The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Ding! Planeswalker Points

Brian Kibler explains his stance on the new Planeswalker Points system by Wizards of the Coast, and yes, how they help Magic more than they hurt it, and why this is what Wizards wants in a ratings system.

About four months ago, I wrote an article about the various problems with the DCI rating system. At the time, I identified the primary issue as the fact that the system discouraged players who were on the cusp of receiving benefits from playing in events. It was right around when the DCI announced moving the ratings deadline for Nationals invitations, a deadline that had previously come before GP Providence but was shifted to be afterward based on an issue with the new tournament software, leading a number of players to feel like they had to sit the tournament out or risk losing their Nationals invitations. My argument was that any system that discourages people from playing Magic is flawed and needs to be changed.

It seems like WotC was on the same page. Just last week they announced their new Planeswalker Points system, a complete overhaul of the ranking and rating system that the DCI has been using for the entirety of Magic’s history. When I was trying to think of solutions to the problems of the old rating system, I’d always assumed that WotC would be unwilling to jettison Elo entirely because they’d been using it for so long, but apparently making double-faced cards isn’t the only massive change they decided to spring on us over the last month or so.

I’ve seen a lot of opposition to the new system cropping up, and while some of the complaints are justified, overall I think Planeswalker Points are a dramatic improvement over the Elo system.

One of the arguments I’ve seen against the new system is that it doesn’t accurately reflect who the best players are. This is certainly true. The lifetime planeswalker point totals are more an indication of players who have played a lot and done well rather than the players who are the best of all time. I don’t think many people are going to argue that Olivier Ruel is the best player in the history of Magic, and even fewer will argue that yeah, Jon Finkel was only the xth best, or Kai Budde the yth best.

That said, has the DCI rating system ever really told us who the best players are? Let’s look at the ratings as they stand right now:


Josh W. Utter-Leyton


San Jose, CA, United States


Jesse D. Hampton


mercer island, WA, United States


Samuele Estratti


pistoia, PT, Italy


Yuuya Watanabe


Sagamihara-shi, KG, Japan


Matthew L. Nass


Stanford, CA, United States


Vincent Lemoine


Bruxelles, Belgium


Jeremy Neeman


Canberra, ACT, Australia


Brian M. Kibler


Oceanside, CA, United States


Samuel H. Black


Madison, WI, United States


Luis D. Scott-Vargas


Oakland, CA, United States


Haibing Hu


Houston, TX, United States


Alessandro Portaro


Roma, RM, Italy


Marcello Calvetto


ivrea, TO, Italy


Aeo J. Paquette


vancouver, BC, Canada


Ferenc Nagy


Budapest, Hungary


David A. Ochoa


Hayward, CA, United States


Paolo Francioni


Pescia, PT, Italy


Brian m. Demars


canton, MI, United States


Andrejs a. Prost


Anchorage, AK, United States


Chikara Nakajima


Shinjuku-ku, TK, Japan


Is Wrapter the best player in the world? I’m going to go out on a limb and say probably not. He’s certainly good (and much better than Brad Nelson’s ranking list from a few weeks ago would have you believe!), but I don’t think even he would even claim to be the best player in Northern California, let alone the world. Jesse Hampton? Samuele Estratti? This isn’t a list of the best players in the world—this is a list of the players who have done best in the world lately. Where is Jon Finkel on this list? 50th, even lower than he was under the lifetime PWP system—and that’s only because he just finished Top 16 at the most recent Pro Tour!

Planeswalker Points may not be able to describe who the best player is, but Elo never did either. Now, some would argue that the problem with the old rating system wasn’t inherent in Elo, but in the way the Elo system was used. Magic adopted Elo from chess, which could accurately rate players because of the dramatically lower chances of a weaker player beating a stronger player than exists in Magic. The formula used to calculate ratings changes simply didn’t accurately describe the chances of one player beating another. Correcting this curve and flattening the K value of events to prevent huge rating swings would go a long way toward creating an Elo based system that could accurately reflect who the best players are.

Here’s the thing, though—the goal of Magic’s Organized Play system isn’t to figure out who the best player is. Now, I know that may seem like a strange idea in a world of Pro Tours and World Championships and the Hall of Fame, but the reality is that all of these things are tools of marketing. The goal of Magic’s Organized Play system is, in fact, to get people to play more Magic.

That is exactly what the Planeswalker Point system does. It not only solves the old system’s problem of actively discouraging players from entering events when their ratings were near the reward thresholds, it makes playing in tournaments always positive. The philosophy of the system is basically “Playing is good. Winning is better.”

How many times have you (or someone you know) sat out of FNM because you didn’t want to hurt your rating? What about a PTQ, or even a Grand Prix? Magic is built around communities, and when there the best players in an area are discouraged from playing in local events, it’s not just those players who are hurt by it.

The best way to improve at Magic is to play against people who are better than you are. While Magic instruction via the internet has come a long way in this age of Magic Online videos and the like, there’s really no substitute for watching or playing against a better player and having the chance to ask questions when the game is over.

It’s not just the players who benefit, either. With so many incentives to play events from FNM on up, local stores and tournament organizers are bound to see increases in attendance, which translates into more entry fees and more sales for them. Why should you care about that? Well, for one, it means your local store is that much more likely to be able to afford to keep the lights on to give you a place to play. Many players, particularly high-level, competitive players, take their local stores for granted, but without them, few of us would have gotten into the game, let alone had the chance to play at the highest levels.

Perhaps more selfishly, if your local store is doing well, they’re that much more likely to be able to run tournaments with good prizes for you to win! It’s hard for a store to justify putting up substantial prizes if the attendance for their events is poor, but if they’re consistently getting solid numbers for FNM and the like, they may be willing to try running bigger events. More people in the store also generally means better sales, which means higher motivation to keep a well-stocked inventory, which makes it that much easier to get all the singles you need at the last minute.

But will that many more people really play in local events just because they can’t lose rating anymore? No, of course not. Only a relatively small fraction of the player base who were in a position to care about their ratings from that perspective. For others, rating only served to give them a general sense of their progress. Breaking certain thresholds was seen as something like an achievement in a video game rather than some kinds of means unto an end.

The new system offers this sort of player much more of a reason to keep coming back. As things like Xbox Gamerscore and the World of Warcraft Achievement system have shown us, gamers will do just about anything that makes a number on their screen go up. Kill twelve million boars? Defeat the entire Zelda franchise using only a boomerang? Complete every single quest across every expansion of the game? No problem, as long as I get points for it!

In all seriousness, the Planeswalker Points system does a much better job than rating of providing every player of any skill level with measurable goals toward which they can make noticeable progress. Players hoping to earn qualifications or byes can now know that every event they play is helping them rather than having a chance to set them back in their quest. Players for whom byes and invites are out of reach can still hope to climb the ladder and earn new levels and new titles.

Want to play on the Pro Tour, or are you a mere Sorcerer hoping to one day become a Battlemage? Well, go play more Magic! I know that the system exists to compel me to play more, and yet I still want to pick up the points I need to make it all the way to level 50—even knowing that will require the same number of points as I’ve gotten for a third of the Magic I’ve played in my life!

Of course, no system is going to be purely positive for everyone. While Planeswalker Points are a dramatic improvement over the system for the vast majority of players, there is a small segment of the population who are hurt by the change—specifically those players who are good and would like to qualify for the Pro Tour, but don’t have the opportunity to play in sufficient events to earn points.

Under the old system, the best way for these players to qualify was in Grand Prix. With the new system, Grand Prix qualifying slots will be gone, leaving these players with only PTQs as a potential avenue to qualify. Not only that, but inactive players looking to return to the game will no longer even have byes based on their old ratings because the new bye system is calculated only off of the points from the previous competitive season.

I know quite a few of these players. Most immediately, Justin Gary and John Fiorillo, with whom I currently work designing games, are former top PT players who have expressed interest in trying to qualify again. Both of them were excited to hear about the upcoming GP in San Diego before Worlds and wanted to start testing for it as soon as the format was set. When the announcement about Planeswalker Points came out, they both lost a huge amount of interest in the event until they realized that the new system wouldn’t go into effect until next season. While both of them are still going to the GP this year, if it were next year, I’m sure neither of them would bother—especially since neither one of them would have any byes under the new system!

This sense of discouragement is a real problem for players who just don’t have the time to play in enough PTQs or SCG Open events or Grand Prix to realistically qualify off of PWP. I know Justin in particular is eager to qualify for the PT again because he really wants a chance to put up another good result and get back in the Hall of Fame conversation, but given how busy he is with work, it’s just not realistic for him to do more than play in a GP or two in an attempt to spike an invite. With the way the system looks like it’s going to work, even the winner of a Grand Prix won’t be close to the PWP threshold to qualify, which makes the events much less compelling to the occasional player.

While I understand the need to cut back on the invitations handed out at GPs to avoid dramatically increasing the number of players at the Pro Tour, it seems like there has to be some number of invites that they can give out. Maybe not Top 16, but Top 8? Top 4? It seems bizarre to think that someone who wins a 100-person PTQ deserves a slot on the Pro Tour, but not the winner of a 1200-person Grand Prix.

All that being said, the plight of players like Justin and John pale in comparison to the huge improvement this system is for just about everyone else. And who does it make sense for Wizards to cater to more—the former PT players who haven’t spent a dime on their game in years and want another shot at glory, or the PTQ grinder who’s made a dozen Top 8s in a season but can’t seem to ever win one and spends every weekend traveling to events? While this change directly hurts their chances of playing at the PT again, both Justin and John realized how much better a system PWP is for Magic as a whole, and how much more sense it makes for the kind of behavior that WotC wants to promote.

There are certainly kinks to be ironed out in the system with event values and multipliers—I kind of doubt anyone thinks my PT Austin win should be worth the same amount as three GPs in which I missed day two, which is how the numbers currently work out—but numbers are things that can be tweaked and changed. More importantly, this new system demonstrates that Wizards is willing to take sweeping, drastic action when they identify something that can be improved in the way Magic is run, and they’re not afraid to kill the sacred cows that stand in the way.

I, for one, welcome our new FNM overlords.

Until next time,