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Figuring out what players like

Akroma’s Bracket

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The letter T!ypical scenario. “Kid” is some relative neophyte to Magic, still in the “big creatures are awesome” phase. “Spike” is a long-time player who recognizes good cards from bad and isn't interested in the bad ones.

Kid opens booster pack and rifles to the rare, and is overjoyed to see that it is Akroma, Angel of Wrath.*
Kid: Oh my God! A 6/6 Angel with flying and first strike and all kinds of other stuff! This card is so awesome! I bet it's worth ten dollars! It's going right in my deck!
Spike: Nice one. That's an awesome card and it's in high demand. You could get a lot if you traded it.
Kid: Sweet! But I'm keeping it!

*: Akroma could be replaced by Sliver Queen; Darksteel Colossus; Kokusho, the Evening Star; or Simic Sky Swallower.

Now let's change one variable:

Kid opens booster pack and rifles to the rare, and is overjoyed to see that it is Autochthon Wurm.**
Kid: Oh my God! A 9/14 Wurm with trample and convoke! And it's gold! This is the biggest creature I've ever seen! I bet it's worth ten dollars! It's going right in my deck!
Spike: Heh. Nice card, n00b. That thing's worth about five cents. It sucks.
Kid: It sucks?
Spike: Big creatures like that suck.
Kid: I don't get it…

**: Autochthon Wurm could be replaced by Iname as One; Angel of Retribution; Living Inferno; or Kuro, Pitlord, among others.

I love the first moment, the one where a newer player's excitement is backed up by the opinions of everyone else around him—where he feels like he “gets it,” and he just struck gold by opening a consensus awesome card that he can't wait to play with.

Similarly, I hate the latter moment, the one where the new player has his worldview challenged and is told, in no uncertain terms, that the cards he likes suck. It doesn't even necessarily have to be a malicious moment; it could come when he asks the store owner what Autochthon Wurm is worth, and the answer he gets back is a number significantly smaller than what he paid for the booster pack it came in.

Of course, while hating it, I accept that the latter moment is unavoidable. We make lots of large rare creatures, and only a scant few of them make an impact on tournaments. As has been the trend for the past several years, the tournament cards are the ones with the high secondary market values, and hence the “chase cards.” The rest of the fatties tend to end up looking more-or-less worthless on a perceived value scale.

There was a time, back in Magic's relative infancy, when cards like Force of Nature, Lord of the Pit, and Mahamoti Djinn were worth big bucks relatively—the whole community was still in a Timmy phase and the combination of rarity and size was a sexy one indeed. Of course, as set after set after set has come out and fatty after fatty after fatty has failed to acquit itself on the tournament stage, the value of large creatures as a whole has dropped. Spike, the primary force behind the secondary market, just isn't interested, and the casual players and Timmys of the world have a thousand options available when building their deck for use around the kitchen table. If you don't have Silvos, then Ancient Silverback, Child of Gaea, Rhox, or Carnassid will do in a pinch.

When we make rare creatures (or any card for that matter), we in R&D always ask ourselves—and one another—“Who is this card for,” “Will they like this card,” and similar questions. Whether we end up being right or not is often, unfortunately, tough to measure.

Once a set has been out for a while, the rare cards sort of fall into five groups:

  • Tournament staples that are worth a lot of money almost solely because they are played in high numbers in Standard. Char; Tendo Ice Bridge; and Isamaru, Hound of Konda are prime examples of this kind of card. They don't do anything interesting—they're just good.
  • Cards that don't show up in high-level tournaments often (if ever), but are worth money because they are phenomenal hits with the casual crowd. This is my favorite type of card; recent examples are the dynamic duo of Circu, Dimir Lobotomist and Glimpse the Unthinkable, as well as Avatar of Discord, Joiner Adept, Twincast, and Doubling Season.
  • The double-whammy—cards that are both tournament powerhouses and casual favorites. This class of card tends to have sky-high secondary market value; after all, everyone wants them. Examples are Akroma, Darksteel Colossus, Kokusho, and Troll Ascetic, plus non-creatures like Cranial Extraction and Boseiju.
  • Cards that don't show up at tournaments but are still widely enjoyed by casual players, even of they don't reach “phenomenon” status.
  • Total duds that no one—or next to no one—really enjoys.

The problem with D and E is that it is very hard for us in R&D to get data to distinguish them. Secondary market values don't fluctuate much for cards with some small amount of player interest versus those with no interest. So without peering into people's living room, how can we tell?

Do players like Ursapine? Concerted Effort? Helldozer? Warp World? Searing Meditation? Copy Enchantment? Savra? Twilight Drover? Molten Sentry? Or are they duds?

In my gut, I know that most of those cards aren't duds, but I have a heck of a time proving it. Occasionally I'll get email about a card that someone particularly enjoys, and that makes me happy. Or I'll play against someone in the Casual Room online that has built a fun and fascinating deck around a generally unloved card. But other than anecdotes, it is really hard for R&D to get good feedback on anything save a set's most high-profile cards.

The Legend Bracket

For a long time, there was an idea swirling around between the R&D Pit and the Online Media department about running a “March Madness” style tournament on the website where the audience would choose, via a series of elimination matches, their favorite card from a field of 64. Eventually the decision was made to do it using Legendary creatures, and Randy Buehler set out to collect enough input to build the bracket.

I had a general feeling about how this experiment would play out. Referring to my categories above, I posited that “C” cards would beat everything, “B” cards versus “A” cards would be interesting fights with “B” ultimately prevailing, and “D” cards and “E” cards would lose when battling anything above them. I worried that because the bracket was only to contain 64 (okay, 65) Legends from the several hundred that had ever been printed, everything in the bracket would be an “A”, “B”, or “C”, and that a quick look at secondary market value would give you the winner of each matchup. What I really had hoped to do with the bracket was begin to understand the differences between “D” and “E” cards.

I was happy to see that quite a few “D-E” level cards made the bracket. Sure, most of them were story continuity characters like Gerrard Capashen and Selenia, Dark Angel, but there were also a few wacky weirdos like Hazezon Tamar, Mistform Ultimus, and Phelddagrif.

In general, I tend to think I know to a good degree what Magic players like and don't like. I've played the game forever and on every level, from the Pro Tour to the 15-person Emperor game to Momir Basic, and I almost always play just for fun. So when Randy Buehler put a box of Guildpact boosters up for whoever in R&D could best predict the outcome of the Legends bracket, I fully expected to win.

Alas, I did not. I came in somewhere around fifth with a good score, but was out of the running early because I predicted a certain 1/1 Nabob would go far into the contest. Congrats to Paul Sottosanti, the youngest member of R&D and, as it seems, the most in touch with the players for nabbing the box.

Here are some of the tidbits I learned from looking at the bracket results:

The Top 8 are almost all category “C”… the ones revered by tournament and casual players alike. This makes sense. Akroma is clearly in that category, as is Ink-Eyes, Visara, and Niv-Mizzet. Phage and Reya define category “B”—casual phenom. Sliver Queen straddles the fence between “B” and “C”. I had Mageta pegged as a category “A” card—meaning his popularity was strictly a function of his representation in tournaments—but I must have been dead wrong on that one, and I guess I have to put him in that lofty “C” category now.

Secretly really awesome?
Either Squee is secretly really lame or Cromat is secretly really awesome… This vote wrecked my bracket and had me scratching my head for days. Squee was a tournament staple and is still bought and sold for double-digit dollars. Cromat felt like an afterthought in a set full of ridiculous gold cards (Apocalypse). But Cromat won. The cynic in me blames the system—we never really explained to people what they were voting on, and perhaps they just clicked on the bigger one. But perhaps Squee suffers from his own success, and casual players are sick of him.

Old Legends don't hold up… I'm sure the Model T was an awesome machine to behold when it debuted, but I'd rather ride in any run-of-the-mill modern car than one of those old boxy clunkers if given the choice. Similarly, Sol'kanar the Swamp King, Rubinia Soulsinger, Johan, and the rest of the Legends-Legends did really, really poorly in the contest. I think people respect the groundbreaking those cards did, but what's on today's menus is so much more tasty.

I was really vocal prior to the bracket kicking off that Tolsimir Wolfblood was going to beat Sol'kanar in Round 1, and very few of my coworkers believed me. After all, most of us started playing when Sol'kanar was new—or at least when he came back in Chronicles—and he had a sort of sacredness to him, a nostalgic glow that makes you think back to simpler times. But I figured that to the “modern player,” Tolsimir was just a sexier card—it “did stuff” and had great flavor, as opposed to the Swamp King who inexplicably has blue and red mana in his cost when his abilities scream mono-black. Tolsimir winning was like a virtual pat on the back—not to me for predicting it, but rather to the whole department for making cards that resonate today as well as Sol'kanar and pals resonated with us.

There were certainly “D”'s in the bracket… Hazezon Tamar gave Akroma the closest fight she had in the entire bracket, which means he's got a little something going on. Similarly, Razia took down Dakkon Blackblade, Mirri beat Mistform Ultimus, and Volrath the Fallen whooped on Nicol Bolas. The winners have appeal apart from any tournament implications.

Power isn't everything… Kagemaro lost to Kamahl, Pit Fighter. Phage took down Isamaru, the Ghost Council, and Meloku in order. Tahngarth KO'd Ambassador Laquatus. In several instances, the card that appeared in tournaments more lost, which was quite a relief to us. We'd hate for coolness to be completely decided by raw power.

Akroma rocks… even if Rosewater doesn't like her. It's her week. What can I say?

Last Week's Poll:

Have you ever cheated in a game of Magic??
Never. 4666 48.2%
Yes, when I was playing with friends. 3908 40.4%
Yes, both with friends and at tournaments. 773 8.0%
Yes, during a tournament. 332 3.4%
Total 9679 100.0%

I had no real motivation for asking this question other than my own curiosity. The question came into my head when I recalled a game in which I tried to cheat, back in my earliest tournament days. My roommate and I were in a Two-Headed Giant game against a couple of jerks playing land destruction, and I tried passing a Kaervek's Torch under the table. My roommate could have cast it to win the game; after all, I had no lands in play. My roommate refused, which made me sad at the time, but really happy in retrospect.

This Week's Poll:

Speaking of 2HG…

 Which sanctioned team format do you prefer?  
Two-Headed Giant, where my teammate and I are playing in the same game.
Traditional three-person teams, where my teammates and I are each playing our own games.
Neither.

Fans of three-person teams should check out the online coverage of Pro Tour—Charleston, which starts Friday morning. I'm there!

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