Carrie On – The Unsustainable Size of PTQs

I didn’t really know what to write about this week. We’ve been in Theros/Born of the Gods Limited for a while now. I’m really enjoying the format, but as I continue to only draft 4-color green I don’t feel qualified to write about other draft strategies at the moment. Standard is still boring, too. I look at the results from the SCG Opens each week optimistically and leave disappointed. Sure, the meta rotated a little but it’s all the same stuff we had months ago. I have been playing my mythic Bant deck. It’s fun, but I don’t really have anything to add from my article several weeks back.

So, what am I going to write about?

I was bemoaning my lack of topic to a friend. I mentioned various little ideas I had but nothing significant. Then we got distracted by  a 30-minute conversation we’ve actually had several times in the last few months with regard to the rapidly approaching impractical sizes of PTQs.

When I started playing PTQs it was 2011. In England, PTQs drew about 100 people, depending on format and location. I remember that anything nearing 200 was notable. This stayed true for at least a year. Just before the last UK Nationals I attended a 36-man PTQ! It was central enough and the format was Standard, but there were two reasons for the low attendance: First, the cut-off for UK Nationals qualification based on the then Elo rating was just after the PTQ so anyone protecting their rating could not afford to attend. The other problem was that it was right at the height of Caw-Blade dominance and many people were sick of the deck.

Two weekends ago an English PTQ broke the UK’s record for attendance (at a PTQ unassociated with a GP or PT) reaching a mighty 408 players. This almost exactly 3 years from my first PTQ and about 2.5 years from that shockingly small 36-man event.

What I find troubling is this isn’t a one-off freak accident. This is a trend in England for some time now. For each of the last 3 years we seem to have broken our own records by 100. As I say, when I started going to PTQs we got around 100 people, then the following year we started hitting 200. Last year we broke 300 and now we broke 400. This is the most extreme demonstration of Magic growth I know of, but I don’t keep track of other countries as much. I know when I started people would always talk (in fear) of the huge American PTQs—which we now equal, so I’m not certain growth (at least in the competitive scene) has been has been quite so extreme over here.

Magic has  sky-rocketed in popularity in England. My LGS in Cambridge used to get 20 (a really awkward number) for draft every Tuesday. Now they frequently run at the max capacity of 40 players. At FNM you’d be lucky to get 8, now there are around 30. These numbers are repeated everywhere.

This is great! But there are two problems when we come to PTQs: Time and space.

The 408-person PTQ was saved the pain of going to a 10-round marathon by one person not showing up. Even if by some miracle they manage to keep the rounds to 1 hour each that’s a 10-hour Swiss event. Most PTQs start at 10 a.m., so that’s 8 p.m. before the cut to Top 8 which will be another 2-3 hours. So, in theory, all done 13 hours from the start time, at 11 p.m.

We all know that even with all the planning and superb judge staffing in the world, delays happen. People go to time, there are complex judge calls, Wizards Event Reporter breaks (that’s the program used to put your results in and generate the pairings) etc. And the larger the event gets the more likely it is that these delays occur each round. In my experience you don’t expect the early rounds at large events to take less that 1 hour 20 minutes on average, so we have to add about another 2 hours to our estimated finish time: 1 a.m.—lovely. That’s 15 hours of Magic for the finalist (one of whom loses: lucky them, 15 hours for a box of boosters).

And all those numbers are for a Constructed event. If you consider Limited you add time for Sealed pool registration, deck construction, and the Top 8 draft. It’s insane. Day 1 of GPs are shorter. Graeme McIntyre wrote an article in February last year which outlined some rudimentary maths behind whether you’re more likely to win a PT invite by winning a PTQ or making the cut at a GP—and, while the numbers then indicated that the PTQ had higher EV, nowadays it feels a lot closer, especially given the sliding scale that GPs now operate on.

The other problem English PTQs will now face is space. Many of the venues I have played at cannot accommodate 400 people. Some can, but I’ve been places that struggled with 200. Tournament organizers don’t want to book larger, more expensive venues if they won’t get past a certain threshold of players, and they won’t know how many people will come until the day itself. Preregistrations only give so much of an indication. More to the point, it’s actually hard to find that sort of space in England. I know Cambridge had to stop hosting PTQs because there is nothing suitable for more than about 170 players. If growth continues at the rate we are seeing we’ll actually run out of places that can host events.

It’s easy to dismiss all of the above as problems with the English Magic scene specifically, but I think it is more than that. Magic: the Gathering is growing worldwide. I’d certainly like to hear if your country or area is starting to experience a similar phenomenon,  but even if England’s growth is unique I’m sure we’ll see it elsewhere in the future. I remember earlier this year there were two back-to-back horror stories of PTQs held in Canada and the US where the respective TOs were stretched to capacity owing to unexpected turnouts, and at least one of these spawned a discussion on various ideas for improving conditions for all involved at these large-scale (9- or 10-round) events.

Something needs to change.

At some point during 2013 I basically stopped going to PTQs that weren’t less that 2 hours away. Why? Because it’s not worth it. PTQs are exhausting, draining, expensive, and terrible EV. I want to play Magic, I want to qualify for the Pro Tour again but I no longer see PTQs as a good way to do this. I’ve actually noticed a lot of regulars of the circuit not showing up for events any more either. They’ll hit the local one and otherwise give them a skip, presumably for similar reasons. Despite this, attendance doesn’t seem to have been affected in the slightest.

I realize you are probably thinking “she only wants number to go down so it’s easier to qualify!” That is not my motivation behind this piece. Even if I never attend another PTQ, someone has to realize the inevitable impracticality of these events.

Part of the problem in the UK could be that there is a lack of other events to attend. You can play Magic a whole lot more in the US. I’m intending to write a comparison piece at some point: in short, I can play Magic every day. I can play Legacy, Modern, Standard, Sealed, Draft at my LGSs (My LGSs. Plural!). If I want to go to bigger events there are SCG IQs, TCG events, SCG Opens, and GPTs. There are a lot of people who attend PTQs in England who, while the potential shot at glory is sure to be a factor, are probably attending because it’s a big local tournament. Maybe the UK needs to react to the increase in popularity by hosting more independent events—this has started to happen in certain areas, but for some reason people are still not willing to travel all that far to get to them.

However, that’s just speculation. What if PTQs continue to grow despite an increase in independent events?

They can’t. I mean they might try, but eventually venues are going to reach caps they cannot exceed. Already in the past England has had PTQs with one or two satellite locations dotted around a venue in order to fit all the players in. These might be other rooms in the same venue, but have included rooms on the top floor of hotels that are round the corner. This was a mess with people moving between them during each round.

What are the options Wizards could consider? If they care, that is. At the moment it’s the organizer’s problem to deal with capacity and an overflowing event, but that does feed back to WotC when venues aren’t acceptable and presumably people are starting to make noises about 14-hour-long events with rather underwhelming prize support and no opportunity for any breaks.

Anyway, let’s assume Wizards is thinking of ways to reduce PTQ attendance. What are the options?

1.) More PTQs

In theory if there were more PTQs people might travel less and just attend local ones. This won’t happen though. A few years back WotC actively reduced the number of slots at a PT by reducing number of people who qualify at GPs and the total number of PTQs world wide. As such I do not believe they would consider this at all. More to the point, I don’t even think it would work unless we are talking about a LOT more events.

2.) Qualification – I heard you like qualifying so we made it so you can qualify for your qualifier.

Some sort of qualification for PTQs seems the most likely solution. I’m not certain it’s a good one, but there are already a number of events like this in Magic. You have to qualify for WMCQs, which are identical to PTQs, really. The qualification threshold is a very small number of Planeswalker Points. If you play competitive Magic a little then you will make the mark. However, last season WMCQs had a very similar attendance to the PTQs that ran at the same time. So, if PWPs were used, then the threshold would probably need to go higher. After all, if you want to go to a PTQ then you simply have to play Magic. If you don’t play Magic all that often, but want to go to a PTQ then I feel something is going wrong…

Due to, uh, issues, with Magic Online, Wizards recently changed the format of online PTQs*. For online PTQs you now have to compete in a qualifying event and go 4-1 or 5-0 to be entered into the main event. I really don’t want to see this model implemented for real-life PTQs but I guess you could hold qualifying events at local stores (like GPTs).

*This, obviously, was going to be the system until more “issues” that scuppered all online PTQ plans for this season.

I guess it’s inevitable that another step has to be inserted into the process but it’s a shame to feel that Pro Tour slot moving further and further away.

I guess the concluding point of this article is that PTQs are getting too big, there is no easy or pleasant solution to this problem. You don’t want to end up having to run two-day events because people don’t want to be forced to stay overnight, which can be expensive—but, without size limitation, events will become too long for one day. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments or @onionpixie on twitter. See you next week.

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