Good Beats: Widening The Gates To Day 2

An analysis of the various tweaks to the Pro Tour structure has affected the game.

Never let it be said that WotC and the DCI don’t listen to the players.

There has always been a low grumbling on the Pro Tour about how various floor rules affect players’ chances to succeed. Two of these rules were finally deemed problematic by WotC and remedies were attempted at Pro Tour: Los Angeles.

The old rules were:

1) At Limited (Draft) Pro Tours, the four-round Draft pod will be first, followed by a three-round pod.
2) The cutoff for advancement to Day 2 will be 96th place, regardless of tiebreakers.

Let me explain the rules and the problems they created in a little more detail.

Pro Tours are generally rather large, with between 250 and 400 competitors. In order to cut a field that large down to about 96, a minimum of seven rounds must be played on Day 1 (I’m sure there’s a formula for that somewhere.) At constructed events, the number of rounds isn’t a problem – the Swiss pairing system can handle it. However, eight-man draft tables create a new obstacle.

If you’ve ever played in an eight-man booster draft, then you have an idea of what draft Pro Tours are like. The entire field is broken down into eight-man tables (although sometimes there are a few with seven people if the division is uneven). In a normal draft, it takes three rounds to determine who wins the table. The same holds true at the Pro Tour. Barring draws, after three rounds, an 8-man table will shake down into a 3-0 player, three 2-1 players, three 1-2’s, and an 0-3. All this works out fine, until you realize that two three-round drafts isn’t enough – seven rounds total must be played. Therefore, one of the drafts has to have an extra round added to it.

The four-round draft has typically been done first. There were a few complaints, however, that since the tables were generated randomly, a "good" drafter could be placed at a table with people who draft poorly (rare draft, frequently switch colors, value cards incorrectly, etc.). Personally, I’d rather be at a table with bad drafters, but I guess others don’t feel that way. WotC’s Randy Buehler was kind enough to email about the rules changes, and he said, "The first table has random pairings and sometimes, unfortunately, good players can have their decks destroyed by the unpredictable behavior of the people feeding them in the draft. With the four-round pod first, you can be eliminated from the Pro Tour based entirely on your first deck. That’s just no fun for anybody."

So the change was made to move the four-round pod in an attempt to lessen the impact of the first "random" draft table. Was this fair? I’m not sure – it seemed to be covering the weaknesses of the good players. They apparently can’t thrive in a random environment, so something was done to get them into a more comfortable situation sooner in the tournament. I personally don’t think this rule change was necessary. If you’re such a good drafter, prove it by drafting well under difficult circumstances. Anyone can draft when friends are handing your cards and colors to you on a silver platter – it takes real skill to know when someone just cut into your colors and then recover.

The second rule regards the cutoff point for Day 2. Originally it was 64th place, but was changed to 96th a few years ago. Regardless of what the actual number is, there were always people who missed day two on tiebreakers. Last year in LA, Noah Weil was the only person with 13 points (a 4-2-1 record) to not make Day 2 – he finished 97th.

I’m sure Noah’s case was one of the prime examples WotC used when deciding to change the cutoff point. Now anyone tied for 96th – regardless of tiebreakers – advances. Tiebreakers have always been a bone of contention at Magic tournaments. They seem to be largely out of a player’s control, yet their impact is very significant. This new rule lessens that significance. Personally, I like this rule a lot. Anything that makes professional Magic seem fairer is good – for LA, players didn’t have to worry about flying thousands of miles only to be screwed out of Day 2 on tiebreakers.

So the old rules were updated for LA as follows:

1) The three-round draft pod will be first, followed by a four-round pod.
2) The cutoff for advancement to Day 2 will be anyone tied for 96th place, regardless of tiebreakers.

What seemed like two good ideas in theory added up to one big mess in practice.

The first thing to consider is that Pro players do not like to intentionally draw – they do it out of self-preservation or fear, when they do it at all. Prior to LA, anyone who was 4-2 after six rounds would often be tempted to draw – 90 to 100% of the 4-2-1’s would make Day 2, whereas few to none of the 4-3’s would. Only people who felt they had more than a 90% chance of winning the last match would actually play it out, and the rest would draw. Last year at LA, there were 18 IDs in Round 7. All 36 players advanced.

With the new tiebreaker rule in place, however, the players quickly figured out that 4-3 would almost definitely make it in. So not only did the 3-3 players have something on the line in Round 7, but the 4-2’s no longer had to draw. There were no ID’s in Round 7 this year. Terrific.

But there was a weird hitch.

The fourth round of any four-round draft pod is called the "Swiss-Buster" because the pairings often violate normal Swiss procedure. If you go 3-0 (or 0-3) at a table in the first three rounds, there are no players left at the table with the same record as you. So people often are forced to play against opponents with better or worse records, and consequently, more or less to lose.

When the Swiss-Buster occurs in Round 4, no one really notices. But when it happened in Round 7, all hell broke loose.

Players who went 0-3 at the first table were still alive going into the second draft. One more loss, however, would sink them. So after six rounds, seven of the eight people at the 0-3 tables had gotten their fourth loss, and many of them dropped out. In some cases, all seven of them dropped prior to the last round pairings. This meant there was no one left for the table’s 3-3 player to be paired with! Those players simply got byes into the second day.

All the dropping and byes made pairing Rounds 6 and 7 a logistical nightmare. The DCI software had real difficulties handling the task, and there were many long delays. The final pairings were done mostly by hand.

I had no such problems with dropped opponents, as I was 3-3 and paired against another 3-3 (Nick Little) in Round 7 in a do-or-die match. (I won.) But here are two examples of the situations my teammates were in:

LA was Scott Teamann’s first Pro Tour, and he took a nosedive at his first table, going 0-3. He drafted a bombtastic deck at the second table, however, and ended up 3-3 after 6 rounds. Of course, the rest of his table dropped out, and Scott got a bye in round 7, and made Day 2 in 168th place. Scott did well enough on Day 2 to finish 63rd overall, good enough for a little cash.

Andrew Cuneo went 2-1 at his first table, but had tougher luck in the later rounds. He, too, was 3-3 going in to round 7. Fate would have it that he was paired UP, against a 4-2 Steve O’Mahoney-Schwartz, who many say is the best Rochester drafter in the world. Steve could afford a loss; Cuneo could not. Steve won, denying Andrew a seat in the second day.

Recap: Scott – 0-3 at first table, bye into Day 2. Andrew – 2-1 at first
table, paired up vs. Steve OMS in Round 7. The new system was a little flawed.

A massive 169 players qualified for Day 2 in LA, or 51.7% of the field. Buehler said that figure was "definitely surprising," and he blamed the
7th-round byes on the high total.

So the experiment had its ups and downs. The attempt to make the Pro Tour fairer may have made it a little less fair, actually. But Buehler seems to think the problems will be ironed out:

"So the report card, in my mind, " Buehler wrote, "Looks like this: Letting everyone tied for 96th in to day 2: great idea Having the 4-round pod 2nd: terrible idea "Don’t let the 4-round pod catastrophe (which is also responsible for all the computer problems and long delays between rounds) affect your opinion of the ‘letting everyone tied for 96th in’ policy. No one is happy when tiebreakers decide who advances, and that problem can still be fixed. LA taught us that all other things aren’t equal when it comes to having the four-round pod first or second, though. It has to go first."

So, will either of these policies be carried out at future Tour stops, like Tokyo, Barcelona, or Worlds?

"Tokyo is Constructed, so the pod thing is irrelevant," said Randy. "Everyone tied for 96th will advance to Day 2. Barcelona will have the four-round pod first, followed by a three-round pod, and then everyone tied for 96th will advance to Day 2. Worlds has three six-round days with no cutoffs until the cut to Top 8 at the end of Day 3, so both these issues are irrelevant (the draft day will be two three-round pods.)"

So the tiebreaker rule was a big hit, but interacted poorly with the
four-round-pod rule. The good rule wins out over the bad rule – so from here on out, the draft pods will revert to the old setup, but tiebreakers will no longer play a role in determining who advances to Day 2 and who doesn’t.

Fixing the rules at the Pro Tour seems to be trial-and-error. I think all the errors have been worked out, and now the system is geared toward fairness and increased opportunities for players to make Day 2.

Watch the coverage of Pro Tour: Tokyo this weekend to see how many players benefit from this great new rule.

All any of us want is a fair chance to succeed, and I think we have it now.

Go forth and qualify,
Aaron Forsythe

"Who let the Moggs out?"
– Should have been the flavor text on Mogg Jailer.