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Did the First Ever Players Tours Measure Up to the Legacy of the Pro Tour?

With the first Players Tour events concluded, we’re free to evaluate how Wizards’ organized play decisions are shaping up.

Partial Invites

I won the PTQ on Friday. *Brags*. Relevant? Actually yes. I have been what you would call a grinder for about the last ten years. I have never been the most successful at it, but I lived the lifestyle and felt the impact of Wizards’ organized play decisions. When Wizards removed Pro Points last year, that was personally the single most demotivating decision Wizards has ever made. Previously, when I went to a Grand Prix, a 10-5 finish was not something to get excited about, but at least it felt like I was taking something home, a Pro Point that might be key in unlocking Bronze or even Silver that year. The moment Pro Points ceased to exist, Grand Prix lost almost all meaning. Going into the weekend I knew that if I finished 12-2-1, I would feel disappointed. Unquestionably, I would have played a great tournament but it would have contributed zero toward my actual goals. Knowing that more likely than not, every single GP that year would lead to disappointment, why go at all? I know this sounds  results-oriented, but some goals are tied to results, and if Grand Prix do not contribute toward your goal, why bother?

With the advent of partial invites, I had high hopes for the new season. Wouldn’t partial invites be the grinders’ new Pro Points?

This is where winning the PTQ on Friday comes in. Attending PT Copenhagen means that I have an additional chance to accrue partial invites. With this knowledge, the opportunity to win more partial invites in Brussels immediately felt meaningful: It might lead to something, a chain of events, that I really want to attend. Turns out I did badly at the GP because I was tired after a week of testing and the nine-round PTQ on Friday, but the important thing is, it felt worth it to compete in a Grand Prix. I was motivated to play until the end and bring my best game. Even a 10-5 would have felt all right, contributing toward my goal.

Some people seem to have qualms, arguing that the system is too complicated, but I wonder how much simpler you can make it. Every good event contributes between 10 and 70 percent and once you have a 100 you get to go to the Players Tour. Easy. I also like the idea of counting only two trimesters. This makes the effect of your performances more immediate than if a whole year was counted. At the same time the partial invites seem much easier to keep track of than the Pro Points in the system, where Pro Points rotated by quarter. All in all this seems to be a good system.

The main thing that I am missing right now is a way to look up how much of an invite you have collected. Wizards has known for months that the new system is coming, and it is not very hard to put the infrastructure for this in place either. A small patch to the PWP site might have done the trick.

Players Tour

When I began curating the data of the European and Asian Players Tours for mtgptresults.com, it was immediately apparent to me that the field of competitors has much more semblance to the Continental Championships that were held at the turn of the millennium than to any Pro Tour. Is’s hardly surprising, though: Why would a Japanese player choose to participate in the Players Tour in Europe instead of just hopping onto a train to Nagoya?

This makes the Players Tour events feel decidedly unlike Pro Tours. The Pro Tours have always been a competition of the very best worldwide. The winner of a Pro Tour could rightly claim “I was the best in the world that weekend.” It also made for a highly diverse field. With North Americans playing Asians or Europeans competing against South Americans, the Pro Tour always had a vaguely Olympian vibe to it. Neither applies to the Players Tour.

Despite this lack of identity, having been to the first event in Brussels, I now believe that Wizards made a good decision in creating the Players Tour, especially when you compare it to the old system of PPTQs and RPTQs. One problem of that system was that an RPTQ was hardly something to look forward to. As a competitive player, the mindset was always that you went to an event that was far enough to be inconvenient, but not far enough to be exciting. You played against a bunch of local big shots, but nobody that would make an impression, and while winning the invite was cool, there was just no way that not winning made for a good experience. Compare that to the Players Tour! Sure it’s not going to be held in Hawaii, but with the event being held over a full weekend in some place likely to be on the other side of the continent, the Players Tour creates the feeling of a journey. More importantly, once you are there, you are going to meet the stars of the game. Not all of them are going to be there, but the density is high enough. With PV, Kanister, Nassif, Budde, Dominguez, Juza and a bunch of others in attendance at Players Tour – Europe, chances were that you were going to play one of your idols.

The initial negative response to the new system probably also led to the first round of the new PTQs being a complete disaster here in Germany. I believe that we should give the Players Tour a chance, though. A significant part of the Pro Tour has always been the chance to play against the best and meet your idols. The Players Tour delivers this. Once players realize that winning a PTQ gives you the chance to be part of something exciting, attendance will hopefully pick up.

While I am mostly excited about the Players Tour, there are a few things that could be improved. I really don’t think it is ideal to award some prizes after round 15 and others after round 16. Sure, it is nice because it allows for some consistency between the three Tours, but I don’t think it is worth it if you have to create such a weird structure. Unfortunately, it is rather easy to point this out, but there is no obvious solution to the problem. Having the same number of rounds in all events is weird when two events are about twice as big as the third. Keeping the number of rounds as is, but distributing prizes after the last round in all cases might be a solution, but it would be hard to balance. What is the equivalent of an 11-4 record in a 16-round tournament? It is not obvious and there might not even be a good answer to this question. On the other hand switching to 16 rounds for the Asian Players Tour also comes with costs. There doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution, but I am not convinced that the current one is the best Wizards can do.

Somewhat related to the problem above is the prize money. The Players Tour Americas awarded $250,000 in prizes, Europe had $200,000. This might have been fine if the number of players that showed up to each event would have been in the ballpark of what Wizards had anticipated. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. The European event had 10% more players than the American one. In combination with the prize structure, this led to players in Europe needing a full win more than players who opted for the American event to win cash prizes. This gap can also be seen when we look at the expected value per entry for each event. For the American PT this was a little more than $700 per player, for the European it was only about $520. I don’t believe in the theories that this is some conscious bias toward North America, but this is just not a great outcome when you introduce a prize structure which suggests that every event offers similar chances. Again there is no trivial solution to the problem. Better communication with the players might help. Wizards could have known that South American players would mostly opt for the European Players Tour. Thus Wizards could have had better estimates and realized that the American event would not in fact be much bigger than the European. A more flexible prize structure might also be helpful if the player distribution across these events is just too hard to predict.

Another thing that does not seem optimal is the cut at 15 points after Day One, which is 3 points up from the 12-point cut we had at the Pro Tours. I must admit I don’t quite understand how Wizards determined these cuts. As I see it, they should clearly have been the other way around. How would you set the cut if you had to determine one? A sensible goal would be to eliminate all players that are not in contention for the main prizes any more. At the Pro Tour that would have been the Top 8, so the cut should have been 15 points. 12 points going into Day Two is not going to make it, and 13 points is technically good enough, but you don’t want to encourage players to take draws. So it was 12 when it probably should have been 15. Now at the Players Tour the cut is at 15 points, which makes sense if you believe that the Top 8 is still the main prize, but for the players that does not seem to be the case. Making the Top 8 of a Players Tour is nice certainly, but everybody is really there to qualify for the Players Tour Final. You are live for that goal at 12 points, so make that the cut please.

And as a final point, make the final of the Players Tours best of five. The current structure sends the message that winning a Players Tour is not particularly important, and this reduced the the prestige of the event. From a coverage standpoint, the best-of-three Top 8 was dissatisfyingly short, too. And furthermore it would make for a smooth progression to have all best-of-three Top 8s at Grand Prix, best-of-five only in the finals at the Players Tours, and (supposedly) the whole Top 8 in best-of-five mode at the Players Tour Finals.

Dual Constructed

Wizards just announced the formats for the upcoming Players Tour cycles, and we were in for a surprise. The Series 2 events feature Modern and Standard. Multi-format events are nothing new at the higher end of competitive play of course, and even events with two Constructed formats have been held. However, previously the formula for multi-format events has always been Draft plus one or two Constructed portions. These events had so far also been reserved for the apex of competitive Magic: The World Championships and Magic Online Championships.

The change is worthy of discussion in itself, but its impact gets compounded by the Series 1 Players Tour Finals being held a week before the Series 2 Players Tour – Europe. For players who want to attend both of these events this means that they have to prepare a Standard and a Pioneer deck for the Finals; play the finals on the weekend; then fly to Europe, cope with jetlag, prepare a Modern deck, reflect on the results of the Finals to improve their Standard deck, and until Wednesday submit two decks. Then there is one day off, and on Friday you are already back in trenches. If you happen not to make it to the second day of the Players Tour, there is also a brand new Limited format waiting for you in the Grand Prix on Saturday. Sounds like a hell of a week to me.

I am actually hugely in favor of Wizards’ willingness to test out new ideas for their events. Tournament format, tournament structure, payout structure? I think everything is fair game. Improvements will not happen if they don’t try things, and if Magic doesn’t continue to improve, its competitors will. Continuous improvement is necessary for Magic to survive. I also respect the approach of stress testing a new feature right away under difficult circumstances, but in this particular case, is it not rather easy to foresee what the consequences will be?

The 40ish players who attend the Finals and the Tour will realize that the stakes are much higher for the Finals and prepare accordingly. At this point the Tour will become an afterthought for them. They will prepare very hard for the Finals and probably ask some friends/teammates to supply them with a Modern deck for the Tour. This wouldn’t be all that bad if these 40ish players weren’t also the highest profile players in the event. Thus the players we look to for innovation, the same players that we also like to see on stream because they are the best players, are going to be far from their best at the Players Tour. It’s going to be a rather lackluster event.

While I personally like the Draft portions of the Players Tours, I think there is room for more variation on the basic tournament structure. Is it really necessary for all events to follow the six rounds of Draft plus ten rounds of one Constructed format formula? The structure has worked reasonably well for the last ten years, but in a world with more Constructed formats than ever, allowing for some variation in the tournament structure also allows to showcase the breadth of Magic more often.

As a final thought, Dual Constructed gives some leeway in the organization of each individual event as events without drafting need less time. Thus it would not have been a problem to schedule nine rounds for Day One of Players Tour Kitakyushu and seven rounds for Day Two, with the Top 8 also being held on the same day. But of course that is not how it’s been announced.

I believe that trying Dual Constructed is a good thing, but when this cycle of events is finished the reaction to it might turn out to be more negative than necessary due to the awkward scheduling and its consequences.

Finals

The first Pro Tour finals are only going to be held at the end of April, but of course we can speculate on its impact already. I think Wizards has a chance to create something remarkable that is more akin to the Pro Tour in the way they originally envisioned it than to what the Pro Tour had become.

In my opinion—one I seem to share with most other sports fans—sports events are best when there are clear favorites, but upsets occur as well. Think of the Super Bowl, FIFA World Cup, UEFA Champions League, or Tennis Grand Slams. In every case there are teams or individuals you would consider the favorites, but they usually don’t win often enough to make the competition stale. At the same time upsets happen, but not so often as to make them feel arbitrary. One problem of the Pro Tour in recent years has been that the underdogs won too often. I don’t want to trash any Pro Tour champion here, all of them are great players without a doubt, but take a look at the last winners and finals for yourself. How many of these would you consider to have featured S-tier players? If you ask me there was exactly one final in the last two years, Strasky vs. PV, which sounds like the clash of juggernauts I expect from the pinnacle of Magic competition.

By replacing the Pro Tour with a similar yet smaller event, Wizards is making sure that we are going to see the legends of the game battle it out more often. By keeping the Players Tour Finals reasonably large, they make sure that we are going to see upsets, but when they happen they will have the feeling of the exceptional instead of the norm, which they had become in the last couple of years.

At the same time a smaller field should make for a better viewing experience. In a field of a 120ish players, you have a better chance to keep track of your friends, the action at the top end, and what’s going on in general. Likewise, the coverage will have an easier time painting a picture of what’s going on. There will also be a more dynamic race for the Top 8. Previously all the action usually happened in round 15: The winners at the top would go on to ID in the next round, the losers were out. Instead of this one-round frenzy the action is going to spread out over a few rounds with one or two players in a position to lock up the Top 8 even before round 15 (or whatever the penultimate round will be), and others fighting for the final spots in the last round. Saturdays should be more exciting this way.

Finally, the exclusivity of the event opens up chances for Wizards to give it that exceptional feel that the Pro Tour had lost over the years. Originally, Pro Tours had been held in castles, on the Queen Mary, etc. There were also players lounges with free food and beverages. Thus the Pro Tours were also more special to the players. However, for quite a while Pro Tours were held in the same sites that they use for the Grand Prix, and frankly these events did not feel exceptional at all.

I think that there is a lot of potential in the Players Tour Finals. Whether Wizards realizes it remains to be seen. However, we should not let ourselves be blinded by Wizards’ communication deficiencies. Their decisions are to be evaluated separately, and at least when it comes to tabletop, they look promising to me.

Discussion

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