The Pestilence Open, a one-day webcam Old School Magic tournament, was held on Saturday, March 28. A total of 52 players representing at least six or seven different countries and more than a dozen U.S. states participated. The structure of the event was straight Swiss pairings, 50-minute rounds, just as one might expect at a “real-life” paper tournament. All of the matches for the event were played using Whereby, the video chat platform of choice for the 93/94 webcam scene.
The story of the Pestilence Open is — at least partially — an obituary for the 2020 Hartford Old School Festival, which had been scheduled for March 28 at an Elks lodge in Manchester, Connecticut. More than 80 players had pre-registered for the tournament’s main events (Premodern and Atlantic 93/94). Unfortunately, given the rapid spread of COVID-19 in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, etc. by early March, the tournament was cancelled, along with so many other plans and events, as social and civic life in New England ground to a screeching halt over the week of March 9th and the days that followed.
Finding ourselves under a dark cloud of isolation in a time of “social distancing,” there was at least a silver lining for 93/94 players: the Old School community already had a very established custom of playing games of Magic via webcam. Pick-up games of webcam 93/94 have been played since at least 2015, pioneered by Italian players like Filippo Caccia and Andrea Braida, and the first more structured Old School events played on Skype and other video chat platforms began in 2016, with activities organized by e.g. Andrea Canessa, Gordon Andersson, and Markus Lundqvist. And from there, several webcam tournament series have proliferated and grown considerably over the past four years. The primary clearinghouse for webcam games on Facebook, the OLD SCHOOL 93-94 MTG Webcam Player Community, now counts more than 1,300 players among its ranks. If any group of tabletop gaming hobbyists could find a way to keep things moving in a time of digital-only social interaction, Old School Magic players would surely be leading the charge.
With the Hartford tournament cancelled, it only made sense to offer a digital replacement event. And so, the Pestilence Open was born.
This felt like a rather ambitious event, from a logistical standpoint. Despite having plenty of experience with organizing both in-person events and webcam tournaments, I had never attempted anything like this.
Why not? The reason is that it’s really hard, bordering on incorrect, to ask dozens of people to carve out a solid, six- or seven-hour block of time in their own homes, during which they must essentially be chained to their computers to play Magic. At a regular in-person event, you’re physically in a different space, and playing back-to-back Swiss rounds for several hours is what you signed up for. With a webcam event, you’re physically at home. Your significant other/your kids/your roommates/your pets/your other responsibilities are right in front of you, rightfully demanding attention. It’s almost impossible to fully commit. Previous attempts to do this (admittedly, in the heady early days of 2016) failed miserably.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the enabling environment for a one-day webcam tournament in two ways. First, the Pestilence Open was presented as an exact 1-to-1 replacement for a cancelled event, in this case, the Hartford Old School Festival. The webcam tournament was held on a day that players had already planned to travel and be away from home. And second, the self-isolation and “shelter in place” orders meant that players literally had nowhere else to be except home — stuck at home, with their cards, and their computers.
With those specific conditions, and some added commitment from each player in the form of a nominal $10 entry fee, I’m proud to say that we pulled it off. Overall, the event ran smoothly, rounds started on time and we kept a pretty tight pace throughout the day.
I can share two lessons learned from this event for other organizers:
The 50-person Whereby room isn’t worth the money. We sprang for the “Business” package from Whereby for this event, which provided 10 high-bandwidth rooms, including one that was supposed to be able to handle 50 participants. It didn’t. So the planned announcements, walk-through of logistics, and roll call from the players didn’t go according to plan. If I had to do it again, I would find another solution (Zoom or GoToWebinar or similar) to hold a kick-off meeting for all of the players.
Pre-assign Whereby room links to each pairing. This was the single most important innovation that I think made the event run smoothly. Each “table” pairing had a Whereby room assigned at the time that pairings were posted. So, the players simply had to find their name, take note of their opponent, and click a link directly next to their names in order to enter their room. This almost entirely eliminated the need for players to contact each other on separate messaging platforms. It also made it possible for me to pop in to check on specific “tables” to remind players to go to turns, after time in the round was reached. For future one-day webcam events using Swiss pairings, pre-assigning the rooms for each pairing should be considered a best practice.
The only other thing I’ll say here is that I really missed seeing all of the players in-person. I participated myself, and I enjoyed sharing matches with six of the players over the course of the day. But if I do it again, I want to do more to encourage players chatting/hanging out virtually in between rounds. I cherished every little bit of flavor from the day that players shared with me. For instance:
Giving back to our community remains a focus for New England Old School, and charitable contribution is part-and-parcel of the Old School Magic experience. Our designated non-profit partner for the Hartford Old School Festival was Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford. When the event was cancelled, entry fees were refunded to the players by default, but about half of the players opted to convert their entry fees into donations to the charity. As a result, I’m thrilled to share that $1,097.80 will be donated to The Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford. This total exceeds last year’s contribution to BGC Hartford from the same event… not bad for a tournament that didn’t happen!
For the Pestilence Open, entry fees were collected with the goal of making a modest contribution to The Boston Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund. In an act of unheralded and spectacular generosity, one of the players from the event anonymously volunteered to match, dollar-for-dollar, all entry fees collected for the event. With that incredible gesture effectively doubling our take for the day, I’m humbled to report that $1,050 will be donated to The Boston Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund on behalf of New England Old School.
And so, our grand total across the two events — one cancelled, one virtual — is an amazing $2,147.80 donated to charities in Connecticut and Greater Boston. To our friends near and far, from everyone who is a part of New England Old School, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
TOP 8 DECK PHOTOS
8th Place: Jason Beaupre
7th Place: Mark Evaldi
6th Place: Blake Burkholder – “Sylvan Keeper”
5th Place: Brett Attmore
4th Place: Seth Roncoroni
3rd Place: Mike Frantz
2nd Place: Danny Friedman
1st Place: Christopher Zach
ALL DECK PHOTOS
(alphabetical by first name)
Andy Baquero – “Dark Orders” SPICEMASTER AWARD
Bryan Manolakos – “Hurkyl’s Storm”
Chuck Lignelli – “Dingus Deck”
Dave Firth Bard
Edo Hoksbergen – “Powerless Gentleman Robots”
Jason Dorman – “Unstable Goblins”
Jon Patton – “Everything’s A Dollar”