Insider Trading – Are Proxies Hurting Vintage Tournament Attendance?

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Friday, January 16th – Are Proxies hurting Vintage tournament attendance? In today’s article, Ben states his argument about why he believes this is the case!

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Insider Trading! This past week, Pete Hoefling announced that we are expanding the StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open to ten cities this year. This was met with a lot of excitement, but also elicited a couple of people to ask, in our forums, about our support of Vintage.

M. Solymossy: “Any love for us Vintage players?”

The answer? It’s complicated. Our last Power Nine Vintage Tournament was back in May of 2008. This does not mean that we have abandoned our Vintage support; however, attendance was not where we wanted it to be for these events, and all trends indicated this was unlikely to improve without change. I couldn’t tell you exactly what needs to change (if I knew with certainty, we’d already be scheduling more high-end Vintage tournaments!), but one major thought revolves around the issue of proxies.

When we ran our first couple of Power Nine events (back in 2004), we allowed five proxies per player per event. This was quickly expanded to ten per player per event. The main argument for allowing proxies? It would make the format more accessible to people, allowing for a higher tournament attendance. The argument goes that Vintage can be expensive to play, what with all of the Moxes and such needed to be competitive. If we allowed people to proxy ten cards in their deck, the remaining 65 cards (with sideboard) should be more affordable, which in turn would draw more people to our tournaments.

While this seems fine in theory, the evidence I’ve seen seems to indicate this practice does not work in reality. In fact, I would even go so far as to argue that allowing proxies hurts Vintage attendance in the long-term. This is a bold claim to make — allow me to back it up with some arguments and evidence.

European Attendance versus U.S. Attendance

Large-scale American Vintage events draw 100-150 players, or thereabouts. Large-scale European Vintage events draw around 200-300 players. There are a couple of major differences between American and European Vintage events, but they boil down to the following:

• The infrastructure of Europe.
• Proxies are allowed in the States. Proxies are not allowed in Europe.

The infrastructure of Europe is huge for tournament attendance. The cost of travel (flying, or by train commonly) is much lower than the cost to travel in the United States, and often there are many more direct routes than you would find in North America. This makes it easier for players to attend events in general, and accounts for the high attendance increase between European and American Grand Prix events.

However, having been to a few European Vintage Events, I can say that the two-to-one attendance spread does not come solely from the superior European infrastructure. Yes, it helps — but the majority (75-80%) of players at these events are within 1-5 hours driving (or by train) from these events. If you’re running a Vintage event in/around the Northeast (Boston, Philadelphia, NYC), you have several major epicenters that are the same distance: those three aforementioned cities, along with all of New Jersey, Washington DC, and Baltimore. By population, a tournament in Northern Italy or in France should be pulling from a lesser population center than the Northeastern United States.

The population of France is 60 million people.

The population of Italy is 58 million people.

The majority (75-80%) of people attending major Vintage tournaments in these countries are from that respective country.

The population of the states in the Northeast United States is 59.6 Million (New York: 19.4 Million. PA: 12.4 Million. New Jersey: 8.6 Million. Massachusetts: 6.4 Million. Maryland: 5.6 Million. Connecticut: 3.5 Million. Maine: 1.3 Million. New Hampshire: 1.3 Million. Vermont: 0.6 Million. Washington DC: 0.5 Million).

So while I do think that infrastructure plays some factor here, it certainly does not account for the two-to-one spread. That leaves proxies versus no proxies — and while this in-and-of itself isn’t a direct argument for the lack of proxies helping attendance, it is important to point out that the opposite (a good European infrastructure or population density helping attendance) is not necessarily the case when compared to United States tournaments.

Proxies Devalue Vintage Cards

This is inevitably the case; let’s say you own a playset of everything in Magic, or one-of all the restricted cards (Black Lotus, the Moxes, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall). If you’re playing in a 10-proxy tournament, it makes sense to use proxies for the ten most expensive cards in your deck, so that you save wear and tear on your “real” versions of these cards. And the extension of that — if you own a Black Lotus, and every conceivable tournament you’re playing in allows proxies (which is pretty much every tournament in the United States) — means that you’re probably better off selling that Black Lotus for money, since it isn’t doing anything other than sitting in your folder, tying up your hard-earned cash.

In the end, the ten most-valuable cards in your Vintage collection end up paradoxically being the ten least valuable, since you don’t need them and you aren’t using them. So for someone who owns a lot of cards, the addition of proxies devalues their collection.

What about people who don’t own the cards, and use Proxies to fill out a deck? No matter what deck you’re playing, three of the cards (Mox Sapphire, Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus) are likely to be in your deck, so that leaves seven proxy slots. Are those for a playset of Mishra’s Workshop and Strategic Plannings? Two Moxes, four Mana Drains, and one “other”…? Proxies are still going to be filling in mainly for the highest-dollar cards in the format. If you can proxy four Mishra’s Workshop, would you still go out and buy this card? Chances are no, and I’ve seen many of the hardcore Vintage tournament players in the United States sell their highest-end cards for this reason, glutting the market and driving prices down in general. This leads us to:

Proxies Devalue Vintage Prizes

One of the struggles we had with the Power Nine series was giving out the Power Nine itself. The problem? The people winning the prizes generally didn’t value the prizes at “full value” because they either A) didn’t want to keep the piece of power they won because they already that piece of power, or, more often B) didn’t care about keeping that power because they were playing with proxies, and that Black Lotus/Mox/Ancestral was one of the proxies in their deck! Because proxies were being used so prevalently for the very cards we were giving out as prizes, the prizes themselves weren’t a great incentive for people to show up to a given event. We are still trying to figure out a way to address this issue, but one solution would definitely be disallowing proxies in general.

Tournaments with Proxies Can’t Be Sanctioned

This is straightforward and now more significant because Eternal ratings feed into part of the Pro Tour invite system. This would be a selling point to get competitive players to play in Vintage tournaments, except that the proxy tournaments by nature cannot be sanctioned! So this goes to waste as a way to get people to play Vintage, but definitely will feed people into Legacy in droves (I expect Grand Prix: Chicago to be tremendously well attended).

Lack of sanctioning also means that the entire United States Vintage Community is generally disenfranchised from the DCI’s Global Vintage rankings. I took a look at the top 100 ranked Vintage players worldwide; the European list was filled with currently active players. The U.S. list? Let’s just say that Vintage less-than-mainstays Tom Guevin, Steve Sadin, Zvi Mowshowitz, Chris Pikula, and Pete Leiher were still loitering towards the top of the list, despite having played Vintage back in the time when Brian Weissman was popularizing “The Deck” (i.e. a decade ago).

This has neutered, to a degree, what could be a thriving U.S./European rivalry between the top Vintage players on each side of the shore. Instead, European players get all of the DCI bragging rights, because they are playing the lion’s share of actively sanctioned tournaments. Meanwhile, the Vintage World Championships (held in the United States each year) keeps declining in attendance, as it’s the one largest non-proxy tournament in the States each year, and fewer and fewer people actually have enough cards to play in the event.

Proxies Lead to a Sense of Detachment

Ownership of Vintage cards (especially for people who are big into pimping out their decks with foreign cards, foils, and black-bordered versions of everything) is in-and-of itself a source of people wanting to play/be involved with Vintage. I’ve seen more than a few people start to let some pieces go in favor of proxies, only to fall down a slope of just not caring about their cards or their deck, and eventually Vintage, anymore.

Proxies are not real Magic cards; they may function as such during a tournament, but there’s a huge difference in feel between playing with 60 cards, or 50 cards and 10 cards that are marked with text. One of the identifiers of Magic cards is the artwork; even if you don’t speak the same language as an opponent, even if your cards are in different languages, you can usually tell what cards they are playing based on the artwork. Vintage proxies remove this avenue of communication. They also make playing harder; instead of seeing what an opponent’s playing at a glance, you have to make sure that their proxy is what they say it is each and every time, leading to potential gameplay errors and sloppiness. This also contributes to a negative experience at a tournament (i.e. “I thought he had a Mox Ruby, but it was a Sapphire! I couldn’t tell what was written on the card that well from across the table, and it looked just like the proxy he had for the Ruby from the previous game!”)

Proxies do not Bring in Many Players who Would otherwise not play Vintage

And this is the crux of the issue; the argument for proxies is that it makes Vintage more affordable, and therefore lowers the barrier of entry for people to play the format. I haven’t seen this be the case; instead, I’ve seen the already-entrenched Vintage players use proxies as an excuse to sell off their higher-dollar cards, and the same faces keep showing up from tournament to tournament. Few new people have gotten heavily into Vintage over the two years we ran our Power Nine circuit, and while I am genuinely grateful for the people who supported that tournament series, I did not see the advent of proxies (or moving from 5 to 10 proxies) correlate to extra attendance.

The fact is that Vintage is more expensive to play than any other format, even with proxies. The mainstay cards cost more, there are more of them, and there are constantly going to be new additions, whether due to restriction/unrestriction, new card sets, or metagame shifts. If you are going to make a serious run at playing Vintage, even with ten proxies, you’re going to want to invest in a set of Fetchlands, a set of Revised Dual Lands, and several other $20-$40 cards that are out there, not to mention all the $3-$10 cards from Smokestack to Quirion Dryad.

The counterargument to this is always “Well, if you play Standard, you’re probably paying $200-$250 for a competitive deck that’s only good for two years!” or something like that. Well, I’ve bought hundreds of collections over the years; not just people selling a card or two, but people selling off everything at once. Sometimes these are just cards from Standard, sometimes they are from Extended, and sometimes it’s Legacy or Vintage. Discounting any cards like the Power Nine, Mana Drain, Mishra’s Workshop, and Bazaar of Baghdad (and the like), the Vintage collections end up being worth a multiple more than those of any other format. Even if there’s the same number of cards present between someone’s Extended collection and someone else’s Vintage collection, the value of the cards, pound-for-pound, weighs more heavily on Vintage (Illusionary Mask, Berserk, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, The Abyss, Moat, Nether Void, Phyrexian Dreadnought, Lion’s Eye Diamond) than any other format.

If someone is serious about playing Vintage, and they are serious enough that they’ll travel to major events, and push people to play the format, and join in with online Vintage discussions at The Mana Drain or other sites; if they are that serious, the cost of the cards they are proxying isn’t what’s keeping them in the format. It’s the love of Vintage, and enjoyment of the format. Like it or not, Vintage costs more to play than the other Magic formats, which may keep some people from being able to play Vintage in general… however, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! The problem is that, as a whole, the American Vintage community has used the inclusion of proxies as a huge rallying point to bring new blood into their tournament scene, and in four years, not only has this not happened, but Vintage is losing players! There was never a golden age of “now that the use of proxies are widespread, we can really dramatically increase the Vintage tournament attendance across the country!” Instead, attendances stayed the same or dropped, which leads to a much larger question of “what needs to happen with Vintage to turn things around in the States?”

And I say the States, because Vintage tournament attendance keeps growing in Europe, where over 325 players were at the last Eurovino tournament in Northern Italy, and Bazaar of Moxen III gears up for a tournament in France in just a short period of time. Vintage is thriving overseas, at the same time when it is floundering here in the States. And to me, the problems of devaluation, disaffection, disassociation, and disenfranchisement are created by the use of proxies, leaving a long-term decline in the format’s success. In the short term they were supposed to bring people into the format. I fear that, in the long term, they may have done more harm than good.

Agree? Disagree? As always, I would love to hear any thoughts in the forums! I’ll see you all next week, when I take a look at the after effects of Grand Prix: Los Angeles on the Extended format, in wake of Conflux! See you in seven days!

Ben Bleiweiss