Grinding: A Question Of Values

Jon Agley reevaluates his Top 10 cards from Dark Ascension and compares his list to the top cards used at the Pro Tour. He also discusses whether Magic players take the grind too seriously.

Today’s article covers two very different topics. First, before the novelty of the whole thing wears off, I want to audit my last article about the Top 10 Constructed cards from Dark Ascension. Second, I want to address some of the more extreme articles on the “grinder lifestyle” that have popped up in recent weeks. If one topic interests you and the other doesn’t, feel free to pick and choose! They’re completely unrelated.

Audit of my Dark Ascension Top 10 Article:

In my opinion, at least, the development of a “Top 10 in a format” list should be based on the extent to which the cards actually will be played in a given format and the extent to which they contribute to the foundation of different archetypes. Auditing such a list with actual data allows us to determine where I was right and, more importantly, where I was off-base. I was honestly surprised by the vitriol with which a few readers responded, some of which because they were only interested in Standard (and only six of the ten cards were selected for Standard; others were for various other formats), and some of which because they flat out disagreed. Which is fine—though the tone of several reminded me that the Internet may be the abyss into which we ought not gaze too long.

The Standard cards that I expected to perform were:

9) Lingering Souls

8) Sorin, Lord of Innistrad

7) Strangleroot Geist

5) Gravecrawler

4) Geralf’s Messenger

1) Drogskol Captain

In order to determine whether this list actually makes sense post PT: Dark Ascension, I checked out the decklists that had gone at least 6-x (18 points) over the course of the tournament. I then counted the instances of each Dark Ascension card in the lists to come up with a percentage of representation for each of the cards. This allows me to refine the list by adding cards (Standard only this time) and revising the order based on appearance rates at the Pro Tour. The actual numbers:

1) Strangleroot Geist (44.9%)

2 TIE) Lingering Souls (36.7%)

2 TIE) Huntmaster of the Fells (36.7%)

4 TIE) Drogskol Captain (14.3%)

4 TIE) Geralf’s Messenger (14.3%)

6 TIE) Tragic Slip (13.3%)

6 TIE) Thalia, Guardian of Thraben (13.3%)

8) Gravecrawler (12.2%)

9) Sorin, Lord of Innistrad (10.2%)

10) Grafdigger’s Cage (6.1%)

It looks like my “big misses” were Huntmaster of the Fells (which I tremendously underrated—having played with the set now, I realize the magnitude of that error), Tragic Slip (which I did not include on the premise that it’s a Wring Flesh + not realizing just how much better it is), and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben (which I still don’t like in Standard). I hit the other cards accurately, though I got the order wrong in some cases. I certainly did not expect Strangleroot Geist to be the most played Dark Ascension card among successful Standard decks at the Pro Tour, especially with a rather high number of pro players writing that it didn’t really have a home in the current Standard format. Doing a Top 10 list was a fun exercise, though, and it gives me an interesting idea for the next set (and future sets).*

Grinding: A question of values

In the excitement over the release of a new set and the attached Pro Tour, an interesting phenomenon and group of articles passed many of us by relatively undetected. Those of us who did read them probably did so more out of human interest than because we are Magic players. The premise of these articles, some of which are a bit old and some of which are newer “tell-all” articles, is that the older system of Planeswalker Points (PWP), prior to the changes, was bad because it made players make unhealthy choices. A good example because it is summative comes from an article titled “The Problem with Planeswalker Points” published on 12-14-2011 on another site. A key passage reads:

Chris has spoken out openly against the perverse incentive structure of the PWP system despite the fact that he is positioned to reap its rewards, saying that it led him to sleep overnight in a subway station so he’d be able to go to both FNM and a PTQ the next day.

Chris is certainly not alone in feeling like he has to play in events to keep up. I know that Alex Bertoncini, who was several hundred points ahead of his closest realistic competitor, still flew out to Worlds and played in upward of a dozen events over the weekend for fear of being overtaken. Zaiem Beg, also in the Top 100, said that he has gone to FNM with a 101 degree fever, more concerned about the potential of missing out on points than for his own health.**

At first, we might read this passage as being a resounding indictment of a cruel system, and that is how quite a few players have presented the older iteration of PWP. The most basic layer of argumentation here (and elsewhere) is:

Isn’t it terrible that these players had to take these extreme actions to grind PWP?

My contention is that our answer should be “not really.” There are quite a few fallacies associated with the simplified (straw) argument above, as well as with the passage as a whole. We might consider the following ideas…

  1. The more we value something, the more we are willing to do to gain “that thing.” Let’s assume for a second that the PWP system, right now, were set up exactly as it was last fall, except that the prize, rather than an invitation to the Pro Tour, is a complete set of all Super Soaker water guns produced in the US between 1990 and 2001. It is likely that Magic players still would be casually interested in PWP, but the entire concept of “grinding PWP” would not exist as we understand it. No one would be sleeping in subways to get that sweet vintage Super Soaker 50. This thought experiment suggests that it is less the structure of the process and more the goal—the prize—that provokes extreme behavior. In fact, let’s examine another scenario. Let’s assume that, rather than a PWP system, Wizards of the Coast decided that invitations to the Pro Tour would be given to anyone willing to climb naked into a bathtub full of angry scorpions for five minutes. Assuming a method of ensuring such a process would not ultimately be fatal, I have no doubt that a number of players would qualify for the tour via Scorpion Bath (SBQ).
  2. We should ask: “What did the PWP system really do?” The PWP system was designed to provide Pro Tour access to the 100 people who were willing to do the most to secure an invitation (i.e., ostensibly, those who valued a Pro Tour invitation the most as evidenced through their quantifiable actions). We’ve already been through the whole rigmarole about whether “effort” or “skill” should be the criterion for a Pro Tour invitation, and the system has been changed since its inception to more significantly value skill. This point is not about that particular argument. Rather, we’re discussing whether it was the old PWP system, in itself, that was “perverse.” Essentially, in developing the PWP system, Wizards of the Coast set up two propositions:
    1. The top 100 players in terms of PWP with a competitive season will be invited to the Pro Tour for that season.
    2. Magic events will offer points for winning and for attendance that are weighted by the type of event.

The system essentially asked: Given (a) and (b), are you willing to go farther than at least all but 99 other Magic Players in the world? The extent to which players had to go to be in the top 100 largely was based on the value that Magic players place on being invited to the Pro Tour. We read about players who: risked their health, flew across the world (at cost) to play side events, slept in public places, and, in more extreme events, allowed “the grind” to become an all-consuming passion that subsumed their ethics and interpersonal relationships to a significant degree.

Was the old PWP system “perverse” because individuals participating in it did these things? Or are there so many individuals who value invitations to the Pro Tour that to be in the top 100 of that subset of individuals required significant proof-through-action? Recall that this isn’t a social, political, or economic system in which one can argue the chicken-and-egg syndrome (does the system cause the behavior or does the behavior necessitate the system?). This is a qualification system for a collectible card game.

What is the value of an invitation to the Pro Tour? The answer to this question will vary with every person asked. The value will also change within a system that establishes a “threshold of value” for admission to the big event.

Do me a favor.

Google “how to choose what to value” and then Google “how to choose a car.”

We find six entries for the former, and over one million entries for the latter.

To the extent that this type of search represents the English-speaking “hive mind,” we might infer that many of us are not very well prepared to choose what to value in life. This is not to say that wanting to be on the Pro Tour is a “bad value.” The purpose of this article is not to pass judgment on specific valuations of the Pro Tour because no quantitative scale appropriately and effectively can capture this concept. In addition, it is likely the case that most of our perspectives rightly attribute some value to being invited to the Pro Tour (and in the case of players who have made a living from the game, this is especially true). But consider the following statements from your own system of values:

Qualifying for the Pro Tour is more important to me than my family.

Qualifying for the Pro Tour is more important to me than my integrity.***


Getting a promotion at work is more important to me than my integrity.

Having a winning football team is more important to me than my family.

In a mixed example of the second two sentences, if we were to formulate a complaint about a person who works too hard and ignores his/her family, we likely would say “That person works too hard.” However, when it comes to PWP, we say “it created a system that caused people to…grind too hard.”

The PWP system did not create these values in people, but it did put on display the extent to which people value an invitation to the Pro Tour.

It illuminated the manner in which many people in young adulthood are identifying and valuing different aspects of their lives. How much is the average Magic player willing to sacrifice to live “the dream?” How much value do we give to the blue envelope? A lot.

More than many of us might have imagined.



* Thinking out loud—if individuals submit their own Top 10 lists for the next set in the comment section to my article, I can copy them all into a spreadsheet and weight both card selection and order to see who can come up with the most accurate list.

** http://www.douban.com/note/189959904/

*** We should ignore, for the moment, the theoretically varying levels of value of “family” and “integrity” (as well as the definition of integrity, which is an ambiguous concept) and presume that they are “things” that the average person holds to be important.