Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about, writing about, and listening to many views about, the Grand Prix system, and if there are any ways to make it even better. Along the way, I’ve written a couple of things that were hugely capable of being misunderstood, and have as a result been beaten about the head with a cushion by my eight year old daughter — the general punishment chez Hagon for being an idiot.
However, a significant good came of one particular faux pas. I’d used the names ‘Martin Juza’ and ‘Ben Lundquist‘ as placeholders for ‘two people who are both very good at Magic and well known and who don’t live in the same place.’ Tediously, this was construed by many to be an attack on Ben, and, although that was a million miles from my intent, it can absolutely be read that way. Ben got some flak for it, which was undeserved, and so did I, which was.
The good thing that came out of this is that I’ve spent some time with Ben this week over the intermaweb, and he’s helped me become much more coherent in my thinking on these issues. As I side effect, he’s also helped ensure that I choose my words more carefully in future. Still, since I’m now round about the half a million word mark here on SCG, I guess being rubbish from time to time is inevitable.
Anyhow, part of the problem with how I couched my argument last week was that some people saw it as a Europe versus USA issue, which it absolutely isn’t. Size is a universal issue, and if they held a Grand Prix in my back garden it would have exactly the same scaling issues for the Pros as a Grand Prix in California, Botswana, or Paris. Here’s an excerpt from my conversation with Ben:
BL: I have a question for you. Do you think that a European GP is actually harder than the ones here in the USA? A bigger tournament does not exactly mean a harder tournament. Think about the comparison of a European GP to any PT and you will understand what I am talking about. By splitting a European GP into 2 tournaments with 2 sets of pro points it is almost like handing out points to players at those GPs.
RH: That’s an extremely good question, and one I don’t have a clear answer to. I think there’s a case that the average player might be marginally higher class at a U.S. GP Day 2, but I don’t think the difference is significant. You’re absolutely right that putting 10,000 no-hopers into an event changes very little, and I’m not sure that the size of event impacts the actual winner too much (a 14-2 record might be good enough for a win, or for a semi-final place). However, most Pros live or die by the accumulation of small numbers of Points, eked out from GPs around the world. What seems ‘unfair’ to me is that 64th out of 300 in Melbourne is worth a Point, 64th out of 700 in Houston is worth a Point, and 64th out of 2200 in Madrid is worth a Point. Although Europe is larger than the U.S. for attendance, I think of this as a 3 tier issue, not two, so it’s certainly not about Europe versus USA. I believe there’s a case to be made for scalable Points based on attendance.
Having spent months wading through all sorts of data for the book (The Magic Almanac, coming soon!), one thing that’s become blindingly clear is that the bigger the event, the more ‘random’ the Top 8. Particularly in a Sealed event, where a 3-0/5-0/7-0 Sealed deck is much more likely to be better than an equivalent Constructed deck, Pros have a much tougher time reaching Day Two. That’s just straight facts, wherever in the world. I made a few comparisons in the article about Top 8s of small GP, medium, and large, and the community at large simply don’t know the players who make the Top 8 in the large events as well as those who make T8 in smaller events. The cream generally rises to the top in small to medium GPs, but once you’re over the 1000 mark, it becomes woefully difficult to make headway.
The two tournaments and two sets of Points isn’t ‘almost like handing out points’, it IS handing out Points. WOTC does this all the time – it says that PTs are worth more than GPs, and GPs are worth more than Nationals. Grand Prix around the world have never been equal. Never. There have always been large ones and small ones, and Pro players have tended to go where the best ‘value’ lies for Points.
Here’s the first six GP of the year 2009 – 2 US, 2 Asia, 2 Europe. In the U.S., there were 2,062 players between LA and Chicago, splitting two sets of Pro Points. At Kobe and Singapore, there were 913 splitting the same amount of Points. In Europe, Rotterdam and Hanover had 2126, splitting the same amount of Points.
Of the ninety seven 2010 Pros, there were 39 starts at the two U.S. GPs, and 20 resulted in at least one Point. In Europe, there were 60 Pro starts, and 29 Point finishes. With near-identical field sizes, near-identical performance. The Asian two? 35 starts, and 25 Point finishes.
There were roughly 7,700 players at the six Euro Grand Prix, roughly 6,600 at U.S. GP, and 2,900 at six A-Pac (ignoring the ‘bonus’ GP in Sao Paulo.)
If you’re American, and you care about Pro Points, why would you ever go to Europe? Mat Marr and Alex West travel to Asia. They don’t travel to Europe, by and large, because the Points distribution, and all the evidence of larger events, is that you get less value.
I think you’re right that there’s no merit necessarily in terms of class, simply by winning a large event. Both Paris GPs in 08 and 09 had a sum total of one Pro between them in the Top 8s. That suggests that once you get to huge events, luck plays more of a part, because there are enough people ‘running hot’ to make life difficult. As Nikolaus Eigner said to me in Brussels, ‘in what world does 13-3 not make Top 8?’ When that’s true, you only need one bad matchup, one deck malfunction, and one legitimate punt to be out.
But, as I say, who actually wins these things doesn’t seem to me to be the problem. The problem is that the Pro system is based on the idea of accumulating Points from PTs and GPs, and Points from GPs is increasingly a losing proposition. I like the idea of a transparent way to get Points into the hands of people who need them, rather than waiting for the Player of the Year Race to be looking like there will be X amount of L4s and up rather than 100, and then saying, ‘okay, we’ll change the boundaries’, which is what happened the last time there wasn’t going to be the ‘right’ number of Pros.
Remember, Pros complained bitterly as attendance at PTs went up from 300ish to 400ish, arguing that Points were being taken away from them, bled out of the system.
That ‘Sam Black‘ stat from the article last week is still the most compelling to me. 4-2 in Houston, 80% chance of a Pro Point. Same player, same record, Brussels, 30% chance of a Pro Point. And look, there are plenty of 12-1500 player GPs in the U.S… and THOSE are not viable for Pros either. This was never a Europe Gets The Shaft conversation – it’s literally about bigger tournaments making it harder for Pros to earn their ‘living’ via Pro Points. When US Pros don’t travel to European GPs, because there’s no value, that’s a shame, but understandable. When Matej Zatlkaj, Manuel Bucher, and Antoine Ruel (amongst others), don’t attend a European GP, because there is almost literally ‘no Point,’ then something’s wrong. The numbers don’t lie – you, personally, are much better off going to Melbourne, and Sao Paulo, and Singapore (these are even more significant, because they’re not in Japan, so have fewer solid Japanese players), because they are the smallest GPs, and the most value is there.
Wizards scales things all the time. Your Regionals have 8 qualifying slots in California, and 2 in Alaska. WOTC regularly adds a slot to giant PTQs. According to the balance of players in the world, the US has anywhere between 25-40% of the players at every Pro Tour. That’s not unfair, that’s scaling. It might seem as if a 14 round event in Asia isn’t that different from an 18 round event in Madrid, but the numbers say that there really is.
In that sense, any large event is harder to win than a smaller one. Europe harder than US? No, I don’t think so. But bigger rather than smaller? Everything says yes, and while the difference of a single round might not make a huge difference, the difference of four between Melbourne and Madrid makes a huge difference. The smaller the event, the more the cream rises to the top. The larger the event, the more the Pros get washed away. A global Pro circuit should reward players willing to Play the Game, See the World, and at the moment that’s being hampered by huge fields without hope of getting Points.
To finish, because this has just struck me, let’s make the scenario personal. You’re vastly better than me at Magic. You have multiple Top 8s. I don’t. I’ve played in two GP, and once played for Day Two. I’ve qualified for 4 Pro Tours, played in two, and have a sum total of two match wins, having gone 1-5 and a bye in London 99, and 1-3 in the skins PT in Philadelphia 05.
Let’s play a match of Standard. Who’s favorite to win? You are. Now let’s play again. You can keep your deck, or change it. I can do the same. Who’s favorite to win? You are. We’ll keep going. We’ll play six times. If you can win four of them, we’ll let you into ‘Day Two’. Feel confident? You should; I mean, who’s going to split six matches with Rich? If you couldn’t win four out of six, you shouldn’t be expecting to Day Two, and nor should anyone else who is, or aspires to be, in the best 100 players in the world.
Fine, so you beat me 4-2, or 5-1, or 6-0. Chances are I might have made a good deck choice somewhere along the line, or you just got screwed, or I drew the nuts.
Now. Off we go again. This time, you have to play me five times. If you can beat me 4-1, you get to ID into Top 8, because this is a 15 round GP. Think you can do it? It’s tough, only being allowed to lose to me once, but if I win more than that it’ll be 3-2, and again, you can’t expect much for only going 3-2 against me.
But wait – that was an event like Houston, a middling/small GP. Let’s pretend we’re at Madrid instead. This time, we’re going to play nine more Rounds. If you can beat me 7-1, you can ID into the Top 8. Still feeling confident? Those 1500 extra players have meant 3 extra rounds, and there’s a hell of a difference between 4-1 and 7-1. THAT’s why Pros fall away at big events. I’m not a special opponent, but I’m going to have the best Magic Online decks from the previous few days. I’m going to have practiced hard. And you’re going to have to beat me, or people like me, 13 out of 15 if you want to Top 8.
Because that requires a ton of good fortune, you probably won’t do it. Much more likely you’ll beat me 11-4, or maybe, if I’m lucky 10-5. And the chances are that neither of those will get you a single Pro Point. Either of these records, by the way, would represent the highest winning percentage in Pro history, taken over a career.
And that’s why I’m interested in seeing whether there’s a way for terrific players like you, from any country, to find that going to Grand Prix is more than just fun Magic, but that it’s profitable Magic too.
I’d had a serious mental workout, but Ben wasn’t done, because he came back to take things one logical stage further…
BL: After reading this I understand what you mean a lot clearer. By giving out more points to European GPs it is more likely for us Americans to get more GPs as well, since we WILL travel for them if they are worth it. I like where this is headed and hopefully something comes of it.
If we do this with GPs though, are we going to go backwards on the nationals tournaments? The attendance to these events compared to the quality and number of players is, in my opinion, not fair for Americans. Can this be worked out as well?
RH: Once again, a valid point. Nationals giving Points out is a tricky one. It’s abundantly clear that US and Japanese Nats have the highest standard, yet receive the same Points as for all Nats. Where do you draw the line? GB? Czech? Hungarian? Three years ago, you’d never have said Czech Nats was a Pro tournament, yet now they’re arguably the powerhouse of Europe. Hungary has no history in the game, yet put two of the semi-finalists into Brussels last month. I think the biggest problem with this is that you can only win what’s put in front of you. Craig Jones won GB Nats a few years back, and might have done well at US Nats too. He doesn’t get that chance. Steve Sadin never did super-well at US Nats, but might have an excellent chance of doing well at UK Nats, but again, that’s not possible. Any time you have a closed tournament, it’s very hard to scale things, especially as people can’t help where they’re born/live.
Of course, the reason Nats got Points was in part because Points were being bled out of the GP system ,and it was another ‘GP’ that Pros would have a good chance of re-acquiring some of those ‘missing’ Points.
It finally came home to me that what we’ve really been discussing over the last few weeks is the idea of Pro Point Value. Specifically, can we identify the Pro Points that are ‘easy’ to acquire, and those that are ‘hard’? For example, there are some ‘free’ Pro Points on offer. I can give you two without playing in Round One. The snag, of course, is that this is Round One of the Pro Tour, so you’ve already had to Qualify before you can collect your ‘automatic’ two Points. Taken one match at a time, most matches have no Pro Points directly on the line. These kinds of matches generally happen at the back end of an event, when you might finish 47th, or 29th, while you’re currently at 38th going into the last Round. In that scenario at a Grand Prix, there’s a single Pro Point on the line, going to the winner.
The largest number of Pro Points you can ever get for winning one game of Magic is somewhere around five or six. Five is certain, because the two Finalists at every Pro Tour have twenty each and then play for the final five. Six? Well, if the top of the standings at a Pro Tour are tight, it’s possible to fall as far as six Points in the last Round by losing, or guarantee twelve by winning and making Top 8. So, six Points could be on the line in a single match.
If it’s ‘free’ Pro Points you’re wanting, the ultimate comes at Worlds. In theory — and that should really be in the largest capital letters the world has ever seen — you could get six Pro Points without winning a single game. Simply — simply — be on your National Team, watch both your teammates win enough in the individual competition to make up for you being rubbish, watch them win every Team Round, and then win both the Semis and Final on Sunday, to claim the full six Points available for the Team competition.
Of course, no Points at the Pro Tour are ever really ‘free’, and they’re actually among the toughest Points of all to get. Grand Prix have no entry requirement, so if you’re willing to travel you can give yourself a chance at something like twenty of these each year. The law of averages means that you are going to pick up Points at these things over time (assuming that you are already in the Top 100 or so in the World i.e. Level 4 and up), so the opportunity to go to many of these events makes their Pro Points ‘easier’ to obtain.
However, as I talked about with Ben, there’s a lot of evidence that the larger Grand Prix are an utter graveyard for Pro hopes, Byes notwithstanding. I believe that the Hardest Pro Point can be found at just one tournament a year. It isn’t Worlds, it isn’t a Pro Tour, and it isn’t a Grand Prix. Ironically, it’s also the one tournament a year that gives us the ‘easiest’ Pro Point. It’s Nationals.
Nationals come in many shapes and sizes, and many standards. Talent can strike anywhere around the world, and being from Venezuela, or Iceland, or the United Arab Emirates, in no sense means that you might not be an awesome player. It does, however, mean that, historically, you’re from a country without maintained success at the highest levels of the global game, and that suggests that the average standard of your National Championships may be lower than in some other countries. I don’t believe I’m being unfair when I suggest that there are players with 10 Points for winning Nationals who would really, really struggle to win a Grand Prix (10 Points) or make the Top 8 of a Pro Tour (12 Points). Statistically, this is unarguable — there are many Nations with Teams at Worlds each year without a Grand Prix or Pro Tour Top 8 in the history of the game.
Therefore, somewhere out there at Nationals, is the ‘easiest’ Pro Point. It’s also where the ‘hardest’ Pro Point resides. France, the Netherlands, Germany, and nowadays probably the Czech Republic have Nationals that are a major test among European nations. Brazil is probably pretty tough, too. However, the big two are clearly Japan and the U.S.
To begin with, Qualifying for U.S Nats is a major chore, and tons of players are left on the outside looking in. Once there, recent history suggests that the majority of Pros struggle to make an impact. I believe this is due to a slightly different issue than in Japan. There, a high concentration of excellence exists, and I suspect that the overall standard of that tournament is marginally higher than that of U.S. Nats. At the very top, there’s not a pin to put between the two nations, but if you were able to define and quantify the 10th best, 25th best, and 50th best players at each Nationals, I think you’d have a stronger Japanese team of three. However, at U.S. Nationals you’re confronted with the fact that you’re looking at the elite from the toughest PTQ system in the world. Talk to any U.S. Pro, and the idea of having to go back to the PTQ circuit frankly appals them. They understand that almost everyone at a PTQ is a potential threat, and Nationals is full of successful PTQ veterans.
Someone like a Bram Snepvangers or a Guillaume Wafo-Tapa can go to a PTQ with a reasonable expectation of success i.e. making the Top 8, and I’ve spoken to multiple Europeans over the years who have lost their Pro ‘badge,’ but been quite sanguine about it. ‘I’ll just go and PTQ,’ they say. That’s not a luxury an American Level 4 can afford. They understand that there are dozens of competitive, competent players, any of whom could end their chances.
For that reason, I believe that The Hardest Pro Point in the world is the one that you get to play for in the last round of U.S. Nationals, where finishing 16th gets you one Pro Point.
And the easiest? If you ever get to play me for a Pro Point, you just might find out…
As ever, thanks for reading…