Casey Laughman: Free the Data

If this question needs to be asked, then there’s a problem:

A quick recap for those of you who aren’t aware. Earlier this year, WOTC changed its policy on providing decklists from MTGO. You can read the full announcement here, but the important part is this:

Starting July 10, we will be reducing the total number of top decklists being presented per day from ten to five, and each of these decklists will be randomly selected with the caveat that each list will be at least ten cards different from every other list.

The reasoning behind this was that publishing too many decklists was pushing the Standard format to be “solved” too quickly, which is, to be blunt, absolute nonsense. The issue with Standard during its recent run of awfulness had slightly more to do with cards such as Reflector Mage, Smuggler’s Copter, Emrakul, the Promised End, Felidar Guardian and Aetherworks Marvel being printed than it did too much data.

The format didn’t need to be “solved.” There was nothing to solve. Either you played some combination of those five cards or you lost. That’s it, that’s all, thank you, drive through.

But, OK. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the argument that a format gets solved too quickly if players have access to 10 decklists per day instead of five. There are still a few issues with that.

1. Why is a “solved” format a problem?

Standard formats always get solved. Modern is basically solved. So is Legacy. There’s some room for innovation, especially in the older formats, but it’s not like the best decks in Legacy change every week. When a new deck does make a splash, it’s probably because it’s doing something like running four True-Name Nemesis instead of two.

That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. It’s only a problem if a format gets solved by something like Caw-Blade. As long as there are multiple decks that offer some level of fun gameplay, then a format being defined by a few top decks isn’t a problem.

What’s the best Standard format of, say, the last five years? Something involving Khans of Tarkir block, right? That format was pretty solved for a long time, and until Reflector Mage came along to make Collected Company even dumber than it was before, it wasn’t a problem.

So was the issue that the format was solved or that Reflector Mage broke it? Was the issue that Battle for ZendikarShadows over Innistrad Standard was solved or that Emrakul broke it? Was the issue with BFZShadowsKaladesh Standard that it was solved or that Smuggler’s Copter, Aetherworks Marvel and Felidar Guardian broke it, especially in conjunction with cards that had already broken Standard?

It’s easy to say that “well, too much data meant the format was solved too quickly” was the issue, especially when you don’t want to admit that you made design mistakes that accidentally put a turn 4 infinite combo into Standard or that you didn’t fully understand the ramifications of a 13/13 flying Mindslaver for six mana. But solved formats are not inherently bad as long as they’re fair and have some depth to them.

2. Transparency is good

Obvious statement, right? Well, it still needs to be said, because it seems to be a mystifying concept in a lot of different areas.

An illustration of this from my day job, or at least a previous one. My first real job was for The Associated Press, and I was working there when the 2000 Census was conducted. After the data was collected and formatted, the federal government sent it to us to use in any number of different ways.

It was a ridiculous amount of data. Every piece of demographic information about towns, counties, states, or the country that you could ever want was in there. We used it to generate all sorts of good journalism about the makeup of the states and country, and we couldn’t have done it without huge amounts of data.

That kind of data gets generated by government agencies on a regular basis, but there’s been a big shift in the attitude towards both data and transparency since the current administration took over, and it’s having a noticeable effect on not just journalists, but anybody who uses government data in their work. In other words, a lack of transparency is hurting people’s ability to do their jobs.

While Magic isn’t a job for most of us — or at least not a career — there is money on the line a lot of the time. If you’re going to a tournament with a cash prize, don’t you want to have the most information possible to make an informed decision on what to play? Even if it’s not cash on the line, having a good read on the format can be the difference between walking out of a PPTQ with an invite or just some packs.

The other issue of this is that there’s no reason for MTGO to be less transparent than other tournament organizers. Consider this: For every one of our CTs and CTQs, we post the top 8 lists here on the website. Star City goes even deeper than the top 8 for Opens, as does WOTC for GPs or Pro Tours.

This isn’t optional. If you make top 8 at a Championship Series CT or CTQ, your decklist is getting published. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if your super-secret tech is unbeatable as long as nobody knows about it and you want to take it to a GP next weekend. If you don’t want your list published, don’t top 8 the tournament.

Now, if you want to get to X-0 and drop out of one of our tournaments to avoid having your decklist published, that’s your right. But I can tell you that never happens, and the reason is because there’s a real cost to it. If you miss out on top 8, you’re costing yourself money, as well as a chance to qualify for the championship outright or earn at-large points.

So how is that different than an intentional 4-0 drop on MTGO? After all, if we’re not somehow enforcing that players can’t drop at X-0 in one of our events, how can I say it’s a bad thing online?

It goes back to the cost I mentioned. The cost of doing so on MTGO is either something that the player is willing to eat to keep their list a secret or something that a team is willing to cover to get more data for their own use. That’s simply not the case with real-life tournaments where top 8 decklists are published. Players don’t have any kind of incentive to drop out of them to keep their list hidden because the downside is real.

3. It gives certain players an advantage

Or specifically, it gives teams an advantage. A team with 10-12 members — even if they aren’t officially allowed to have that many people on a team for Pro Tour purposes — can generate a ton of data on its own. Not only can they come up with a million different ideas to try, they can grind out game after game to decide what works and what doesn’t.

Now, compare that someone who works on their own or with a friend or two. They simply can’t match the volume of ideas or results that a larger team can come up with.

So where do those players turn? To the places that can provide data, which are the websites (such as this one) that post decklists. One big component of that is MTGO data, because it far outstrips what other sites provide.

Use us as an example again: In September, we had a Team Constructed CTQ, a Legacy CT, and a Modern CTQ. So we have a total of 28 decklists across three formats from those events. That’s less than three days’ worth of decklists for one format under the old system WOTC used.

Or look at Star City, which posts top 64 lists from Opens. Less than a week’s worth of data under the old WOTC system.

Now, not only is there less data, there’s less relevant data. It is valuable to know that 10 copies of Temur Energy went 5-0 yesterday on MTGO. How valuable is it to know that the five decklists provided had good records while being at least 10 cards different from each other? Is that helpful in figuring out a format?

No, it’s not. Teams can figure that information out without help, which puts them at a big advantage over other players who don’t have those kinds of resources. Pro Tours and GPs are always going to be an arms race for the big teams, but players who aren’t on one of them shouldn’t be restricted to a Nerf gun and a wooden sword.

Release the data

There’s a maddeningly simple solution to all of these problems: Turn the data faucet back on. Don’t restrict published decklists to certain decks that do well while being sufficiently different from other decks. Heck, why not provide more data? Have confidence in your ability to manage formats without making the same kind of mistakes you made before instead of needlessly antagonizing your players. WOTC made a number of changes in how it designs and tests cards in response to players fleeing Standard in droves, and I promise that those changes will have a lot more of an effect on whether formats are good than arbitrarily restricting data.

This Standard format is shaping up to be a good one, and it’s not because there’s less data available. It’s because it’s balanced and fun, and those things are not a result of publishing fewer decklists. But if you want to find out if Standard can really stand up to a stress test, then let us have at it.

Casey Laughman is Communications Manager for Nerd Rage Gaming. Email comments and questions to


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Casey Laughman