Magic’s first true foray into esports took place this past weekend and it was… interesting.
It’s fitting that the rules of the chosen format for Magic’s first Mythic Invitational led to the card Experimental Frenzy playing a prominent role.
The event was truly a first for the 25 year-old card game in many ways: the first $1 million USD prize pool, the first proper tournament on Arena and the first ever “duo standard” tournament.
If you’re an enfranchised Magic player yourself, you probably know what’s coming next. But I want to take a little bit of time to talk about the event’s successes first before I add my two cents to the already-overflowing jar of change labelled “I don’t like the format.”
The format was a travesty, undoubtedly, but Wizards of The Coast were trying a lot of new things with this tournament. Some of them – most of them, really – worked. For starters, Arena itself is a huge improvement over paper Magic from a spectator’s point of view.
As a long-time, heavily-invested player, I didn’t expect it to make such a difference: after all, I know all the cards anyway, so not being able to read them on camera rarely mattered to me.
It did make an enormous difference, though. Seeing pretty animations and a well-presented game client is so vastly superior to the bird’s-eye view of a grey table that it’s laughable.
I do hope (and expect) that Arena doesn’t completely replace paper Magic, but there’s no denying that Arena is a huge step up for presentation.
That said, even here there were issues. The event being held at PAX meant there was a lot of background noise that modern esports fans are not used to.
Long gone are the days of IEM being held at CeBIT and casters having to raise their voice over the general hubbub. But here it was back in abundance and it was clear that there are still things to improve on that can’t be solved by making the game itself prettier.
It wasn’t enough to stop over 100,000 people tuning in, though. While I don’t usually put much stock in viewing figures generally speaking, the fact that this figure surpasses previous Magic events by such an enormous amount is hard to ignore.
Whatever else happened on or off stream, this fact alone proves that the Invitational was a success by most metrics.
I say “by most metrics” because… alright, here go… the event had problems. Look, I get it: the goal of the invitational was exposure and that was a roaring success. But in terms of it being a competition, the best against the best, it was a joke.
The debate about inviting streamers from other games has been raging for a while now, but Wizards has nailed its colours to the mast with this event.
You can probably guess my take on the matter, but I will admit that the attendance of Thijs and, in particular, Savjz must have helped viewing figures (thought the latter has been streaming Magic almost exclusively for some time now, forgoing Hearthstone). Hell, he almost made it to the final.
But here’s the thing that Wizards – and many would-be esports entities of the past – don’t seem to grasp: you can’t force an esport into existence. Well, you can, but it won’t last if you do it purely as a PR exercise.
All of the most popular esports started out as fun multiplayer games first and foremost, and then grew an organic competitive aspect later in life.
Of course, the financial and commercial aspect of esports have become more and more important, but historically successful esports like Counter-Strike and League of Legends developed those things later on.
My concern is that Wizards is putting the cart before the horse – starting from a position of trying to sell something.
I’m sure the, by the time Magic Pro League comes around, Wizards will have taken on-board the lessons learned from the Invitational. At the very least, we know the league won’t feature invited streamers for the sake of publicity.
However, it’s important to remember that all 32 players taking part were invited directly. Nobody qualified for the pro league. Granted, the list of participants is about as close to fair as you can get in the circumstances, but it’s still a list of invitees which I find problematic
Then, finally, there was the format of the matches themselves. Wizards of the Coast staff were quick to point out the experimental nature of duo standard, but they kind of had to be because it was awful.
I can, begrudgingly, see the appeal of playing several, faster best-of-one games, instead of the traditional best-of-three with sideboarding that has been a staple of competitive Magic for almost as long as competitive Magic has existed, but these benefits were far outweighed by the costs.
Playing two decks in a series of best-of-ones takes away so much of the depth that made Magic the best card game in the first place and it showed. The idea was to showcase the variety of decks in the current standard format and have quicker games without sideboarding and shuffling.
Instead, we ended up seeing nearly every player bringing one aggro deck and one control deck to the table.
Worse still, for a tournament that was designed to make Magic look appealing to casual viewers, too many games ended up with players unable to play the dead cards in their hands.
Turns out having to play cheap answers to creatures in your main deck isn’t great when you face a creature-less control deck mirror. In traditional Magic, you get to side these out in games two and three. In duo standard, well, you just have to hope you don’t play the same match-up twice.
Look, Wizards, Magic’s format wasn’t broken in the first place. It didn’t need fixing. The Mythic Invitational was a huge success, not because of duo standard, but in spite of it.