Saturday, February 18, 2012

Red Monkey's Planeswalker Messenger Bag: A Review

A while back (shortly after they were announced in this Arcana on the Daily MTG "mothership"), I placed an order from Red Monkey for a Planeswalker Messenger bag. At the time I ordered it, I promised a full review of it to my Twitter followers, as we were all curious as to whether it was really deserving of the $50 price tag. Here, at long last, is that promised review of the bag (the item page of which is here).

First I will comment on the service aspect. It took a LONG time (in my opinion) from order to final shipping. I suppose it is possible that either:
  • they make these bags on an as-needed basis, and it takes a while to construct, so there's a delay; or
  • they were overwhelmed with orders after getting the top spot on the aforementioned Arcana article
Regardless, I will just state that I ordered on January 18, and the bag shipped on January 30, arriving via UPS on February 3. I cannot say whether this is a normal turn-around time for them or unusual. Your mileage may vary.

Now as for the product itself, here's what I can say. It seems quite sturdily constructed, and seems (so far) like it will hold up to a great deal of use and wear. Of course, as I have had it less than a month, I cannot be absolutely certain of this.

My biggest complaint about the product page (and the reason I decided to write this review) is that it was very difficult to get an idea of what the bag was like, exactly. They only show one image of the bag, and that's with it closed. I am a man who loves pockets, and I wanted to see what the various compartments looked like, and just couldn't do so in this case. I took it on faith that the thing would be useful, and figured that if I started using it to lug my netbooks around for the events I TO for I could at least write it off as a business expense!

Some photos for you, with comments added to flesh out the review...
The Planeswalker Messenger Bag
 So here's a shot of the full bag. The strap is quite adjustable, and comfortable on the shoulder (it's nice and wide, so doesn't dig in). The large flap on the front gets held in place by two Velcro strips.

Flap open

You can see the Velcro strips in this shot. Note that the strips on the inside of the flap run horizontally, while the ones on the front of the bag are vertical. Presumably this is so that if the bag is stuffed full, and the flap can't hang down as far, it can still connect with the Velcro on the bag.

If this picture you can also see the four smaller pockets of the bag. There are two on the front, and one on each side. More on these later.

The interior
So here's the bag's main compartment. Note the small extra zippered pocket attached to the back of the main section. It's not that large, but would be good for pens, random loose dice, life pads, that sort of thing. I use it for the USB-charger for my cell phone, a pen or two, and some spare business cards and stickers :)

Open wide!
The bag's base actually sits flat, so when fully opened the bag can stand at attention. Once anything's put in here, of course, it will tip over to one side or the other unless said item can stand on its own as well. But as you can see there's plenty of space in here for trade binders or smaller boxes of cards (an 800-ct long box is just a bit too long, but anything smaller should fit nicely). The base of the bag is right about the width (front to back) of a typical card storage box.

My two netbooks, a mouse pad, and a playmat fit quite nicely with room to spare.

Side pocket snap-action
Finally, my main interest - the pockets. The two side pockets are too small to fit the Ultra Pro magnetic flip boxes that I prefer (see here for an example of what I mean) but the two front ones are large enough to accommodate those. The side pockets can, however, fit the smaller plastic deckboxes (like these). The side pockets have (as you can see in the photo) a snap to close them off, a feature the front pockets do not have.

I use the front and side pockets for power cords & corded mice to go with the netbooks.

So, would I personally use this as my "gaming bag"? Probably not. I'm not one to tote around trade binders, nor do I bring boxes of cards to things. I generally travel with several decks, which would either be banging around together in the copious main compartment, or I'd be limited to 4 decks (2 of which would have to be in smaller deck boxes) if I used only the outer pockets. For me, something like this is better.

HOWEVER - that said, I DO think that this bag would work for a LOT of other gamers out there, from what I have seen at the events I host. If you're heading to an event, and only going to be bringing 1 or 2 decks with you, plus binders of cards to trade...I honestly think that this bag could do very well for you.

Now - is it worth $50 plus shipping? That I can only leave up to you to decide.

Monday, February 06, 2012

WPN Boy (Special Dark Ascension Edition)

Okay, I am going to abandon my usual format for this special edition of WPN boy. Below are my reflections from organizing & running 6 Prerelease events and 2 Launch Parties for the newest set, Dark Ascension (hereinafter referred to as "DKA" for simplicity). As usual, this post will assume that you are already somewhat familiar with my situation from reading the Road to WPN series (which begins here) and previous entries in the WPN Boy series (which begins here).

To begin with, this is the first set where stores at the Core level as we are were allowed to run 3 Prereleases. This was the first Prerelease that Novel Places was eligible to run (we got that store up to Core Level shortly after the deadline for registering to run a Prerelease for Innistrad ("ISD" from this point on). This meant that, between the two stores, I would be able to register to run 6 different Prereleases. My struggle over what to do with this has already been covered (here). We ended up running two events at each store on Saturday (with my friend Craig running the two at Novel Places for me that day) and one event at each store on Sunday.

The two events on Saturday at Beyond Comics were extremely well attended, with 19 players at the morning event, and 20 at the afternoon event (we can only seat 20 under our current conditions - this may change in the near future as the store is moving to a new location).

Novel Places, on the other hand, had only 6 players at each event, meaning that each event had to be run as a Casual Event as far as the WER is concerned.

Sunday's events were also low, with only 5 players at Beyond Comics in the morning, and 6 at Novel Places in the afternoon.

I now find myself struggling to decide what to do with the next set's Prerelease. I feel that running simultaneous events at both stores hurt the attendance at Novel Places. I don't know if the solution is to run 1 event at each site each day, or to run two events at one store Saturday and two at the other store on Sunday (which will almost certainly result in lower attendance for whoever gets the Sunday slot). The latter has merit, however, as roughly 50% of the players at the afternoon event at Beyond Comics were holdovers from the morning event - they just came and made a day of it. I'm not sure if they all would have been willing to drive 10 miles further up or down I-270 to the other store for the second event.

This is about the only time when I really don't like being the TO for two separate stores - I am obligated to try to maximize what's best for both stores, and I'm not sure how to do that. Jon (store owner for Beyond Comics) has recommended that I poll our players and see what they think should be done, which I think is an excellent idea. Now I just need to draft said document and figure out the best way to get it out to everyone.

Monsters vs. Humans
This prerelease had a gimmick built into it (by WPN, not me). We were to randomly assign players to be "Monsters" for the start of the event (1 player in each tribe: Vampire, Werewolf, Zombie, and Spirit). Everyone else was a Human. Each time a Monster beat a Human, that Human joined that Monster's tribe. At the end of the event, each surviving Human and each member of the tribe with the most members was to receive a special prize.

Sounded good on the surface, and I think the players really got into it (the number of "Team Spirit" and "Lone Wolf" jokes alone was phenomenal). But I had the following problems with it:
  1. This was thrust upon the stores with no prize support to back it up. It was up to the store to come up with the prize for this contest. Neither store was ready to put anything up (we found out about this only a week or so before the event), so I ended up creating a coupon to hand out as a prize (see below). I think that inventing a special promotion is great - but don't announce it to the locations a week before the event and say "oh, by the way, you need to fork out a prize for this." [It appears that this may be fixed as of the next set - more on this in a future entry - but if you'd like a preview, check this out].
  2. Better than nothing, I suppose!
  3.  I had misread the instruction sheet initially, and I thought that only the winning tribe was supposed to get anything. But the directions were for the winning tribe AND any surviving Humans. In our experience, at least, this meant that the majority of players "won". We had, for example, only 1 Werewolf, 2 Zombies, 2 Spirits and 3 Vampires at the first event (if memory serves me correctly). This meant that 11 players were still Humans. So 11 Humans + 3 Vampires = 14 out of 19 players "won" this competition. That's a lot of prizes to give out (and, possibly, hurt feelings among the only 5 people who didn't "win"). For a company that creates games, I think this one was put together rather poorly.
Prize Support
This is the biggest problem I had with my experience. When Beyond Comics ran Prerelease for ISD, we were only allowed to run two events. We ran two on the Saturday (1 Sealed Deck, 1 Booster Draft - the latter of which is no longer allowed as of DKA). For prize support, the store was sent two "Prerelease Kits", which included a batch of Prerelease promo cards, some other goodies, and (most importantly) a free booster box of ISD to be used as extra packs in the prize pool.

I assumed (yeah, yeah) that, since we were running three events this time, we would get three "Prerelease Kits". NOPE! Core Level stores, from what I have since learned, get two kits, regardless of the number of events they are running (maybe if we only ran 1 event we'd only get 1 kit - not sure on that).

And then we get to the worst mistake: this one by me. Note that I may very well be getting myself in trouble for this, as I am willingly admitting that I broke an agreement with WotC/WPN (although not knowingly at the time). I can only hope that they will be understanding (or that I am wrong in my current understanding of how things are supposed to run).

I had understood that the free boxes we were sent was to be additional prize packs for the pool (2 packs per player is the instruction given). We usually have 2 packs per player in a prize pool, and 4 seemed overly generous, so we ran 3.5 packs per player in the pool. This is how I ran the ISD Prereleases, and also how I planned to run the DKA ones. This, however, gave us two problems:
  1. Since we were only given 2 boxes for free, the "2 per player" ran out during the second event (two boxes of 36 packs only supports a total of 36 players, and we had 19 and 20 at Beyond Comics that first day).
  2. We actually ran low on DKA packs to the point where, for the second event, I felt I needed to modify my policy and limit the prizes to 4 packs of Dark Ascension per winner (any additional packs were ISD instead). So, for example, a player who got 12 match points (going 4-0-0 in our 4-round event) would win 7 packs: 4 DKA and 3 ISD.
My understanding now, however, is that the prize packs given to us by WotC/WPN in the Prerelease Kit were supposed to be the ONLY packs of DKA in the prize pool. We were welcome to supplement the prize pool with other non-DKA items, but that is it for DKA.

So here's what I don't get. If we are supposed to limit ourselves to only the 2 boxes we received, and we're supposed to put in 2 packs per player, and we're allowed to run 3 events...we're only expected to average 12 players per event? Something seems VERY wrong here, and I'm hoping against hope that someone official from WotC/WPN can tell me I've misunderstood something.

What's also confusing is the Prerelease promos. Each Prerelease Kit comes with 24 promos, so we got 48 promos for each store. At 3 events per store, that's an average of 16 promos per event. This does not match the 12 players per event of the booster packs. Why don't these numbers match up? [Add to the confusion: The "Helvault" promotion mentioned in the Avacyn Restored solicitation supposedly supports up to 54 players: an average of 18 players per event if a store runs 3 events! None of these numbers match up!]

Launch Party
The Launch Parties were EXTREMELY successful for us. Beyond Comics ran theirs on Friday night in lieu of an FNM that week, and had a full house of 20 people (we even had to turn some folks away as we had run out of room). Novel Places' event on Saturday brought in 12 players (and some additional "railbirds"), and helped Novel Places to set not only a new single-day sales record, but a weekly sales record (beating out the week of Christmas, 2011). A blast of a time was had by all, and I was extremely pleased with how everything turned out.

And if I had written this blog entry this weekend (as I had originally hoped), this would probably have ended right here.

But, unfortunately, I awoke this morning to read this article on the Daily MTG "mothership" this morning. Helene Bergeot, Director of Organized Play announced that, essentially, Launch Parties are done. There will be no official events using this name, and the special promo cards that used to go with said event will only be distributed at FNM the night of the release day.

It was somewhat unclear whether the promo cards could be used, for example, on a Saturday event instead (like we just did this past weekend). So I emailed her using the link at the bottom of the article, and she kindly replied later in the day (kudos to her for the quick response!):
Your assumption is absolutely correct - moving forward, in order to get access to the LP promos, a store will have to schedule an FNM that day. We want FNM to be a great place for players to join their local community & enjoy playing Magic and this is why we want to make a big deal out of the very first FNM of a new set.
If one of the stores you TO for doesn't run FNM, it may just be the perfect opportunity to get started.

With that said, we want to continue offering great events (sealed or draft) to the players this very first weekend, but in a much more flexible way than for the prerelease. The local stores and TOs are in the best position to evaluate which events will be the best ones for their player community.

So, we certainly want to encourage stores and TOs to run lots of events the weekend a new set launches. But as for any other FNM promo cards, these additional promos are meant to be used during FNM.
This confirmed it. We will not be able to do what we did just this past weekend for both stores. The only way that both stores can participate is to have both stores run FNM that week. Of course for us this is a problem, as there has thus far been a "gentleman's agreement" between the stores that Beyond Comics gets FNM, and Novel Places gets regular Saturday-afternoon events. Since the two stores are so close to each other, directly competing seems counter-productive (not to mention the fact that I can't be in two places at once!).

True, we can continue to run a special event at Novel Places on the Saturday after a release day, but it will not be the same (the loss of the promo is part of it, but more importantly the loss of folks finding us through the Wizards Event Locator looking for a local Launch Party).

On the larger scale, this policy shift bothers me because it leaves so many players and locations out in the cold.
  • FNM is only available to Core and Advanced level stores. Launch Parties were available to Gateway-level stores, and were a chance for such stores to draw a big crowd, and help them get up to Core level. It's now that much harder to level up.
  • Many, many people either cannot attend (jobs, family commitments, what-have-you) or choose not to attend (date night, anyone?) FNM. But these people would like to participate in Launch Parties.
All in all, I'm very disappointed with this change, to put it mildly. I certainly hope that this, like a few other policy changes that got quickly overhauled after negative player response, gets changed soon.

Okay, that's all for this installment. I should get another normal edition of WPN Boy out before too much longer (I have many Diary entries already, and even some Q's to A). Here's hoping that in that entry I can report a Launch Party policy shift...