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The Lion's Lair #11
"Monthly (Card Contest) Review"
The article index is always updated with the latest content.
Starting with this issue, new articles will only be posted in the blog.
This issue is going to be specifically about the MCC (Monthly Card Contest) held each month in the Custom Card Creation and Games subforum. If you're not interested in that, you can stop reading here and I'll see you next time.
You might know that this month (July 2015 as I'm writing this) I am the MCC host. This article comes from an idea by one of my judges (Tilwin), who thought it might have been a good idea if I wrote something about how I, and in general more experienced people, see the MCC in its current state. I think that's a wonderful idea, and in fact it's exactly what I'm doing, so many thanks to Tilwin, but a premise is necessary. All of this article, and I'm writing it here so I don't have to repeat it each time, is written exclusively from my own point of view, and those that are written here are just my own personal opinions. In no way they are an absolute statement of truth. I want this to be clear because lately there has been some misunderstanding of my intentions with this article series, and I want it to be clear since the very beginning of my discussion. I am not in permanent charge of the MCC, neither I would want to be if such a thing was even possible. I am just a guy who has experienced all three roles in the MCC (player, judge, host) multiple times by now, and that has been judging for eight consecutive months and has no plans to stop in the foreseeable future. I only actively post since about a year, so there are still plenty of people even more experienced and qualified than me, and I respect them very much. I am just humbly sharing my opinion, nothing more.
The new rubric
That said, it's time to go into the meat of this article. First, the MCC has undergone a pretty important change lately: the rubric was updated. This doesn't obsolete everything I've written so far taking the old rubric as an example, but it still requires a recap of the current situation to be made. Let's take a look at the new rubric:
(X/3) Appeal: Do the different player psychographics (Timmy/Johhny/Spike) have a use for the card?
(X/3) Elegance: Is the card easily understandable at a glance? Do all the flavor and mechanics combined as a whole make sense?
(X/3) Viability: How well does the card fit into the color wheel? Does it break or bend the rules of the game? Is it the appropriate rarity?
(X/3) Balance: Does the card have a power level appropriate for contemporary constructed/limited environments without breaking them? Does it play well in casual and multiplayer formats? Does it create or fit into a deck/archetype? Does it create an oppressive environment?
(X/3) Uniqueness: Has a card like this ever been printed before? Does it use new mechanics, ideas, or design space? Does it combine old ideas in a new way? Overall, does it feel “fresh”?
(X/3) Flavor: Does the name seem realistic for a card? Does the flavor text sound professional? Do all the flavor elements synch together to please Vorthos players?
(X/3) Quality: Points deducted for incorrect spelling, grammar, and templating.
(X/2) *Main Challenge: Was the main challenge satisfied? Was it approached in a unique or interesting way? Does the card fit the intent of the challenge?
(X/2) Subchallenges: One point awarded per satisfied subchallenge condition.
*An entry with 0 points here is subject to disqualification.
As you can see, there are a lot of similarities, but also some differences.
First, let me state that personally I like this rubric better than the old one, mainly because the points are divided in a more detailed way. As a judge, I no longer have ten points to assign for each big section, say Development, to assign as I wanted. Now I have three specific points for Viability and three specific points for Balance. That's an improvement, for two reasons: first, it should improve uniformity of judgment between different judges. If before I evaluated, say, Balance more than Viability, while another judge evaluated more Viability than Balance, now both of us are forced to evaluate them equally. Still, some judge subjectivity unfortunately remains, but it shouldn't be that the factor determining who advances or wins in a round and who does not. Even if that still can happen sometimes (look at the final round of June for an evident example in my opinion), it should happen less often and be less severe in effect. At least, that's the intention behind this change.
The second reason is actually linked to the first, and it's that it should also improve the objectivity of the contest. I've always talked about how the three main contests have different levels of rules enforcement and strictness, and that's a good thing, because everyone can have the experience he or she likes best. The MCC is and is meant to be the strictest one of our contests, you can imagine that it's like the Pro Tour, where a Professional REL is applied, versus a Friday Night Magic, where a Regular REL is enforced. In another metaphor I like, and that I've already explained to someone privately, I see the three main contests as different soccer competitions. For those that might not know, here in Italy soccer is by far the main national sport and it's hugely followed, think something like the NFL in the United States. The comparison I usually make is this: the DCC is the national championship (think the "Serie A" in Italy), that is lowest level of the three; the CCL is the Europa League, that is a bigger competition, already at European level and no longer national, but not the most prestigious; and the MCC is the Champions League, the main and most prestigious competition at continental level.
Because of this role as the most prestigious contest, the MCC just has to be the most strict and objective possible. The means to try to achieve such strictness and objectivity are the rubric and the way it is enforced. As judges, we just have to care about all the little details, to the point that sometimes we might even look pedant and almost obsessed with seemingly unimportant little things, right because of these high standards the MCC is supposed and expected to live to. To go on with my soccer metaphor, it's way worse if the referee assigns a wrong penalty kick in the Champions League finals rather than in a national championship match involving two team which are low in the standings.
As a player, I expect this kind of strictness and objectivity if I choose to play in the MCC.
As a judge, I always try to make my best to live up to such high standards.
As a host, I expect my judges to enforce such levels of strictness and objectivity in their judgments. I also expect players to take care of all the little details of their cards.
Now let's discuss each single point in the new rubric, what I'm looking for in each of them as a judge, and the particular critical issues they might present.
This is substantially the old Potential section, which indeed was an odd name for the section that cares about how the three different psychographics see the card (Timmy, Johnny, and Spike, remember that Vorthos and Melvin are NOT psychographics but aesthetic scales).
There are two different approaches at judging this section. One is to assign 1 point for Timmy, 1 for Johnny, and 1 for Spike, and assign them as follows:
0: the card does not appeal at this psychographic at all.
0.5: the card has something that this psychographic might like, but it doesn't excite him/her fully.
1: the card excites this psychographic fully.
The consequence of this approach is that the card reaches full points here if it appeals to all three psychographics, and that a card that is purely meant to appeal to one psychographics (and there are plenty of those in real Magic) will not score as well. The advantage of this method is that it's very practical and easy to apply. This is the method I use personally, but I recognize that it's not perfect.
The other approach is to evaluate how well the card appeals to its intended audience. If a card is meant to appeal to Timmy, it can make sense if it doesn't appeal to Johnny and Spike, provided that card is one that Timmy will absolutely love. This other approach is difficult to apply, in my opinion, because it relies on something (the identification of the intended audience) that often is very hard to do correctly and opens the way to more subjectivity in judgments. I admit, though, that this is the approach that better reflects how R&D actually designs cards, according to how MaRo explained it to us several times.
There is no right and no wrong method here. Different judges see things differently, just because they're different human beings, so they are free to choose whichever one they like best. Each approach has its reasons and defects, so there is no such thing as "the right one". There is no perfect judging approach here. That's why this has been, is, and will certainly continue to be a hot topic of discussions among judges and players. I see no possible solution, given the way things are now. Unfortunately, I don't either see a way to improve this section to eliminate this duplicity. This is just something I think we have to live with and we have to learn to accept.
This section looks at two things: how easy is the card to understand, and whether the card concept makes sense as a whole. The first is tied to complexity of any kind. Remember there are various kinds of complexity in Magic:
- Comprehension complexity: how hard the card is to understand when you read it for the first time. If you have to read the card several times to understand what it does, that's bad, and it should be kept into account here.
- Board complexity: how the board state becomes after you've cast the card. Does the card require constant attention once it's on the battlefield, maybe because it has an activated ability that might affect other permanents and has to be kept into account during combat, or maybe it has an usual ability you might forget, or maybe it forces you to keep track constantly of something you're not used keeping track of, or whatever else. Remember that all players must be able to understand clearly the board state at all times. If you are able to do so, but any of your opponents is not, that's equally bad, if not worse. This is also linked to the more general concept of "tracking complexity". All of this should be kept into account here and impact the judgment on Elegance.
- Strategic complexity: how complex are the interactions of the card with other cards. This is the least important kind of complexity to monitor, because it's seen only by experienced players, while new and less experienced players won't even notice it.
The second part of elegance asks whether the card concept makes sense as a whole. Does the flavor given by name and flavor text blend nicely with the card mechanics? Does it all come together to make something that is bigger than the sum of its parts? Something that makes sense naturally, that resonates to the players, that makes immediate and complete sense as to what it represents? All of this should also be judged here.
The development section is probably the one that changed the least. This is the same Viability section you were already used to. Two things are judged here: how the card fits the mechanical color pie (the philosophical one will be taken care of later in Flavor), and if the card has the right rarity. As it's the same section as before and the discussion on both those things would take us way too far, I'm not going to discuss them here. You can find a lot of resources on the internet about these topics, including previous articles of mine.
This is also the same Balance section of before, just with a better focus. Things to be judged here: costs, power level in contemporary limited and Standard formats, power level in Modern and eternal formats (if applicable). There are a few other things that before were only implicitly included here, but now they are also explicit parts of the judgment on Balance: power level in multiplayer formats (including Commander) if it differs significantly from two-player classic play, how this card fits in casual groups (remember that "casual" is NOT a format), and whether the card could generate potentially unfun experiences either for you or other players, including opponents. Finally, always remember that an overpowered card is as bad as an underpowered one, and arguably worse because the former warps a whole format around it, while the latter is simply ignored. Here too a detailed discussion would take us too far, so I recommend you to check other resources (again including other articles of mine) if you have any specific doubt pertaining this particular area.
This is essentially the old Creativity section with a better name. Here we will judge if your card is original, new, or creative while also trying to quantify how much it is. It's not easy to quantify such concepts. Here are the guidelines and the scores I personally use myself (from best to worst).
3: this is a card that does something never done before, not even on a single card.
2.5: this is a card that has an effect that is rarely seen in modern Magic, but not very often.
2: this is a card that does something we've already seen but in a new way or with a new twist.
1.5: this is a card that does something we've already seen but without big innovations.
1: this is a card that does something we've already seen multiple times and doesn't innovate it in any way.
0.5: this is a card that does something we see all the time in real sets, and maybe there is only some little detail we've not seen before.
0: this is a card that does something we see all the time in real sets and in a way we also see all the time in real sets.
Again, these are my own guidelines, I'm not saying in any way that other judges should adapt them, it's just the way I see this section personally.
Again, this is another section that was already there but with a different name, in this case Creative Writing. Here we judge the quality of the card name and of the flavor text. My method is to divide points evenly (so 1.5 points for name and 1.5 for flavor text) and the assign them based on a scale like the following.
1.5: all good here.
1: minor problems.
0.5: major problems.
0: either not present (for flavor text) or so bad that it makes me go "WTF did you think when writing this?"
Then I might adjust the score to prize a particularly brilliant card concept or penalize a very bad one. Typos might also influence the judgment here if they are serious or too many, even if they are also kept into account in Quality. If the typos are only one, maximum two minor ones, I only punish them in Quality and not here.
These two sections are exactly the same as before. See my "Mark of Quality" articles for further information.
And here we finally come to the main reason for this update of the rubric. This is the biggest innovation that's been introduced, and one I am particularly glad to have both as judge and as organizer. Here we judge how well the card fits the main challenge. I normally use the following scale.
2: all good here.
1.5: minor problems.
1: major problems.
I'm unlikely to go under 1 personally. The only case where it's required is when the main challenge is not met for any reason. In that case, the score here would be a zero, and the card is disqualifed (aka DQ'ed).
This section is particularly useful in the case of rounds that don't have a binary challenge (yes/no), but have more of a grey area. This usually happens with challenges about flavor, but may also happen in other cases. As organizer, the presence of this section allows me to come up with more creative challenges instead of being forced to have a yes/no main challenge and put all the nuances in the subchallenges. As a judge, this section allows me to prize cards that fit particularly well the main challenge while still being able to avoid some meaningless DQs.
State of the Union
I have some word count left, so I'll also touch on how I think the MCC is doing. A kind of "State of the MCC" speech if you wish, of course with the same premise I made at the beginning of this article. Actually, I think this was the original idea by Tilwin, but I just couldn't ignore the update of the rubric.
I think that the MCC is in good health right now, but that of course doesn't mean there are no problems. The first thing that makes me say this is that I've noticed an upward trend in participation lately, both in judges and players. Since last December, I've personally mentored two new judges, one of which also became organizer. Now in July we also have two additional new judges who are doing good enough so far and I hope to see again judging soon. A third new person signed up to judge but failed the test with the sample card, he/she probably knows I'm talking about him/her so I invite him/her to try again. For two months in a row, we've had five judges, which is a thing that had not been seen for at least some months, even if now we may find ourselves with four in July, but that doesn't cancel the point I'm trying to make. On the players' side, I've also noticed more participation in June and July compared to a few months ago. I've also seen new people posting with a low post count, which means they have joined us in the CCC community very recently, in a few cases even specifically to participate in the MCC, as I remember seeing at least one contestant who explicitly mentioned his/her submission to be his/her first post. Having all these new people joining is great for the community and if you're one of them I really hope you have a good fun experience around here. For what it's worth I'll definitely make my part to make sure it's so. If you're a new custom card designer and you need advice, feel free to check the rest of my articles, they've been written for you. If instead you're an experienced designer, you won't find anything new here, but if you like it you can read them anyway. Just be aware that you're not the target.
These are the good things, and I'm not undervaluing them in any way, but I said earlier I'm also seeing a few problems. Let me explain.
First, in recent months I've seen at least two times discussions that degenerated quickly. I'd like to avoid such things, and unfortunately a competitive contest where cards are judged as strictly as possible is a perfect ground for them to happen. It's our responsibility, of each one of us, players, judges, and hosts, everyone really, to keep things serene and civil. I don't really like judge signups threads turning into arguing threads, for example. I'm more than willing to take my part of the fault, but we all must be willing, for the good of the community. I want, and I hope we all want a community that feels like a good place to be part of, where we're having fun, and respecting all others while also being able to recognize your own mistakes (which we all do, we're just human after all, we'd be machines otherwise, and I don't want to be a heartless machine) is the first step in the right direction. Our attitude should never be like the one of a famous (at least here in Italy) Italian old movie, that in Italian goes "Io sono io e voi non siete un c***o" (the last word is a bad word) and could be translated as "I am me and you all are s**t". You should never assume, even involuntarily, that you know everything and that you're right just because you say it. That attitude will take you nowhere, here and also in real life. The default attitude should be instead "I think I may be right, but maybe I'm wrong, and anyway I respect you". Don't assume you're perfect, but of course don't either assume others are perfect. Always give people the benefit of doubt, yourself included.
Another problem I saw is being late, and this applies to both players and judges, but mostly judges: if you don't post a card as a player you're simply removed from the brackets and nothing bad happens, but if you're a judge and you're late or, even worse, absent, you put the host and/or other judges in a bad position. For example, I had to do another judge's bracket myself in July round 1 because of this. To me, the problem wasn't that I had to do more judging, I like that, otherwise I wouldn't be doing that, but it was that I had to do them in a rush because I wanted to post round 2 as soon as possible as it was already late. I was able to judge eight cards in just two hours in the end, but I think I've broken all my previous records and I was exhausted at the end. Now I've prepared in advance and I already know what to do if the missing judge is still missing in round 2 (I'm writing this a few hours before the players deadline). Now, the fact is not that you should give up real life things or that unexpected things can't happen in one's life, of course real life takes precedence. But if you know you won't have the time needed to judge adequately, you should not sign up as a judge that month. As simple as that. You can play, no problem, but signing up as a judge also means implicitly saying "I will be able to do my work on time at the best of my possibilities, I have both the will and the actual time to do that". Of course, if a problem comes up later, just let the host know. Let the host know! Private messages exist! I can't say how important it is! You don't have to explain private things of your life to your host if you don't want to, but just let him/her know that for this time you can't make it! And let him/her know if you expect to be able to return the following round or if you're dropping completely. If the host doesn't know, how can he/she plan how to make up for it?
And this gets even worse when the same judge keeps doing that month after month. He/she keeps signing up almost every month and he/she is always late by at least one day or two with his/her judgments. That's a problem, and one I've actually seen happening quite recently. I won't make names, but I noticed it (and I know for certain that I'm not alone in having noticed this) and this is a problem. Again, if you're always late you're putting the host in a very bad position, and you cause the contest to go late. If you don't have the time or will to judge, for whatever reason, and you see that this repeats every month, please don't sign up for judging. Just play instead, that takes way less time. Make room for more reliable people to judge.
Finally, I want to say that uniformity of judgment is still a problem, even with the new rubric. I'm not saying the new rubric hasn't improved the situation, because it has in some areas, as I mentioned before. It's still an improvement over the old one, but it's not perfect. You can see what I mean in the final round of June, where the disparity in scores among judges is evident. This is a problem mostly in the final round, which unfortunately is the determining one for the month's winner, because all judges are judging the same cards, so huge differences in judging and scoring will be clearly visible. In rounds 1 and 2 it's not a problem as judges have separate brackets, so uniformity within each single bracket is enough, and that is expected as it's always the same person that judges all of the bracket. In round 3 it may appear as a problem, because two judges are judging the same cards, but it's in round 4 that this problem is both more visible and has the worst consequences. Obviously I'm not saying some judges wait to see the other judges' scores and then adjust their own scores to let who they want to be the winner win, and by the way if you're always late as a judge you may raise this suspect, but technically it's not impossible. I want to trust the community and the judges in believing that this is not the case, but when you see differences of about ten points in the same card's scores it makes you think, I can't deny that. What I know is that I've never done that as a judge and I don't want to, for me the integrity of the contest and that of myself as a judge are way more important than deciding who must win. I hope that this applies to all judges.
Well, these are the main problems the MCC has as of now, in my opinion. As you can see, they pertain more to the judging side of things, but that doesn't mean players shouldn't be aware of them. I hope the next time I write about this will be to say that there has been some progress in those areas.
Please don't misunderstand me and don't think the problems I just talked about are bigger than they are. The positive things are greatly outweighing the negative ones, and the MCC is an amazing contest to play in, to judge for, or to organize! Definitely join us there if you haven't already!
Until next time,