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By: one million words, Pete Jahn
Nov 26 2014 12:00pm
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The Past and Future of Leagues

Wizards has announced another delay in Leagues – but they have also provided a bit more information. Let’s look at what we know, and what we can expect.
Some background: I got online when broadband finally reached the farm, back in 2005. Back then, I played in a lot of leagues, and continued to play league up until they went away with the v2 to v3 transition. I have dumped hundreds of dollars into leagues, and I took good notes, so I want to talk about what leagues were, and were not.  There are a lot of myth about leagues, and some misinformation.   Leagues were a low-cost entry point for new players, and a way to play a lot of Magic for a low price, but they were far from perfect.

How Leagues Worked

Leagues were sealed deck tournaments that lasted four weeks. The initial entry was product plus 2 TIX. You could play matches with other league participants at any time during that period, so long as someone else was online and ready to play. Waits were rarely more than half an hour, even during the slow times, and often much less.
Leagues had a minimum of 65 players and a maximum of 256. Leagues existed for the current block, the core set and the previous block. For example, when I started playing leagues, I could enter a Kamigawa block league, an 8E league or a Mirrodin league – or all three. (Which I did, on occasion.) New leagues would fire once a week, or when a league hit its 256 player cap.  
Entry for a league was a tournament pack (basically three boosters plus 20 basic lands in a box) plus two additional boosters.   You could add additional boosters to your sealed pool, at a rate of one per week, starting exactly 7 days after the league fired.  In other words, eight days into the league, you could be building with 6 boosters, etc. It wasn’t required, and there were times when my pool was so bad I could not justify pouring additional money into the event. 
The league would fire as soon as the 65th player joined. At that point, your product opened and the deck construction screen launched. You could build your deck. The cards you opened also entered your card pool at that time.   You could not trade them for the duration of the league, but you could use them in constructed decks immediately. This was actually the reason leagues died with the V2 to V3 transition: under V2, cards you opened in draft or sealed events were added to your card pool immediately, and made untradeable. In V3, cards were not added to your card pool until the end of the draft or sealed event. This change fixed some issues with collection management, but it did make leagues a lot less appealing. Wizards never said whether that was the only reason leagues did not come back during v3, but it was a reason. 
Leagues also allowed what the paper world calls continuous construction.   This means that you can change your deck between matches, and do not have to revert to your original submitted build. You could change from match to match. This provided two main advantages. First, if you completely screwed up your build, you could fix it instead of being sentenced to play the bad build all tournament. Second, it let you experiment. If you were unsure if the UG build was better than the WBr build, you could play each a dozen times and figure it out. 

The Prize Structure

This is where leagues ran into problems, in my opinion.   The league payout was based on final standings, instead of matches won. The prize payout looked like this:

27 packs
21 packs
3rd – 4th
15 packs
5th – 8th
9 packs
9th – 16th
6 packs
17th – 32nd
3 packs
33rd – 64th
2 packs
65th – 128th
1 pack
129th – 256th
no prize

Each week, you would play five matches that counted towards your win-loss record. You could play additional matches, and the results of the additional matches counted as tie-breakers. Often most of the top 8 or more players were all undefeated in counting matches, so the top slots would all be based on tiebreakers. The way to get higher tiebreakers was to play more matches – a lot more matches. I remember seeing leagues where several of the leaders had tiebreakers so high that they had to have played literally hundreds of additional matches. To win a league, you had to be in the queue, waiting for matches, pretty much the entire time. 
The pairing algorithm paired people playing their five counting matches against others playing counting matches whenever possible, but if it could not find a match in some amount of time, it paired you against someone looking for tiebreaker games. (It was somewhere in the 5-15 minute range; I don’t remember. After all, Leagues were last seen in March, 2008.) 

Myths and Reality

The myth of leagues is that you could play any time you wanted, and fit the matches into your schedule. The reality, however, was that if you did, you would probably lose. A lot. Pretty much everyone played their five counting matches on the day that you could add more booster packs to your pool, as close to the time the packs were added as possible. You see, in any league, there were probably between 80 and 150 active players.   Most of those were playing within hours of a booster being added. If you requested a match during that time, odds were very good that you were going to be paired against one of them randomly. 
Later in the week, however, most everyone who could had played their five matches, so the odds were very good that you would end up playing someone who was playing for tiebreakers.    The people playing for tiebreakers were often the people with broken decks.   The problem with leagues was that you had to expect broken decks. For example, I remember playing in Champions / Betrayers of Kamigawa leagues. With 256 players in the league, the math said that nine Umezawa’s Jittes would be opened.   (For those who didn’t play back then, Jitte was arguably the most broken limited card of all time.) At least five of those decks would be backed with solid card pools – and those would be the people you would end up facing in tiebreaker games, sooner or later. After all, if those people were seriously trying to win the league, they would have match requests up pretty much all the time. That’s how they were able to play hundreds of tiebreaker matches. 
The other problem Wizards had was that, while the leagues with the current set tended to fill regularly, the leagues for the two older sets did not. I remember joining at least one core set league that had about 75 players going into week two. That meant that everyone in the league was going to win at least one pack, and everyone with even a moderately decent record was going to win two or more. The big problem, though, was that Wizards was paying out 338 packs in each league, but only collecting 2 TIX per player. Leagues that did not fill lost Wizards a lot of money, and tended to depressed pack prices to some extent. Now leagues with just 75 players were very rare, but having 120-150 players in old set leagues was pretty common.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Wizards has not given us a lot of information, but they have given us some. We know that an early version of leagues will be going to beta next month. Wizards projects that Leagues will go live in the first half of 2015 – in other words, in the next six months. I have to note that “in the next six months” was also what Wizards promised last summer, but the release to beta gives us some more assurance that it might really be six months this time. Beyond that, we have some statements coming to us through a mix of articles, Twitter posts and forum messages. Here’s what we know:
·       Wizards will offer both limited and constructed leagues.
·       You will be able to add additional packs over time in limited leagues.
·       Prizes will be based on match score, presumably avoiding tiebreakers.
·       Each format will have one big league, which you can rejoin once you have played all your matches.
·       You will be able to rebuild your limited deck between matches, so you can experiment and fix errors.
·       Wizards does intend to have an “in league” chat option, but it might not be ready initially.
We also know that the intent of leagues is to allow players to fit their tournament play around their lives. I know I would love to be able to play for an hour here or there, but nothing (aside from constructed 2-man queues) fills that need. The purpose of Leagues is to fill that need.
Beyond that, we can only speculate. That said, here’s what I would expect.
Leagues will not have explicit start and end dates. Wizards has said that you can play your league matches at your own pace. To me, that implies that leagues will run continuously, and entering a league will get you some number of matches. When you have played all of them, you are done and you will collect prizes based on your results. Wizards has also said you can rejoin a league once you have finished. Those two facts pretty much ensure that prizes will be based on matches won, not final place. After all, if the league isn’t over, it would be difficult to say who came in first. It would be easy, however, to figure out who finished X-0, X-1, etc., and pay out prizes on that basis. 
We don’t know how many matches a league entry will give you. This is a tough question. Some players will want to enter, play a few matches with their deck, add some packs, play some more matches and then start over. Other players will want to basically play all month for one entry fee. I would expect Wizards to look for some happy medium – a number somewhere in the middle. For example, a constructed league could allow 40 matches, then pay out on record once you finished your fortieth match.  A limited league would let you play ten matches, then add a pack and play ten more, and so forth. 
We don’t know what prize payouts will be. We can guess. Prize payouts should not be so high that people have an incentive to start grinding leagues instead of dailies or queues, but should be something worth playing for. We can also guess that they will be based on record, and set so that the payouts do not reduce the value of packs. Without knowing what the cost of league play would be, or what the pairing algorithm would look like, it’s hard to figure out what would be reasonable, but I would expect something like this:

Go undefeated
Three or four draft sets
Win 90% of your matches
Two draft sets
Win 80% of your matches
A draft set
Win 70% of your matches
Two packs
Win 50% of you matches
A pack

Again, I have not done the math on this – it’s just an example. (And, just to make it clear, that’s win percentage after you have completed all your league matches. You can’t win the first match then drop out and expect prizes for a 100% win rate.)
A prize structure like this is independent of the number of matches, because I would like, if possible, to have options. I would like to have the ability to buy into a league and play a small number of matches, then buy in again. Others might want to be able to buy in once and play pretty much all month. This could be accomplished if you could choose the number of matches you buy in for. For example, for the price of product plus 2 TIX you might be able to choose either 20, 100 or 200 league games. That would be the number of matches you could play before you would finish and collect your prizes.   For limited, you could add a pack after playing 25%, 50% and 75% of your games. Admittedly, the odds of going undefeated are much better if you play 20 matches instead of 200, but players wanting 200 matches are looking for value, not prizes.      
That’s about all I can say at this point. Everything else would be speculating in advance of the information and evidence. It’s fun, but not really useful. For example, I could start theorizing over what a constructed league could look like, and how it would work, but it would just be a guess. Feel free to do so, if you want. I have been – but I won’t be writing about it until I get more information.


I’m looking forward to leagues. I believe they will finally arrive, eventually. Admittedly, leagues have been missing for 6.5 years, and MTGO has been league free for more than half its existence. Still, I think Wizards will bring them back, and when they do, I’ll be in. 



"one million words" on MTGO


I'll be in too. How cool by greyes3 at Wed, 11/26/2014 - 19:08
greyes3's picture

I'll be in too. How cool would a Commander league be?

Thanks for clarifying the by Kumagoro42 at Wed, 11/26/2014 - 19:10
Kumagoro42's picture

Thanks for clarifying the mystique of the Leagues to someone who never got the chance to play them. I suspected they weren't as flawless as people tend to remember.

The new ones look good. I hope constructed leagues will have an increased sideboards, to allow transformations there, too. Like, maybe you can bring a pool of 90 cards total, so you can play two different decks with the same base. It would be nice.

They were never flawless, but by AJ_Impy at Wed, 11/26/2014 - 19:12
AJ_Impy's picture

They were never flawless, but they were fun.

I hope they do a more casual by Wikki at Thu, 11/27/2014 - 11:12
Wikki's picture

I hope they do a more casual league (i.e. I don't have to play hundreds of games to win). I love the game, but don't have time with job and kids, to be putting in that much effort.

You should be happy then. by longtimegone at Thu, 11/27/2014 - 16:52
longtimegone's picture

You should be happy then. Everything they have said so far about the new leagues points to that being the case.