Removed From Game – Making Grand Prix Tournaments Even Better

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Monday, April 5th – After a huge response, Rich brings you the thoughts of players around the world who chipped in with their views on how to make Grand Prix tournaments better. From the intensely practical to the borderline insane, it’s time to check out the collective community wisdom.

Two weeks ago, I raised some issues with Grand Prix as they currently stand. These issues are well known to players, Judges, staff, and Wizards of the Coast. I invited those of you with an interest in having fantastic Magic weekends to offer your views as to how Grand Prix might be further improved upon. I want to thank all of you who not only posted in the forums here, but emailed me directly, or took the time to share your views with me at both Madrid and Brussels. The ideas presented here are the result of these dialogues. Again, thank you all.

And so, to business. How can we make Grand Prix even better?

In Advance

One of the largest difficulties for any Tournament Organizer is knowing the likely attendance. It’s an inexact science, based on previous Grand Prix in the region, the perceived popularity of the Format, the time of year, the price of airline tickets, the overall growth of the game, the overall growth of Premier Events… It’s monstrously hard to predict. This problem affects all Tournament Organizers at whatever level they’re operating.

At the PTQ level, the solution is simple — there is a finite amount of space catering to a finite number of players, therefore the event is capped at that number. In order to avoid disappointment, players are encouraged to Pre-Register for the event, with a simple email listing their name and DCI number enough to secure them a spot. Once the limit is reached, players are put on a waiting list, either in advance, or on the day as they arrive. At a publicized cutoff time, those on the Pre-Registered list who have not arrived are taken off the list, and their slots are taken from those on the waiting list. At this level, the idea of an ‘Event Full’ sign is well understood, and no serious PTQer that I’m aware of actually travels these days to an event without having Pre-Registered.

Of course, once you get to the Grand Prix level, Pre-Registration can’t deliver the benefit of being better able to predict the size of attendance. Well, it can give you the information, but at least ten months too late. The idea of getting a bigger venue as it becomes clear that there will be a big attendance is impossible. Grand Prix venues are typically hired anywhere from one to two years in advance, and there simply aren’t alternative venues waiting in the wings to pick up the slack if numbers start to get really big.

That’s not to say that Pre-Registration isn’t an excellent plan. It is, for several reasons. First, every venue plan has some leeway. In Madrid, Public Events were killed through most of Saturday to accommodate extra players. This was done in response to the enormous crowds arriving, but it would have been possible to take this decision a month earlier if there had been a Pre-Registration list.

Another advantage of the Pre-Registration list is that it would allow players to pay electronically. Outpost Games, an entrepreneurial group in Belgium, are running a pair of 5K events in the next few months. Both feature Pre-Registration, with the ability to pay directly into their bank account in advance, with their IBAN number prominently displayed on their promotional flyers. This seems like a great plan. Of course, in some ways it’s much easier for one man in Belgium to say ‘here’s my details’ than for a 300-400 person offshoot of a corporate giant to take these kind of decisions, and staff them appropriately, but it does seem to be a potential benefit.

None of this Pre-Registration idea gets around the fundamental problem that any venue has a finite size. It’s possible to hire huge venues, but that becomes impracticable on a cost basis. Venues that seat 5,000 for concerts are anticipating that their typical hirer will be selling 5,000 tickets at £30 each, plus a programme at £10 and souvenir T-shirt for £15. The venue prices itself on that basis. Magic Grand Prix are a million miles from being a profit-making experience, at least in Europe. While North America has a more complex system, because events are run by individual Tournament Organizers rather than by WOTC themselves, my understanding is that there is a subsidy involved, rather than a pure commercial arrangement.

One of the interesting things that came out of all the conversations with you I’ve been having over the last few weeks is the idea of what constitutes a ‘Large Event.’ At the most basic level, all your typical player requires is a chair, one side of a table, and enough opponents to present a day or two of entertainment. In that sense, a Draft of you and seven friends is quite capable of providing seven opponents for everyone, and a full day of Magic, if everyone played everyone. Inevitably, I got a wide variety of numbers on this question, but the surprise to me was that, overall, most people I spoke to thought of anything over 100 players as ‘large’. This suggests that, in order to be part of something big, there’s not a huge lot to be gained between, say, 2000 and 2200. Once you reach a certain size, you’re just big.

It’s also clear that the main event holds less importance than I initially thought it would. Whilst almost everyone who attends a Grand Prix is likely to take part in the main event, the overwhelming expectation is that it won’t represent a large part of their weekend experience. Friday is about a Trial or two, and FNM. Saturday is about trading, buying cool stuff, playing a few rounds in the main event, doing a Draft, and going out for a Saturday night on the town with your friends. Sunday is about a PTQ, a Legacy event, and getting your cards signed by the artist, and, for the mentally-ill, having your photo taken with Rich Hagon.

Of a field of 2000, very few have realistic expectations of winning the event. Less than 10% will make Day Two, and a third of those will get Pro Points and cash. I would estimate that there was less than 1% of the Madrid field who were there because they Intended To Win. Those caps are important, because we all like to win, and we all think we might get a busted Sealed deck and so on, but actually travelling for the purpose of winning the event? Almost nobody.


That leads to the following suggestion:

Cap the Grand Prix at 2,000.

What would this achieve?

Every venue could be booked to cater to 3,000 people. That’s 2,000 for the main event on Saturday, 250 for Judges, Staff, caterers, venue security etc, and 750 capacity for Public Events. Pre-Registration opens six weeks in advance. You know as a player that there will never be more than
2000 players. You are guaranteed a chair to register your deck, and a table to sort your Sealed pool.

Much as there is a rigid formula for working out rounds at a PTQ, there is a published list for how many Rounds you’ll play according to tournament size. This is complicated by the Byes process, but going to bed on Saturday without knowing how many rounds there are going to be on Sunday shouldn’t be allowed to happen. Frankly, starting Saturday without knowing how many rounds there are going to be on Sunday seems wrong. Right now, Grand Prix can range anywhere from fourteen to eighteen rounds of Swiss before cutting to the Top 8. That’s a ridiculous spread, and there’s no transparency about where these numbers are coming from.

Assuming that the field was more than a certain figure (let us say 1600 for the sake of argument), the tournament would have a fixed number of rounds. Yes, not allowing for the complex calculation of Byes might mean the entry requirement for Top 8 would be more stringent (say 13-2 across fifteen rounds, rather than 13-3 across sixteen, or 14-4 across eighteen), but this would be a small price to pay to actually know the tournament structure before the tournament starts.

The obvious case against the Cap is that players may be excluded from the event. This case is a nonsense. As we’ve discovered, most players regard the main event as just one part of their weekend. If 2000 people can be bothered to register in advance, it doesn’t say much for the 2,001st that they couldn’t find the 90 seconds required to send an email in the preceding six weeks. Plus, it’s not as if they’re going to be turned away from the event. Far from it. With the event Capped at 2000, everyone beyond that can move straight to Public Events. My understanding is that in Lyon there will be a half price Draft promotion on Saturday morning. This is a great plan.

I was about to start the next sentence with ‘Even in the event that someone has travelled halfway across Europe to play in the event with the sole purpose of winning the event without having Pre-Registered’ and then I realized this is an utter nonsense. NOBODY who wanted to actually win the Grand Prix would fail to register. Nobody.

If the requirements for the Top 8 are utterly ruthless (again, let’s say it’s 13-2), players are encouraged to drop from the main event earlier. With eighteen Rounds, you have players on X-5 struggling valiantly through Day Two in the hopes of struggling up towards 64th. The fewer matches, the shorter each round, the fewer Judges are required, the less likelihood of a snafu holding up the tournament, the more time spent playing actual Magic etc.

At a Pro Tour, sixteen rounds are enough to determine the destination of roughly $100,000 divided among the Top 8. There will always be tiebreaks in Magic, and sometimes they’ll be devastating. However, at the Grand Prix level, tiebreaks are most often going to be for $200, or occasionally a little more. Nobody is being tiebreaked-out of $40,000 at a Grand Prix, and, as we’ve established, the prospect of actually winning money at a Grand Prix is so remote, most players don’t even think about it until deep into Day Two (something that only 5% or less of them will ever see).

So, Cap the event at 2,000. Make the event (with 1600+ players) fifteen Rounds. Nine on Day One, six on Day Two, cut to Top 8. The winner plays a maximum of 18 rounds across two days. That’s manageable. It doesn’t rely on who had the most sleep, had the hotel closest to the venue, and who’s the last man who can count to five at eleven o’clock at night. Is Magic meant to be an examination of stamina? Sure. Is it meant to be a grueling slog like a mental version of joining the marines? It is not.

Now, suppose we have our neatly Pre-Registered and largely Pre-Paid tournament. Something truly excellent happened at Grand Prix: Brussels — it started on Friday. Well, alright, the main event didn’t start on Friday, but the hall was open for business. Twenty Grand Prix Trials took place on Friday, and these were followed by an evening of Super Friday Night Magic. This is the kind of thing that already happens in North America, and it was a huge success. This gives players more incentive to arrive in good time, efficiently confirm their presence from the Pre-Registered list, and quite frankly involves almost no queuing at all. That was certainly the experience in Brussels. You would still have late Registration on Saturday morning, but it would only take one Grand Prix where the ‘Tournament Full’ signs went up to adjust the culture to one of Pre-Registering. The idea of buying a ticket for something you want to go to isn’t exactly new, and that’s all Pre-Registering is. You’d do it for a concert, you’d do it for a football match, do it for Magic.

At this point, many of the logistic problems have gone away. You have a venue that can cope with your attendance, because, as long as you don’t have a $20,000 side event scheduled for Saturday morning, you simply aren’t going to get 1,000 people queuing to get in, bearing in mind that the first 2,000 are already in the main event.

One constituency that is still unhappy with these arrangements is the Pros. 2000 player events are a horror show, since only 64 will get anything from it. Now, obviously enough, if you ask any Pro what the perfect number for a Grand Prix is, they’ll say ‘one — Me.’ They get the 10 Pro Points, they get the $3,500, and none of their rivals get any Pro Points at all. Since this is the ‘gaming’ view of a tournament, we have to look to strike a balance. Leaving aside the idea that different parts of the world may have a different strength of player, it seems bizarre that 2,000 players compete for exactly the same rewards as 400. Madrid was more than three times the size of Grand Prix: Houston. You could correctly argue that this fact makes attending a North American Grand Prix more attractive. It’s also true that the tiny fields in Australia or Singapore are a draw for Pros in search of Points.

However, (and I’m sorry, I can’t help being European), why should Europeans be punished for being part of a large community? Can it seriously be right that Ben Lundquist has a much easier time accruing Pro Points than Martin Juza? Sam Black is, at the time of writing, 7-2 overnight in Houston. That’s 4-2, with three Byes. Only 79 players made it through to Day Two in Houston. In Brussels (which had 600 fewer players than Madrid, and several hundred less than either of the last two Paris Grand Prix), two hundred players made Day Two. In Houston, Sam now has a roughly 80% chance of at least one Pro Point. In Brussels, his identical Day One record would have given him a 30% chance of that same Pro Point.

Excuse me?

So, here are two suggestions for levelling the playing field somewhat. First, and this is something that many of you suggested, how about scaling the payout according to the size of tournament? This is a tricky one, since it appears so seductive on the surface, and even logical, but it is problematic. As we’ve said, Grand Prix are not money making propositions in Europe as they stand, so although 300 extra players might generate an extra $10,000, that’s still a relatively small part of the overall budget for a Euro Grand Prix. Just to give you an idea, that’s likely to be far less than the price of the venue for one day.

It’s also too easy a fix. Here, let’s make the prize money bigger. If you play in a small event, the prize money is less. Ah, wait, so now we’re going to punish the Melbourne and Singapore Grand Prix? Pros will know there’s no point in going, because there’s going to be even less on offer. Plus, you then try to attend the bigger events, thus perpetuating the problem of too many people. No, simply scaling the payout doesn’t work.

However, this second suggestion, which builds on the ideas of the first, just might:

Most people understand that they’re unlikely to win money at a Grand Prix. That’s always been true. Even at a 300 player Grand Prix, which is as small as it gets these days, you only have a 1 in 5 chance of Points or money. At Houston it’s 1 in 10, at a ‘small’ Euro GP is 1 in 20, and Brussels it was 1 in almost 30, and at Madrid it was closer to 1 in 40. Nobody is making a living at those kind of odds, and nobody is meant to. Rather, getting money at a Grand Prix is a phenomenal bonus to your fantastic Magic weekend. It might pay for your flight, or your hotel, or for you and your travelling companions to have a brilliant meal out for free. Since the money at a Grand Prix isn’t really for Pros, therefore, changing the payout isn’t that big a deal.

However, where Pros start to get genuinely anxious is when Pro Points start bleeding out of the system. This happens all the time, when someone who has no interest in Pro Points finishes 57th at a Grand Prix, and has that one Point, which is worthless to them, in terms of Pro Club levels and so on. Sam Black did a back-of-the-envelope calculation in Madrid, where he gave a Pro Point a nominal value of $1,000. That represents a complicated idea of potential future earnings based on Pro Club Level, attendance fees, flights and hotels at the higher levels etc. How close this figure is to the ‘true’ value is irrelevant. What counts is that Pros really value Pro Points.

So, how can we continue to make large events attractive to Pros? Here’s one very simple idea:

Don’t unsplit the Grand Prix overnight.

At European events, the field is split into two, running independently until the end of Day One. Then they merge, and Day Two progresses with all the X-2 and better records. Now, suppose that each half ran all the way to conclusion, with two sets of Pro Points, instead of one? At Grand Prix that had less than, say, 1,000 players, there would be one ‘flight’ of all players, competing for one set of Pro Points. Cross that threshold, and a second set of Pro Points gets added. In other words, two players would receive 10 Points, two would get 8 for finishing second in their ‘pod’ and so on. In total, 128 players would receive Pro Points, not 64.

You may be thinking that this is unfair to the smaller Grand Prix, but in reality this would put them merely into much closer balance. Nobody could win any more Points than they can currently — they’re only in one ‘half’ after all — but let’s not forget that half of Grand Prix: Brussels, and a third of Grand Prix: Madrid, still equals the whole of Houston, or 1.5 times a Melbourne.

This has a lot of things going for it. Pros are encouraged to play, because the field is capped at 1000 in their own ‘half’. They have, at a stroke, returned their chances of Pro Points to a much more realistic level, demanding, let’s say, 4-2 on Day One (7-2 with their three Byes), and then 5-1 on Day Two (12-3 overall, but only 9-3 in actual matches) to get to the Top 8. The best in the business would back themselves to periodically win 75% of their matches, and make the Top 8. The money would remain the same, since money really isn’t the issue.

Since there are only 1000 players in ‘your’ tournament, you get to guarantee that you don’t have to play all those extra rounds, that not only diminishes play experience late in the evening, but dimishes the value of your Byes. Under this system, a winning record across your six Day One rounds (4-2, 7-2 with Byes) would always be enough to make Day Two. And that Day Two would be a day with much improved chances of a tangible Pro Point reward. Much improved, but only to the extent of bringing it closer to the odds elsewhere in the world.

It’s clear that players would still regard 1000 players as being part of a ‘large’ tournament. Of course they would. It’s also clear that players feel part of something huge and special when they’re in the venue, regardless of what event they’re playing in. 2000 people are still playing Magic simultaneously. You still have a chance of playing a big name. Indeed, those chances improve as more Pros see the value once more in Grand Prix.

There are a couple of alternative ways of making Grand Prix more attractive to Pros, and although I’m not really sure what I think of them, since people have taken the time and trouble to talk to me about them, it seems only fair that I pass them on:

1. Give Pros an extra Bye, so they don’t have to start until Round Five.

In purely practical terms, this redresses the balance of the extra Rounds being added negating the impact of Byes. However, most of the time even the most hardened Pro will tell you that they like playing Magic (as opposed to watching other people play Magic), and in Sealed events you already have the scenario where a Pro arrives at the venue at 8.45am, and plays his first competitive game at something like 3.45pm. With that extra Bye, you’re talking about 5pm. That’s way too late to start what should be a day of playing Magic.

2. Give Pros entry to Day Two.

Now this is interesting. In this scenario, Day One, which still features almost everyone (even the largest Pro attendances at Grand Prix hover round the 40 mark) would effectively be competing for the right to play in an elite ‘Super GP’ on Day Two, featuring all the best players, and the best ‘qualifiers’ from Day One. In terms of Coverage, this would be tremendously exciting. It would be very close to Day Two of a Pro Tour, with all the big names in the running, and with plenty of head to heads of the best players. On Day One, players would have a slightly better chance of making Day Two, because there wouldn’t be the big dreamcrushers out there. There would be added incentive to make Day Two, because you’d be almost certain to face lots of well-known names somewhere during the day. All scores from Day One would be reset, meaning that as soon as you reached seven wins, you could stop for the day, with a couple of rounds still to go.

3. Operate a seeding system.

At Worlds, the tournament software is set up so that Team members can’t play each other. I don’t know whether there’s a limit on the number of players you can proscribe, but in theory it should be possible to arrange it that no Level 4 and higher (my definition of ‘Pro’, since they’re invited to every Pro Tour automatically) has to face another on Day One. In Brussels, Tomoharu Saito and Manuel Bucher faced each other in the last round of Day One. Both are clearly vastly better players than many who made it to Day Two, yet one of them – in this case Bucher – was eliminated. Under this system, Pros would only have to face ‘unseeded’ players on Day One.

As I said, I’m not sure what I think of these, although they’re all more food for thought.

So, in summary:


Ability to pay electronically in advance

Events all day Friday to encourage early attendance

Main Event capped at 2000

Public Events available from the start

Rounds known in advance according to transparent criteria

Split main event in two, once attendance over 1000.

Two sets of Pro Points to be awarded, prize pool shared between the two ‘sides’.

Pros seeded to avoid each other on Day One.

As always, your thoughts on these or any other ideas are extremely welcome. At their best, Grand Prix are some of the best Magic taking place anywhere on Earth. They cater to every conceivable taste, and are truly wondrous to behold. As we said two weeks ago, the problem of huge attendance is the best problem we could possibly have.

I thank you all once again for your many comments — I, at least, have learned a great deal.

Until next week, as ever, thanks for reading…