From Quarantine League to Arena Sealed League World Series

The global pandemic of COVID-19 has taken much from us. It has taken people, it has taken resources, and it has taken freedoms. All of this harm cannot, and should not, be trivialized. At a certain point, however, one needs to move from a passive suffering model of existence to actively planning to keep living one’s life in line with one’s own preferences, interests, and values. Oddly enough, that turning point happened for me when I dreamed up the Quarantine League in conversation with my friend Amir Hassan.

For context: Sealed league is my absolute favorite Magic format. I’ve organized 30 leagues over several years in multiple countries, and championed the format in print many times in the Yorke on Games article series for Face to Face Games. But sealed league has always had a heavy social / community element, and a main part of its appeal was that its matches had always been played in person—online play was prohibited, in fact! So, after many months of being unable to play my favorite format in person due to COVID-19, I began looking for new ways to safely scratch that itch. Going online was the obvious solution, but how could I make that model work, given that the whole grain of the format historically ran against it?

For those unfamiliar with the format, this is its secret recipe, and my plan for bringing it online:


  1. Open a virtual sealed pool
  2. Make a 60-card deck
  3. Play a 3-game match against an opponent
    1. If you win, generate a virtual pack for the loser
    2. If you lose, add a virtual pack to your pool and rebuild
  4. Play 5 matches a week against different opponents
  5. Keep playing until
    1. You make Top 8
    2. You reach your 11th loss and are eliminated

Amir and I broke down the problem of how to realize this tried and tested tournament experience with the following six steps that we needed to kick off the Quarantine League…

Step 1: Facilitate Gameplay

Obviously, Arena was the program of choice for running the sealed league. It is aesthetically appealing, easily accessible, and cheap to start with. It is also, by all accounts, less byzantine to operate than the Cockatrice emulator. And, as we typically start with 6x packs of the most recent expansion, card availability was not going to be an issue. This was perhaps the easiest problem to solve.

Step 2: Build the Community

It was Amir who originally insisted that we set up a league server, and it turned out to be essential that we did. Via Discord’s interface, we were able to set up in-game audio chat between players (Arena itself, oddly, does not have this function). This allowed for informal, friendly player interactions—much like the in-person matches at the store that we were trying to emulate. Discord also provides a user-friendly repository for the league’s rulesets, weekly player standings, tournament announcements, Arena player IDs, match results, visual spoilers of the players’ starting pools, Top 8 deck archives, and much more. Once players migrate there from our Facebook group (, they are able to easily arrange matches and engage in text chat with the rest of our player base.

Step 3: Emulate the Real-World Experience

But what about the cards themselves? Normally, we open physical packs in sealed league, and so we needed to simulate that step as well to run the tournament. Unfortunately, Arena does not have this functionality either, and so we had to consider some independently run sites. After some subpar choices, we settled on and have not looked back since. DraftSim exports sealed pools to Arena nicely (after you take out the basic lands—a small bug), generates plausibly realistic opens (unlike some of its competitors), and has an attractive and intuitive interface. It can also be used to generate single Punishment Packs (the packs added to players’ league pools after match losses) by starting a draft and then screen-sharing the first booster pack’s ‘opening’ (generation) to the losing player via Discord. This screen-sharing function helps us to maintain the same high levels of tournament integrity that we were proud to offer for out in-person leagues.

Step 4: Dig Deep to Find the Tools You Need

The MegaDraft finals posed additional organizational issues. League would not be the same without its signature finals event, wherein 8 packs from different Arena-legal sets are selected and drafted in real time by the top 8 players to determine their ultimate ranking in the tournament. Arena, again, had nothing to offer on this front. Instead, we settled on, the passion project of a sole devoted developer (buy him a coffee!) which facilitates a multitude of drafting options (even a complicated MegaDraft!) with a one-click button for exporting players’ pools to Arena after the draft. I highly recommend MTGADraft for occasions wherein you cannot physically draft with your friends: such as the current global pandemic, for instance.

Step 5: Reconnect Players with Local Game Stores

League has always been about supporting local game stores by strengthening and solidifying their in-store communities. And naturally, it helps generate player excitement when there are enticing prizes worth playing for at those stores. Face to Face Games has traditionally been a proud and consistently generous sponsor of the in-store leagues over the years. Under the current conditions, when doing a physical league was no longer a possibility, F2F stepped up and offered support in store credit to keep our tournament series going—an amazing show of solidarity with its player base. Three Kings Loot, another Montreal-based LGS, originally offered to help out by providing promo pack prizes, which served as a further incentive for many of their players to join our league as well. Now, 3KL has stepped up to match its prize support to that of F2F’s level! Seeing these two stores wholeheartedly cooperate with each other to keep their players engaged with their favorite game in these dark times was an inspiring act which will not be forgotten. Thus, we are now actively looking for ways for players to represent their stores, while supporting them directly in future tournaments, starting with Zendikar Rising league.

Step 6: Iterate and Expand

An unintended upside of moving online is that there are no longer any geographical limitations or temporal restrictions on league play. Because of these features, we have had the opportunity to reconnect with and retain league players who had moved to different regions, and were still invested in the format, but lacked the opportunity to keep playing. And as there is no upper limit on the number of players we can accommodate in our online tournament, we can expect that investment in the format will continue to grow rapidly in the foreseeable future. This opens up new possibilities for growth that is reflected in the new title for the tournament: we are no longer a one-off Quarantine League; we are the Arena Sealed League World Series.

As there is no end in sight for the current public health concern, neither is there any end in sight for our online tournament series. We started off with an experimental Chaos league, followed it up with an Ikoria league, and recently completed an M21 sealed league. And, starting on September 4th, we will launch our first tournament that we absolutely could not have offered in person: a brand-new, online-only Amonkhet Remastered sealed league tournament! Won’t you join us at ?


When the going gets tough, it can seem easy to give up on things you love and projects that are valuable to you. At the same time, unpredictable sources of opposition can occasionally open you up to new ways of doing things and provide you with opportunities that you would never have pursued under normal circumstances. The online Quarantine League is a case in point: setting it up was neither simple nor straightforward, but it provided a valuable service for people who were otherwise isolated and bored; it revealed a new depth of generosity and dedication in the people that I had decided to do business with; it allowed me to play matches in my favorite format, which was not supported elsewhere; and it forced me to develop new systems of tournament management which now stand poised to exponentially expand the membership and impact of the sealed league, via its reincarnation as a World Series. Likewise, I hope that you all can keep doing many of the things that are important to you… Stay strong—I hope to play you soon!

Yorke on Games #40 – Magic as Garfield Categorically Intended

2018 was a remarkable year for Magic. Wizards of the Coast celebrated the 25th anniversary of the game with a crowded schedule of product releases, a major restructuring of its professional play program, and a fuller realization of its digital potential with the launching of the Arena platform. Player engagement was deeper than ever, as many controversial corporate decisions led to cycles of outrage, fuelling interminable public debate. Despite this constant upheaval, or perhaps in part because of it, some voices have called for a return to the game’s fundamentals. The most notable of these was its designer, Richard Garfield. In the rulebook of Garfield’s most recent game, Keyforge, he wrote:

“In the early days of trading card games, they were played in many ways – and some of my favorite ways disappeared over time. Among those were sealed deck and league play… I have often wondered if I could get back some of that really exciting play, which was characterized by tools that weren’t universal. Each player had treasures no other player had, but also had less powerful cards that needed to be used in clever ways to get the most value. One’s sealed or league deck was never ideal – but it was unique, and there was a great deal of skill in getting the most out of it… When trading card games first came out the feeling was like exploring a jungle – and as the cards became more like commodities, it became more and more like an amusement park.” (Keyforge rulebook, p. 13)

TLDR: Garfield opines that constructed Magic has become stale because of commodification and net-decking; and, conversely, sealed league is both the true test of a player’s skill and the best format for introducing a sense of discovery and wonder back into the game.

Personally, I didn’t require much in the way of convincing. Indeed, Garfield’s words came as something of a vindication for me, as I’ve been running a sealed league at F2F Montreal since Battle for Zendikar, and at other locations for years previous. I’ve extolled the virtues of the format repeatedly over the years in this very column. And most recently, I’ve entered the vodcasting realm with co-host Lee Bond for our new show Magus of the League, focusing exclusively on league-related matters:

Thus I certainly sympathize with Garfield’s sentiment. He wants his game back, in some form or another, and for it to be as anarchical as he originally intended. I say anarchical because the commonly-used phrase ‘Magic as Garfield intended’ is, in itself, a paradox. In an August 2018 interview with Vice magazine, Garfield commented that:

“It is certainly not what I expected or intended, which is the point, but on the other hand it is exactly what I intended in that I wanted it to extend into places which I didn’t intend.”

While I don’t feel like Keyforge is necessarily the realization of this vision, or is in any way a replacement for Magic, Garfield’s musings do raise an interesting point about what kinds of games are the best in terms of player experience. For who should ultimately determine the way we play our games: the game designer, or the community at large? Should we aim for open or closed rules systems and gaming experiences? Is a designer or a community more likely to generate optimal forms of gameplay?

In another Vice interview in February 2014, Garfield implied that a game like Magic, because of the wider context in which it is played, is more in need of standardization than a game like Monopoly, which is often played in-house, and frequently differently than its rulebook prescribes (that is, the popular but unofficial ‘Free Parking’ variant). There’s a famous scene in the Sopranos which directly addresses this issue, and demonstrates quite well the frustrating experience of intending to sit down and play one game, when in actuality the other players turn out to be playing some other format. For our purposes, only the first minute or so of this following clip matters, wherein this exchange occurs:

Tony: Six. Community Chest. “Pay hospital $100.” Fuck me.
Bobby: What are you doing? It goes in the bank.
Carmella: We play the Free Parking rule.
Bobby: What Free Parking rule?
Carmella: Money from Community Chest and Chance goes into the middle. Whoever lands on Free Parking gets the money.
Bobby: You show me that in the rules.
Carmella: Technically it isn’t in the rules, but a lot of people play it that way. It adds a whole new level of excitement to the game.
Bobby: I don’t agree with it.
Janice: Bobby, when we were growing up in our house, this is how we played.
Bobby: You know, the Parker Brothers took time to think this all out. I think we should respect that.
Janice: Fuck the Parker Brothers. Just play the game.

Bobby is the rules purist, or ‘formalist’, in this situation. He considers Monopoly’s ruleset to be authoritative, and that in deviating even slightly from the ruleset, the game of Monopoly is itself no longer being played. For him, the imposition of previously unannounced house rules violates the implicit social contract made between players at the point they agreed to sit down and play, and thus constitutes a form of disrespect for other players, as well as the very institution of the game.

On the other hand, Janice is playing the pragmatic, or ‘conventionalist’, role here. She’s relying on the fact that most people never even actually read the ruleset, and are instead taught the game verbally and informally, to ground her belief that the game mainly consists of (or at least largely relies on) a series of social conventions for its continued existence. For her, whatever is socially accepted by most players is authoritative, and focusing on the ruleset itself is missing the point of the game.

Between these two extremes, what Garfield has done with Magic is to give us a living game whose own pieces break or overwrite sections of its own rulebook, defying a strict adherence to formalism. He has offered us a robust game operating system, or a family of games, which is perfectly capable of sustaining several formats within itself, each of which possesses divergent rules and even unique value systems and conventions (compare the etiquette of Commander to the rigor of Modern). Thus the practice of Magic gameplay as we experience it today can be thought to transcend the formalist-conventionalist divide, giving us new possible positions on the Bobby-Janice continuum to occupy.

So: what is ‘Magic as Garfield intended’? Garfield’s intention is that you live out your own set of intentions within the framework he provided, some of which he could not possibly have anticipated when he designed the game. Garfield’s recommendation, alternately, is that you play the format that best helps you immediately form intentions, as an immediate reaction to the pressures of experiencing a scarcity of intralusory resources: the ‘jungle’ of sealed play. Thus Garfield recommends that you try league.

Face to Face Games Montreal Sealed League

Yorke on Games #39 – The Goorts Dilemma

Everything matters.

Let me qualify that: everything could matter as to whether or not you make Top 8 in a tournament, but you won’t know what actually did matter until after the fact.

Today I’m going to explain how one decision to play a match determined the outcome of a league tournament, and how in some situations knowing the right course of action to take can be very difficult, if not impossible… and that is part of the reason why Magic is a game worth playing.

To understand the nuances of the situation I’m calling ‘The Goorts Dilemma’, you’ll need to know the players, the circumstances of the match in question, and the tournament structure. Once I’ve provided you with those pieces of the puzzle, I invite you to consider what you would have done when faced with those circumstances.


League Tournament Structure

Each week in Face To Face Games’ sealed league, players must complete at least three matches against three unique opponents or suffer auto-losses due for inactivity. This rule keeps players active and available for other players to have matches with (if they care about winning the tournament), since any player who suffers 11 match losses is eliminated. Everybody has a mutual interest in playing each other early and often, so the tempo of league play doesn’t stagnate.

What this means in practice is that league play goes on longer the more players there are who register for the tournament. The shortest league on record is five weeks. The longest was eight weeks. The longest mathematically possible league is nine weeks, but it will never—in most likelihood—come to that.

The effect is that of a rising tide: with each week of play, players must play more matches. In the course of playing those matches, the players with the weakest records get eliminated. The more weeks that go by, the bigger the list of eliminated players gets, until there are eight or less remaining at the end of any week of league play (if there are less than 8, it comes down the tie-breakers of matches—and even games—won to decide who makes it, and who does not). Those players who remain are the Top 8. They get all the prizes and all the glory divided among themselves. It’s a very good feeling to make Top 8.

I could tell you more about the tournament rules, but I think I’ve conveyed the minimum required for you to understand the dilemma I’m about to outline. If you’re curious about learning more, or even joining us for the upcoming M19 league, feel free to read more here:


Dominaria was a big league. There were 33 players in total, with many new or returning players drawn in by the hype surrounding the set. The ‘culture’ of the tournament series was definitely influenced by this influx of fresh blood. Unpredictable occurrences were, in retrospect, bound to occur. Prize payouts were high, understanding of the ruleset was inconsistent, tempers were short… As a latter-day Bryan Adams might sing: It was the summer of ’18.


The Players

You all know me. Author of this column, winner of multiple leagues, including the recent Rivals of Ixalan league (pictured below). Paradigm of modest restraint. I could go on.

“Glory days: they’ll pass you by” – blue-collar bard Bruce Springsteen

The other character of note for our tale is a fellow named Chris Goorts. He’d played in one prior league, but dropped out when time got short for him, so I didn’t even get a chance to even play him. I make it a point to play each new player in league, since part of the purpose of league play is being social, so I vowed that I’d make a point to play him if he ever came back.

Goorts had suffered a pretty disappointing first couple of weeks of play in DOM, but then he rebounded and was able to pull together a string of wins against many of the league’s top performers. To me, he was still an unknown quantity, who had one win less overall than I did.

There are a few additional minor players in our little drama, but they need not be named except by reference to their weekly rankings and stats.


Circumstances of the Match

It was late in Week 7 of play, and there were only 10 players left in the tournament. Having played the minimum number of matches required of me by that point, I had committed myself to not playing any more matches until Week 8, in order to keep myself in contention for Top 8. However, I was there at the shop on other business, and after rebuilding my familiar but relatively ineffectual GW deck into a new UB build on the strength of a Demonlord Belzenlok I’d recently cracked, I found myself at a loose end during the last hour of Week 7. That was when I discovered that Goorts needed one more match to reach his weekly minimum, and that everybody else who could have been playing him had either already played him earlier in the week or were busy playing draft. If he didn’t find anyone to play, he would be automatically eliminated for inactivity, which would obviously feel really bad for him (even though it was kind of his own fault for leaving his matches until the absolute last moment to play, without lining up specific opponents in advance).

I had a choice to make. Be a nice guy and play Goorts, despite running the risk of eliminating myself in Week 7—OR let him desperately try to line up his last match with someone else while I sat around for another 60 minutes and heartlessly awaited the start of Week 8. Goorts was currently sitting at 10 points, while I was at 11, so if he DID find someone else to play, and then beat them, we’d be on completely even footing in Week 8, and we would be each others’ best bet for a match early in W8… which was only an hour away.

So, depending on your perspective, by playing Goorts in Week 7—as I ended up doing—I could have been seen as giving him a hand up, or taking an opportunistic chance at kicking his fingers off the cliff’s edge. I’d just seen him take a clean, crisp 0-2 loss to another league member before our match, so there was certainly blood in the water… and I badly needed a win to keep me afloat. Also, in the background was my pledge to play new players whenever the opportunity presented itself. Thus you could also argue that I was predisposed to this particular course of action, since if he got eliminated, I wouldn’t be able to play him until the next league, and thus I would be defeating my own self-interest.

What’s interesting to me is that this rather complex dilemma of whether or not to play Goorts is a strategic choice that could only come up in league play.

The Outcome

If you don’t like spoilers, watch the video of our Deathmatch (a match wherein each player is at 10 matches and the loser is eliminated from further league play) below before continuing:

Yup. He trashed me 2-1. But I was okay with that, because if he trashed me it would be likely that he’d trash someone else too, and thus end up at 12 points, making my choice the correct one because he would have beaten my record eventually anyway… right?

Nope. He was eliminated in less than in an hour in the early moments of Week 8 of league play, bringing the total number of players to 8 and ensuring that the tournament would end that week. He had 11 points: the exact number that I had when I was knocked out by him. It still didn’t look like he would make it, since there was one player sitting at 12 points and another at 11 points, each with six potential matches to play if they kept winning, and one possible loss each.

However, the player sitting on 12 points incredibly decided to drop out of the tournament due to scheduling concerns regarding the finals event, forfeiting his spot. This meant the contest for 8th place was live between Goorts and his closest rival at 11 points. His rival played one match, lost, and got knocked out of the tournament. Goorts squeaked into the Top 8 on tie-breakers of percentages of games won over his rival: 1%. And, if I hadn’t played Goorts, I would have been in that spot, and beaten him with the tie-breakers I had.

So is this a story of me not playing to my outs, prioritizing other values (league camaraderie and side quests) over winning at all costs, and thereby screwing myself out of Top 8? I was, of course, unable to predict that players ranked above me would play in an inconsistent, irrational, and probabilistically unlikely manner, but in retrospect I would have given myself a golden ticket to the finals if I had only played in such a way to protect myself from these unlikely occurrences. All I would have had to do would be to wait only one hour to play a match, and perhaps find a higher-ranked league player around the shop to play and dispose of Goorts for me in Week 7.

Or is a story about me doing the right thing, both morally and strategically, by playing Goorts? It felt like it was, at the time that I did it. It is only the unforeseeable consequence of my decision which makes it look dubious in retrospect. If I had clinched Top 8 on the back of a win against him, you wouldn’t be reading this article now. Everything matters.

What would YOU have done, if you were in the same spot?

Bonus Section: The Golden Age of League

I’m going to round off this article with a strong claim, only partially defended: We are currently enjoying a Golden Age of Magic league play. Let me explain the factors that lead me to believe this is true.

Wizards of the Coast has done a good job of supporting the format, providing exclusive alternate-art foil promo cards and deck boxes for its players. More importantly, they’ve been producing stronger and more compelling sets lately, which promotes play across all sealed formats. As a result, we’ve seen a record number of players turn out for Dominaria league, and that excitement is carrying forward into subsequent leagues, such as M19.

Wizards’ recent high rate of set releases means that the league for one set immediately follows soon after (or, occasionally, overlaps with) the end of the previous one—meaning that the community that league creates is now permanent and enduring, as opposed to temporary and episodic. League play is now a lifestyle, or can at least be considered a decent part of one.

On the other end of this rapid rate of product deployment, there’s a lot of additional work to be done in running a league for each set release. So instead of only myself running league as a Tournament Coordinator, we have now formed a Rules Committee, a Records Committee, and a Promotion Committee (in fact, members of the Promo Committee produced the photo and video materials featured above). Dispersing responsibility for creating, operating, and adjudicating leagues means that there is more energy available for keeping efforts going on a continual basis. It also means that more players are more deeply committed to carrying the format forward—and improving on it.

Now, the main interest in league play is still, of course, the cards in the sets the leagues are based on—but you could say the same for any sealed format that uses these cards. What distinguishes league from other sealed formats is the unique set of goods that we offer:

  1. Community—league is a tournament wherein you actually get to talk to, and get to know, other players during untimed rounds, thereby creating your own ‘league lore’ stories.
  2. Punishment Packs—this mechanic makes bad beats feel better, and lets you share the fun of busting packs with other players, who are also heavily invested in seeing what you open.
  3. MegaDraft Finals—most of the tournament’s prize packs are actively opened while playing a fun new format, rather than simply being cracked out-of-game, which means that players get maximum value from their wins.
  4. Variation—we are free to change our format’s ruleset to best fit with the themes of new sets to enhance the play experience and generate player interest, thus encouraging a culture of experimentation and innovation.

Each of these features appeal to different parts of our player base: which brings us to the subject of what has become known as ‘Bartle’s Taxonomy’.

Once upon a time, Richard Bartle asked players of early MMOs: “What kind of experience do you want from this multiplayer game?” Their answers categorized them into one of four major psychographic archetypes:

I attribute the continued and increasing appeal of league play to the fact that there’s something in it for each of the possible psychographics:

  • Socializers enjoy league because there they get to make in-game alliances, discuss current goings-on, and forge lasting friendships.
  • Explorers enjoy league because they get to continuously discover new formats, bust new packs, and rebuild their card pools into new decks—and discover what others have done, too.
  • Achievers enjoy league because they get to excel in a challenging sealed environment, having their stats tracked on a weekly basis, and their results permanently posted on the league website if they make Top 8.
  • Killers enjoy league because they get to literally eliminate other players, talk smack, and line up strategically advantageous matches.

Whatever kind of player you self-identify as in this Taxonomy, there’ll be something for you in the upcoming M19 league. Join up and come take part in the Golden Age of League, three years since it started up at Face to Face Games Montreal, and stronger than ever. You’ll surely discover—and hopefully solve—your own set of interesting play dilemmas! It bears repeating: everything matters.

Yorke on Games #38: The Unique Logic of Open-Plan Tournaments

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

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: Strong player seeks Weak player

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.

Alpha Brawl: Strong player seeks Strong player

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.

Grim Contest: Weak player seeks Weak player

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.

Hunt the Hunter: Weak player seeks Strong player

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.

Yorke on Games #37 – Mind: Sculpted! Masters 25 League & Limited Review

Nostalgia is “a wistful desire to return in thought or fact to a former time in one’s life.” But how far back in time do you have to go before you start to feel nostalgic? Like any other question where human desire is concerned, the answer is largely subjective. Which way of listening to music is the most nostalgic for you personally: Is it compact discs? Cassette tapes? Or vinyl records?

Some people might have to dig back five years or more before feeling nostalgic, while others might get nostalgic for a pastrami on rye they had five hours ago in a particularly charming delicatessen. Thus, it may appear difficult to design a product with the general theme of ‘nostalgia’ guiding it that would be objectively appealing. By necessity, it would lack accuracy; hitting some targets and missing others, like Homer’s Makeup Shotgun:

And yet, this seemingly impossible task is exactly what Masters 25 achieves as a Magic set. It borrows carefully-preserved slices of time from each and every expansion from the game’s history, stuffs them into a cannon, and blasts particles of nostalgia through the hearts and minds of every demographic in its player base. I haven’t been this excited about a release in years, and I can’t wait to spend the next six weeks or so playing with the set.

Six weeks, you say? Why yes, Face to Face Montreal is hosting another of its famous leagues, where you get to play with your card pool for nearly two months. That’s great entertainment value, and you can be sure I’ll be savoring my time with A25 well into May.

If you think you’d be interested in joining us, check out the full ruleset on the league’s new webpage:

But before you play with the cards, you should take a good look at the following limited review. I’m going to briefly break down what I think each color in the set is trying to do, and some cool things that can happen with those cards in a Sealed envirnoment like league. It was the philosopher Edmund Burke who wrote: “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” And if you’re not familiar with some of these older cards do, your fate may well be losing matches when you didn’t have to…


At each level of rarity, white has enablers and / or payoffs for a go-wide strategy. Traditionally, Squadron Hawks have favored carrying swords, but this season our flying weenies will be wielding Sai of the Shinobi and the occasional Heavy Arbalest. Promise of Bunrei is also in the set, and if you have any board presence to speak of, its trigger will produce an instant kill in combination with Valor in Akros in play. Kongming, “Sleeping Dragon”, is also there at uncommon to help buff your team. At the top end, Decree of Justice, Luminarch Ascension, and Darien, King of Kjeldor will flood the board with even more helpings of beef. Griffin Protector just loves all of this. And don’t forget to fire off a Congregate or two to keep yourself alive while you’re building all of this up.


Blue has a solid suite of remarkably cheap hard counters at common—namely, the classic Counterspell and Arcane Denial—so expect blue players to be saying ‘NOPE’ early and often. Overall, however, tapping down the opponent’s team for tempo and card advantage seems to be the big game, with Man-o’-War and Choking Tethers enabling this, and Bident of Thassa / Borrowing 100,000 Arrows paying it off. Blue can untap its own stuff with Horseshoe Crab and Freed from the Real, so expect to get blown out by (or blow out others with) Retraction Helix at least a few times in this limited format.



Play utility creatures… let ‘em die… engage in graveyard shenanigans. This is black’s game plan in a nutshell. Bloodhunter Bat, Dusk Legion Zealot, Laquatus’s Champion, Mesmeric Fiend, and Ravenous Chupacabra all have enter-the-battlefield triggers. Fallen Angel, Hell’s Caretaker, and Phyrexian Ghoul all have ways to put them into the graveyard for some benefit. And Unearth, Zombify, and Living Death all bring them out of the graveyard for another spin. Lather, rinse, repeat, and profit.



Red wants to take your opponent’s stuff and hit them over the head with it, again and again, until all that’s left is hair and teeth. Turn 3: Act of Treason to take your opponent’s best creature. Turn 4: Enthralling Victor to take your opponent’s utility creature. And, if you’re lucky, turn 5: Izzet Chemister to recast Act of Treason for free to take down the game. Alternately, with efficient, flexible burn spells like Lightning Bolt, Kindle, and Chandra’s Outrage at low rarities, red’s horde of assorted goblins is a lot more likely to punch through for damage. Other than the high level of raw aggression holding all of these threads together, red is the most thematically loose of all the colors. Soulbright Flamekin and Thresher Lizard, at common, look particularly orphaned from the rest of what’s going on there.



In a set where the only mana-fixing at common is Prophetic Prism, you’ll probably want to be playing green in every multicolor deck you build, unless you get very lucky with your fixing at higher rarity. And while you’re ramping into your Colossal Dreadmaw (for the third consecutive set in a row… ugh) and your Krosan Colossus, there are some tasty plays you can make. Imagine this dream scenario: you have a turn 3 Courser of Kruphix, turn 4 Cultivate, shuffle and cast a card for free off the top of your library (don’t forget to gain 2 life off the played lands). With your remaining mana, Living Wish for Sundering Titan. Alternately, turn 4 Fierce Empath (another shuffle trigger) into some green-splashing-whatever legendary hotness like Prossh, Skyraider of Kher, Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, or… perhaps the most terrifying of them all… Stangg!! A man can dream.

Out of this general picture, we can see that the two-color archetypes will be fairly open-ended. The combos seeded in the set are generally card-for-card, rather than color-for-color. Which means that the set will be a real playground for deckbuilders. Have fun brewing, and we’ll see you on March 16th for the ultimate test of cerebral fitness… Masters 25 Sealed League!

Bonus Material: Iconic Masters League Recap

There is already a very good summary of the IMA league MegaDraft finals, wherein we drafted various masters sets (EMA-MM3-IMA), by Richard Koffler on the league website:

Spoiler alert: I won, in no small part by making the top-tier decisions of first-picking Jace, the Mind Sculptor, including him in my deck, and playing him when I drew him. After coordinating a dozen league tournaments for F2F, I’d finally achieved my longstanding goal of actually winning one. Mind: Sculpted!

What wasn’t included in the article was my pick order for the draft. I’ll include it here for your amusement:

Pack #1: EMA

  1. Jace, the Mind Sculptor
  2. Swords to Plowshares
  3. Glacial Wall
  4. Shoreline Ranger
  5. Ichorid
  6. Gaseous Form
  7. Kor Hookmaster
  8. Squadron Hawk
  9. Aven Riftwatcher
  10. Carrion Feeder
  11. Winter Orb
  12. Relic of Progenitus
  13. Hydroblast
  14. Seal of Cleansing
  15. Wirewood Symbiote

(5/15 made final build: still wasn’t sure if I’d go Esper or not)

Pack #2: MM3

  1. Wall of Frost
  2. Abrupt Decay
  3. Mistmeadow Witch
  4. Wingcrafter
  5. Dinrova Horror
  6. Sea Gate Oracle
  7. Tandem Lookout
  8. Dinrova Horror
  9. Eyes in the Skies
  10. Crippling Chill
  11. Azorius Guildgate
  12. Orzhov Guildgate
  13. Call of the Conclave
  14. Pyromancer Ascension
  15. Intangible Virtue

(7/15 made final build: by end of pack now firmly in UW with possible black splash)

Pack #3: IMA

  1. Keiga, the Tide Star
  2. Blinding Mage
  3. Mnemonic Wall
  4. Frost Lynx
  5. Ojutai’s Breath
  6. Jhessian Thief
  7. Phantom Monster
  8. Student of Ojutai
  9. Riverwheel Aerialists
  10. Angel of Mercy
  11. Mnemonic Wall
  12. Pentarch Ward
  13. Doorkeeper
  14. Assault Formation
  15. Moonglove Extract

(12/15 made final build: this was the real payoff pack, which put me squarely in a controlling UW build and ended my flirtation with other colors / strategies)

Here’s how it looked when it was all put together. It won every game I played with it:


9 Island
7 Plains
1 Azorius Guildgate
1 Mistmeadow Witch
1 Tandem Lookout
1 Jhessian Thief
1 Sea Gate Oracle
1 Wall of Frost
1 Frost Lynx
1 Phantom Monster
2 Mnemonic Wall
1 Shoreline Ranger
1 Riverview Aerialists
1 Keiga, the Tide Star
1 Blinding Mage
1 Kor Hookmaster
1 Aven Riftwatcher
1 Student of Ojutai
1 Angel of Mercy
1 Pentarch Ward
1 Swords to Plowshares
1 Crippling Chill
1 Ojutai’s Breath
1 Eyes in the Skies
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

For the Master 25 League finals, we’re going to draft five masters sets—MM2-EMA-MM3-IMA-A25—and make 60-card decks out of them. We’re also planning to film the tournament for YouTube! Stay tuned for more fun with made-up formats…

Yorke on Games #36 – Rivals of Ixalan League: Tournament as Community

Q: What do actors on a stage, farmers in a field, and players in a Magic tournament all have in common?

A: They are all working together to create a product. The actors produce a performance, the farmers produce potatoes, and the tournament players produce a set of results. And while the end products of all of these processes are wildly different, the processes themselves are remarkably similar: people coming together over an extended period of time, for a common purpose or interest, to realize a shared goal.

In other words, everyone in a tournament has in interest in producing a set of results. They will, of course, differ in the specific results they intend to produce—Player A wants Player A to take first place, while Player B would rather that Player B take the trophy, and the slightly warped Player C wants Player D to achieve ultimate victory—but all players implicitly agree, by cooperating in playing the tournament, that having someone (as opposed to no one) take first place would be a Good Thing, all other things considered. Thus the players of a tournament that takes over a month or more to conclude—like league—in this sense constitutes a kind of community.

In practice, we sometimes read or hear of something called ‘the Magic community’. But it’s unclear what that term refers to. Is everyone who owns cards part of that community? Do you have to actively play? Or is it enough to belong to this community that one simply talk, or make posts about, Magic without collecting or playing?

Today, I’m going to try to answer some of these questions, while introducing the upcoming Rivals of Ixalan sealed league.

What Is a Tournament?

Lots of people play in lots of tournaments each and every week [like the upcoming Rivals of Ixalan sealed league, which launches at 11am Friday January 19th at Face to Face Games Montreal]. But very few players have asked themselves the question: ‘What is a tournament?’

I’m going to put forward the following provisional definition: tournaments are organizational schemas for producing results for clusters of competitive game events that occur within a designated period of time.

For instance, an 8-person draft is a tournament that is typically completed within a few hours. Its organizational schema includes elements such as player pairings, tie-breaking mechanisms, and so forth. The relevant cluster of competitive game events are the individuals match results. The designated period of time is however long it takes to draft packs, build decks, and play out the rounds. The result is a list of final player rankings, and the awarding of prizes.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily consider a draft pod to be a community in a robust sense: it’s not part of the definition of a tournament that it is a community. Joining a draft is something closer to signing a contract, ceding ownership of a certain number of cards in your pack in exchange for an equivalent number of cards from other peoples’ packs. But a tournament may become a community, over time. How, you ask? Well, first we need to look at what a community is.

What Is a Community?

A community does not necessarily imply physical proximity or cohabitation. It does imply common interests (which can arise from living in the same neighborhood, or belonging to the same family), and common interest is what allows us to vaguely yet meaningfully refer to a ‘Magic community’. However, there are attenuated forms of community (like nationality), and strong forms of community (like cult membership). What kind of community does Magic provide?

Let’s go back to my example of the troupe of actors. In an attenuated sense, they are part of a ‘thespian community’, but in a strong sense they are part of ‘the cast of Macbeth’. When their fellow actors annoy them, they might gravitate more toward their profession abstractly than the concrete production they’re working on; and when their work is interesting and engaging, they forget that abstract stuff and just enjoy acting out Macbeth. Without thespians we can’t have a performance of Macbeth, but thespians are only thespians so that they can perform Macbeth (and plays like it). Specific commitments usually take precedence over more general ones.

So it goes with Magic players. When there is a month-long epic tournament to play—like league—they’ll fully get into it, and thus it will command more attention from them than is normally demanded of a Magic player in the abstract sense. This is why I now view myself as a League player first, and as a general Magic player second. As my favorite format to play, League became the relevant community in terms of self-identification (just like a Modern player will often identify themselves by that nomenclature). If I had to put a rough formula down for determining the overall strength of a given community, it would be something like this: depth of shared interest + amount of communal time invested = strength of community. And league is by far the strongest form of Magic community I’ve found.

Why Join League?

Here’s the pitch line. I find league to be more intense and satisfying than any other kind of tournament. Anything longer would be too much of a commitment for me. Anything shorter wouldn’t give me the same quality of intellectual workout. It scratches an itch that no other gaming experience can, and makes me do and think about things I normally wouldn’t have an opportunity to.

And I’m not alone in this. Players in past leagues have done some amazing things, requiring lots of effort and thoughtfulness on their parts that they would never be called upon to exhibit in the run of your average Grand Prix. For instance, one player produced a visual spoiler of each players’ league pools, so that we could all have perfect information of the tournament (the same player, in fact, made the cool League Trophy card pictured above). One player produced a Google map so that players could find each other more easily to play out their matches outside the store. Players often give each other in-depth advice in building and rebuilding their decks. They reserve matches for people they know need them most. They have passionate exchanges about rules revisions on the group chat. They drink and eat together, tease each other ruthlessly, and talk smack.

When you join league, you’re not just joining a tournament: you’re joining a living community. You’ll have unique duties toward other players, and in return you’ll have access to a host of goods that would normally be unavailable to you. If that appeals to you, hop aboard! The RIX league full ruleset is posted below, followed by a brief recap of Ixalan league (in case you’re curious how that turned out).

Rivals of Ixalan Sealed League Full Ruleset

  • Player registration. The start date for the Rivals of Ixalan sealed league is 11am Friday, January 19th 2018, at Face to Face Games Montreal. The registration fee is $30, which includes prizes and the six packs of the starting card pool, payable at the store counter. No matches played before that date will count towards the final results. New players may join the league until 9pm Friday, January 26th (outstanding matches must be played by 9pm Friday, February 2nd).
  • Deck construction. Upon joining the league, players will open 6 boosters of Rivals of Ixalan in the presence of another league player or F2F counter staff to make their league card pool. Only cards in this pool, and basic lands, are legal for league play. No trading of league cards is allowed for the duration of the league. Players will construct a 60-card deck from their league pool. There is a maximum number of 4 copies of any given card in a league deck (not including basic lands). Card pools will be registered on a checklist, which will then need to be checked and signed in person by another league player before being deposited at the league drop-off box at the counter of Face to Face Games.
  • Playing matches. Players are required to play a minimum of 3 matches per week, and are allowed a maximum of 3 additional matches above that number, but may never play more matches than the maximum allowed. All matches must actually be played out; intentional concessions are not permitted. This means that in Week 1 (ending 9pm Friday Jan. 26th), players must play between 3-6 matches; in Week 2 (ending 9pm Friday Feb. 2nd), 6-9 matches; Week 3 (ending 9pm Friday Feb. 9th), 9-12 matches, and so on. The loser of each match may add a ‘punishment pack’ to their league card pool: that is, the loser may open an unopened booster pack in the presence of the winner, which the winner records on a match report slip, and add those cards to the loser’s league pool. Before the loser’s next match, they may use these new cards to improve their deck. The maximum number of punishment packs that can be added to any player’s league pool is 10. Any standard-legal Magic expansion pack can be added. Further: players are not permitted to play against the same opponent more than once per league week (even in multiplayer matches). Players who fail to reach the minimum number of matches per week will be penalized with automatic match losses for inactivity resulting in missing matches (without punishment packs), starting at the end of Week 2.
  • Reporting matches. Winners must complete match report slips (available at the Face to Face store counter), indicating the winning and losing players’ names, the date, the match result (e.g.: 2-1 / 2-0), and the cards contained in the punishment pack opened by the loser, as witnessed by the winner. Match report slips must be put in the league drop-off box at the store before the 9pm deadline on the Friday of each week to count toward the current week’s play: if the slip is not there, it will not be counted for that week. Records of all league match results for each week of play will be published after via Facebook, along with current player standings.
  • Player elimination. When a players loses their 11th match, they are eliminated from the tournament (a match report slip must still be filled in by the winner, indicating the loser’s elimination) and can play no further matches.
  • If a player is disqualified for any reason, that player will be considered eliminated from the league and forfeit any prizes they would have earned. Depending on intent and severity of effect, the following in-league activities will result in warnings, game losses, match losses, or player disqualifications:

  1. Presenting a deck with cards from outside the league pool
  2. Presenting a deck with fewer than 60 cards
  3. Presenting a deck with more than 4 copies of a given card (excepting basic lands)
  4. Playing in excess of the maximum number of matches per week
  5. Playing against the same opponent more than once in any given week of play
  6. Filling out match slips with incorrect information, or without opponent present
  7. Losing match slips
  8. Offering or requesting match concessions (with or without expectation of reward)
  9. Bad sportspersonship or abusive play
  • Optional formats. Optional formats (such as ‘Planechase’, ‘Two-Headed Giant’, ‘Star Format’, ‘Best-of-Five Games’, and more) are supported for league matches, if agreed upon by all players in advance and use only cards from the players’ league pools. Players must indicate on their match report slip if they decide to play an optional format. Multiplayer matches require multiple slips because they result in multiple losses and thus multiple punishment packs being opened: a 5-player ‘Star’ game, for example, would count as 4 matches being played (the winning player would claim 4 match wins, and the other players would take 1 loss each).
  • Top 8. League winners are determined by elimination. If, at the end of any week of league play, eight or fewer players remain in the tournament, we will move to the league finals. In the event of multiple players being eliminated during the same week, resulting in less than 8 total players remaining, tie-breakers for Top 8 positions among players eliminated that week will be decided first by [A] total # of matches won, then in case of a tie, [B] total # of perfect 2-0 wins, then [C] total # of matches played, then [D] play a further deciding match. The finals are typically on the Sunday morning following the last week of league play, unless an alternate date is arranged by the TO. In the finals, the Top 8 players will retire their league decks and receive a free 6-pack MegaDraft. No seeding will occur; seating and pairings will be randomized. Players will build a new 60-card deck from their draft pool and play 3 best-of-three Swiss rounds to determine their ultimate ranking in the tournament. Each league finals match win will count for 3 points, and each pre-finals match win will count as 1 point towards determining final rankings for league players. Players unable to attend the finals can pick up their draft sets at the store at a later time; however they will be given auto-losses in their finals matches.
  • Final prizes. The Rivals of Ixalan sealed league sponsor, Face to Face Games Montreal, has offered a prize pool of 2x boosters for each player + 24 packs towards the league finals MegaDraft. These will be distributed among the Top 8 players based on performance.

Ixalan League Postmortem

Pride cometh before the fall. And sure enough, just after I had written Yorke on Games #33, “How to Evolve a Winning Deck in Ixalan League”, I went ahead and put in my worst ever league performance. Complacency kills!

Throughout the league, I just couldn’t seem to get my deck in the right shape, and none of my punishment pack opens seemed to gel with my initial pool. Yes, I love league enough to write all of the preceding article in good faith, but I had to fight hard even to stay in the race as long as I did (this was the longest league on record, as I wasn’t eliminated until Week 8). In the end, I landed just outside the Top 8 in 9th place, with a deck that I’ve come to call “Not Quite Good Enough GB Good Stuff”. I include the decklist here for your amusement:

12 Forest
11 Swamp
1 Ifnir Deadlands

1 Ambuscade
1 Arborback Stomper
1 Bitterblade Warrior
1 Bitterbow Sharpshooters
1 Champion of Rhonas
2 Deeproot Warrior
1 Defiant Greatmaw
1 Druid of the Cowl
1 Hope Tender
1 Ixalli’s Diviner
1 Lifecraft Cavalry
1 Quarry Hauler
1 Tishana’s Wayfinder
1 Unbridled Growth

1 Aetherborn Marauder
1 Banewhip Punisher
1 Dire Fleet Interloper
1 Queen’s Agent
1 Rush of Vitality
1 Scrounger of Souls
1 Seekers’ Squire
2 Skittering Heartstopper
1 Thriving Rats
1 Vanquish the Weak
1 Vengeful Rebel
2 Vraska’s Contempt
1 Wasteland Scorpion

1 Honed Khopesh
1 Implement of Ferocity
1 Lifecrafter’s Bestiary
1 Scrapheap Scrounger

1 Decimator Beetle
1 Vraska, Relic Seeker

Finally, it was Michel Jutras who sprang ahead in the MegaDraft finals event with a strong Boros build to take down his second league win (his first being Amonkhet). This makes Michel only the second league player to achieve this feat (the first was Phil Martin, with his back-to-back wins in the Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch leagues). We shall see if he’s able to make league history by taking the Rivals of Ixalan trophy to become the first league player to win three leagues, or if someone is able to interrupt his current reign of dominance… Until then, hearty congratulations to Michel!