The Past, Present and Future of Competitive Magic

Where we stand in relation to some new technology or event is often best illuminated by considering where similar people stood in relation to prior events and inventions. If I write here that MTG Arena will be the end of paper Magic tournaments, it would be wise to think about whether the article will later read like historical testimony about the death of theatrical film release that will result from VHS tapes, Blockbuster Video, the home VCR (and of course Netflix, but that perspective is not quite historical just yet). It would be wise to wonder whether anyone thought Magic Online would be the death of paper Magic back in the early 2000s (of course some did).

But just as wisdom demands of us that we be careful before we declare that everything has changed (and here’s exactly how), so too must we be cautious with claims that nothing will change, or that we won’t change even if others do:

Floyd Gondolli: This here’s the future. Videotape tells the truth.

Jack Horner: Wait a minute. You come into my house, my party, to tell me about the future? That the future is tape, videotape, and not film? That it’s amateurs and not professionals? I’m a filmmaker, which is why I will *never* make a movie on tape.

-Boogie Nights (1997)

And to complete the line of thought, I need to mention that the fact that VHS movies didn’t kill theatrical film doesn’t mean that DVD movies didn’t kill VHS. They did. So, sometimes the thing you’re worried will lose its critical mass of user and industry support does in fact go extinct. At the risk of going one layer of analogy deeper, most conspiracy theories are wrong–and yet people do conspire. The world is complicated. Our imaginations are complicated too, and although these complexities occasionally intersect, they don’t fully overlap.

And so, as I reflect today on the Pro Tour, on Mythic Championships (which I, Jack Horner himself apparently, still call “Pro Tours”), on Magic Arena, on “paper” or “tabletop” Magic, and on my competitive career, past, present and future, I’ll try to avoid these three failure modes. Or at least I’ll oscillate between these modes with an awareness of what I’m doing and try to circle back to a competing perspective before wrapping up.

A Strange Place

This season, I got second place at the Mythic Championship in London, I’m headed to the Team Series finals with Team Ultimate Guard, I’m currently in the running to qualify for a 16-player $1,000,000 Worlds field if I can hold onto third or fourth place on the Challenger leaderboard. And next year, there might not be a Pro Tour.

It’s a truly strange feeling to be in the middle of my most successful season of professional play at the same time some of my best friends are preparing for life after professional Magic, at least a version they envision themselves participating in.

One thing to clear up right away: “this is bad for me, I’m out of here” does not imply “This is bad for everyone” or “This makes no sense.” The most common sentiment I’ve heard when asking people what they think will happen next is something along the lines of, “Magic‘s going one direction, towards online play, streaming, ‘esports,’ etc., and that’s not for me.” Is this the “correct” direction for Magic? Most people readily admit they don’t know.

Personally, I’m having fun playing Magic in a few different ways and I feel pretty engaged. But that’s not all that surprising. “Winning cures everything,” as they say in (non-e) sports. I’m having a good year. The top-heavy payouts are hitting my account. The shrinking fields at year-end and into 2020 are fairly likely to include me, at least in the short-term. I don’t plan on streaming more than once a month, but they haven’t hung 100% of the incentives on that yet, so it shows up for me as a periodic source of frustration, not a reason to quit.

I really like Netflix. But I also like a full-theater, soda & popcorn movie experience. I think we can have both, but not in the exact way they existed 3 years ago.

Is a (roughly) 64-player Mythic Championship a “Pro Tour”?

If they eventually announce a 2020 schedule that has a few tournaments in Las Vegas or Seattle that look more like Mythic Championship III than Mythic Championship IV, is the Pro Tour dead? Let’s stack up the arguments.

In favor of declaring the Pro Tour dead:

  • The Pro Tour always meant a few hundred of the best players, not a few dozen.
  • The yardstick for a career in professional Magic was always the Pro Tour Top 8, which means something totally different in a field of 50 or 75 than it does in a field of 300-500.
  • The Pro Tour was always preceded by PTQs and Grand Prix that allowed people to spike a qualification to it.
  • The “Tour” in Pro Tour meant that the events were all over the world and gave players an opportunity to travel to those locations in order to compete.
  • Inviting streamers and video game celebrities to events with precious few slots is too aggravated an offense for entrenched players (those who give much of their free time and money to pursuit of competitive rewards) to forgive and forget, perhaps.

In favor of saying the Pro Tour is different, but not gone:

  • Pro Tours were always different sizes. The smallest is probably closer in size to 64 than to 500. And there was little regularity from year to year or decade to decade.
  • Smaller-field events already existed and already complicated “Pro Tour” resumes. How do we evaluate Shahar Shenhar’s resume? How valuable is a “Worlds” Top 4 or win from a 16- or 24-person field? These aren’t new questions for 2019.
  • You can still spike something to qualify for the smaller MCs. Maybe it takes a few levels, but so did RPTQs. Things change.
  • From the standpoint of identifying and rewarding the top players, who cares what convention center the tournament takes place in? The travel was great, and if the next generation doesn’t get what I got, that’s sad, but I’m not sure it means the Pro Tour is over.
  • There have always been special invites and shifting criteria for invitation, sometimes revealed after the fact. They were sometimes less glaring in a larger field, but they too aren’t new to the Pro Tour in 2019.

This isn’t exactly a slam-dunk, so the details will likely matter. How much does whatever they announce for 2020 preserve, how much does it discard, and how much does it sort-of keep and sort-of not keep?

If the Pro Tour is Dead, Count Me among Those Who Will Miss It

When I won my first Pro Tour Qualifier around 20 years ago for Pro Tour New York (2000), the PTQ started on a Saturday morning, ended on Saturday night, and I don’t think the smile came off my face until I got to school on Monday. Playing on the Pro Tour was something I would walk around the block with my headphones on daydreaming about. I did it often enough that different versions of the dream had some real nuance. In one version, I would go on to win the Pro Tour, then I’d meet Gillian Anderson at an afterparty, and she would be so impressed that she’d risk it all to date an 11-year-old.

I never won a Pro Tour or sent Gillian Anderson to prison, but a shocking number of details from other versions of the Pro Tour dream came true for me. I remember wanting top pros to like and respect me enough to let me test with them. I remember wanting to Top 8 a Pro Tour. I remember wanting to win $10,000 or even $20,000 at a Magic tournament. I remember wanting to have articles published on a Magic site.

A few commonalities pop out as I think about what Young Matt wanted or needed from competitive Magic: I wanted to belong to a community of talented players. I wanted other people to like and respect me. I wanted to prove that I could play as well as anybody. I wanted to be able to express myself through articles, decks, conversations, shouting matches, whatever. I wanted people who I thought were smart and cool to think I was smart and cool, if I’m honestly boiling things down even further. I wanted close friends who shared my passions.

I got to have it all, really. Not all of it all the time, but way more than my fair share. I spend more time now thinking about how I can pay some of it forward than I do dreaming about what I haven’t achieved.

I hope whatever the next version(s) of competitive Magic are, they do for some kids and young adults what the last 20 years did for me. And even if it looks different now than it did then, and I find myself on the outside looking in, I’ll never stop being someone’s mentor, coach, columnist, deckbuilder, or at least “old guy with a few good stories.”

An Ode to Paper

MTG Arena is a good program. It lets me scratch most of the Magic itch from the comfort of my own home and keeps me well-versed in the literature on Screen Addiction via articles my wife emails me. I’m sure it’s good at teaching new players how to play and getting them hooked, err, engaged. But it isn’t Paper Magic.

How do I best describe the difference between paper and online play? I just spent some time in San Sebastian with my wife after Mythic Championship IV in Barcelona was over. While we were there, we learned that they have these gastronomical club/societies where people (it used to be only men, now it’s only mostly men…sound familiar?) get together and cook, drink, eat, and hang out. This must be in many ways less convenient than the in-home version of cooking. Similarly, pubs in the UK are less convenient than cracking open a beer at home.

One of the reasons games are great is that they bring people together. It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big one.

The “social club” element of paper Magic is about as easy to replicate online as the pub experience is. That isn’t to say chat rooms have no value or that they substitute for 0% of the pub experience, but it’s not a perfect or even near-perfect substitute.

Similarly, Arena is not a perfect or even near-perfect substitute for paper Magic.

Sam Black recently mentioned on Twitter that (I’m paraphrasing) Magic is the best paper game ever made but isn’t the best video game ever made, and future investments in Magic ought to reflect that. I really liked that sentiment. I’d add that you can have both–you can have online and paper versions that are both thriving–but I think they should spend more time on making them feel harmonious and additive rather than competing for our time and especially our money.

The Missing Bridge for Competitive Harmony

I think there are two big missing elements of harmony between online and paper play: competitive harmony (tournaments, prizes, etc.) and non-competitive harmony (collectability, investment, casual play). First, regarding competitive harmony, they’ve actually made a ton of strides with this year’s mix of Mythic Championships and to a lesser extent with the MPL. It has felt like winning at Standard, for example, is something I could learn to do online but use in paper too.

The biggest missing bridge is something I can earn online that adds together with whatever I earn at Friday Night Magic or the local Grand Prix in paper, for example. We should return to Planeswalker Points qualification for PTs and award them online (just kidding). But it would be nice, in all seriousness, to not have separate progress tracks like rankings online vs. planeswalker points in real life.

Like I said, I’ve seen enough progress in this direction over the last 12 months or so to be optimistic that more consolidated rewards are coming in 2020. The most worrisome thing from 2019 so far is that they seem to want to reward people for streaming within the competitive rewards system, while I think that should be done completely separately from the competitive rewards system. Streaming is ultimately distinct from competitive play, and when you try to mash things together at the highest levels of one of the things, they just don’t mesh. So my optimism there is more that many people have been very outspoken on the topic, and WotC has the capacity to learn from mistakes like this. They can care about streaming, they can reward streaming, but it ought to be a different set of rewards than those your top players are aiming for.

Regarding Non-Competitive Harmony, which I’ll discuss next, I have less reason to be optimistic about the direction things are headed.

The Missing Bridge for Non-Competitive Harmony

Asking players to acquire 4 Arclight Phoenix on Arena as well as 4 copies of Arclight Phoenix in paper is a really tall order (and borders on absurd if you want them on MTGO as well). I have written before how bad it feels to own a “playset” or complete set of something and then need to buy it again. I think WotC should fix this somehow.

It’s not an easy problem to fix. Let’s take a relatively simple proposal, at least at first glance: every paper copy of a card in the next set could have a code you redeem online for a digital version. What’s the problem? Well, to list a few: 1) how do you then trade the physical copy? Does it lead to a market for redeemed vs. unredeemed copies at different price points? If so, you won’t want to just snap redeem it since that will devalue it, and now you feel bad when you redeem it. 2) online ownership on Arena is a totally different model than paper Magic, by design following industry trends away from the Magic Online and paper versions of collecting/trading etc. This would let people buy singles into their online collection, and not necessarily through WotC, so it undermines some of the model, 3) what if I buy paper cards but don’t care about Arena? Can I sell someone just the code, creating yet another secondary market? 4) it doesn’t let Arena players get into the physical cards easier. So it only solves part of the “I need 2 collections” problem.

I’m sure there are many other issues with redemption codes and other versions of bridging the multiple collections gap, but that list is hopefully sufficient to show that the world I wished I lived in isn’t going to be coming next release.

What do I think they should do, then? I believe that Arena‘s revenue model should be selling subscriptions, not digital collectibles. For one, the collectability of digital objects has always felt less rewarding to me than paper copies, in a way that makes the online collection feel like a creepy cousin of a tangible asset/toy/collection more than it feels like the real McCoy. But even assuming others feel differently about digital collections (as I’m sure some do), you just can’t be everything to everyone on every platform, and should play to your strengths instead. The strengths of Arena are graphical interface, low barrier to entry, digital shuffling/mechanics, ease of locating opponents, scalability.

Offering the subscription model for Arena has the following benefits:

  • Eliminate or at least drastically reduce the “I already own this” feel-bad when people acquire paper cards and then want to play online.
  • Lowers barrier to entry as the “how do I get the older cards?” problem goes away.
  • Collectability itch doesn’t go away, you can convert more players to paper as well by offering collectability there alongside a try-before-you-buy online experience.
  • Cosmetic items can still be collectible.
  • Possible to offer both models if you want to let people continue to collect, let people continue to free-to-play with a limited collection, etc. The fact that one player has a full collection doesn’t necessarily mean all need to have it.
  • Better customer experience overall. Using Netflix just feels better than using iTunes.
  • No need to create an “Arena Modern” type format to let people use their older cards. If everyone is on subscription, you can just acknowledge that once Teferi rotates it won’t be used much on Arena, but you can still play it in Modern on MTGO or in paper if you love it.
  • Arena is new enough that you can give people who have spent money on it subscription credit if you kill their collection. You could also just give them everything they own for free, subscription or not, until they rotate or do something like that. I think it’s solvable in a way MTGO collection issues weren’t.
  • An active subscription on Arena could give you the new cards on MTGO as well, which would preserve the collectability of the older cards there but add a new way to get the new cards that can make it more fair on the players (fair in the sense that I shouldn’t have to buy the cards a third time because the rules engine is difficult to program, making a full migration into a single platform not immediately feasible).

Food for thought at least.

As you can see, I’m nostalgic about what Magic was, happy about what it is, and optimistic/interested in what it will be become. It really is the best game ever made. It deserves a world-class rewards system for competitive play (I’m being deliberate about not just saying it needs a Pro Tour for marketing purposes–it can also be marketing, but marketing is a different goal than rewarding your competitive players for their investment of time and money, and giving them something to chase, which your organized play should). With a game this good, the designers and organizers mostly need to get out of the way, and the existence of 3 platforms to buy cards and play is now very much in the way in a few regards, so I hope they can stay focused on what matters in 2020.

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