The PTQ Experience: Part One

Anthony shares a debate with Frank Skarren about the pros and cons of the PTQ experience, and presents his views on why PTQs need improvement… and why you can be a Serious Player but not cram every event possible.

Pro Tour Qualifiers are one of the main entryways to the Pro Tour. Every season, all around the world, there are hundreds of these events one can attend. Making it to the Pro Tour, and doing well at it, is something that most serious competitive players can, and should, aspire to. The competition is fierce, unforgiving, and generally cutthroat. A friend once told me that PTQs are among the hardest tournaments in Magic. It never made sense to me at first, mostly because there are higher-level events like Grand Prix and Pro Tours. The more I started thinking about it, though, the more it started making sense to me. PTQs have been reaching all-time highs in attendance, and rightfully so. Magic is getting pretty huge, and with that the number of players aspiring to make it to Magic’s hallmark tournament rapidly increases as well.

Having three hundred something players battle for one plane ticket is certainly not an easy endeavor, and even though going through fifteen rounds at a Grand Prix seems to be more taxing, the experience of playing in a Grand Prix is much different than that of playing in a PTQ. That said, there are many different types of players that attend PTQs and even just events in general. The “grinder” that has gone to every PTQ in the region, and works constantly to try and make it. The player that goes to tournaments for the sake of going to tournaments – not necessarily a grinder, but still working hard to get better.* The FNM player who’s looking to take his or her game to the next level. I can go on and on, but my point is: you’ll find all kinds of players at these events, regardless of their motivations or goals.

*As a preface: I think that the argument “If you aren’t going to PTQs, you don’t want to go to the Pro Tour” is flawed for a number of reasons. People can have aspirations to go, but may want to pursue it in a different way, for one. There’s this big misconception that you have to go to every single PTQ and Grand Prix, otherwise you aren’t really a grinder and thus not a serious player, and that simply isn’t true. I think that there’s a big difference between a grinder and someone who goes to a lot of tournaments (though they aren’t mutually exclusive). For example, I go to a lot of events. My aspirations may not be similar to that of a grinder, but that doesn’t mean I just don’t ever want to go to the Pro Tour if I don’t enjoy going to PTQs. I put a whole lot of emphasis on my enjoyment of the game, and I’ve always made it a point not to force myself to participate in any event, as that would take away from that enjoyment (not to mention, my health is shaky at best, and there are real implications for putting my body through something like that). This will be touched on later, but I just thought I’d clear that up beforehand.

Let’s give this some perspective about Grand Prix before we go any further.

When you first step foot into the room of a Grand Prix on a Saturday morning, there’s a certain aura, a certain vibe, surrounding the entire event. You know that almost every single person in that room shares the same passion and love for the game as you do, regardless of why they’re actually there. Let’s forget about prizes, “EV,” the competition, and all of that stuff for a second. You’re at one of the most popular events in Magic, running into all kinds of people. The avid trader who’s there to wheel and deal all weekend long, or maybe the father and son duo who have been going to Grand Prix since the son was eight. The pro player who is surrounded by other aspiring pros, with the aspirants trying to dissect the pro’s game even while the pro is just doing a fun draft with friends. The super-excited sixteen-year-old who’s at their very first Grand Prix. All of this, all of it, is what makes Grand Prix so ridiculously awesome, every single time you go to one. Of course, this goes way beyond the aforementioned, but collectively, it’s necessary to have all of those pieces to really make an otherwise good event great.

While I would never expect PTQs to have that same level of atmosphere, I don’t feel like there’s much of an atmosphere at all when attending a large majority of them to begin with. While most of my reasons are more personal than anything else, this has brought up some interesting objective thoughts. For the purpose of this article, I’ll state what I feel are some of the things that the entire basis of the PTQ structure can improve on, from the bottom up.

Like many others, playing Magic and attending tournaments is a lot more than just sitting down and playing cards for me. The experience and atmosphere of an event matters to me more than any deck I’m playing, any amount of success I have, or any wins I may be fortunate enough to attain. Those that know me know that I’m a super emotional person, and when everything surrounding an event feels great I’m going to feel great – and that helps me focus on my gameplay much more easily. While it may not be nearly as magnified as it is for me, when I first started going to PTQs, and even SCG IQs, the group of friends I traveled with felt the same way, and a surprising number of players that do go to these events feel the same way as well. I’ve gone to events where I’ve won but wasn’t having any fun at all because the event itself just simply wasn’t good, and I’ve gone to events where I was having some of the most fun in my life and went 0-4, drop.

Grand Prix, the StarCityGames Open Series, 5k’s and even the Pro Tour can be much more than just what’s happening on the tables. This “experience,” as I like to call it, is an extremely important yet unbelievably undervalued aspect of what makes a tournament not just a good one but a great one, a comfortable, fun, and inviting one for players of all ages, skill levels, and interests. For a typical grinder, none of this may matter as the goal is always the same: qualify for the Pro Tour. Period. The venue could be awful, you may not get your sealed pool until 2pm, and there may not be a place to eat within a twenty minute drive. They will go, and they will play. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, since I know just how much work it takes for many players to even make it there. Anything that doesn’t help their chances of winning the PTQ isn’t really worth worrying about in some players’ eyes, and that’s completely fine.

This isn’t really about that.

This is about making these events more attractive for all kinds of players, not just grinders. This is about making events, not just PTQs, more than just “battle X players for this one thing.” This is about telling that one kid who’s so close to making their first Top Eight “Hey buddy, keep at it, you’ll get there!” with more than just those words. This is about taking the structures that we have and making them even better. For the record, I firmly believe that the current PTQ structure is fine. It’s an excellent foundation for players to begin their grind, connect with other aspiring players, and for stores to get more people going. It’s great for judges to gain even more experience, and for Tournament Organizers to grow their knowledge. But are we okay with just “fine?” Are we, as a growing and flourishing community that’s used to putting in the time, effort, money, and resources to become better, satisfied with “fine?”

We should not settle for just “fine.” We, as a community, should always strive for better, not only for ourselves but for each other.

This does not mean that I think that we aren’t doing that already, and this is not meant to call out a specific group or groups. Furthermore, this is not meant to be a “fun versus serious” debate, either. The purpose of this piece is to encourage everyone that we can always make things better for those around us, regardless of what our role is or what we want to do in this game. From the judges, to the TOs, to the higher-ups over at Wizards, to the players themselves: we are all equally important, and collectively we can shoot much higher and work together to attain it.

A whole lot of work goes into setting up a PTQ. You need a Tournament Organizer, a location that players can get to reasonably, approval by Wizards of the Coast, a Head Judge and judge staff… and many, many other things that many of us as players may not even realize or heard of. I feel that there’s improvement to be had in every known part of what makes a PTQ successful, from Wizards themselves right down to us, the players. The first thing I want to touch on involves getting people to show up to the PTQ in the first place.

Incentive: The Why,Where, And How

Why are we going to PTQs in the first place? For some, the answer is easy: to qualify for the Pro Tour, duh! If that’s your only answer, then I’d follow up with this: Why does that have to be the only answer? Obviously the goal is to qualify, but that doesn’t mean that other reasons can’t co-exist. They don’t have to be as important as your personal goal, but we aren’t focusing on personal goals. Remember, we’re trying to make these events great for everyone attending, even if their incentives differ from yours.

Now, I’m not one to really worry that much about prizes. It’s not that big a deal to me if I’m playing in an awesome place and having a great time, so my understanding of this may not be perfect. That said, I know that the majority of players, at least here in the Northeast, do care about it greatly. Part of the reason why the StarCityGames.com Open Series is so popular is because the incentive to go is huge. You have a chance to qualify for a ridiculously high-EV Invitational, the cash prizes are wonderful, and if you keep at it, you’ll get rewarded even more by traveling to new places and continuing to develop you game, and you’ll make money doing it. It’s a formula that works week in and week out. It works so well that they can further support their old formula, which is now called the StarCityGames.com Classic Series, and still be successful with that.

So, my question is: what’s stopping us from utilizing something like that with PTQs?

I’m definitely not saying that all of a sudden we should offer six million bucks in cash prizes or anything (though that would be pretty sweet), but we can surely start somewhere, can’t we? From what I understand, there isn’t anything against the rules for PTQs also being 1k’s, or maybe even 2k’s. I get that there are logistical, financial, and economic challenges to be had with this proposal, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on this at all (in fact, I’d love to learn more about this from other Tournament Organizers), but I feel that if we want to assist in the growth of PTQs, and if we want these events to thrive much more than they are now, then having something that allows said players to keep going is a great start if your host can support it.

The amount of times I’ve heard newer PTQ players get so discouraged because they were doing really well only to come in 9th on tiebreakers and get nothing but a pat on the back and a “thanks for playing!” is pretty darn high. I know for sure that a large amount of those players, if they’re getting serious about qualifying and being honest with themselves, would take a look and say “Hey, I was that close, I can probably do this!” It may not sound like much on the surface, but giving them that extra push in the form of, what, $50 (just as an arbitrary number, of course) helps a lot more of those players than one may think. This hobby is super expensive, and if something like that helps that player pay for the next PTQ, especially if they feel that they’ve been doing well, then a good amount of them are going to make that prize count and take that next step, use it to enter the next PTQ, and keep it going until they do wind up winning one. They’ll invite more friends to go with them, and attendance can get higher and more consistent. These sorts of incentives, as small as they may seem, add up very quickly if done across the region, and it could add that much more to their experience on their quest.

Even things like tables, and how easy they are to get to, matter. Are the tables good enough for me to set my cards and play comfortably? Can I sit on this chair without feeling like it’s going to collapse under me? Can I easily see how much time is left in the round from wherever I’m sitting? Is it easy for me to walk up to the main area and turn in my match slip? How easy is it to park? All of that matters, and putting in a little more effort to ensure that all of the tangible things are being executed in the best way possible can mean a lot for many players, for judges, and even for the other staff you don’t see roaming the floor.

What about Wizards themselves? They’ve done an incredible job with almost every single thing this game has to offer at every level. The amount of praise I can give them is worth another article in and of itself, but I certainly think that we can work with them even more when it comes to improving the system from where it is now. Not too long ago they sort-of implemented a Sponsor’s Exemption system, where they took some of the top-performing players that didn’t win a PTQ that season and gave them an invite. This was a very controversial move that was discussed at both extremes when it was around, and while I don’t think it was necessarily a good or bad thing, there was a pretty nice increase in PTQs across the board during that time (and I don’t think there was any decline afterward). I do think that more focus should be put on the PTQ circuit itself, and more players that consistently do well could use a bit more exposure (if they want it, of course).

When someone does well in an SCG Open, you know about it. You can find their article on this very site, easily accessible and headlined. When someone does well in a PTQ, you either have to hope that they’re willing to write about it (and get it published, which is a whole different animal if they aren’t already a writer), dig really deep into Wizards’ website to find their deck, or find them via social media to get information about it. This is certainly worth looking into further, as I’m sure that most players would love to talk about their experience: how they could improve going forward, what insight they have to share with other players. I’m envisioning something like a “PTQ Corner” section of a revamped “What’s Happening?”, being dedicated not only to Magic Online deck information, releases, and promotions, but also to PTQ Top Eight decks and possibly Grand Prix finishes as well.

This is not only a great way to get players who are also aspiring writers a place to start and get their name out there, but it puts almost all of that type of information that competitive players look for in one location, easily accessible and more exposed to the public. I know that I’m kind of on a tangent and touching more on the Wizards website needing work than anything, but I strongly believe that cleaning it up would allow for much easier access to information and raise the willingness to go there in the first place. Other places can adopt this practice as well, giving players more opportunities to both get their name out there and get a little something to keep that grind going. It may not seem like much, but every bit counts.

The players are not exempt from helping the PTQ community either. In fact, we probably have the heaviest influence on the community since we’re the ones that build it directly. I feel that we, as a whole, can do much more to bring players into these events. Before every SCG Open, PTQ, or Grand Prix, I try and offer all of my friends and judges I know on the judge staff words of encouragement. It doesn’t have to be anything big, but you’d be surprised at how much something like a simple “Have fun today!” or “Do your best!” – any sort of morale boost, really – can help other people. Even small things like welcoming that player trying to take that next step to the more competitive side of things can go a very long way. Shaking your opponent’s hand when you lose your match, no matter what. Helping friends out with cards and trading some to others who may need them. Maintaining a sense of semi-professionalism is highly valued as well. Think about it like this: Let’s say you do win this PTQ. How would you behave when you do wind up at the Pro Tour? Forget who you’re sitting across from or any of that. Now, if your answer is reasonable, apply that in every event you go to. You will have a much more enjoyable experience when you treat other players, judges, and staff with respect and courtesy.

As a rather large aside, I do find it kind of ridiculous that something like that even has to be said, but it happens a lot more often than I’m comfortable with. It shouldn’t matter how good or bad we personally think a given player is, especially when there are so many other players that are simply different than us. Magic can be as convoluted, complicated, and intricate as the players playing it, yet for some reason we continue to push other players out and treat them like we would a card evaluation, and most of us don’t even know it.

Why are we okay with this?

Whenever a player has a bad experience at an event because of another player, that’s an immensely negative thing. If that player has a bad experience because of another player, it’s a travesty. When, for example, a player starting to get into the competitive scene overhears their round-five opponent talk about how they were a “donk” post-match, and had no idea what they were doing ‘wrong’ despite asking questions and trying to get better as much as they can, that’s a very bad thing. No matter how highly or lowly we think of them, or ourselves, personally, we were all at that point once in our Magic careers, and I know for sure that you wouldn’t like someone treating you that way to your face. I can see how it can be upsetting to lose to a topdecked Stormbreath Dragon when you felt like you played really well and your opponent was making mistakes constantly, but just because you may be more experienced than they were doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a win. There’s nothing wrong with not being happy about it, but you cross the line when you begin to take away from someone else’s experience, in or out of a tournament, whether you think they can hear you or not. In a room full of hundreds of people, your words – and negativity – carries.

Treat others the way you want to be treated, people. We are all playing the game for a reason, and no one should ever have to question that reason due to someone else’s negative actions.

On the flip-side, as a competitor you should absolutely seek to do everything you can to win every game you play, and it’d be foolish for me to say otherwise. If you’re someone who’s trying to go places to the best of their capabilities, but not actually putting forth the effort, then I’d question why you aren’t being as great of a competitor as you can be. Part of being a competitor is dealing with the ups and downs of whatever it is that causes you those swings. If you defeat someone in a close game and they appear upset about it, handle it with caution, but look to encourage them the rest of the way if it appears appropriate. At the end of every single match I play, win or lose, I always tell my opponent “Best of luck to you in the rest,” with a smile (and a handshake if I lose, since that can be a touchy subject when you’re the winner that I’d rather not get into here). It really is that simple. You can be as fierce of a competitor as you want while still being a good sport, no matter the result.

The last thing I want to touch on is the backbone of events, the Judging Staff. As a Judge, your job (and I’m greatly oversimplifying here) is to maintain fair and orderly play amongst the players participating in the event. I know a lot of judges bust their tails at every event they go to just to ensure that we, the players, keep the fair environment that we’re so used to playing in. So what do I think they can do to help improve the PTQ experience as a whole?

Honestly, the only thing I think could be done more on the judge staff’s end is to encourage good sportsmanship a bit more. Other than that, I think they’re a great model for how a person should behave and handle themselves in a tournament environment.

Throughout my career, I’ve only had a negative judge experience one time, and that was with a judge I’ve only seen once (and have never seen again). Other than that, the judges in my region have always been excellent, and are always striving to get better. They are a great example of how to handle tough situations, stressful days, and self-improvement. They’re always friendly, welcoming, and helpful, and they’re a major inspiration for me to better myself. They really are great role-models for making tournament experiences as great as they can be, and I think the tournament scene as a whole would improve drastically if everyone followed their work ethic, camaraderie, and attitude.

On Monday, part two of this series will be presented to you by “The Champ” himself, Frank Skarren. He will present the other side of the argument: why he enjoys PTQs, what things are like from the grinder side of things, counter-arguments and other sub-topics in this very interesting hot topic. Stay tuned for that, as you’ll find a lot of great debate, rebuttals, and insight from someone who’s been doing this for much longer than I have. I’d love to hear some constructive thoughts in the comments, as I feel that this is a very interesting subject that is very tough to tackle without the great minds that we do have.

Until next time, may your next PTQ be as fun and immersive as can be!

Thanks for reading!

Anthony “Pyromaster” Lowry

Twitter: @aulowry (#teamchandra)