Technically, 2008 was Wizard’s “year of acquisition,” but the push has continued. Wizards has a lot of programs to get people playing Magic, and they seem to be working well. Usually an economic downturn is a disaster for gaming companies, but Magic is growing. Well done, Wizards, and well done to the TOs that are equally responsible.
It wasn’t always this way.
Several years ago, I wrote about the lack of tournaments. We had Arena leagues on the local level, a bit of Friday Night Magic, and PTQs. We wanted more, but there wasn’t much.
I remember a lot of discussions on how to get more PTQs, but that just isn’t possible. PTQs feed Pro Tours, and Pro Tours have a maximum attendance. The events run well with 300-400 players. If you get significantly more than that, you need more rounds, you get more players missing Top 8 on tiebreakers, and the logistics become harder. More importantly, Wizards has to provide travel awards for PTQ winners, and that becomes expensive. Right now, the costs and benefits of Pro Tours are in Wizards favor. Adding a significant number of PTQs could shift that.
A long, long time ago, we had more PTQs in Madison / Wisconsin area. Later, as the number of Pro Tours dropped, and the PTQs were spread more evenly around the world, we got fewer PTQs. We had PTQs, Prereleases, and FNM. That was about it.
On and off, we would also have Grand Prix Trials. Some of these were well attended; others, not so much. I remember the last sealed GPT at the original Misty Mountain store. Nine of us played to see which one would not be in the Top 8 draft. I’m sure that the store lost a bundle on that — as did Wizards, since they supplied a fairly large number of boosters to be given away as prizes.
After the age of that debacle, stores ran a lot fewer GPTs. Eventually, Wizards started offering generic GP Trials at big events. If you win a generic GPT, you get a three-round bye usable at any Grand Prix. A nice fix, but those GPTs are generally only run at Pro Tours, U.S. Nationals, Worlds and the like. They are not a solution for getting more local players into the tournament scene.
StarCityGames.com was the first tournament organizer to find a way to break out of this trap. SCG ran a $5k tournament — a (hopefully) large event with a significant cash prize. It was a gamble — SCG had to sink a lot of money into the event in advance, with no guarantee that they would recoup their costs. Planning, renting the hall, tables, judges, scorekeeper, equipment, advertising, banners, logistics — running a big event is neither cheap nor simple. Had a dozen players shown up for the first $5k, SCG might well have lost a bundle, and the idea would have disappeared.
It didn’t, of course. The SCG $5ks have proven very popular, and pros and more casual players are attending in huge numbers. (SCG has upgraded the events even further, and is now staging them as a series of open events, followed by a big-money championship. The full details are here.)
The SCG events are so successful that other TOs have started offering $5ks as well. Wizards has also given their support — they are providing judge foils for judges at such events, and presumably other assistance. Wizards knows that events like the $5ks help their brand, so they assist in return.
That thinking may be obvious, but it is hardly universal. I have been involved with a number of companies and organizations. Some do take the position that anything that outsiders can do to help is welcome. Others want to tightly control all aspects of their product and image, and will not allow any outside activities without having extensive control and oversight. That view is usually so stifling that outsiders move on to other activities, and the company is forced to go it alone — which is almost always a loss. Thankfully, Wizards seems to be more of the former than the latter.
Of course, Wizards is not going to approve of everything anyone might do to “benefit” Magic. A few years ago, at U.S. Nationals, a local radio shock jock thought it would be funny to bring some strippers down to the Junior Super Series tournament. Strippers and little kids are not a good mix.
Getting back to innovative Magic events, Legion Events may have dreamed up one of the best — the Magic Cruise. This is a multi-day, multi-format tournament (plus side events) held on a cruise ship. This year the cruise runs from Florida to Jamaica and back. Everyone who attended thought it was a great event — I’m bummed that I cannot make it.
Legion Events has started other traditions. For as long as I can remember, the winner of Wisconsin and Minnesota State Championships have received free entry into all Constructed PTQs and GPTs in their states for a year. That practice has now become fairly universal, as part of the revived state/provincial championships called the2009s. The resurrection of States is another story of TOs banding together. Wizards originally supported the events, but they simply did not provide enough of the benefits to Wizards to justify the expense and effort, so Wizards cut them. For the TOs, however, the events did prove worthwhile, so they resurrected them.
Regional TOs are cooperating in other ways. The most recent example is the Midwest Masters Series — a series of events paying out $4k per event, plus a 4 day GenCon badge and an invite to a $10k event at GenCon. The events will be held around the Midwest between now and GenCon in August.
The secret to these events — the Magic Cruise, the $5ks, and the Midwest Masters Series — is that they have established a reputation for being consistently well run and well attended. The two go hand in hand. The guys running Legion and SCG events have been doing this for a long time, and the TOs are willing to spend the money for decent venues, a quality judging staff, etc. (Generally decent venues — everyone gets stuck in something sub-optimal once in a while. The side events at PT: Hollywood were examples.)
These are great examples of tournaments that fill in the holes between PTQs and GPs, and it is great that they attract pros. Sam Black wrote about filling in his Magic calendar recently, and he talked about adding the $5ks. That’s great, but Wizards was not just looking to attract more pros. A significant part of the Wizards Acquisition Strategy was aimed at a lower level of players, so the events and efforts were aimed at a more local level.
One portion was City Champs — an idea that had worked quite well in Europe. The basic idea was to hold a series of tournaments, and track finishes. The player with the best cumulative record / number of points at the end of the series was the Champ.
That effort failed.
It worked well in Europe, where people live closer together, and public transit works well. In the U.S., however, these became more like regional races, with events scattered among several cities. In my local city champs, events occurred in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. On weeknights. It just wasn’t feasible to work all day, then drive three hours to get to a tournament starting at 5:30, play for four hours or so, drive back and go to work again the next day. In other areas, the round trips were hundreds of miles. Too far, for too little — and the City Champs were discontinued.
Another big change was to prereleases. A lot has already been said about this, but the short version is that all stores were given the chance to run prereleases — not just the big premier TOs. This was a significant financial hit to the large TOs, but the small stores did well and a lot more local players participate in prereleases as a result.
From my own perspective, the biggest change of all, however, was the creation of the Wizards Play Network. With the WPN, Wizards made it much easier to become a tournament organizer and run your own events. Sanctioning the events is simple and straightforward. Basically, if you run events in a public space, and can announce them ahead of time, you can get them sanctioned.
Better yet, as an organizer, you can get foils to use as prizes and/or play rewards for the participants in these tournaments.
The rewards program has had at least two effects in Madison (that I know of). The first is that Misty Mountain Games has started running Standard events on Tuesday nights. The tournaments are free to enter, and players with winning records get random foils.
The second effect is that I have started running events at Pegasus Games on Thursday nights. The events have included Pauper Constructed, Pauper drafts and 2HG open events. These are also free, and award foils to participants (while supplies last). Recently, the preference has been for 2HG events, with teams chosen semi-randomly. (Ground rules — no coordinated decks: if you both bring Slivers, you will get new partners.) These events have introduced a lot of casual players to tournaments. I have given out dozens of new DCI numbers, and many of those players have then played in Prereleases, Launch Parties, FNMs and even PTQs. The upgrade path works.
I’m not saying that everything Wizards has done this year, either for the WPN or the program as a whole, is great. The new Wizards forums and community website — well, if you’ve been there, you know. As an experienced judge, I’m also disappointed with the new Wizards Event Reporter, although, the new software is a whole lot easier for a new judge or TO to handle than the older DCI-R. Overall, though, it’s a pretty good average.
“one million words” on MTGO
PS: I got home today, and my Zendikar Gateway kit was waiting for me. It’s what Wizards sends to basic level TOs: blank DCI cards, some posters, information kits, and 6 packs of foils. Three packs are alternative art foil Vampire Nighthawks, so it looks like the foils will indeed last, and that the players will be pretty happy with their rewards.