Well That Escalated Quickly

After the largest turnout ever to a Magic event at GP Charlotte last weekend, Patrick Chapin talks about the ramifications and possible ideas for improvement.

Grand Prix Madrid 2010 was the Legacy Grand Prix where Entomb was first really given a chance to shine in its modern incarnation. The attendance was record setting with 2,227 participants, making it the largest Magic tournament that had ever been held.


There were 466 more competitors in this past weekend’s Grand Prix Charlotte than the previous record holder. SCG’s Grand Prix Charlotte didn’t just break the record—it obliterated it. How in the world are you supposed to accommodate 2,693 players?

While I eventually moved to larger cities, as a kid I grew up in a village of just south of 1,600 residents. Once you include vendors, judges, and non-competitors, there were over double that many people in a single room all here for Magic. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been at nearly a dozen Gen Cons with attendance that far surpasses that, but no single tournament at Gen Con has ever come close to this kind of participation. The point is that seeing all those people in one massive room was pretty mind blowing.

I guess it’s pretty lucky M10 rules, mythics, and "dumbing down Magic" didn’t kill the game, after all.

Warning: Rant incoming. If you just want the Standard metagame info, CTRL-F for metagame.

Let’s be clear about one thing: when the problem is that 2,693 people are showing up to Grand Prix, it is a very good problem to have. Perhaps another way to put it is that it is an opportunity. Do things need to be improved? Absolutely. And frankly, they need to be improved in a hurry because this system is at a very volatile point. Still, it is important to remember that this is a very good problem to have. Why do you suppose they just added not only a fourth Pro Tour but an increase in prize money that makes this upcoming year the biggest prize supported year ever…not counting the millions of dollars in Grand Prix money?!

First, let’s take a moment to ask ourselves how Grand Prix Charlotte happened. It can be very easy when one wins a tournament to rewrite the story in our head to tell ourselves a tale of how great we played and how masterful our deck choice was. Likewise, it would be easy to write a story about Grand Prix Charlotte that overlooks the confluence of events that contributed to its earth-shattering success.

First, a couple easy factors.

1) This was the first Limited Grand Prix of a new format (which even happens to be a good one that is a lot of fun).

2) Gatecrash is the fastest selling Magic set of all-time. This is hardly news, as it is the seventh set in a row to stake this claim (differentiating small sets versus big sets); however, it is important to remember.

These are both important factors, but they certainly don’t come close to suggest record-breaking numbers, particularly by such a large margin. Besides, there were even some factors working against the event.

1) Grand Prix Quebec City meant there was a Standard Grand Prix just 1,000 miles away.

2) The weather has been really bad some places in recent days. Attendance was probably down low triple digits from where it would have been as a result.

So what was different?

I’m not sure anyone has that totally figured out since if they did, you better believe they would bottle it and try to reproduce it every single chance they get. No wonder SCG was going around doubling prizes for events, offering free admission to certain side events, and spared no expense in accommodating an attendance that was miles beyond what anyone has ever predicted for any Grand Prix ever.

Honestly, I would be shocked if variance wasn’t one of the biggest factors. Some events are just going to be at the right times on the right days. This one is definitely on the high end of the spectrum. Still, I think an important lesson to be learned here is the value of approaching Grand Prix as conventions, making them into an event, not just an event.

Between the 10K Win a Trip to Miami tournament, the Gold Rush, the Meet and Greet, the crazy amounts of coverage, a dozen dealers, the Judge Conference, and incentives linked to attendance, SCG went way beyond what any tournament organizer (TO) normally does to turn this GP into a convention, into an event that will be among the most epic Magic experiences most of the attendees have ever been a part of.

If I were a GP TO, you better believe I would sit up and take notice. Expanding what the event is about is huge. Having more judges than they say you need is the right type of thinking. Putting yourself in the players’ shoes can point you to good ideas.

For instance, take Sleep-In Specials. First of all, not every TO even does them. On top of that, some TOs actually require you to appear in person Friday (defeating a large part of their purpose). Then, many TOs will tell players to show up by noon, as if there was any chance in hell that the players won’t be stuck just sitting around for hours.

SCG not only started with Sleep-In Special participants not needing to show up until 1:45 PM, but they quickly amended it to 3:15 PM once it was clear that the logistical obstacles were going to slow things down. This is a big step in the right direction and reveals respect and understanding for those affected. It is also a stark contrast to the philosophy of "well, they are just lucky we are letting them do a Sleep-In Special at all. If they don’t like it, tough. What are they going to do?"

I’ll tell you what they are going to do. They are not going to hype your event up and be a part of it in the future. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let’s back up a moment.

I had the privilege of talking with hundreds of players this weekend, and to be blunt, almost all of them had nothing but great things to say about the size of the event. They were a part of history. They could feel the electricity in the air, the energy of not only 2,700 players, but the energy of Magic culture being this unstoppable juggernaut.

Oh, I see, this is another "oh, woe is me. It’s such a tough life, being a Magic pro" type of situation?

Not exactly.

But aren’t you saying that there are basically two problems?

1) Grand Prix don’t have enough money to be worth going to.

2) Too many people go to them.

No, I’m saying that most of the people going to Grand Prix don’t go to ten or twenty a year. Going to one or two or three, you can eat most of the expense and make a holiday of it. To actually play Magic professionally, it requires more than a trivial amount of time. This not only interferes with a lot of possible jobs, but you have to pay for those plane tickets and hotels. Let’s just say that $250 appearance fees aren’t exactly paying for these trips.

Who cares? If they don’t want to come, the hell with them. Besides, if it’s not them, it would just be somebody else.

Who cares? The countless players who come for the opportunity to meet some of the biggest names in the game. WotC, who wants to nurture, not kill, the golden goose. TOs that want their tournament to have 1,000 above expectation. Coverage people that want more and more people to tune into Magic media. Anyone involved in the tournament Magic culture that wants it to continue to grow.

Things are really good right now, overall, but there is a real problem with the Grand Prix set-up. If things don’t change, there is going to be big drop in pro attendance to GPs. How much this matters is a question that probably has a different answer from party to party. I am pretty confident that if Luis Scott-Vargas and Brian Kibler stopped showing up to GPs, there would be a very non-trivial drop in attendance.

Isn’t that what we want?

No! The idea that the solution is to figure out how to turn people away is insanity. That isn’t the real issue, and the more people involved, the bigger the opportunities for the game.

Let’s call a spade for a spade. Magic pros can sound like a pretty entitled bunch. After all, 99% of the players in Grand Prix Charlotte did not receive appearance fees. It’s outside the scope of this article, but anyone versed in the game’s history need only look back seven, eight, nine years ago. WotC tried cutting back on support for pro play. After all, if those guys stop going to events, somebody else will.

Let’s take this to the NBA, MLB, NHL, or NFL. Why not stop paying them? After all, if they stop playing, somebody else will.

Except people want to see the best in the world, not just the best of whoever happens to show up.

Just as people feel "entitled" to their paycheck after doing their job, so to do Magic pros. Grand Prix appearance fees being half what they once were while there are so many more of them (effectively doubling the amount of work being asked of players) has contributed to an unsustainable situation. Just to be clear, I am not even a player that gets appearance fees, I am just interested in the long-term health and growth of the game.

Here’s what I see:

1) Right now, Platinum is a massive jump over Gold ($20K+), and it is very all or nothing. Literally, the final point is worth $20,000.

2) In order to reach Platinum, and even more importantly to reach the World Championship and actually have a chance to compete in the World Magic Cup, you basically have to go to a ton of Grand Prix. Do you realize the last two Players of the Year had zero PT Top 8s during their year? They both followed it up with PT Top 8s shortly thereafter, so it’s not like the titles went to undeserving players, but it highlights the distorted structure that currently overvalues GP participation.

3) Having to go to 20-ish GPs in order to actually reasonably compete in the Pro Points race is leading to burnout on a wide scale. Once again, 99% of players aren’t in this category, but an awful lot of that 99% is going to be really disappointed if Kibler, LSV, Conley Woods, Gerry Thompson, Paul Rietzl, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Sam Black, Tom Martell, and so on aren’t attending.

4) Tournaments with 2,693 players are fantastic opportunities, but they are going to require an evolution in how tournaments are run.

Actually, let’s look at this one closer real quick. Grand Prix Charlotte was extremely well run given the circumstances. It was mind-blowing that this staff actually pulled off something so many levels into the impossible. Still, some things went on that are hopefully not going to be repeated.

Over 300 people finished Day 1 with records of 7-2 or better, advancing them to the next day, which began bright and early (8 AM) after the final round of the previous day not ending until midnight.

Of those 300, over 200 had more than just a single loss. At GP Charlotte, you needed a record of 7-2 to make round 10, but for those that did, it was a single elimination round (at 8 AM). This means over 200 people got up with little sleep and competed in a single round to determine if they would even get to keep playing for the rest of the day. Over 100 were eliminated before 9 AM.

It is very difficult to determine the winner of a 2700 person tournament in two days given that basically everybody wants the tournament to be effectively double elimination. So what are the solutions?

Some players have discussed separating the open portion (perhaps 80% of the players) with some elite event going on at the same time, but this misses the point. People want a chance to compete against the best. The Pro Tour already exists.

I’d love if there was a way to hold the first round or two Friday night, but that might not be feasible. People with byes would still not need to be in town until Saturday morning, but I do wonder how much it would impact attendance for those without byes.

Another possibility is to start earlier in the day on Saturday. I wonder how much of the logistical headaches we currently encounter could be alleviated with a better system for registering people. The current system involves a lot of sitting around and waiting during the day Saturday. I imagine we could be using that time more effectively.

What if rounds were five minutes shorter? This isn’t an ideal solution, but it does make up for an entire round per day. It seems like nothing should be off the table in terms of trying to imagine how things could be done better.

Can the bye system be cleaned up? Byes are a funny thing. On the one hand, the super saturation of byes is contributing to the logistical impossibility of running 2700 player events (since every person with a bye counts as two people, every person with two byes is four people, and every person with three byes is eight people, making GP Charlotte effectively a 7000 player tournament).

On the other hand, byes are a potentially very effective targeted way to increase the expected value for a subset of players. If we strongly want players like LSV and Kibler to make it to these events, we should probably consider all the possible ways to make it worth their while.

I think the bigger issue, at least in the short term, is the incredible amount of pressure to go to everything. What can be done to reduce the pressure to go to so many while ensuring players still go?

The status quo is so "all-or-nothing" that if you can’t go to everything, you might as well stop to going to most GPs. What about systems that count your five or seven best GPs in a year? That way, most people still have incentive to go to most events they can, but it is not such a lost cause when they have to miss one.

What about doubling the amount of Pro Points from PTs, scaling the bars appropriately, and increasing appearance fees to GPs for the upper tier? It seems like Pro Points are a strange sort of resource that are both money (for the purposes of Platinum and the like) and opportunity (invites to PTs, the World Championship, and so on). One of the issues right now is that to have sufficient opportunity to make it in pro Magic, Pro Points from attending an unsustainable number of GPs is required. After all, the cost and fun of one’s first GP is much different than the cost and fun of one’s 20th.

If Pro Points for PTs were increased or GP Pro Points were capped at some number of events (for the purposes of Platinum, PoY, World Championship, etc.), the relative value of big finishes would be increased compared to the current focus on participation.

It would be important to investigate the potential legal ramifications, but what if appearance fees scaled based on attendance? What about a potential fourth bye based on attendance? What about an even tougher standard for byes in the first place?

What if appearance fees were increased for some N number of events for a specific individual before returning to the baseline?

If you actually want the same people to go to every single GP, maybe we figure out what the real barrier is. Maybe the money/Pro Point equation can be tweaked.

All I know is that people complaining about how large tournaments are need to get a grip on reality, as this is a really, really good problem to have. By the same token, this kind of growth of tournament Magic brings with it a number of growing pains, and some changes are in order (and soon). The first step is brainstorming possible ideas.

Standard Metagame

With Pro Tour Gatecrash and now GP Quebec City in the books, what is the current state of Standard?

Here is a winner’s circle metagame weighted by finish. The Pre-PT Meta is based on the first two weeks of SCG Standard Opens. PT Gatecrash numbers are the metagame numbers for decks that finished 6-4 or better in Constructed. The GP Quebec numbers are the Day 2 metagame percentages. The Expected Meta is weighted by recency.


The Gatecrash numbers are particularly interesting. For example, Esper Control as a macro-archetype had a losing game win percentage. Yet only 10% of the field was Esper on Day 1, while 14.6% of the 6-4 or better records were Esper, indicating a large divide between those with a good Esper list versus those without. It is very curious for a deck to have such a high number of successes (one of the absolute best performing macro-archetypes) despite so many failures.

Jund was the clear winner in Montreal, at least among the macro-archetypes. It was one of the three most popular decks, but its successes scale better than any of the other popular decks.

In terms of trends, it appears that red aggro is dying out at a rate that is basically inversely proportional to the rise of Jund Aggro (the premier aggro strategy in the format, it would seem). The Aristocrats is looking like a bit of a fad without staying power; however, the Wolf Run Bant deck that Melissa DeTora took to her first PT Top 8 appears to be picking up steam (stealing some of the Esper players away).

The widespread adoption of Boros Reckoner in U/W/R appears to be the real deal and shows no sign of slowing. If this continues, I think it bodes well for Esper (though Esper would rather play against basically any of the top decks besides the various Jund decks or Human Reanimator).

Both Naya and Naya Humans appear to be falling to the wayside, and frankly, they are probably worse Jund and Jund Aggro decks.

The metagame has rebounded sharply after the red-heavy first weeks of the format, but it has hardly settled. It would seem we are moving towards a metagame that is one-third midrange, one-third blue, and one-third fast aggro (with a small amount of graveyard combo as a wild card). What is the next step in this progression?

This past weekend’s Grand Prix were massively successful, but improvements are in order. What are some possible ideas for improving the GP experience as a whole?

See you next week!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"