Building the Best Sandbox

Posted in Play Design on August 11, 2017

By Michael Majors

Michael Majors is a former professional Magic player and content producer who now works as a contractor on the Play Design team within R&D.

Howdy! My name is Michael Majors, and I'm a former professional Magic player who has since transitioned to being a Play Design team contractor. You're more likely to know me from content I've produced in the past with StarCityGames.com or with Gerry Thompson (and at one-point Andrew Brown) on the GAM Podcast.

The shameless plugs have some purpose. Despite being a high-level competitor for the last several years, my true love for Magic stems from many of its creative aspects and the endeavors it has allowed to me pursue. Producing strategic content is one of them, and now my position as a cog in R&D represents the next step. It feels good to be putting some words on paper, so hopefully you'll be seeing me pop up from time to time here as a guest in Melissa's stead!

Today I'm going to be talking about the motivations as well as comparing the process of building decks for tournament Magic and the Future Future League (FFL). Through my stint as a content creator, I've inadvertently become known as a prolific deck builder. I view the process as something more akin to an art than a science. There are few fast rules, and the primary motivator for me has always been the thrill of exploration combined with a love of learning.

Being a Pro Tour Team Player

My "job" on various Pro Tour teams was essentially to build all the shells of decks possible from the new card pool. This meant scouring over the new interactions available between new and existing cards, updating old decks with new cards, and stress-testing the power level of the most recent build-arounds. I attribute a lot of my success to some degree of optimism. A lot of players tend to make assumptions about whether something is "good enough" without ever playing any games! I always just wanted to learn the truth.

That hunger for learning is still a primary motivator for me inside Play Design. Where the contrast begins is the middle of the process.

What is the structure of a tournament? It sounds elementary, but a tournament is a snapshot of one weekend and its metagame, with X Swiss rounds and a cut to the Top 8. You're often competing for prize money, Pro Points, and a trophy. You only get one take.

As a result, the preparation gets refined to the details very quickly. The time frame from sitting down with my team and a full list of the cards in a new release to looking at the number of my Draft pod under the lights has been as little as two weeks in the past.

What are the implications of that? Tuning must be done quickly. While it's imperative to try everything that one can, being objective about power level is paramount. Can this deck compete against the current constraints of the format? If the answer is no, then it's out.

As an aside, a huge component of the exploratory process is understanding the latent power of new cards even if your shells are weak and untuned. Was the deck not performing? Okay, time to move on. Did drawing X card do good work in impacting games? Time to put it in more decks.

Where does that lead us? Very quickly to sideboard sessions. Tournaments are inherently about mastery over minute percentage points. Coming up with effective technology and honing sideboard plans that allow one to "break serve"—to win games on the draw, where they are more difficult.

Preparation for tournaments nearly always comes down to trying to hedge against some degree of risk. One makes informed predictions about the state of the metagame and then builds a deck to attack that field. Success and failure is often predicated on those conceptions of a metagame and the choices made to respond to it.

The Future Future League and Play Design

So, I've spouted a great deal about tournaments, what about the FFL and Play Design's role in it?

At the risk of it becoming a buzz word, FFL to me is combining my love of the exploratory learning process with maximizing the fun. The incentive structure for success has a far larger impact than the tournament result of a single weekend for me or my teammates.

Thinking about it in a different manner, tournament deck building is about maximizing the equity of a sandbox for your team in a single weekend. FFL deck building is about maximizing the quality of the sandbox for all Magic players for years to come.

It's a bit of a daunting task, but an awesome one.

Another important distinction is the attitude and approach of tournament preparation and FFL play. As a player, my mindset was often, "I don't really like this play pattern, but it exists and I have to try to exploit it."

Being a member of Play Design, I can now internalize that as, "This play pattern really isn't fun and has little counter-play; I should suggest we change X or Y."

What do I mean by a play pattern in this example?

Simply: the battlefield states or repeat interactions that cards facilitate. If games are too quickly warping around a specific card or I feel that an effect is becoming too ubiquitous within the FFL environment, then it's my responsibility to speak up.

This is one of our primary functions. We have far less data to work with in terms of crafting an internal metagame. As a result, our games are hyper-focused on learning and discovering new ways our cards interact with one another instead of pursuing high win rates.

A likely assumption about our job is that we are just a "line of defense." Our goal is simply to minimize the chances that cards are too powerful, and to some extent that assumption is true.

As a player, I often ran into situations where my brew was super fun, but just not good enough to realistically register for a tournament if my goal was to win it. Well guess what? Now I can advocate these awesome interactions be pushed to a reasonable power level!

Of course, conceptions of fun are not universal. Being a part of a team is hugely important for insuring that our philosophy of making Magic enjoyable and accessible for as many different types of people as possible is upheld to the best of our abilities. It's everyone's responsibility to keep one another grounded and consistent in our goals!

I hope this piece has illustrated both my own and Play Design's approach to exploration and deck building. I will continue to pursue utilizing my professional playing insight to hone my process here. At the end of the day, we're all using our strengths to better the Magic experience.

Play Design Story of the Week

When we started the Play Design team, one of the goals we had was to travel to more high-level events. Being able to meet and interact with players would give us a great sense of how players feel about the state of our formats and what they find fun. This also included sending more team members out to do coverage. This started at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation where Paul Cheon made his Pro Tour coverage debut, and last weekend at Grand Prix Minneapolis we sent Melissa DeTora out to do live commentary.

On Day Two of the Grand Prix, Melissa was paired with Maria Bartholdi in the booth and Magic history was made. This was the first time two women were paired together in both coverage commentator slots, with Maria on play-by-play and Melissa on color commentary. They did an excellent job, and we're looking forward to sending Melissa out to more events!

Melissa DeTora (left) and Maria Bartholdi made Magic coverage history at Grand Prix Minneapolis!
Melissa DeTora (left) and Maria Bartholdi made Magic coverage history at Grand Prix Minneapolis!

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