TL;DR: I think all you really need is community. People will give you all sorts of reasons for why they won't join a ladder, but in reality my experiences suggest that it's because it's full of strangers or doesn't have enough people they know/interact with and ultimately just seems orthogonal to their own Warlight experience.
Also for the record, where are people getting the impression that I came here to trash MDL?
I know that Great Expanse, Benoit, and others have talked on other threads about a project I'm working on and mischaracterized it as something built to take people away from MDL; in all frankness, I don't think they fully understand what the project is. To reiterate for one last time, I'm on 'team ps' insofar that I want MDL to grow, only came in here to help out ps (and totally missed the video URL in the top post, thinking this was just a memepost- my bad; I was actually curious as to why no one had mentioned the nice video that had popped up on the MDL homepage), and am not interested in trashing or damaging a ladder that I really like and am currently playing 9 games on...
@Zack: I think your hypothesis probably has merit, but I think the implementation you suggested would have some undesired side-effects (salvageable, though, and also pretty much every first iteration of something has its flaws). Ultimately up to MotD/Muli, though.
Template anxiety is a good point; that's the most common complaint within the Hydra Discord when people say they're not joining MDL (sad reacts only).
I also think that community is important when it comes to retaining players. Like The Lord pointed out, I haven't contributed anything lasting or concrete to this community but for a while I did run a few public ladders (and by run, I mean spend an hour a day manually creating and checking on games- sad times) and I think some observations can be made off of those (and the CORP internal ladders they grew out of). IPL and CSL bot had a large number of templates (which were a common source of complaints); IPL 1v1 actually had about the same number of templates as MDL, although they weren't as varied (no Commanders, no MA, no LD) or frankly as consistently good as the ones Farah's put together for MDL.
The clan distribution looked pretty different from MDL, with two mid-tier clans leading the charge:
And before that, when I ran CORP (sad reacts only?) I had to try to get CORP players to join a strategic ladder with 29 1v1 templates. Managed to get about 1/3 of the clan; CSL was alive for 2 months, iirc, and by the end it had 41 players- not the biggest number, for sure, but I think it was moderately successful given that I was mainly working with a diplo clan. It had players like Niklas/AI and mm3100 (solid 1v1 players) at the end, but also players that still struggled to understand strategy (I mean that in the sense of "3 picks on a template with 3 starts") and didn't really have a chance of rising to the top quite then- kind of like the bottom of the 1v1 ladder, where players are just starting to get good at the basics.
In any case, I'll cut to the chase because I only came to this thread to offer whatever insights I'd gleaned from those experiences. I think the biggest factor in getting these players (or any player) was community; they didn't all stick around because they were good or because they liked/disliked the templates or even because the games were fun. I think they stuck around because people like them were on the ladder and it was a big event that was relevant to their experience on the site even when they weren't participating in it (at least with CORP, I tried to make the ladder a big deal).
Part of that involved me going around spending time PM'ing people, asking them for input, trying to get discussion going- but most of that didn't happen because of the people running the ladder and just grew organically as subgroups of CORP (like the "Dutch Mafia") joined. They stuck around because they talked to each other about it, played against each other, and invited more members of their subgroup to join.
They were able to have conversations about that ladder on their own wavelengths instead of in terms of the top player on the ladder. I think there were plenty of people on IPL that had no idea who Timinator or the other top players on that were- because it didn't matter to them. So that's why I chimed in here (probably not that successfully or intelligently, as Dogberry and ps pointed out) to say that maybe memeing about alhazi is only going to attract players who already have an idea of who alhazi is, not the sort of disconnected players that would actually round out the ladder.
I don't think MDL needs to change in any way for that; as far as ladder mechanisms go, it's already close enough to perfect that improvements don't matter. But being an 'unofficial' ladder props up some unique challenges and the only way to really address them is by trying to reach out to communities and talk to them on their own terms (Deadman doesn't have to do that himself, ofc).
Edited 4/14/2017 01:00:21