Tournament Magic is Broken

Tournament Magic is, and has been, in a strange place for a while now… The golden goose, #MTGArena, entered into the equation last year, and shortly after WotC began to restructure the tournament dynamic in unpredictable, unprecedented ways with an emphasis on expanding the brand into the esports market. The way we play, as well as what we are playing for, has changed since the old incentives offered by the Pro Players club were largely dismantled and replaced with a new top of the mountain, the Magic Pro League. Today, I’d like to tackle that basic idea: how do these changes affect how we play tournament Magic? The answer I’ve arrived at, based on my own experience, is different from the popular narrative that has dominated the conversation thus far.

It’s a reasonable assumption that when something is “taken away,” such as the Pro Players Club, that it is a net loss for everyone. For instance, if your goal was to grind into the Club, that’s no longer on the table. While it is true that something has been lost and potentially changed moving forward, I’d also argue that sweeping change has been a long time coming. The previous Pro Players Club, while an established and known commodity, wasn’t without significant flaws of its own. Specifically, the Pro Players Club facilitated a dynamic that made the path of the average player increasingly unattainable.

While there is still a great deal of uncertainty about what will replace the old system, it is my belief there is serious potential to replace the old system with one that is much, much better for most tournament players. Today, I’ll discuss some of the downsides of the old system, as well as the upsides (both implicit and speculative) for where we are headed.

We are losing something and it’s unclear exactly what will replace it, which has created quite the controversy. While there is certainly a lot of mystery about what the big picture of tournament Magic will look like in a year or two from now, I’m a huge fan of the changes I’ve seen implemented thus far and am optimistic the future can be a better tournament experience for the vast majority of fans and players.

Tournament Magic is Broken

Let me start by saying that I’m not a professional Magic player, nor have I ever been one. Most people assume I am because I’ve always done pretty well for myself at tournaments and I’ve produced content for about 15 years, which is longer than most players have even played the game. I’ve made several deep runs at Gold status and missed, only to start over from scratch and narrowly miss again. I’ve been a Grand Prix Top 8 competitor four times (and won once). I’m second in all-time Power 9 Top 8 appearances (and won once). I’m also an Open Champion. I’ve accumulated 120 lifetime Pro Points and I’m hoping to reach level 50 archmage soon. I’ve invented my own format, the Battle Box, and it sees worldwide play.

I’m bragging for the purpose of framing my perspective: I have more cumulative accomplishments, spanning the totality of possible Magical territory, than 99.9% of people will ever achieve and I have never been a “professional Magic player” in the technical sense that I was paid to play Magic.

On the other hand, I’ve written about my experiences playing Magic in a professional capacity for 15 years. Lots of people have paid me to produce content over the years. On a whim, I decided to try and figure out how many articles I’ve penned over the years. I counted at least 178 for SCG, 364 for CFB, and another 125 for Quiet Speculation. That total doesn’t even include all the random stuff I’ve written for smaller sites or primers I’ve written on various forums. Estimating a low word count (for me) of 2,500 words per article, the content I can verify rounds out to roughly 1,665,000 published words about Magic. For reference, all three Lord of the Rings novels combined are 445,000 words.

I’ve also received sponsorship to represent various stores and websites over the years. Again, not technically the mark of a “professional Magic player,” since I wasn’t being paid to play Magic, but rather to represent a third party at public outings. In fact, I’d describe that dynamic as subsidizing the costs of playing Magic rather than making bank. I’ve worked at game stores, and even managed one. I’ve collected, invested, bought, and sold cards ever since I was a teenager. I wrote a finance column for years that helped explain and teach others how to get the most bang for their Magical buck.

I know this has been a long preamble, but I want to stress that while I’ve had a ton of good fortune playing Magic that I accomplished all of it without ever becoming a professional Magic player, at least in the technical sense that I never was on the gravy train.

Sympathy for the Devil

My experience of never being on the train is similar to 99.9% of the hundreds of thousands of people who play Magic, but I do feel empathy for the other side.

Would you change the tracks to put a runaway gravy train headed towards 1,000 random people onto another track that had one random person on it? I likely would, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t feel heartbroken for the singular individual who was squashed as a consequence of my choice. Choices have consequences, and whatever the course of action (or inaction) taken, it’s important to consider the costs and benefits. Often, there isn’t a pie-in-the-sky scenario where everyone gains and nobody loses.

Luckily, making changes to tournament Magic isn’t a matter of squashing people to death with freight trains. It’s just a game, but it’s also more than that as there are opportunities and financial incentives built into the tournament circuit, now more than ever with the Magic Pro League. I understand why Pro Players Club members who are theoretically being flattened by the “change train” are justifiably upset with the new direction and the confusing and uncertain aura that surrounds the future. Specifically, a lack of clear-cut guidelines for MPL player selection is concerning, because it appears the selection process for who receives these amazing opportunities and who is left out in the cold is highly arbitrary.

Many people enjoy the grail quest of earning and maintaining professional status and it’s unclear whether doing that will even continue to be a viable goal. It’s difficult to chase the dream when it’s unclear what the necessary steps to take are or whether the rules will change out of nowhere.

A meme.

I believe we can all relate to the fact that they are getting screwed by circumstances beyond their control. It’s like someone working hard and taking on great personal expense to learn a skill or degree in a particular field, and then finding out that the world and workplace have changed and diminished the value of that skill. Being “good at Magic” is a skill set with value relative to whether or not somebody wants to pay you to play Magic. While the accomplishment of “knowing you are good at Magic” has inherent personal value from working hard and the personal growth gained through self-improvement, this has naturally caused players to gravitate toward the Pro Players Club as concrete goals that provided validation and a drove the desire to take the next step.

Let’s return to the runaway train metaphor of the professional circuit. There was likely a third option never considered, or ignored: Hit the brakes, clear the tracks and then restart the engine.

While I do think it was a little bit sneaky to allow players to quest for a status and then change the reward, I also don’t think that they are wrong to reevaluate exactly what does or doesn’t have value in the system. I have lots of friends who worked hard to achieve tournament objectives last year and I understand their frustration, but with that said, I (like many other players) have also felt frustration with the system that is being replaced.

New Dream, Same As the Old Dream

Under the old system, “chasing the dream” was never cheap, and not by a long shot. People complain that decks and cards are expensive, but the cost of cards is chump change compared to grinding for pro status under the old system. The route to professional Magic before the introduction of Arena and MPL was fairly straightforward: Travel to as many Grand Prix as possible to grind for Pro Points and hopefully spike a Pro Tour to push into the next tier. After plane tickets, gas, tolls, hotels, food, and everything else, the yearly expense of this grail quest can easily end up being tens of thousands of dollars, and that doesn’t even include the personal costs and time lost.

I look at my travel expenses over the years as an investment, but also as a luxury. Luckily, it was an expense I could afford and a cost I was willing to incur in exchange for an experience I valued. The potential to become a professional player and reap more financial incentives was always on the table, but first and foremost it was about traveling and partaking in an experience I enjoyed with people I liked. The overwhelming majority of people who enjoy the game pay money to play and not the other way around. I’m no exception. Once I felt like the expense wasn’t worth it, I changed how I played.

My biggest issue with the Pro Players Club was that the difference between hitting gold status over the course of a season and missing was essentially the difference between game over and unlimited continues. The advantage of starting a season with gold status and a huge cache of guaranteed pro points made it significantly easier to rebuy gold status year after year than to achieve it for the first time, which impeded a non-professional’s ability to qualify for the Pro Tour in the first place.

The other problem was that it encouraged Club members to play as many Grand Prix as possible in order to keep the pro points flowing. Overloading the Open Grand Prix circuit with professionals who have an additional bye makes it even more difficult for the amateur chasing the dream.

Flooding events with players who have three byes changes the math on what record is required for any player to make Top 8. The obvious advantage is that needing to win one less round is easier. The less obvious effect is that it degrades the value of the records achieved by players without the additional bye. For example, I made Top 8 of Grand Prix Tampa Bay this season with a record of 12-2-1. Since there is no incentive for pros to grind points for status (since it doesn’t matter anymore) there were significantly fewer players with three byes at the event and I was able to qualify. If there were 20+ more players with three byes in the event, I would not have made it.

The first tiebreaker used to determine seeding is what was the “average win percentage of all of my opponents combined?” Not only do byes generate advantage through starting with a 3-0 record, but they also favorably affect tiebreakers. Is it possible for the opponent you beat in round 1 to go 14-0 for the rest of the tournament and potentially help your breakers? Sure, but it is much, much more likely that these players will drag your overall tiebreakers down. And if two players are vying for Top 8 with the same record of 13-2, the player with the greater number of byes has the edge on breakers—which are determined by opponents’ match win percentage—while the player with no byes actually has the better match win percentage.

I’m not debating whether or not pros have earned the right to an advantage. I’m simply pointing out the fact they have one. I believe the system is intentionally designed this way to make it easier for pros to maintain professional status and gatekeep new pros from breaking in. Consider the fact that the point threshold necessary to reach/maintain Gold has continued to rise year after year in order to force some people to fall off. Raising the threshold makes it even more difficult for new players to ever get there. As the threshold to access the tangible advantages of the Pro Club continued to rise, opportunities for the average player to reach the Pro Tour began to evaporate. PTQs, which provided an invitation to non-pros, were dismantled and replaced with a system that provided only four invites per region per season, which left Grand Prix—flooded with advantaged, incentivized, and subsidized professionals—as the sole bastion of hope for an outsider looking to make a run.

An Issue of Representation

I struggled to write this for a couple of reasons. The first one is that I know many readers will dismiss anything I have to say as, “DeMars is just jealous because he didn’t get there.”

Discrediting my motivation doesn’t discredit the quality of my argument. I’ll readily admit that I would have loved to have made a ton more money and gotten sweet perks, and I also acknowledge that I didn’t earn it and therefore am not entitled to anything. I’m happy and proud of what I have accomplished, and what I earned was more than I could have hoped for going in.

Is it worth the possible backlash? It’s mostly downside for me, but I decided to do it anyways and here’s why: Who else is going to write it?

Most mainstream content is written by the professional community and designed to help readers improve at the game. Of course, this perspective is going to hate a new system where MPL candidates are arbitrarily chosen. I don’t think the general sentiment is dishonest, but rather informed by a specific point of view that has a horse in the race. I’d argue the selection process for the MPL is determined by the value a player brings to the table. In the past, the formula for selling Magic relied on the Pro Club system. “If you work hard enough and earn it, you can be a part of the experience,” was the general sentiment.

The Pro Tour, and now the MPL, are designed to advertise the game and get people excited to play more Magic. As the game expands into the esports “arena,” it’s clear that a streamer’s ability to generate interest has been recognized as a huge, previously untapped market for reaching potential players. How many viewers you bring has just as much value as how many pro points you’ve earned. I’m not saying the game is rigged, because it isn’t. There are clearly opportunities for anybody to work hard, win, and break into the system. But the “promotional tour” has always been stacked for those at the top.

Streamers, on the other hand, break the system wide-open and have almost overnight become the new ambassadors of the game. It’s a better way to engage viewers through intimate first-hand interactions via chat. Players can ask questions in the chat and literally pick their favorite players’ brains about a game in real time.

Tournament players have been told for years now that what matters, and what we should be striving for are “results achieved through skill,” and now they are being told something else. To be fair, what they are being told is murky and confusing. Nonetheless, what we are being shown now is different from what we’ve been shown and told in the past.

The new system is clearly less transparent about how important and effective intangibles like charisma and viewer engagement are toward progressing Magic’s brand into new markets. As it turns out, being able to interact with a streamer that viewers identify with and root for is a more powerful incentive toward influencing players to get out and game more often than watching an objectively more talented and experienced grinder who personifies saltiness incarnate.

I’m not saying that everyone who is talented and experienced is a salt mine. There are plenty of pros whose example has inspired me to get my game on over the years. What I am saying is that the “intangibles” are clearly acknowledged as a metric that has tangible value right now. Whether a person agrees that charisma should or shouldn’t matter is irrelevant. The market dictates value. Supply and demand dictate the marketplace.

It’s also worth noting that transparency cuts both ways… while the Pro Club was perceived to be 100% merit-based, it’s hard to overlook how miserably some MPL/pro club members have recently failed to represent the game in a professional capacity under the bigger, brighter esports spotlight. It’s not the “random streamers” who are dropping off the MPL like flies. Rather, it’s the “merit-based players” who “earned it” who were exposed as frauds and cheats. Also, while not a largely publicized fact, it’s no secret that there are numerous examples where high-profile individuals were given unearned invites to play in Pro Tours.

None of this is new. It’s just on a larger scale that reflects the fact that it is simply a more effective way to sell the game to a larger audience.

The Upside

If you are not a professional player currently pondering the existential crisis of “why doesn’t Magic value me anymore?” then chances are that the fallout of these decisions likely benefit your future MTG experiences as well as opportunities for advancement within the game.

The tournament system is certainly broken. The system is in a period of transformation. I’m optimistic that the endgame will provide significantly more upside than downside for the overwhelming majority of players.

The Dream is Back on the Table for the Average Player

I’ve always believed that qualifying for the Pro Tour or Mythic Championship is the defining goal of most Magic players. It’s a touchstone of the community. We watch the events, see how awesome it is and hope to one day experience it for ourselves. While the player club era did an awesome job of selling the average player on joining the ecosystem, the system itself went a long way toward making it improbable to succeed.

Magic has been growing for a long time but the attendance for the Pro Tour has tried to stay as lean as possible. Why? More spotlight for the stars that are being paid to represent the game.

Would you rather watch a PT finals between LSV and Reid, or Joe Smith and Bob Johnson? The greater the number of Joe Smiths in the field, the smaller the number of LSVs. I agree that the most beloved players, who inspire and help the rest of us improve, are actually the ones who deserve the spotlight the most. But I also believe that if what we are being sold on is a dream, that the dream should be attainable.

The return of a legitimate weekly MCQ is a windfall for non-pros like you and me. Triple MCQ at MagicFests is an amazing innovation. I also believe that not subsidizing an army of advantaged grinders to flood every Open event is fantastic. The MCQ system is poised to return something that has been sorely lacking in Magic: high level game play at the local level. Other than the few times a year when there was a local Grand Prix or RPTQ in my region, there was no way to qualify for a Pro Tour that didn’t involve spending either 10 hours in a car each way, or buying a plane ticket and accepting my role as an underdog at a stacked GP.

In addition to giving players of all skill and experience levels circuit to play, improve, and take a reasonable path toward achieving a reasonable dream, MCQ provide additional equity. They build comraderie among local players and game stores, and they provide a route for fans of the game who can’t afford to jet set around the globe to MagicFests a way to be part of the dream. If you have been trying to qualify and have been frustrated by coming up short, now is your chance to quest on a much more level playing field. It’s still going to be tough, but it’s a heck of a lot fairer than before.

“Congratulations on your invite to MagicFest Barcelona! By the way, your plane ticket isn’t covered and no, you can’t defer to an event on your home continent. Plane tickets appear to be about $1,500 USD.”

I don’t have any delusions of grandeur that I’m an elite enough tournament player to have anything but negative equity at this event, and have been wondering if I should even bother? I’m going to suck it up, foot the bill and go because I love to play Magic, but jeez is this a bad look. I just mentioned that MCQs provide a way for players without enough disposable income to fly to everything to chase the dream and in the next breath, here we are… with people using GoFundMe to finance trips to the Mythic Championship.

In many cases the fix for the problem is as simple as allowing a player to defer their invite to a less expensive destination. I can’t even fathom why anybody would object to that. I’ve also been made aware that for players on other continents that this dynamic is even more punitive and legitimately threatens their ability to reach “the dream.” We are still early in seeing what the new dream and new circuit will be, but this will bring nothing but negative press and feelings from players and fans until WotC strikes the right balance. While it’s true that dissolving the Pro Club and not providing airfare diminishes the value of an MCQ invite under the new system, it’s equally true that achieving the dream is an opportunity that more players will reach going forward.

Better Representation

While I don’t understand the process by which the MPL is chosen, I do think the inclusion of streamers is a gigantic net positive for Magic. Magic has an identity problem in the sense that players who can afford it have a disproportionately large representation and that has always been a problem in the game’s ability to appeal to broader demographics. I also believe that giving one particular point of view so much representation lends itself toward generating an insular mindset about what Magic is, and how and why we should play it.

Female players have been crushing tournament Magic this year and it has a lot to do with higher visibility and representation. Female streamers have been actively demolishing the stereotype that gender matters when it comes to gaming. If a female streamer is bringing a ton of eyes to the fact that Magic is a game everybody can enjoy and that action is winning hearts and minds that Magic can be more than a salty boys club…. that is the person I most want to see playing on the biggest stage and that is the person I most want to root for. While I do believe greater representation with regard to race and gender is a tangible, immediate upside, I also believe that there are additional upsides beyond race or gender. In a “results-oriented” system such as the previous one, winning is all that matters.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that matches should be decided by charisma points or fan votes. In a tournament, nothing more and nothing less than fairly played games of Magic should determine the result. On the other hand, which players should be given contracts to represent Magic in a promotional, entertainment league should probably consider which players will be effective, represent the brand with dignity, and inspire new players to shuffle up and join the game.

Part of the reason the MPL has been a lightning rod of negative press is directly correlated to how poorly some of the players who were selected based on Pro Club criteria have failed to represent the game. Keep in mind, experienced players like you and me are not the target audience for the MPL. We’re already hooked, and we already know how fun Magic is. The point of the MPL isn’t to be a reward or a thank you to 32 players for being so great at Magic—it’s an advertisement designed to sell new players on why they should invest themselves into taking the next step, whatever that step may be: creating an Arena account, buying a booster pack, taking their game from the kitchen table to FNM, attending a first MCQ, or booking a flight to a MagicFest.

I don’t know what comes next for tournament Magic. I’m just going to keep playing, the same as I always have, and see where the chips fall. Magic could fall apart, go bankrupt, and cease to print new cards tomorrow, and 20 years from now I’d still be playing with my friends. Even without the perks, contracts, sponsorships, validation, or trophies, Magic is worth the play.

The last thing that I’d like to hit on is something that is a huge source of tension in the Magic playing community: what is the relationship between paper Magic and esport Magic in the future? There’s a lot of concern that electronic Magic will surpass paper Magic in terms of being what matters.

I don’t for a moment believe that the purpose of expanding Magic into esports is a desire to make paper Magic obsolete. Ideally, the best possible outcome is that both feed into each other and make the collective package bigger, stronger, better, and accessible to a wider audience. I do think that esport Magic has taken center stage, but largely because it must succeed for Magic to grow and to remain viable moving forward. There’s no reason why we can’t have both and they can’t both be great. I’m optimistic that where we’re headed will be better than where we’ve been. While probably an unpopular opinion with a vocal contingent of the MTG community, I believe this is a transitional moment where WotC has recognized that Magic needs to appeal to and create opportunities for more players to chase and realize their Magical dream.


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