the Pro Tour is an integral part of the development process, too. It's a barometer—a stress-test for a viable environment. So I want to spend today talking about how we digest results from the Pro Tour and incorporate them into the development cycle. Suffice to say my job would be a whole lot harder without it.
Push it to the Limit
It isn't at all intuitive that having the best players in the world bend your game until it breaks makes the development process easier. After all, they're doing everything they can to exploit holes in the environment and they'll punish you ruthlessly for your slip-ups. Without the Pro Tour, wouldn't it be possible for us to relax a little more, confident in the knowledge that if anything got too out of hand, at least it would be pretty low-visibility and wouldn't ultimately do that much damage?
Well, sort of.
While it's true that cutthroat-competitive players like to create problems, they also like to solve them.
First, though, let me back up a second.
There exists one key difference between how Magic is played inside the four walls of Wizards of the Coast corporate headquarters and how it's played in the real world. This difference is fundamental and at its core represents an essential inversion of the play pattern of a set as a function of time.
How many times, do you think, does R&D typically draft with the finalized version of a set?
The answer might surprise you. Overwhelmingly, despite the tremendous intensity and frequency of our Limited playtesting process, we draft with the version of a set you see in booster packs a grand total of one or maybe two times.
Why's that? Well, when we playtest, we're looking to change things we feel are wrong. When there isn't anything left to change—we're done! Given that we have four or so sets in the pipeline and a finite number of hours per day, we don't have the luxury in indulging in several drafts of a completed set just to get good at playing the format as it stands. We play it once or twice to make sure it's really finished, of course, but by and large when the pencils are down, the pencils are down!
Similarly, our Constructed playtest cycle (the Future Future League, which I've written about here) operates on a week-to-week basis, and when we've gone a week or so without making changes to a set, it's usually time to put the next set into the FFL.
What this means is that the play pattern of a given Magic set internally resembles what you see in a lot of electronic games. We play, tweak, play, tweak, play, and then tweak again. The environment changes very rapidly, but the ability to innovate inside that environment is relatively constrained because the environment is liable to up and change again the second you try to adapt to it. It's therefore product development, not the strategic metagame, that is overwhelmingly the determinate variable of a format's evolution.
The real world, however, functions in the exact opposite way. It holds the mechanics on the cards constant, and evolves in response to trends in how those cards are deployed. When we release a set, we effectively press "stop" on what has previously been a continually evolving set of game pieces. It's sort of like throwing a football. An intensely intricate set of processes and variables creates this marvelously complex wind-up that aims to hit a very precise target—but once you let go of the ball, there's nothing you can do but watch and see where it goes. The development process equips us with the playbook, the spatial command of the football field, the awareness and reaction time and biomechanical conditioning to place the ball very close to where it needs to be, but we only get to throw it once.
From that point on, you guys—the players on the field—are in command of what happens. You're playing thousands and thousands and thousands of games. You're reacting to one another. You're taking the tools we've given you and deploying them to their maximum potential. You're creating new tools we never even knew were there at all. Ultimately, it's your vision that shapes the reality of a given set's game play experience, despite all the work we've put in on the front end crafting it.
"Okay," you're saying. "I suppose I'll buy into your questionable and clumsily articulated extended metaphor. But what does that have to do with the Pro Tour?"
The Pro Tour allows us to set up for our next pass. It's uniquely positioned to solve problems we're not necessarily equipped to solve.
Break In Case Of Emergency
Imagine a world without any premier tournaments inside an environment that remained exactly the same. People still play tons of Magic, but there isn't a centralized high-profile tournament series that represents the best players in the world doing their best to win games in an established environment. The same powerful decks still exist because the card file's still the same, but the difference is we never get to see them.
Now, you could certainly argue that without a high-powered tournament circuit, a lot of the most powerful decks would never get created in the first place. That might be true, but millions of players play our game, and (for all its casual appeal) every game of Magic involves a winner and a loser. People will find optimized strategies. Without the Pro Tour, though, there exists no real way for us to evaluate the caliber of those strategies. This means that at the local level, the deck archetypes that become oppressive (a) would have no mainstream counter-strategy players could seek out to react to them and (b) wouldn't necessarily have solutions that exist inside the environment to combat them, because we at Wizards haven't made cards that provide those solutions.
It goes deeper than that, though. Not only do players find powerful strategies at the Pro Tour, they find powerful ways to beat those strategies, and their ability to do that informs the kinds of cards we develop to solve problems. Those reactions in turn form new strategies ("There are a lot of 1-toughness creatures in this format that need to be killed. I suppose I'll play Tragic Slip to deal with them—and wow, that card is really good with Snapcaster Mage!") that require us to react to them in turn. When the Pro Tour comes around, we have a chance to evaluate our predictive capacity, and adapt to how reality is actually functioning. It provides a verifiable answer to the question, "What's actually good in this environment?" When we've predicted that correctly, we are provided with a wealth of data that allows us to determine why. When we haven't, we get to analyze why we got it wrong and refine our processes such that we don't make the same mistakes again.
So how does this pan out in practice?
We've realized from experience that players tend to hate stagnant environments. As such, it's really important to us that the decks that dominated tournaments a year ago aren't the same decks dominating tournaments now. Because of that, we've accommodated our set development schedule such that it doesn't end until well after its corresponding Pro Tour. After the PT happens, we take the best-performing decks and adapt them to the new Standard environment. We pit those decks against the best strategies we've been able to come up with in the FFL—and usually, we learn a few things. For the decks we're able to beat, that's usually satisfying enough; if the eight or so of us can figure out how to get the job done, it's highly unlikely the millions of you are going to have any trouble. When we can't do it, though, we make sure to adapt our sets accordingly. Recently, I talked a little bit about how this process produces the Great Sable Stags and Obstinate Baloths of the world, but that's actually secondary to an even more vital task. The most important issue by far is to ensure the next year's sets aren't providing even more fuel to the dominant strategies that already exist. If we didn't do this, there's no way for us to know the "hate cards" we seed aren't just going to get outclassed by the new tools in the old decks' arsenals.
Turn on, Tune In, Topdeck
Reading over the words I've just written, I've typed some variant on the words "strategy" and "environment" a nearly offensive number of times. That highlights, to me, the kind of wonderfully abstract nature of the decisions all of us in R&D have to make every day. We drift between ephemeral half-worlds. We're little Schrödinger-kittens: perpetually potential. Then a deadline hits and a set's finished and it's out the door and suddenly I'm opening pack after pack on my kitchen counter saying, Wow: this is real. At that point, it's a different game. We can't change anything. We can't act.
The Pro Tour provides us with the opportunity to meaningfully react.
That's the obligingly intellectual and cutely detached version, of course. It's the least important. It's not what I'm thinking when I watch Craig Jones topdeck Lightning Helix or Gabriel Nassif announce Ignite Memories or Lachmann and Van Lunen become Pro Tour Champions in the span of fifteen minutes. At the end of the day, the Pro Tour is about an experience—an experience like nothing else. Some of the best moments in my life involve being a part of it.
Tune in live, here on DailyMTG.com, and experience it for yourself!