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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.