Poker, Pros, Problems? Insight from Type One

Ferrett’s recent article about Poker’s effect on the Pro Tour, and its likely future effects, immediately inspired me to think about what insights might be gleaned from the way the Type One community works. The reason I thought of Type One is that it’s a format which is growing, but without pros, without much in the way of DCI support, and in fact without very many large tournaments in general.

Ferrett’s recent article about Poker’s effect on the Pro Tour, and its likely future effects, immediately inspired me to think about what insights might be gleaned from the way the Type One community works. I thought the Ferrett was absolutely spot-on in his commentary. The Pro Tour isn’t big enough money to keep a full stable of genuinely good pros interested, long-term, as full-time Magic players. Only a select few people can make Magic a career, and I expect that most of these will continue to be in the”sell cards” and”make cards” groups, rather than”play cards.” As has been said before and will be said again: anyone who’s smart enough to make decent money at Magic could be making way more doing something else. Often in the past this comparison has been to things like”jobs,” which are unappealing, but Poker is another game – that’s a whole different challenge to the PT’s player base.

The reason I thought of Type One is that it’s a format which is growing, but without pros, without much in the way of DCI support, and in fact without very many large tournaments in general. (Though, say what you will about the Italians’ metagame, They. Show. Up.) The high echelons are, instead, best described as”semi-Pros.” JP Meyer doesn’t have to go out of his way (or stop his neverending film research) to win several Power cards in a year. The financial incentives are just such that it’s definitely worth it for him to practice and keep staying ahead of the curve, but it would be very difficult, and likely impractical, for him to even try to play Type One Magic full-time. Type One has a number of these (often extremely charismatic) personalities, and its own growing horde of”n00bs” who want to be like them.

The interesting thing is that these semi-Pros typically stay around for a long time, at least in our experience so far. JP’s first [author name="StarCityGames.com"]StarCityGames.com[/author] article was in July 2001, and he was on BDominia for a while before that. We have our retirees, like Darren di Battista a.k.a. Azhrei, who now teaches English or some other silly thing and fences, but he still hangs out over at TheManaDrain, occasionally surfacing to regale us with wit, much of which is inappropriate for SCG’s family-friendly nature. Many other well-known players have been around for several years, as well, with no sign of impending retirement. I’m pretty sure there’s at least two fathers among the hundred-odd full members of TMD, and of course many full-time students. Even more intriguing is the presence of Tom van de Logt (World Champion 2001) in the European circuit, suggesting that people who might be inconsistent on the Pro Tour can find a home in a semi-pro environment.

What ends up happening is that these semi-Pros fund their Magic with their occasional winnings, and mostly end up making money on the whole, but not that much. However, they do develop new archetypes, new”technology,” and continue to attend tournaments while also having a real day-job or full student schedule. They’re part of teams, they generate hype, a few (enough) write articles, they generate social capital for the Magic community by their very presence online, etc. Oh, and a few have grudges against each other which are plenty entertaining to close observers.

In essence, they perform a lot of the functions that pros do, without costing Wizards a cent. They don’t have to spend all day long playtesting, every day, in that nonstop competitive way which sucks the fun out of anything, in order to keep things interesting for the rest of the community. I think that these phenomena are scalable, meaning that it’s not just an oddity of the format: a larger player pool could support larger tournaments (like Grand Prix) that function in much the same way, with a higher talent cutoff to be one of the”semi-Pros.”

In fact, there are some benefits to not having a developed professional circuit that finds all the decks right away. By not having a single tournament define the format, there are more opportunities to surprise the metagame later on, making each tournament more likely to have buzzworthy netdecks. Players will almost definitely feel as if the environment is more open to experimentation, because it’s more difficult to say”your idea is useless” with certainty – just look at Type One players argue about whether Standstill is an absolutely horrible card, or one which deserves two archetypes of its own. (Or whether Tendrils of Agony is better in an Academy Rector deck than Illusions-Donate – both still T8.) A feeling that something unusual can win brings more people to tournaments and adds to the fun for a lot of players, no matter how much it annoys some of the people who wish the format to become more refined. Magic probably isn’t the right game for the Spikiest-of-the-Spikies, and I don’t think there’s a way to make it be such a game, nor would the rest of the players (customers!) necessarily like the changes that would help that end.

I look at the Pro Tour as an interesting but imperfect experiment in finding the answer to”what is the best deck?” with conditions like a particular format attached. What I think the semi-Pros of Type One should remind people of are PT Qualifiers/GP Trials, as well as full-fledged Grand Prix. There are plenty of people who will drive hours for PTQs/GPTs, and will make trips anywhere in their region for GPs. (Compare directly to driving several hours for a tournament with a Black Lotus as top prize, or flying in for GenCon.) These contests are quite competitive, and satisfy a lot of fairly Spiky people. The decks that make their Top 8s are immediate netdeck material, and propagate quickly. They, in short, perform a lot of the functions of the Pro Tour. In the case of PTQs, it’s possible to argue that people go because they want the Pro Tour in particular, but I think they’re more closely related to GPTs than that. People go with goals like making the Top 8, and a lot of them will split the prize in the finals, preferring the money to the invite because they don’t expect to be able to make it to Malaysia or wherever.

That’s one key difference between GPs and PTs: internationalism. Grand Prix do often have people fly great distances for them, but as is made clear by the simultaneous-GP weekends, Wizards doesn’t plan on having many out-of-region players at these events. Type One shows that it’s possible to maintain and grow interest in a format that is not globally interconnected, among an audience that pursues its competition in a fairly laid back manner. People disagree about whose metagame is good or not, but for the larger formats, I’m sure there would be a relevant, and reasonably internationalized, World Championship each year, even if financial considerations caused it to be held online (which is, of course, a whole separate can of worms).

It’s also possible to see a certain”sexiness” to the Pro Tour, which makes it much more hype-compatible and attracts more attention to it. I’m no marketing expert, so I don’t know how to dissect what factors could make other tournaments gain this characteristic. I will say that the top prize is certainly a significant part of it. In Type One, we procure”sexiness” by putting unbalancingly large first-place prizes up for grabs (for the number of players involved), and by making those prizes parts of the Power Nine, which are inherently sexy because they’re old and rare.

Maybe increasing the emphasis on the chain of States-Regionals-Nationals-Worlds would add to each part of that chain’s attractiveness. In the end, a lot of it comes down to: more payout, more retention and dedication of players. (Don’t casinos run on 98% returns or thereabouts?) However, I’m trying to drive home that Type One’s semi-Pro model provides hope that Magic can be as prosperous as ever, even though it has no hope at all of competing with the prize pots of Poker, or of holding onto the most fiercely intelligent players full-time.

So my suggestion is this: if it ever comes down to it, where it’s impossible to maintain a group of marquee pros because they only play competitively for a few months or a year before moving on, then the Pro Tour is expendable as long as there are still less-internationalized, large-scale tournaments (like the present Grand Prix system), to take its place. The marginal loss of regular international competition compared to national and continental competition would be unfortunate, but I doubt it would be a very serious one. As long as there’s a semi-Pro class of players that are winning enough to come out with more money than it cost them to play and travel, there will be competitive Magic personalities who fulfill most of the roles that the pros do. And people will still pay attention to what they say and play. Most importantly, those people will buy cards (from StarCityGames.com of course), because they want to win. Call it a Grand Prix or a Friday Night Magic, they want to win, and they will continue to do so as long as R&D keeps up the good work.