Nationals is Back: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Written by Daniel McKay

Nationals Is Back

So, after years of being gone with only WMCQs to inadequately fill the void it left in the collective hearts of Magic players throughout New Zealand, Nationals has made its return. But, is this a triumphant return just when we need it most, like Gandalf in the Two Towers, or a shell of the original brought back as some hideous reminder of what once was and can never be again, like Khal Drogo’s “life” at the end of season one (and book one) of Game of Thrones? Or, does it have some positives and some negatives and isn’t really like any kind of pop-culture reference? Well, I really hope it isn’t that last one, because I don’t know how I’m going to describe it if I can’t use any pop-culture references, but nonetheless I’m going to try for you here. So, without further ado, I give you my impressions on all the best, and worst, things about the new Nationals format in general and the first new Nationals in particular.

The Good

Single event: The first and most exciting thing about Nationals being back is also the most obvious. It is Nationals; it’s a single event to determine who goes to the World Magic Cup (which, side-note, I think should probably swap names with Worlds so we can have Nationals feed Worlds again). It’s way more exciting to have a single event and one person who gets to call themselves national champion. People only have so much hype to go around, and it’s much easier to get it concentrated into a single weekend than over several weekends of WMCQs.  Plus, Luke Tsavousis has been national champion for entirely too long, (especially since he knocked me out of that top eight with a seemingly endless string of broken white planeswalkers, but that’s another story). So, for these reasons, the return to a single event format is solidly in the Good column.

Multiformat: In a similar vein, the return to an event which includes both Constructed and Draft is amazing. Playing multiple formats forces players to practice different skills and also just makes the whole event feel a lot more epic and different from smaller events like PPTQs in which we play only one format. This was an excellent decision on Wizards part.

Cool promos: Another nice thing Wizards have done for this event is provide some cool promos for it, this helps to lessen the effective cost of playing a bit and gives people something special to show they were there. The Inkmoth Nexuses look nice and are very modern-playable card, which is exactly the sort of thing you want in a promo.

The timing: Another excellent piece of decision-making from Wizards is placing Nationals so soon after the release of a new set. This means that Standard is still shaking out and you need to test more in order to figure out what to play and what spicy tech to pack into your sideboard. Further, this means that a lot of people are still learning the limited format, which both rewards preparation and insight and makes it generally a lot more exciting to play. Nationals being so early into a format means that the format is a lot more dynamic and more open to innovation. This is a very, very good thing.

Two PPTQs: Having two PPTQs on Sunday meant that although the event was only one day (at least, for those of us who didn’t make top eight), we still had some serious magic to play over and above regular side events.

Big turnout: Something really great about this Nationals in particular was that it had a really good turnout. For the first of the new Nationals, and with the obvious grumblings on the internet that come with any change, the turnout could have been a lot worse than the 140ish players that showed up. Hopefully next year it will be even bigger, but I was expecting closer to 100 players and getting to enough to have an eighth round was great.

The organizers and judges: It is a bit of a stereotype to say that the judges at an event were great, but there is a good reason for this: they often are. The judges at big magic events are generally competent and fair people who love the game and want to make sure it’s played fairly, and this weekend was certainly no exception. The event this weekend had a few awkward issues with software, but the judges worked through them efficiently and intelligently. I really like the online pairing system that had been utilized in events lately, and it was doing a bunch of work this weekend too. I heard a few grumbles about how things were run, but if you could magically turn farts into pizzas, some people would still complain that it wasn’t their favourite flavour. I for one think the judges did a great job and, while I’m on the subject, the folks from Cerberus games did a great job organizing the event too. The venue was a sensible one, the canteen did some nice toasties and would hold onto any food you got delivered for you, the guy running side events signups (Keith) was super nice and replaced some playmats for people who had theirs go missing. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, at the end of the day the canteen gave out FREE CHOCOLATE to players. Free food, especially chocolate, builds an awful lot of goodwill, but even without it, I was pleased with how well everything was run.

The Bad

Not enough rounds: As with the good, I will start with general issues with the new format of Nationals. And my first gripe is with the number of rounds. Holding the event (mostly) on just one day does have some benefits in terms of convenience, but the structure of Nationals shouldn’t be about what’s most convenient, it should be about what’s the most epic and awesome! Two-day events are great fun and they give the whole thing more of an epic feel to it as there is another whole night of expectation building in between rounds. Even if they did a cut to day two, with not everyone making it, this would make the whole event feel a lot grander and even more deserving of the name Nationals. Furthermore, it means that players can stage (or at least hope to stage) epic comebacks after a couple of early losses or having crushing defeats after early win streaks.

In short, it makes for better stories. Players making top eight after starting off 0-2 is something to talk about in future. The time that someone (someone handsome, brilliant and currently writing this article) started out Wellington Nationals 7-0 only to miss the top eight after some horrendous luck in four of the next five rounds, is a fun story that people still get enjoyment out of to this day (other people that is, I’m still a little steamed about it). None of that is possible with only seven or eight rounds. The small number of rounds, as has been commented on by many people before me, also makes the ability to win byes a lot more powerful than it ought to be, allowing players to go into a potentially seven-round even with two wins is a huge advantage. A return to the old format of six rounds of standard and two drafts which be a massive improvement on the current structure.

Lack of regionals: Another thing that I miss about the old Nationals structure is that qualifying for it was something you both needed to put in some effort to do and could do even if you hadn’t been playing much. Essentially, I miss Regionals, and I would really like to see a return of it along with an increase in the number of Planeswalker points required to qualify for Nationals in the future, so that being there felt like something you earned, rather than something you got if you had been playing a decent amount of Magic in the year leading up to it.

No cash prizes: While we are on the subject of things that were better about the old Nationals structure, it was nice to have cash prizes. Winning cash is cool. Winning booster prizes in the top eight is fine and all, and the trips to the World Magic Cup are obviously awesome, but it isn’t quite the same without a bunch of cash money on the line.

High cost: Speaking of cash, eighty dollars is a lot to play in a magic tournament. Obviously sixty-five (which is what everyone sensible enough to preregister paid) is better, but it still isn’t cheap. I know that magic events generally cost a lot to enter nowadays, and hiring venues and paying judges isn’t cheap, but from the perspective of a player, higher entry fees are definitely a downside to the new Nationals and one that isn’t really made up for with playmats and other loot. Maybe if we had Regionals back, they could in some way offset the cost of the event a bit, though this would obviously require significant coordination between Wizards and stores and might be difficult to implement so I won’t be holding my breath for any change to that.

The side events: I think my only real gripe with how this event was run, at least in terms of things that the organizers had any control over, was the lack of awesome side events. The PPTQS were cool for sure, but the other side events were a bit lacklustre. They didn’t go until late enough in the evening for one thing, and I left the venue on Sunday thinking I could have quite happily played another three or four hours of Magic, and there wasn’t anything whacky or special to them either.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a prize wall, but it’s nice to be able have some events that have unique and interesting prizes as well. There’s something a lot more exciting about playing an event to win a dual land or a set of fetches than about playing to win some points to spend on some boosters. More than that though, the format of the events were mostly quite tame as well, with a lack of 2hg, teams, and other crazier formats that players don’t get a lot of chance to play. The exceptions to this were that there was an RTR Sealed, which is a nice throwback and a Chaos Sealed, which is normally one of my favourite side events, however, I was disappointed with how much it cost ($70) and the inclusion of some guaranteed Modern Masters and Eternal Masters boosters. Seventy dollars is a lot of money to play in a slightly silly event and getting an MMA and an EMA pack definitely does not make up for that. More than that, getting guaranteed packs at all is totally antithetical to the idea of a Chaos Sealed in the first place, as it decreases the randomness of everyone’s pools. Instead, I would really like to see either a somewhat cheaper sealed with a chance of getting MMA and EMA packs or a much cheaper sealed with no chance of them at all. Also, there are two words that both carried Marvel’s cinematic universe when it was getting off the ground and make Chaos Sealed more fun and cheaper to play: Iron Man.

Could we please have more Iron Man side events in the future? One of these as a Sunday afternoon side event is exactly the best way to feel better about having washed out of Nats, and it’s cheap to run because you only need to give prizes to maximum two people. Also, if you have never built a sealed deck from the remnants of sixteen or thirty-two other sealed decks before, there’s really nothing like it. Because of the casual nature of the format, people start helping each other out in between rounds and I still remember me and about five others helping Jason Chung build his deck before the final round of a huge Iron Man sealed. We had scouted his opponent’s deck and knew he was likely to be playing mono-red so we built a fairly broken mono-white anti-red deck. His opponent was playing what amounted to a strong, aggressive limited deck, Jason was playing multiple main-deck Kor Firewalkers. It wasn’t close.

The point is that events that use weird formats (2hg, Iron Man, teams, anything with an "Un- set" involved) are cool. They give players a chance to play with cards or interactions they never otherwise would and they leave players with stories that they wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not trying to have a go at the people running this event. As I said before, I think they did a great job, but next time, to make our next Nationals even more amazing, it would be awesome to see more and more exciting side events.

The Ugly

bag 1.jpg

Okay, so these bags were filled with some useful stuff. A deck box is a nice goodie to get especially if you’re going to play some Draft, and a pad and pen is really nice for making sure everyone is organized and has a way to keep life totals. But could we please do away with the ugly drawstring bags? I have no idea what other people with theirs, but the only good use I could find for mine was making a not-so-stylish hat for this fine young chap:

bag 2.jpg

(Image cropped [poorly] to remove faces in the background)

The Verdict

So, what does all of this mean for Nationals? Is it Gandalf or Drogo? Should we rejoice or mourn? Well, it’s not totally either, but I’d say it’s more leaning towards saving everyone’s butts from the Uruk-hai. There are things about the new Nationals format that aren’t as good as the old. That being said, it’s a huge improvement over the WMCQ system we’ve had for a while now and, while there is room for improvement, those improvements might be made if enough players give useful feedback (rather than the kind of general grumbling one often finds on the internet). Overall, for the first Nationals in years, the event was awesome. It was well run and organized, it had some good side events on Sunday for those of us who missed top eight, and we got to fight it out to crown a new national champion in a multiformat event, which we haven’t gotten to do in ages. I’m thoroughly hyped to do it all again next year!