We’re All To Blame: A Prost Mortem

How did pro Magic go so wrong, so quickly? Brad Nelson has an insider’s view that shows the fall was a long time coming, with plenty of blame to go around.

Anger, illustrated by Svetlin Velinov

Any opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect those of Star City Games or my peers within the Rivals and Magic Pro League (MPL) system.

It’s been about a week now since Wizards of the Coast (WotC) announced “the death of Pro Magic.” This decision felt like a long time coming, and honestly didn’t surprise me. Still, the first couple days were very emotional as I parsed through social media, read articles, listened to podcasts, and eventually collected my own thoughts. I just couldn’t shake the guttural sadness that the biggest chapter in my life thus far was closing. 

As these few days have passed, so has my dramatic outlook on things. Magic isn’t dying, and neither is competitive play. The top players might not be getting salaries, invitation fees, or whatever benchmarks we considered being a Pro was, but for most of my career those incentives didn’t really define me anyway. Sure the $5,000-$20,000/yr. was very much appreciated, but it simply supplemented my jet-setting lifestyle. Content creation was always my constant before the MPL, and most likely will be again while I figure everything else out. 

This does however feel like a step backwards, because quite honestly it is. Well, for those within the system anyway. For a growing game like Magic, it’s most likely the best decision the company can make. It’s easy for us to blame this on a combination of corporate greed and bad decisions, but that’s only telling part of the story. Some of the blame is on us; the competitive community, the content creators, and the members of Rivals and the MPL.

I’m going to keep it real with y’all today: we’re not an easy community to please. Not just in recent years either, but for most of the time I’ve been here. Many unique voices from all over the world, including my own, always hyper-critical of every aspect of every decision that comes out of WotC. Year after year Organized Play iterated on systems, trying to please as much of the community as possible with their allotted budgets, and year after year, collectively we were unhappy.

All Is Fair in Love and War (and Quarterly Shareholder Reports)

At the time I totally backed my community in their outspoken claims that certain areas of the world had a more difficult time interacting with competitive Magic than, say, I did in the United States. I was all for fairness in this department, and didn’t want me getting Platinum to be easier than parts of Asia and Brazil. It never dawned on me to think about the business side of things, and why maybe that’s the case in the first place.

The Pro Tour is very special to a lot of us, and because of that I do think we look back at it with rose-colored glasses. If I remember correctly, there were a lot of times we were very upset with WotC for a variety of reasons that I really just don’t think we were entitled to be upset about.

  • Where the tournaments were located.
  • What our benefits should look like.
  • How much the prize pool should be.
  • How they spent their marketing dollars.
  • The flight costs of specific areas.
  • How many of us should have our lifestyles subsidized.

“Upset” might be the wrong word. We’re a passionate group of pretty smart people. We just wanted to help make Organized Play the best it could be for us, which is why we advocated for things. What this most likely caused though is a department constantly fighting for resources to keep a program alive that those within it weren’t even excited about.

Announcing the MPL

This all came to a head late in 2018 when WotC deployed their newest iteration of Organized Play, the MPL. This was also when I got my first taste of what it was like to be on the other side. You see, WotC called me up and effectively said, “Would you like to make bank and play Magic?” I, of course, said yes and signed the contract plus a non-disclosure agreement as quickly as I could. Well, before that, I hugged my fiancée and told her that Magic was on its way to the next level. I truly believed it was.

I knew from the get-go that this direction was going to be awful for many of my peers outside of the Top 32 Pro Points earners from the previous system. This even hit close to home as my very own brother was one of these new outsiders sitting in 42nd on that list. I expressed my concerns to other members of the League, and it seemed like everyone I spoke with had similar concerns. We communicated to WotC that there needed to be a clear path into the system for the community we knew to engage positively with it.

That didn’t happen right away. Once the announcement became public, a divide quickly emerged between the haves and have-nots. Those within the system were genuinely excited about the idea that competitive Magic was going to get the influx of cash to finally match games like Hearthstone, and those outside of it were pretty upset about how everything shook out. This, of course, was totally understandable given the circumstances.

Fed to the Wolves

What came next really sucked: we all went to Twitter. There the members of the MPL Tweeted about how awesome things were, those negatively affected aired their grievances, and those who profited off the commentary voiced their own opinions. This resulted in a whole lot of bickering and hurt feelings, leaving the larger community and fans pretty sick of all of us. All this was taking place shortly after another wonderful Hall of Fame voting season (and we all know how those go).

Obviously I could have ignored all of this negativity, but it’s not like that was an easy thing to do in the moment. These were (and still are!) my friends, my peers, my community members, and the people I’ve been competing with for years at this point. I felt for them, but I also was in the position to help usher Pro Magic into the mainstream. I felt like if I worked hard in front of a camera and in the meetings WotC allowed me to be a part of, that this tide would rise for more than just the initial 32 of us.

Things quickly got toxic. Members of our community compared the MPL to the petite bourgeoisie, and the phrase “Eat the MPL” began heavily circulating. All of a sudden, defending WotC for what they were trying to accomplish, and generally just being excited about the events/activities we were doing, met with a lot of negative responses. I felt like an outsider, and the efforts I made to interact in the general discourse were met with extremely negative attacks that ultimately made me want to stop engaging with the general community and instead focus on the communities I was cultivating — the Bash Bros Podcast Discord and my Twitch community. 

I wasn’t alone in this either. Many of the other members of the MPL stopped engaging on social media altogether. Instead, we talked internally amongst ourselves and put more focus on the platforms of communication WotC had set up for us. There we threw out ideas for WotC staff and tried to make a difference outside of the public eye.

Marketing and Me

Looking back, I think this is exactly the opposite of what the majority of the MPL should have done. As contracted streamers, it was our literal job to promote this exciting opportunity. Most of us started off with high aspirations, but as time went on, our excitement dwindled. A lot of us felt beaten down for a variety of reasons and defaulted to simply going through the motions and putting most of our focus on requalification. I can’t fault anyone for doing this, as I don’t think any of us did anything wrong, but at the same time it’s really difficult to see WotC continuing a system where even those within it aren’t engaging with it. 

This one really hurts, because I think all parties involved dropped the ball here. It felt like WotC expected us to market ourselves, and we expected them to do the work for us. They never really created systems for us to create content that could have helped things out such as pre-recorded deck techs before featured weekends. Instead we constantly got asked to send in selfie-style videos about what our favorite food was.

I like all food, WotC! Stop shaming me!

There just weren’t enough resources put into marketing us on an individual level. Sure, they spent countless dollars on non-interactive ways to market us, but there’s just so many times you can cross your hands for pictures, ya know? Obviously for some marketing themselves came easily, but for a majority, it was nonexistent. 

That all makes sense because a competitive player getting into the system off merit shouldn’t be expected to be as charismatic as Luis Scott-Vargas. At the same time, we were the ones in the system that could help the entire program by continuously engaging with it. But that became increasingly more difficult as time went on and eventually embarrassing thanks to a little thing we liked to call “splits.”  

MPL League Weekends

I was really excited about MPL League Play starting up in 2019. This was the first chance for us to show the community just how big the star-building potential of the MPL was and how it will ultimately be a boon for everyone, as it would help in ushering in a new generation of online competitive players similarly to Hearthstone’s Grand Master series. They had great commentators lined up recording from a studio in Burbank, California with tons of great matches between the best of the best. How could it fail?

I never accounted for just how convoluted the system was. The general audience had no clue what we were playing for. Almost every slide on screen had an error and some of the recorded matches had issues. I was embarrassed, insulted, and furious. Other members shared in those same feelings and we collectively tried to get things fixed for future weekends, but had no control in helping right this ship.

Skipping ahead a bit, things only got worse in 2020 when COVID-19 hit. The schedule of events embarrassingly took place closer to the end of a set release cycle than at the beginning of them, which greatly impacted the excitement players could have around the decks we played. Not only did we have to test effectively dead formats, but no one cared about our decklists or what we were trying to accomplish since it had no impact on how they interacted with competitive Magic. 

WotC really screwed up here. There’s no denying that. League play from start to finish was completely botched through and through. For sure there was a good product in there somewhere, but it never got the opportunity to breathe, as everything felt rushed and poorly executed.

The Cost of Arena

This one’s pretty simple to look back at in retrospect, but not something I considered early in 2019. It was just so easy to draw comparisons to Hearthstone with how robust their esports organization looked. As time went on, though, it made perfect sense why Arena would never really break into this market. It continuously got more and more expensive to keep up.

Maybe if there’s only four set releases a year, but with all these Anthology products, Remastered releases, and things like the Mystical Archive, how can anyone hope to keep up? Esports are generally cheap games with skins as a key monetization point, and Magic is a luxury hobby. How in the hell are we going to get all these new bodies to engage with competitive Magic if the initial investment is close to four digits and there’s no clear way into the system? 

Back to the Drawing Board

So here we are. WotC is graciously going to pay out the members of Rivals and the MPL for one final ceremonial season. They gave us this information with plenty of lead time to make other arrangements if we so choose and are honoring the hard work of the twelve people that will eventually make their way into the system. I, for one, am very happy and thankful they did this. It would look really bad if they didn’t, but still, it’s nice it’s happening. 

But I’m not going to lie. I was very angry when their announcement about the future of professional Magic first came out. I truly believe that there were so so so many bad decisions made that caused pro Magic’s runway to burn up so quickly, and every fiber of my being wanted to hold WotC’s feet to the fire for this mishandling. I’m really glad I didn’t do that though, and took enough time to reflect on everything. I listened to every podcast, read every article, and watched a lot of it unfold on social media. 

Because at the end of the day, we’re also to blame.

We’re constantly unhappy with every system WotC creates, always wanting things to change, and yet never targeting our energy in the correct places. Just think about it. Do you think Blake Rasmussen is an enemy of competitive play? If he was, why would he do Weekly MTG? Why would he have done that Q&A? If he truly was the antagonist of competitive play, he wouldn’t be out on social media talking with us about it.

The people behind WotC’s social media accounts are not our enemy. Sure they might have a bad take or post something a little tone-deaf, but why does the Twitter community always have to go for their throat? Why does every post from a WotC brand account have dozens of negative replies about random grievances? 

I promise you that a lot of employees at WotC love and support competitive Magic. Remember: a lot of them did the same things we’re doing now! These people care, and yet are the ones we target most of our vitriol at because they’re in front of us. Why?

I understand being mad, I really do. There’s a lot going on right now to complicate the world we’ve built in this space. It really does feel like times are changing, and the little area of the game we carved out for ourselves is getting smaller and smaller. For that, I wish I could give you some solace, but I can’t. I’m nervous as well. I just don’t think we should be blasting from the hip every time we’re upset about something. Especially at those within the company that have been our biggest proponents this entire time.

Lessons Learned 

I’m glad I now have a very nuanced take on how things played out these past few years. I’m thankful for all the projects I got to be a part of like being on the live show for the War of the Spark panel. I loved getting to talk with Sean Plott at Mythic Invitationals, and roping Kanister in the finals of one of them. I have a lot of fond memories I’ll cherish for a very long time.

I’ve also had a lot of bad ones.

Like reading what people had to say about me on “private Twitter” because I defended the MPL. I’ve cried many times dealing with the stress and anxiety that came with feeling distanced from the only community I ever felt comfortable in. 

As for my future in Magic and the community, I really don’t know what’s going to happen. For about half a year now, my plan was to move back to Roanoke to be closer to Corey and make content with him. I still plan to do that, and have a lot of awesome plans in the holster that I hope people enjoy. Regardless, I just can’t wait to get to hang out and work with my brother. 

Before then, my plan is to live stream my preparation for the Strixhaven Championship. I no longer feel a lot of pressure to do well this season, and I’ve missed streaming. I don’t think streaming is my next career move or anything, but I really could use some more time with my community. I’ve missed them. 

I hope your biggest takeaway from today isn’t that I believe the bulk of the blame falls on us because it doesn’t. Still, I think we’ve been very unfair to the employees at WotC that have worked hard on keeping competitive Magic something Hasbro will invest resources into. Have they made mistakes? Of course, and there’s no way the next system will flourish with that same level of negligence, but I think they already know that.

I get things are kind of ridiculous right now, and what happened this past weekend with the Strixhaven Championship Qualifier was absurd. Still, these are the mistakes of humans. They deserve treatment as such. I’m not saying they deserve a pass or anything, but the way we engage is relevant and should be considered delicately. 

Just think. If we never change our behavior about every little thing they do that upsets us, those allies we still have in that building will simply stop going to bat for us and start making more Commander cards. And who in their right mind would want that?!