In Development – Building Your Character Sheet

Frank – “Have you noticed anything different about him?”

Jane – “Well, only that he’s a foot taller, and he seems to be left-handed now…Frank, what are you trying to tell me? That Quentin has somehow found an exact double for Dr. Mainheimer and that tomorrow that double will give a fraudulent report to the President?”

Frank – “Why that’s brilliant. That’s a lot better than what I came up with.”

– Frank and Jane hash out the bad guys’ scheme in Naked Gun 2 ½

I originally had one idea for this week’s article, cleverly centered solely around a non-controversial discussion of what we can learn from current Hall of Fame members. However, your response to last week’s column was tremendous, and we’ve received a flood of replies to the online version of the Magic Strengths Survey (if you missed it last week, you can always click here to take the survey). Your abundant replies merged with the original idea for this week’s column, leading to what I’m actually going to talk about today.

Today’s goal – using tags to identify our strengths

Today I’m going to introduce a concept that I hope will be helpful to you and your friends, the idea of making a highly simplified “traits” list that highlights your strengths and checks in on your most notable weakness. The idea here is to build a fast, intuitive way that you and your friends can help each other get a handle on your most intuitive strengths. In the second part of today’s article, I’m going to invite all of you to help use the exact same method to help build the “language of Magic effectiveness” that we’re going to use in characterizing what makes good players good.

The problem – building our “character sheet”

I’ve brought up the problem of categorizing before. It boils down to this issue – do we try to set rigid categories in advance, or do we try to figure out a way to let them organically develop over time? This is last week’s problem of trying to make a computer that knows how to buy you a nice tie. Do we set the rules ahead of time, or try to wait and see what rules naturally arise?

The character, sheet, D&D edition

If you’ve ever played D&D, or any other pen-and-paper roleplaying game, or, say, World of Warcraft, you’re familiar with the idea of preset attributes.

We enter these games with a predefined group of characteristics, and then generate a character by determining how effective it is in each area. This has the convenience of giving you a conceptual framework to think about the character. As you’ll no doubt have gathered from from my articles, I’m a fan of conceptual frameworks.

But I’m not going to provide a pre-defined conceptual framework today.

However, I wanted to mention the idea because one of the results of all of the MEP work will be a kind of conceptual framework. Once you have names for relevant strengths, you can start to apply those names to understanding yourself and other players. This is very much what we see with Wizards and their market research concerning Magic. They didn’t just decide on the Timmy, Johnny, and Spike player profiles. Instead, these arose from their customer research. Now that they have them, though, they use them, and they can even build tests that will tell you which one you are.

So that’s in the future. For now, however, we have something different in mind.

The character sheet, FUDGE edition

The other approach is to build our framework as we go.

You’ve probably heard of D&D, but I’m going to guess most of you haven’t heard of Steffan O’Sullivan’s FUDGE system. It’s a pen-and-paper rule set that’s designed to be quick, easy, and intuitive. One of the most entertaining aspects of the system is that when you set up a game you can define your abilities, and then those abilities are rated using natural words instead of numbers.

Sadly, I don’t have the character sheet from an archaeologist I played a number of years ago in one of Bill Stoddard’s games, but I recall that she had at least the following three skills:

  • Archaeology
  • Guns
  • Deity

You see, it was a superhero game in the vein of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and her deal was that she was an avatar of the Sumerian death goddess. Rather than trying to figure out how I was going to shoehorn “be a goddess” into a predefined set of attributes, we were able to actually make that into a skill.

In other words, we built the framework to suit the story.

Building a framework for discussing Magic

“Building a framework for discussing Magic” is pretty much the entire point of the MEP, with the caveat that it is focused specifically on discussing the traits that make players good at Magic. There are many, many other areas where we also would like to build frameworks, but right here, we’re all about what makes good players good.

One way we’re building that framework is from detailed analysis of your survey results. That’s great, but after you fill in the survey it’s pretty non-participatory, and you won’t get to see more analysis for a little while. In the meantime, we’d like to check in with a fast version that you can put into action today with some help from your friends.

We’re going to make some tags.

Pulling tags out of thin air

The inspiration for my deviation away from the original plan for this week’s article was when I started thinking about asking all of you to “tag” the traits of well-known players. I’m still going to ask you to do that (later). But just thinking about tagging traits put my mind in the territory of “tag clouds,” of the type you might have seen on certain blogs as a way of giving you quick access to certain content.

The idea behind one of these clouds is that it gives you a quick visualization of the content of a site, a book, a document, or whatever. For example, let’s take a look at what happens if we make a word cloud of cards that have appeared in decks played by Frank Karsten:

The input used to generate this cloud was all of the decks from Karsten’s Hall of Fame profile page, with the lands stripped out. A card’s name is bigger if there are more copies of the card across those lists.

Thus, the cloud tells us that Sensei’s Divining Top is the defining card of Frank’s deck inventory, whereas Skyshroud Poacher is a bit player (it’s over there on the right, hiding next to Farseek).

I ran a similar, rough analysis of the MEP Survey results so far, and learned that…

…”Jund” was mentioned 46 times, “Mythic” 18 times, “Naya” 17 times, and “Eldrazi” 11 times. I’m guessing these were answers to the “what deck would you PTQ with” question.

…”control” appears 84 times, followed by 53 instances of “aggro” and 38 instances of “combo.”

…”Legacy” showed up 31 times. I have no idea in what context, but it’s certainly more mentions than I expected. “Vintage” has appeared 16 times so far.

Perhaps most notably, “friends,” “friend,” “group,” “team,” “community,” and “network” combine to generate a whopping 238 appearances, suggesting that friends really are a big deal for all of you.

Now, I’m going to use results like these from your survey answers to help identify and characterize traits that make for good Magic players, but as I said, it’ll take a bit of time. In the meantime, we’re going to lean on this core concept of friendship to apply the tagging method to all of you, right now.

Tagging your friends

The basic exercise is simple. Take a Magic player you know, and write down six words that describe his or her traits as a player.

Specifically, you’re going to write down:

1) Five strengths
2) One weakness

We emphasize strength over weakness here because, as discussed previously, we gain a lot more out of playing to our strengths. That said, we want the one weakness because if there’s a critical hole in their game, they’re going to need to patch it.

I know that seems disarmingly simple, so I’ll address a couple quick questions you may have.

Why are my friends rating me? Can’t I rate myself?

No, you can’t.

Well, you can, but you suck at it. We all do. First of all, the worse we are at something, the less likely we are to realize it. Second of all, as I’ve touched on before, if we’re really good at something, we tend to think it’s “so easy that anyone could do it.” So, essentially, you’re going to write down five things you suck at, but don’t realize it, and then write in a weakness that may or may not be correct.

Instead, let’s get some perspective and let our friends give us a hand.

Why is it one word? I could write an essay about how good my pal Bob is at mulliganing!

Well, your unhealthy obsession with Bob aside, we want single words because this kind of answer forces you to focus on what matters. Also, it means you’re handing Bob there a list of things he, too, can focus on, instead of a love letter about his ability to know when to keep dicey hands.

This sucks. Bob clearly has more than five strengths, so why can’t I write more?

Bob may be an awesome gamer, but we just want you to write his top five because he will get by far the most gain out of focusing on his top strengths…and because you’re not the only one handing him one of these lists. If everyone just goes crazy and writes down a bunch of traits, Bob’s going to end up with a laundry list instead of a usable set of answers.

A practical exercise and an experiment – tagging the Hall

Check this out:

Yeah, I’m picking on Frank today. Given his first trait, he felt like an appropriate example. So, here’s my reasoning for each trait.

Frank is clearly analytical. He top eighted Worlds 2008 with an “aggregate Faeries” list that he generated by taking the statistical average of a wide pool of winning Faeries and playing that – because he didn’t have time to test. Seriously, that’s his “rush job” approach. Craziness.

He’s careful in his play style. Watch him in the quarterfinals at Worlds 2005 and see how he manages to avoid rushing any plays, and can take home a win in a truly careful manner.

When I call him an adopter, I mean that Frank is really good at spotting the “good” tech early on. Although he’s credited as the innovator of Vial Affinity, Frank points to Julien Nuijten as the man with the idea…but Frank recognized its value and ran with it to a GP top eight.

Frank is famously tenacious, making it to ninth place at PT Yokohama 2007 despite spending all of day two in a vomit-themed haze.

Finally, Frank is patient, keeping his wits together through a marathon forty-five minute game one in the quarters of Worlds 2005…

…which lasted that long because Frank is incredibly slow.

So there we go. The goal here is to kick out a nice, punchy little set of words that you think describe the player, whether they’re one of your friends (for the exercise I outlined above) or a Hall of Famer (for today’s experiment!). Notice that I’m not stuck on using adjectives, nouns, or any particular part of speech. Just throw in whichever words feel natural and feel like the best fit for the person you’re describing.

The experiment – tag the Hall!

We’re going to close out today with another opportunity for all of us to participate in building the language of “good Magic.” In a moment, I’m going to give you a link to a survey, which asks you to do a very easy thing – describe the current members of the Hall of Fame.

For each one, the survey asks you to label them with up to five one-word strengths and a single weakness.

Of course, you may not be familiar with some of the Hall of Fame members, so you can skip as many as you want. If you only feel comfortable writing in some strengths for Mike Turian and Kai Budde and you want to give everyone else a pass, go for it.

Similarly, if you can only think of two words to describe Zvi Mowshowitz, that’s cool, too.

The goal here is to use players who are (1) well-known and (2) good at the game as a basis for collecting useful descriptive language about the game. The results from this quick survey will then be used to help understand all the wonderful information we’ve collected in the original MEP Survey.

Ready to go? Cool.

Click here to take the survey

It pays to be nice

Remember how some variation of “friends” was the top performing word in our aggregated survey results? I think we want to keep that in mind as we play with, test with, and rate the other members of our gaming groups, and our community. If you’re going to do the tagging exercise, this is your chance to push your teammates into positive territory. Don’t be the lone jackass who brings the group down by taking this opportunity to hide behind a shield of irony and insult your friends. Give positive, get positive.

I’ll look forward to hearing about how this exercise has worked in your groups, and I’m looking forward to how you evaluate the Hall of Famers in the survey. This wil be the last survey for a while, as you all have buried me in a wave of enthusiastic survey responses.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy rooting for team ChannelFireball at PT Amsterdam. Who do you think is going to take it down? Which decks will dominate? Which strengths will prevail? Let me know in the comments.

12 thoughts on “In Development – Building Your Character Sheet”

  1. Until the links are fixed, you can get where you’re supposed to be by just editing out the channelfireball.com stuff at the beggining, up to the quotation mark. And in some cases a quotation mark at the end as well.

  2. Sorry about the links. I’ll ping editorial and let them know. In the meanwhile, Amarsir’s fix works (also, the survey links appear to be okay even right now).

  3. Yeah, links are dodgy.

    I can see the potential of the tag exercise, but it has to bring a change to the table. Let’s say my friend has the same 6 characteristics of Frank (an ideal situation for sure). Being both patient and careful is intrinsically linked to his slow pace, so how can my friend improve his weakness without giving away some of his strengths? Unless he’s spending time not thinking about anything, picking up the pace has to come at the price of considering all options on a given play. So as I see it, the right choice for my friend is to continue being slow because it’s just the natural consequence of being so thorough which is a fair price to pay. And if that’s the case, how does this exercise help my friend?

    Or maybe I’ve just not fully understood this drill. Let’s take a look at my own tags (courtesy of a friend, of course):

    Rules knowledge
    Synergy aware

    | WEAKNESS |

    Unrealistic – I’m told – refers to my tendency to get too thrilled about a card, synergy or interaction to objectively judge its power. You could substitute the word with ‘dreamer’. As was the case of Frank, being both ‘creative’ and ‘synergy aware’ helps explain my weakness, and so trying to improve it will diminish my strengths. So where do I go from here?

  4. This survey was fun, thanks. I am lucky to live in Somerville, MA and have met and occasionally chat with both Rob D and Darwin, so it’s nice to be able to know and read them up close and to have played against them a bit on the side at pre-releases.

    I had to think for a few minutes whether the fact Darwin is dating a 19 year old (possibly 20) is a positive thing or a negative. On one hand, that is objectively awesome, on the other, the relationship can’t possibly work out in the long term. No offense to either of them, it’s just kind of weird.

  5. A quick follow-up note – Sam Stoddard mentioned over on twitter that it would be handy to have a Facebook app that lets you do this rating via FB (where a lot of Magic networking happens anyway, these days). More generally, this does seem like a good place to leverage social networking tools to have a way to collect your group’s tags in one place, where you can all discuss them and help guide things like “Who does what” in playtest sessions.

  6. here’s my shot at …

    Olivier Ruel
    – consistent (still plays in major events)
    – traveler (whole road warrior thing)
    – original (has had unique deck choices)
    – analytical (what pro isn’t?)
    – seasoned (not like a potato but is a veteran)

    – atrophying? (hasn’t been placing as highly since ’07-’09)

    man that was harder then I thought

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