If you’re here for RPG-content and this might seem like an MtG article, just hang on. I’ll get there.
MtG is a game of high variance, but they also have a professional circuit, actually mostly run by Wizards of the Coast itself. Since the early days Brian David-Marshall is a commentator for their professional events and also the “Pro Tour historian”. Since early days, he has been a proponent of telling stories in these events.
Now, a professional player can be very good and still perform very poorly just because of bad luck. On the other hand, sometimes great stories just emerge. For example, just yesterday and today, there was a great one.
Reid Duke is a young professional player. He’s maybe 22 or something like that. Last year, he made it into the Player’s Championship (renamed World Championship this year), an invitational tournament with the top 16 players of the last season. He earned his invite by winning the online championship, but came in 16th at the invitational.
He was heartbroken. He went back to the hotel and went through all the things that went wrong. There’s a list which his testing partner last year, Owen Turtenwald, tweeted for everyone to see.
Then Duke went on to earn himself an invitation again this year, this time by grinding through events, earning points here and there. He had a great year and definitely had learned over the year. After two days worth of matches, his record is 9-3, best on the field, going into the Sunday’s finals as the number one seat. We’ll how this story continues.
The key here is that Wizards has been tweaking their system over the years to let results like these happen. They are in a bad spot. They need stars for people to relate to, but the nature of the game is such, that they are hard to produce. Even the best players ever have win percentage of around 60% on Pro Tours. They do their best to keep the best on the “gravy train”, while they try to keep the door open to the younger newcomers. They do this by giving benefits to the best players, but anyone doing well enough at one Pro Tour has a chance to “get on the train”.
By understanding all the things that go on here, they have managed to make stars and they manage to form stories (sometimes good ones, sometimes not so much) at each event.
So, how does all this relate to GMing? This is what a good GM does. Many think good GMing is about making exact plans, predicting every angle players might be taking, picking the right music, maybe even dressing the part. No. Forget about that. If that is your thing, consider writing books, or making movies. A good game is the product of player interaction with some guidance and direction from the GM.
The most important skill, therefore, is identifying the things players have introduced, which will lead to other great things, and foster them, but leaving enough room for new ideas and possibilities. Those great stories will emerge.
You’re dealing with very random elements (dice, the players), but that’s an opportunity, not a risk. By stifling players, you risk losing all their creative input and thus selling the opportunities for comfort.