The Pro Tour is back!
We knew there would be big news yesterday. As much as we like to joke about Wizards of the Coast (WotC) pre-announcing their announcements, yesterday’s bombshell was hyped up more than anything I’ve seen in a while.
The reaction to the MTG Arena economy stream last week showed just how important expectations management is. From a public relations perspective, today could have been anything from a disaster to a triumph.
The response was refreshingly positive. Everyone involved needs time to digest the details of this new era of paper play, but I’ll share my stream of consciousness as I worked through this myself.
What’s in a Name?
What does the ‘Pro Tour’ mean to you? If you’ve spent your weekends in overcrowded local game stores and hotel ballrooms, chasing an invite, or glued to the coverage at home, it’s the dream that motivates you. For the players skilled and fortunate enough to succeed at that level, it’s the focal point of a competitive career. Official bookkeeping may bundle a Pro Tour Top 8 with who knows what else as a painfully generic ‘Top Finish,’ but for players on the Sunday stage, it’s a career-defining achievement that used to be the main currency of Hall of Fame arguments.
What does that name mean to everyone else? There’s a reason every competitive endeavour has National Championships and a World Championship.You know that being the World Champion in something is an amazing achievement, even if you have no clue what that thing is! ‘Pro Tour’ doesn’t have the same automatic cachet, but you get the gist. This is a serious, professional event that its participants, and therefore you, should take seriously.
Contrast that with the bland ‘Set Championship’ or woeful ‘Mythic Championship,’ a name that somehow seemed to take itself far too seriously and not seriously enough at the same time. It’s no surprise that Flesh and Blood quickly adopted the ‘Pro Tour’ label and wouldn’t touch the word ‘Mythic.’
That name now has decades of history rolled up in it, and returning to that brand is a free and easy move that will generate the goodwill this new system needs. If the system itself falls flat, calling it the Pro Tour may become an insult. For now, though, we get to revel in the news that the Pro Tour is back.
Play the Game, See the World
Part of the Pro Tour’s appeal was its international character. You weren’t just facing the biggest fish in your local pond; you were up against the best of the best from across the world. For many younger players, traveling to a Pro Tour was their first reason to obtain a passport and their first opportunity to see parts of the world they would never visit otherwise.
This was also a tricky logistical problem for Organized Play. Flying hundreds of players to Hawaii or Australia or Japan – the locations appealing enough to be a selling point in their own right – burned a hole in a budget that could (hypothetically…) be diverted to the prize pool. If those players had to pay their own way instead, this suddenly became a problem rather than a perk for many.
The last time the Pro Tour went to Australia, that was barely present in the Pro Tour’s marketing (even though there are few better ways to legitimize the game to a friend or relative than ‘they are flying me to Australia to play in a tournament’!), and visa issues stopped many players from attending at all. There are also institutional barriers making it hard or impossible for players in some countries to attend a Pro Tour in another. The pandemic threw these issues into sharp relief and presents a unique and formidable barrier to the Pro Tour as a global event.
The Regional Play Solution
With this in mind, there is a clear need for a stable, regional level of high-stakes competition. Paper play was already heading in this direction pre-pandemic with the Regional Players Tour. This got mixed reviews at the time, but we only saw one round of events with that system and never got to see the paper Players Tour Finals it was building towards. This also took place in the context of widespread discontent with the MPL/Rivals system replacing the previous Pro Tour structure, which staggered on as a zombie for most of that year. In that context, this short-lived system would always be greeted with scepticism.
This reboot comes at a better time and also displays more awareness of its regional nature. When World Championship slots and Grand Prix locations were assigned by region, these boundaries were confusing, most famously a ‘Latin America’ region that lumped Brazil, Mexico, and Chile together to the surprise of its inhabitants. There are some curiosities here – Would a ‘Chinese Taipei’ by any other name be treated as its own entity? Why do some regions have many more or fewer slots than others relative to their population? – but this more detailed system should be more accessible for some smaller countries and communities.
For this system to work, these Regional Championships need to feel like exciting events in their own right, rather than a mere stepping stone to the Pro Tour. Near the top of my wishlist for this announcement was a return of Nationals, a guaranteed highlight of any competitive player’s calendar. In single-country regions like the United States or Canada, this will effectively be a more prestigious Nationals; in larger regions, this will hopefully capture that same vibe.
Get a Real Job?
Last year, WotC announced the official death of professional Magic. The MPL/Rivals system was wound down, and they stated explicitly that, when something new did replace it, players should not expect to make a career out of playing in Magic tournaments.
This announcement exceeded expectations for most players, but that philosophy remains in place. You can chain together invites for tournaments with impressive prize pools, but there is no analogue for the Pro Players Club or Gold/Platinum status here. Back when those rewards did exist, only a tiny handful of players ever made a sustainable profit just from playing Magic; others made a name for themselves there as a springboard for a more stable position in content creation or as a networking device for a conventional career. It’s safe to say those benefits only accrued to a small minority. This new beginning is a good chance for an honest conversation about the state of pro play in the past without the burden of nostalgia.
On the Grind
Instead of a professional Magic player, how about professionals who are Magic players? Though there is always new blood coming into the game and the Zoomers are already dominating at every level of competition they are allowed to play, on balance the competitive crowd is aging. Someone who was at the younger end grinding Preliminary PTQs every weekend in college back in 2015 is now in their mid-20s with more demands on their time – and the old guard back then is even older now. If these players are going to devote a full day or weekend to Magic, they want that to be worth it. Events like Grand Prix or a large, traditional PTQ where you are likely to see your friends can scratch that itch. The average Regional Championship Qualifier, the equivalent of a PPTQ in that era, will not.
This focus on in-store play as the basic unit of competition makes sense on some level, but those past experiences are worth remembering. I’m lucky enough to live in a large city with many accessible, well-run stores – back then, I was in a small town in rural England that didn’t even have its own store. Chasing that RPTQ invite meant feeling obliged to travel to small, shabby stores that you wouldn’t visit voluntarily for a tournament where any outcome other than first place often felt like a waste of your time. If your area doesn’t have a vibrant Magic scene already, this announcement is unlikely to broaden your horizons.
A Missing Link
Events like Grand Prix or MagicFests feel like the missing link here – large conventions and celebrations of Magic that hook into Organized Play. The focus moved away from competitive play by the end, but having some way to qualify for the Regional Championship, if not the Pro Tour, through this route would be a welcome addition. The Regional Championship might act as a replacement of sorts if surrounded by enough open events or incentives to attend, but the experience of attending your local(-ish) Grand Prix, meeting your favourite players, playing your first large tournament, and feeling motivated to start battling is a valuable one. Third-party events like SCG CON or MTG Las Vegas last year can fill this gap, but could use invites as incentives to draw that crowd.
In the follow-up Q&A with William Jensen on the Weekly MTG stream, the most common response was, “Ask your regional organizer.” These organizers have a lot of discretionary power over aspects of this system – holding everything else constant, my experiences as a player in Europe and a player in the US or Canada may be very different now. This allows for a flexibility in meeting local demands that was sometimes lacking in the past, but may also create odd loopholes or discontinuities as each separate organizer figures out how to handle this new challenge. Identifying who is accountable if something does go wrong isn’t trivial here.
A Pro Tour Reborn
The pandemic crippled an Organized Play system that seemed to have no clear sense of direction and was explicitly prioritizing digital play at the expense of paper. The handling of the MPL/Rivals system during that time erased any remaining confidence I had in the sustainability of competitive Magic. In that context, the return of official paper play was a welcome surprise in itself and the details leave me – however cautiously – more optimistic and excited to battle than I have been in a long time.
The Pro Tour is dead. Long live the Pro Tour!