The Time To Act

Now available on Select! Patrick Chapin explains the importance of high-level competitive Magic to the community and why he cares about the recent Organized Play changes and the message they seem to carry.

“WotC’s announcement keeps answering my questions with more questions. I feel like I’m watching LOST.” –Matthias Hunt

You know I am not a sky-is-falling type. I strive to be a voice of reason whenever WotC makes an announcement, and I give them the benefit of the doubt. Mythic rares, M10 rules, Sixth Edition rules, new card frames, double-faced cards, foils, planeswalkers, Type 2 (Standard) overtaking Type 1 (Vintage) as the default format, Chronicles, and more. WotC has made quite a number of decisions over the years that prompt from some portion of the audience that they are killing Magic.

Whether it is allegedly “dumbing down,” or “making it too complex,” or “grabbing cash,” or “ruining tournament play,” there are any number of reasons that people give to suggest WotC is killing the game. Yet, here we are, years later, and Magic is at an all-time high. Wizards of the Coast has a lot of really smart people that care passionately about the game. As such, it is a good strategy to give them the benefit of the doubt.  

Upon further review of the facts, this scenario is far more serious than one might guess from the cavalier set of announcements cheerfully made. It appears we are at a crossroads. It isn’t about what Magic will look like next year or the year after. It is about the direction Magic is being steered long term. This is the fork in the road. One path’s advocates believe that high-level tournament Magic is hopelessly unimportant to Magic’s sales. After all, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! have never had the kind of high-level tournament support that Magic has, yet both have sold very well. The other path’s advocates believe that high-level tournament Magic is crucial to expanding Magic culture, increasing interest and fun for not only hundreds of thousands of tournament players, but countless casual players that still find following the competitive scene fascinating or use premier decklists for ideas.

Obviously, there is a real risk of people getting burnt out on the topic, but this is an absolutely crucial issue. I’ll be back on Wednesday with a strategy article, but the importance of today’s topic cannot be stressed enough for fans of high-level tournament Magic or those who aspire to someday play at the highest levels. Quite literally, and without exaggeration, “The Dream” is at stake. This is not a complaint, nor a funeral. This is a call to action. Our actions today can still save the game’s history, the culture, the future growth of high-level tournament Magic, and the design of future sets with high-level tournament Magic as part of the equation (unlike some games…).  

We must act now.

Six months from today, it will actually be too late.

The Time Line

The first major cuts took place back when the Master’s Series and end-of-the-year payouts were changed and the number of PTs reduced from six to five. That system was hopelessly flawed anyway. The top players of the era took their year-end payouts and used them to bankroll themselves in poker. These cuts were needed, however, because of Darksteel, because of Ravager. The number of players who quit because of Affinity was so great that it was not until M10 and Zendikar that Magic finally fully recovered and reached new heights. Additionally, the Pokémon boom was over, so it was no longer raining hundreds of millions of dollars everywhere.

In 2007, WotC announced the removal of the fifth Pro Tour. The reason given? Dreamblade had cost the company money, and Magic had to help pay for it. Things would turn around; this wouldn’t be forever. Times were just a little tough, and if we wanted the fifth PT back, we all had to do our part and expand the community, the scene, the culture. Obviously, we were not happy at this prospect, but that is an understandable, if unfortunate situation. It was time for all of us to redouble our efforts.

In 2008, Pro Player Cards were discontinued. While this is not a big deal, it certainly highlights a change in perspective. This was a move that didn’t save any meaningful amount of money; it was just the space in the pack could be used for something else. A more efficient advertisement. Totally understandable.

The Invitational was discontinued. The previous year, America’s only representatives were Evan Erwin and Steven Menendian, in stark contrast to what the Invitational once was. This is not to discount those two’s contributions, as they were two of the most compelling and interesting stories/characters from the Invitational and two of the people who took it seriously. The decline of the Invitational is a subject for another day, but suffice it to say, while I disagree vehemently with the wasting of that brand, of that history, it was at least understandable given the narrative of “tighten up our belts till things turn around.”  

In 2009, Wizards of the Coast reduced appearance fees, minor changes, but still negative. Reducing “Hall of Fame” appearance fees was totally understandable, though, given the potential growing long-term financial liability.

Later that year, M10 would help lead the way for a reigniting of the brand and begin a series of some of the best designed sets in years. By the time Zendikar was released, Magic had finally overcome the Darksteel Curse.

In 2010, we saw very little growth, though one could argue modest improvements with Grand Prix. Many critics wondered, where was the reward? We have been told for years that this is just until things get better. We were told that if we all just focus on acquisition and helping Magic reach more people more of the time, a rising tide would lift all ships. On these battles, I defended WotC to a degree that actually caused me to take some flak from peers.

How could I defend them on this? They just had the two bestselling sets ever at the end of 2009, and the sets that followed in 2010 also performed quite well. Yet we aren’t seeing the support for premier play that was always the carrot at the end of the stick. We’re not talking dollars today; we are talking about confidence that helping Magic grow is a two-way street.

My defense of WotC was that after hearing them out, their argument that WotC is a slow-moving ship and that many of the decisions for 2010 were made before they had any idea about the second half of 2009 and how well that would turn out. Surely, 2011 would be the year.

In 2011, we once again saw a lack of support by Wizards of the Coast. What gives? This was supposed to be the year we got the fifth PT back, the team PT hopefully?! While all official announcements were cryptic and vague, it appeared that the party line was that these decisions were made back in 2010, and it was not yet clear if this growth was going to continue. That said, it was acknowledged that Magic had been enjoying a sustained period of its best years ever. Magic was growing, and as is so often repeated, a rising tide lifts all ships. Just wait till we see what they have for us in 2012!

Planeswalker Points were ushered in late in 2011, signifying a strong decrease in the relative value of quality vs. quantity. The system has many flaws, but it is understandable what they are trying to accomplish, albeit somewhat clumsily and in a way that many suspect will lead to a decrease in the quality of players at Pro Tours. The move towards grinding instead of achieving excellence was a bit uncomfortable, but obviously such a radical change in the system is going to have some growing pains attached. Besides, WotC made it clear that one of the goals for their program was to continue to making Pro Magic a worthy and viable dream.

A month and a half later, WotC announces they are cutting the fourth Pro Tour and ending the history of the Magic World Championships. This decision had surely been made back when Planeswalker Points were announced, but not wanting to tarnish Planeswalker Points with such bad press, this important information was left unsaid. Instead, it was the nebulous promise that everything will be better next year, and things will be replaced with something even better.

“I’ve heard once sales recover, this will all passØŸ” –Paul Rietzl

The Problem

Magic is now at an all-time high and has been for years, and they are considering reducing premier tournament support. What does this say? It is not as though the money needs to be taken out of the budget. The Pro Tour, the World Championships, Nationals—these are all paid for out of WotC’s marketing budget, a budget that is certainly not shrinking (and surely higher than ever). Despite Magic doing better than ever, premier tournament play is at risk of being valued significantly less than before. If Magic goes in this direction, what does that say about the future of high-level play? If Magic selling better than ever means cutting a Pro Tour, what happens if Magic has another good year next year?

There is this notion among some voices (definitely not talking WotC here) that professional Magic players are somehow greedy parasites, sucking milk-money from the teat of WotC. This notion is not just absurd; it is offensive and reveals a disturbing lack of connection to the modern Magic community.

Kobe Bryant isn’t sucking from Sprite’s teat.

They are in business together. He helps market their product. He improves the brand image. He greatly increases the desire in Sprite’s customer base to drink Sprite. He expands the potential customer base. He helps make Sprite cool. He is a celebrity that is being paid to help market a product. It is a symbiotic relationship. Kobe Bryant may freaking love drinking Sprite, but if Sprite wants a professional endorsement, that’s business. If Sprite was doing poorly for a bit, Kobe may love Sprite enough to take a pay cut for the year and redouble his efforts (though certainly not all athletes in that position would). However, for Sprite to say that despite business being better than ever, they are reducing his support (since if he doesn’t support their drink, they will settle for whoever is willing to), that is a very dangerous sort of branding. That is not the way to long-term success for Sprite. Branding Sprite as the drink of “the best of whoever’s left and doesn’t have anything better to do” is not exactly good branding. In fact, I would strongly suspect such a move by Sprite to be cancerous, slowly eating away at all they have built over the years.

Presumably Sprite would never treat Kobe Bryant as a “parasite” living off their good graces. Obviously, Kobe would take great offense to such a view and would certainly be far less interested in doing business with Sprite.

This announcement is quite vague, and there is still much undecided; however if things continue on this course, if high-level tournament Magic is actually defunded and unsupported, it is not that the Brian Kibler and Luis Scott-Vargases of the world will all boycott Magic or anything. They love Magic with all their heart. They will just do something else with their time. Kibler is already in the Hall of Fame, and Luis will be relatively soon, regardless. They will show up to Pro Tours, whenever they feel like/can. Why not? Finkel, Kai, Zvi—many of the game’s true greats are on a similar plan. The game is lucky to have those guys show up at all and will be fortunate when the next generation do.

What they are far less likely to do is write weekly columns, run websites, go to many GPs, engage their huge fan bases, be professional Magic players. You can get rid the 20 best guys in the room, and the next 20 best will be the new best, but no one is so foolish as to think the game will be as healthy, as fun, as exciting, and as interesting without players like Kibler and Luis. It isn’t just about most of those types of guys not being around; it is the message sent that professional Magic play is discouraged that removes the incentive for anyone else to try to fill those shoes. It was one thing to cut when times were tough, but cutting when things are at their best? Players aren’t the only ones capable of taking things for granted…

If WotC’s message is that it is not interested in growing Magic culture but merely in feeding it enough of a diet to prevent it from dying, that’s not the food of passion. That is not the sort of climate that inspires great men to dedicate large portions of their lives.

“I love Magic more than life itself. However, I would rather walk away than ruin the memory of something that was once great.” -Redacted

The Tournament Community Matters

When I first “got back” five years ago, Magic was not at a particularly high point. Luis had not yet really “broken through,” and Kibler had not returned to the game. There were few American “stars.” The reduction in support for premier-level Magic had led to multiple generations of extremely talented players all leaving the game at once. The “next people in line” were waiting to take their place, but the climate had changed. There weren’t as many exciting personalities to watch, amazing decks being built, or even karaoke nights with seventy gamers. Attendance dwindled; the Invitational withered away; Pro Player Cards were removed; the lack of compelling characters made Magic culture at the high-end less of a worthy aspiration for those considering the grueling climb.

Then something happened.

A few men with passion got to talking with a few more men with passion. The community expanded and grew stronger. More personalities convinced other personalities to help restore tournament Magic’s greatness. Players from the old school, like Kibler, Williams, EFro, and myself, returned and dedicated real time. Nassif, Luis, Kibler, Herberholz, Paulo, GerryT, the Ruels, and so many, many more were working together both for technology and in other areas on Magic such as writing and promoting the game in a variety of ways. It wasn’t just that we are all friends; it is that we all shared a common vision for the growth of competitive tournament Magic. Are we competitive people by nature? Absolutely. It is not just the competition, however; it is also the community, being a part of a global culture, a culture of highly intelligent people who have a common bond, language, experiences.

We all knew how great Magic was and could be. We knew WotC had struggled for a few years, but we all believed in the people we know that work there. Magic is at an all-time high for a lot of reasons, not the least of which are websites like StarCityGames, ChannelFireball, TCGPlayer, and Blackborder, which are filled with content from talented and insightful “professional Magic players.” These professional Magic players don’t need to be playing Magic. They love it. They are building something that means something to them. Cutting support when things are at their best isn’t tragic because of the loss of dollars out of pockets, this year or next or the next. It is tragic because it is the sort of cancer that can actually kill the desire to bend over backwards and go miles beyond the call of duty for this game.

Pros aren’t entitled to anything. However, they are people, and people respond to incentives. Before, the promise that things would be better, once things turned around, meant something, and we are all passionate about the game. When you remove support when things are the best they have ever been, that is very, very strong incentive. Sadly, it is an incentive that I believe to be the greatest risk to the game and the tournament scene I have ever seen in my nearly eighteen years of Magic.

Having a 16-man 100k tournament is an exciting thing in and of itself; however the message sent is far more harmful than the decrease in pro’s paychecks.  

Personally, I am going to be fine. Cutting a PT isn’t really that big a deal to me short term. I already can’t go to them all, and the money from PTs is only a part of my income. Besides, who knows what the new Pro Player Club looks like? Maybe a few of us will actually net money? The bigger problem is that this sends a very strong message that we are not viewed as actually being in a symbiotic relationship. If the company that has a complete monopoly on the ability to print cards doesn’t believe in the future of high-level tournament Magic, why should we?

The Solution

Hasbro’s revenues are up as a whole 5% compared to last year. Magic is doing excellent, as are brands like Transformers. Hasbro is a corporation and has to do what they think is in their financial best interest. Remember, we are still on the same side, at least today. We are at the crossroads. There are certainly different voices within Hasbro and WotC, but there are a great number of people to whom Magic culture and high-level tournament Magic mean the world. There is still time to act, but not much.

WotC is a corporation, one filled with a lot of really intelligent and awesome men and women. Many of the game’s greatest fans work for WotC. There are many voices inside that want tournament Magic to not just survive, but to thrive, to grow and grow more still. We need to give them the ammunition, the support they need to fight the good fight.

The second half of the PT schedule has not been officially announced for 2012. The 2013 Pro Player Club has not been announced. There is still time for WotC to give the PT a level of support that shows that Magic’s growth and success translates into growth and success of tournament Magic, too. Asking WotC to call “just kidding” on the most recent announcements is unrealistic, however; they have been intentionally mind-numbingly and frustratingly vague. This is at least in part because not everything is set in stone. How much does the Magic community even care about the Pro Tour or the World Championships or Nationals? Does the game’s history, with things like Pro Points, matter to anyone but the most elite?

Violent action is not the way. Boycotts are akin to trade sanctions, which many don’t realize are actually an act of war. If we seek a positive and symbiotic relationship, that is not the way. Sadly, there are some forces that seem hellbent on destroying the symbiotic relationship, but that time has not yet come. We have friends and allies, and we all want the same thing: Magic to be as fun, awesome, big, successful, and great as it can be.

What we can do that is constructive is make our voices heard. If the future of high-level competition in Magic matters to you, please take a moment and write e-mails/tweets to Aaron Forsythe, Mark Rosewater, Mike Turian. Their e-mails can be found at the bottom of their articles on the Mothership; their Twitter accounts are listed below. It is so crucial to be respectful and speak with logic, not anger.

They all care very deeply and passionately about the Pro Tour and its history, what it means to the community. Sadly, they do not own Hasbro. What they could really use in this fight is ammunition to show to the suits at Hasbro that as a community, we really do care about the World Championships, about the Pro Tour, about high-level tournament play, about quality being important, not just quantity. Please take a few minutes and join the Facebook group and sign in the petition here, if these subjects matter to you. Things have not been set in stone, yet. We still have time. The decisions for next year are being made next month. Now is the time to act!

Thank you for your time. See you on Wednesday.

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Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”