Monday, April 25, 2016

On the Organized Play Changes

Yesterday during the Top 8 of Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, Director of Global Organized Play Helene Bergeot took to the news desk to announce some broad changes to the way Professional level Magic will work moving forward. The aspect of her announcement that was heard loudest was the reduction in Platinum Pro appearance fees. Platinum Pros are the all-stars of Pro Magic and slashing their Pro Tour appearance fee per event from $3,000 to $250 is drastic. While there is more prize money going to a marquee event - the World Championships - there is still a ton to unpack in this announcement.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way - the timing of this bombshell was horrific.
No, it was worse than that.
While this announcement was surely scheduled well in advance of Sunday, April 24th, the calendar confluence could not have been worse. The story going into the day was that we were witnessing a Top 8 for the ages.
The elimination rounds featured three Hall of Famers. One - Jon Finkel - is just adding to his Greatest of All Time resume. Another - Luis Scott-Vargas - is an affable ambassador for the game who does so much for growing Magic I could write an entire article just on that. But here is a picture that helps sum it up:
Then there’s Shota Yasooka, who continues to be a force unto himself. Brad Nelson finally found another Pro Tour Top 8 after his Player of the Year season over 5 years ago. Seth Manfield is the reigning World Champion and has spoken about how this may be his last go around now that he has a young child. Luis Salvatto made the Top 8 for the first time and gave Argentina its first Sunday stage in years. Andrea Mengucci made his second Top 8 after leading Italy to a World Magic Cup victory. Eventual champion Steve Rubin was the quietest Platinum Pro last season and notched a win in his first Top 8.

There is a tome worth of tales there but what was everyone talking about on Sunday? The changes to appearance fees.
Pro Tour Sunday has, for better or worse, become the primary avenue for disseminating important information for the upcoming year with regards to professional play. So it made sense to have this announced in the predetermined slot.
It also made no sense at all. Not only did it completely overshadow the event itself (which was awesome) the timing of the change means that people who have been flying around the world in pursuit of making it the Platinum are left in the lurch.
Before even having an opportunity to see the fruits of their labor it’s rotted off the vine.
Which brings me to the next point - the timing of this change in the context of the history of Magic.
The last time there was a massive change in the Pro Tour was during the 2008 season. At this time a pro tour was being removed from the schedule and Professional Levels were being redone. There was a huge outcry from the Professional and Fan community alike and there was plenty of discussion surrounding the change. Pro players and Wizards staff came together to try and find a solution.
That season came during a low point for the game. Time Spiral and Lorwyn were loved by entrenched players but did not succeed in attracting new players. It was around this time that there was greater talk of acquisition and this led to New World Order. Once fully implemented with Zendikar, Magic started a string of “Most Successful Year Ever” where each year surpassed the achievements of the one prior.
So why did this change happen in 2016 if the game is continuing to grow? The 2015-16 season has seen a reduction in Grand Prix video coverage. When taken in context with the Escape Room events at Grand Prix Melbourne, Bolgona, and Detroit we can infer a few things. First is that Wizards is continuing to push acquisition but it now wants to also push immersion. Magic is far more than a game for a large portion of people who play it. Focusing on this population - those with no aspirations of making the Tour - makes good business sense. Second, Wizards may be aiming a proportional amount of funds at the number of customers affected. There are far fewer Platinum Pros than Commander Players.
I do not think this is the right mindset (if it is even accurate) and I’ll return to this point later.

Magic is entering a new phase of storytelling. The Origins Five are the new protagonists and the story is going to take place in a more sequential manner. The last time there was a huge reboot to the way the story was told, the introduction of Planeswalkers, was between Time Spiral and Lorwyn. If the game wants to do the same thing with its Professional Players, why make these cuts?
I have no good reasoning for this other than it wants to tell new stories and these changes are designed to push a new crop of pro to the forefront.
But this is terrible in terms of acquisition and visibility. Visibility matters now more than ever for a broadcast game. While Hearthstone and other games may not qualify as “competitors” to those in charge they certainly compete for players and viewers. Magic is the greatest game in the world and it should be seen as such. Focusing on the All-Stars should be a priority. In order to focus on these players they need to be able to attend events and support the lifestyle.

Which begs the question - what does it mean to be a Professional Magic Player? If Wizards wants professional players then the players need to be able to earn a living from playing the game. Matt Sperling has some thoughts about how this may tie to the change and I would recommend giving his piece a read. It appears on the surface that Wizards wants professional players but does not want the onus of having to pay them. On some level this makes sense - Major League Baseball does not pay salaries, individual teams are responsible for that.

So does Wizards want to move to a sponsorship model? Is that a bad thing?
The mistake here is thinking that sponsorship does not already happen. Every writer is sponsored by their site and many Professional Testing teams are affiliated with a business. Most of those businesses are Magic websites (StarCityGames, ChannelFireball) but at least one - Team UltraPro - is sponsored by a product. The Vintage Super League is sponsored by Puca Trade and has ads for other products. The successful Star City Games Tour is funded by the associated business. Sponsorship is happening and it looks like it may be coming to the Pro Tour.
But there are problems with this. Sponsors want visible competitors and by removing the incentive for the Magic’s best to keep battling it creates a gap where Platinums would be literally playing for exposure and as anyone who has been asked to do work for exposure knows that notoriety doesn’t buy you breakfast.
So how bad is this? These come from the voices of the Pro Tour:
From Magic’s stars:

There are more, of course.

So how does this get fixed? First Wizards needs to promise the players that are Platinum that their benefits will be honored for the 2016-17 season. These people put in the time and effort and they succeeded at the game. They should be rewarded in line with what they were told.
Second, Wizards needs to find a better way to support professional level players. I am not saying it needs to be at the same level they had in the past but they should help to support these people play the game at the highest level and make it possible to do so.
Announcements regarding professional play should be timed so that those directly affected have time to make decisions before deciding to pursue the quest for Platinum. Remove the “feel bad” press releases from Pro Tour Sunday and save them for another time. I know Wizards wants as many eyes on those as possible but doing so can detract from the main event which runs contrary to having the Pro Tour.
Magic also needs to figure out how to cover its events. It is not a fast paced game like League of Legends or Hearthstone. Trying to mimic those brands won’t work for Magic. Yes, gameplay is important, but so are the stories of the players. The stories have to be the focus, and for that the game needs professional players.
Wizards is not George RR Martin and can’t keep creating new protagonists.
Why do I care? I’m not a pro and have no real aspirations of ever making the tour. I’m a writer for a niche format and an editor on a site. My job is the cover the game in some capacity.
Yet I love the stories. Magic has a rich history that should be told over and over. I may never make it to the Top 8 on Sunday but being able to debate which Top 8 is better- Kai’s Chicago or Rubin’s Madrid - is something I want to do over beers. Players all over the world should be talking about the Pro Tour the way generations past tried to figure out who was the best in centerfield - Willie, Mickey, or the Duke? I’m invested in this game because I love it and it’s part of my life. These debates should happen and Wizards should encourage the discussion.
In the ongoing history of Magic I hope this moment is a footnote and not a chapter.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding."

On Losing Grantland

I never wrote for the site, read it only sporadically, and loved every minute.

I got introduced to Jason Concepcion and Rembret Browne. I developed a deep abiding love for the prose of Jonah Keri. I got into arguments with my friends over some of their lists.

More than that I learned. Grantland gave me a goal. They were a signpost in the distance - something to which I aspired. Sure, I write here occasionally and I put words to the page about games, but I still wanted  to be the best. 

I wanted to push myself and do long form pieces. Pushing stuff into my sent folder because I couldn't stare at the ink anymore never felt right. The desire was always there to go back and prune and cultivate.

Because that's what would have happened if I worked at Grantland.

Follow those writers. Learn from them, because I have no idea if we'll see another site like that again.

And that fucking sucks. 

EDIT: So shortly after I posted this, I was reminded that Grantland did some really shitty stuff (detailed here). 

That behavior is irresponsible and dangerous and should not be lauded. The desire to push young writers to be better should. 

This is not black and white - the site did good work on some fronts, and terrible work on others. 

Because of their role in the linked story, there should be a very heavy and healthy dose of criticism. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Let's Go Mets

The last time the Mets were in the playoffs I poured my emotions into the games. I was in grad school and the games were a connection to home.
After they beat the Dodgers in the NLDS I got a call from my then girlfriend where she ended our relationship. And so I dove deeper into the NLCS against the Cardinals. 

It didn't go well.

So nine years later I'm happily married and the Mets are back in the playoffs, matched up again against the Dodgers. 

A lot has changed in nine years.

Let's not waste this shot guys.

Let's go Mets. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Getting Words Out

Today I started wondering about why I started writing. I could have stopped. But I didn't.
Grad school demanded pages upon pages of words stapled at the upper right hand corner. These papers were required and I actively enjoyed proving my point.
Those two years working towards my Master's Degree were tough. I was nowhere near my comfort zone. College wasn't as hard of a transition - my best friend had already been there for a year and I recognized many faces in my own class. Buffalo may have been the same state but it was far from the same state of mind. I struggled. My roots - Magic cards and Case Logics full of my identity were lost in the transition. My boss and I clashed. I got dumped. 
That year I found comfort in words. I retreated into my books and worked on excelling in the classroom. Magic Online provided comfort - a collection as strong as my research university internet and as portable as my laptop. It was known and new. It was safe. I wanted to play more but was on a budget so I started writing to feed my habit.
Starting to write was hard. The first thing I had ever written for a major website was spurred on by my then girlfriend. She encouraged me to submit those words. During that first year she dumped me over the phone. I remember the long process of severing any strand tying myself to her and writing, even for me, was a frayed thread of her. 
Somehow, in my whiniest days, I overcame my own petulant self and started writing. 
I graduated, got a job, moved a bunch and stopped writing. Then I started again. I got poached, switched sites, added more responsibilities, got let go. At some point I crossed the 100 article mark. I think I'm over 150 now? I don't know. I write more now than I ever have even if I have fewer features. 
At some point, bemoaning a lack of funds to my content manager, I got a chance to take on the role of editor. My role started with news updates. I would slide my massive lap top (smaller than my first) into my bag and drag it everywhere in case stories broke. They did.
Weekends I would have to take breaks from dinner or cooking or laundry or fun to get push an update live. 
I've written on vacation - I was working towards deadline on a cruise ship when I regained wireless and saw I had been let go from a gig. I write in coffee shops and on my couch. Right now I'm waiting for that same best friend from college - my best man from a few months ago- and I'm working on a device I bought specifically for writing.
I couldn't carry around my lap top anymore. I bought it before I considered myself a capital double you Writer. Odd, since I had been earning money from it for six years at that point.
Last week I finally gave in and bought myself something specifically to put words out into the world. I've been writing for eight years. I don't know if I'll ever feel like I'm actually a Writer. But I guess I am?
That same content manager who gave me a job also told me to read a book - Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. Something that stuck with me from Clark's words was a way around writer's block. 
Just start writing - let the words flow. That's what this piece is. It's getting words out.

I write because I'm a Writer. I don't know what I would write about if it weren't for Magic. I'd probably have some Hot Takes on sports or be a mediocre reviewer of obscure music. Maybe I'd be better - you can tell me since in the archives here are my attempts at other topics.

I don't know if this is a new start. I'm not leaving my other gigs - I love them too much. But sometimes, I just want to write about the Mets or doing a deep dive on a song. I want the words to get out. 

My head is cluttered enough as is. I just spent hard earned money on something that will let me write on my terms. I better well fucking use it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


The DNA of the New York in which I grew up was that of a diaspora. It was a place for the pieces that didn't fit with other puzzles. 
Except, of course, for the City.

On the bus to school I would take a world tour and the only thing that demarcated the borders was the shifting language on the awnings for the bodegas. They were all bodegas. The tongue didn't matter. You could drape a flag on anyone's shoulders but in they end they all pledged allegiance to the Empire. 

Even the lowest rung have their own outcasts. These were the characters in the storyboard of my youth. The homeless, the drugged, the unique. When Disney took hold some of them became attractions and others receded to the cracks. They are New York through and through. The City holds its own and spits out those that don't belong. I've seen it - a brief foray into urban entropy only to become the backwash in cul-de-sac slowing decaying corners of America. Characters remained part of the girder and rebar fabric.

It was these characters that were the extras in my childhood and for one day I got a bit part in their film.

Three weeks before my wedding I bought fifty prepaid MetroCards. The next week the fares went up. In order to make sure the guests from the corners had ways to get to one of the events associated with my nuptials, I had to find a way to add twenty-five cents to each card. A mere $12.50. 

On a Wednesday that was so cold it could have snowed but rained instead I retreated underground with my father. He was in so many layers that he resembled a Jewish turtle. I was a hare, tightly wound 120 hours before the start of the rest of my life.

There was no guarantee that this scheme would succeed. MetroCards are fickle things and flexible, not like the tokens of yore. Carefully I unwrapped the plastic and went to the machine. I hesitated a second before plunking down a quarter. Cling. Clang.

It worked.

So there we stood, soaking up most of an hour. My fingers slowly turned raw from tearing open so many wrappers and pinching for change. At some point I stopped reading instructions and simply let my fingers dance. This time in Spanish. Now French. I could have done this in Polish at the Greenpoint stations and it would not have mattered. Then the turtle chuckled and muttered:

"I'm surprised that attendant hasn't called the cops yet. I would. We look weird."

Which we did.

But no one looked. We had simply blended into the background and become the scenery in their New York stories. 

So I stood at the precipice of one of the signs of adulthood and remembered being a child. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Tales from the Wedding: The Proposal

There are so many stories surrounding my recent wedding. I don't want to forget any of them, so I'm recording them for posterity here. This is lifted directly from our wedding website.

I knew for a long time that I wanted to ask Jaclyn to spend the rest of our lives together. When her parents visited New York in July of 2013, I spoke with them and got the go ahead. Jaclyn and I were planning on moving in together and I didn't want to wait too long after that. Jaclyn was also planning on running the NYC Marathon for the first time, and I wanted, with all my heart, to propose around that momentous event.
That did not happen.
Timing just did not work out. November was a crazy time between the Marathon, moving, and work. Jaclyn finished the race and three weeks later we moved in together to our wonderful apartment (in Brooklyn, but with a view of Manhattan). We got settled, and then I started thinking about how to pop the question. Thankfully Jaclyn had another race coming up in March - the New York City Half Marathon.
It was going to be perfect - Jaclyn often described it as her favorite race. I don't think she realized it but every time she said "Eh, maybe I won't run it" I tried to convince her otherwise. Thank goodness she listened (I didn't have another idea). With huge help from friends (Janie and Jocelyn, I'm talking about you) I put plans into place. Of course I nearly blew it the week before when I got sick and blamed the stress on her parents visiting the upcoming weekend. I couldn't well and good tell her was was actually freaking me out (but in a totally good way).
Sunday was race day and Jaclyn left early. I triple checked my pocket to make sure the ring was there and set out to cheer on my (hopeful) fiancee. We saw her at Times Square and Jocelyn was keeping her going strong. The three of us trekked down town in the bitter cold to meet up with more of our friends and my parents.
Jaclyn finished the race with a personal record and I met her at the finish line. Her first words to me were "I'm going to throw up." I was too. I patted my pocket to make sure the ring was still there and led her and Jocelyn (who did everything to keep Jaclyn moving forward) towards where our friends and families were gathered. Jaclyn made the rounds, hugging and saying hi, but she couldn't understand why everyone had their phones out. Behind her I got the ring ready and made her turn around. I dropped to one knee and could barely get the words out before she said yes.
"You need to put the ring on me stupid."
"I can't; you're crying into that hand."
But that's not all. After an afternoon of phone calls and congratulations, our families went out to dinner together. This was all a ploy to get our friends into the apartment for a surprise party (again, thank you Jocelyn and Janie). When we got back, Jaclyn was surprised.
"Why didn't you tell me to dress nicer?"
"I said you would want to look nice for the pictures. You wanted me to give this all away?"
It was perfect and magical. I am happy I don't have to do it again, because I could never top it.