What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

The title of this one is also the thesis. Communication matters, and it feels like we’ve had a bunch of recent gaffes that could have been avoided fairly easily if a bit more attention was paid to how the messaging was delivered. As a quick caveat, (because it wouldn’t be one of my articles without a bunch of asides, parentheticals, and notes) I’m specifically talking about LSS’ handling of news announcements and press releases. (In terms of how they say, engage with content creators, they’re doing a decidedly better job than their biggest competitor -WotC). LSS’ press releases have some upside. For instance, they come off more as things written by actual human beings rather than the end product of a big corporate machine, which is to their advantage. However, I believe they can maintain that tone without some of the slipups we’ve seen lately.

This isn’t a new issue. LSS’ communication has been a topic of conversation for about as long as I’ve been involved with FAB. But it felt a bit different a couple years ago. Back then, both I and a many other people were willing to be pretty lenient on LSS. After all, they were swill still finding their feet and the game was just taking off. The criticisms that I used to hear (and make) back then were something along the line of “it would be nice if LSS did X” or “LSS could really use a better social media presence”. Skip forward a few years, and while the content and social media engagement have increased since those days, the way information is presented to the community is still kind of spotty at times. And I think the community as a whole is starting to be a little less forgiving of the slipups, which is fair. You can see it in the way the tone of criticism has has changed from that earlier “nice if” sentiment. If you look at the song and dance of the potential Starvo Living Legend announcement, the rapid fire release, changes, and revisions, were met with a mood that I would characterize as “what the fuck is going on over there?” Which is a definite departure from the easy going days of the WTR/ARC era, and rightfully so. Back then they were an upstart hoping to make it, and today they’re running the premiere completive tournament circuit. Expectations are, very reasonably, higher than they used to be.

So, What the Fuck Is Going on Over There?

Let’s deep dive that Starvo example as a lunching off point. For context, on April 4th a Banned and Restricted announcement was made stating no changes to Classic Constructed or Blitz. This was kind of a much anticipated announcement because Starvo had been on an absolute tear and there was a real question of whether or not he would be banned to open up the meta for the first Pro Tour. Note: I am not a competitive FAB player. The players I’ve talked to seem to generally think that the biggest issue with Starvo is that he is not only powerful but also relatively easy to play compared to other powerful heroes, which makes him an attractive choice for anyone who wants to be competitive and hasn’t put in a ton of time on another tier 1 Hero. I can’t speak to the accuracy of that assessment, but I can very easily prove that, in terms of results, Starvo has done more work than any other Hero in the game, as he is far and away the front runner for attaining Living Legend status.

Before we hop into the details of this one, my general impression of what happened was that LSS tended to agree with the sentiment that a Starvo-saturated Pro Tour wouldn’t be a great look, and wanted him to be gone from the meta by then. However, they also don’t seem to like the idea of banning broken heroes since it highlights failings of the Living Legend system’s ability to curate a diverse meta. So, the solution seemed to be let him hit 1000 LL points via events prior to the Pro Tour, and then they could just retire him normally without the need for any overt action. This would let them have their cake and eat it too. They’d be able to have a more interesting meta for the Pro Tour and also not draw attention to potential issues with the LL system.

This is where things went off the rails. The initial article posting included this list of events with a sort of messaging that implied “we’re going to wait and see how things go because by the end of these, he will likely be a LL if things continue as they have been”

Meanwhile the community started looking at this and some observant people said “Hey, wait a minute! Half of those events aren’t even CC!” LSS went “oh, shit” and ninja edited the article

Alright, asses had been covered, and they were all good… only now the math didn’t add up, those events were not going to retire Starvo. So the article was reverted to this look even though half the events weren’t CC.

There were likely some other iterations and changes in there (it all happened while I was at work, so I’m reconstructing a timeline from social media). But, by the time the dust had settled on the article, the community had largely moved on to memeing the whole thing to death and just generally making fun of the confused response. The tournament players I was talking to at the time also pointed out that they still hadn’t really accounted for how Starvo would be retired via the new schedule.

The end result is the LSS came off looking disorganized after spending a day being reactive in a situation that was essentially an unforced error. There were some obvious issues with the initial post that the community identified more or less instantly, which is something that shouldn’t have happened in the first place, but the scramble to fix them clearly wasn’t entirely thought through and led to further back and forth and additional confusion. The current version of the article essentially kicks the whole Starvo question forward to the next B&R announcement on May 2nd, which is kind of a bit too late to address this issue. People are now caught preparing for both a meta that includes Starvo and one where he is banned. Speaking from many years of competitive Magic experience, I can say that the slightly more than a week and a half of notice that Pro Tour competitors will have is likely going to reduce the quality of competition at the event. For many people, this simply isn’t going to be enough time to change decks or prepare for a different field.

It feels like this could have all been avoided by just making an announcement that clearly articulated their intentions without trying to be too cute and let Starvo go LL passively. Maybe we could have had an announcement in April that communicated something along the lines of “Recent months of competitive play have been marked by an overrepresentation of Bravo, Star of the Show among top finishing decks. While we wanted “Starvo,” as the community has affectional dubbed him, to be a powerful and exciting hero to play, it seems that he’s maybe a little bit too powerful. Our goal for the inaugural Pro Tour is to showcase a diverse field that encourages creative deck selection and approaches to play, and unfortunately Starvo makes this hard to achieve. To that end, Bravo, Star of the Show will not be legal for Classic Constructed play starting at Pro Tour New Jersey. He may still be played at events prior to Pro Tour New Jersey so long as he remains under 1000 Living Legend points, but he will be retired from Classic Constructed play regardless of his Living Legend score starting with Pro Tour New Jersey. We’ve arrived at this decision as a compromise that will let players who’ve enjoyed playing Starvo to continue to compete with him for just a little bit longer, while also ensuring that we’ve done our best to create a compelling meta for this historic Pro Tour event.” Something of that nature conveys both an acknowledgement of a problem the community is already aware of (Starvo is too good), an attempt to ameliorate the harm to the part of the community that paid to build Starvo decks that will potentially be invalid a little earlier than anticipated, and a justification for why this approach needed to be taken (do the best to make sure the Pro Tour is interesting). The community knows Starvo is an issue, you don’t gain anything by trying to obfuscate it and let LL take care of your problem for you. Just be upfront with what you’re trying to do; tell us that you recognize the problem, and you’re going to attempt to fix it.

Case Study Two: Taylor

Let’s talk about what I feel is another PR blunder that came hot on the heels of the Starvo miscommunication: the Taylor announcement. I have two major problems with the Taylor announcement: 1.) The approach to teasing the card felt disingenuous. 2.) The way it was framed is antithetical to what cosplay is supposed to be about.

For anyone who isn’t dialed into this particular announcement, Taylor is a new hero that you can’t have. I’m not even being sarcastic here. If, you’re reading that, you are almost certainly not going to be able to get a copy of her. Or she will cost you a pretty spectacular sum (I’m guessing the first ones on the market sell for the high hundreds if not low thousands of dollars). This isn’t the first time LSS has put out a very expensive hero (Oh hey, CF Shiyana and Gemkeeper Rudy, what are you two doing here?), but this one felt especially bad from where I’m sitting. LSS started by teasing some new hero art which was just a glimpse of the iconic Tunic. I, and I think many other people, clocked that as a decoy due to it being fairly off-center in the frame, but nevertheless, the community was excited. New heroes are always the cards the community gets most enthusiastic about, and we’re outside of a spoiler season, so this was premium FAB news. LSS continued to tease aspects of the card until we built up to the big reveal only to discover that essentially no one was going to be able to get the card. I hope I don’t have to explain too much why this is a bad way to engage with your community, but it’s like LSS looked at the Rick and Morty McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce debacle and were like, “we should do that!”

Alright, I’ll reign it back in and try to parse why this is bad PR with a little less sarcasm. The issue here isn’t that there is a special hero that is hard to get. Gemkeeper Rudy is a special hero that is hard to get. The difference here is that Gemkeeper is a meme and Taylor is a card that people are actually going to want to play, but they can’t, because copies will be hundreds or thousands of dollars out of the gate. Presumably there will be non-CF copies of her at some point in the future, but “hey you can play this someday, maybe” is not a thing to get people excited with.

Then we have the distribution method. Per the article linked above “We really appreciate what cosplayers bring to the FAB community. To recognize them, we have created Taylor, a double-sided cold foil hero available exclusively to official cosplayers featuring at selected premier events across the world.” Alright, first question: what’s an “official” cosplayer? That seems like the sort of thing your article should very clearly cover. I know I’m not along in that thought because it showed up multiple times in the comments of pretty much every social media post about the card. As best as I can figure, official cosplayers are people who LSS has signed off on as representing the game –they’re the people they’re advertising as being in attendance at events. If the only people getting the card are people you’ve already established a business relationship with, this isn’t really something for the FAB community at all. To make matters worse, it also has the unfortunate appearance of looking a lot like what Wizards of the Coast did for years with Judge promos.

Some quick history on that second point: Magic judge promos were special variants of cards given to judges for officiating events. Because of their limited numbers and (usually) their desirability, they fetched decent prices on the secondary market. So Wizards of the Coast got to cheaply pay Judges with product as opposed to actual money that was commensurate with the labor they were putting in. This is a fundamentally unethical way to abuse your community’s enthusiasm for the game. This approach by WotC was interrogated years ago, and as I understand it, while they still gives out Judge promos, they are given in addition to cash compensation. I want to emphasize that I don’t know how LSS compensates official cosplayers, and I am absolutely not accusing them of trying to pay them with cards. I would hope that LSS minimally pays their cosplayers $15/hr (or whatever a living wage is where the events are happening) plus lodging and travel expenses for event appearances, but I have zero concrete information on this.

My point is that, given this dearth of information, something like the Taylor promo puts me at a sort of “yellow” level of concern. It’s not necessarily indicative of scummy behavior, but it makes me kind of nervous because the optics are not great. It could very well be the case that this LSS generously pays cosplayers, and the CF Taylor promos are a kind of bonus (this would not be uncharacteristic of things LSS does all the time for content creators. I say this as someone who has received numerous items from them over the past several years). The issue here is that they way Taylor was teased made most people think she was going to be something that was attainable by the community in some remotely reasonable way (aside from a one-off prize that was announced after the fact). That this felt like a bait and switch is what ended up making it look bad. Like I said, it was a PR gaffe.

On to the other point, which is the bigger issue for me: the way Taylor was presented goes against what cosplay is supposed to be about. I should start by saying that I am something of a lapsed cosplayer. My personal relationship to cosplay has ranged a bit over the years. I was pretty into anime in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and I used to attend Otakon annually from around 2000 to 2004. I cosplayed to the majority of those events. Thankfully, phones sucked in this era, so all records of my crossplay during my Visual Kei obsession are limited to actual physical pictures buried somewhere at my mom’s house. (Does it even count as crossplay beyond a technicality? I feel like no one who wasn’t also a fan would ever have thought that dressing up like a member of Malice Mizer’s Mana or any member of GAUZE-era Dir en Grey was you dressing up like a guy).

Beast of Blood still slaps though

AHEM, back to the story, I got out of cosplay after high school due to a combination of the fact that moving to college meant that I didn’t have my mom around to help/teach me to make costumes anymore and also also, anime was starting to shift from a sort of low-key niche interest to a bigger thing with a pretty cringe fanbase that I didn’t really want to be associated with as I moved onto the start of my adult life (it’s tough being an 18 year old). Between then and now, I’ve haven’t really gotten back into it, but I have made a bunch of friends who are active in the scene and whose skill levels range from “makes simple costumes with a combination of purchased items and basic sewing skills” to “has a degree in fashion design, works in the textile industry, and has made some absurdly detailed competition winning costumes.” The key here is that both of those groups of people are and should be welcome in cosplay. The bulk of the cosplay community very actively tries to spread the mantra that “cosplay is for everyone,” and I think that’s really important.

The Taylor rollout rubs me the wrong way because it flies in the face of that ethos. LSS rhetorically frames the promo as a celebration of cosplay. The opening line, once again, is literally “We really appreciate what cosplayers bring to the FAB community,” but that is not reflected in the way they’re actually utilizing the promos. The promos do not go to cosplayers who are enthusiastically making FAB-related costumes out of love of the game; nor do they encourage people who aren’t already into cosplay to give it a try. No, they almost exclusively reward professional cosplayers who LSS has pre-approved. If we cut out the obfuscation, what that means is that Taylor promos are generally reserved for the highly-skilled, attractive women who make up the vast bulk of professional cosplayers. To be clear, I’m totally pro-rewarding highly-skilled women, but one usually has some method for identifying skill. LSS could opened with the announcement that they distributing the Taylor promos via a cosplay contest, and that would have been fine. Personally, that’s close to how I would have rolled this out. Have a cosplay contest, everyone who participates gets a NF Taylor to celebrate the community, and the top X finishers get CF copies as a reward for excellence). In that scenario, you’re actually recognizing the community members who are making events more interesting via cosplay, while still rewarding the ones who display the most skill with something extra. Everyone gets to be included, and excellence is rewarded. They could have even given the pros copies as an extra “thank you”.

Instead, we got this bumbling rollout where the community got hyped for something, discovered that they had no path to getting it, and then said “hey wait a minutes,” to which LSS, in an obvious afterthought, announced that they’d have a cosplay contest on the day of to pass out one single copy to the community. Meanwhile, the professional cosplayers (who in this context are business partners) will get the vast majority of copies. To add to the whole mess, details on the actual contest where essentially non-existent when they tacked it on.

Not only does the whole thing annoy me for playing into the most cynical views outsiders have of cosplay (that it’s really just this thing for hot women), but it was a huge squandered opportunity to actually engage the community. This had the opportunity to get people excited about cosplay who wouldn’t normally have done it or who were interested in the abstract but needed a little push to go for it. When the announcement was made, what I saw across a number of the FAB groups that I’m most active in was an initial rush of people being like “hey, I’ve never cosplayed, but I wonder if I could put something together?” This is exactly what cosplay promotion should be doing. Giving people a little nudge to try something fun that they might not have thought was for them. Hell, my own initial thoughts were about whether I could dip by my mom’s place to grab my sewing machine from storage and pull something together in time. But then, the conversations turned to the question of “wait, what’s an official cosplayer?” As it became more apparent that these promos weren’t actually for the community generally, but rather just LSS announcing something cool they were giving to people they’d presumably hired for a job, a lot of those “I might try this” people shifted their position to “oh, never mind; this isn’t for people like me.”

That shift in attitude from “maybe I can do this” to “oh, this isn’t for people like me,” is incredibly depressing to watch, and it kind of put me off to the whole thing. It also goes to show why it’s not just what LSS does that matters but how it’s presented. While they certainly screwed up the rollout, and it’s probably too late to do much for Pro Tour New Jersey, I really hope that they revise their approach here. Cosplay is a fun activity that should be about inclusion. Yes, there are people who do exceptional work and produce really spectacular costumes, and they should be recognized for their excellence. But, much in the same way that big FAB events are for the community as a whole and not just the handful of top players who frequent the “Day 2” tables, cosplay shouldn’t be just about the people with time, talent, and resources to be at the top of the game. It should be something that is inclusive of and inviting to the community as a whole.

*Header Image – Taylor by Andy Aslamov

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