Warning: This article is provocative. It’s written in a semi ‘stand-up’ style that’s deliberately designed to both amuse and get you thinking. Because when you’re thinking, you might just be writing some awesome ideas in the Forum, and that’s what I want to happen. Enjoy!
It’s been a while since I’ve written an article that has been about an Issue in the game. I think that reflects both my consensual nature — I don’t like confrontation if I can avoid it — and also the fact that Magic as a whole is in an extremely good place right now. To have weathered a global recession and to have come out the other side not only with things more or less intact, but with a vastly expanding community, is a startling achievement. There are so many good things going on, we can hardly keep track of them all.
I was struck by looking at the ‘Feature Article’ on magicthegathering.com the other day just how far we’ve come. This was the announcement of the Banned and Restricted List. When I started playing back in the late 90’s, this announcement was awaited with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation. Eagerness, because there were whole swathes of the community regularly up in arms about certain cards they were convinced would cause the world to end unless they were ritually burned at the stake. Trepidation, because tournament players who had invested heavily in certain cards were concerned that those cards would be next in the firing line. It’s fair to say that, when it came to insider trading, knowing what was about to go onto the Banned and Restricted List could have made you a lot of money back then.
No longer. Those days are gone, and the reason I put the quotes around Feature Article is because, quite simply, there was no article there. There was nothing to see, and nothing to say, because Magic simply isn’t broken any more. That’s not to say that there aren’t cards that players don’t like — Bitterblossom was highly unpopular with those who had to play against it, and the whole idea of Jund is enough to bring plenty of people out in a rash — but you have to listen quite hard to find sensible people actively campaigning for the Banning of Bloodbraid Elf, or Blightning, in Standard.
Another concern that’s as old as the hills is the cost of individual cards. I distinctly remember a rather tense meeting with a group of friends when Chrome Mox hit the shelves. It was so clearly more expensive than anything we’d bought before for Standard, or even Extended, that we were actively balking at the idea of spending Â£15 on each of them, even though we’d be sharing their use round the group. Could we sensibly play serious events without them? In the end, we decided that it was just an essential piece of kit, and we reluctantly shelled out. It still felt like we were being conned, though.
As I say, this feeling is as old as Magic, but I do think things are moving in the right direction. The reason cards like Chrome Mox, or Mox Diamond before it, achieved such then-high prices is that they could be played in so many decks. Fetchlands, Painlands… these suffered from the same problem. But let’s look at what’s happening now, at least in Standard. The Worldwake Dual lands are great cards, and I can tell you for certain that people inside R&D were staggered at the relative lack of interest in them when they first appeared. Even now, you can pick them up for prices well below the amount you would have paid for Adarkar Wastes or Caves of Koilos a decade ago. Plus, the lands in your deck are no longer automatically all Rare. Far from it.
What about the real elephant/angel/planeswalker in the room? Yes, Baneslayer Angel costs a lot of money (I refrained from saying it’s very expensive, because that’s a subtle but important distinction), but there’s absolutely no need for you to own any. I mean, really, none. Look, Baneslayer Angel doesn’t even go in the decks it goes in! It may be a powerful card, but most people that use it have it in their Sideboard. That isn’t to say that it isn’t useful there too, but I think we can all agree that any card that barely makes a maindeck listing anywhere is always going to be somewhat ‘niche’, even if that niche is ‘off-the-chart-game-two-Mythic-awesomeness.’
How about Jace, the Mind Sculptor? I love this card to bits, but I’m well aware that Jace is a Blue card designed for people who like Blue cards, enabling them to do Blue things in Blue decks. Jace does not appear in Zoo, or Vampires, or Eldrazi Green, or White Weenie, or All-In Red, or Reanimator in Legacy, or Boss Naya, or Jund, or…
You get the point. Yes, there are a few cards that require a very heavy investment, and that’s yet another good reason to have a group of like-minded friends with whom to collect, trade, and borrow on a committed basis. Would we all like Jace and Baneslayers to cost less? Sure, but then most of us fancy Rachel Weisz. Sorry, did I say that out loud?
So, for the most part, things are rosy in the Magical garden.
Now, I spend most of my time at the top of the well-known Magical pyramid, where the Pros live. It’s worth reminding ourselves some of what the Pro circuit is all about. In no particular order:
It allows (mostly) young (mostly) men to develop their mental strategic and tactical skills, and test those skills against the best in the world.
It allows those who come out on top of this pile of concentrated intelligence the chance to make a living from the game, through a combination of attendance fees, flight and hotel benefits, prize money, and the chance to market themselves to other parts of the game (gunslinging at events, writing articles, books etc).
It helps legitimize the game, by showing a skeptical outside world that a game with pictures of Elves, Dragons, and Goblins, can still have so much skill in it that the best in the world prove themselves time after time, despite fierce opposition.
It helps showcase the game, allowing outsiders to see some of the possibilities that such a complex game can bring.
It allows players who are just starting out, or people who are only just hearing about the game, to have a series of role models to aspire to. This is especially useful when dealing with teenagers who may not necessarily comfortably fit into many of the stereotypes that they’re generally expected to squash themselves into. Knowing that the awkward, angst-laden mess you are at fourteen can lead to you being a sane, good-looking, super-smart, and wealthy individual who plays cards for a living is a powerful incentive for some.
Through a largely democratic process (read: ratings, PTQs, National Qualifiers, open attendance at Grand Prix etc), it enables aspiring players to clearly see the path ahead of them towards the summit, and allow them regular opportunities to play against the best, whether by qualifying for a Pro Tour in their home country, or simply attending their nearest Grand Prix. The stars of the game and the base of the game are always connected.
Through all these facets, and more, the Pro circuit (by which I mean Pro Tours, Grand Prix, and Nationals) enables the game itself to grow, through the act of selling more cards to more players in more countries around the world.
When these facets are put under strain, or defeated in some way, that causes problems for the Pro circuit, since certainly at the highest of all levels, the Pro Tour itself, they are a massively loss-making proposition. Without digging into the numbers too deeply, it doesn’t take much to work out that if a company is giving away $1.6m in prize money every year, that they must be getting something in return. Once you work out that the $1.6m is the tip of a gigantic iceberg of flights, accommodation, staff, venue hire, coverage, judges… It is, in short, essential for the Pro circuit to fulfil its obligations to the growth of the game.
And so we come to Grand Prix: Madrid. Because I happen to be in Europe, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the three largest Magic tournaments of all-time. These were Grand Prix: Paris in 2008, Grand Prix: Paris in 2009, and Grand Prix: Madrid in 2010. What I want to do today is spotlight some of the issues that have come to light at these mammoth Magic celebrations.
It is, of course, true that Registration for Grand Prix are available for a few hours the night before the event takes place. In Europe, things differ markedly from elsewhere in the world, since Wizards directly runs the event, whereas an entrepreneurial Tournament Organizer takes the financial risk, and reaps the financial reward. On the night before a European Grand Prix, there are no Public Events, no GPTs and so on. That means the only real incentive to attend the actual venue, which can often be some way away from a town centre, is if you need cards for the next day, which you can get from one of the dealers, or trade for outside the venue.
For the most part, therefore, registering on the morning of the event is fine. Except, at both Paris events, and Madrid this year, it wasn’t fine. You’ll find a recurring theme from me here, which is to say that almost none of these problems can be directly laid at the door of the organizer, wherever we may be in the world. These problems are simply brought about by sheer weight of numbers.
So, it turned out that the lines to register for these events were borderline absurd. As it happened, the weather was kind on all three occasions, but the physical ability to get into the venue, hand over your Euros, and know that you were in a tournament, was severely hampered. It also doesn’t help when every single smoker in a 50-mile radius decides that three centimetres outside the venue is the correct distance to begin giving cancer to everybody else. Sorry, nicotine fans, but this behavior sucks, much like your lungs in about ten years.
Trying to work out how many vendors to allow at a tournament is a tricky business. Too few, and you run the risk that players won’t be able to get anything like all the cards they need. Too many, and there’s no incentive for the dealers to be there at all. Grand Prix now have an attendance range of almost 2,000. While it’s certainly possible to make some educated guesses about field size (Australia, and Singapore, will always be smaller than Berlin, or Amsterdam, or New York), this vast range makes it almost impossible to plan for every contingency. It’s become an increasingly observed phenomenon that players are now spending the morning of a Grand Prix cracking open individual boosters of particular expansions, purchased one at a time from dealers, in the hope of finding copies of the remaining commons and uncommons they need, because the dealers are all out.
With space at a premium, it’s understandable that traders simply can’t bring 100 of every common ever printed, just in case one of them turns out to be a hot commodity one weekend a decade, but the increase in this happening suggests that some part of the supply and demand model isn’t quite working. I very much look forward to hearing Ben Bleiweiss on this subject at some point down the line. Ben, to the Forum if you please…
Assuming that you can elbow your way to the dealer table and have all the cards you need, the next port of call is, presumably, to sit and relax, chat, play some fun games, read the paper, while the 8am-9am registration stretches towards 10am. Since most of you (no, surely all of you?) are smart, you might be wondering why there aren’t more Staff available for Registration. Trouble is, once again, how many do you plan for? I was frankly staggered that there were under a thousand players at Grand Prix: Oakland. If I’d been running the event (and running musicals is every bit as demanding as running Magic, so I do have some clue on this) I’d have budgeted for something like 1,500 players in Oakland. And then I’d have had judges, scorekeepers, dealers, all sitting around looking at each other with faces like they’d just been slapped with a wet fish saying ‘Why the hell are we here?’ So it isn’t as simple as throwing more labor at the problem.
Back to the relaxing bit while you wait. Except you couldn’t. The upstairs/downstairs nature of the Paris venue meant that the upstairs was a heaving mass of deodorant deficiency. The idea of spending a pleasant hour over a cup of coffee before the event got underway was a nonsense. Simply finding a chair and a sliver of table was an achievement. At Madrid, that was something that many people failed to achieve. Which brings us to…
I tend to forget where I am at each event. They blend into each other — the tablecloths are the same, the players are the same, the sleeves are the same, my laptop, my chair, my table, my loaf of bread from the local grocery store, all the same. By midnight on Sunday, every city looks the same too, so unless we’re having an event actually IN the Eiffel Tower, it’s hard to keep track. It was only at about 10am on Saturday in Madrid that I remembered the last time I’d been there. Roughly 1,500 players had turned up for one of the largest events ever, and I recall watching Brandon Scheel building his Sealed Deck upstairs on the balcony, because there was no room left on the tournament floor.
This realization hit me as I was hearing that an additional seven hundred players would be trying to get this thing under way. How exactly does 1,500 = No Room At The Inn, and 2,200 = Exactly The Same Thing? I’m not sure, although part of the answer is ‘it doesn’t.’ Instead, it meant the first two rows of tables having no chairs (of which the emergency supply, presumably ripped out of the European Parliament debating chamber in Strasbourg, was still being faxed across, or something). By ‘the first two rows’ I mean literally hundreds of people, because the space allocated for each ‘table’ during deck registration was so small that if I had been playing, half a dozen less-overweight players would have had to find somewhere else to stand.
It should be noted at this point that Madrid was Legacy. Last time round, with the 1,500 players, it was Sealed. The idea of 2,200 players trying to construct decks in that environment is utterly implausible. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written out decklists on the floor before now, or standing by a shop counter, but a Grand Prix is meant to be very close to the pinnacle of the game.
While we’re here, just imagine the number of Game Losses that would have been handed out in Round 1. I’m doing this from memory, but I’m pretty sure the number for incorrectly registering a sealed pool was somewhere in the region of 70 at the 2009 Grand Prix: Paris. Since that’s round about 7% of the field, we can extrapolate to somewhere round about 80 if Madrid had been Limited. When three people do this at a 100 player PTQ, it’s easy to think they’re just idiots. When 70+ people do it, all of whom are about to play a staggeringly complicated game at a high level, it suggests that there’s something wrong with a deck registration system that demands that players make tiny marks in the correct eighty two tiny boxes out of the many hundreds of tiny boxes that are available to them. Simply saying that players should be capable of getting this right isn’t good enough. Deck registration is designed to stop people cheating, not to give 70 people a free win for a clerical error.
You might be thinking that we’ve almost reached the start of the tournament, but we haven’t. First, we have the small matter of how the tournament was going to proceed. In Paris, that meant dividing into two parallel tournaments, the upstairs and downstairs. This is somewhat misleading, because you probably think of upstairs and downstairs as being in some way related. Effectively, they weren’t. Once you and your friends were separated, chances were that you never got to see them again. Ever. Some of them are still missing as we speak.
That’s obviously being tongue-in-cheek, but in truth these felt like entirely separate tournaments. With so many hours in entirely different rooms, those downstairs knew that what was going on elsewhere in the building might just as well have been a meeting of the American Dental Association, for all the impact it had on them. They had a number of rounds to play, they had to win a certain number of them, and if they did that, they’d get to see a whole bunch of people they hadn’t seen on Saturday, on Sunday.
Indeed, the joke doing the rounds in 2009, when plenty of us knew what was coming, went something like ‘Good morning everyone, and welcome to the car park here at Euro Disney, for the largest Grand Prix Trial in history. Yes, more than 1,000 of you have ventured into our delightful basement for ten rounds of Swiss action. Those of you still alive at half past three tomorrow morning (or those with X-2 records, whichever happens first) will be invited to Grand Prix: Paris 2009. This is a special one day event taking place on Sunday in the main ballroom, where there are lights, carpet, and the chance to win Pro Points and cash prizes.’
In Madrid, there was no downstairs to use, so both halves of the event were at least next to each other, allowing friends to feel that they were attending the same event together. However, such was the pressure on space that an announcement was made that the Tournament (by which I technically mean the Head Judge, but effectively, through him, Wizards) reserved the right to automatically drop any player on 0-3. I want to make it very clear that this did not happen, which is great, but imagine the miserable experience if it had, or if it has to in the future. You turn up at 8am. You register at 9.35. You walk around, you find your no seat, you lose three times, and you’re told to go home.
But wait, you say, they don’t have to go home… they can play in Public Events. Well, er, no, they can’t, because there aren’t any Public Events, at least, not yet. Facing an impossible situation, something had to give, and that something was Public Events, giving up its usual slice of real estate to the main event. Whilst clearly the right decision, anyone who voluntarily exited the tournament before mid-afternoon had very little alternative entertainment. Again, that’s nobody’s fault, but it does need addressing for the future.
In the end, the reason this sanction wasn’t necessary is that players realized they had no chance once they had their third defeat, and, to be perfectly frank, they weren’t having that good a time. Airlines know more than anyone on Earth (or should that be in the sky?) about how much room a human being needs to get from London to New York without having a mental or physical breakdown, and while I don’t know as much as an airline, my skill and judgment leads me to the assessment on the room for each match in the early rounds: Not Enough. Of course it wasn’t enough. They were shoehorned in like vampires at an all-you-can-eat-for-free blood bank.
Okay. So the tournament is under way. We get to Round 4, everyone who is ever going to play is playing, and the hall is still standing. Of course, there was huge pressure on the infrastructure of the venue as well. There’s a well-known cycle involving ingestion of liquid and other substances, the converting by the body of same, and the disposal of unwanted by-products. Also known as: a place to eat and a place to wee. It’s not that you had to book a place in the bathroom exactly, and it wouldn’t be fair to say that you could die of hunger whilst queuing for food, but it IS true to say that neither of these experiences were enhanced by the numbers trying to do it simultaneously.
The tournament rides on. And on. And on. Somebody somewhere, with whom I’d like to have words in an alley sometime, decided that the math of all the Byes dictated that there would be ten rounds on Day 1 (which, whilst unusual, was not unique) and then a further eight Rounds on Day 2, before the cut to Top 8. It was possible that the winner would have played twenty rounds across two days, more than any Pro Tour Champion plays in three, and only one less than the World Champion has to play in four!
Leaving aside the sheer relentless grind of that much Magic — and it’s the same for everybody, so you may well shrug — the majority of players don’t come from the home country. At a typical Grand Prix, by 5pm on Sunday, only the Top 8 are left. If they need to rearrange flights home, or have friends wait for them, well, that’s a small problem. At a similar time in Madrid, there were 140 players still going at it. That’s a lot of travel plans to rejig.
Eventually, as always seems to happen, a combination of goodwill from the players, and awe-inspiring work behind the scenes by both Wizards Staff and the Judges, ensured that the event got completed, nobody died, and almost everyone had a great time. You might be thinking by this point that Grand Prix: Madrid was a bleak affair, all in all, and you’d be entirely wrong. It was tremendous, and a privilege to be part of, and to witness. However, the experiences of all three of the Biggest Ever events suggest that if this pattern of success is to continue, some things need to be done.
Who, exactly, are Grand Prix for?
Are they for the Casual player? If they are, huge events are bad. You want to have fun playing Magic, and it’s many hours before you get to do so. Eating is difficult, finding your friends is difficult, trading is difficult, playing Public Events is potentially impossible, getting beaten early is really, really bad, being in contention feels like a lot more hard work than it’s worth, and you have to wait until approximately Tuesday for your ride home.
Are they for the aspiring Pro Tour player? If they are, huge events are bad. You want to beat people at Magic, and it’s many hours before you get to do so. It’s hard to get the food and drink you need to keep yourself mentally refreshed and alert, you have to play your best Magic at 10.30pm just to reach a Day 2 with hundreds of players still left, and even if you accomplish all this, you have a vanishingly small chance of making the Top 16, which automatically qualifies you for a forthcoming Pro Tour, which was the whole reason you trekked across Europe in the first place.
Are they for Pros? If they are, huge events are bad. You’re obviously there in pursuit of Pro Points, and, to a lesser extent, cash dollars. With ten rounds on Day 1, your three byes get devalued. With eight rounds on Day 2, your byes get devalued further. With tiebreaks being reset at the end of Day 1 (because the software was built at a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and the idea that this many people might have exactly the same idea of what to do with a weekend on day release hadn’t dawned on anyone yet), your byes get devalued yet again. It becomes vastly more difficult to get practical rewards from a tournament this vast.
Are they for fans of the Pros? If they are, huge events are bad. No Pro is going to sit around during their three byes, since there’s nowhere for them to sit. ‘Will you sign my playmat? If there was a place to sign it, sure. I could sign your forehead’… Pros are going to be less inclined to just chill and spend some time with you. They’re busy trying to find their friends, or cards for their deck, or desperately trying to conserve some energy so that in thirteen rounds they can have the chance of playing for Top 8.
If you want to get lucky, and play one of the Pros, your chances are vastly reduced. Most people I know can tell you exactly which famous players they’ve played against, who won, and most of the match in excruciating detail. Despite being friends with many of the best players in the world, I’m still thrilled to have faced Raphael Levy and Mark LePine in live competition, and giving Guillaume Wafo-Tapa an utter kicking with a white weenie deck in a Draft one evening at the 2007 Magic Invitational remains my single most fun moment in the game. Your chances of playing Wafo-Tapa at a Grand Prix anytime soon? A lot less than they used to be. Indeed, some Pros are now actively choosing to spend their weekends elsewhere, even when the Grand Prix is on their home continent. Matej Zatlkaj, Manuel Bucher, and Antoine Ruel are just three European stalwarts who were ‘washing their hair every night for the rest of their lives’ during Madrid.
Are Grand Prix for the armchair fan? If they are, huge events are bad. It’s incredibly tough to find the people you want to talk to for interviews, deck techs, quick questions, and so on. That’s often because they’re in the other half of the tournament (in the Bahamas — or it might as well be), or they’ve gone away for the four hours before their first Round begins. Finding storylines is much harder when there’s a ton of extra data to sift through. When we look for Feature Matches at a Pro Tour, there are round about two hundred to choose from, and between the two or three of us on any given occasion, we probably know something about 80% of the field. At Paris 2009, the best ‘Marquee Match’ of the entire two days was Raphael Levy against Christophe Gregoir, early on Day 2, when neither could make Top 8.
As for the Top 8 itself, here’s a couple of genuinely picked at random comparisons:
Paris 2008: Arjan van Leeuwen, Pierre Rensonnet, Menno Dolstra, Simon Goertzen, Niels Noorlander, Romain Lisciandro, Artur Cnotalski, Jan De Coster
Madrid 2010: Andreas Muller, David Do Anh, Richard Bland, Tomoharu Saito, Ruben Gonzalez, Luis Restoy, Alejandro Delgado, Sven Dijt.
Remember, this isn’t a discussion about the strengths or weaknesses of the Top 8. Every one of them deserved their spot. Rather, this is thinking about the event from a marketing standpoint, and bringing the great stories to life. It’s quite simply much harder to find the compelling stories when there are so many players. On a smaller scale, that’s why I spend so much of my time dissecting the numbers from each Pro Tour — and Madrid had five times that number to consider.
Pause for deep breath.
I’ve already indicated that this article is somewhat provocative in tone, and I’m sure some of you will disagree with everything I’ve said, and man the Forum barricades to tell me that Madrid was the greatest experience of your Magic life. That’s great, and I really, really want to hear you say that, if it’s true.
I also really want to hear from every single one of you who has ever been to a Grand Prix, to tell me what you like about them, what stops you going to them, what makes you travel hundreds of miles to attend, and what could be done to make your experience even better. I’m going to specifically aim a shout out to a couple of Pros who I know read my column weekly. Paulo, Brian, you have more to gain from a Grand Prix system that works well than most, please chime in with your thoughts.
Now, the good news is this: all these issues come directly from more and more people wanting to play our wonderful game. That’s more people to trade with, more people to commiserate with, more people to beat. This is a wonderful set of problems to have. More good news: I know for sure that everything I’ve raised in this article is being looked at within Wizards Towers in Seattle. They care even more about the health of the Grand Prix system than you do, and possibly even more than I do (although I suspect that would probably be a tie). And yet more good news: next week, I’ll combine the hive mind wisdom of your Forum posts with a bunch of ideas that have been suggested to me over recent months, all with the aim of making our collective experience of the Biggest Ever Event In Magic History the Best as well as the Biggest.
Until then, get busy in the forum please, and, as ever, thanks for reading.