The death of the PPTQ

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Earlier today, Wizards of the Coast rolled out another piece of the puzzle that is their announcements regarding competitive Magic in 2019. To exactly nobody’s surprise, I have some words. Before I dive in, I want to make it absolutely clear that my passion for Magic is bordering on fanatical, and I so desperately want this game to be the best it absolutely can. When I criticize, I do it from a place of concern, not of hate. I want things to be better than just corporate platitudes.

I understand Wizards’ rationale for staggering announcements and giving us only tidbits of information every few weeks, that is that they want to gauge community reaction and use the influx of information from that and their pro consultants to try and minimize the habitual outrage at every single change they make, but boy is it ever unprofessional. It all feels so rushed. Why wasn’t this work done throughout 2018 and presented in full in one fully fleshed-out video with an accompanying article? If their goal was to minimize outrage, they certainly failed. Not only is the community upset about the constant incomplete information being presented to them, but there are concrete downsides to this staggered release. Pro teams are constantly looking for sponsorships as the cost of playing competitive Magic rises and prize pools remain a questionable source of income, but who, outside of the existing card shop ecosystem, would ever invest in a pro Magic team when the fabric of pro Magic in coming years is being left intentionally vague?

The sloppiness of Organized Play announcements doesn’t end with Wizards: there are persistent issues with the communication from CFB Events. They just changed the format of Grand Prix Vancouver from Team Sealed to individual Limited a couple months out without any kind of explanation, and there was a huge public backlash when they changed the Pro Tour Qualifier formats to Modern at Legacy and Standard Grand Prix with insufficient notice for people who made travel plans. Just today, the prize pools released alongside the 2019 Grand Prix schedule are missing $2000 from three of the four tiers. To their credit, CFB Events always fixes these issues in a reasonable time-frame, but the persistent errors from both them and Wizards just really aren’t acceptable from companies of this scale. This level of sloppiness in presenting information and making odd decisions just can’t continue.

Furthermore, I’m concerned that a lot of these decisions are being made at the last minute, without adequate consultation. We learned today that PPTQs were removed without input from the coordinators of the Judge Program. And after Gerry Thompson’s protest at the World Championship, Wizards leaned heavily on the introduction of the Pro Ambassadors as a solution to these problems, but even if we’re to believe that their role is actually influential, their perspective represents but a small wedge of the player base at large. Learning that they’re changing the fundamental structure of Magic tournaments without consulting the Judge Program leads me to believe that they’re unlikely to adequately consider the perspectives of non-pro competitive players and the casual crowd.

Sure, they’re rolling out the announcements very poorly, and constantly leaving their playerbase with more questions than answers after each announcement stream. What about the substance?

The Death of the PPTQ

You know what? Good riddance. The Preliminary/Regional system for qualification was a nightmare, and it was hard to see why when the loudest voices in the community were so far removed from it. In order to qualify for a Pro Tour, players had to spend more or less every weekend traveling to Tom’s Comic Book Dungeon in some horrible suburb, hoping to outright win some event with probably-inadequate prize payout only for the privilege to be allowed to pay to play yet another qualifier. And yet the problems with PPTQs didn’t end with the inconsistent and poor player experience — mid-size stores with ambitious tournament series would constantly lose attendance to nearby PPTQs, and these events staffed by a single Level 2 judge made advancement within that system extremely difficult, with few opportunities for L1s to gain experience.

At long last, our cries were heard, and PPTQs are dead. From what little they’ve told us, it looks like we’re going back to loosely the way the system worked before the introduction of the PPTQ, with the best stores in any given region being allowed to host PTQs in or out-of-store. Larger organizers, like Face to Face Games or StarCityGames might be able to add Pro Tour slots to their own tournament series, as was the case for a brief time last year. MagicFests have qualifier events on the side every day. The biggest change to the old PTQ system is that the store-level PTQs have access to multiple qualifications per event, solving an ages-old criticism. Toronto PTQs back in the day were hitting 400 players, and I heard tales of similar events in places like Italy and Japan, so this change is quite welcome.

However, this only solves one of the problems inherent to the PTQ system, and while Wizards is ostensibly listening to community reaction, I’d like to offer some nuggets of advice. In a past life, I edited an article by local poster Nathan Starke laying out a groundwork for a sort of competitive points system, akin to how qualifications work in the Pokemon TCG. To summarize, competitive events such as PTQs and major in-store events at the level of the now-defunct GPT, as well as more significant tournaments like Pro Tours and Grand Prix, award a new kind of points on a level below Pro Points. These replace the minor utility that Planeswalker Points have and can determine your eligibility for the new invite-only store level qualifiers. At a certain threshold, say the points earned from multiple PTQ finals losses, they can earn you invites to the Pro Tour.

There are countless upsides to a system like this one for those among us who are spurned by the loss of Bronze and Silver RPTQ benefits. The PTQ system was an incredibly inconsistent way of earning a berth to the Pro Tour, and this gives a concrete goal for players to work towards, increasing their investment in the game. In the past, people (read: Pascal Maynard) would be given what were colloquially called “pity invites” after stacking up sufficient near-misses at qualification. This was eventually done away with after persistent public backlash, as the system had very little transparency. There’s very little advocacy for the Bronze and Silver level of players, and something like this goes a very long way in throwing us a bone.

A competitive points system also solves the problem of smaller stores being left out to dry by having PPTQs, formerly their only significant premier event, being taken away from them. A new store-level program, on the level of Pokemon’s League Challenges and League Cups, can drive attendance to stores by awarding small amounts of competitive points, alongside unique promotional material a la Game Day, to top finishers. This helps people in remote or under served regions also have access to competitive play who might not be within reasonable travel distance of MagicFests or PTQs.

There’s also, of course, the benefits to the Judge Program inherent in having a wider variety of non-convention events occurring at a local level. While PTQs are a good way of training good L1s on the way to L2, players and organizers alike were always reluctant to staff inexperienced judges at such important events. With more store-level engagement, fresh judges have more opportunities not only for local work, but also for advancement in a less stressful environment.

MagicFest

We’re seeing a trend here — otherwise reasonable ideas rolled out with incomprehensibly poor optics. It’s incredibly on-brand these days for them to have an idea as excellent as this one, yet introduce it to us in such a way that the only thing we talk about is its embarrassing name.

And it is a good idea. I’ve been saying for years that Grand Prix need to be modeled around being conventions rather than high-level tournaments if they’re to have the casual appeal needed to make them financially viable. GP Vegas should serve as a positive example of how to move forward, with an art show, cosplayers, all the vendors in the world, panels and live podcasts. Playing a fifteen round, $70 tournament against people who take the game much more seriously than you is a horrible experience for casual players, and the habitual roster of expensive side events doesn’t constitute enough of a draw to generate a substantial audience.

This is a step in the right direction. A focus on non-GP events at MagicFests can shift the burden of financial viability away from the main event with its myriad of costs and onto an entertainment product for Magic’s wide player base. I am, however, concerned that they’re going to maintain the current model of entry fees for these events, namely free entry into the venue and an exorbitant main event price. Currently, Grand Prix are subsidized by their competitive half. Someone like me might be paying $160 USD on, say, a Friday side event, the main event, and the PTQ, while someone there to enjoy something like the Innistrad escape room from GP Detroit years ago and buy cards from vendors is contributing nothing to cost of running the event. If they’re going to invest significantly in the casual side of these events, it can’t possibly come at the cost of an already-bleeding competitive scene, and I’m concerned that it’s going to end up that way.

It also bears mentioning that the return of the Magic Weekend, namely stapling Pro Tours onto Magic  Fest events, is extremely smart. The Pro Tour, for all its prestige, could really use a bigger on-site audience, and this is the best way to do it. Pro Tours were always oddly isolated events, and unless you had a pre-existing social circle of qualified friends, you were stuck traveling alone or with strangers. This would have been exacerbated with the new, small Pro Tour structure, but adding them onto Grand Prix is an excellent idea to preemptively solve this problem.

Regional Pro Tours

First off, I called it. Grand Prix and other Qualifiers no longer feed the next Pro Tour chronologically, but rather the next one in your geographical region. The details of this system are, obviously, not available to us, but we can infer a lot based on what little has been released. The practical reason for this is very clear. On stream, they claimed that it was to add “regional flair” to each Pro Tour, but as anyone who’s ever traveled before can attest, international flights are very, very expensive, and a significant part of the Pro Tour budget. It’s been clear for years that the budget for Organized Play isn’t increasing, as every new prize pool comes with a belt-tightening elsewhere. In this case, we’re losing an international aspect of the Pro Tour, alongside ten fewer Grand Prix over the course of the year, in exchange for the prize purses on two more Pro Tours.

The Pro Tour used to have be marketed with the phrase, “Play the game, see the world.”

I don’t think the decreased tourism value of this change is particularly important, but this change has some significantly more sinister implications, namely the pressure it applies on non-North American pros to travel far and wide and hope to hit Gold as their only opportunity to make it on the pro scene. Based on the scant information released, it would appear that the majority, if not all, qualifying events in, say, the APAC region feed Pro Tour Brisbane in December, that region’s only Pro Tour. This means that if you were to top 8 Grand Prix in Bangkok, Chiba, and Taipei earlier in the year, you would be triple-qualified for a single event and likely to miss Gold, relegated to Silver status, which as of right now is questionably worthless. The fix to this, as far as we know, is for an APAC pro to travel to America to play half their Grand Prix in the hopes of qualifying for an American Pro Tour. This problem applies to European pros as well, though likely on a less drastic scale, while as usual, tournament Magic remains extremely America-centric. Unsurprisingly, this was met with a lot of blow-back from people who live not only in the hard-hit APAC region, but European pros as well. Once again, their attempt to stagger information and adapt to consumer reactions in an effort to avoid blow-back failed.

I would be doing a disservice to the noble art of the euphemism if I called this a disaster in the wake of the accusations of systemic racism during the Hall of Fame drama on Twitter and Gerry’s protest at Worlds. A significant number of these players are threatening to leave the game and pursue Artifact professionally, so the pressure is really on Wizards to deliver a rapid and comprehensive solution to this shot in the gut. At the very least, Grand Prix in non-American regions can’t be region-locked to their corresponding Pro Tours. The highest level of Magic competition can’t simply be made inaccessible to the majority of the world. It’s insulting.

Post-mortem

I’m very hesitant about the future. I’m glad that the status quo is being shaken up, but so far, I can’t say that I’m particularly happy with the changes that have been made. All I can do is get my voice out there, and hope that the powers-that-be listen to us little people. I want competitive Magic to be good, and Wizards are the only ones who can make that happen on a global scale. Please don’t play second fiddle to SCG in terms of player experience. It’s embarrassing for you. Don’t leave your Asian communities who work so hard to remain competitive in pro Magic out to dry. Do better.

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