So, I’ve already discussed that I really love Wizard’s of the Coast’s Trading Card Game Magic: the Gathering and my extreme love for it. Now, obviously this love comes first and foremost from the fact that the game is just fun to play. It is a notoriously complex game that provides an unending amount of mental stimulation when you are involved in a game of Magic which I for one find endlessly entertaining.
However, as I hinted at in my last blog, magic is also incredibly fun to watch even when I’m not the one playing. Part of the reason for this is honestly due to the game’s complexity. Magic is hard. One of my favorite parts about Magic is the kind of people who gravitate to the game, and their gaming backgrounds before finding Magic. Stanislav Cifka is a Pro Tour winning Magic player from the Czech Republic, but before turning to Magic professionally, his focus was largely on Chess where he was an International Chess Master among the best in the world.
Moreover, there are a myriad of Magic players who have gravitated over from or to the game of Poker. Indeed, some of the best poker players in the world, such as Eric Froehlich and David Williams, are World Series of Poker bracelet winners who also just happen to be a couple of the best Magic players around.
Unlike games like Chess and Poker where the rules are set and the variables are known (in theory anyway although players never know which variables will turn up in a given game), Magic is constantly evolving. New cards are constantly being introduced into the game which radically alters the metagame and the types of strategies which can and should be employed by players ranging from the kitchen table players all the way up the scale to Pro Tour Champions. And it is this added complexity and degree of evolution which many players cite as a reason they gravitate toward Magic in place of or in tandem with other games.
I’m not nearly as good as the best Magic players in the world, or even as good as the best Magic players at my local comic shop. As such its really fun for me to watch people better than me play the game. These guys understand the complex ins and outs of the game better than me and can process things a lot faster than I can so while Magic is, first and foremost, a game that I love playing, I actually really love watching the game be played at a high level as well. Moreover, it appears that I am not alone in this endeavor because there is a veritable cottage industry which has arisen over the years of various ways that people like me can watch Magic.
First and foremost among these would be Wizards of the Coast’s own live coverage (and archived footage) of their various high level sanctioned Magic events. I’ve already touched on these events before but essentially they are the live sports equivalent of Magic. They have coverage teams, pre-match predictions, player stats on screen, in-match breakdowns and play by play analysis, post match interviews, and pretty much everything you would expect to see surrounding an NFL football game. They even have the annoying little scrolling ticker on the bottom of the screen that keeps you up to date on other games currently happening!
Moreover, like with all sports leagues an industry of “Talking Head” shows has risen up around Magic’s own professional league to break down what has happened at the most recent tournaments, talk about how new cards have reshaped the various formats of competitive magic, and in general attempt to entertain the Magic loving masses whenever there isn’t a major event going on.
But those are just the big “mainstream,” so-to-speak, viewing experiences around Magic. Perhaps the most consistently generated and frequently viewed Magic related content comes from various players themselves. Specifically I’m referring to the Magic live-streaming community on Twitch and other sites. Most notably this means guys like Paul Cheon (aka HAUMPH) and Kenji Egarashi (aka NumottheNummy). These guys are out there grinding every day, playing countless matches of Magic Online, cracking jokes, and being entertaining live for anyone to watch. Viewers can chat with streamers as the watch them play live, discuss the games the streamer is currently player, or just talk about the inanity going on in front of them. Observe a sample of what Mr. Egarashi has to offer.
However, this is yet again simply the game of Magic being played. It definitely has a different flavor to it than the Professional events and live coverage Wizards puts on, but all of it could still be painted in the “live sports” format of television. Whether it is more akin to a professional league (such as the Pro Tour Coverage of Wizards) the ESPN talking heads analysis (like ChannelFireball’s MagicTV) or simply a pickup league (like the Magic Twitch streamers). What I’d like to throw a spotlight on, however, is something a little different, and that is Magic Hall of Famer Randy Buehler’s various Magic related entertainment endeavors.
Randy Buehler is a Magic the Gathering Pro Tour Winner (he won the first ever Pro Tour he competed in, 1997 Pro Tour Chicago).
However, he is also a massive pillar in the Magic community, and has been ever since that 1997 PT Chicago win. He had a wildly successful Magic playing career while he was still an active player, and ultimately parlayed that success playing Magic into a job with Wizards of the Coast’s R&D department actually designing the game he loved. He served as a lead designer for Magic at Wizards, he started the Latest Developments column on Wizards.com, and helped early on in Magic’s podcasting presence. Moreover he has been a longtime member of Magic’s coverage team covering live events for stream / video, a role he still serves in to this day. What I want to talk about for a moment, however, are a couple of Randy’s newest projects.
What I love about Randy is that he obviously loves this game, has an incredibly amoutn of creativity and energy and a well full of ideas for howto provide entertaining content related to Magic. For the vast majority of his career this obviously involved direct, mainstream components of the game (Playing on the Pro Tour, Designing Cards, or covering the Pro Tour) but lately he’s taken an offshoot that I find incredibly interesting, and I hope will spearhead of new movement in Magic’s ancillary entertainment and content production.
Buehler has created two new “Magic TV Shows” lately that, while they still obviously involve playing Magic, push M:tG entertainment in a new direction. The first of these shows is the Vintage Super League. So, for those of you who don’t play Magic “Vintage” is a format of Magic where more or less every card that has ever been printed is legal for your deck, which means the decks get really crazy, and its generally incredibly complex and fun to watch. So Buehler created a League where he and several of the best Vintage Magic players in the world compete in an independent tournament against each other. Now, what I find interesting about this particular show is that it is independent from the mainstream Wizard content community [although they are definitely supportive of his endeavors] and yet has a well developed structure around it unlike some of the streaming (although I certainly love the inanity it isn’t always the most structured content).
Buehler has regularly scheduled matches (live streamed on twitch and available for replay on youtube), online leader boards where fans can follow the league even when matches aren’t happening live, and even live coverage and in match coverage / post match interviews where viewers get to hear from all the competitors in the League throughout the seasons. Now, what’s cool about this league is that Vintage is an incredibly niche format. The cards, because they span Magic’s entire history and are incredibly expensive, are very hard to come upon. Very few players play Vintage, and it is never the format of competition on Pro Tours, and rarely the format chosen for Grand Prix level events (1 Tier below Pro Tours). What Buehler has done, then, rather than keeping people abreast of the current happenings in the Magic community (like the sanctioned events, their coverage [both that produced by Wizards and third parties] and even the streamers do) is educate the community a bit on Magic’s history. His VSL project has broken away from the rut of contemporary Magic coverage to delve a little deeper into Magic’s deep and rich history. When following the Pro Tours alone or just watching streamers draft the newest card sets one’s view of Magic can become very streamlined in a way that unfortunately blinds you to the wider array of Magic. You can fall into the trap of focusing just on “which cards are good right now in Magic, which players are good right now in Magic” rather than looking at core tenants of the game and its history. VSL circumvents these issues and opens up an entirely new spectrum of content for the Magic viewer. Moreover, you get to have some of the best Magic players using the best Magic cards talk you through some games of Magic which really scratches that “understanding the complexity of the game” itch.
In this project Buehler has set up a tournament consisting of all the most successful / powerful Standard Format Magic decks of all time. Alright a little explanation. “Standard” is the most popular and most restrictive format of Magic. It consists of just the 2-3 newest sets of printed Magic cards, and thus has a much more limited card pool than a format such as vintage. It is generally the primary format for sanctioned tournament events, and therefore is of a great concern for the contemporary Magic player. However, because Standard never contains more than the newest couple Blocks of cards (the older ones are ‘rotated out’ to keep the format fresh, new, and interesting). This means that ones powerful and feared decks are quickly forgotten once several of their key cards are rotated out of the format. Then, everyone goes from giving ALL the shits to giving none of the shits, and these decks are quickly forgotten.
What Buehler has done here, however, is dredge up some of the greatest standard decks in history and enter them all into a massive, World Cup esque tournament against one another. So, even though the “Psychatog” deck and the “Academy” deck were never “Standard Legal” at the same time as one another (the Academy cards had already been rotated out of standard by the time the Psychatog cards were invented and printed) and therefore were unable to compete with each other in any Pro Tours or sanctioned events, Buehler is having them throw down anyway to see which of the “Best Decks of All Time” is the … well… the “Best Deck of All Time.”
What I think is particularly cool about this show, however, is the fact that for once in Magic the players are not a central storyline. The Decks are. You see, the same two players (Buehler and his friend Sceadeau D’Tela aka Shadow, another successful and very skilled gamer and Magic player) pilot all 16 decks. The also switch off who pilots which decks in which rounds to make sure that there is nothing special about the pilot of each deck per se.
You see, in regular Tournament level events the skill level of each individual player is very much on display. If you have a professional Magic player and Pro Tour Winner such as Buehler playing against someone who has just qualified for the very first Pro Tour of their career, you can probably be sure that Buehler has some sort of an edge on his less experienced opponent, and that becomes a major storyline in the match. Their choices of deck may end up mattering less than the skill of each player. For Gauntlet of Greatness, however, all that really matters is the decks and making them perform to the absolute peak of their abilities. What makes this format so interesting then is that the decks are the characters. I’m not watching Randy play Shadow I’m watching Jar vs. Dragonstorm or Madness vs. Delver. In a way, then, this show seems to me like a purer format of card vs. card, helping us understand what made certain cards powerful at certain points in Magic’s history, and how various snapshots of time periods in Magic’s history compare to one another. Its just a spectacularly interesting thesis, and watching it play out has been a blast (as I’m sure all future seasons will be as well).
What I love about Buehler and his new projects, then, is that they push Magic Content generation in a new direction. Rather than just approaching this game from the Live Sports direction with Pro Tour coverage or live streamers analyzing the current metagame, Buehler asks interesting questions about Magic’s core tenets, its history, and poignant cards and moments in history that have made Magic what it is today. Rather than focusing solely on the live sport itself, or coverage and recaps of those live events, Buehler let’s us gear Magic entertainment in interesting alternate directions that allow us to ask new questions and see interesting new answers. Obviously I love the Pro Tour coverage and all forms of Magic content that I can get my hands on, but I would love it if Buehler’s approach began to gain traction and further diversify the world of Magic content creation beyond just competitivity and competition and open it up to new avenues of entertainment. Because after all, this game is so interesting and complex, I’d hate for the media surrounding it to be stagnant and repetitive.