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:

LEAGUE PLAY IN BROAD STROKES

  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 Discord.com 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 (https://www.facebook.com/groups/257664897926263), 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 DraftSim.com 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 MTGADraft.herokuapp.com, 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 https://www.facebook.com/groups/272637437475612/ ?

Conclusion

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!