Yorke on Games #12 – The Future League League

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This new year brings with it a new Magic expansion, and the new Magic expansion brings with it a new league for us to play: but each year, expansion, and league must be different from the last. Change is what pushes us forward, and excites us with novel challenges and possibilities. Thus, today I’m going to talk about the importance of designing new league experiences for players, with special attention paid to how the OGW punishment league will differ from the BFZ punishment league.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself! First, an announcement:

Oath of the Gatewatch League Starts 2:00 p.m., Sunday, January 31st 2016, at Face to Face Games Montreal

That’s right, we’re back for another punishment league! Last time was a great success, so before we dive into the new rules and their justification, let’s review what the BFZ league did right:

• It strengthened the players’ sense of community.
• It increased store traffic throughout the week.
• It was fun.

Speaking from a personal perspective, being forced to play a minimum number of matches a week meant that I had to approach, and was approached by, people whom I might not have otherwise gotten the chance to talk to, or know better. Knowing that we were in the league together meant that we were more motivated to be chatty, as it was likely that we would play each other again over the month (unlike, say, a random draft opponent that you might only see once in your life). This, in turn, increased the level of relaxation and enjoyment I felt in playing my league matches, a feeling which even carried over into other events. Overall, I would say there was a pleasant feeling of comradery that permeated the tournament, which still lingers long after its end.

The other effect of all of those mandatory matches was that I’d find myself popping in at Face to Face at unusual times to get my games in, or help others get theirs in. I can confirm on my own end that some of those visits ended up in unintended purchases for myself and my opponents. From a business angle — and that’s unapologetically part of this at the end of the day — it’s good to have customers in-store throughout the week, and not just when there’s an event on. The league, in its own small way, helps out with this.

Finally, I can’t neglect to mention the fun factor. League matches are untimed, so you really have a good opportunity to play your best game, and still have the chance to get some quality banter in. In addition to that, there’s the deep satisfaction of seeing your deck evolve over the month or so it takes to play the league. I got quite invested in my scrappy little UB Eldrazi deck: I was proud when it won, and I was determined to improve it with each punishment pack I added to it. Some players got so addicted that they played up to 33 matches (when the minimum requirement was only 21), knocking themselves out in the process!

Of course, none of this means that everything was perfect; there’s always some room for improvement. On that line, I’ve identified some key concerns, and tweaked the rules to optimally address them. I’ll talk us through each of these changes below.

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Room for Improvement

Concern #1

League Attrition: Of 37 registered players, only 18 (49%) fully completed the tournament by elimination due to match losses (as opposed to 51% dropped for inactivity).

Solution: Increase the prize pool, to make it ‘worth it’ for players to stay invested to the end. In the BFZ league, people knew that the prize return was small and was going to be spread around horizontally, so if they didn’t feel they were doing well, dropping was incentivized. This time, there’ll be 2 boosters per player added to the prize pool (instead of one), and 24 extra packs, most of which will be distributed to the Top 8. This will cost players a couple of extra dollars, but the initial investment is only $30, and players are still free to add their own boosters as punishment packs. At the end of OGW league, we can assess if this prize increase causes player retention to improve considerably, and adjust accordingly for following leagues.

Concern #2

Unexciting Finals: The Top 8 players were forced to grind out each unfinished match against each other in a week-long, drawn-out war of attrition.

Solution: Give the Top 8 a one-day mini-tournament (using prize packs) to celebrate their accomplishment in a fun way and sort out the final rankings / extra prizes based on their performance there. The finals format will be a 6-pack MegaDraft, which in itself is fun, unique, and may arouse enough curiosity to assist with greater player retention as well (see the ruleset below for more details on the new MegaDraft finals).

Concern #3

BFZ League Was Linear: Although players were free to add packs from any standard expansion, the linear themes of BFZ meant that many players didn’t add packs outside of BFZ.

Solution: Make all 6 starting packs OGW and hope to high heaven it’s not as anywhere as linear as BFZ. If it is, people, will probably still add BFZ as their punishment pack of choice; if it’s not, then at least they’ll be freer to use packs from other standard-legal expansions. People want to open the new cards anyway: that’s part of what fuels interest in the league, so I see the all-OGW initial pool as the best possible composition. It also signals to people that the league is a different deck-building challenge than regular Sealed. Lastly, it makes initial pool registration easier, which is a definite plus.

Concern #4

Late-Joining Players: Some BFZ league players joined really late, failed to make up their matches, and might have felt bummed out when they consequently got dropped for inactivity.

Solution: Stop league registration for new players after one week (instead of two). Last league, players who joined on the last day of Week 2 needed to make up 9 league matches in their first week to stay in, which was an unreasonable burden. To avoid this happening, we’ve tightened up the registration period by a week, meaning that even the very latest joiners only need to make up 6 matches in their first week, which is a feasible number for most.

Now that I’ve introduced the major changes, you can read for yourself the full ruleset for the new and improved Oath of the Gatewatch punishment league:

The Fine Print

1) The start date for the Oath of the Gatewatch punishment league is January 31st, 2016 [2:00 p.m.]. No matches played before that date will count towards the final results. New players may join the league up to one week after the start date (Sunday, February 7th, 2016 being the last possible date of entry), so long as they make up all their missing matches by the end of the following week.

2) Upon joining the league, players will open 6 boosters of Oath of the Gatewatch to make their league card pool. Only cards in this pool, and basic lands, are legal for league play. There is no trading of league cards allowed for the duration of the league. Players will construct a 60-card deck from their league pool. The maximum number of copies of any card in a league deck is 4 (not including basic lands). Card pools will be registered on a checklist, which will then need to be double-checked and signed off on by another league player before being deposited at the league drop-off box at the counter of Face to Face Games Montreal. If a player is discovered to be using cards from outside their league pools in their league matches, they will be eliminated from the league and forfeit any prizes they would have earned.

3) Players may then start to play matches against any other player in the league. Players must play at least 3 minimum matches per week (no maximum) for the duration of the league to be in good standing. No two players can play each other more than once per week. Players who fail to reach their minimum number of matches per week will be eliminated for inactivity. Weekly records of league play will be published, along with a list of remaining players, and those players’ win percentiles to date.

4) The loser of each match must take a PUNISHMENT PACK (that is, the loser must to open an unopened Standard-legal booster pack in the presence of the winner, and add the contents to his league card pool). Before the next match, the loser may use these new cards to improve his deck. The winner must complete a match report slip (available at the Face to Face store counter), indicating the match result and the cards opened by the loser, and submit it to the league drop-off box at the store. The maximum number of PUNISHMENT packs that can be added to any league pool is 10. When a player loses their 11th match, they are eliminated from the tournament (a match report slip must still be filled out, indicating the player’s elimination).

5) Winners: League winners are determined by elimination. When only eight players remain in the league, we will move to the finals. In the finals, the Top 8 players will get a FREE MegaDraft with 1 booster from each Standard-legal set in the following order: KTK, FRF, DTK, ORI, BFZ, OGW. Players will construct a 60-card deck from this new card pool to play in the draft. Between each round, all winners will get 1 FREE REWARD PACK to add to and improve their draft pools. The final ranking in this mini-tournament will determine the Top 8 players’ ultimate ranking in the league.

6) Prizes: The Oath of the Gatewatch punishment league sponsor, Face to Face Games Montreal, has offered a prize pool of two boosters for each participating player + 24 packs toward the final MegaDraft. Most of these packs will go to the Top 8 for the MegaDraft and REWARD packs. Additional packs, based on participation, may be awarded randomly to league completers. A specific breakdown of prizes will be published when the final number of league players is confirmed.

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Strategy Pointers

New players ought to be aware that there is no universal strategic consensus regarding how to play the punishment league correctly. However, there are currently two main competing schools of thought on the subject: (1) play as much as you possibly can, or (2) play only the minimum amount. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes, but I’ve seen people generally do better with playing on every occasion they could: up to, but not beyond, the point of elimination. Phil Martin was the winner of the previous league, so if we’re lucky perhaps he’ll be kind enough to write an article for us, explaining how he did it!

The focus in the OGW league is slightly different than the BFZ league however, in that your goal is no longer to be the best player in the league, but merely to make Top 8. At that point, your previous ranking no longer matters (except perhaps in seeding — this is as yet undetermined) and the MegaDraft result determines the ultimate winner. This new finals is more skill-testing, as it requires players to think on their feet, instead of resting on the incredible number of matches they managed to grind, or the insane initial cardpool they happened to bust. While it may seem a bit disjoined from the rest of the tournament’s proceedings, it will function to shake things up and make the ultimate winner more of an open question (rather than something which can be fairly accurately mathematically predicted in advance). Change is going to do us good in this regard.

The Value of Change

I think little evolutions in the league, like the ones discussed above, help differentiate one league experience from another and keep the community interested in what might be coming next. Just like Wizards of the Coast has its Future Future League in order to keep the game from having major issues, or being solved too soon, so too do I have my Future League League – consisting of player and store management feedback – to keep things interesting and orderly moving forward. Participants should expect each successive league to be a bit different, and a bit better, than the one before it.

Hope to see you all at Face to Face Montreal on January 31st, cracking your packs and grinding out your matches!

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