July 30, 2014

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Magic League: A Limited/Constructed Hybrid

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I started playing magic as a small town kid back in 1995 – a time before netdecks, ebay, and disposable income. There were maybe 5 or 6 of us in high school who played and my collection was a couple hundred cards at its peak – mostly fallen empires. When I think back to that time I get nostalgic for having such a small, treasured collection – savouring each booster pack, finding decks for every janky thrull and elder dragon legend, and needing to trade for commons like Llawnowar Elves and Craw Wurm just to get enough cards for that sweet monogreen deck.

While those days are forever lost to the mists of time, over the past 3 years my friends and I have developed a format that blends limited and constructed magic into an experience that harkens back to the high school library of the mid-90s. “Magic league” is a 50-card, six-booster, semi-competitive format where trading is allowed and rares are re-drafted at the end as a prize pool. A season of the league involves 8-12 players meeting up once a week for four weeks to duel and trade until a champion is declared and claims the best rare as his or her prize. Here’s how it works:

Building a “collection”

At the first session players are seated randomly for a draft and given 4 booster packs each. Three of these packs are drafted, one is kept as a personal sealed booster (which is important for greasing the wheels on trades later on). Each player can draft their boosters in any order, and each time you open a pack you choose whether you want to keep it or draft it. Once you keep a booster the rest are drafted, and if you draft your first three boosters you must keep the fourth. This creates your starting collection for league, a crude simulation of the limited card supply you may have had as a kid just starting out in the game.

50 card decks

Since league is a mix of 40-card limited and 60-card constructed, we split the difference and play 50 card decks. This incidentally seems to be the sweet spot for making the most of the card pool while still being able to build thematic or synergistic decks. As a bonus, it also lets you buy a pack of 50 card sleeves without feeling like Steve Martin in Father of the Bride.

Play whenever you’re ready

One of my pet peeves with sanctioned events is downtime. It seems like every round has at least one match that goes to time, meaning I usually spend more time waiting to play magic than actually playing magic. League solves this problem by doing away with timed rounds and letting people play whenever they are ready, the only rule being that over the course of the league every opponent must be played once and no opponent can be played more than twice. The distribution of matches between stronger and weaker opponents (based on standings) is leveled out during the fourth session where everyone is given 3 specific matchups to play, and where the “no-more-than-twice” rule can be broken if necessary.

Scoring is a mix of win % and participation

The current formula we use for scoring is ((3*Wins + 1*Ties)/Matches) + (Matches * 0.05) with game win percentage as a tiebreaker. Our last league ended like this:

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Of note, while Doug did slightly worse than both Alex and Kailee in terms of raw match win percentage, his participation bonus is enough to move him ahead of them. Also, Justin and Angela are tied, but Justin has a higher game win % and thus places 4th. Because the scoring can handle uneven matches played, players can show up late, leave early, or miss a session and only incur a mild penalty. This makes it much easier for people to commit to a month-long league than if they had to take a full sleight of match losses for missing a session.

Trading allowed after the first session

Trading is what really sets league apart from cube or booster draft and provides more of that old school magic feel. Players have to live through one session (usually 3 matches) with their starting pool, but after that they can freely trade league cards with each other. This means hate-drafts become trade-drafts, and you can try to fix your train-wreck of a card pool by getting into or out of colours, trading those off-colour bombs you opened, or just gobbling up all the mill cards and trying to live the dream. A lot of players elect to arrange trades by email between sessions, giving them more time to goldfish with their deck and consider offers and counter-offers. As you can imagine, trading becomes its own little political mini-game of trying to build the hype on your cards while downplaying the importance of what you want to acquire. Exchanges like this are fairly common in my inbox when a league is active:

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Alex is a notoriously shrewd trader, and in this case we eventually settled on his Lightning Strike + Sigiled Starfish for my Underworld Coinsmith + Bloodcrazed Hoplite. I never did trade the Lightning Strike or play the starfish so this was ultimately pretty bad for me, but the coinsmith wasn’t going anywhere else so it was a reasonable gamble.

Sealed boosters added at the end of session 1 and 2

While league involves a total of 6 boosters, you don’t get them all up front. Each player gets one additional booster at the end of the first session and another at the end of the second – not unlike a kid setting aside lunch money and waiting to finally get a new pack of cards at the end of the week. While the rare card remains the highlight of these packs, opening the right commons can be just as exciting. You don’t know how awesome a grim roustabout can be until you’ve got a red/black proliferate deck with 3 volt charges running gutter skulk and satyr rambler as two-drops.

These additional booster packs are especially important for players who have a weak draft and/or bad first two sessions. While the total league card pool grows with each new pack, deck size remains the same; so players with good decks will often overpay for upgrades. Sometimes by the end of session 2 guildgates become one of the few available improvements for a well-built deck, and a struggling player might find themselves on the receiving end of an Arrest or Zhur-Taa Druid in exchange for that common nonbasic land stuck at the back of the Dragon’s Maze pack.

Rares returned at the end as a prize pool

For league to really work it is crucial that the cards be drafted and traded based on their play value rather than their monetary value. To this end, all rares and mythics (and sometimes “money uncommons”) opened in league are returned at the end of the fourth session and form a prize pool. When the dust settles on the standings at the end of that last session, the player in first place gets first pick of these rares, second place gets second pick, etc. until each player receives at least six rares back. While playing for pride and fun is good, it doesn’t hurt to have some planeswalkers or gods on the line as well.

And that’s our version of kitchen-table magic! We are usually looking for a couple extra players in any given month, so if you like the idea and can get to orleans on sunday afternoons, check out the signups over at the ottawa geek social club on meetup or send me a message.