Sunday, February 19, 2012

Magic's Hole Cards: 5 Ways to Improve Video Coverage

If you're anything like me, you spent the weekend of Pro Tour: Dark Ascension ravenously devouring the delicious non-stop coverage that made you feel almost as if you were two thousand miles away and not on a beach.  And if you were, you might be wondering, why does this guy think the coverage needs improvement, because it was actually that awesome.

Almost this awesome.

Well, there might be one thing better than watching fantastic video of your favorite players making the wrong blocks that you would never in a million years have made on a twitchy Internet feed.  That would be watching on glorious High Definition delivered straight out of your over-priced 3-D television.

Imagine this, but in your living room.  In three dimensions.
Any more dimensions would be too awesome to comprehend/

And that could happen.  But it won't.  Not yet.  As Patrick Chapin discussed during a recent SCG Open event, Magic won't make it back to ESPN until there is a way for Joe Plumber, Joe Six-Pack, and the seven other people who would have voted for Sarah Palin to quickly get into the game and devise drinking competitions and side-bets.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for how to make a good thing even better.  None of them involve laser beams, unfortunately.

Because you know you wanted it.

1)  Percentages

I'm not sure what it is about the beauty of knowing someone's mathematical odds of narrowly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but it greatly enhances the viewing experience.  We can't use actual hole cards because of the logistics involved, and because it would mean losing out on Craig Jones' Lightning Helix or Kibler's double Whipflare.  But, it is possible, since we have the competitor's decklists in advance, to know exactly how many outs they have in some situations.

The director would have to use the feature sparingly, and it would require that someone familiar with the format and the interactions within the game who is also adept enough to check off drawn/revealed/sideboarded cards and update the relevant percentages be on hand watching the feed.  The pay-off is high, though, and configuring the display to list the outs and the odds of drawing into them would not require a lot of space. 

As a bonus, even if the coverage was occasionally wrong, you'd end up with more dramatic moments, not less.  Consider in the Kibler situation if the person in charge of the odds only calculated the Slagstorms, and forgot about the second Whipflare.  You'd have the 8% up there with Slagstorm x3 listed, and then Kibler windmill slams the 'flare out of nowhere.  Bam!  It's like Emeril in the kitchen before he sold out.

2) Chess Clock

Ideally, this would be an actual chess clock.

Because adding more physical elements makes it a sport.  Just ask curling.

One of my dreams for the Pro Tour is to have the dreaded MTGO count-down in place for Competitive REL or higher.  Not because I enjoy timing my opponents out, but because of the heightened sense of dread that comes with watching your (or the player's that you're rooting for) clock run down.

Again, instead of JVL somberly intoning that there is less than a minute left in the round, you actually see that PVDDR has less than 60 seconds to activate Arid Mesa, find the land, finish shuffling, present, and swing with his now-4/5 Steppe Lynx.  If he can't do it, if he can't get the shot off?  No overtime, just terrible ESPN headlines that manage to offend half the people who are watching.

You didn't think I was actually going to post that headline, did you?

From a pure entertainment perspective, this option is gold.  The players might not like it, initially, and there might need to be some more tweaks (can I suggest time-outs? It's my article; I'm suggesting three 30-second time outs per game per player) but in the end, it solves several issues and makes everything more fun for those of us watching at home (and taking shots every time Todd Anderson taps, changes his mind, and re-taps his lands).

3) Time Remaining

If you don't like option two, at least flash the Round Clock every once in a while.  If the match goes to game three, knowing how much time is left at least helps build some suspense, and, again, as much as I enjoy listening to some of the commentators, most of them use announcing the time remaining to scold the players or act with some odd pretention as if they've never taken more than three minutes to sideboard.

Honestly though, this suggestion is just filler, because the difference between option two and flashing the Round Clock is the difference between seeing the object of your heart's desire with someone else, and catching them stepping into the shower, oblivious to the tiny camera you've stuck on the tile.*

3b) Statistics

Statistics are the lifeblood of sports commentary.  They fill space and present interesting, if not always relevant, information, and they help shape the context of a match.  One of the first things that I would do, given the opportunity to supervise coverage, would be to start compiling statistics for my events.

Knowing that Gerry Thompson is 9-0 life-time against UW Control when he sits down across from Shaheen might not actually matter, but it builds a foundation for a story to emerge within the 50 minutes they have to play.

Generating topical statistics would take time, but even within the 8 to 10 rounds of an Open, you could notice some fascinating minutiae.  For example, if the commentators have access to the fact that Adam Prosak lost his first round and has battled back to X-1 going into the final, they can craft a narrative around that fact.  Add in that he beat four other Delver decks before sitting across from Edgar Flores, and suddenly the drama escalates.

Again, it would be difficult to pull this off, but it isn't something that needs to be done instantly, we can do it at sorcery speed and launch a twenty storm Grapeshot at the traditionally blase dead air that often occurs with these live broadcasts.

4) The 60-Second Explanation

This has come up before, but it bears repeating here.  I've been trying to write less than a hundred words to simplify Magic to the point that my grandmother can understand it ever since Patrick Chapin mentioned the necessity of being able to do so.

I don't think that I've succeeded, but here's my attempt.  We'll talk more after you finish reading it (use Morgan Freeman's voice, unless you are Morgan Freeman, in which case, would you please narrate just one hour of my life? Please? I can pay in contributor's copies**).

Using mana, the resource that pays for the other cards, players have but two options, win, or fall.  The goal is easy, but the path to victory has many twists. Reduce your opponent's life total to 0 or leave them unable to draw a card.  These are the most common routes to success.  Creatures enter the battlefield and fight, spells are slung and countered, and the player with the best strategy usually wins.

That's your basic explanation.  You'll see in a minute why this is the second-to-last suggestion, but quickly, I need to point out that you would want other explanations depending on the format.  Fortunately, explaining Limited and Constructed isn't nearly as hard as trying to sum up the game itself.  Here's what I came up with as an example for Constructed:

In this tournament, players bring pre-built decks, assembled from their own collections, using cards available in the [insert expansion names] sets.  Each deck must have at least 60 cards, and no more than 4 of any one card is permitted.  Along with their main deck, players are allowed fifteen extra cards, known as a sideboard to bring in between games.

Do these paragraphs describe every corner case or issue that could come up during a match?  Obviously, and of course, not.  But, they do clock in under 150 words for both sections, which could be read in less than 90 seconds with accompanying video.  I said 60 seconds, I'm aware, and I'll keep working on it, but these are suggestions.  If I was one hundred percent ready to revolutionize the coverage game I'd be selling my ideas to SCG, not posting them for free.

Along with the basic explanations, we'd need short pre-produced segments on the slang (not difficult if done correctly), and brand-developing mechanisms that explore the "grind" and the world of tournament Magic (Nathan Holt has already done this, and would be my first choice to help produce these segments).

To summarize, the format explanation would come first, then the basic wording, and then we'd jump into the booth for the run-down of other exciting news.

5) Better Commentary

I'm fairly certain this is a cost issue, and not just blatant good ol' boy clubbing, but the fact remains that the majority of coverage pairs just don't have chemistry, and they aren't professional color announcers. 
In order to implement strategy four, it is imperative that the people behind the microphones are absolutely amazing at discussing the game.  Not just describing the on-board action, but explaining it, and in an entertaining manner. 

For example (paraphrased slightly):

"He drew, I didn't see it.  Needs to be a sweeper. He taps his lands, [gets excited] he drew the Whipflare!"

[cheering in background, laughing, and stunned silence in the booth]


"Kibler draws for the turn, too fast, he's nervous, rocking back and forth,[rising volume] the lands are tapped, he's got something, could be Huntmaster, that wouldn't do it! [half-second pause as the cards are flipping on the table]  [Jaw-dropped enthusiasm] Double Whipflare! Bombs away.  Kibler clears the board with 4 damage to each of Jon's creatures, there's nothing left. Un-be-liev-able, the momentum has shifted back to the Dragonmaster."

You might be skeptical, obviously with a week to process what happened, I come up with something a lot more complex than BDM had in real time?  Way to go, Monday Morning Quarterback.

And I admit that.  Unfortunately, without someone giving me a shot in an actual booth, I can't exactly demonstrate my own ability in this case.  In any case, though, even if you don't think I can do it, there are thousands of broadcasting majors in this country who can.

More important is that you see the difference from the perspective of somebody that isn't familiar with the game.  Stronger verbs, explanation that isn't pedantic, but describes what exactly just happened and to whom it happened. 

This shouldn't be a pipe dream, it should be exactly what happens in every match, and it is possible.
Ideally, you'd have one hyperactive commentator and one person to sell the jokes and contribute the details.  It's basic and practiced by almost every broadcast booth in the country, and for some reason, we don't have that yet.

Rich Hagon and BDM have been doing this a long time, and I enjoy their commentary, but it doesn't engage me.  If I was sitting in a bar, drinking PBR and gnawing on bone-stale nachos, I wouldn't look up to catch the hot Magic action.  With some effort though, I'm pretty certain it wouldn't be difficult to tear my eyes away from golf highlights or two NBA teams playing for the third time in three nights and struggling to break 70.

Frickin' 74 to frickin' 71. Note: depiction is of NBA players, not your high school JV squad.

Wrapping it Up

When we talk about the great moments in Magic, we remember the tiniest portions of occasionally drawn-out games.  We tell stories to our friends and we'd love to get more people involved if only to be able to share that time that what's-his-name bluffed the other guy so hard his appendix burst.

The easiest way to share those iconic moments is not only through embracing the emerging streaming media, but being willing to try and get back to the mainstream (there are something like 450 different channels available where I live, which I assume is a small number compared to most places, and you don't think that at least one of them would jump on board for 20-30 hours of pre-packaged programming for them almost every week?)

Even if the goal isn't to appear nationally again, what with New Media having lucrative open space for generating revenue and exposure, the higher quality product, the better the viewership.  PT:DKA had at least 15,000 viewers live at one point, compared to the 2500-3000 range I usually see during SCG events.    MLG generates numbers almost ten times that, and while some of that has to do with the games they feature, not a small portion is built off the quality of their product. 

It's possible, it can happen, and if anyone is interested, I work cheap.

Ben Snyder has been playing Magic long enough that if his playing career was a person, that person would now have to sign up for the draft and learn how to kick an annoying smoking habit.  He once wrote over 10,000 words on a deck that was banned in less than a month from its creation.  His debut ebook is available now, and while it doesn't feature any collectible card games, it does include a menagerie of ancient wizards who wouldn't be out of place chilling with Urza and the Oldwalkers.

*In case it wasn't clear, seeing them with someone else is flashing LEDs, seeing them naked is the chess clock.

**Freelance writing joke, mostly for my own benefit. Cough. Sorry.


  1. No chess clocks. Ever.

    Paper magic doesn't work in the same way as MTGO. It's full of shortcuts and backups which can't be removed without turning the game into an unplayable mess and requiring judges to stand watch continuously over almost every game. Passing priority works on MTGO because each player can set stops as they require and it's much easier to keep track of board state, life totals etc.

    Ideally all paper matches would be untimed, it's just a question of tournament logistics that they aren't.

  2. Most of these recommendations are totally unrealistic. I agree that commentation could be improved in general. I've watched some starcraft and if magic had the equivalent of Tastosis, things would be much improved. Outs calculations and chess clocks are totally out of the realm of possibility.

    1. Commentary is the biggest issue, hence the reason it's the largest section and the last subject I covered.

      But, it is not "out of the realm of possibility" to calculate outs in specific situations, which is what I was addressing in order to build drama. If a player has to draw an Oblivion Ring to remove a Wurmcoil Engine with one natural draw phase, and they have 3 Oblivion Rings left, you know the odds of topdecking it.

      The percentages don't even have to be perfect, as long as they are clearly labeled (in the O-Ring example, there might also be Ponder and Alchemy representing possible "outs", even if you can't rapidly determine the odds of drawing O-Ring if Ponder is the draw--which you still could, to be honest--you still have an addition to the flow of the game that doesn't take anything away and adds value. See Vapor Snag versus Unsummon).

      As for the clocks, opposition to this issue comes entirely from the player's perspective, not from the question of what it adds to a broadcast. It isn't a perfect solution, but it would be fun.

  3. There definitely needs to be something done about the coverage. Of all the things mentioned I feel only the commentary seriously needs to be addressed to make the game enjoyable when watching it. There are inherent problems in the game, there is an inordinate amount of shuffling and a lot of games can be decided before they have begun on mulligans, luck as well as time, which leads to less interesting coverage. There is not much we can do to affect this, adding more elements, a chess clock will only create more problems; at this time we need to fix the core problems before we pollute the issue further.

    The way I see it, statistics and percentages come under the umbrella of commentary. I will address those aspects of it from an English perspective, where the commentary is markedly different to the American style. While English commentary features statistics and in poker the percentages, where it is completely essential, from my experience it is too much of a mainstay in the American coverage and doesn't really aid our understanding of the game or a player. This leads to long discussions about irrelevant statistics whereas they should be seamlessly fed into the coverage to support and inform the commentary. At this point I don't think adding more statistical analysis will improve the commentary.

    Percentage i could see working, but we should fix the things that are broken before implementing this.

    Commentary: The commentary is appalling and the lack of professionalism astounding (hyperbole is absolutely necessary). The presenters this weekend once again demonstrated these very problems: they were childish; they knew nothing about the metagame or what was important in matchups and Hagon in particular is a terrible ambassador for the game, and England I might add. Contrary to your view that the reason that the commentary is so bad is because of a lack of funding, I think it is instead because of an incestuous conservatism that makes it unthinkable to change the main commentators. Without changing the commentators to more informed and better role models for the game the coverage will continue to be stale. Commentator's knowledge and theory should be at the forefront of the metagame, they should know or be able to work out exactly what is happening in matchups. Menery, Hagon and BDM are dinosaurs, the game has changed so much in recent memory from the days they competed. We desperately need some new blood to take over the challenge, or at least assist them in commentating the top 8.

    Seriously though, not to undermine this but I can't stress how toxic Hagon is to the game. He is an embodiment of everything that is wrong with it. He is a fat, ugly, bespectacled middle-aged man who knows nothing about the metagame. He provides useless statistics on occasion; he makes terrible jokes; he is not exciting, even when enthused; he is far too casual and because of this doesn't appeal in anyway to the competitive scene.

  4. Re: the 100 word summary, you use far too many filler sentences. I understand you're making it more exciting (which is good), but, for example, you use a clause which implies there's lots of other ways to win, when there is only one more.

    'To play Magic, you and your opponent each start with a deck and seven cards in hand. Each turn players draw a card from their deck, then can play a land from their hand, use the 'mana' the lands create to summons creatures or planeswalkers, and cast spells. To win, you reduce the opponent's life to 0, empty their deck, or give them 10 poison counters.'

    You can add to this visually with one and a half turn cycles: mountain R one drop, opponent plays blocker, bolt the blocker and swing, letting you illustrate all of these components easily. Bam. This summary covers all the basic components and would easily allow someone, if you handed them a deck, to start sussing out 'how to play'.

    -Mecha (@mechalink on twitter)