Shuffle Up & Play: An Interview with the Professor

Tom AndersonCommunity, Video

There’s never a slow day at Tolarian Community College! Magic’s most-watched content creator launched his new YouTube series “Shuffle Up & Play” today, featuring a rotating cast of Magic personalities – and a rotating cast of formats to play.

The first episode guest-stars TappyToeClaws and Georg Wang sitting down with a gauntlet of Pioneer decks. In a lightning half-hour of gameplay we get ruthless trash-talk against microbiologists, game-twisting sideboard decisions, and lots of classic kitchen-table spellslinging fun.

It’s a huge new project in a record-breaking 2022 for TCC’s proprietor, The Professor. Scarcely a month after running the hugely successful Kickstarter for his dream deck box, you’d think Prof would be kicking up his feet for a while to bask in a job well done. But it’s actually the momentum from that Kickstarter which has had him instead charging forward into a completely different project, one which is equally dear to his Magic-playing heart.

Give it a bit of a Kick…starter

Tucked away in the long list of Kickstarter rewards for “The Academic” deck box was this seemingly off-hand promise for a new YouTube show. But when funding easily reached this marker on the way to a record $3.99 million total, The Professor saw his chance to realize an equally important creative goal.

“We didn’t know just how high it would go! But we had certain hopes. And because of the success of the Kickstarter, I was able to get some particularly expensive equipment procured in order to make this series, fly people out from all over the world to be guests on it, and to procure a wide variety of decks for different formats that people might not have access to. I’m very excited for it to be premiering!”

Sitting down with the Professor before today’s premiere, I was surprised to hear “a wide variety of decks” given a similar funding priority to “guests” or “camera equipment”. But he was quick to explain why having access to such a variety of classic decks was indeed essential to his plans for Shuffle Up & Play.

“Our main goal from the start was simply to do our own vision, and something that was distinctly TCC… I’ve always felt that if you’re a content creator and you make the kind of content you want to consume, you end up with the best results. 

There’s a lot of great gameplay shows these days, big and small, so I asked myself what am I hungering for? And one answer is that I was hungering for 1v1 games… there just isn’t much content for 1v1 formats, especially the kind that features Magic personalities and pro players with higher production value!”

While the blueprint for MTG YouTube success has tended to be carving out a brand around one specific format, The Professor’s specific ambition for this project will not brook any such restrictions. 

“I’ve had a lot of people say to me ‘oh, if the Professor did a gameplay series maybe it would just be Pauper?’ Why would I want to limit myself to JUST Pauper?!?  One of the things which really excited us early on is that by doing 1v1, there really is no limit… I’m able to do anything from two of the top Pioneer decks, to two of the top decks from Standard 10 years ago!

And that to me is so cool, that we can impose our own restrictions; that we can grab 1v1 decks not just from every format – and we do every format, from Legacy to Pauper to Modern to Pioneer – but that we can also look at time as a format. We can do cool things like take Top 8 lists from a GP from however long ago, and then bring in various people who will play those decks. And then the next time I can open up a box of 20 Pauper decks and just say “pick one!”

Or I can say, “OK what’s your favorite format and deck” to my guests, and then build something from that format and era to go against it! We do play some Commander games, as the teaser showed – but they’re more like dessert after episodes of various 1v1 formats.”

It sounds like this list of formats from the show’s trailer is anything but exhaustive.

For the love of Magic

Taking a deep breath, Prof laid out what seems to be the real mission statement and guiding hope of this project:

“Hopefully the show is appealing to Magic: The Gathering players simply as a show about playing Magic: The Gathering. I don’t know if that will succeed; maybe it won’t. Maybe people will say “look, if you were just doing Commander we could watch it or if you were just doing Modern…” 

But my hope is that we do such a good job with our presentation, with our personality, with our love of the game that despite the fact someone maybe doesn’t play Legacy, they’ll still tune in to watch us play Legacy.”

It’s a heartfelt belief, and that love of the game does shine through in the thrills and spills of their debut episode. Personality has always been a strong point of Tolarian Community College videos, and The Professor is drawing on at least some of the same collaborators for this new show. Lead-off guest TappyToeClaws immediately gifts Shuffle Up & Play some memorable comedy moments, as well as a classic episode title: TappyToeClaws Is Great At Missing Her Triggers

Tappy gleefully leaping into the cockpit of Izzet Phoenix completely blind in the name of fun establishes how The Professors co-stars could become the driving force behind each episode. And with guests lined up from all corners of the Magic community, we can expect a wide range of tones and narratives. Showcasing the myriad ways people relate to Magic is the goal, and The Professor has chosen some exciting candidates to help him:

“I simply want everyone who plays Magic to be able to come down and sit at the table and shuffle up and play. For example, episode 1 is just me and my friends – one of whom is not even necessarily a content creator – and then episode 2 is me bringing in Cedric Phillips and Patrick Sullivan to play old Top 8 Modern decks from a GP. 

As far as we can tell, this will be the very first time that you’ve ever seen Patrick Sullivan play a game against Cedric Phillips on camera! In all the decades they’ve worked together, never have they been on camera in any capacity, casual or professional, where they’re played a game against each other. And so this will be the first time for that.”

Other guests foreshadowed in the trailer or on social media include irrepressible content creator Spice8Rack, Casual Magic host Shivam Bhatt, MTG documentarian Sam (a.k.a Rhystic Studies) and cult-hero musician John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.

Magic is a very big tent, and while it’s impossible to show all of that in a 10-episode series, TCC has definitely given it the old college try. The idea of him potentially matching wits with Hall of Famers is also appealing in a David-and-Goliath sense, though Prof warns he’s not above calling in a ringer for such high-caliber guests:

“I will definitely… be present? It is MY show.” I can almost hear a mischievous grin as Prof crafts his answer for maximum effect. “I think that there are some opponents that I may wish to tag in a proxy to face off with them in my stead.”

Cards on the Table

One requirement is that players feel comfortable explaining their cards and foreshadowing key turns in the game through natural table talk – which is absolutely essential to the vision for the show.

“The goal is to get to the gameplay as quickly as possible, so we don’t get a lot of time to do those things [break down decks]… that being said, there’s a natural banter about the decks, about the cards that are going into it. But we’re not gonna spend ten minutes breaking apart what this deck and its history is… but I feel very confident that due to the way we approach our plays and our style of play, people can follow along even if they’ve never seen this deck or these cards before.”

The minimalist approach to editing still includes some flashy additions to help illustrate play!

The title Shuffle Up & Play is a clear hint as to The Professor’s priority – getting to the game. In the first episode our players are shuffling up by the two-minute mark, and gameplay makes up over 90% of the video’s runtime. Those who regularly enjoy Magic video content will definitely feel the difference in how fast SU&P hits the ground running.

“We have our own formula, which is not like anything I feel is out there. It is ALL live. We do not break anything up… we film the entire game live, and then we work in post-production to ensure that the gameplay we have recorded from that live game is the easiest to follow and the most engaging it can be. 

We have some methodology for that, but basically we sit down, turn on the cameras, and play; then we turn off the cameras, and it goes into an incredibly intense post-production editing process. But there is no break-up of the gameplay for filming, there’s no post-game revisions or reactions or anything like that. It’s very different!”

The lighthearted interactions between MTG personalities adds a lot of novelty to the games.

But there is a little bit of theater to SU&P nevertheless:

“The larger gimmick is that… there’s going to be three people at the table, with one person watching as the first two play 1v1 and then whoever loses in round one trades places with whoever’s watching. And then that person takes over their seat, and the deck they were playing, and the game continues like a normal 1v1 match, best two out of three; but now the player and pilot of the deck has swapped!

And this creates a really interesting dynamic where maybe the person watching has a preferred deck they’d like to play, but it’s whoever loses they’re gonna trade places with. And of course, if they then defeat [the player who won in round one], then the person who gave up their seat trades back in, and now they’re piloting the deck that defeated THEM and trying to win the entire round!”

That dynamic explains why the trailer features raucous cheering at the sight of a mull-to-five!

There are 10 fortnightly episodes slated for this first season of Shuffle Up & Play, with filming already largely complete at the time of our interview. The bulk of the work by far is in the editing required to realize such a smooth, easy-to-watch show from live gameplay footage. This is also the real financial hurdle that Kickstarter money was required to clear; Tolarian Community College purchased over $20,000 of camera equipment and recruited two extra full-time editors to make SU&P happen. It’s a huge investment even for a successful content creator, but The Professor isn’t too worried about the final outcome.

“We’re gonna keep filming until what was left over from Kickstarter runs out, and then we’re gonna see if the show was a success, and one that we can continue financially. I’m hoping it will be! But either way, it’s been one of the biggest and most satisfying creative endeavors of my channel’s whole run.”

“The one thing I would want anybody to take away from this show – its thesis – is that Magic is the greatest game because of the people who play it. This is what I want to embrace, more than any gimmick, more than any format, more than any star, or surprise. That it’s simply about the joy of Magic and that joy is from the people who sit down to play.”