What do we do with the “bottom half”?
This past weekend at Grand Prix: Charlotte close to 2700 people attended to battle some Gatecrash sealed deck. It set records in attendance for any Grand Prix anywhere. It also brought to light the disparity between “pro” or “grinder” and “bottom half casual”. A well respected judge, Arthur Halavais, claimed it was yet another case of “casual elitism”. Where a certain segment of the playing community believe that another doesn’t or shouldn’t have the right to be there.
What makes GPs so attractive to pros is that they offer cash prizes, appearance fees, and Pro Tour points (which can be worth up to $500 each in real money). The Pro level club matters if you want to be on the “gravy train” or you want to make money being a professional Magic player. In order to get these Pro Points (which determine levels for plane tickets and invites to Pro Tours, appearance fees, and exclusive tournaments) you have to do well during the Pro season (the 3, soon to be 4 Pro Tours as well as at Grand Prix that year). It is next to impossible to get all the points you need to be in the highest levels of the Pro club without traveling, playing, and doing very well at Grand Prix.
This wasn’t such a big deal a few years back, but for 7 consecutive sets Magic has one upped each previous set. The game is more popular than it ever has been and that means a direct correlation to people trying to “live the dream” and grind their way to the top of the Pro ladder. Which means that Wizards has added more and more GPs to an already crowded schedule. This means if you are one of those “pros” that wants to stay on the train, you have to travel to at least 2 or 3 Grand Prix tournaments a month just to keep up. Not only that, you’re eating most of that cost. Now, I will argue that all of this is based on choice and I believe it shouldn’t be Wizards’ priority to make sure a small subset of players can perpetually make money playing on the Tour. The game is obviously growing, the demand for high level play is growing, and it gets easier and easier to travel to events all the time Grand Prix events used to be one of the few ways in which pros had a clear advantage over the average player. But the world is a much different place than it was even five years ago. Players are better than ever before, which can be attributed to the slathering of content which is easily and freely available. It was one thing when you were one of the top players in the world going to a Grand Prix knowing that you’re going to be at the top of the standings because only about 500 people managed to make it out to non destination city a week before Thanksgiving. Going to Grand Prix events now are like 1500 people slugfests with only so many pro points to go around. Brian Kibler, one of the more successful American pros, stated that unless the Pro club levels change or more Pro Points are added to the system. He and other top pros have stated that because of economic reasons they may not be able to travel to as many (or any) Grand Prix events.
I’m going to be quite frank for a minute. I am not a pro Magic player. That doesn’t mean I think I’m a bad player or that I couldn’t be. But the amount of time, talent, and effort it takes to become a pro Magic player is not only an incredibly high hill to climb, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can work on your game and you can can work on going to events. But if you don’t run into a string of extremely good luck, such as winning a PTQ that are getting bigger every season, making the top 8 of a 2500 Grand Prix, traveling to enough large events to get qualified by Planeswalker Points, or having a string of “just misses” that just so happen to pique the interest of Wizards for one of those hotly debated “special invites” then for most of your Magic playing experience will be just the fun and entertainment aspect. For anyone who doesn’t have a well-paying flexible job (one that lets you have multiple long weekends monthly or bi-monthly and lets you pay your bills), it is incredibly hard to pay your way to a different American city every week to get to events. It is a little bit easier if you live on the East coast to get to the population centers, but it is irrelevant to the discussion. Let’s say you do have a flexible job that affords you the traveling pro lifestyle (a stretch I realize, but go with me on it). You still have to do extremely well at each of these events just to break even or to sustain it for any period of time. That being said, no one is saying that playing Magic should be a job or that Wizards needs to do things to cater to the “traveling pro” segment of the audience.
I do think the Grand Prix structure is outdated. I don’t like the proposals that suggest that there should be another level of invites to Grand Prix. I also don’t think that there is anything necessarily wrong with large Grand Prix that start early in the morning. What I would like is a different way for pros to make those last few Pro Points that they need. The aforementioned judge, yesterday informed me that each Pro Point is basically worth about $500 because of the appearance fees, airfare, qualifications, and byes that getting to that 45 Pro Point level affords. As it has been explained to me, getting to platinum pro level means that make $250 dollars a week for every Grand Prix you attend that is before you get any kind of prize money or other prizes. You can make $11K in appearance fees and have 11 months of the year off. No, that isn’t a ton of money, but it isn’t insignificant either.
Here is the best solution I can even think of to help with pros to “stay on the gravy train”. What I propose is that some Grand Prix during each Pro Tour season are designated as “Pro Challenge” Grand Prix events. At these events, you play day 1 as you normally would. The change comes in when it cuts for day 2. If you are qualified for the upcoming Pro Tour, played in the previous Pro Tour, or are within 5 Pro Points of Gold or Platinum and you do not make the cut for Day 2, you may play in the “Sunday Challenge” event. In order for the “Sunday Challenge” event to fire it must have at least 32 players and no more than some number. Players will play in *some* amount of swiss rounds (I want to say six or seven) then cut to Top 8. The payout for this event will pay some amount of pro points to the top 4 players.
The specifics can be worked out and this is just a rough suggestion. But the idea of it is to have an event that caters to pros, doesn’t make the GP any less important, and would be entertaining and fun to watch for spectators. I love watching the Pro Tour top 8, it is by far the most interesting part of Magic coverage for me. The matches in this event would rival the top 8 of the Grand Prix itself. Which would be good for Magic coverage, the fans, and the pros. It also makes the Grand Prix fill the slot that it always has (offering a big event that anyone can enter and can play in all day if you want to).
The problem with any of these proposals is only so many people have the eye and the ear of Wizards. I believe that Wizards has some of the best social media presence of any company I’ve ever seen. You can tweet at the director of Magic Design and Development and he’ll tweet you back. You can ask the tournament director a question and more likely than not you’ll get a reply back. They have open and honest discourse with the people who care about the game the most. I remember when I “quit” Magic Online temporarily and I casually mentioned it on a web forum and I got a personal message from the Brand Manager advising me that I shouldn’t sell my cards (I shouldn’t of) and that he considered my opinion on making the game better and I would be missed. No, he didn’t have to do that. They don’t have to reply to community. They could do what a lot of companies do and just hide behind a massive corporate agency and ignore the pleas and cries of the community. Wizards won’t do that because they genuinely care about us as gamers, consumers, and players of their games.
That being said, it is much easier to be heard when you have thousands of followers because you’re a well-known pro and “personality”. The casual player, who buys more product than any other group, doesn’t always gets a word in. One of the best things I’ve read out of all of this is that a lot of players play in Grand Prix events because they get to play in one Magic event all day for one price. My friends came to Grand Prix Salt Lake City to play two-headed giant sealed. I personally scrubbed out of the main event in round 5 and joined a Standard Sealed (an event that gives you one pack of every set in Standard) and went 4-0 and won a ton of packs of cards. Not to mention I did pretty good at a lot of the side events that I played that weekend. The amount of players that play because pros are there is very small (I would argue that less than five percent of the players are there because of the pros). Most of the people, surprisingly I know, go to a large Magic event for themselves and playing in as many cool events all day as they can.
The levels of elitism and entitlement among the top, most vocal, most heard players is staggering. There were a lot of suggestions that there should be a “public” event and a “private pro” event at Grand Prix events. Not only does this go against the very idea of a large event, but is a spit in the face to players who are decent, but either can’t afford or justify traveling the country to play in Grand Prix events every week. There was a lot of slamming the “bottom half” of players in these events who play primarily for fun and to see how well they can play for themselves isn’t and shouldn’t be acceptable. The amount of pros who publicly stated that attendance would drop significantly if they didn’t attend not only shows how disconnected from the reality and fun of playing Magic and only care about their own egos and self image. I’m not saying that people don’t like to watch pros at these events (I have watched pros play at these events before). But it is far down on the list after playing actual Magic for all but a very small percentage of players.
Wizards can’t and shouldn’t cater to only one of these groups of players. Most Magic is played on kitchen tables, all night restaurant tables, and school hall floors than is played under the glitzy lights of a Pro Tour. But that doesn’t mean that pros shouldn’t have events that are more appealing to them, it just needs to make sense in the grand scheme of Magic events.
I’m not saying any solution is perfect or ideal for all player groups or even if it is viable at all. I would like to see pros continue to live the dream of playing a game for a living. I would also like to continue to see Grand Prix cater to communities as kind of a Magic: The Gathering festival. I went to Grand Prix: Salt Lake City last season and it was one of the best weekends I had playing Magic. I don’t want those experiences to go away for any player.
A special shoutout goes to @Ahalavais and @Dr_jeebus on Twitter for inspiring most of this article. You can also follow me on Twitter where I spout off my opinion the most @Urzishra.