From The Lab Island: Why Does Everyone Hate the Pros?

Read Craig Jones every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
This week, Craig “The Professor” Jones waxes lyrical on the upcoming Invitational. Does he beg for your vote? Of course he does. That said, this article is far more than self-promotion. Prof discusses the true nature of the Invitational, and posits the theory that the much-discussed Storyteller ballot is actually a complete masterstroke… read on to find out why!

“Where am I?”

“On the Island.”

“What do you want?”


“Whose side are you on?”

“That would be telling…. We want tech. Tech! TECH!”

“You won’t get it.”

“By hook or by crook, we will.”

“Who are you?”

“The new Card Two.”

“Who is Card One?”

“You are Card Six.”

“I am not a card — I am a free man!”

I’m not in Britain any more. Currently I’m here:

Prof's photography skills have not improved

Here is The Island.

The Island is nice.

A lot of people have been moaning that August is the dead time of the year. This seems a little odd, as back in rainy old England people are still battling through block PTQs, and around the world other people still have their Nationals to enjoy.

I think it’s regarded as dead because there’s not much new to talk about. Time Spiral, both Draft and Block Constructed, has been mined fairly heavily, and I don’t have much to say on Standard other than play Mountains and Char people to the face.

Personally, I’m looking forward to Lorwyn and The Great Elf Slaughter*, but until then I’m hostage to current events, and so that means yet another dull (to some) article on voting.

Oh god, he’s going to talk about the Invitational. Quick, hit the back button.

May as well get the obvious out of the way.

Vote for me. Please.

At this point it might look all sewn up, but in reality I only probably need another — runs over to check on MagictheGathering.com… Urk! — 500 votes to beat Evan Erwin.

Hey that’s not too bad. We can do it. Team.

*crickets chirping*

It’s not a problem. I’ll just hack into the database here… possibly bribe the right person there… perfect that time machine… go back in time… lace that pie with sulphuric acid… nuke Texas…

Heh, these are only minor setbacks.

Who am I kidding… I suppose there’s always the Fan Favorite ballot next week.

Vote for me. Please.

Prof, your friendly neighborhood Vintage-playing, man of the people, pro player, casual type 4-playing (I have absolutely no idea how that works), baldy exercising, cartoon-drawing, regular guy. I even like kittens.

God, I hate politics. Someone find me a baby to drive a nail through.

Aaron Forsythe’s article was very interesting. You could read it here, or just read this abridged version instead:

Screw you ungrateful Pros for not treating this tournament with any respect… We’re going to send someone who will.”

Actually, it wasn’t quite that bad. I think it was more a case of getting the defensive shield in place after putting up a ballot for the hardest-to-enter Magic tournament on Earth that included players who’ve never even been on the Pro Tour.

It turned out they needn’t have worried, as it opened the gates for the multitude of casual players to vote in “their” champion.

So what is the Invitational, and where does it stand in the Magic calendar? Will the world twist inside out in absolute horror at the prospect of a guy with zero (or close to zero) pro points duking it out toe-to-toe with Kenji Tsumura and Mark Herberholz?

Funnily enough, I have to write similar things for a publicity blurb, although I imagine that will have to be a lot duller than this.

In the past, the Invitational was the all-star tournament with an odd, but lucrative, prize. Sixteen of the best players in the world got to battle… not for money, but for the honor of being immortalized on a piece of cardboard.

Sort of.

Olle Rade won the first one, but then didn’t really actually get round to the actual process of submitting his cards until years afterwards.

Back then, the Invitational was held in a variety of exotic locations all around the world. Players would arrive and have rose petals thrown at their feet, and be presented many fine gifts. At least I dreamed so, back when I won a GP and thought it would only be a matter of time before I stormed the Pro Tour (Ha!).

In short, the Invitational was a cushy all-expenses paid holiday given out as a reward to the sixteen best players in the world at the time. Still, that wasn’t always enough. Ryan Fuller famously was unavailable for the 2001 Magic Invitational in Cape Town… because he happened to be playing in the Grand Prix taking place in the same location at roughly the same time.

These nice junkets weren’t completely free. Each player had to write up a tournament report afterwards. This was nice, until some clever soul managed to write a report that looked innocent, except when turned sideways and read backwards (maybe on a gramophone, I don’t know) it turned out to be full of vicious hearsay about last year’s Hall of Famer, Gary Wise.

Then the free holidays to such fantastically exotic locations as Kuala Lumpar became a yearly excuse for Kenji to be molested by booth babes at E3. It got harder to convince Kai to keep going, and it didn’t seem like the other Pros were as motivated. No one wrote reports any more, and they kept submitting silly cards involving poison counters or penguins, or cards so broken that even Urza’s block was scared of them.

This led people to remark that the Pros weren’t taking it seriously enough, that they were getting complacent about an event the average Joe would give his spleen and part of his liver to attend.

Although to be honest, anyone thinking that most Pros can’t really be arsed about the Invitational weren’t really paying attention to the spectacular mud-slinging fest that broke out over the fan favorite vote last year. Geoffrey Siron’s vote-gathering effort was so fantastic it broke the system, and they had to rerun it multiple times until two North Americans actually came out on top over two Europeans (Once they’d removed all the votes from Pierre Canali’s vast extended family). It might have been ugly had Katsuhiro Mori and Masashi Oiso been able to attend, but unfortunately they couldn’t and so a very nasty bloodbath was averted by letting all four frontrunners from the Fan Favorite ballot go.

This, however, did get the voting system fixed so that this year the results are only displayed at the end. Which does leave the possibility open that Evan Erwin is going to wake up on Friday morning to find out all the people who posted “Evan ftw” on the boards were in fact the only people that voted for him, and that the rest of the 1079 votes were in fact posted by Jeff Cunningham’s silent army.

(Or mine… you did vote for me, right guys? Guys…?)

We come to this year, and the Invitational has gone back to its roots. We’re back to real actual cardboard Magic, and Mark Rosewater is free to set loose his twisted formats upon poor unsuspecting players. And while the location may not be as exotic, I imagine most hardcore gamers are probably drooling at the mouth at the prospect of many days of trying out the wares at Spiel (I know I would have been, sob).

But what are the roots of the Invitational? Is it really the true all-star game people like Ken Krouner so desire?

The inclusion of Mike Flores as Resident Genius last year generated a lot of controversy. Mike’s a superb deck designer and probably the world’s foremost writer on the game, but Top 16 player he ain’t. Still, Mike acquitted himself fairly well last year. He was tied for last with three other people, rather than coming dead last on his own. (I’m actually being more than a little mean. Beating a third of the best fifteen players on the planet is something to be proud of).

To be fair, the Invitational has never really been the all-star game. Back in the past, top players chose not to go (no money at stake), and also a desire to keep the pretence of a global game meant the candidates selected from Asia and South America were, in all brutal honesty, making up the numbers (I think we can safely say that’s changed nowadays!).

Again, we come back to that question — what is the Invitational?

The simple answer is that it’s advertising. Magic only exists today because a very clever person dreamt up Organised Play. In an alternate universe without the Pro Tour, Magic cards gather dust in attic boxes while players agonize over their army composition for the forthcoming Dragon Dice World Championships.

What, you thought they created the Pro Tour to give you money? Fool you.

The Invitational is more advertising for the game. Play the game, learn and grow strong, young sparrow… and one day you might be flown to exotic places on the other side of the world.

Oh, and buy some boosters. They help.

So we have this Invitational. Which is basically a big advert for the game. But how do you get people engaged in the tournament, and what should this tournament be?

A while back, just after the Master’s Series collapsed and the money was put into the end of year payout, I thought they could have potentially taken the opportunity to revamp the Invitational. Forget the end of year payout, just throw all that money into prizes for the Invitational. Forget the silly formats as well (Sorry MaRo, off to The Island with you). Get the Top 16 players and get them to fight it out over multiple proper formats for a really lucrative first prize. How much publicity would you get if Tiago Chan battled it out with Kenji Tsumura in the final with a million dollars at stake? (Yes, I know this amount is unfeasible, but you get the idea.)

This would be the true all-star tournament. No fan ballots for this one, just the Pro Tour winners from the last year, and the highest finishers in the Player of the Year race.

That to me marks one extreme. The purist’s purest all-star game.

The only downside to this is that you would be purely hostage to whichever players did well. If your sixteen best players happened to be the dullest of the dull, then you’re stuck with them, and that tournament probably wouldn’t resonate much with the casual players out in the real world.

This clearly isn’t where the Invitational is going. Over the years, the level of audience participation has been raised to the point that nearly all of the competitors make it in through a ballot. Most of the formats are never likely to played anywhere else (except for perhaps the legendary Scunthorpe Invitational), and there’s also usually some form of audience participation in the deck construction.

The next stage is obvious, when you think about it. You send the audience… or at least part of it.

But I’m getting a ahead of myself. Let’s look at the previous categories, and how the votes went.

First off was the Road Warrior ballot. This was literally the most ridiculously balanced. Julien Nuijten was probably the weakest name on there (in terms of traveling), and he’s won GPs in Mexico. I voted for Shuhei, mainly because I felt he should have got in last year, but felt the winner, Raphael Levy, was equally well-deserving.

Resident Genius was a mess. Why was Mike Hron on this ballot? Billy Moreno was my pick, but Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, as a PT winner, is a highly credible candidate.

Next up, the Fanatic. Allegedly there were some people that weren’t Frank Karsten on this ballot.

I can’t remember who I plumped for in the Constructed Master. Like the Road Warrior, all five names seemed fairly deserving.

There is actually a flaw in the Invitational voting process. If you’re French, or write a weekly article for MagictheGathering.com, then you’re going to win. This is unavoidable. I’m not being disparaging to the French. They have a large player base and they’re well motivated. The awesome turnout at Worlds last year is a testament to that. It just means player X from France is always going to be voted in before player Y from Luxembourg. That’s just how it is.

So, unsurprisingly, Nassif for Constructed Master.

Limited Master was just bizarre. Why wasn’t Mike Hron on this ballot? If you actually examine their records over the last year or so, there is a good reason for Shingou Kurihara and Sebastian Thaler to be on the ballot. Still, it was odd that there wasn’t a place for Rich Hoaen or Mike Hron. Kenji finally makes it in, although I’m not sure what else Takuya Oosawa actually has to do. He won one Limited PT last year, and made the final of the first one this year. Maybe he should move to France.

Poor Oosawa couldn’t pick up the APAC vote either. But then when you have Shuhei Nakamura and Tomoharu Saito in the same ballot, it isn’t going to be easy. I continued my tradition of getting coin flips wrong, and opted for Nakamura.

I finally got one right for Europe, with Tiago Chan. Chan even managed to beat off the double whammy of a French opponent (Olivier Ruel) and someone who writes on the main page (Quentin Martin — although he probably hasn’t been the “Limited” guy for long enough yet).

Poor PV. Had the Invitational been held in May, as it has been for the last few years, he makes it in as the level 6 Latin America representative. Unfortunately, this year it’s been moved back to October, and thus Willy Edel makes it in on the back of an insane recent run.

At one point from reading the forums it did look like there was a severe danger José Luis Echeverría Paredes might make it in. No disrespect to Paredes, but this would have been a travesty. Nearly Top 8 doesn’t come close to either Edel’s or PV’s recent records. When you put everything up for a public vote though, at some point there is a real risk of this happening.

There were allegedly some players that weren’t Mark Herberholz on the North American ballot.

So far, and it’s all fine. If you’re French or you write on the main page then you have an advantage, but that can still be overcome if you happen to be Tiago Chan and the only Level 6 mage from Europe last year. If you’re a purist and you want an all-star game, then there isn’t a name there so far you’re going to be unhappy about.

Now we come to the Storyteller Ballot, and wow, where did Kansas go?

If you’re a purist in search of an all-star game then you break out the black marker, cross out all ten names and write in Shuhei Nakamura or Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa.

Sorry, you can’t do that though, just like you couldn’t vote Richie for the Limited Master.

Now there’s a possibility of sending an Evan Erwin or Rizzo to the Invitational. Guys that have never been anywhere near the Pro Tour (at least as far as I know. Apologies if I’m selling you short). Now how are these guys going to stack up to the likes of Kenji or Wafo-Tapa?

Wouldn’t you like to know?

I know I would.

And that’s exactly why this ballot is a masterstroke.

How many of you out there tuned into the Invitational last year just to see if the rest of the world could hand Michael J. Flores a big fat donut?

Evan buddy, you know dem sharks are going to be circling when they give you the spot on Friday.

The ballot is a masterstroke for audience participation, but a death knell for me.

Ironically, I thought I was reasonably well placed for this ballot. I’m not consistent, but I have racked up some decent finishes since the last Invitational. I also write both a weekly column here and live blog the PTs. Unfortunately, I was far too “middle of the road” for this ballot. I can’t offer up that “just how are they going to play against the Pros” feeling, as I already have played against most of them. When I read the comment that I was “too competitive for this ballot,” the Fat Lady was well and truly warbling in my ear.

(All votes still gratefully accepted. I only need another 1050 or so).

The one depressing thing from reading the forums (by the way, thanks to everyone who gave their support) is how this vote has been polarised. The pros have gone all uppity at the thought of the “King Donk” (Gabe Wall’s words) going to the Invitational and have all thrown in behind Fabiano. Meanwhile, casual players are overjoyed at the prospect of sending “one of us” (Rizzo, or more likely Evan) to the Invitational. I’m thinking there definitely might be a case of clique versus non-clique taking place here.

Pro-bashing behaviour is not exactly new on MagictheGathering.com. The Pro Player cards were completely reviled when they were first announced, and any article on the Hall of Fame is immediately followed in the forums by ten posts moaning about how they couldn’t care less.

That’s partly why I used the title I did (that, and the fact if I included the word Invitational I probably would have got zero hits).

I’m curious to know people’s thoughts on this. Is it jealousy? Or do you perceive Pro players to be aloof and unapproachable? Just curious to know.

If you’re a casual player, it’s easy to think that you don’t need the Pro side to the game at all, but actually the game needs the Pro side for a reason. Look at Vs. How long do you think that’s going to last now that they’ve cut back all the prize money?

As for the ballot, I thought Evan’s video was hilarious (although I laughed more at Kyle’s), and he’s doing great work. If the people want him to go to the Invitational, then he’s the most deserving choice…

(But there’s still time to vote for me.)

… but I’d rather it was because of the innovative stuff he’s doing with the Magic Show, and not for any of this “us” versus “them” malarkey. Competing in the Invitational with just a single Pro Point to your name should not be seen as a badge of honor.

However, I can see the possibilities in this new style Invitational. Maybe next year we’ll be able to vote on a “Best Eternal Player” ballot that pits Stephen Menendian against Steve Sadin and whoever 5-0’s the Legacy portion of Worlds. Or maybe drag in the highest ranked Prismatic player from MTGO. They could even go to true audience participation and put someone in through a lottery. How about that for a true champion of the people (hopefully, they won’t get torn apart too gruesomely).

Of course, there is a danger of taking it too far. Once you get to just 16 Joes, then I doubt people are going to be that interested. Something like the Russian Invitational is probably the best compromise. In that, sixteen of the finest former USSR (former as in I couldn’t think of an easier way to write players from Russia, Ukraine, etc) players took on sixteen of the world’s best in a Ninth Edition pre-release.

Not an all-star game, but probably fascinating nonetheless.

It would have been nice to play the Invitational after about a billion years of writing coverage, but I don’t think it’s happening this year. My guess is we’ll see Olivier Ruel take the fan favorite (although… you guessed it… you can still vote for me) and R&D will pick Sebastian Thaler.

I hope whoever goes has a lot of fun.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck on The Island.

All the old Magic Players end up here.

Last night I drafted with Kai, Dirk, and Marco.

Tomorrow Zvi is coming down.

There is no escape.

Thanks for reading.


* more on this in the future.