Let’s Change The PTQ System: For Love Of The Grind

Friday, September 17th – Wizards should reward the people who put thousands of miles on their car every year for the love of the game. Not every person can be a full-time pro… but anyone can be a road warrior.

Fall is upon us — and for many people that means getting excited about football, sweater vests, and pumpkin pie. Not me! I’m excited because I know that in just a few short weeks, I’ll be waking up at five in the morning and driving three and a half hours to open up six packs. The guy across from me is going to open up five rares in his color, and two of some ridiculous uncommon. The person seated next to me is going to complain that he has too many good cards, and will loudly debate playing forty-four cards just so he can fit in all of his X spells. I’m going to put my nose down and work which of my Gray Ogres is going to get best in my deck. I’m wondering how they’re going to explain to their friends about how they lost to a Hill Giant — because I know that somewhere there is a ticket to Paris with my name on it.

I’m excited about living the life of a PTQ grinder.

Don’t get into the grind if you’re just looking for a quick way to the Pro Tour, or if you’re only looking for fame and fortune. There aren’t any quick ways — and chances are that until you’ve put in the seat time necessary to really be good at it, you’re going to end up disappointed. You’re there to earn a spot, but you’re also there to have fun. If every tournament you don’t win is a total failure, then you’re going to need some kind of mental illness to wake up week after week and make the drive.

Grinding PTQs is about the unglamorous parts of the game — getting up early, filling up a car with friends, and playing your heart out to get the all important 9-1-1 or better record needed to win the event. It’s about rolling the windows down and drinking your body weight in coffee to try and stay awake after a heartbreaking loss in the finals, with only a box of product and a top8 pin to show for it.

You need to find a way to take joy in the process. Don’t even think about grinding unless you love the game. It’s about slowly improving, learning more about the format and the metagame every week until you have the blue envelope. More than just that, though, it’s about relationships you build along the way.

When you get into the grind, you’ll start to see the same people every weekend. In Cincinnati, you’ll get knocked out in round 8 by the guy your friend beat in the quarterfinals two weeks before in Detroit. A week later, he’ll watch you knock his friend out in round 5 by drawing your only out. A month later when they announce the top 8, and he’s been knocked out on breakers due to an unintentional draw in round 2, you’ll put your hand on his shoulder because you know you’re one and the same.

There is a great sense of camaraderie that PTQ grinders develop over time. You may be competing with these players… but you also share the same love of the game, the goal of perfection, and the same dedication to your craft. You may want to win the tournament — but barring that, you want to see someone else you know take it down. Winning a PTQ is a great feeling… but watching someone you’ve seen work their way through the ranks to finally take their first one down is pretty close.

It is a shame that PTQs don’t get more coverage these days. In the days of the Dojo, PTQs were the lifeblood of tournament Magic writing. Every week you could read dozens of reports from players in the field, and see how metagames developed differently throughout the country. There were a lot fewer Grand Prixs back then, and there was no Magic Online to spread tech around the world in a few nanoseconds. All you had to rely on was players’ reports from the ground in their own words.

It was through the Dojo that then Magic-superstars like Dave Price rose to notoriety by driving halfway across God’s Green Earth to play in another PTQ… only to get their dreams crushed in the penultimate round. But they were

to get up and do it again the next week.

As readers, we shared in their success and defeat, and marveled at their dedication. Even if we couldn’t match their play skill, their dedication was something we could all strive towards.

That was then, this is today. PTQs have become the stepchildren of tournament Magic — mere stepping stones for the levels of play that “really matter.” Is it a surprise that the majority of coverage that we see on the Magic sites come from Grand Prixs and Pro Tours? If you want to showcase the best talent in the game, you look to the biggest events. It’s easy to create a narrative in Pro Tours because you can always focus on the good old reliable stories about last minute train delays, missed luggage, a sick Japanese brew, or the old Pro returned to take the tournament by storm.

Does that make PTQs any less relevant? Certainly not for the players playing in them. The fact is that very few players who ever step foot in a PTQ will ever have a chance to play on the Pro Tour. Heck, the majority of them may never even make it to a Grand Prix. For tens of thousands of players, PTQs are the highest level of competition they will ever see.

And is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. They offer you an arena to compete against the best players in your region, and a chance to go even higher. They’re open enough to allow people of multiple skill levels to compete, but still hard enough that most of the players who win will be very good.

Why don’t people regard PTQs more highly? I think the question comes down to this: are PTQs are more like AAA baseball, or college football? Do they exist for little other reason than to fuel the major leagues, or are they a legitimate level of competition in their own right? Even though there’s no doubt that they feed into the Pro Tour, I think they also offer a very high level of competition in their own right. After all, the superstars of the game came up through the PTQ system.

If you looked back at the Ohio Valley just a few years ago, you’d see Patrick Chapin, Gerry T, Cedric Phillips, Benjamin Peebles-Mundy, Adam Yurchick, Tom LaPille, Kyle Boggemes, and Michael Jacob sitting at the top tables of PTQs week after week. A decade before that it would have been Randy Buehler, Aaron Forsythe, Mike Turian, Eric Taylor, Erik Lauer, Tim Aten, and well…Patrick Chapin. If you want to see who is going to be holding the novelty check on the front page of Dailymtg.com a year from now, you may only need to look at the player getting ready for top8 at your local PTQ.

The names above don’t count the dozens of other players who had great levels of success, even if it wasn’t at the Pro level. The thing is, you don’t need to end up winning Pro Tours to be a good player, compete, and enjoy yourself.

You’ve probably never heard of Leonard Richardson. He was a PTQ grinder in the Midwest during the Tempest and Urza’s Saga era, who was well known for his unconventional decks, his slow Kentucky drawl, and his ability to crush anyone who perceived those traits as a sign of a soft opponent. In his prime, he could have given any of the CMU players in his day a run for their money. You may not know who Leonard Richardson is — but I bet you a number of players with Hall of Fame rings do. Leonard may not have set the world of Magic on fire, but for a period of time he was able to compete with players who did.

The Pro Tour is about winning money, but PTQs are really about competition for competition’s sake. Yes, there’s a trip on the line. Yes, if you make it to the Pro Tour you can make money. But the expected value on your time and effort just isn’t there. You’d do better with a minimum-wage job than grinding PTQs.

No, you go to PTQs because you love the game and the grind. You go to PTQs because you want to get better, and you want to match wits and decks against other players. If you make it to the Pro Tour, even better, but that can never be your only goal. If it is, every event you don’t win is just another dagger in your heart.

Even if some Pro Tour mainstays wouldn’t ever want to return to the grind, I’ve never talked to anyone who has managed to get to that level and has looked back on the earlier career with anything but fondness. The times can be hard, for sure. You’ll get your fill of bad beats and close calls before you ever find success… but the relationships you make and people you meet end up being worth it in the end.

Rewarding The Road Warriors

I’ve written about this before — but now that I have a much wider audience with at StarCityGames, I want to talk about it again.

I think that Wizards should do more to promote PTQ-level play. Just because you may not recognize the names when looking over PTQ top 8 decklists doesn’t mean that a great number of these players aren’t very skilled and worthy of notoriety. These are often people who put thousands of miles on their car every year for the love of the game. Not every person can be a full-time pro… but anyone can be a road warrior. This should be a position of esteem, if for no other reason than they display a level of dedication to the game that’s nearly unmatched in Magic.

Winning a PTQ is really hard right now. There are quite a few pros who have said that if they fall off the train, they would have a hard time going back to the PTQ system. Consistently doing well at Magic is one thing, but beating 200+ people for an invite to a Pro Tour, only to have one shot at staying there is a daunting proposition for someone used to having a few tournaments a year to put up one really good showing.

I don’t propose we make it easy. I think it

be hard — that’s what makes the honor of getting to play in a Pro Tour so special. There’s a great deal of pride that you can take from getting an invite. I just think that the players who are at a stage in their game where all they need is a lucky break should have an easier time getting it.

I think Wizards should do something to help get the top-level PTQ players up to the big game. Ratings points don’t do it — they tend to fall down to people who enter a Pro Tour with high ratings but just barely miss the top 50, or to players in the same situation who place well in Grand Prix.

The math on getting from 2000 to the required 2070 qualification level is very frustrating: you get around 4-8 points for a win at a PTQ with that rating, and lose between 28 and 24 per loss. A top 8 performance will generally only earn you 10-20 points on the day… and all of that can be wiped away by a single 2-2 performance.

The Versus system had a point system that you earned for playing in PCQs. 10 for a win, 5 for 2nd, 2 for top 4, 1 for top 10. Instead of getting an invite to a specific Pro Tour, in Versus you used your ten points to let yourself into a single PC. That meant that the players who consistently put up good results were able to play at the Pro Level without the need to actually win the tournament.

This isn’t the system that the Pro Tour needs, though it could have some similarities. Upper Deck was working hard to get people to attend PCQs and PCs, so having a very open tour was in their best interest. The Pro Tour is already bursting at the seams at times, and as we’ve seen with Pro Tour Amsterdam.

Instead, there should be could kind of Road Warrior Leader Board (which just sounds better than a “Grinder Leader Board”) for the PTQ system, similar to the StarCityGames.com Open Series system that would allow for some number of qualifications (10, 15, 25) though the Road Warrior Prize.

No ticket — just an invite. One chance to play on the Pro Tour if they want it. I know a lot of people who would kill for an invite; the ticket isn’t important to them. They want to play on the Pro Tour and would do whatever they could to get there. They’re good enough to stay on the train if they can get on it; they just need a little boost to get to the next level. Something to bridge the gap and make getting them on the Tour a few times easier.

Imagine a similar rating system where you get 10 points for a PTQ win, five pts for a second, three for top 4, and two for top8. Wins aren’t important for the Road Warrior prize because you get knocked off the standings once you get your qualification… but they could be looked at for some kind of end-of-year assessment. You could keep track of how people are doing in PTQs, and at the end of the season invite the top 10, 15, or 25 PTQ players to the Pro Tour.

This system would also serve as a way to track and up-and-coming players. I know, for instance, that Adam Yurchick made four Top 8s during the Ravnica/Coldsnap Limited season feeding into Pro Tour Kobe, only to miss on each one. Within a year, he was performing on the Tour. Kyle Boggemes infamously made at least two second-place finishes during the Lorwyn Block Constructed Season that fed Pro Tour Berlin, as well as numerous other close calls for about a year, and was rewarded with all of his experience gained grinding by making a Pro Tour Top 8.

This system would make sure that players that are good enough, but can’t quite break out of the variance of single-elimination, won’t get frustrated with a string of seconds and give up trying. It will help to take a feeder system that can often get bottlenecked and diversify the new faces on the tour.

A lot of them may not be able to travel to a Pro Tour despite getting a Road Warrior invitation — it can be very expensive for a plane ticket and hotel — but that’s okay. This is about more than just getting people on the Tour; it’s also about showing respect for the players who are competing at a consistently high level at a legitimate level of play. It’s about bringing some notoriety and coverage to events that have been pushed to the back burner in terms of respect.

Samstod on twitter