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By: one million words, Pete Jahn
Sep 09 2016 2:00pm
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Ten Reasons Why Playing the Pro Tour Online is a Bad Idea

My current workload is making it impossible for me to do SotP at present. I should be back when Kaladesh appears. Until then, I am reworking and rerunning some older articles. This week I revive an argument that was raging 7 years ago. Hamtastic, back when he was writing SotP, proposed putting the Pro Tour competitors in front of computers and running the PT on MTGO. I disagreed. Here’s my response. The stuff written in 2009 is in normal text. My updates / comments are in italics. I also trimmed some of the more wordy / less relevant portions.
In his last State of the Program article, [Hamtastic] suggested that Pro Tours should be played Online. Wizards could bring in computers and run all the drafts and constructed matches on MTGO. His reasoning isn’t bad, but I disagree. 
I’ve been to ten Pro Tours, plus another dozen plus marquee events like Grand Prix and US Nationals. I have played in some, and judged at far more. I know pretty much how those shows run. 
This was followed by a section discussing judging at Pro Tours, especially at side events. The PT used to be a much more public event, with thousands of players playing sides. It’s not like that anymore, so I snipped that section.  
Let’s move on to the reasons that an online Pro Tour is a bad idea. 

Number 10: It Makes for a Bad Show

I referred to Pro Tours and Worlds as “shows” above, and that’s what they are. They are a celebration of Magic. Wizards didn’t commission an artist to make a 20’ tall Serra Angel just so people could play cards. The whole arena set, the Pro Tour banners, the hanging Moxen, etc. – all of these exist because Wizards wants to showcase the game. 
Wizards wants Magic to shine at these events. That’s why big events have public areas, feature match sets, artists and celebrities, and lots of set dressing. It’s also why the Top 8 coverage is shown on big screens in front of a big audience. Standing at the edge of the play area and looking out over 400 competitors - and spotting famous players – is all part of the excitement. Having rows and rows of monitors obscuring the view will detract from that experience. 
If you haven’t been to a PT, and seen the effort that the WotC folks – Scott, Whitney, Rene and all the others – put into the events, you may underestimate this. If you have experienced the pageantry, you understand. The Pro Tour is a marketing exercise, and anything that makes the Pro Tour less of an open, welcoming event is a bad thing. 
Okay, the set dressing and names have changed, but the whole thing is still a spectacle. 

Number Nine: MTGO is Too Easy

A large part of the skills required to play Magic, in the paper world, are in noting and remembering your triggers, where you are in the turn and game, and what your deck is doing. Bob Maher, Jr. was notable for playing a very technically precise game of Magic. He didn’t forget triggers. He didn’t miss effects. He didn’t miscount or miscalculate the power and toughness of his creatures. That’s one huge reason that he is in the Hall of Fame.
I’m not that accurate. I missed day two of GP New Orleans for many reasons, but the deciding factor was because I missed the trigger on my Solitary Confinement. The default on that trigger is sacrificing the enchantment, which meant I lost to my opponent’s beats. 
I have seen a lot of matches decided by which player has a better understanding of the rules and the game state. If I understand that swinging with my Soul Warden with a +1/+1 counters into my opponent’s Hill Giant is a good play, because Humility is in play, and my opponent chumps, that’s part of the game. Magic is supposed to be about laying such traps – not misrepresenting the game state, but allowing a complex game state to confuse the opponent. It’s called being better at Magic.
MTGO, on the other hand, simply shows the Soul Warden as a 2/2 and the Hill Giant as a 1/1. It also reminds every one of every trigger. It makes it easy. As a MTGO player, you don’t need to know the rules (or be smart enough to know when to call a judge). MTGO just tells you.
I’m not saying that MTGO is better or worse than Magic the Gathering. It is just a different game. More importantly, it is a different game from what the vast majority of the players played to make the Pro Tour.
I stand by this section. MTGO and Magic: the Gathering are not the same game.

Number Eight: Watching Your Opponent

Magic the Gathering is a social game. MTGO – not so much.
The paper game, at the highest levels, involves interaction. Players generally say hi, good luck, etc. Many are far more verbal, and some matches are a non-stop talkfest. I remember listening to a match between GerryT and Gabe Walls – it was entertaining, to say the least. That same type of interaction can’t happen via keyboard. Not really. Keyboards slow everything down.
Skill at Magic also involves being able to read your opponent. Good players can tell what an opponent has by posture, attitude, muscle movements, etc. Poker players call these tells, and they are a part of paper Magic. However, while an opponent may wince, slightly, when looking at their draw, a monitor does not. Different games.
Finally, paper Magic involves “politics” or “Jedi mind tricks” and so forth. I’m not talking about anything illegal – nothing that misrepresents the game state or abuses the opponent. I am talking about deliberately giving off misleading “tells.”   At FNM last week, an opponent was beating me down. I had nothing but a Kraken Hatchling in play and blocking. I slapped my deck, drew, sighed, checked my life total, my hand, sighed again and passed without doing anything. He attacked with just his flier. I drew slowly, checked life totals, played a land, checked life totals again and passed. He attacked with everything, and I blew him out with the Arrow Volley Trap I had been holding for three turns. 
Players can, and do, this sort of thing (albeit more subtly) at the Pro Tour all the time. It is part of the game. I’m not making an argument that such tricks are or are not moral – they are a legal part of the paper game. They are not a part of the online game. MTGO is not MTG. 

Number Seven: So I have to Buy All the Cards Again?

It may not be widely known, but very few pro players own the cards they play. Most borrow cards before the event. It is very, very common for players to be borrowing cards right up until the moment the tournament starts. Look at the coverage of this year’s World Championships: one player was asking for Baneslayer Angels while carrying his country’s flag in the opening ceremonies. 
Some players, on the other hand, do have their own cards – and some very nice cards, too. I remember seeing decks with Summer Magic cards, Beta lands, Foil Russian Tenth Edition cards, etc. These are all hard to get cards, and cards that the players have carefully collected. Many are autographed by the artists. [Running the Pro Tour on MTGO] means that those players will not be able to play those cards.
On the flip side, players will need to own all the cards they might need for the constructed portion of the event.   Pro Tours and Worlds are multi-format events, after all, with part limited and part constructed.  Constructed portions require decks, and MTGO does not allow proxies. 
At Pro Tours, players are often testing and modifying decks until just before play begins. If players are going to do the same thing at an online event, then they are going to be trading cards like mad to get their decks completed.  At a normal Pro Tour, thousands and thousands of cards change hands the morning of the constructed events. Can MTGO handle that? Are you sure?
MTGO’s collection handling screens have improved over the last couple years, and real time store and BOT delivery exist. I love being able to order off the website and get immediate delivery via their delivery BOT. So maybe this is less of an issue than when I wrote this seven years ago.

Number Six: 400 Baneslayer Angels, Please

At Worlds this year, players had trouble getting their hands on some of the chase cards – and the numbers of cards in print dwarfs the numbers online. At worlds this year, IIRC, 23% of the players played Jund. Assuming 3 Maelstrom Pulses per deck, that would mean that players had to get their hands on approximately 300 copies.   Are the cards even available on MTGO in those numbers? If they are, what happens to the price of chase cards the week before the Pro Tour? How about the week after?
In theory, Wizards could give players special accounts for the Pro Tour. The eight of us got [god accounts] for the [first] Magic Online Community Cup Challenge. It took Wizards a couple days to create the accounts and email us the names and passwords. At a Pro Tour, players often don’t know if they are attending until very close to the event, so Wizards can’t assign these in advance (unless they don’t mind giving god accounts to players that won’t attend) At Pro Tours, registration takes place for a few hours the evening before, and then for two hours before the players’ meeting on the first day. About half the players register the night before. 
Given that sort of schedule, it does not seem feasible to have Wizards try to create 400 accounts overnight. Perhaps they could set up all the accounts that might be used in advance, then hand out names and passwords as players registered, but that also seems like a whole ton of work. Far more than stamping product. 
More importantly, Wizards does not provide players with cards or decks for the constructed portions of paper Pro Tours. Players are required to bring their own decks / their own cards. The Pro Tour is financed, in part, by the dealers who rent hall space from Wizards so that they can sell cards to the players.   Providing god accounts goes against all of this.
Once again, the program has advanced from where it was seven years ago. The Pro Tours, and especially Worlds, is no longer a giant Grand Prix with lots of side events and a dozen dealers in attendance. Giving all competitors special accounts with a playset of everything seems more feasible now, especially for events like Worlds.

Number Five: MTGO is a Different Game from Magic: the Gathering

Magic the Gathering is a game played with cardboard (well, mostly cardboard) cards on tables. MTGO is a computer simulation of that paper game. The online version gets a lot of things right, but not everything. The games are different. 
I am a judge in the paper game. I have been judging for a long time. I have been playing for even longer. I own a copy of a Fourth Edition rule book. I have collections of Bethmo rulings. I have a Sixth Edition rulebook, and electronic versions of the Comprehensive Rules that came out after pretty much every new set revision thereafter. Some revisions are minor. Some, like the M10 changes, are anything but minor. However, all of these rules have one thing in common: they say nothing about losing the game because your chess clock runs out. According to the official rules of Magic: the Gathering™, there are a dozen or so ways to lose the game.   Timing out is not one of them. 
I don’t want to debate the whole chess clocks: good or bad debate. This is a website devoted to online play, which means that the readers can live with chess clocks. The people who cannot – and they exist – don’t play online, and don’t read this website. That makes any discussion – or consensus – taking place here rather pointless. The simple fact is that chess clocks exist online, and not in the paper world. The paper world has a different set of rules for timing, slow play and end of round procedures. It is a different game.  
It is a different game in another, fundamental, way. Magic the Gathering has specific rules for how “infinite” loops are supposed to work. The player simply announces how many times the loop will repeat before ending it. (e.g. “Repeat 1.5 billion times. Go to 1.5 billion + 13 life. Go.”) The online game has no such provision – loops have to be manually repeated over and over again, all while the chess clock counts down. The end result is that decks that have won Grand Prix and Pro Tours simply cannot be played online. It is a different game when the best deck in the format is unplayable because the program will not support it. 
Note: one third of the Modern deck played at Worlds last weekend had infinite combos. 

Number Four: You Certainly Can Cheat on MTGO

Last week, I played in a draft. I had a slow deck, and had to reboot once. Late in game three, I suddenly realized I had less than 2.5 minutes left on my clock. I sped up my play, and ended up swinging for the win with 8 seconds left on my clock. My opponent proceeded to put 11 regeneration shields on his tapped creature, one at a time. I had already F6ed, so I still won, but it was close.
In the paper world, Stalling is clearly defined as an infraction. A player that deliberately stalls a game to take advantage of the round time is considered cheating, and will be disqualified.  Online, stalling is just another way to win. Personally, I hate it, but I guess we have to file this under “different games.”
I know people are thinking “just F6” or “that’s what the autoyield is for.” Maybe, but I don’t really think that deciding the World Championship should come down to knowing the MTGO interface. That has never before been a critical Magic skill. 

Number Three:   The Pro Tour Exists to Sell Cards

The purpose of the Pro Tour is to promote the playing and sale of Magic cards. Over the years, the Pro Tour has built leading players into celebrities, in much the same way that professional sports turns players into celebrities. The Pro Tour has also pushed the slogan “play the game, see the world.” Finally, the Pro Tour is the apex of the organized play pyramid, which starts with local TOs, like me, running non-rated casual tournaments, up through FNM, GPTs, PTQs, GPs and up to the Pro Tours. That pyramid exists, to a large extent, to promote tournament play at local stores. 
Watching pros play on computers may not promote local tournament play quite as well as watching them play with cards, on tables, just like at the store.  I don’t have access to the marketing data that Wizards collects, but I have met and talked to many of the WotC people at brand, organized play and so forth. I’m pretty comfortable with this conclusion.

Number Two: Logistics

Pro Tours are a show, not an endurance contest.  Even if the players could play 20 rounds straight, stretching it out over three days builds interest, as well as allowing the coverage folks to write their stories and produce their videos, and lets a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff happen as it is supposed to.  Another good reason not to have all 21 rounds played in a row – would you like to see the World Championship determined because one competitor repeatedly fell asleep, and clocked out? That would not be a good ending for a major PR event.
At Worlds last month, players played 6 rounds each day, with two rounds of team competition at the end of each day. In the team competition, some players used the same decks they used in the other rounds. I am not convinced that MTGO can do that, at the moment. To run a two day, multiple format event for the Magic Online Community Cup Challenge, Mike Gills basically paired the rounds on paper, and had us challenge our opponents manually, in the casual play room.   Using that process for 400+ players would be really inefficient, not to mention all the problems of players playing the wrong opponent. The only way to avoid that, however, would be for MTGO to be able to have tournaments that pause when requested, and allow players to change decks and formats (rounds 1-6 were Standard, 7-12 draft and 13-18 Extended, IIRC.) To duplicate Worlds, the program would also have to allow the top eight to be best of five games, and allow untimed matches. I just don’t know that MTGO can do that. If it cannot do so now, is adding that feature a good use of programming resources? Personally, I’d rather devote the resources to the new interface and to the collections server. 
I wrote the above paragraph seven years ago. I am still concerned that the interface could not handle a 15 round event, in multiple formats including drafts, and a cut to the Top 8 based on tiebreakers.   
Let’s assume that the software has those capabilities. The next question is what the staff can do to salvage the show if the software has serious bugs, or other technical problems develop. For example, what happens if the connection to the Internet goes down? Murphy’s Law says that, if the connection is going to crash, it is going to happen at 5:30 Saturday night, with 2 rounds to go to the Top 8 cut. I have spent a lot of time in the telecoms industry, and my professional opinion is that getting a DS3 fixed after hours on a weekend isn’t going to be quick, easy or cheap. 
Using MTGO would be balancing the entire show on that program and supporting infrastructure. If they fail, the show fails. If the program is having problems, how does Wizards save the show?
This is not an idle question. At PT Hollywood, we had a complete power failure. At PT Valencia, heavy rains flooded the venue. At GenCon this year, (2009) we had a fire. At Worlds in San Francisco, some matches had to be moved to get them out of the really-bright sunlight. At a couple events, the tournament management software died when asked to do something strange (like pairing four player drafts for the 2HG PT.)   And so forth. In all of these cases, the professional Wizards staff, together with the large crew of judges, handled these problems. Only at Valencia, where the foot-deep water started flowing into the electrical system and the entire venue was shut for a day, did play have to be suspended.  In every other circumstance, the problem was either solved with no effect on game play, or play continued with minimal interruption. Even after the fire at GenCon, judges had play back underway within 15-20 minutes of being let back into the building.      
At all events, judges provide more than rulings. Judges are customer service reps. I tell all my judge trainees that, if they know five things, they can answer 90% of all the questions they will be asked. Those things? The steps in casting a spell, the parts of a turn (including combat), where the bathrooms are, how much time is left in the round and whether there will be a lunch break. At any event, the vast majority of judge time is spent directing traffic, pointing players to pairings, cleaning up trash, handling lost items and answering non-rules questions. Judges also do all the work of setting up the venue. We number – and often arrange – tables, hang pipe and drape, set the stage, etc., etc.   Judges handle pretty much everything – but we will not be able to handle MTGO issues. If Wizards brings 400+ computers, monitors and supporting routers and networking cables, Wizards will have to hire tech support people to set up the network, and to solve problems for players – lost passwords, crashing machines, etc. After seeing the amount of security software on the machines brought to Austin, I can attest to the fact that troubleshooting and repair is going to require experts.
The physical logistics will also be challenging. At Pro Tours, we generally hold two matches on each 6 foot by 3 foot table.  At Austin, the MTGO setups used two 8 foot tables, butted together, to hold four machines. That means twice as many tables, more space and more cost. It required even more cost to string the power and network cables. Many venues have no underfloor conduit, meaning that Wizards will either have to provide protective ramps or string cables overhead. Leaving a lot of power cables on the floor for people to trip over would not impress the fire marshal.
The Grand Prix kit – the thing that Wizards ships to each Grand Prix – is a large, metal-bound box on wheels. It is about 6 feet long, four feet wide and five feet high. It includes everything needed – the table numbers, Top 8 playmats, signs, banners, stage dressing, table rings, etc. etc. The only exceptions are product and the stuff supplied by the TO (e.g. the scorekeeper’s computer and printer.)   The Pro Tour box is actually smaller, because the set dressing (the columns, banners, etc.) are all shipped separately. 
Shipping 400+ computers, monitors, keyboards, mice, etc. – plus the necessary servers, routers and cabling – is a whole different issue. That would require a huge expense in packing and shipping – not to mention the up-front cost of all those computers.   The cost of a Pro Tour is already huge – I have heard unofficial estimates of about a million dollars per. Adding the cost of packing, shipping, assembling, supporting, disassembling, repacking and reshipping 400+ computers would increase that cost substantially.
I could go on and on about the logistics, but let’s move on to the number one reason that the Pro Tour will never be played on MTGO.

Number One: The World Championship should not be Decided by a Misclick

Do you know this card?
Dark Confidant
Did you know that it exists, in part, due to a misclick? Without the misclick, Brian Kibler might have won the Invitational that year. Brian’s card was going to be some sort of new Ophidian – although he might have created a “flying reptile sort of thing.” Dark Confidant was Bob Maher, Jr.’s card. Dark Confidant exists only because Bob Maher won.  Bob won only because Brian Kibler misclicked.
Some background. The Invitational was a high-level, invitation-only tournament. Wizards invited the top 32 players in the World to a multi-format event.  The winner got a chance to design his own Magic card. 
The 2004 Invitational was the first Invitational played on MTGO. Bob Maher, Jr. was playing Brian Kibler in round 9, which was 8th Edition draft. Kibler had Seismic Assault and Kismet in play. Bob Maher had enough beaters to kill Brian next attack step, although Karma would bring Bob to 1 life.   If Brian drew a land, he could use Seismic Assault to deal two to Bob, then the Karma would kill Bob during his upkeep. If he drew anything else, he died to Bob’s attack.  
Bob passed the turn. Kibler drew - a land. He then misclicked: clicking the land before Seismic Assault. The land went into play, instead of being discarded to power Seismic Assault.   Kibler had to pass, and Bob killed him on the next turn.   
Kibler lost the Invitational due to a misclick.
That sort of thing does not happen in Magic: the Gathering. It shouldn’t happen on MTGO, but of course it does.
And that’s the number one reason that Pro Tours and Worlds should not be played online.
“one million words” on MTGO
More traditional State of the Programs will return in two weeks or so. Until then, feel free to debate this in the comments, below.


I agree with what you're by ricklongo at Fri, 09/09/2016 - 18:20
ricklongo's picture

I agree with what you're saying, but I feel some of the points you raise don't really hold. For example, justifying something should't happen because "(X) has never before been a critical Magic skill", when tournament Magic is defined precisely by the game's ever-changing nature and the pro players' ability to adapt.

Some other reasons come down to MTGO and paper simply being different games, but they fail to prove that one is necessarily better than the other. And of course, it's obvious that reason #3 was written well before the current e-sports craze.

But yes, the logistic hurdles are definitely very true, as is reason #1 (which is the best point in my opinion).