Looking Back at the SCG Talent Search

A while back, I promised Valeriy Shunkov and Dan Barrett that I would write about the StarCityGames.com Talent Search (the one year anniversary passed in October or so). I’ve been meaning to do it for a while, but life, busy, work, writing blah blah… so kept putting it off. Today I stopped doing that.

The 2010 SCG Talent Search
For those of you who don’t know the back story, I was asked to revamp Star City in August of last year. The content had grown extremely stale, and compared to what ChannelFireball was doing, SCG was in a spot where if it didn’t get revamped soon, it ran the risk of becoming mostly irrelevant. People were coming to the site more out of habit than because they desperately wanted to read the content (excluding a few superstars like Chapin that were still killing it), and that wasn’t a good thing. So Pete (the owner) asked me to do what was necessary to try and make it the best Magic site for all players again (and all potential buyers of Magical cards. If you have ever wondered why SCG runs content on so many different topics, there you go).

One of the big issues the site had was that, in addition to having too many old pros phoning in boring, craptastic ‘tech’ articles, the stuff on the free side had grown really stale. So along with getting rid of some writers and recruiting some new ones, I also decided the site really needed an infusion of new blood. I put a couple of the very old school writers on hiatus (Abe Sargent and Peter Jahn, both of whom may still be pissed at me) and neglected to fill out the rest of the free roster in order to make room for an X-Factor style contest that we ended up calling the Talent Search.

Why do this? 
First of all, you have to understand that almost all of the old-school Magic sites used to operate almost exclusively on submissions. However, since I had left the site at the end of 2005, SCG had gradually moved away from this model for a number of reasons. First of all, once you get big enough, you don’t need to do this any more. It is soooo much easier to run a daily site when you know what to expect, who to expect it from, and when. The submissions plan also takes a fuckload of time to sort through all the drek, and that time needs to be paid for, either in money or in blood and tears of a typically overworked editorial staff. If you already have a ton of regular featured writers and a good content flow, dealing with submissions is expensive and doing it all the time isn’t really that much fun.

That said, running a regular submissions contest is still a cheap way of finding new writers and getting them to voluntarily come to you. It also keeps your site in touch with the readers in a way you really don’t get otherwise. If Star City ran their submissions contest these days, they would probably get 100 articles a week, trying to fit into 3-4 total slots, for a measly 50$ store credit. (At the submissions-era peak we averaged 60-ish for 10 open slots.) At that level of filtering, I guarantee you the quality of articles printed on the site would go up, but the cost would be a shitload of someone else’s very valuable time.

Honestly though, how could you be pissed at this man?

The second reason here is probably the more important one… I was pissed at LSV and Bill Stark. I had written a Facebook update last summer(2010) bitching about the quality of modern Magic writing, particularly lamenting the fact that so few new great writers had been discovered over the last 3-4 years. This was especially concerning in light of the fact that the game had been growing, so the talent pool of writers to pick from was/is larger than ever. And yet very few new, exceptional writers were on the scene. Bill and Luis told me that I just didn’t understand how difficult it was to find and groom new writers.

Are you fucking serious?

I edited StarCityGames.com from October of 2003 until the end of 2005, and back in my day, that was all we fucking did, because that was all we fucking had. You’d troll the submissions email queue like an 1840’s prospector desperate for a nugget or two of the dirtiest gold that you could polish to a nice shine. Some mornings you woke up knowing you had maybe one article of the required five for tomorrow’s publication schedule, so you cracked open each email like Charlie Bucket, ever-so-slowly opening the Wonka bar that didn’t have a golden ticket, checking, double-checking, and going over it yet a third time, hoping you missed something. Or just kind of hoping what was there wasn’t really the steaming pile of shit that it seemed like on the first two passes.

There may have been regular tears. There was definitely a lot of wishing that the 5000 words Oscar Tan wrote that week were a golden ticket out of this mess. (Even though it was really clean, I fucking loathed Oscar’s writing, and his forum presence was that much worse.) The amount of re-writing that Ferrett and I did to make some people’s ideas presentable enough to put on a page was… extensive. (And Ferrett had it far worse than I did – at least he left me with a foundation to work from, not the muddy hole in the ground that he started with.)

It only got worse when I started recruiting a bunch of foreign pros whose grasp of English as a written language was tenuous at best (Terry Soh, Antonino… Gerard…). A number of those old articles were half me taking their ideas and putting them into actual English, and half them being awesome enough to give us a chance to do so. They were actually hugely welcome additions to our growing stable, but god damn were they a lot of work to publish.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on what life was like during States and Regionals time. The Pro Tour back then rarely had Standard as a format, which meant that States and Regionals were hugely open formats where semi-pro brewers attacked it from every direction imaginable, hoping to find the best deck and win a trophy or maybe a trip to Nationals. Those were great times, actually, but where you would normally get 60-80 submissions a week, you suddenly had 2-300 for multiple weeks. As an editor of an up-and-coming Magic site, this was the absolute best time to find, recruit, and mold new featured writers, but surviving it with your sanity intact was always a bit up in the air.

So yeah Bill, Luis… fuck you*. You have absolutely no fucking idea what you are talking about. But they said it, so now I felt the need to prove that this type of thing really wasn’t that hard, you know? By going out and finding new, unknown writers, I’d not only help the community, but I’d make my own leisure reading better as well. A clear win:win:go fuck yourself scenario.

* Not really. This was just what was going through my head at the time. I really like those guys (especially the avocado-loving LSV). Even at my ripe old age, the motivating power of proving someone wrong remains strong. Ferrett also wrote about something else Bill said regarding the quality of Magic writing versus Magic tech here.

Where was I? Oh yeah, new blood, submissions, contest… Talent Search. The other thing I was generally annoyed about regarding Magic writing was that the actual writing part was soooo bleh. What happened to the fun? To the funny? Where were the people who could tell a story you wanted to read, instead of dissecting decklists and matchups over and over again? I swear to god, I was so sick of deck tech articles at this point that the thought of reading another boring Frenchie on Frenchie article that did not include a ménage a trois with Audrey Tautou made me want to vomit. (Audrey makes me want to do anything but that.) The community felt like it was devoid of newer writers that you would read regardless of whether or not they were writing about Magic. I hoped we could change that.

I had actually pitched this to the SCG team before I came back on board, but everyone in their managerial team thought it was too complicated and not worth the effort. I am, however, a stubborn, pushy, occasionally intractable old son of a bitch, and once I became editor again, I ended up getting my way.

Me: Look Pete, just let me do this. It won’t cost you much, it’s free content for freaking ever, it has a really good PR vibe about it, and I think the community will love it.

Pete: Sigh. Fiiiiiine.

Here’s what I wrote explaining why people should enter.

A Note About Contests
For some reason I get the sense that the current generation of editors and site owners don’t quite understand how interesting and valuable these things actually are. I think I alluded to this some above, but let me be more explicit here.

The Magic community is an awesome, teeming mass of cleverness, creativity, and unfocused energy. Offering them a content contest (it’s not just writing these days, it’s comics and podcasts, graphic design, alters, 3-D cards, video, whatever) with some sort of moderate prize gives them an outlet for these energies, and usually pays off in ways so much better than you can envision initially. There are a huge number of talented, unknown writers out there just waiting for an excuse to produce interesting things. Sure, a lot will be a bit less talented or interesting than you might initially hope for, but until we come up with a method of waving a magic wand and having kickass, fully-matured new writers appearing in our inbox, content contests are the next best thing. In other words…

Never, ever underestimate the ability of the Magic community to produce things that are unexpected and amazing for little-to-no reward.

For medium-sized sites, running content contests is a no-brainer – you just have to make certain you publicize it well enough to get a critical mass of entrants to make it worth your while. Even larger sites like ChannelFireball and Star City should be running contests (though perhaps a bit shorter than the SCG search) with some regularity because it refreshes the creative atmosphere at the site and it makes it easier to replenish your writing staff for when you actually need it. Additionally, it also serves as a boon to the Magic community itself, both by discovering potential new stars to follow and by providing an outlet for regular readers to prove themselves in a challenging environment.

I got my start via an open submissions contest. The same is true for Evan Erwin (he wrote before he started The Magic Show), and many, many others.

However, if you do choose to run a contest, try to remember that the next section is also pretty important in developing entrants to be all they can be. (“Find your future, in the aaaaarrrrmy.”  Because clearly, the goal is to produce the finest solider possible. Wait, what?)

Mentors

I implore you to stop sucking.

I find the X-Factor format with four judges who are mentors to a specific category of charges far more engaging than the Idol format, so that’s what I decided I wanted to do for the Talent Search. However, since X-Factor hadn’t actually appeared in the U.S. at that point, no one really grokked what I was trying to do.

So I explained it.

Again.

And again.

Luckily for me, The Patrick Chapin thought it was cool and wanted to be involved. Mostest popularist Magic video persona evar, Evan Erwin was also on board, and all I had to do to rope Ferrett in was say the words “Casual category” and he squee’d like a little girl. (He does this regularly. It’s surprisingly charming.)

Fucking. Awesome.

Let me be very clear about something here – Ferrett and Chapin were fucking awesome mentors. As in, holy shit, you would be lucky to pay them to have them spend time helping you conceptualize, critique, and revise your work, and they did it all for free. The amount of time and effort they put in to merely selecting their category finalists was epic, and the work that came after that even more so. I probably didn’t thank them enough at the time, but will do so again here – Thank you for everything you two did. The idea and contest would not have worked at all without you.

Evan was also great, but had a much smaller work load due to his category (New Media) kind of fizzling in terms of entrants. I was far less awesome than any of them because I was working 70 hour weeks for 3 months, but I don’t think my category suffered that much for it, mostly because I had good material to work with.

The Turnout
I remember talking to The Bleiweiss and Evan before things ever started and discussing expectations for how many submissions we would get overall, and what we needed to consider things a success. I said I expected a 200 or so total, but even 30-40 per category would have been fine. Ferrett received 130 alone for his Casual/Other category and I think the final number of submissions was something like 300 in total, competing for 5 slots in each category. The only one that was light (and expectedly so) was New Media. It turns out finding Evan Erwin 2.0 is not that easy.

I don’t really feel the need to relive every detail of the search, but it ended up being a rousing success. Next week (time permitting), I’ll take a look at some of the more notable contestants one year later and see how they are getting on.

–CardGame
@mixedknuts on Twitter

7 responses to “Looking Back at the SCG Talent Search

  1. The Search produced http://musevessel.wordpress.com, which in turn has put out close to 300,000 words of content this year, and shows no signs of slowing down. I’ve had the chance to do two preview cards and become good friends with the other Muse Vessel writers, Brandon Isleib and Daryl Bockett.

    Thanks for insisting on making the Search happen.

  2. So much of the problems of sorting through submissions could have been handled with New Business labor solutions. Instead of spending Editor Money to sort through submissions, you could have used Intern Money to sort through and file things as “trash,” “bad but suggest they rewrite,” “good but needs work” and “absolutely run this” categories. That way, you spend a little to take time from tens of hours to a single hour or two per day. Think of how much more content you could have gotten through and published if you’d lobbied for an extra $100 a week to bring on a contract intern. You’d have someone who could even pick out “evergreen” topics for slow times.

    I know there’s not a lot of money in writing about Magic for most situations, but you advertise that you want someone with an English major who will work 10hrs a week *reading Magic articles* and sending them on and you’ll get hundreds of applications, even if you’re only paying $100. You don’t even need them to come in to physically work with you, they just have to read the submissions email account and put things in folders.

    Then, you get an intern to sort the applications…

    I’ll also note that it’s really easy to find people who will write 2-3 articles at some point. The barrier to entry isn’t that high. The real grind is to see whether you can write something every single week that isn’t stale. I’ve been writing weekly for 6+ years; most people can’t sustain that. The best editor in the world can’t convince a great writer to write each week if that duder doesn’t have the time or inclination.

    • I intentionally moved the site back to operating on an every two weeks schedule for most writers, with a number of those allowed to be somewhat infrequent. That grind is exactly what kills site quality and stifles the production of interesting work for most people.

      • Tell me about it!

        Just waned to AMEN! what you said about The Ferrett being an awesome mentor. I learned so much from the Talent Search I can’t explain it, and most of that was his work (altho thanks are also due to Chapin, Evan and the under-apreciated Jacob Van Lunen for what they taught me.

    • (((Then, you get an intern to sort the applications…)))

      Incorrect. Look at Rizzo’s first article, Geordie’s, even Evan’s first few videos. They’re not good. They wouldn’t make it past. What a good editor’s job is in that circumstance is to find not just the good article for today, but the fresh voice early on before they’ve found it.

      You put an English major on that, maybe they can do it, maybe they can’t, but I didn’t choose the finalists for the talent search based on current talent, but the talent they could grow into. That’s a very specialized skill.

      • The weekly grind is tough, and I’ve been doing this for some time now. I have thought about switching to a 2 week schedule. We’re really lucky with the team we have though.

        An editor’s job is to cultivate a team, not put up articles. A good editor should be working actively with his writers and another editor, honing the site’s style guide, submission process, etc. I personally like the Sith Lord method of teaching; always a student and a master. And sometimes someone gets pushed into lava.

        Having a small team takes the heat off one editor and gives you a cross-check on new submissions. The more experienced editor will know how to spot the gems, but the newer editor can tell crap right off the bat. As they gain experience they too will learn how to coax brilliant writing out of raw talent. It’s a skill, sure, but I think it’s a teachable, learn-able skill, not a specialized skill.

  3. I’m trying to decide if the teams of pros hanging out with their friends producing content is a sneaky jab at CFB, but either way, this post brings up so many solid points that I hope it generates considerable attention.

    When I was younger, I used to spend 15-20 hours a week producing pieces for the SCG submissions contests. To this day, I think my record for most wins by a writer who never was invited to become an actual columnist still stands, and more importantly for me, the money I made paid for two seasons of competitive Constructed.

    Point being, I learned so many things from the process and the grind of writing those articles (and doing the testing) while trying to go to school and hold down a full-time job, that I don’t think I would have ever done most of the things I’ve accomplished in my life had it not been for the experience.

    Having my first, random, opponent in ’04 States ask if I was the crazy bastard who wrote 10,000+ words on Twiddle Desire for StarCity was one of the highlights of the middle phase of my Magic career. (Random aside: also, Ted’s defense of my article in those forums was one of the first times in life I realized that sometimes other people do understand what you are trying to accomplish, even if it means doing insane thing)

    I sincerely hope that Content Managers like Lauren and others around the ‘net appreciate the value of welcoming new voices into the fold, and that they take much of what has been said here to heart.

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