The Magic Show #81 – Ch-Ch-Changes

Watch Evan Erwin every Friday... on StarCityGames.com!Hello everybody and welcome to another edition of the Magic Show. This week we’re going to be taking a long, hard look at the Organized Play programs of Magic. The Pro Tour, Grand Prix, the Pro lifestyle, what it means to live off Magic, and if Wizards of the Coasts recent changes could mean big challenges coming to the Pro Tour in the near future. Please be aware that the following views are my views alone, and not necessarily the views of StarCityGames.com.

Hello everybody and welcome to another edition of the Magic Show. This week we’re going to be taking a long, hard look at the Organized Play programs of Magic. The Pro Tour, Grand Prix, the Pro lifestyle, what it means to live off Magic, and if Wizards of the Coasts recent changes could mean big challenges coming to the Pro Tour in the near future. Please be aware that the following views are my views alone, and not necessarily the views of StarCityGames.com.

So the first part of this story begins with an article by Brian David-Marshall. He begins by trying to explain the new Pro Players Club Level System, which I find to be positively labyrinthine at this point. After which time he then coyly informs pro players through a series of announcements disguised as interview questions that, oh yeah, there is one less Pro Tour in 2008 than there was in 2007. Well, ain’t that something. The Team Pro Tour, as we’ve known it, is gone and dead. [crazy_witch_voice] No more Two-Headed Giant for you! Now go back to your little Champs tournaments and fester there. Bwahaha! [/crazy_witch_voice]

Also, the Scholarship Series is no more. What was once called the Junior Super Series is gone. Magic superstars like Zvi Mowshowitz got their start there, and I personally sold many a mother and coworker on the viability of Magic by promoting this educational enhancement angle. I for one am the most disappointed in this loss, as its goodwill and universal appeal seemed to bring nothing but positive things for the game and its future.

That said, another loss is Amateur Prizes at Grand Prix tournaments. Let’s travel back, you and I, to a much more innocent time, when Kamigawa was stinking up playmats everywhere and I was getting back into Magic. A wee scrub was I, not yet knowing that I knew nothing, and through sheer will and luck I make my way to 27th place at Grand Prix: Detroit. By making Top 32 I was the new, proud owner of a Pro Point, $250 cash, and, since I was an amateur with no pro points before this tournament, I would make an additional $400 for making the Top 8 amateur finishes.

This was far beyond my expectations for the weekend and I was of course thrilled to have done so well. It was also the ability to win this Amateur Prize that made me travel up to Detroit in the first place, having easily swept a small Grand Prix Trial nearby. And of course, after you win $650 bucks playing a card game, you get really, really interested in it. Even though I’ve still not “gone pro,” obviously, I really caught the fire of Magic again there in Detroit.

From what I understand, they took the same $5,000 they were going to give amateurs and are giving it to first place instead. Um, WHAT? Does that make any sense in regards to pushing players to try harder? To give it a go even if they have no byes to back them up? After this change, amateurs have even less incentive to attend Grand Prixs, which are widely seen as solid jumping in points for casual players who wish to become competitive. This change doesn’t affect the three round byes for Professionals, of course, so if the Day 2 cutoff is close, an amateur who goes 6-3 has no shot against a Pro who has the same record, though one player actually won six matches and the other only did half that. Even then, it’s unlikely the Pro will be able to make it in the money, and if they do so to actually come ahead financially.

To counteract the loss of the Team Pro Tour, Wizards has basically said “look at this shiny pile of money and Pro Points” to distract us. This begins with the Grand Prix Summer Series. This is where the Grand Prix payouts are sexy and fabulous and drive around in their shiny cars and – er. This is where the payout has been increased by $15,000 in several Grand Prixs to make up for the loss of a quarter-million dollar payout via the Pro Tour, plus the additional estimated three-quarters of a million dollar cost in actually making a Pro Tour happen.

The last time we spoke about this whole Pro Players Club mess, Level 3 Pro Players Club members were losing their $500 appearance fees. This time around, with the new levels, instead of 20 Pro Points, a player needs 25 Pro Points to earn half of their original appearance fee, $250. They can also, of course, still dreamcrush in PTQs, as Patrick Chapin recently demonstrated while systematically showing everyone what the best deck in Extended is week after week.

So as we continue here, let’s take a look at the two sides of a Pro Tour:

The first is the Promotional Tour. This is a collection of the best Magic players around, playing with the best cards, the best decks, talking the best strategy, and making the most money. They’re showing you How It’s Done. Big cars, fast money, sweet locations. This is where it’s at! Go play Magic! Buy packs! Yes!

Second is the Professional Tour. Where they build stars and create brands. You know what brands are, right? A brand is an emotional connection to a series of experiences. Anything can be a brand, and you’re damn skippy Magic players can be a brand. When I say the words Kenji Tsumura, what comes to mind? The wild and crazy guy or the hardened master? What about both? Both of these feelings, plus whatever run-ins you may have had with him, or admiration you may feel, is Kenji’s brand. He has his own trading card, courtesy of Wizards, to sell you this brand. To make you like Kenji, get involved with his struggle in attaining Pro Tour success.

Now Kenji obviously doesn’t dislike this branding, and as most will attest he seems to be enjoying himself. But when you strip the word Professional bare, you find that a Profession is something you do to earn a living. And with this “restructuring” of the finances, what was once difficult is now nearly impossible. You just can’t live off Magic right now, whether you’re in your parent’s basement or your college dorm room muchin on Ramen Noodles. Particularly for European players, whose plane ticket costs alone to all those Pro Tours and Grand Prixs must measure in the gross national product of several third-world nations.

So, what do you and I have to do with this? Well, some of us actually really, really enjoy the Pro Tour atmosphere, lifestyle, and its stars. We get a huge kick out of the culture, watching people gain fame and fortune for slinging the same cards we do. By paying attention to the ‘Tour we pay attention to Magic, which soon leads to buying packs, entering tournaments, attending prereleases, and so on. The brands and the promotion and the stars are doing their job.

But what if there were no stars? What if there was no Kenji, no Ruel brothers, no Wafo-Tapa, no Finkel? Who would fill the void? New people would show up, sure. They would have to, I mean, somebody’s gotta win. But champions are rare. And not just good players, but champions. People who consistently put up good finishes. These are the real professional players. As Magic found out long ago, it is no accident that the cream rises to the top, and that there is a certain caliber of Magic player that you not only want to promote, but showcase to the community as an example of “how it’s done.” How to win tournaments, how to be a gentlemen, how to lose graciously, and so on.

And hell, why is there such a sense of dread here? Why all this ambiguity, anyway? And why, of all places, does Wizards insist on announcing incredibly impacting changes to organized play programs in the middle of Brian David-Marshall column in a conversational manner? Would it be asking too much to get a proper press release? Or announcement article? Or perhaps create a mailing list that automatically includes all players Level 1 or higher with which to send things out to? I don’t know who WOTC uses for Public Relations, but I think they need some help.

But what about you and me? What about the kitchen tabler? The PTQer? What about the Level 8 Uber Mages? Who do they talk to when they get upset with an announcement, or how a slight change in payouts or invitational policies could mean the world to them? That’s where Raphael Levy comes in. The Hall of Famer decided to do something about the lack of player communication and he’s formed the Magic the Gathering Player’s Union. This is a group of high level and/or high profile Magic players who have come together in response to these huge changes that occur with little or no notice or feedback from the community.

Now, let’s get this out of the way: This isn’t a Union like you’re thinking of a Union. We’re not going to be striking outside of Pro Tours or signing contracts on behalf of players. Think of the word ‘union’ like the word ‘collective’ or ‘group’ or ‘community.’ What we currently have is a goal to speak to Wizards of the Coast in Kuala Lumpur and let the case for the player’s be heard, and to figure out which services the union can best provide. I’d say more, but, this all happened in the past week, and there isn’t much else to talk about.

Right now at the Players Union you’ll find the Players’ Corner forums, where you can meet, greet, and locate other players. Large events will have their own forum specifically for the purpose of finding, rooming, traveling, drafting, or playing with players for that event. This is a simple yet unique service that I expect many to take advantage of.

At the end of the day, this barrage of organized play changes and half-official announcements could’ve been handled a lot better. But that’s what we’re doing this for, and hopefully in the future this will be a historic day where the players truly let their voice be heard and affected the trajectory of a Pro Tour system that feels off course.

Until next time Magic players when we talk of more positive things, this is Evan Erwin, tapping the cards and trying to preserve the integrity of the Pro Tour so you don’t have to.

Evan “misterorange” Erwin
dubya dubya dubya dot misterorange dot com
eerwin +at+ gmail +dot+ com
Written while upset with the situation but hopeful for the future.

Music Credits:
“Changes” by David Bowie