Removed From Game – This Isn’t Star Trek: Changes to Organized Play

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Tuesday, February 19th – This is going to be a tricky one to write, for several reasons. I can talk nicely about people forever, but telling people that they’ve got things wrong isn’t my strong suit. Still, that’s what’s coming…

This is going to be a tricky one to write, for several reasons. First, I can talk nicely about people forever, but telling people that they’ve got things wrong isn’t my strong suit. Still, that’s what’s coming. Second, I’m writing this, due to the vagaries of the international date line and a rather busy few days in Kuala Lumpur, a full week before the showdown at the KL Corral featuring Wizards of the Coast stalwarts Scott Larabee and Chris Galvin and, on the other side of the desk, The Players. As you’ll discover, there’s a certain amount of irony attached to those capitals on The Players. Anyway, as promised last week I’m going to attempt to give you a balanced overview of the changes to the Pro Year, and what it means to you. You should remember that although I regularly take the Wizards coin for covering events around the world, I do not work full-time for them, and I have not been paid off in some shady virtual back alley to plead the corporate case. What follows are my own views which have been stewing nicely since The Announcement. Ready?

The changes are positive for almost everyone who has ever played Magic, who is currently playing Magic, and who will ever play Magic.

You may now, if you wish simply to know that this is true because your Uncle Rich tells you so, leave. If, however, you would like to feel better about the state of Magic, where it’s headed, why the Pro Tour is in safe hands, why you personally are almost certainly going to be better off than you were a few weeks ago, and why I’m going to pepper the remainder of the article with oblique Star Trek references, fasten your seat belts, because it’s time to get serious.

Let’s start from the bottom up. No offence to them / you, that means the Kitchen Table folk. These are the players who have played with a friend forever and ever, have never found anyone else who plays, but still love going head to head with their 400-card five-color deck that includes every Barbarian costing five or more. This, by the way, is as pure as Magic gets. Two friends, two decks, arcane rules, cards doing things R&D never knew they could. It’s how almost everyone starts out. How do these two benefit from the changes? Well, simply put, Organized Play is going to spend a little less time and money flying people around the world to not win Magic tournaments, and is instead going to actively pursue our two friends here. How? With what is probably in corporate speak known as Outreach programs. Here in the UK, for example, Wizards are starting an educational strand to their marketing, actively going into schools, demonstrating the game, showing how otherwise disaffected teenagers can suddenly be made to love words like katabatic, geothermal, and terramorphic. These same spotty 13 year olds can be turned on to incredibly complex math. Want to improve your evaluation skills and cost/benefit analysis? Here’s a Sealed Pool, good luck. Oh, and in case you’d forgotten, Magic is one of the most beautifully pleasing games ever made, aesthetically speaking. These aren’t just jobbing brushstrokers churning out fantasy tat. This is great fantasy art, and, as long as we’re not putting our noses in the air, that makes it great art, period. Then you start adding in a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging to a group, a chance to interact with a wider community that involves access to a broadly older demographic. And yes, before you mock, access to role models for kids who are perhaps a little bit nerdy, geeky, shy, weedy, spotty, hormonal, whatever, and can look at the cool 25 year old across the table and think, yeah, if I turn out like that I’ll be okay.

Away Team

Where two are gathered together, it’s a Duel. Once they get out of the kitchen and into the local game store, where three or more are gathered together, it’s Multiplayer. Almost by definition, given what I do for a living, I’m as Spike as they come, both as a player and commentator. I love the sharp end of competition. However, some of my favorite Magic memories have come through Multiplayer nonsense. Playing Ironman with 10 players at the end of a PTQ day because nobody got past an even record. Pooling 12 boosters of random sets and playing 2HG. Ending up with a deck of 300 cards and then losing the final to a guy who hardcast Battle of Wits by, gasp, drawing it from the top of his 326 card library. As Wizards frees up more time and resources, there will be more focus on the most important three letters in Magic — F, U, and N. When Mark Rosewater showcased Chameleon Colossus at Worlds last year, and did 563 trillion damage in the process (my math may be a little off there) he didn’t sit in a meeting and go, “Oh God, I suppose I better build a Colossus deck and then I can show those Multiplayer weirdos that we’ve made a card for them.” No, instead you can bet that his deck was burning a hole in his pocket all weekend. He was bursting to let that particular colossal cat out of the bag. And the best story of all in this regard is that he didn’t win. That wasn’t the point. The fun was the point, and at the Pro Tour the fun is, if you listen to some people, only about winning money. We’ll come back to that. But for you Multiplayer folks out there, Wizards wants you to carry on having fun, and losing a Pro Tour and stopping paying the old Level 3s to travel the world will affect you negatively in precisely zero ways.

10 Forward

Once you’re off duty on NCC-1701 B,C or D, you head for 10 Forward. Those thoughtful Starfleet types decided that, especially at the end of the working week, what could be better than just to kick back and relax over a few Romulan ales and have a game of 3D chess? Well, clearly in that parallel universe to ours Magic doesn’t exist, because surely one of mankind’s finest inventions is Friday Night Magic, hereafter FNM. Now let me tell you about my local Organized Play scene. When I moved to my relatively small town four years ago, there was precisely zero Organized play. I ran a few monthly tournaments, but that relied almost exclusively on friends travelling up to 100 miles each way to play, and nobody can sensibly sustain that. So I packed it in. Meanwhile, across town, a hardened group of gamers, who also play D&D, live action roleplay, Traveller, whatever next game’s in town, also played a bit of Magic. We’re talking decks made up of 4th Edition and Apocalypse up against a guy who only has Ice Age cards except the one Mirage card he borrowed last week. Every few months someone new would turn up, and the pool of cards available to them would get shaken up, and the dynamics of their decks changed a little. Of this group, probably two had ever been to a Sanctioned Event, like the Masques Prerelease or something.

Fast forward to last week. I had 14 players at my FNM, all busily drafting Lorwyn and Morningtide and having a fantastic time. At least half of them are just starting the game. They’re discovering the thrill of opening a booster to find their second Eyeblight’s Ending for their Standard deck. They play secure in the knowledge that all the Rares go into the pot at the end, and the winner of the evening gets to choose just one for themselves, while all the rest get handed out randomly. Yes, they may never get a Garruk Wildspeaker, but at least one 0-3 drafter this week got Doran, the Siege Tower and a Cryptic Command. Plus, cool foils. And don’t sneer. One thing you learn if you run or attend FNM is that most normal Magic players love foils, and the February Remand is simply gorgeous. Now I completely understand that the top 50 players in the world aren’t that bothered about the Promo card that’s being dished out on the Tour this year, but not only does that card represent status to a lot of people, it’s also extremely cool.

If my FNM group was expanding in isolation, there wouldn’t be much of a story. But less than half an hour away there’s another group of 8-10 who meet every Wednesday (yes, FNM sometimes happens on a Wednesday, it’s just a distortion in the space-time continuum, move along now). Suddenly, with a bit of application, some help from the new local store, and a bit of luck, there’s a vibrant Magic scene on my doorstep. Lucky me, sure, but more importantly it’s now become viable again to run Sanctioned Magic tournaments. Now that hasn’t happened in most parts of this country at least for a while. The idea that 30-50 people might turn up for a monthly Standard or Draft day — that’s 2001, not 2008. So why is the loss of a Pro Tour good for my group of FNMers? Because it’s part of the drive to once again build the game from the ground up. That means more tournaments aimed at people who don’t spend $500 on a deck. It means more tournaments with cool giveaways. It means more tournaments more often, more in your own back yard, not a five-hour drive away. And it means this:

In 2008, more people will benefit from the Organized Play changes within 50 miles of my front door than will be negatively impacted in the rest of mankind. See, my number for the people who have been negatively affected resides somewhere around the 50-100 mark. That’s it. Three figures, barely, maximum. That’s not to say that these people aren’t significant players, or even Players, in the Magic story. It’s just that there really are very, very few of them.

“Captain, I’m getting a distress signal from a far corner of the Magic universe.”
“Can you pinpoint the source?”
“There’s a lot of interference, I’m hearing it in multiple languages.”
“Use the Universal Translator, lieutenant.”
“Yes Sir. Captain, it’s coming from the PTQ System. It’s an automated beacon, it says… Sir, it says the PTQ System is dying…”
“PTQ System Mr. Sulu, warp 8.”

The PTQ System

Roughly 10% of Magic players come into contact with the PTQ System. I use the phrase ‘come into contact’ because I wanted to evoke the sense of a terminal illness that you might catch by turning up at one of these hideosities. Being careful to avoid any indication of a Good Old Days rant, the fact remains that PTQs used to be the pinnacle of the national game. You’d go to four different tournaments each month, and then every so often a PTQ would come around. Instead of the monthly 50-70 players, you’d have over a hundred packed into the tiny church hall, so that the bottom tables would have to be in the broom cupboard for the first three rounds. The excitement was massive, the hubbub of players trading electric, the explosion of sound as the first round pairings went up. For most, the PTQ was their World Series. If I get a strong Sealed pool, if I build it as well as I possibly can, if I get lucky, if I remember to tap my land right, if someone gets a game loss in round 6, then maybe I can make Top 8 for the first time. God, just getting to 4-2 and a chance at 8th or 9th was the Holy Grail to dozens of players. Now, things are different. The current crop of new players haven’t been brought up on 70-player weekly tournaments. Instead, they’ve been given the fun and pleasure of 12-16 at FNM. So what do PTQs hold for them? A chance to drive a couple of hundred miles to a tournament where they will have almost zero chance of winning. They can leave at 7 in the morning, and by 2 in the afternoon they may have played four duels of Magic. When the doors open at FNM, they can play half a dozen matches in the first hour of Gateway play if they want. Plus, just for breathing, they’ll probably get some kind of prize. At PTQs right now, you can finish third and win 6 Planar Chaos boosters. For players of my generation, brought up on large-scale monthly tournaments, PTQs are now a horror of desperate wannabe-Pros, grinding hopelessly through every qualifier within reach, and The Locals who are hopefully there to lose to you and beat the other guy trying to qualify. Frankly, if you’re not in search of the Blue Envelope, PTQs suck, badly.

So where’s the good news in all this? Well, first of all, simply by cutting one set of PTQs from the calendar, the remaining tournaments start to get back a sheen of exclusivity, a tournament that you mark in your diary as one to go to, rather than yet another irrelevancy. It also encourages players not to take entire seasons off from the PTQ circuit, as a few years ago players would say, “well, I don’t like Extended at the moment, I’ll just wait 7 weeks until Block comes around.” Now, with only three PTQ seasons to focus on, there’s no reason not to try your hand at all of them. The best news for PTQs right now is FNM. Because PTQs are a comedown from what used to be the norm, old school players feel cheated. But consider how things look to our players fresh from the Outreach program into FNM. I met John and Wayne (no, I’m not making that up) last week, and already they’re looking forward to their first “big” tournament, which will be the Shadowmoor Prerelease. How many of you have already got Prerelease weekend blocked off in your diary? They have. And that means that when their first PTQ comes around later in the year, they’ll be thrilled to take part in such a Big Event, and will feel directly connected in some small way to the guy who finally raises the trophy aloft in Berlin. This is building Magic from the ground up, and the tarnished reputation of killer journeys and bugger-all prizes needs to be thoroughly polished for PTQs to regain their rightful status as the tournaments to play in. Organized Play recognises this, and is doing something about it, from the ground up.

“Captain, it’s Scott Larabee here down in DCIgeneering.”
“Talk to me, Scotty.”
“Captain, it’s the transporters. They canna take it, there’s something wrong with the Pro circuit. If I can just get through the Player’s Panel… there’s sparks coming from everywhere, Captain. If we don’t deal with the situation soon we’ll be dead in the water.”
“Cut what you have to Mr. Scott, but get my Pro Tour moving again.”
“DC-aye Captain.”

Alright, quiz time. What do Level 4 Pros Christophe Gregoir of Belgium, Jan Ruess of Germany, Saul Aguado of Spain, and Alex Sittner of the USA have in common, aside from the fact that they are all Magic Pros? Take your time, it’s not that easy… … … Okay, time’s up. As far as my research tells me (that means I’ve looked at every PT and GP result shown on the mothership), none of these four have a Top 8 appearance at a PT or GP. This makes them unique among the 88 players at Level 4 or above. Under the payout system of 2007, these four would have collectively been paid $10,000 to attend Geneva, Yokohama, San Diego, Valencia, and New York. I’m not suggesting for a moment that this amount of money makes them wealthy, or that they are bad Magic players, or anything of the sort. However, let’s try a couple more trivia questions. First, a really simple one:

Can you think of any way in which Organized Play could better spend $10,000?

And now a much tougher task:

Explain how spending this money on these four people was good for Magic in 2007.

Look, if you’re still unconvinced, and frankly I fail to see how that can be, let’s ignore just the four and look at the wider picture. 56 players this year would have been Level 3 under the old system. Statistically speaking, roughly 90-95% of Level 3s attended every single Pro Tour last year. With $500 to help cushion the costs, why wouldn’t you? They couldn’t think of a reason not to either, and as a result Wizards could expect to spend roughly, wait for it, $125,000 on sending Level 3s to PTs in 2008. So here’s the easiest question so far:

Can you think of any way in which Organized Play could better spend $125,000?

Answer : You can, I can, my Mum can, and so can Organized Play, so that’s what they’re doing. Who knew that a $500 appearance fee could be $125,000 on a balance sheet? This is not about peanuts, boys and girls. As for the cutting of a Pro Tour, there will still be thousands upon thousands of matches played at Premier Events. Surely there should be enough going on to still have winners, losers, rising stars, established veterans, heartbreaking topdecks, DQs, a Player of the Year Race…. well, you know the answer. Of course there is. Never mind the quarter of a million dollars that gets saved by, amongst other things, not giving $500 to the 65th best player in the room, I cannot tell you how much gets saved by killing a PT. But seriously, think about it. Those gigantic conference centers are an absolute fortune to hire (many thousands of dollars per day). There are vast resources spent on the technical side of getting a PT into a venue. The webcast meeting alone probably has 20 people present. Putting 60 or 70 judges into a building is a logistic exercise par excellence, and costs incredible amounts of money. Even at an average of $1,000 per person, there’s at least $100,000 in staffing costs, and that’s simply to get everyone to the right city. Then there’s a week of accommodation costs. Let’s say $75 a night — wow, we’re optimistic — that’s $7,500 a night, times 6 maybe, oh, $40,000. I’m pretty certain that right now there are people in Seattle who are laughing at the naiveté of my low estimates. Guys, the resources that go into making a PT happen are simply eye-watering. At this point we haven’t even begun the process of actually paying people for a job of work. The Serra Angel that has become emblematic of the PT? Those incredible Magic “signposts” with the five moxes? They aren’t made of plastic. The Pro Lounge? Go on, do the math. Let’s say two cans of soft drink per player at a 400 player PT for two days is 1600 cans, the venue charges $2 each, that’s $3,000, times that by 5 PTs, $15,000. Then add a hot buffet on Day 1. $10 each, $4,000 per PT, $20,000 per year. Oh but wait, same again Day 2, another $20,000. I’d be amazed if the budget for catering in the year was less than six figures. All in all, I would guess that killing a PT has saved somewhere in the region of $750,000. Now of course, not all of that money is going back into Organized Play, but even if a fifth of it was reallocated, think how much good you could do for grass roots Magic with another $150k in your budget.

Nova Chaser

“Spock, what is it? I need answers now, dammit!”
“I believe we are witnessing Rem-E 4TA, Captain. It’s the birth of a new star.”

One of the biggest arguments I’ve heard against the new changes is that it goes against what Wizards are trying to achieve in terms of starbuilding. For those of you unfamiliar with that term, it’s simply showcasing certain people as worthy of interest/respect and (crucially) emulation. There is a suggestion from some who really should know better, and probably in their heart of hearts do know better, that loads of the best-known players in the game will be forced to leave and get jobs out in the harsh unforgiving near-unbreathable atmosphere of the “real world.” They argue that without the presence of these long-time servants of the game, there will be a vacuum of interest, and that the idea that the Pro Player cards were designed to promote — hey look everyone, here are cool guys earning money from Magic — is now in tatters.

There’s a Black Hole in this argument so vast that it threatens to swallow entire galaxies. Let’s pause for a moment, and conduct a scientific experiment. You’ll need a pen and paper please. Got one? Good. I’m going to list a series of sports and pastimes, and I want you to write down the first two names that come into your head that you associate with that activity. If you take longer than a few seconds and can’t think of one, just leave it blank. I’m doing this for real too, so here goes:

Male film stars
Pop stars
Ice hockey
Female film stars
American football

Here’s how I got on:

Golf – Tiger Woods
Boxing – Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali
Athletics – ?
Male film stars – Arnie
Soccer – David Beckham, Pele
Baseball – Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth
Swimming – Ian Thorpe
Tennis – Roger Federer, Steffi Graf
Magic – Gab Nassif, Jon Finkel
Pop stars – 50 cent, Ice-T
Basketball – Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson
Chess – Kasparov, Karpov
Ice hockey – Gretzky, Lemieux
Female film stars – Julia Roberts
American football – Peyton Manning, Tom Brady

You will, of course, have different answers to mine, but you may be surprised by how much you can learn from just those few seconds of “gut reactions.” In golf, in terms of marketing they’ve struck gold. Nothing’s purer than one against the rest, and I couldn’t think of anyone beyond Tiger Woods. He has all sorts of inspirational qualities, he’s an outstanding ambassador for the game, and he’s ridiculously good at what he does. If my results are typical, boxing has a problem, because at least one of my two names is nearly dead, and I can’t think of a single boxer around today. That’s a marketing issue right there, folks. You can see where this is heading. As a snapshot, we often tend towards familiarity and nostalgia — Pele, Graf, Jordan, Gretzky. But crucially, we also focus on one or at most two names that are instinctively synonymous with that activity. I’m willing to bet for example, that although we will have a bunch of different answers, nobody will have Christian Slater down as their instant-recollection movie star. Is he a star? Yes, but he doesn’t resonate in that way. If you had time to compile a list, he’d be on it. Most of the time, life’s too short, and we market sports as a “Your guy versus some other schmo.” Ever wonder why we don’t do Feature Matches at Grand Prix until Round 4? Now you know. Until then, it’s “guy you don’t know versus guy you don’t know playing sealed decks you don’t know from two countries you don’t live in.” That’s a tough sell. Of course, marketing gurus try to find ways to entice you in, whether it’s by creating a fictitious (or even genuine) deadly rivalry, using a Points system to create ongoing interest — oh look, Kenji versus Olivier for Player of the Year — making it about Nations rather than individuals — can anyone topple Japan? — and so on. And don’t get me wrong, I love these stories — telling them is, after all, what I spend my life doing.

But the most telling piece of information that this experiment provides is the power that Ago has over us. There is a sense in almost all aspects of life that things were better Ago. Enter stage left, the Hall of Fame.

The Original Series

Kai. Jon. Zvi. Are there any other names that don’t need a surname? I guess Bob, but that’s largely due to Dark Confidant. Olivier and Antoine? Too many syllables. If you think I’m kidding, just look at the first three. There’s a reason that Shaquille O’Neal got shortened to ‘Shaq.’ We love the idea that players from Ago still have what it takes to cut it at the highest level. Right now there are fifteen Hall of Famers. One, Raphael Levy, doesn’t ‘feel’ like a HOF member from a marketing perspective for two reasons. First, he’s never been away from the game, and second, he’s so damn good that he is absolutely still in the game’s elite class, and has no ‘battle back from the old days’ story. Of the rest, Randy Buehler can’t play, and plenty of the others don’t. However, as we saw from our experiment, we only need one or two ‘Heroes,’ and imagine the excitement if Zvi Mowshowitz turned up with a deck in Los Angeles that simply murderised the field. The world of Magic would go absolutely nuts, I guarantee. One of the most interesting stories of 2008 is the gentlemanly rivalry between Your Move Games’ Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle. They were a fixture on the 2007 circuit, and I hope to see more of them in action this time around. You see, part of the ‘old Pro’ appeal is that they are perceived to have a certain vulnerability. Take Kai, for instance. Kai won so much so often that plenty of people were just bored by it, seeing victory as inevitable. That wasn’t the case going into Worlds last December, and certainly won’t be in future events given his showing there. So if Kai were to come back and start piling up the leaderboard, there would be a massive swell of support. Can the ‘old guy’ (ridiculous at their age, but that’s the world we live in) hold on and use all his vast experience to keep the young Turks at bay? Has he still got it? An awesome storyline. And, as I’ve indicated, it doesn’t matter which Hall of Famer lives the dream. You only need one. [And events this past weekend support this theory — Craig, reminding folks that this was submitted before PT: KL.]

The Next Generation

Of course for some people you can watch the old guys over and over and eventually you crave something new. Thankfully, despite the fact that only roughly 10% of Magic players ever play in a PTQ, there’s a continuing stream of new talent coming onto the Pro scene. Apart from Remi Fortier who I mentioned earlier (Rem-E 4TA… see what I did there?) there’s plenty to be excited about, with people like Lachmann and van Lunen, Masami Kaneko, Sabastian Thaler, Nicolay Potovin, Fried Meulders, Uri Peleg, David Irvine, Marijn Lybaert and, arguably the most exciting prospect in Magic today, Steve Sadin. Suppose for a moment that the Doomsday scenario happened, and the Top 10 ranked players in the world all decided simultaneously to become policemen, accountants, or office cleaners. So that’s no Saitou, Tsumura, Wafo-Tapa, Kurihara, Ruel, Levy, Cheon, Ootsuka, Herberholz or Nassif. Blimey, that leaves a nasty gap, surely? Okay, here’s a hypothetical Top 8 of a PT that none of these play in:

Shuuhei Nakamura
Marijn Lybaert
Frank Karsten
Owen Turtenwald
Steve Sadin
Masami Kaneko
Zvi Mowshowitz
Willy Edel

That, incidentally, comprises 1 Level 7 (Nakamura), 3 Level 6s ( Lybaert, Karsten, Kaneko) A Hall of Fame Level 5 (Zvi), Level 5 (Steve Sadin), a Level 4 (Edel,) and a non-Pro but rising name (Turtenwald). This is a perfectly plausible Top 8, and packed with Magical excellence, global interest, colorful characters, innovative designers, Ago… this has it all. This suggests that there is strength in depth in the Pro ranks, which is exactly what you need when established names do eventually go off in search of pastures new.


Now we come to what in some ways is the most interesting fallout from The Announcement — the putative creation of a Player’s Union. What’s most intriguing about this is that it’s been formed by such an intelligent group of people. This is a significant handicap in trying to form a Union, since one of the main purposes is to polemicize the group’s position, and fight exclusively for the benefit of the members to the exclusion of all others. Historically, if we look at assorted unionising, whether it’s given the name of Peasant’s Revolt or Emancipation Society or whatever, most often we find raging firebrands egging on a particular part of the populace to complain about their lot in life, promising them a better life if they simply work together. This kind of politicking has been going on for centuries, and has resulted in numerous changes of regime, often in violent and bloody fashion. Indeed, there was a moment a few weeks ago where I genuinely expected someone to call for the re-introduction of the guillotine. You see, one of the unintended consequences of any unionising is the tendency to attract the radical element, who see the possibility inherent in having such a volatile mass available to be swayed. There have been posts suggesting the union could be used to complain about the appalling standard of judging. That, by the way, is their view, not mine. But as a Level 1 judge who spends a bunch of time with high-level Judges at PTS and GPs, you wouldn’t expect it to be my view. Then there are the calls for a general strike. Perhaps the Top 8 in Kuala Lumpur could be delayed as a protest. Perhaps we should all just not play in Kuala Lumpur. My suggestion? Chain yourself to the land station for 24 hours. I’ll even supply the words to ‘Kum-Bay-Ah’ to keep morale high.

There are two problems with this. First, as I’ve indicated, the people involved with the setup of this are extremely smart, and that means that they understand that there are indeed two sides to the story. This is bad news, as the negotiating stance of any union begins with the notion that the other side is the Enemy, is full of stupid, ignorant vicious liars who exist solely to make the member’s lives miserable, and Raph and Co know this is not the case. Indeed, if you wade through the forums attached to BDM’s article announcing the changes, you can’t help but be struck by how genuinely thoughtful the responses, for the most part, were.

Then comes the real biggie. Every so often, someone pops up and asks, ‘Who are we representing?’ The stock answer is ‘The Players,’ but, bright souls that they are, some have not accepted this at face value. ‘What do we mean, The Players?’ Let’s find out.

Does this group represent Kitchen table players ? No, absolutely not.
Multiplayer groups ? Absolutely not.
FNM new players? Absolutely not.
FNM old hands? Absolutely not.
Prereleasers and occasional PTQ-ers? Absolutely not.
Regular PTQ players who never qualify? Absolutely not.
PTQ players who have been to a couple of PTs and not won money? Absolutely not.
Level 2s and 3s who get to a couple of PTs each year and don’t quite get on the train ? Nope.
How about the Level 4s then, you know, the actual Pros? No, because most Level 4s haven’t won a PT and most Level 4s won’t win a PT.

So who the hell do they represent? Simple. They represent a special interest group of extremely talented, smart, and successful players who have already reaped significant benefits (and I’m not just talking financially) from the game. They represent players who would like to see vastly more money available at the pinnacle of the game, and by that I don’t mean $500 for 65th. 65th is for losers, and come to that so is 23rd and 17th and 12th. No, this is a club for Winners, ladies and gentlemen… the players who would willingly divvy up a grand of their own money to go toe to toe with the best in the business. Because ultimately, what Magic lacks, and the players driving the union would really like, is a roomful of stupid people with lots of money. They want a game where said roomful of stupid rich people pay lots of money for the right to test themselves against the very best, and the very best win and take the stupid rich people’s money. In fact, some have even come out and said outright that there should be a levy (not to be confused with a Levy) at each PT, so that the lesser players can effectively line the pockets of the good ones. The sheer naked greed of this beggars belief. Oh hello, this is starting to sound like the World Series of Poker. And now we’re heading for the unvarnished truth. Many of the best Magic players also play poker, where they are rewarded handsomely, thanks in large part to the existence of stupid rich people. But in all the time I’ve played Magic, I’ve yet to hear someone say that they prefer poker, that it’s a better game, that they get out of bed in the morning excited about going online and playing Hold ‘Em for 12 hours. I know loads of people who feel that way about Magic.

Incidentally, given that the union is actually likely to represent the interests of very few people, this is all the more reason for it to exist. To have an elite panel of players whose main goal is to make money from the game is a constituency that needs representing, especially as its goals are so obviously at the expense of the overwhelming majority of players. You only have to do the ‘T-shirt test’ to see this. Almost to a man (PVDDR being a notable exception to this) the Alpha Males have come out and stated that they don’t want/don’t care about/aren’t interested in the freebies that come with making a Pro Tour, whether that’s a Hawaiian shirt from Honolulu or a pair of flip-flops or posters or foil cards. Whatever, they’re not fussed. They would much rather one of them got another X thousand dollars. The only requirements for a good Pro Tour from this perspective is a table with enough room for some monsters, a chair that doesn’t cripple you, and a suitcase of cash. I guarantee you, these are people who have learned to ignore the utter majesty of the Serra Angel statue, who only wear their competitor badge because they have to in order to get the free food in the Player Lounge, who regard it as the height of gaucheness to actually wear a PT shirt. They believe that The Dream is to do nothing but play Magic, with all your financial needs taken care of. It may be their Dream, but it is not The Dream. I’ll tell you what The Dream is. The Dream is that one day you might get to the hallowed ground that is the Pro Tour. The Dream is that by playing for many years, and striving, and learning, and achieving, you might get to go 1-0 at Pro Tour: London 1999, and then get annihilated by Raphael Levy. The Dream is to wear that shirt with pride, to go beyond the ropes for the first and maybe only time in your life, to have your pulse pound until it feels like your chest is going to burst with pride when you win $100 in the Skins PT in Philadelphia. I understand that when you have 50 PT shirts the excitement starts to wane. I have two, and they are two of my most prized possessions.

Losing a PT is not the end of Magic. It’s not the end of Pro Magic. It’s not the end of the Pro Tour. It’s a realisation that what keeps Magic strong is people walking through the door of their local store and saying “teach me Magic.” Yes, the Pro Tour is part of making that happen. But it can help make that happen four times a year just as effectively as five.

Dangerous Games

We’re almost done, but I want to leave you with one more thought. Whenever I’ve raised issues that have questionable morality — IDs, concessions, prize splits and so on — the overwhelming response is to say that you can’t expect Gamers not to Game. In other words, if a system provides an opportunity for two people to mutually benefit, it stands to reason that those smart people will choose that option. Fine. This implies, however, that the System is an inanimate object, but guess what? It isn’t. It’s run by people, and do you know what these people do for a living? They’re GAMERS too! Every single last one of them. So when you Game the System, the System Games right back.

Raphael Levy came up with a truly wonderful idea in a recent Ask the Pro column. I read it. I was excited. No, I was positively thrilled. Then I realised the idea was impossible to implement. It was this: to have a kind of Super-Level of Pro that the best players could aspire to, but that would be really hard to reach. Maybe someone would have a shot at it maybe every three to five years, and if they made it, it would just be incredible, and there would be this enormous payout as an incentive to try. It would mean that all the Level 8s (as they are now) would have reason to attend GPs right to the end of the season, to test relentlessly for Worlds… all awesome.

Except this could never be. Why? Because Gamers Game.

Let’s set the Super Jackpot at, I dunno, $250,000. And let’s suppose in three years time Shuuhari Nakasaima, an American of Japanese descent married to a French woman (thus establishing no sense that this would only happen with one geographic group) has a shot at it coming into Worlds. ‘Greetings, oh fortunate round 1 opponent, here is $500 for your accidental loss to me.’ ‘Greetings Round 5 opponent, here is $1,000.’ ‘Greetings fellow Level 8, here is $10,000.’ ‘Greetings, random American not involved in Player of the Year Race but made it to your first Top 8. Here is $25,000.’ And finally, ‘Look mate, the whole Finals money is yours, just make it look good, okay?’ And suddenly the Super-Pro is born. Sure, it cost him $130,000 to win the title, but that’s still a net gain of $120,000, not to mention the fact that he’s made at least another half dozen people very very happy.

If you are a Kitchen Table player, if you are a Multiplayer player, if you are an FNM player, if you are a PTQ player, if you are an occasional PT player…

Nothing bad has happened. Indeed, you are likely to see positive developments over the next few years in terms of your Organized Play experience.

If you are one of about 50 players in the World who may have had hopes of doing 100% nothing else with your life than play Magic for cash dollars, the changes will have come as a serious blow. Missing out on another week spending time with my many friends on Tour didn’t make me feel too excited either. But to suggest that this is The End in some way is Dramatic, Idiotic and quite probably Dramatically Idiotic.

Because this isn’t Star Trek.

And, at least most of the time, the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few.

“Or the one.”

Thanks, Spock. You can die now.

As ever, thanks for reading.