Numbers on a White Board

Posted in Making Magic on August 13, 2012

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

This week is the first World Magic Cup event (held at Gen Con), where teams from around the world will play for the honor of representing their countries to earn the ultimate team reward. The idea of a world team competition is nothing new for Magic and dates all the way back to the second Magic World Championships in 1995. The creation of the team event has a very interesting beginning (one I talked briefly about in my column on the different Worlds back in 2009) and I felt it was worthy of an entire column.

I consider myself one of the historians of Magic, partly because I'm one of the people communicating with all of you and partly because I've just been around for a long time. I love telling stories and I love Magic history so today's column is a marriage of those two loves. With that out of the way, let's begin our story.

Plains | Art by Charles Urbach

Once Upon a Time

Our story begins not in 1995, when the second World Championships was held, but rather a year earlier at Gen Con, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That was the site of the first Magic: The Gathering World Championship. (I wrote a whole article about that Gen Con and the first World Championship.) The event went well, but Peter Adkison, one of Wizards founders and at the time CEO, felt as if Magic was bigger than just another game tournament at Gen Con. His goal was to take the Magic World Championships and turn it into something bigger. The result of this goal would lead to the following year's World Championships.

Meanwhile, I managed to turn my Gen Con trip into more freelance work. Not only did I start writing articles, but I was able to get in good with the people who planned events. My advance knowledge of the cards kept me from playing in sanctioned events, so I had turned toward judging. In addition, I had a communications background, so I also started helping out with the video coverage we began doing at events.

The first big event I was flown to was the Ice Age Prerelease, the first ever Magic Prerelease. It was held at single location in Toronto, Canada. The event, interestingly, would be won by Hall-of-Famer and current R&D developer Dave Humpherys. (I touch upon this event in the first part of my T-shirt article—T-shirt #15) I was brought out to cover the event for The Duelist and even played in it to write my article from the vantage of a player. I made the cut to Day Two but was asked to drop out because it looked bad for someone flown to the event by Wizards to do well in it.

The next big event I was flown out for was the 1995 United States National Championship held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I remember it was in the summer because there was a heat wave in Philadelphia. At the event, Mark Justice would go on to defeat (future R&D member) Henry Stern in the finals to become the second United States National Champion.

Future R&D member Henry Stern at the 1995 World Championships

I judged the event every day, but on the last day I helped out with the video coverage for the finals. It was the first time they had ever attempted to film a Magic event and there were numerous problems. Having a background in video production (my major was in broadcast and film from Boston University's College of Communication), I volunteered to help out and ended up doing a lot more than I realized I was going to do when I volunteered. I'm not sure if the video for this event has ever been made public, but if it has you can see a very young me doing the spotting on the stage reporting back to the director and commentators.

The 1995 Nationals ended up being a thrilling event with a dramatic final between Stern and Justice. Justice came back from the loser bracket (the tournament was double elimination) to beat Stern in two separate best-of-three matches. While the event was very smooth from the public end, it was a bit less so behind the scenes. The highlight of the chaos was the player meeting where the players argued with the head judge for three hours about how it was going to be run.

The new self-contained World Championship was Peter’s dream to take Magic to the next level. With less than a month before the big event, Peter had to find someone new to take over the responsibility of running the tournament. The clock was ticking.

Worlds In Peril

At this point, I had become a regular writer for The Duelist, so I was talking with Kathryn Haines, the then editor-in-chief of The Duelist, every couple of weeks. She and I talked after Nationals, which is where I learned that someone new was in charge. "Who's going to be running Worlds?" I asked Kathryn. It was then that I first heard of a man named Jason Carl.

Mark Rosewater tracks the action at the finals of the first Magic World championships

Jason Carl was a roleplayer who joined Wizards because he thought it would be fun to work at a game company. (He was right, by the way. It is fun.) He only had his position a short time before Peter tapped him on the shoulder. Jason wasn’t the senior person in Events but he had the most management experience, so Peter decided Jason was the man for the job.

Remember that this was the first time Wizards had ever run an event of this size. We weren't just a tournament at a convention, the entire event was only the Magic World Championship. It was being held at the Red Lion Inn, a hotel in Seattle near the airport. Players from nineteen countries were converging on Seattle for the first event of its kind.

I believe anyone who was put in charge of an event of this scale with less than a month's lead time would have had a problem. The fact that it was the first time we were doing it exacerbates the issue, as there wasn't any precedent to lean on. But on top of that, Jason had never run a tournament before (well, at least not a Magic tournament). Actually, as I repeat this all, I realize that Jason did a pretty amazing job given the insane task handed him, but—and this is where I come into the story—the tournament had a few problems.

As I had become the person who wrote all the organized player coverage, I was flown out to Seattle for the event. Because I was a trained judge, they also made use of me to judge the event. The last day, I helped out on the video coverage as I had at Nationals, and also acted as the spotter on the stage.

I remember walking into the lobby of the Red Lion Inn. Every other place I had gone on Wizards's dime had been a convention. For the first time, there was nothing else going on but the Magic event. I, as well as all the others involved, could sense that there was history being made. We were about to start something new, something that was going to lead to something big. We didn't know what that big thing would be but we knew that we were in uncharted realms. (Hi Jenna.)

Marc Hernandez and Alexander Blumke in the finals of the 1995 Magic World Championships

Let me stress before I continue that this story is as much about the beginning of premier level organized play as it is about Worlds or the team championship. In the last seventeen years, Wizards has gone from dipping its toe into the tournament scene to become one of the dominant forces in gaming organized play. But this story is still at the “dipping the toe in” phase. As you will see, there were some lessons to be learned.

The first inkling I had that there were some issues with the tournament happened during our very first meeting. Jason was meeting with the judges and was walking us through how the tournament was going to be run. Almost as a throw-away, Jason explained that he had simplified some things. One of these changes for simplicity sake was that he was going to change a bye from being worth 3 points to being worth 0.

I actually remember doing a double take. Did he just say what I thought he said?

Very quickly, for those not up on tournaments, let me explain what a bye is. If you have an odd number of players, there is going to be one player who cannot be paired up. What do you do with this player? You pair him or her up with what is known as a "bye." A bye is essentially a fictional player in the tournament who cannot win. Any player who faces a bye is considered to have won his or her match. In the first round the bye is random, but in later rounds it is paired up against players as if it had a complete losing record, which means it always "plays" the person doing least well in the tournament.

In tournaments, there is a points system to show how players are doing. A win is worth 3 points, a draw (where neither player wins) is worth 1 point, and a loss is worth 0 points. These numbers are to properly weight draws versus wins. Changing a bye from 3 points to 0 points means you are changing getting the bye from an automatic win to an automatic loss. That's a giant change, one that, for no reason, gives players losses they didn't earn.

On top of that, there's an even more insidious problem. The easiest way to program a bye is just treat it like a player in the tournament who automatically loses. This always keeps the bye at the bottom, where it gets paired up against players doing poorly (aka giving free wins to players where the win is least likely to matter in the Top 8 of the tournament). If you start assigning byes wins (which is the only way possible in most programs if you're giving the opponent a loss), it starts climbing up the ladder, which means that it is now paired against the players doing the best.

This means the bye is not only giving out random losses but it is doing so to the top players in the tournament. It is directly affecting the Top 8 outcome in the most negative way possible. In short, giving players 0 points against a bye doesn’t make any sense. Jason was trying to correct what he thought was a mistake, giving players a win when they didn’t actually defeat anyone. To Jason’s credit, once the judges explained the error of his thinking, he quickly grasped what we were saying and changed it back. This interaction with Jason – me yelling at him about how byes had to get 3 points – was our first introduction.

From Around The World

Let's go back to 1994 Worlds for a moment. To the best of my knowledge, only three countries had anything close to a Nationals tournament in 1994—the Belgium, France, and the United States (interestingly all countries had players in the top four of the 1994 World Championship). The following year, that number jumped to nineteen—Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.

There were only two ways to get into the 1995 World Championships:

  1. You were on your national team, which was defined as being in the Top 4 of your country's Nationals.
  2. You were the current world champion (aka your name was Zak Dolan).

There wasn't a very efficient rating system yet, so there wasn't an easy way to invite players. Barring the Zak Dolan exception, you had to come as a member of your country's team. Seventy-three people were eligible to play and seventy-one showed up for the event.

Because the only way in was through teams, the national teams took on a great deal of focus. I picked up on this early and realized that there was actually a very interesting angle on the event. Yes, the event was going to crown a world champion, but couldn't it also crown a world team champion?

I was very excited by this idea, so I went to Jason to pitch it. What if, instead of one competition, we have two? What if, for the first time ever, there is a Magic World Team Champion?

Now let's put ourselves in Jason's shoes. You've been given a crazy assignment well outside your comfort zone with way too little time to properly prepare. The event is starting up and there are more things for you to deal with than there is time for you to deal with them. Then along comes a little man. This little man is not a Wizards employee. You're not even sure who he is. All that you know is that he's one of the judges who earlier in the day was yelling at you about byes. He comes up to you and says, "What do you think of having a second competition?"

Jason basically told me he was busy and to leave him alone. The problem was I knew I had a good idea, something that when the dust settled we were going to wish we had done. I talked with Kathryn about my idea and she agreed it sounded good but said that there was so much chaos that introducing a new component this late in the game was probably not a good idea.

That's when it hit me. What if I just kept track? No one had to do anything but me. I would just record the information. With this idea, I approached Jason one more time.

Me: I just need thirty seconds.
Jason: Okay, thirty seconds.
Me: I think people are going to be very interested in what team does the best. I just want to record all the information for historical sake.
Jason: Does this involve me having to do anything?
Me: No.
Jason: And if I do this you'll leave me alone?
Me: Yes.
Jason: Fine.

So I got a white board and I wrote "Team Competition" on it. Then each round, I updated the information listing the teams in the order of their standings. An interesting thing happened. The United States pulled ahead early and stayed ahead (their average was the cut-off for the Top 8—that's the best performance by a team in the history of Worlds) but the there were about six countries fighting pretty hard for the second slot. Players kept coming back to check the board to see how their team was doing against the field. Even teams that were lower down were interested in who they were ahead of and how far behind they were of the team ahead of them. When the dust settled, Team US won, with Team Finland nabbing second.

In my coverage of the event in The Duelist Companion (the newsletter sent out to members of the DCI), I included the breakdown I had collected of the teams. I even made a subtle mention about the American team's dominance in the article I wrote about the event in The Duelist. (To see all these articles, here is a page of articles about 1995 World Championships.)

By the following year's Worlds, the Pro Tour had started and the idea of there being a world team champion was widely accepted. Team United States played in a team final against Team Czech Republic in a very close set of games where the US managed to keep the title for the second year (but would lose a year later, with Canada taking the honors).

Jason would go on to put on a hell of a Worlds, rough by modern standards but light years ahead of anything anyone else had ever done. Team Switzerland member Alexander Blumke would defeat Team France member Mark Hernandez to become the second ever Magic World Champion.

Crucible of Worlds | Art by Ron Spencer

Where in the Worlds

And that is a little snippet of Magic history. I hope you enjoyed today's column and I'm curious if you'd like to hear more stories like this. You can give me your feedback in my email, the column's thread, Twitter, Tumblr, or Google+.

Join me next week when I talk about one of the most valuable tools in game design.

Until then, may you find your own white board with something interesting to write on it.

Latest Making Magic Articles


June 27, 2022

A Double Take, Part 2 by, Mark Rosewater

Last week, I started telling some card-by-card design stories about cards reprinted in Double Masters 2022, but there were a lot of stories to tell, so I'm continuing today. Body Double ...

Learn More


June 20, 2022

A Double Take, Part 1 by, Mark Rosewater

Before the release of Double Masters 2022, I thought it would be fun to look back at how some of the cards were made. This set has cards from all over Magic's history, so over the next tw...

Learn More



Making Magic Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All