Chatter of the Squirrel – The Magic Players’ Union

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Wednesday, February 13th – I’m sure everybody’s heard by now about the Magic Players’ Union, what they plan to bring to the table at the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, some of the concerns, questions, and curiosities that have arisen as to how to proceed from here. There’s been some characteristically meticulous number-crunching on Frank Karsten’s part, some vigorous community organizing by Raphael Levy, and I’m eager to see how that affects (if at all) the direction of the meeting.

Over twenty-four hours on an airplane. Man. Cannot wait.

As I write this I’m gearing up for KL, packing, planning, printing out city maps and subway charts. Curious. In a way, nervous. I’ve never been anxious or even the tiniest bit reticent before a trip, but I am entirely ignorant of Malaysia (and Kuala Lumpur in particular), and everyone with whom I talk acts like I’m venturing into the maw of some third-world wasteland. I know that’s not the case, of course, and KL as a city seems to be one of the most exciting places on the planet. But, you know. There’s lingering baggage.

And the missing work, and the missing school, and the insane travel time, and the fact that a mere three days after the Muddy Mississippi welcomes me back home I jet off to Missouri for Mock Trial Regionals, and a week after that skip over to Washington, D.C. for my Luce Scholarship finalist interview. Not that I’m anything but glad that all of this is happening. It’s just a bunch at once, and not the most convenient time to disappear off the face of the earth for a week.

Shocking, I know, that time doesn’t crawl to a halt at my behest. Whatever. I look forward to creating many a 1/1 Elf Warrior token off of many a triggered ability in the coming days.

The foremost issue on my agenda, though, has altogether very little to do with Pro Tour: KL itself – or, at least, the games of Magic that will take place there. What I’m most interested in is the Pro Player’s Meeting that, I’ve been told, will lay out the future direction of the Pro Tour, or at least where it’s headed for the coming year.

I’m sure everybody’s heard by now about the Magic Players’ Union, what they plan to bring to the table at that meeting, some of the concerns, questions, and curiosities that have arisen as to how to proceed from here. There’s been some characteristically meticulous number-crunching on Frank Karsten’s part, some vigorous community organizing by Raphael Levy, and I’m eager to see how that affects (if at all) the direction of the meeting.

What I want to do, though, is spell out – from a personal perspective – what I’d like to see happen at that meeting. This isn’t going to be about the meeting’s results, though; I don’t have enough knowledge or information to start making demands. Rather, I’d like to focus on the agenda of that meeting, the issues that I hope Wizards will address, the things I hope to hear as I sit in the audience watching Magic’s future dangle precariously before me like the pendulum of a clock striking midnight.

Doom and gloom is not my game. As such, the tone of this piece may surprise you. The first Magic product I bought featured a Bog Wraith on the package, the first tournament I played in saw my Soltari, Dauthi, and Thalakos minions die in dramatic fashion to a topdecked Shadowstorm, and the first Pro Tour at whose titans I ogled shamelessly from the floor saw a German Juggernaut steal the thinnest of wins courtesy of a certain topdecked Michael-Jackson-like shapeshifter with an oh-so-tiny pair of brown wings. Point is, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, I’ve been around awhile. I’ve endured the Hasbro buyout, the Sixth Edition rules revamp, the rise and fall of the Weatherlight saga, the Combo Winter and Affinity quitting-sprees, the new card face, the “terrible business plan” of Magic Online (“who will pay real money for fake cards?”), the demise of the Masters Series, the rise of Japan, and everything in between. With each event, critics cry, the game is dying. Voices edge to a shrill pitch, fists slam on tables, steam sizzles out of reddened ears. Through it all, Wizards continues to sell booster packs, and I’ve kept my mouth shut.

Now seems different. Fundamentally and irreconcilably different.

That’s not to say the situation cannot be reconciled, but for the first time it’s been impossible to put a believable positive slant on the news, and the mere fact that Wizards attempted to do so makes me eerily suspicious that something is wrong.

Which is fine.

Any long-term institution is going to have its peaks and troughs, and the fact that Magic is finally having to substantially shake up its business model and seriously rethink its means of advertising bodes well for the long-term viability of the game. It may result in more creative solutions that work out better for everybody in the long term, as Wizards representatives brainstorm feasible means of mining the marketing gold of the Pro Tour without having to front all the costs themselves. Moreover, the cost cuts (Worlds in Memphis? Really??), if they are the result of a temporary economic recession and a temporary bump in the road for the toy and hobby industry, may fade away quickly and become distant relics of the past in no time.

Right now, though, we as players need to have some idea what’s going on. To that end, here’s what I’m thinking about as I head into that fateful meeting.

1) What’s the reason behind the prize cuts, the gutting of the MSS, the slashing of amateur prizes? I don’t just mean “costs.” That’s obvious. What, in a very real and very measurable sense, did Wizards aim to achieve with the changes? How many dollars needed to be saved? What is the reasoning, taking into account the necessity of spending cutbacks, behind each change that was made? This is not the time to spin PR; I really want to hear – in EV terms, if necessary – what the thought process behind cutting amateur prizes at GPs, for example. I don’t care whether the answer is “we thought it would go a decent way towards appeasing Pros for their lost Pro Tour,” or “handing the Top 64 of a tournament $200 makes a larger group of people feel they can win a more substantial amount of money.” As long as there is thought behind each and every change, I don’t particularly care whether I agree with the result. I just want help understanding things from the Wizards side of the table.

2) How stable, in the future, can we expect the PT system of a given year to be? If there is flux every year, what measures are being taken to either mitigate that flux or communicate to the players what the relevant variables are in laying out a year’s schedule? Is the three-Pro-Tour-plus-Worlds system going to be the norm from now on, is it a temporary solution, or is it neither – not a schema for the future or a departure from the past, but just the way the 2008 season happens to be arranged? The more constant I believe the upper-echelon event schedule to be, the more constant its payout can be, the more faith I put in the system as a player and the more willing I am to support that system by working my hardest, trying actively to stay on the tour, promoting the tour through my lifestyle, conversations, writings, etc.

This brings up an important point, actually. I know full well that Wizards’ concerns are (and should be) with the welfare of their company. I don’t expect anything more, and I understand that I am not entitled to a paycheck for being good at this little card game. But quotes, like one on the Union forums, like:

“The people (and I include myself in this group) that view this as an overreaction to these changes feel that only a handful of people are directly affected. The loss of one Pro Tour just makes it harder for pros to remain on the gravy train.”

represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship the Pro Tour has to the development of the game of Magic more broadly. I wrote an article about this – “Why Gabe Walls Is Good For You,” or something similar – and so I won’t delve much deeper into that issue right here. But the fewer incentives I (or Kenji, or Paul, or PV, or anyone who excels at the game) have to put my maximum effort into breaking formats, the more the game suffers as a whole. Wizards loses its ability to market superstars, as consistently-high finishes become more sporadic. Wizards loses its ability to accurately gauge the power level of cards it prints and formats it supports, as those cards and formats get less and less rigorously stress-tested to the brink.

Imagine Magic without Finkel, Kai, Kenji, Olivier. “Not that big a deal,” a good chunk of you might say – you don’t know them, met them, haven’t had conversations with them, couldn’t pick their face out in a crowd. But I remember being twelve years old at a JSS and having my friend Stephen Bush ambush Darwin Kastle at a restaurant for an Avalanche Riders autograph, and my mom stood back agape at the “celebrity” this game could create. Every competition needs faces. Every evolving game needs competition – indeed, that competition frequently creates itself. But there are a lot of fun games out there that receive nowhere near the level of visibility that Magic does, and it’s largely because of the competitive atmosphere that Magic fosters.

Even if you’ve never left your kitchen table, think about how Wizards creates draft formats like Lorwyn block that are exceptionally fun while being exceptionally well-balanced, or the thousands of cards a year that interact with one another in fascinatingly complex ways yet (with very, very rare exceptions) never prove to be so dominant that all other strategies become unviable. If you appreciate any of that, thank the Pros.

Oh yeah, I was counting down numbers awhile ago.

3) When Wizards does feel the need to make a change, how are they going to notify the players and what problems does that means of notification solve? I understand that there’s the mailing list now, and that pros can e-mail Scott Larrabee with questions, and that BDM no longer has to function as the company mouthpiece at inconvenient times. This doesn’t change the fact that changes will happen, and there needs to be a system in place to minimize the impact that fiscal variations will have on players that plan their finances up to a year in advance based on an anticipated payout schedule. How feasible is it to give players X amount of advance notice – or are in-house changes made so rapidly that, like as they might, they simply cannot notify people sooner? Again, I don’t care what their answer is, I just want to hear some rationale behind it.

4) What is Wizards’ long-term vision for the Pro Tour? This might be the most important issue to address, but it definitely needs to be spoken to. I remember very early interviews with Richard Garfield that had him positioning competitive Magic as an alternative to competitive sports, the romantic idea that intellectual competitors could be fiscally rewarded as much as physical ones. Clearly that isn’t equitably feasible for a grand variety of different reasons, but the fact remains that inherent in the definition of a “Professional” is the “Profession” part of the word – I do this for a living. Right now I can count on one hand the number of people in the world for whom that is possible, and yet to legitimately market effectively that number would need to be much higher – that there is a such thing as a “Pro Lifestyle” whose heights one can romantically aspire to given enough time and effort. The only way we’d achieve something like this, I believe, would be through outside sponsorship – an effect we’re seeing already with the car, and the iPods, and everything else.

Alternatively, if Wizards envisions the Pro Tour as more of the “Promotional Tour,” that is fine with me. But they need to say it. If they are content with the revenue they generate given the Pro Tour’s existing structure as an advertising vehicle, I can totally understand that. If that’s true, though, then Pro players need to know that on the front end before they structure a good chunk of their lives around an institution that’s not going to grow.

It’s about honesty. It’s about transparency. It’s about laying the cards on the table and saying, “Look, here’s the situation.” We all love the game enough to understand, if not agree with, the decisions Wizards makes or is forced to make. But what we can’t continue to endure is this semi-shrouded secrecy that veils grim realities with falsely-optimistic spin, or couches substantial prize cutbacks in the language of new directions and new opportunities.