The Magic Pro League isn’t working.
Any initial hype there might have been has long since died out, buried beneath a mountain of furious Gold pros, and nobody is watching the weekly matches. On the first week, what seemed like a lifetime after the program was announced, the Twitch stream was allegedly view-botted up to 50k, while other week’s games struggled to hit 2k viewers. This is obviously not worth the millions of dollars gutted from the rest of the Organized Play program, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the malaise, and even anger, felt by the competitive community at large eclipses any marginal advertising benefits gained by Wizards of the Coast. Everyone with a platform in this community has written at length about their frustration, and there’s no need to add any more fuel to the fire.
Crunched some Magic Pro League numbers. As a whole, the average Twitch views of the MPL sponsored streams was 334.1 for the past 30 days. I’m starting to think the reason why don’t know anything about the 2020 MPL is that there might not be a 2020 MPL.
— Saffron Olive (@SaffronOlive) June 17, 2019
“I’m just always looking forwards. I spend very little time, looking backwards” – Gary Vaynerchuk
In the wake of this absolute failure, we now have no choice but to look forward. It feels like WotC has no direction, no overarching plan to bring pro Magic back from the brink. A wise man once told me that it’s unacceptable to complain about a system until you lay out a complete proposal for an overhaul of that system, before blocking me on Twitter. Some might argue that it is foolish, or even immoral, to do unpaid work on behalf of a multi-billion dollar corporation, but not I, for I have been binging self-help books and hitting the gym every single day. I’m pumped up, and ready to be paid in exposure. I just squatted 250 and I’m feeling great. Let’s get that bread, gamers.
“Stop whining, start hustling.” – Gary Vaynerchuk
Before we jump right into a blueprint for the new system, we have to think a bit about what we’re trying to achieve, and lay out a set of goals. First, I want to acknowledge what WotC has been pushing for this past year: the development of Magic Arena esports as a marketing tool. Competitive players, on the other hand, have been feeling alienated by the steps that WotC has taken towards that end, so a second major stated goal of OP should be to try and re-engage players of all stripes. These two objectives can co-exist, so long as you build your systems intelligently. To that end, I have a third major point: these new systems must be simple and impressive, with clear, transparent paths for participation. No more incomprehensible terminology like “Mythic Championship III” being an indistinguishably different tournament from “Mythic Championship II”.
We run into a bit of a problem here, however, as the first two objectives, promotional and participatory, are somewhat opposed. The former demands bringing in outside talent and the maintenance of a meticulous marketing ecosystem, while the latter consists simply of creating a framework that the prospective players will enjoy. Much of the frustration with Magic esports, starting back with the Silver Showcase, has been with the conflation of these two systems. This can be avoided through limited separation of the two systems — Arena esports is the promotional force, while Tabletop OP rebuilds and strengthens the legacy systems that have made Magic the titan it is today.
We have three goals in this section of the strategy: creating engaging content for viewers on Twitch and other platforms, encouraging investment in the client by players via meaningful paths to the pro scene and finding a balance between merit-based and promotional invites that achieve a meaningful diversity.
Arena Grand Prix
The Grand Prix is an institution in Magic’s history, and bringing that terminology to a flagship online tournament series practically bleeds legitimacy. These are monthly semi-open events in the style of the Arena MCQ Weekend, which was universally lauded as a fun and engaging tournament. Hitting Mythic at any point, in any format, gives your account a token, expiring in six months, that can be exchanged for an entry into any Arena GP. Two days of Standard competition keep the format relevant to all players in between set releases, and the Top 8 of each event qualify for the Mythic Championship, while the top 128 finishers receive what can be called Arena Points. Ideally, a robust spectator mode for Arena is introduced, allowing a coverage team to hop in and out of relevant matches throughout the weekend, following the progress of notable players in their bid to compete on the big stage.
These are essentially Pro Points for Arena esports, a way to allow top performing players to experience some kind of consistent participation in the ecosystem. Without a system like this in place, it’s easier for these players, whose stories should be told on coverage, to quickly fall out of relevance. An amount of points loosely equivalent to Silver pro status in the old system would allow players to skip the first day of Arena Grand Prix, while an amount similar to Platinum would ensure invites to Mythic Championships.
This is the Arena Pro Tour: an invite-only quarterly contest in the Standard format, featuring approximately 60-70 players competing for a significant prize purse in a meticulously-presented media event. Here are the ways to qualify:
- Mythic Championship top 8
- Arena Grand Prix top 8
- Arena Points threshold
- Magic Pro League playoffs
- Top 4 non-male Arena Points
- Top not-otherwise-qualified Arena Points from each of Latin America, APAC or any other region that is traditionally geographically disadvantaged in Magic
- Discretionary invites
Top finishers receive Arena Points, and the winner punches a ticket to the Magic World Championship.
Magic Pro League
The MPL was the single focus point of WotC’s overall esports strategy, a replacement for the Pro Player’s Club that — in theory — used them as media assets for streams and the weekly MPL broadcasts. In practice, a couple members have become popular streamers, and the weekly broadcast is, well, a mess. The viewer numbers are unacceptably low for the investment, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this is a result of poor macro planning. The broadcast is of high quality, but the content that they’re streaming, random replay highlights from pre-recorded matches, is not engaging or in any way interesting. Simply put, they’re trying to do Overwatch League or LCS, but fail to capture any of the intensity or the high stakes of those streams.
The new MPL is no longer a substitute for the Pro Players’ Club, but rather a pro league in the traditional sense, where teams of notable pro players sponsored by the biggest names in Magic compete in an exciting team league format with playoffs, titles, and Mythic Championship invites on the line. There are twelve teams of four players, who play weekly in the old Starcraft Pro League format. The four players each play a match against someone on the other team, then in the case of a 2-2 tie, a fifth game, the “ace match”, takes place, with each team sending out a star player, for all the marbles.
At the end of each two-month split, the top six teams make the playoffs like in the LCS, with the top two receiving byes to the semifinals. These top four teams qualify for the next Mythic Championship, and the eventual winner is, well, the champion of the split. Team competition is inherently more engaging, and playing for real high stakes in terms of titles and invites is more compelling than a league in which everyone is given the highest possible status by virtue of being a part of the league.
The league can either be franchised, with WotC curating the organizations able to participate, or can feature a relegation system with a challenger league. Either way, players are salaried and invited to all the tabletop Pro Tours, to be compensated for their work.
Arena has provided amazing growth for Magic, but the struggling tabletop tournament scene isn’t seeing those numbers translate into truly engaged players. It’s in WotC interest to enfranchise those brought into Magic via Arena and its esports, and they have a tried and true model available in store-level tournament Magic, featuring “The Gathering.” As popular as esports has become, the culture shift in gaming towards Twitch and YouTube leaves much to be desired in terms of social engagement. The parasocial relationships developed on these platforms simply cannot compete with the bonds formed over in-person competition, something that even the ever-bickering Magic community agrees is the driving reason as to why they play the game. You want engaged players and a persistent revenue stream? Get people out to your local game store, drafting and playing FNM. Arena is the hook, the card shop is the line and sinker. Support them — with more than just promo packs. Tabletop organized play must feature vertical integration with brick and mortar stores, the cornerstone of the strategy.
Wizards has been doing a great job of introducing promo packs and what not to keep more casual players hanging around the in-store tournament scene, but has absolutely left the competitive types out to dry. Let’s make the LGS matter again, by getting rid of the utterly pointless Planeswalker Points and replacing them with something more important: Qualifier Points. With clear nomenclature, we can make a complex system easy to understand. These points can be earned, in different amounts, through top finishes at store-level tournaments, be they Store Championships or new programs, akin to Pokemon League Challenges and League Cups. They’re also awarded, in larger sums, at Grand Prix and Pro Tours, as well as their myriad side events. After achieving certain thresholds, these points can give you byes at Grand Prix and Pro Tour Qualifiers, and eventually directly earn you an invite to the Pro Tour. Qualifier Points reset periodically, and are worthless after the Pro Tour invite threshold, to disincentivize endless grinding. Pro Points remain, but are awarded only at the Pro Tour, and are used as a metric to determine World Championship invites among consistent top players.
Pro Tour Qualifier
The old name is back, to easily differentiate the Pro Tour from its Arena analogue, the Mythic Championship. These events stay largely the same, with the winner earning enough points to immediately earn a Pro Tour invite, but I bring them up to mention how immensely improved they are by a Qualifier Points system. No longer is it pure heartbreak to lose the finals – you’ve earned yourself a pile of points and are well on your way to punching a ticket through participating in more Organized Play!
MagicFests, despite their incomprehensible name, have really leveled up as of late in terms of event quality. Sure, there are some issues with side events prize pools and what not, but overall, they’re a successful program desperately in need of a shot in the knee by way of a revitalized Qualifier Points system. Large, in-person tournaments can still be the cornerstone of competitive Magic, and making them matter again is immeasurably valuable.
At their core, the Pro Tours remain unchanged: large, multi-format invite-only tournaments featuring the best of the best, duking it out for glory. The big matter of contention with these events at the moment is the lack of travel award associated with invites, as many competitors turn to crowdfunding to make their way there. Assuming that this is happening for budget reasons rather than a misguided belief that it’s somehow actually good, here’s a solution: fly every qualified player to the Pro Tour, but crowdfund the tournament’s prize pool in the style of The International, by selling a fantastic, unique promotional card online. Parallel to the Pro Tour, stores can run events of matching formats that award Qualifier Points as well as copies of the Pro Tour promo to top competitors.
This is it, the place where Arena and Tabletop meet, the place where the World Champion is crowned. A 24-player tournament with all the bells and whistles, played on Arena for the world to see. Here’s how to qualify:
- Win a Mythic Championship (2 slots)
- Win a Pro Tour (4 slots)
- Top Arena Points from each region (North America, Europe, Latin America, Japan, Other) (5 slots)
- Top Pro Points from each region (5 slots)
- Top non-male Arena Points (1 slot)
- Top non-male Pro Points (1 slot)
- Top Arena Points at large (3 slots)
- Top Pro Points at large (3 slots)
“All your ideas may be solid or even good .. But you have to actually execute on them for them to matter.” – Gary Vaynerchuk
Well, ultimately, this is simply what I’d like to see. I was told that the MPL was the future of Magic, and while I’m not happy with it, consider this framework to be my humble offering towards hopefully building a better and more equitable future. Yes, this is little more than a rough outline of how things should be, but I hope that some of the ideas presented can at least provide a bit of inspiration. Before I wrap this up, I’d like to remind you all that issues of inequality cannot be solved through band-aid fixes, rather requiring systemic changes that create long-lasting equity, and I’d also like to apologize for the Gary Vaynerchuk bit. It’s kinda heavy-handed, but I’m nothing if not petty.