Goldilocks and the Pro Tour

Written by David Gleicher on . Posted in Competitive Magic

It’s been a tumultuous couple of years for Wizards of the Coast and Magic: The Gathering. Let’s recap some events of the past few years to get our bearings:

In 2010 and 2011, Magic experienced unprecedented growth. A few phenomena go along with this. Coverage of live tournament magic was revolutionized by ggslive. Magic became a legitimate spectator sport. Duels of the Planeswalkers, Commander, and a reevaluated core set made the game increasingly accessible and attractive to new players.

Most importantly, Magic grew enough for tournament organizers to hold cash tournaments and support their own tournament circuits which coexisted and to a degree competed with the pro tour.

This led to a change, which may have been in the works anyway, to the DCI ratings system that kept track of players ratings for rewarding byes at Grand Prix and invites to the pro tour. In the first system, a player’s rating went up according to the strength of a player they beat in a match, and went down accordingly with the rating of a player they lost to. Under the new planewalker points system, no rating was ever lost. Points would be awarded for match wins based on the size of the event and the multiplier for the type of event. And invites to the pro tour would be awarded based on those points.

As with any change that’s been made by WoTC in the past few years, there was an uproar from the community, mostly over the internet. This time, though, several of those voicing their dissent were members of the hall of fame. Though the changes didn’t directly affect them, they considered them bad for the game. The subsequent season under planeswalker points based invites proved that in many respects they were correct. Those who were able to compete in many side events at grand prixs had a huge advantage, as did those who could “grind” points at multiple events during the week. Those in remote locations or those who were unwilling or unable to grind to accumulate planeswalker points were at a severe disadvantage.

Wizards listened to the community and quickly overhauled the new system. Planeswalker points went from being able to qualify you for the pro tour to… giving you some byes at Grand Prix. The current system awards invites to pro tours based in three ways:

1. Winning a Pro Tour Qualifier

2. Getting top 4 at a Grand Prix

3. Being level gold or higher in the new pro players club.

There’s something lacking here that both old systems, flawed as they were, had. That is a ratings-based invitation. I believe this is a significant problem. But before I get into why, let’s go over the pros and cons of the current system.

Pros:

1. People aren’t incentivized to avoid playing magic.

Under the old ratings based system, players would often be compelled to sit on their rating before the cutoff for events, lest it plummet if they took a loss. The fact that a player’s rating won’t drop, and they won’t feel compelled to sit out events they might want to play in, is probably the best thing about the new system, and it’s why I think a return to the old ELO system would be a mistake.

2. Planeswalker points still do something.

Though they don’t qualify people for pro tours anymore, at least they grant byes at grand prixs and give invites to the world cup qualifiers. It’s important for people to feel like they are playing for something if competitive magic is going to exist.

3. All invitations to the Pro Tour come with a paid flight.

I like this because it just makes the whole system seem cleaner and more professional. It goes along with the ethos behind making Pro Tours private events.

4. The pro level system has been simplified considerably.

Again, I like that the system is easier to understand. It’s not that the old system was impossible or even that hard, but I believe that making it simpler just makes the system more appealing and less intimidating to someone new approaching the game. It’s somewhat similar to the philosophy behind the core set which has been so successful in recent years.

Cons:

1. There are no more invites for consistent high level play.

Pre-planeswalker points, there was a chance to make it onto the pro tour with consistent high finishes in PTQs (and/or grand prixs) without actually spiking one. It was incredibly difficult, and you had to pay for your own flight there, but it was at least possible. After planeswalker points, it became perhaps too easy to qualify without finishing highly in large competitive events. Now, it’s not possible at all. Theoretically, you could finish high enough in GPs without making the top 4 to get up to 25 pro points in a season. This would require 6 top 8 finishes, and one more point from somewhere. So, fairly unlikely. As for PTQs, that is now completely impossible. Even before, it was difficult to get enough rating via PTQs, and I always thought this was pretty unfortunate. I remember several seasons where players I know demonstrated dominance in a particular PTQ format by making top 8 five or six times without getting the blue envelope. When they announced planeswalker points, I was hopeful that this might reward these players for their consistency, but it ended up rewarding other things entirely.

The way I see it, there are two options. One is to go back to the planeswalker points system, but with some modifications to the point multipliers in order to avoid the flaws in the prior system and put more of an emphasis on GPs and PTQs. However, this doesn’t necessarily counteract the perceived “play more, not better” issue with planeswalker points completely. Another idea is to keep track of top eights in GPs and PTQs in a season for a player in a separate category. Once a player has reached a certain threshold of those, they would get an invite. Neither of these solutions seems completely perfect to me, but they seem like decent starting points.

2. The pro point system is too stratified.

Like with planeswalker points, I believe they tried to fix something that was wrong and things went a bit too far in the other direction. Currently there are three pro point levels: Silver, gold and platinum. The point thresholds for these are 15, 25, and 40 respectively. The problem is that there are basically only two levels, since silver, the lowest, grants benefits that someone would almost certainly have anyway if they had gotten to 15 pro points (two byes at GPs and an invite to world magic cup qualifiers). I believe there should probably be four levels, which would still be a large decrease from the previous eight levels. At the very least, if there are only three, they should all be actual levels. The lowest could give, for instance, an invite and ticket to one pro tour of the next year of that player’s choice. To avoid the problem of people who are qualified playing PTQs for the flight and knocking out the unqualified, Wotc could require those players to decide at the beginning of the season if they’d like to use that invite or if they would like to try their luck at PTQs. If this started at 10, it would still give a player a reasonable chance to qualify through accumulated GPs, though PTQers would still be out of luck.

Some at Wizards of the Coast have expressed the sentiment that there isn’t much benefit to the Pro Tour for having a “middle level” class of pros, who may be less recognizable than their superstar counterparts. I believe this is misguided. The first reason is that with the increasingly sophisticated live coverage, there is much more of an opportunity for those middle level pros to become recognized, and this adds another exciting element to pro tour coverage, especially when they match up against the more established pros. The second reason is that, if the gulf between the top and the bottom is too wide, the pro tour can start to appear unattainable, and you can lose your “next generation,” which is exactly what the consortium of Zvi, Finkel, LSV and the rest were worried about with the previous incarnation of the planeswalker point system. Other sports thrive both on established stars and “up and comers.” Magic needs to recognize that both are valuable and act accordingly.

I think that the current system is better than any we’ve had before, but it suffers from a few kinks, as could be expected from a new system. Wizards has shown a willingness to listen to the community and fix issues as they arise, and they’ve said the current system will likely undergo some modifications. Hopefully this article has outlined some of the problems and some possible solutions.

David Gleicher

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.