FINALLY, a future for tabletop Magic

0

The competitive Magic community breathed a collective sigh of relief the other week, when a post titled The Future of Magic Esports appeared, unprompted.

This gargantuan post lays out a framework for the future of tournament Magic, and let me tell you — it looks like someone read my article. In case you haven’t seen it, things are pretty straightforward: Arena and tabletop pro play are now separated, a challenger league named Rivals has been added to the MPL structure, and the Pro Tour lives on, albeit under yet another name.

Now, those of you who’ve been patient enough to follow my Organized Play-related content over the years know that I tend to take a cautious, pessimistic tone. I’m part of the group of extremely-enfranchised grinders that’s been beaten down over the years by this game that we all love to compete in, and so an unhealthy sense of regret and unbridled rage informs a lot of my opinions. With this in mind, you can rest assured that when I say that I’m genuinely excited to play tournament Magic in 2020, you know that it means something good has happened.

Before we get to the sunshine and roses, I’ll start off by being deathly honest with you all: I haven’t played Arena in months, and so I feel absolutely nothing when I take a cold, hard look at the prospects for Arena esports. I don’t have the drive to grind matches of Standard on ladder anymore, and when I see that the Arena ecosystem is remaining largely unchanged, I feel, for the first time, rewarded by my crippling depression. All big Arena tournaments are Mythic Invitationals, and I simply do not meet the criteria for an invite. Wizards’ influencer programs appear relegated to Twitch, presumably at the bidding of a marketing firm unconcerned with the ways in which other forms of content creation have been a part of the always-thriving Magic community. Streaming doesn’t quite hit the spot for me, and even if it did, I’m probably blacklisted, Hoogland-style. To be honest, I wouldn’t blame them. I can’t stand that Fournier guy. So my clout doesn’t line up with their marketing initiative, and the single qualifier tournament per Invitational, while neat, isn’t a consistent competitive outlet.

Courtesy Magic esports on Twitter.

Well, lucky me, something cool happened with tabletop Organized Play! You know, that part of Magic that I actually like. The part where I get to go places, see my friends, and interact with my opponents, not have faceless sociopaths rope me for days because they immediately have an aneurysm the moment you interact with their third-rate linear strategy. My personal grievances with online gaming aside, Wizards did something neat that I’ve wanted for years: they’ve expanded the Pro Tour. Magic’s been bigger than it’s ever been, but individual qualifications for pro events just grew more and more elusive over time as events grew and players improved in skill. Sure, there was a contraction in event size in the past few years thanks to factors completely within Wizards’ control, but that’s an anomaly over time. Tons of people play Magic, and it’s extremely cool to let more people play the best tournament: the Pro Tour.

I’m not a huge fan of splitting this new Players’ Tour up into regional events, since the international aspect of the tournament was always one of its highlights. It was neat to qualify for a PT, fly out to Japan, and play against players from around the world. Sure, this still exists in the form of the Players’ Tour Finals, but it’s more exclusive than ever, and losing this valuable means of community bonding over flight budgets feels bad. It’s a perfectly reasonable solution, and there’s a minor environmental upside thanks to fewer people flying long distances, but there’s something intangible being lost.

Courtesy Magic esports on Twitter.

I have a few more things to nitpick over before we can get to gushing over with unbridled optimism about the coolest thing to happen to Organized Play in years. First off, I’ve run into too many people preemptively trying to talk down the Regional Players’ Tours, likening them to RPTQs of cursed years past. I don’t know where you get off, if you’re trying to protect your resume of having played in “real Pro Tours” or something, but a 250k tournament fed by PTQs is literally what Pro Tours were, at least up until the Mythic Championship era. So miss me with this nonsense.

I don’t really want to rehash the complex issue that is Magic’s tendency to marginalize players from disadvantaged geographical reasons, but you can find some dreaded hot takes on the subject in this article. Regional PTs could be an opportunity to help solve some of these issues in the post-travel awards era, so long as every regional event isn’t held in Barcelona, Richmond, and central Japan. That said, they will be, and the plight of South American players will continue to be ignored so long as it isn’t profitable to solve.

Courtesy Magic esports on Twitter.

Now that we have all the doom and gloom out of the way, it’s time to look at what’s ultimately very cool about the new state of tabletop pro play, namely that there are tons of opportunities for players to compete in a meaningful way. There are more qualifiers than ever, and they’re no longer relegated to the stale one-day PTQ format of Swiss rounds and an elimination bracket. Sure, those events still exist, but new Wizards Play Network qualifiers are an exciting breath of fresh air to me. You can now, as a local game store, run a series of weekend tournaments that feed into an in-store qualifier with a grand prize of a Players’ Tour slot. That’s a dream come true, as a tournament organizer. There’s so much space to explore here, and the potential for this program’s growth excites me way more than it has any business doing.

I think tournament Magic does a great job of keeping extremely enfranchised players hooked on pro play by virtue of competition being inherently addicting, but has always struggled to keep what I call the “casual-competitive” crowd focused on tournaments that feed into a higher level of competition. Sure, these players play their local Grand Prix, and might hit up a PTQ or two in town, but mostly they just want to play Ad Nauseam in a competitive environment. PPTQs seemed to me to be an effort to get the hooks into these kinds of players, but ultimately failed due to a myriad of reasons, from allowing low-quality stores to run events to forcing players who didn’t fit into the casual-competitive category into events that weren’t tailored for them. Now, there’s finally some flexibility, and I hope they continue down this path. There are a bunch of excellent weekend tournament series in Toronto that can flounder in attendance at times – but imagine if their seasonal finals had Players’ Tour invites attached to them. It would be a game changer, and now seems within reach.

Courtesy Magic esports on Twitter.

This also grants me hope that more alternative means of qualification will be embraced. After receiving a lot of backlash over the lack of a replacement for Silver or Gold pro levels in the MPL Rivals part of the announcement, various Wizards outlets let us know that they were working on something to that effect, but that it wasn’t yet ready. It might just be my ego speaking, but given that the macro structure of the new pro Magic scene is identical to the framework I outlined in my last article on the subject, I’m praying that someone reads deeper and stumbles across my plan for further store-level integration in the qualifier process. Wouldn’t it be neat, after all, if playing FNM gave you some kind of low-level progress towards a PT qualification?