Looking Back & Looking Ahead

Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Brian Kibler reflects on 2013, looking back at the goals he set and what he accomplished, and talks about what he’d like to happen next year.

Last year around this time I wrote a pair of articles looking back and looking forward. This year I’m going to be much more efficient—I’m going to tackle both looking back and looking forward in a single article! How far we have come in just one year . . .

It’s always interesting to reflect on what has gotten us to where we are today. Rereading my year in review piece, I can see the grumblings that turned into something much bigger several months later:

"Since I’m on the subject, I think the expansion of the Grand Prix program is fantastic for Magic as a whole since it provides a great way for a broad range of players to experience high-level competitive play. I get lots of messages on Facebook and Twitter from players asking me if I’ll be attending their local Grand Prix because they want to meet me and have me sign cards or something of the sort. I think the opportunity for the average player to meet and talk with the pros whose articles they read and who they follow on coverage is great for both parties since fans get a chance to interact with their favorite players and the pros get feedback from their audience.

That said, I think the huge number of Grand Prix events is a net negative for pro players. As I mentioned earlier, GPs are generally a losing proposition monetarily. The main reason for pros to attend is the potential to earn Pro Points. More Grand Prix means more opportunities to earn Pro Points, but it also means that the pro-level thresholds are calculated with the expectation that players are attending more events. This means that players who are unable or unwilling to play in so many GPs are at a disadvantage when it comes to making Gold or Platinum status. If you don’t play in a ton of GPs, you really have to overperform in order to secure a spot on the train."

Both my year in review article and my resolutions piece touch on this subject a great deal. At the end of last year, I was seriously burnt out on Magic. It was in 2012 that the Grand Prix circuit expanded dramatically, shifting from holding events maybe a few times a month to nearly every weekend. As a highly competitive person striving to reach Platinum, qualify for the World Championship, and represent the US in the World Magic Cup, I had spent an incredible amount of time on the road in 2012, and I was sick of it.

Not only was the amount of traveling I was doing wearing on me mentally, but it was also taking its toll in other ways. One of my resolutions from last year was "Take Better Care of Myself" specifically because I had developed terrible habits and fallen out of good ones due to spending so much time on the road. Waking up before dawn multiple times a week to catch cross-country flights led to me eating badly, working out less than I should, and consuming massive amounts of caffeine.

What did I do about it? Well, a few things. First, I made a concerted effort to break the bad habits I’d developed, with varying amounts of success. I got back to eating well and working out (at least outside of the holidays), and I managed to cut down on my caffeine use. Secondly, I made an effort to change the system that I saw as a major catalyst of all of these problems.

In February, I published my "State of Pro Play" article, which was a breakdown of the realities of the pro lifestyle. I raised my concerns about the strains put on pro players by the expanded Grand Prix schedule, especially those with other significant demands on their time both in terms of time and financial burdens and made some suggestions to improve the system:

"One solution that I find extremely unlikely to happen would be to bring back a fourth Pro Tour. Some of you newer readers might be shocked to learn that once upon a time there were as many as six Pro Tours in a year. Now Magic is bigger than ever, and there are only three. Adding another Pro Tour would go a long way toward allowing WotC to run enough PTQs and Grand Prix to provide play opportunities to as many players as possible while avoiding the need to grow the size of the Pro Tour events themselves. That would free up more PT spots for returning players and allow WotC to marginally reduce the PT point requirements for getting on the train. It would also at least somewhat alleviate the GP problem by giving players an additional PT to accumulate points at, which would help reduce the importance of points earned at Grand Prix.

Another possibility is to only count the best X of a player’s GP finishes over the course of a year and reduce the Pro Players Club thresholds accordingly. If the Pro Players Club only counted, say, your top five Grand Prix finishes in a season, players would still have incentives to continue going to events to improve upon their best finishes (unless they managed to win five Grand Prix) but wouldn’t feel like they might as well not go to any events if they can’t go to them all—posting five solid finishes would put them in the thick of the points race rather than hopelessly far from anything worthwhile. Assuming Pro Players Club levels were similarly scaled back, this would reduce the pressure to attend every event and allow players to feel like they can compete even if they can’t travel to every event."

The addition of another Pro Tour was announced at Pro Tour Gatecrash in Montreal a week after my article went up. While I had many people thank me for bringing back the fourth Pro Tour, such a decision clearly requires far too much planning and corporate buy in to have happened so quickly. From what I have heard, some of the higher-ups at WotC were comparing sales data between core sets and expansion sets and trying to find ways to increase the former. Since expansion sets sold better on average and one of the big marketing differences was that core sets were the only major releases without an associated Pro Tour, the decision was made to add another event.

That said, I’m not so cynical to think that the only motivation behind adding an additional Pro Tour was based on marketing. I think it was a happy coincidence that organized play for Magic was resurgent at the same time the powers that be were looking for ways to boost sales—and a similar coincidence that the announcement happened to come on the heels of my article. If the last few years have shown me anything, it is that there are smart people who have the best interests of Magic and Magic players at heart who are in charge of things over at WotC. For as much flak as they get for what they get wrong, WotC recognizes that their fan base is passionate and smart, and they realize that doing good by them results in success.

That was quite evident in the second change that was announced, which capped the number of Grand Prix results that could count for a player in a single season at five. That suggestion was one that was floated very specifically in my article and supported by a number of other pros in the conversation that surrounded the piece. The motivation behind the suggestion was to make it possible for players who could not commit themselves full time to Magic to compete for pro levels and invitations to events like the World Championship and World Magic Cup.

Since the rule was implemented, it has received mixed reviews. Some players like William Jensen and Sam Black have criticized it for leaving them with little incentive to travel to and play in Grand Prix early in the season because they have already strung together five strong finishes. However, Ben Stark, who is also in the same position with five-plus top GP finishes, has expressed that he’s happy about the rule making him feel like he doesn’t have to go to Grand Prix anymore unless he really wants to play—and he has done so, posting a Top 4 finish at Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth when it was one of the only possible results that could actually leave him ahead in points at all.

The fact is that the rule was not implemented to benefit players like Jensen and Black who have the time and inclination to attend every event. It was created to level the playing field between them and the far greater number of players who can’t do that, whether due to work or family commitments or due to simply living nowhere near the bulk of the Grand Prix in the world.

As someone living in North America, it’s easy to take for granted the number of events that are available to us. There has been discussion since the advent of the World Magic Cup that the United States should be able to field multiple teams for the event because it has so many of the top point earners, but those arguments overlook the fact that the US has so many top point earners because it has so many more opportunities than many other regions to qualify for the Pro Tour and to earn points. Players in many smaller countries and particularly in regions less served by the Grand Prix circuit are some of the people who benefit the most from the cap because they’re not competing on a playing field that is balanced for North Americans with access to far more events.

There are certainly costs to the new system, both to a small section of players and to the storylines of the season. With the cap in place, it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone post a season like Owen Turtenwald had a few years ago when he won Player of the Year. That said, there are some—including Jon Finkel—who have argued that Grand Prix results have been too important to the PoY award for many years because of the number and value of Grand Prix. While the recipients of the title have all clearly been strong players, we’ve seen multiple winners whose actual Pro Tour performances have been largely unimpressive in the years they have won. Jon said that he gave up caring about the award years ago when he realized it would simply be impossible for him to win without attending dozens of Grand Prix. Maybe the cap will help change that.

It’s a difficult balance. Magic coverage is clearly well served by having pro players attending Grand Prix, and the storylines associated with players having particularly strong seasons are among the best. If players like William Jensen and Sam Black just stop going to events now, it’s certainly a loss for the coverage. At the same time, however, there are still a lot of other pros who will be going to the events they’re choosing to skip, some of whom might not have bothered if they felt like they had no chance at pro levels or the World Championship or World Magic Cup because they couldn’t attend enough events. Keep in mind that it’s not simply a matter of whether there is a cap on Grand Prix finishes or not—if we lived in a world with no cap, the required points to achieve Silver, Gold, and Platinum levels would certainly be higher, making things that much more difficult for almost everyone to achieve.

Personally, I’ve been thrilled by the five Grand Prix cap. I only have a single finish so far—a Top 16 at Grand Prix Detroit—but I’ve already skipped a few tournaments that I didn’t want to attend or that were scheduled to conflict with other commitments I had. Instead of feeling compelled to attend or terrible about missing events, I have instead felt much better able to balance playing competitive Magic with the rest of my life.

Last year I ended up just skipping a tournament for which I had already bought a ticket because I was simply too tired and burnt out to attend after a string of weekends away at events. This year I tried desperately to reschedule my flight to GP Dallas-Forth Worth when it was cancelled due to weather, going as far as to wake up at 4 AM the morning of the tournament to try to fly out of a completely different city in the hopes of getting there in time to play only to be incredibly disappointed to find out my flight was cancelled.

This is a tremendous difference in attitude. Whereas last year’s non-stop Grand Prix schedule had me anxious for breaks whenever I could get them, now I’m excited to play in every tournament. I’m going because I want to play, not because I’m trying to scrape together a point or two, and that makes a huge difference.

It’s kind of interesting to juxtapose one of my resolutions last year with one of my decisions in 2013. Last New Year’s I resolved to work to improve my Limited game because I felt it was lacking. This year, thanks to the Grand Prix cap, I decided to generally forego attending Limited events because I don’t enjoy playing in or preparing for them nearly as much as I do Constructed.

This is a concession to the reality of my time commitments these days. I am not a full-time Magic-playing bachelor who can spend hours each day preparing for whatever the next tournament is. I work full time as a game designer and marketing director for SolForge and Ascension, and I moved in with my girlfriend Natalie in August. I simply can’t devote as much time as I might like to preparing for tournaments. Much of the time I have for Magic goes toward writing articles and making videos for this website, so I have to pick my battles.

I prefer playing Constructed, and I think I’m pretty clearly much better at it than I am at Limited. Given my constraints, I’d rather play to my strengths than attempt to shore up my weaknesses. I still draft from time to time—Natalie really enjoys drafting on Magic Online, and I’ll frequently coach her as she does—but my focus is on building and testing decks in Constructed. But I can’t play as much as I feel like I should if I want to really compete at the highest level.  

I’m not sure what my relationship will be with Magic over the next few years. It’s very clear that devoting less time to the game makes posting strong results much more difficult and vice versa. Compare the meteoric rise of William Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, and Reid Duke to the relative decline of Luis Scott-Vargas. I mean no slight toward any of them, but it’s clear that the incredible success of the former three has come as a result of an incredible dedication to Magic, while LSV went from having a median finish in the Top 16 to struggling to post strong results ever since he stopped playing and writing about Magic as his full time job. Huey, Owen, and Reid travel to events across the country almost every weekend, from Grand Prix to SCG Open Series, and devote a ton of time to playing Magic. Luis, like myself, travels to a limited number of events and can only play Magic outside of his normal work hours. And it shows—for both of us.

It’s difficult for me to do anything if I’m not doing it competitively. When I stopped playing Magic years ago, it was because I skipped back-to-back Pro Tours and fell off the train as a result. I had just started a new job—my first game design gig at Upper Deck working on VS System (and eventually the World of Warcraft TCG)—and I didn’t feel like I could devote enough time to playing to remain competitive so I didn’t play at all. Nowadays I have the benefit of being in the Hall of Fame so even if I stopped playing entirely I could still compete in Pro Tours, but I doubt I’d attend if I didn’t feel like I was in a position to win.

That said, I can’t imagine my life without tournament Magic right now. Gaming and competing is in my blood. I will have played Magic for twenty years in February. That month will also mark eighteen years since I played in my first Pro Tour—which was the first Pro Tour. I love competing, and I love the intellectual challenge that comes with building decks and playing in major events. Even if I miss out on Platinum and decide to cut back on my tournament attendance, I can’t see myself stopping altogether. I love it too much.

My tournament results in 2013 weren’t great. I did poorly in both foreign PTs, finishing just out of the Top 100 in Montreal and having my worst finish ever in Dublin. I had just one GP Top 8 in San Diego with my Modern Domri Naya deck that I tested online for months in part due to my decision to skip the Limited Grand Prix leading up to it giving me a ton of extra testing time. I lost playing for Top 8 at the PT in San Diego, falling to Mihara in the penultimate round before drawing in round 16 to lock my spot in the World Championship. I had a strong day 1 in that event, ending the day tied with Reid Duke and Shahar Shenhar for the lead, but fell apart on day 2, posting only a single win in M14 Draft and a miserable 0-3 result in Modern when the field looked very different than I had anticipated. I did manage to completely upend the Standard format with my Domri deck there, which was pretty sweet, but it would have been nice if I could have been the person actually winning tournaments with it instead of everyone else.

Speaking of upending things, perhaps one of the most memorable events of the year for me was the Magic Online Championship Series I played in. If you haven’t heard the story, I was 7-0 in the nine-round MOCS and locked for Top 8 when the program crashed and I was among many who were unable to log back on, resulting in me getting dropped from the tournament. I was rather upset, as you can imagine, and shared my thoughts with the world—which you can find here.

Much like the fourth Pro Tour, I’ve had a lot of people credit me (or blame me depending on their perspective) with the subsequent shutdown of Magic Online PTQs, Daily Events, and Premier Events. While I do think that my outburst helped fuel the fire under the Magic Online team somewhat, I think this is another example of me simply pointing out an issue that the powers that be at WotC were already looking to do something about. I’d actually been told by Worth to expect an announcement on the matter before my blog post ever went up, so that certainly wasn’t the catalyst for the changes. But hey, I’m fine with playing the hero (or villain), so feel free to assign responsibility to me . . .

In the long run, I think the Magic Online shutdown (which has already largely ended) is going to be good for everyone. It’s been clear that the program has needed more resources for a while, and it looks like the uproar surrounding its instability has finally made that a possibility. While a few weeks without Daily Events may have been painful, having events that don’t crash helps ensure the future of the program and bodes well for the return of large events online. I know that the idea of playing major events from the comfort of my own home is a very appealing one for me and I’m sure for many others as well, and that’s only going to be able to be a reality if Magic Online can actually support them without imploding.

All told, 2013 was a year of major changes in Magic programs, and in the long run I think they will be for the better. Here are some of the things I’d like to see in 2014:

Improved Grand Prix Structure – There are already some positive changes coming for Grand Prix in 2014, including no onsite registration on Saturdays and expanded cash payouts for large events. I’d like to see additional improvements made in terms of efficiency, like Sealed Deck pool preregistration and an earlier Saturday start time in order to facilitate adding more rounds to events that require it. The move toward a maximum of fifteen rounds for large GP events has led to some pretty ridiculous situations over the past year, including players with 12-3 records receiving no prizes at GP Las Vegas. While that’s clearly an outlier and will be somewhat mitigated by the increased payout structure, I think it’s important for Grand Prix to have tools in place to support the growth we’ve seen without harming the experience for players. It’s really disappointing to be on the wrong side of tiebreakers and miss out on cash and Pro Points, and running too few rounds just exacerbates that problem.

Improved and Expanded GP Coverage – Just a few weeks ago StarCityGames announced a core coverage team for the Open Series that makes me excited to actually watch their events. Whenever there is an SCG Open and a Grand Prix on at the same time, I watch the SCG Open because the coverage is vastly superior despite the level of play frequently being much worse. WotC can learn a lot from what SCG has done by having a consistent stable of knowledgeable commentators. I don’t expect commentators to be top pros who know the ins and outs of every matchup—though that would be nice—but I do expect them to know what commonly played cards in the format do. On top of that, there’s the little things like starting coverage with the first round—and on time—and the level of professionalism in the broadcast. The official coverage should not be shown up so dramatically by a third-party tournament circuit, to say nothing of comparing it to League of Legends coverage . . .

Stable and Functional Magic Online Client – Please?

As for myself, these are my Magic-related goals for 2014:

Win Something – My most recent trophy is Pro Tour Dark Ascension in 2012. That’s almost two years ago. My shelf is getting dusty, and I need something else to put up there.

Make Platinum – I want to say "Qualify for Worlds Again," but I want to be more realistic. I’m already far behind in the race for PT points thanks to my poor results so far this season. Making Platinum again would help me justify continuing to commit time to playing Magic competitively. It would also get me a free flight and hotel room for the next PT Hawaii, which would make it much cheaper for me to take Natalie there like I’ve already promised.

Expand My BlogMy blog was something new this year, and it gave me a platform for discussing any number of topics, from my critique of the reprinting of Thoughtseize to my thoughts on the design of other games like Hearthstone. I’ve really enjoyed sharing my thoughts that might not be appropriate for articles here, and I have a ton of things I want to write about that I haven’t gotten to yet. Want to hear about how Magic nearly got me kicked out of school? How about the story about how I got into competitive gaming growing up? Or maybe a behind-the-scenes look at the design of the World of Warcraft TCG? All are planned articles that I want to get around to writing for my blog.

Have Fun – Most importantly, I want to keep enjoying the place Magic has in my life. That’s something that I let slip last year thanks to the interminable Grand Prix schedule. My life is awesome, and Magic is an awesome part of it. I want to be sure I can keep maintaining that balance throughout 2014.

What do you want to see from Magic in 2014, and what are your Magical goals for next year?