Wednesday, February 28, 2007

It was the Worst of Times. Period.

In 1998 on the Atlantic Coast in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Decipher held its annual Star Wars CCG World Championships. The new set, which wasn't even released, was Special Edition. This incorporated a staggering number of exciting design ideas, and an equal number of bad process decisions. This 180-card set kept growing larger and larger until It Was Decided that it would be "cool" if it had 324 cards like the Premiere set did.

Tom Lischke came on board with Jerry Darcy and I bringing lots of new card ideas, but we were still short. Somebody (I swear I can't remember who) came up with the idea of a series of small "1-1" characters that would add to force drain. We scrambled for images for these cards, and It Was Decided to use shadows for character images. That's what I said... not a picture of a character, but a shadow. Embarrassing.

These characters, called "Operatives," boosted themselves in groups in hideously broken ways. On a particular horrible Saturday morning, I sat at the PD House looking at Operatives when the last few bonuses were added. "They're just 1-1's," or so It Was Decided.

Operatives happened very late in design, and there was little time to playtest them at all, either in house or by remotes. I remember Joe Alread as being one of the testers who was worried about these cards. They were terribly abusive, and the objectives that enabled them made the situation an unqualified disaster. While we had some fine players on board as testers, our playtesting process was completely inadequate.

So we have a set that grew to immense proportions, padded by questionable cards with minimal playtesting, topped off by a dozen or so of the most broken cards and mechanics SWCCG had ever and would ever see.

Even though Special Edition had just been printed, It Was Decided to use it for the upcoming World Championships. Send out a couple boxes to all the finalists, and they'll be able to use the cards at the tournament. The Japanese guys, in particular, saw the potential of Operatives right away, asking for more copies of them.

The weekend began a with nor'easter. This is sometimes called a "winter hurricane." Although the location was a lovely hotel on the Atlantic Ocean, players couldn't even go outside because of the gale force winds all weekend. Do you believe in portents?

The first day went on without too much incident. Players were using Operative decks, and the word began to spread. Because SWCCG had no card limit, a typical Operative deck had about 30 of the same card in it. Cards were in short supply, so players were trading like mad to get them.

That night, at the big dinner with the tournament players, I was confronted by about a dozen players while I was eating dinner with my wife. They demanded to know what we were going to do about Operatives. It was an ugly scene.

I heard a story the next morning that at 2 a.m. a player awoke to someone walking down the halls of the hotel, calling out and looking for more of a certain operative card. It dawned on many players late that night that Operatives were not just the best way to go, they were the only way to go.

By this time, players were getting even more upset about the situation, and It Was Decided that we wouldn't change the rules in the middle of the championship, even though there was clearly only one deck to play and it couldn't be beaten.

Jerry Darcy was threatened with physical violence by a player: "If I catch you in the parking lot..." I came back to the tournament room to find an eerie quiet and sat down by Jason Winter saying jokingly, "Any fist fights?" and his answer was, "Somebody threw a chair." Tom Lischke told me with all possible graveness that this was the worst day in his professional career. I agreed, and it still remains as that for me to this day.

Another sideshow in this death spiral was Michael Riboulet, a player from Britain. He came to the tournament with a reputation as a cheater. This was well-earned. I was constantly being called over to his game by his opponents, and Riboulet displayed an amazing disrespect for the rules and his opponents. I wondered how many European players he had bamboozled with these tactics to get to the World Championship.

Another player came up to Tom and I to show the broken deck he was going to play. Somehow he felt better showing us beforehand, although when we asked him not to play it, he ignored us. The deck had a loop that made it impossible for his opponent to win, in the most Negative Play Experience kind of way. I guess he wanted to make a statement. As Fate would have it (and She had her way with us all weekend), this guy was paired against the Japanese player. He was a very savvy player but used an interpreter. I expected this to be a disaster, but the Japanese guy figured the deck out immediately and they spent the rest of the hour just chatting and getting along fine.

The rest of the day barreled on ahead like all disaster movies do, as the final approached. Somehow, despite my best efforts and a staffer assigned to watch his matches all the time all day, Riboulet cheated his way into the finals. Against him was a good guy and fine player, Matt Potter, who didn't deserve to play against this cheater.

It Was Decided before the weekend that we could not enforce penalties for cheating. We could not give out match losses or disqualify players, no matter what we found them doing. So as the whole SWCCG design team watched the final match, we were powerless. We saw Riboulet put a lost card on his used pile. We saw him drop cards on the floor. We saw him miscount his differential to win one game, and Tom finally stepped in to suggest to Matt that he recount that stack of cards. Somehow, the Good Guy beat the Cheater for the Championship. That last event was about the only good thing that happened all weekend.

The 1998 SWCCG Worlds was a series of calamities that produced a disaster, the kind of which I never want to be a part of or even witness for the rest of my life. I don't think the game, the community, or the company was ever the same again after that weekend.


TheGirard said...

The player that won was Matt Potter, not Matt Sokol. And the guy with the infinite loop deck was Jon Vandermeer.

With that being said, and despite all the issues that went on that weekend, this was probably my most memorable tournament weekend in my playing career.

This was also the tournament where after round 1, the two players that had been to each of the world championships up to that point were paired at the last table because they refused to play operatives. Can you name those 2 players?

Bubo ate the operatives something fierce.

Allen said...

I hated the "no touch" rule - nothing worse than watching someone screw over another player who just didn't know better...

Shocho said...

Some have asked me why I made this post now. Well, it was a story that I thought I should tell, and I don't think I've talked much about that day on either blog. No special reason.

Jason said...

So, this was worse than when Juz had to disqualify half the field?

Snook said...

Girard - my guesses:
Well I know Alread played in all the Worlds until he got hired on right?

The other player is Raphaeal Asselin the first world champ?

Anyway, didn't you perfect the Maelstrom deck? :)

Shocho said...

Jason, if you mean the ridiculous tournament exits for decklist errors, that was horrible indeed. But yes, this weekend was worse.

TheGirard said...

It was Alread and Jeremy Lamere.

I did play the Maelstrom, but it was a variant based on Vandermeer's infy stall deck. Which had Emperor's New Prize to cancel the text which was canceled by Yub Yub.

At least at the worlds where Juz Dq'ed have the tournament, there were other events to play in because it had become DeciperCon by then.

Anonymous said...

Heh, whenever the current PC takes some flak for broken cards or w/e, all they need to say is "we didn't do operative (or numbers)" and everyone shuts up...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this behind the scenes look at SWCCG.
Aaron Kingery

Anonymous said...

If you guys knew how broken they were after Worlds, why did it take so long to errata them? I remember Girard in particular arguing that "you can beat them". Of course his methods of beating them were "hidden base 1st turn flip" (which was just as broken) and ISB w/ Decree or ABCTTU (so you had to play either operatives, or the deck that beat them).

Mkae said...

Man, I was there and didn't get mentioned once. Thanks Chuck. :(

When I saw operatives in playtesting, I sent you guys an email about the force drain abuse to no avail. (I still have that email somewhere.)

As for the tournament, yep, that totally sucked. I remember the Japanese guy because I did the RFD interview with him through the interpreter. That was interesting. I don't really remember what the final round was like although I do remember the setup. We hadn't adopted separate rooms yet so the players could easily hear the audience during the match.

Lots of left with our tails between our legs after that show.

Shocho said...

Well said, Mr. Mkae. I knew there were a couple of other playtest groups that sent up red flags about the Ops, and you guys were certainly another one. Figures you'd see the FD abuse.

PapaLorax said...

Good read - might want to edit the first line. It wasn't DecipherCon. Those didn't happen until 1999 (Va Beach), 2000 (Orlando), 2001 (Cancelled for 9/11)

Shocho said...

Thanks, Papa. Done deal.

Joshua J Radke said...

Eh.. Operatives may not have been the greatest day in SWCCG history, but outside the hyperintensive competitive scene (aka "on the local level") operatives came, were hated, were errata-ed, and players moved on. I don't know about the rest of the country but in Connecticut SWCCGers were always really good about weathering the storms until they were addressed by Big D. Operatives may have plateau-ed the infux of new players, but we didn't lose very many players over it either--or at the least, most everyone eventually came back after the errata.

And the PC can't be pointing at D about the effect of operatives because they had their own similar issues regarding their vcards before The Re-Edit :-P

It's all part of the cycle that is "a game". ..Thanks for the post Chuck!