Last week I took a look at the loss of a Pro Tour. As most of you figured out, I was not ranting, not saying “Magic is dying” or anything like that. I was simply trying to lay out the facts and numbers. I think Wizards is redirecting their money towards supporting the customer base. That’s probably wise. This week, however, I want to rant a bit. I haven’t done that for a long while. It’s time.
Losing a Pro Tour, continued:
Wizards is moving their money towards supporting the store level players — and the stores themselves. They sort of have to — we are heading into the recession. Games like Magic are luxuries, and recessions are hard on luxuries and the businesses that sell them. Wizards needs to conserve money, and to make sure that the stores that sell cards and run tournaments have the best chance of surviving the recession. They will need help: games stores don’t have much of a profit margin, and a recession is going to cut that margin to the bone. Stores are going to die.
I’m not going to rant about what Wizards is doing. I do want to rant about why we have a recession. One of my diplomas says “Economics,” and I am old enough to have lived through some recessions in the past. We know how recessions happen. They happen in just the same way time after time.
Basically, three factors have to come together.
First, government has to spend a lot of money on something with very little multiplier effect. The multiplier effect — I’m simplifying here — means how rapidly the person receiving the money spends it again, preferably in the U.S. economy. For example, if you pay the money to someone living hand to mouth, that person will likely spend it immediately on food, or something like that. The grocery store, or whatever, getting money for food tends to spend it again, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, paying money to a miser does nothing. The miser holds the money in his hands, and it is not spent again.
Economists have had all kinds of fun studying multiplier effects of various forms of spending. Defense spending has pretty much the lowest multiplier effect of any form of government spending — pretty much anything else the government can spend money on has significantly more impact on the economy.
The next thing government needs to do is to run a deficit. Tax cuts, revenue reductions — however it happens, all it takes is a significant deficit. Johnson tried to finance the Vietnam war without tax increases, and we got a recession. Bush did the same with Gulf War I — and so on.
Third, people determine that it’s okay to go nuts with leverage, because “the world has changed.” Hedge funds, derivatives, tech bubbles, housing bubbles — they happen about every twenty years like clockwork. If you go back far enough, tulips were the basis of a huge speculative bubble that saw single tulip bulbs trade for houses. (Look it up.) Then the bubble bursts, and the repercussions, coupled with government deficits, bring on the recession.
Oversimplified, but basically correct. If you want the full explanation, complete with equations and so forth, email me at: [email protected]
In short, don’t bother ranting about the loss of the pro tour. Rant about the recession. Better yet, if you are an American citizen, vote for someone who can fix the problem. Just remember, when choosing someone to run the economy, vote for someone smarter than you are. Moreover, if you want to elect an MBA, vote for one with damn good grades.
Here endeth the sermon.
Why is it so hard to qualify?
I’m writing this during the Top 8 at a PTQ. I’m not playing anymore. I’m not going to get a blue envelope. (And the envelopes aren’t even blue anymore. What’s up with that?) Anyway, I am not going to win this PTQ. As a result, I am not going to qualify for PT Hollywood. I’m pretty much out of PTQs.
There was a time when I could Top 8 two PTQs in two weeks. There was a time when I made Top 2. That was a long time ago. I don’t play as well anymore, because I don’t practice as hard. That has exactly the effect you would expect: I’m not as good a player.
At the same time, everyone else is better. Seriously, people play better nowadays.
Some of that is because of the information available online. It is partly the articles on decks and archetypes, but only partly. The Internet — it’s made of tubes, you know — is also full of how-to-play advice, and articles like Drafting With ___, and so on really can teach people to play better.
Magic Online is another strong source of improved play. Most importantly, it improves peoples’ understanding of the rules. MTGO enforces the rules — and correct rules enforcement catches a lot of people by surprise. I have lost count of how many times I have explained why something happened to a new player online.
That’s not the whole story, however.
What happened to all the PTQs?
Years ago, we had two PTQs per season in Madison, two or more in Chicago, and at least one in Minneapolis. In the last few years, those have all dropped to one per season, and in some seasons Madison has had no PTQs at all.
When I was crunching numbers for last week’s article, I looked at the number of people invited to PTs via PTQs. For several years, that number remained steady, although the number of PTQs in areas outside North America has increased. As a result, the number of North American PTQs fell — in effect, Wizards has been shifting the PTQs overseas. Fair enough. However, in the last two years, the number of North American PTQs, as listed on the Wizards site, has dropped again. I do not see a significant increase overseas. The PTQs just vanished.
PTQs are the stepping stone for getting new players into highly competitive play. Cutting them down cannot but hurt the number of players over time. If players can’t play often, they may stop playing at all.
The change from cash prizes to plane tickets may have increased costs for Wizards, but Wizards really needs to find some way of running more PTQs. PTQs are popular (140 or so players here today), and often spawn tune-up tournaments. Losing those PTQs, and the interest they spawn, cannot be good.
Seriously — I like playing Magic. With three Pro Tours and fewer PTQs per tour, I will be lucky to play in a dozen PTQs all year. Practically, I will play in maybe half that number, or even less. In reality, maybe four chances to play in a PTQ, facing odds of 125-150 to one to win. Even if I had time to really work on the format, those are not good odds.
Pros playing in PTQs
Wizards cut down the payments to Level X pros. Most importantly, the appearance fees have dropped, meaning that it is harder to break even playing at PTs. In return Wizards has allowed the pros to compete for the plane tickets awarded at PTQs.
As a result, not only do I have to beat 125-150 other players in the handful of PTQs I can attend, but I may also have to beat pros while doing it. People may be joke about crushing dreams in PTQ playoffs, but that can really be true. People’s dreams are crushed when they work their asses off, then lose. Those players may not return, or may play less seriously. (Like me.)
Crush enough dreams and PTQs attendance will fall. Let it fall enough and card sales will plummet. Really.
Cutting PTQs may have a real impact on card sales. Card sales are not driven by pros — pros borrow cards, and there just aren’t that many in any case. Singles sales are really driven by casual players and players at PTQs and FNMs. If those players stop buying, demand falls and prices drop.
Card prices on Magic Online are falling now. That may be because online tournaments have a very high entry threshold – meaning that the number of players entering the events is really small. Those numbers are high enough to keep chase rare prices up — but the fact that you pretty much have to have expensive cards or you just lose has driven down demand for all the Tier 2 cards.
Why are Decks so Damned Expensive, and Cards so Hard to Get?
I played a Contested Cliffs deck today. That was not my first choice. However, all of my first choices required Tarmogoyfs, and I cannot justify paying that much for the cards. I once bought Power 9 for less than the price of a Goyf. My second choice of deck involved Garruk Wildspeaker and Liliana Vess. Those were not only expensive, but sold out everywhere around here.
More important, while I was out here in Denver, we also had a PTQ in Madison. That made borrowing cards difficult.
However, as I mentioned last week, Extended decks are expensive. The good ones are well over $500. Even the bad ones are close to that amount.
It’s great for Wizards to make money, but it is not good for players to be unable to afford decks.
The Extended Format:
Okay, I cannot complain about this. The format is great. I saw a ton of decks. The TO has the Top 8 decklists, and they should appear shortly, but I did get the rest of the decklists. The format is really healthy. No archetype dominated — and few even topped ten percent of the format. Here’s a breakdown (although I missed a couple of the Top 8 decks.)
RG Aggro (most w/ Countryside Crusher): 11
Death Cloud Rock: 7
Next Level Blue: 7
Goblins: 7 (2 w/ Patriarch’s Bidding)
Enduring Ideal: 6
Mind’s Desire & Heartbeat (some overlap): 6
Flow Rock: 4
Mono-Black discard: 4
Spire Golem Blue: 3
RGB Aggro: 3
Contested Cliffs: 3
Rock / Gifts Rock: 2 or 3, depending on how you classify these strange GBx builds
Cephalid Death: 2
Reveillark Combo: 2
Psychatog / GAT: 2
Astral Slide: 2
Underworld Dreams / Teferi’s Puzzlebox: 2
Scepter Chant: 2 (both nontraditional — one with Maralen and Shadow of Doubt for the Scepter)
Battle of Wits: 1 (but finished tenth, missing T8 on tiebreakers)
And lots of others.
I saw a Wildfire deck, a Reanimator build, Pyromancer’s Swath combo, Scapeshift / Cloudpost, GBW aggro, a Mono-Red Crusher build, and on and on. It was really a varied format.
I lost to — I’m embarrassed to say this — a Tempting Wurm deck. Round 2. I mulliganed to five on the draw, and he opened with Duress, Cabal Therapy for two cards, then an Ebony Charm to kill my Birds. I drew nothing, and he dropped two Tempting Wurms. I killed one, and the other killed me.
I can’t rant about that. It was bad luck on my part, but that happens. I do have a rant — or maybe a question — about the tournament structure, however.
Why Play a Top 8?
Constructed PTQs include a number of rounds of Swiss play — in Denver we played eight rounds — followed by a single elimination Top 8. Other tournaments, like those played in side events at Pro Tours, gaming conventions like GenCon and in side events at Worlds, use Swiss plus one, with no Top 8. In those tournaments, prizes are awarded based on records. The additional round makes it extremely unlikely that the top slots are decided on tiebreakers.
Let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages of both proposals.
Swiss plus one would allow more players to play more Magic. In Denver, we had almost sixty players still in the tournament at the end. suspect most of those players might have played another round, if they could have. As I discussed above, PTQs have dual purposes: they select a player to go to the Pro Tour, and they entertain a lot of players. Entertainment is an important part, and another round would serve that end.
Swiss plus one would end the debate over intentional draws. They would also pretty much eliminate concessions in the final rounds. After all, in Swiss plus one, every match counts. The winner will probably have to go undefeated throughout the tournament, not just win the first six rounds, then draw twice, then win out in the Top 8.
Now, intentional draws are perfectly legal, but a lot of players really dislike the practice. Intentional draws also create a lot of problems for judges — as do concessions. Judges spend the last round listening hard for collusion — and disqualifying players that say or offer the wrong things.
That is not insignificant.
The Top 8 is a significant accomplishment, and I am kinda proud of my collection of Top 8 pins. Eliminating would — even if the pins were still given out – lessen that criterion. It would also eliminate the drama and spectacle of the Top 8 playoffs. (Although I have often watched Top 8s where the only spectators were the judges.)
Tiebreakers are a wash. A Top 8 playoff has clear winners and losers. No one passed another player on tiebreakers in a single elimination Top 8. Of course, that merely means that the tiebreakers distinguish Top 8 from ninth. That is not much better — and I can state that clearly, since I have placed ninth as often as I have made Top 8. (Four and Four.)
Swiss plus one would also mean that tournaments end earlier. I know that sounds like something only a judge would desire, but it is important. I have finished Top 8s in the wee hours of the morning, and then had to get food and drive home. It is neither fn nor safe — especially when I have been playing in the Top 8. Both judging and playing are mentally taxing — playing usually moreso — and the drive home afterwards is tough.
The fatigue factor means that player play badly in the Top 8. Seriously.
In one of his classic tournament reports, “It’s All About The Dinosaurs,” Jamie Wakefield makes the point quite well.
Let me just take a minute to address something. I made probably 5-10 mistakes throughout the Top 8, and I’ll tell you, I didn’t make that many mistakes in all my previous matches throughout the day. So, when you see someone make a dumb play in the Top 8 and you think “How did this guy get here?” you need to understand a few things.
Most people, me included, are not used to having a crowd watch them play. Many, like me, have been up for about 18 hours already. The pressure of trying to make the number one slot, with judges watching every move, is more stress.
Yes, this is what top level Magic is all about, and it is the guy who screws up less with the best deck that qualifies. But if you see a guy screw up and think “How did he get here?” Well, the answer is he probably played better in the Swiss.
Bad plays happen in the final rounds — and I think that’s a really good reason to change from Top 8 to Swiss plus one, at least for Constructed tournaments. (Limited, with a Top 8 draft, does emphasize other skills, and that alone may justify a Top 8.)
Take the final game of the Denver PTQ. I am not blaming either player, since they both played well enough to make the finals. I’m just noting that, after playing for over 12 hours, they were tired.
It’s game 3, with RGB Good Stuff Aggro verses Enduring Ideal. The RGB deck was really interesting, with maindeck Armadillo Cloaks and so forth, and I’m looking forward to seeing the decklist. The Ideal deck was reasonably standard, I think.
The RGB had resolved a Viridian Zealot and a Rule of Law. Ideal had enough lands to generate 5 mana, including saccing the Invasion lands. The first questionable play, in my opinion, was when RGB blew the Zealot to kill a Lotus Bloom. That did slow down Ideal, but only two turns. More importantly, RGB had no other offense, so the slow down did nothing.
Two turns later, Ideal resolved its signature spell and fetched a Dovescape. RGB played a Viridian Zealot and passed. Ideal had five irrelevant cards in hand. RGB had two Extirpates and a Krosan Grip. Because of Rule of Law, RGB can play nothing else, and passes with four lands untapped.
Think about it — do you see the correct play? RGB did not.
I think the correct play is to let Ideal put the Epic trigger on the stack, then blow the Zealot to kill the Dovescape, then Extirpate it. That means that the Krosan Grip can kill Form of the Dragon, and then it can be Extirpated on the next turn. With Form gone, Ideal will have a hard time winning.
RGB let the Epic trigger resolve, and Ideal got a second Dovescape.
RGB had won an earlier game by waiting until Form had reduced his opponent’s life total, then casting several instants to make 6 tokens, then flying over for the win. Maybe he expected to do that again, but with Rule of Law out, that could be difficult. More importantly, Ideal does run Pernicious Deed, which can take care of the tokens.
At that point, I moved away from the match to discuss the play with a couple other players who were also grimacing over the mistake. By the time I got back, the Ideal player had searched out two copies of Solitary Confinement, and was searching out a Form of the Dragon. (His opponent had Troll Ascetic and some dove tokens.) The Ideal player finished searching. He had his library in one hand and his hand in the other — and he shuffled the two together.
Players get tired, and they make mistakes. It was a clear mistake. Unfortunately, the penalty for this mistake is clear — warning for game play error — and the player has to play with no hand. The DCI policy is very clear that judges not try to recreate the player’s hand, even if they are reasonably sure what it might have contained. You just don’t do it.
Without a hand, the Solitary Confinements hit the graveyard the next turn (since he could not pay the upkeep), and he died to a swarm of dove tokens.
Mistakes happen, even to good players (remember a Pro casting a second Mindslaver at the Invitational?) I’m not trying to slam these players — I’m just arguing that players make mistakes in the later rounds. Eliminating the Top 8 in Constructed matches would lessen these a bit (although players would still be tired in the last rounds of Swiss plus one.)
Just a thought.
I think I need to finish this with a rant about deadlines. They come too quickly.
“one million words” on MTGO.