Arcane Teachings – Peeling Back the Curtain on Pro Tour Qualifiers

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Wizards promotes Pro Tours as where the best players in the world play, but how hard is it to actually qualify for one yourself? Tom argues that your competition in PTQs shouldn’t intimidate you, and that with a little work and persistence you could win your own ticket to the big show.

Arcane Teachings – Peeling Back the Curtain on Pro Tour Qualifiers

A mysterious person known to the world only as hordling posted this in the forums for Sam Stoddard soon-to-be-classic article about the fearless Magical Inventory last week.

“… But finally, I found that many of the things on the list and the size of your list to be contradictory to your status of consistent top 8 PTQer and winner. I’m sure it sounds elitist of me, but I don’t see how someone that makes so many mistakes made it that far in Magic.”

Well, have I got a revelation for you! And here it is…

Most people at Pro Tour Qualifiers are not exceptionally good at Magic.

I’m aware that I just said something negative about almost the entire competitive Magic-playing world. If you play in PTQs, you are probably not “good at Magic.” The first thing that I should say is that I don’t consider myself to be “good at Magic” either, but my standards here are pretty high. What does it mean to you to be good at something? To me, it means you have developed actual mastery of that craft. You barely even have to think while you do it, because it’s so natural to you that the correct things to do become obvious as you go. When you see others doing the same activity struggling to find the correct paths to follow, you don’t understand why they have stopped because you know exactly what they should do next. You respect that learning your craft is hard, but you also secretly wonder why everyone else is so bad at it. That’s a level that very few people in any field reach, and there exist people who never achieve it in anything they do in their whole lifetime.

I would believe you if you described yourself as “competent,” as that’s where I would classify most successful PTQ players, including me. Take a player who regularly makes the Top 8 of PTQs and wins one of them every once in a while. Let us call him Joe. Joe probably copies decks from the Internet and plays them well enough to consistently beat players who either have bad decks or play badly. However, he probably doesn’t usually succeed with decks of his own design. He has strong enough card evaluation skills that he builds his sealed decks close to correctly, and he can draft following conventional pick orders, but he may not question the common knowledge about cards very often. This does not mean that Joe is a bad person. He’s almost certainly a wonderful human being who is worth knowing and can add value to your life by being part of it. He’s just not a truly exceptional Magic player.

There is no shame in being merely competent, since being truly “good” at anything is so hard. I would say that maybe 300 to 500 people in the world are “good” at Magic at any one time. This includes a lot of current pros, a decent amount of people who have been pros, and some people who play a ton either on Magic Online or in real life and just don’t care about qualifying. These are the world class players. They can figure out what is good in a Constructed format very quickly because they have seen it all before and have great instincts about decks, or they’ve played the format so much that they just know everything there is to know. They draft better than everyone else because they’ve drafted so much that they form their own opinions about everything, and they’re right. Why would they follow conventional wisdom when their own wisdom is far superior to everyone else’s?

You are probably not one of these people if you are playing in PTQs. As a corollary, no one else at your PTQ probably is. True masters don’t last long at PTQs because they win them and then can’t play in them anymore. This leads to the next big idea…

You don’t have to be a great Magic player to qualify for the Pro Tour.

Hopefully this makes you feel a little better. There aren’t any true masters at your PTQ, so the only people who are left are competent people and, well, people who aren’t competent. This means that you don’t have to be a master to qualify since there aren’t any masters you would have to beat. Instead, it’s good enough to just be competent and have a good day.

My casual estimation is that at most twenty percent people at any given PTQ have a significant shot to win it. The other eighty percent have holes in some parts of their game that are just too big to avoid in a tournament of eight or more total rounds. They might have a bad deck. They might build their sealed decks wrong and misevaluate cards in the draft. They might not be familiar with common decks in a format, or they might not know what common tricks to play around. They may have sloppy in-game play or bad mechanical habits. Any of these things can take someone out of realistic contention for the slot.

If you think that you aren’t good enough to have a real shot at qualifying, your first step toward a PTQ win is to get better by finding the holes in your game and fix them. One way to do this is to take a fearless magical inventory, but this only works if you can actually see your own problems. If you can’t, ask everyone who knows you and is a lot better than you and they’ll tell you exactly what they think is wrong with your play.

If you’re already good enough that you have a shot at winning any given PTQ you play in, getting better will be harder. Happily, there are some things you can do to improve your chances without fundamentally changing yourself as a player. Two of them are:

Play awesome decks.

In Constructed, the easiest way to have a better shot at winning a tournament without changing yourself as a player is to change your deck. This is not to say that you can’t win a PTQ with a merely reasonable deck, but being ahead of everyone else before the tournament starts can only help.

If you happen to bring a deck that is just far better than any other deck in the room, you can have comically huge advantages to the point where you would have to get very unlucky to not win the tournament. My favorite example of this in action is the Ichorid deck from 2005’s Extended season. At Grand Prix: Charlotte, I played Gerry Thompson list of it to the Top 8. I could stop there and bask in the glow of past success, but you should know that I didn’t actually do anything that impressive at that tournament other than burgle the list from Gerry and get a little lucky. I played twelve rounds total with the deck, and I’m fairly confident that it was the best list in that room. Eight of my rounds were against players who were probably either a little worse than me or as good as me, but my deck was so much better than all of theirs that those matches weren’t very hard. Two of those rounds were against Mike Krumb in a 74 card mirror, and I punted both of them. The other two were against Antonino De Rosa and Mark Herberholz, both of whom outplayed me. All had to do to make that Top 8 was register Gerry’s deck and play solidly. I’m proud of making that Top 8, and it looks great on a resume, but in hindsight I just had the right deck at the right time and that was enough.

A week before Charlotte, fellow Columbus-based mage Adam Yurchick took that same Ichorid deck to a PTQ. The deck had just appeared at Worlds and it was starting to see some play on Magic Online, but most of the world was still unaware. Adam had one of only three copies of the deck in the tournament, and almost no one was playing any graveyard hate. He didn’t lose any matches that day. His opponent in the finals was one of the other two people playing Ichorid and had not lost a match up to that point.

The funny thing is that the card pool didn’t change at all from Pro Tour: Los Angeles to Grand Prix: Charlotte; the Ichorid deck was legal at the Pro Tour, but no one had it. I obviously can’t prove it, but I would guess that if you put a single Ichorid player somewhere in Pro Tour: Los Angeles and ran the tournament a hundred times, he would probably make the Top 8 in fifty of them because of how incredible his deck would have been compared to everyone else. Having a deck as far ahead of the world as that is obviously the dream, but it doesn’t often happen. You can still get ahead just by having the best-tuned list of a stock deck, or early in the season only by playing the right stock deck while everyone else is still screwing around with decks that get discarded later. Just keep your eyes out for the really crazy decks when they break so you can get on board with them.

Developing your own deck selection and deckbuilding skills is the only way to get better over the long term. The truly great Constructed players are those who can show up with their own new decks every tournament and still crush everyone. However, having a network of peers can help you greatly in the short term when someone you know hands you an awesome deck. Developing relationships with people whose deck building skills you respect is a great shortcut to constructed success.

Go to tons of PTQs.

By far the best way to increase your chances of qualifying is to simply go to tons of qualifiers. You can’t win a tournament you don’t attend. To be quite honest, it’s not particularly likely that one specific very good player will win one specific PTQ. I would put the upper limit at about a one in four chance of victory for one single player, and even then we are talking about someone who is very, very good compared to the rest of the field. That’s simultaneously impressive and depressing. There might be sixty to a hundred players in the tournament, and being able to honestly say that you win the tournament a fourth of the time is pretty nice. On the other hand, if you’re that one player, a little quick statistical calculation shows that on average you’ll have to play in four PTQs before you win one*. That feels like a lot. The conclusion here is that even if you are really good, you still need to play in a ton of tournaments to consistently qualify, but if you do there is very little chance that you will miss. If you’re not as good as that, then you need to play even more qualifiers to make sure you get one eventually. However, the conclusion is the same no matter how good you are: if you seriously want to win a PTQ, go to lots of them.

In my experience, if you ask a PTQ winner why they won a week or two after the fact, they’ll tell you that they just had a good day. Perhaps they opened good cards, or games just went their way a lot. It’s very rare that someone can tell you that they were a favorite to win the whole tournament and actually be correct about it. If you want to have one of these good days eventually, you need to give plenty of days the chance to be good for you. It’s not a coincidence that the guys you see qualifying every season are the same ones who drive six hours every weekend.

In the forums to Sam’s Fearless Magical Inventory article last week, I made the claim that I was a sure shot to win a Hollywood PTQ. The reason I said this wasn’t that I think I’m that much better than everyone else at actually playing Magic. I think I’m solid, but I also know I’m not Kenji. However, I do think that my decks will be better than what my opponents bring, and there are seven PTQs and two Grands Prix on my schedule as it stands now. That’s a lot of chances. I hope not to need that many, but I am going to take them all if I need to. I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t qualify.

In one sense, the best way to be more likely to win a PTQ is to become a better player. It’s very unlikely that anyone can win a large tournament while doing a lot of things significantly wrong. However, becoming truly masterful at Magic takes a lot of time and effort, so for a player who is already skilled this may be quite difficult. Alternately, you can greatly improve your chances of qualifying by playing better Constructed decks and playing in lots of tournaments. These two things are often easier to do than actually working on your own play skills, and can lead to improvement in results much faster.

Happy Fishing,

Tom LaPille

* Using this model, he number of PTQs you have to play in before you win is a random variable that follows the geometric distribution with parameter equal to the chance of winning one PTQ, so your expected number of tries until you win one is one divided by that chance; 1/(1/4) = 4.