A demolition derby is a good example of an open-plan tournament. As long as your car is built within permitted specifications, you can do basically whatever you want however you want in the arena, and take as long as you want, with the only guiding organizational principle being that the last operational car wins the title. But what is the logic of such an event? In other words, what is strategically advisable under the conditions of a free-for-all? Today, I’m going to try to answer this question, with specific reference to the Magic league play format.
We are all familiar with the structure of a closed-plan tournament, wherein the time, place, and specific opponents we face in the event are all decided for us, somewhat algorithmically, by the rules. Take your average booster draft: you must be at your local game shop at 6:30 in order to play, where the tournament software determines your opponents randomly at the beginning, and then according to your record in later rounds, all rounds are timed, and play proceeds until all rounds are complete. I call this ‘closed-plan’, because many potential choices and preferences of players are foreclosed by the structure of the tournament itself.
Now imagine a tournament wherein you are free to choose your opponents at will, play your matches wherever and whenever you like, and all rounds are untimed. This is an ‘open-plan’ tournament. This is Magic league play, or a Royal Rumble, or an MMO. And these kinds of games have a unique logic.
Closed-Plan vs. Open-Plan Tournaments
The benefits of a closed-plan tournament are several.
They are predictable: players know what to expect going into the contest.
They are rapidly repeatable: players can play multiple tournaments in close temporal proximity.
The are rigidly structured: players don’t have to assume any responsibility for the organizational aspects of the tournament, outside of showing up at the right place at the right time.
The price of this predictability, repeatability, and structure is that they each impinge on player agency. In a closed-plan tournament, the personal preferences of any individual player are ignored for the sake of cleanly and quickly churning out a result. Thus, in a closed-plan tournament you might run a deck you don’t like just because it can reliably win or lose within each round’s time limits; or you might algorithmically get paired against an opponent you know and absolutely despise; or you might not even attend the tournament at all because it doesn’t fit your schedule, and so you are not available at the specific time at the specific place it happens.
By contrast, in an open-plan tournament, you are free to use your choice of opponent, the time and place of your match, and the untimed nature of the rounds to your strategic advantage by making conscious choices about them. Because these elements are not fixed in an open-plan tournament, players are free to exercise their autonomy in new and interesting ways.
Choosing Your Opponent
In an open-plan tournament such as Magic league, it matters who seeks out the match.
For the examples that follow, I’ll need to briefly explain the fundamentals of Magic league via an analogy. Basically, League is an MMARTSG (Massively Multiplayer Analog Real Time Strategy Game) as opposed to an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game):
1. Open initial card pool = random character generation
2. Build deck = character customization
3. Play match = navigate the open world environment, fight other player
4. Lose match, add pack = get random loot drop
5. Be one of the last 8 surviving players by not taking an 11th loss = level up
More simply: league play is a good simulation of life as a planeswalker. You duel hostile mages, and if you win you get to hold your ground and stay where you are. If you lose, you are forced to planeswalk away and search the multiverse for more powerful spells (i.e., add another pack to your card pool). For more specifics, see https://f2fleague.wordpress.com.
Every league match results changes the tournament permanently and tangibly: each loss reduces the number of possible remaining matches left to play, affecting the most likely outcome. And weak players get stronger through opening new cards. Thus, a specialized vocabulary has been built up over the years for describing the soft art of intelligent opponent selection:
Hunt the Weak is the oldest league strategy out there. Strong players identify weak players with the lowest possible stats and seek them out for an easy match win. This approach can often backfire, however, because no matter how terrible a player is, or what rotten packs they’ve opened, if they have six more packs than the stronger player in their card pool (due to the punishment pack mechanic of adding a pack to your card pool after each loss), the odds are actually heavily stacked against the player with the better stats.
Upon learning the hard way that a Hunt the Weak strategy is not generally advisable, the best players often engage in low-stakes matches against other players with good stats: an Alpha Brawl. These kinds of matches are more often played in late league, when the Top 8 has virtually already been decided, and the leading players are trying to elbow each other for slight point advantages over each other. Since pride is on the line, there can be a lot of hullabaloo about these matches, but in the end they often change very little for the players at the bottom of the rankings.
There is also a tendency for weak players to seek out other weak players, so that one of them can begin to reverse their losing trend. We call this a Grim Contest because it—of necessity—incurs a loss on a player who can least afford it. The weak are thus universally desirable opponents, for both the strong and other weak players. Since they are often aggressively sought after as opponents, the weak player may sometimes make poor match arrangements under the pressure.
The least common type of match arrangement is a Hunt the Hunter scenario, wherein a weak player seeks out a strong player to topple regardless of the likely consequences of their encounter. Because strong players have fewer packs at their disposal and tend to be somewhat overconfident due to their past successes, this strategy can occasionally pay off handsomely for the weaker player. Some strong players might also get rattled when being called out to play matches against weaker players, since they are used to being in the driver’s seat when it comes to arranging matches.
Choosing the Time and Place of Match
Some people are morning people, and some people can’t function normally until 3pm or even later. Some people don’t mind playing their matches in public places with lots of background bustle, and others prefer an enclosed, noise-controlled environment to play in. In an open-plan tournament, you can arrange your matches so as to best suit your personal preferences, and thus give you a slight edge that you might otherwise lack if you couldn’t control the tournament time and venue.
Choosing a Deck
Due to the untimed nature of the rounds, an open-plan tournament is an ideal chance to try out a pillow-fort style of control strategy (for instance). Whereas in a closed-plan tournament with timed rounds you are caught in a binary choice between adopting an aggro strategy and a strategy that can defeat an aggro strategy quickly and efficiently, in an open-plan tournament you can stretch your deckbuilding legs a bit, since slower decks won’t have any time pressures on them. Moreover, you can take all the time you need to make optimal plays in-game, regardless of your deck type. So you can study and appreciate the matches you play as you play them, and give yourself ample breathing room between matches to adequately reflect on what worked and what didn’t, tuning your deck accordingly.
Knowing the kind of tournament you’re playing—open-plan or closed-plan—will help orient your strategic choices within that tournament. The main benefit of an open-plan tournament is that it opens up a host of new choices for players that simply aren’t available to them in a closed-plan tournament, and thus maximizes player agency. The logic of an open-plan tournament indicates that simply running in hot and churning out your matches is not an optimal strategy: you have to figure out when to lay low, when to explore new terrain, and when to take your shot.