one million words's picture
By: one million words, Pete Jahn
May 03 2019 12:00pm

SotP Vacation Planning and Retrospective

According to the, my first paid articles on Magic: the Gathering were published in April, 1999. That’s almost exactly twenty years ago. I have been writing a weekly Magic column ever since then. Over a thousand articles, spread over dozen websites. I have been writing for since 2005, and took over State of the Program from Hamtastic in 2011. That’s along time ago.
It’s time for a break.  After having published more than 4 million words about Magic the Gathering, I may have said all I wanted or needed to say. Maybe, maybe not, but I am starting to repeat myself. That’s not bad: sometimes it makes sense to say something again, in a new way. A lot of my audience wasn’t around the first time I wrote about a topic. Or the first three times. Or five. But I am beginning to get bored with some of these topics.  That makes for bad writing, and I don’t want that.
Also, this is probably just a break. I doubt, after 20 years, that I can drop writing completely. Way back when, I was playing competitively, and started writing. Later, I started judging. Once I had a full time job, a house, farm fields, a family, etc., etc., I found I did not have time for everything. First, I pulled back from competitive Magic. Later, I pulled back from judging. Now, I want to play more Magic, and do a bunch of other things – like deferred home repairs – and I need to pull back from weekly articles.  SotP takes at least 6-8 hours a week to do a passable job, and more to craft really good articles. I don’t have the time.
I may find time, in the future. We will see. After all, I said I pulled back from competitive Magic, but I made day two at the last local GP, and I head judged two events last weekend. Maybe I should just give up at giving up at things. 


The Retrospective:

 Time for some top 2 lists. This was going to be top 10 lists, then top 5, then I realized that any of these would be 2,000 word articles by themselves, so Top 2 it is.  

Top Formats: 
I have played in a ton of formats over the years. Here is a non-exhaustive list: 
·         Type I 
·         Type II 
·         Type 1.5 
·         Old Extended 
·         Standard 
·         Elder Dragon Highlander 
·         Classic 
·         Vintage 
·         Modern 
·         Pauper 
·         Rainbow Stairwell Highlander 
·         5Color 
·         Legacy
The list gets even longer if I include ways to play (2HG, Emperor, Star, etc.), all the block formats, or include the many flavors of limited. But here are a couple formats that I really enjoyed.
#2 Urza’s Block & Masques Block Standard: 
This block combined the pure broken power of Urza’s Sage / Legacy / Destiny (minus a bunch of banned cards) with the deliberately underpowered (really underpowered) Masques block.  Saga block had had some insanely powerful decks – things like Academy, Jargrim, Free Whalie and the rest of the Combo Winter horror show. This Standard still had a few cool combo decks, like Sabre Bargain and Replenish, but it also had some actual control decks, a decent red deck and some really good midrange deck.   The original Rock and his Millions deck was part of this format, and I loved that deck. I played Replenish, I played many of the other Tier One decks, and Rock. I enjoyed them all.


Phyrexian Plaguelord Deranged Hermit Birds of Paradise


#1 Extended, circa 2000:  
This was also a format from the dawn of time. It was back when Extended included Ice Age block through Saga block, plus the original dual lands. The format had a ton of interesting decks, in a ton of colors. Bob Maher piloted an Oath of Druids deck to win the Pro Tour, but the format had great decks in every deck range. This format introduced the cereal decks: Pebbles, Cocoa Pebbles, and Trix = followed by the judges’ nightmare Full English Breakfast.  Mana denial decks existed – including Ponza, green land destruction, Winter Orb decks and Stasis. I played Enchantress and Survival decks, while Ingrid played Counterslivers and Star Spangled Slaughter. And loved them all.  An incredible format.


Crystalline Sliver Force of Will Counterspell Muscle Sliver


Most Memorable Judging Changes 
I have not been judging as long as my wife. She remembers handling rules questions from back before Sixth edition – meaning before the Stack existed. Those were the days of Interrupts and Batches and confusion. Magic tournament rules that included, at one point, double and triple warnings, several different levels of Procedural Error and five levels of rules enforcement. (example here.) Back then, even Friday Night Magic and store tournaments were run under the official rulebook. Now store events take place under a two page “Judging at Regular” document. It’s much better than it was. Many things are: the rules and guidelines have improved constantly since Richard Garfield’s house rules. Here are my picks for most important changes.


#2 Outside Notes Downgrades: 
Once upon a time, Wizards banned scouting. Players were not allowed to watch other matches, or share details of what decks were being played. Part of this crackdown was a ban on notes from outside the current match. Notes were viewed as evidence of scouting, and referring to outside notes once you had sat for a match would get you DQed. At the time, “outside notes” included bringing a copy of the Wizards’ article “What to Do at your First Prerelease” to the prerelease. It would get you DQed. I argued that this had to change, and that outside notes only affected, at best, one match. I argued a lot, including spending literally two hours debating this with the Wizards judge manager while standing in front of the elevators at midnight after day one of a pro tour. Six months later, the penalty for outside notes was reduced to a match loss. I consider that a personal victory. 


#1 End of Procedural Error – Major: 
Once upon a time, the Magic tournament rules and infraction guidelines included a category called “procedural error.” This covered mistakes, misplayed card and game errors. The problem was that procedural errors came in three flavors: minor, major and severe, and the penalties ranged from caution to game loss.  The determination of whether the mistakes was minor, major of severe was down to judge discretion. That meant that the same error could result in anything from a caution to game loss, depending on how strict the judge was and how well he or she understood the matchup. Nothing was consistent. In 2007, however, Wizards rewrote the penalty guidelines with an eye to making sure all judge rulings were, to the maximum extent possible, consistent, no matter which judge issued the ruling. That change in philosophy was huge, and important. Judging had been better ever since.    


Decks I Most Hated to Play Against: 
At various times, I have written a couple series of article chains about hated decks, including the Public Enemy and PTSD series.   I have a ton of decks I really disliked facing; including pretty much everything I have ever lost to. So many choices, but some decks really stand out. Some of those, like Trix, were really hard matchups that I enjoyed playing. Others, not so much. Here are the top two decks that I think should never have existed. 


#2 Skullclamp Affinity 
Affinity was a broken deck. It was just way, way better than anything else in the format. It was so dominant that the decks that could compete with it ran maindeck cards like Molder Slug and Oxidize, and could not beat anything not equally warped by the format. Affinity was also confusing, resulted in lots of judge calls, and drove a lot of players away from tournament Magic. Bad deck, no cookie! 
Molder Slug Arcbound ravager skullclamp


#1 Stasis 
Stasis was one of those cards that is, in theory, balanced. It applies to everyone. It means everyone skips their untap step – and it has an upkeep cost.  In theory, it will eventually go away. In practice, it was anything but fair and balanced. Facing Stasis meant you were basically not playing Magic for turn after turn, while waiting to see if your opponent ran out of Islands to tap. If you tried anything, your opponent had Force of Will, and cards like Daze and Thwart to counter spells while – in effect – untapping Islands. If you did nothing, they still had Gush. Eventually, your opponent would bounce Stasis during your end step, untap, then recast Stasis. The deck’s goal was to get Morphling in play with 13 untapped Islands, then just win. Your goal, as an opponent, was to avoid dying of boredom. Stasis games often went 30 turns or more, with the opponent only resolving a couple spells the entire time. I’m so glad it is gone.    
stasis Thwart Gush daze Morphling


Disasters I Missed 
I have lived through a ton of disasters and near disasters – everything from Combo Winter to Coldsnap limited. I have had to give out a ton of penalties and tried to keep order when 600 people showed up for an event with room to seat 250. I have been at events where the product didn’t arrive, the power failed, the special guests didn’t arrive, and one venue where the flooring and lighting hadn’t been installed. But I have also missed some major disasters. Here are two:


#2 Pro Tour Valencia: 
This was a really cool Pro Tour in a nice venue. It had lots of walk out windows and stone floors. The problem was that it started raining really hard – and didn’t stop. The venue flooded.   It might have been possible to continue play, but since the electrical outlets were in the floor, the place had to be evacuated.  You can’t electrocute players and enforce slow play rules at the same time.


#1 MTGO Darksteel Release 
Along time ago, Wizards had a new digital program called MODO, later rebranded MTGO. The Darksteel set was released on MTGO, and it broke things. Badly. Events crashed, and then everything crashed. It was so bad, for so many players, that Wizards hosted “Chuck’s Virtual Party” to make amends. Chuck’s Virtual Party featured free drafts and special events. It crashed, too. This was before I got decent Internet at my farm, so I watched this from the outside – and was happy that I wasn’t more involved.


Disasters I Didn’t Miss 
I have also been present for a number of disasters. I may have created a few, but I’m not going to dwell on them. Instead, here are two really memorable disasters I don’t mind talking about.


#2 The MTGO Version 3 Release: 
Some of you remember this one, even though it was almost a decade ago. Version 2 of MTGO was having problems. It crashed a lot. Events would hang, and sometimes fail. It was bad.   Wizards had been working on a new version, but it was having problems with the beta. Finally, after a hundred or so major crashes too many, Wizards pulled the plug on the old version.   MTGO was dark for two weeks, then came back with the new client. At first, the client only supported casual constructed play. A month or so later constructed events came back. Drafts were missing from the client for literally months. It took at least a year before the client was where MTGO was before the upgrade – but it was a whole lot more stable at that point. And ever since.


#1 GenCon Pizza Oven Fire 
Several years ago, Ingrid and I were judging at Gencon. We probably had 1,000 to 1,500 Magic players playing at that moment. That may seem like a lot, but Gencon is huge, with total attendance of well over 50,000 people. Then the venue caught fire. It was a limited fire: a pizza oven ignited. The fire department was called, and the venue was evacuated. All the Magic players, and everyone else, had to pack up and leave. 45 minutes later, after the fire department had put out the fire and made sure the venue was safe, we all trooped back in. I had my Legacy players restart whatever game they were in, and the event proceded. Ingrid reported that one group of drafters really wanted to finish their draft, so they stacked their drafted cards, then the unopened boosters, then the pack they were drafting in a pile, and each player held onto their own pile. They all evacuated together, stayed together, and returned to finish their draft. In the end, it wasn’t really a disaster, mainly because Magic players are almost all smart, decent and reasonable people. They just took it in stride.


Favorite Tournaments 
Over the years, I have played in a lot of tournaments. A lot. I have head judged over 1,500 events. A lot of these were 8 man side events and prerelease flights, but I have also been the head judge at many PPTQs, PTQs, States and Regionals. I have judged at several dozen GPs, eight Pro Tours and four World Championships. I have played in many more events, at every level short of the Pro Tour. Choosing my favorite events is tough.


#2 Community Cup

Wizards used to hold Community Cup events in which they would invite eight players who were active in the community – writers, content creators, mentors, etc. – to Renton where the community team would play against Wizards employees. I was part of the very first community team, along with Hamtastic, creator of State of the Program. It was cool to interact with the folks at Wizards, and to see Wizards HQ. It was also fun to win the event, and see our names on the trophy. 


#1 2004 Worlds in San Francisco  
This was the first really big event I attended. Wizards had pulled out all the stops - at least for the time.  They had giant Moxen scattered throughout the venue, a huge array of flags of participant countries, and more. It was held in a large, spacious hall on the waterfront. The place was not super luxurious, but since the large events I had attended before this tended to be in convention center basements and VFW posts, it was impressive. 2004 Worlds was also the first really large event at which I got to judge. It gave me a ton of stories I still tell at times: how I came really close to disqualifying the Richard Garfield, of dealing with someone too drunk to draft, of judging for 20 hours straight, and more. Good times.


Wizards Mistakes that Annoy Judges: 
Over the years, Wizards has made a number of choices that have given judges serious headaches. Some of these were unintentional. Some were deliberate decisions that were made with the understanding that they would create problems, but were worth doing anyway. And some were just dumb. For example, Wizards printed Future Sight knowing full well that having a couple dozen new mechanics in one set would mean judges would answer a ton of judge calls. That’s a deliberate choice, and one that R&D at least considered. On the other hand, I understand that R&D was a bit surprised by how the Pacts (e.g. Slaughter Pact) interacted with the rules on triggers with default actions. Under the rules, forgetting to pay for a Pact meant you lost the game. Wizards discussed changing that rule, but settled for allowing, for the first time, players put a reminder item on top of their libraries. And then there were these decisions:


# 2 FTV Dryad Arbor 
Wizards printed Dryad Arbor in Future Sight. It was both a Forest and a 1/1 Creature. This resulted in a lot of judge calls. Yes, it has summoning sickness. Yes, you can fetch it with a fetchland. No, you cannot fetch it with Sakura-Tribe Elder: it is not a basic land. Etc. Then, to make matters much worse, Wizards reprinted it in From the Vault: Realms. And some complete moron decided to give it art that was very similar to existing Forests and to template it like a basic land. Suddenly Dryad Arbors were hiding in land piles and leaping out to ambush attackers. The problem is serious enough that the tournament rules now specify that Dryad Arbor needs to be placed with creatures on the battlefield, and people are still campaigning to have that particular printing banned in tournament play.  


# 1 Super Cryptic Cryptic Command 
Cryptic Command is an excellent Magic card. It has been a staple in control decks since it was first printed. It offers players a lot of choices. It lets the caster choose two of four options. Some of those target, some do not. Some combinations can be Misdirected, some cannot. As a judge, I have fielded a lot of calls involving Cryptic Command. It is not my most questioned card (I have, after all, judged events where cards like Chains of Mephistopheles and Illusionary Mask have been played), but Cryptic is up there. It is complex, and opponents end up reading the card a lot. So then someone, possibly the same moron that made the FTV Dryad Arbor, decided to print a textless Cryptic Command. Remember when the #facepalm meme was a thing? I think this decision spawned it.


Changes I would make if I had a Time Machine 
I originally titled this “Biggest Magic Mistakes,” but that was way too vast of a category. That could include everything from last minute changes to cards like Skullclamp, the Ripple mechanic, eliminating State Championships, the “Bob from accounting” TV ad, sets like Fallen Empires and Prophecy, or rolling out Darksteel on MTGO before it was ready. So many choices. I decided to just identify two changes I would have made to make certain decisions less problematic. 


#2 Talk Randy Buehler out of doing Gleemax 
Once upon a time, Wizards stated goal was to turn Gleemax into a “Facebook for Gamers.” With our ten years of experience and 2/20 hindsight, we know that going head to head with Facebook was a bad idea, but Wizards didn’t know that back then. Wizards spent a lot of dollars pursuing that goal. When it failed, Wizards became much more tentative about spending money on digital products, to the detriment of their websites, forums, and to the detriment of MTGO. I don’t know for sure if Randy Buehler was the driving force behind it, but he was an evangelist, at least publicly. If I had a time machine, I would go back and talk him into opposing Gleemax, and spending the money on MTGO instead.  We would have been far better off.


#1 Judge Foil True Duals 
I don’t want this section to be just me wishing away big problems. I’m not going to try to say I would abolish the reserve list. To do that, I would have to prevent overprinting the Chronicles set, or find a way to finance Wizards to print a lot more Alpha and Beta sets when they were released. A lot more – like and order of magnitude, maybe two, more Alpha sets. That sort of change would have all kinds of ramifications. Instead, I am going to say that the Reserve List exists for a lot of good reasons, and assume that it will continue to exist despite me and my time machine. I would just want to make one change. The Reserve List, as it exists today, came about because Wizards was making promos of cards that they would not otherwise reprint. A lot of cards that would otherwise be on the current Reserve List are reprintable because they were already reprinted as judge foils when the Reserve List was created. If I could go back, I would make sure that the true Dual lands – all ten – were reprinted as promos before the Reserve List was announced, and often enough that they would not be eligible for the List. If the true duals were reprintable, then Legacy would be a much more viable format. Sure, some cards like Tabernacle of Pendrell Vale would still be insanely expensive, but far more decks would be affordable. That would be a change worth making.


Finally, if I had a time machine, I would find more time to write. Sadly, I have no time machine, and not enough time, so I have to stop writing a weekly column.   I cannot meet my deadlines, and I feel bad about that. It’s not fair to Joshua, my long-suffering editor, nor to the readers. I am not going to vanish.   I may, time to time, write articles when I have something I need to say, and time to say it. 


This isn’t goodbye, just so long for now.




“one million words” on MTGO “4MWords on Arena.


State of the Program is an ongoing homage to Hamtastic, its creator.