one million words's picture
By: one million words, Pete Jahn
Aug 12 2019 3:28pm

Disorganized Play Part 1: Why Organized Play Matters

For SotP fans, the big number for this week is $16,090. I’m not going to have time to do the rest. 

I have been working on a multipart series on the state of Organized Play.  It will likely be a five-part series, covering the history, current status, speculations on why Wizards hasn’t announced a future path. I will conclude with my ideas on what I would do if I was in charge of organized play (and had a nice big budget.)
Note: this week’s article is a little rushed: Joshua is sick, and I only found out I had to get written early this morning. So it will probably be missing some links and polish. 
Organized play started in the mid 1990s, when Brian David Marshal and Neutral Ground ran the first big tournament. Marshall Sutcliffe and BDM narrated some video the event on MTG Breakdown. Watch it here.  These folks are playing Moxen and Black Lotuses unsleeved. 
The first Pro Tour was in New York a bit later. Qualification was – well, different. Wizards published a phone number in The Duelist. (The Duelist was, at that time, a paper magazine. This was before websites, but the phone number was also promulgated via message boards, in ASCII. Early days indeed.) But I digress: the phone number. To get invited to the first Pro Tour, you just had to call the phone number. The phone number was activated on a particular day (after allowing enough time for all those paper magazines to be delivered), and the first several hundred players to call in were in. That’s all it took.

After that, the method of qualification changed. For Pro Tour two and all subsequent PTs, you had to earn an invite, and you had to earn that invite by playing Magic. Wizards has tweaked and adjusted the way in which you qualify over time, and the next article in the series will cover that in more detail. To keep it simple: you qualified for the Pro Tour by playing Magic. If you got good enough, and performed well enough, you could make it to the Pro Tour. If you continued to perform, you could stay on “the train.” Continuing to be really skilled at Magic – and I mean really skilled – could ensure that you remained qualified for the big show.  

It’s different now. Wizards has not told us what the path to the Pro Tour Mythic Championship looks like. Initially, the people auto-invited were the top 32 players in the world. However, when holes opened in their ranks, the 33rd  and 34th were not invited into the Magic Pro League – streamers were. So was the current Champion, and others. Wizards has not told us what the exact criteria – scratch that, Wizards has not given us any info on what criteria might be for getting onto the train now. Is it skill? Is it popularity? Is it ability to generate an audience via streaming Arena or MTGO. We just don’t know. 
When you qualified for the big show by playing Magic, everyone understood the process. Moreover, the buy in was not that high: you just played. You tested with friends. You played at local stores. I was on a store team for years, and we would meet for playtest session once or twice a week, in addition to all the weekly tournaments, PTQs and so forth. Before MTGO, that’s how you practiced. Once MTGO was thing, you could practice there, too. 
Most importantly, for nearly all of us grinding towards the big show at that time, you could fit that around your schedule. Students could play after class. People like me could play after work. And all you needed was your deck.
Streaming is different. To become a well-known / popular streamer, you need several things in addition to Magic skills. You need a serious computer set-up, including a decent webcam, a good mic, and really good internet access. You also need to be able to devote some serious time to your stream, at regular, predictable times. Most importantly, you need a set of skills in interacting with your audience: the ability to read and react to chat while playing, a good speaking voice, etc. In short, you need an entirely different set of skills, over and above skill at Magic, to be the sort of streamer that Wizards invites to the Magic Pro League and Mythic events. 
That’s a huge change. 
A lot of people just can’t make it as a streamer. Some don’t have the time. Some can’t afford the computer set-up. Some don’t have the Internet connection (like me – I live in the country, and sometimes can’t get 2 Meg download speeds.) And many Magic players don’t have the ability to talk to read chat and talk to viewers while playing serious Magic. 
It would not be too bad if Wizards had given us non-streamers a clear path towards the big show. So far, all we know is that Wizards is saying nothing. The implication is that Wizards does not know, or is still debating this internally. In other words, all we know is that things are going to change. With luck, we will still have some form of Pro Tour next year, and players will still be able to qualify for it by playing Magic. We hope. We don’t really know.
All this uncertainty is having an impact on what is left of organized play. Attendance is way down at Grand Prix. Way down. Attendance at Mythic Qualifiers is also really, really bad. I have heard rumors of events in Europe with thirty-odd players, and the average attendance in the states is around 140.  Yes, these are large constructed events that just qualify the winner, but we have had those before, with better attendance. The first time I made Top 8 at a PTQ, it was in Green Bay, Wisconsin – and we had 120 players or so. And that was despite the fact that Green Bay is inconvenient to get to, and that there were competing PTQs in nearby large cities. Back in the day, events with 200-300 players were common, and large events pushed the thousand player mark.  
Players just don’t know whether there will be a Pro Tour / Mythic Championship / big show in the future. They don’t know if or how they can qualify if there is.   And that uncertainty is dangerous. 
Many people play at FNM and store events just because they want to play Magic. However, a significant portion of the people playing in those store events are thinking, at least somewhat, about working their way up the ladder, or qualifying for the big events. It is part of why they play. 
And if that is gone, some of those players will stop playing – at least stop playing at local stores and local events. 
And if those players leave, the number of players at store events will drop. At some point, the stores will stop running those events. Maybe not all of them, but some. 
30-odd players at a Mythic Qualifier.   TOs may have to think hard before they schedule any of those in the future.
The Professor, over at Tolarian Community College, interviewed Peter Adkinson. Peter was the founder and original chief executive of Wizards of the Coast. (Video here.) Peter made the point that organized play, meaning both the Pro Tour and the path to making it onto the Pro Tour, was an important tool in keeping players involved during bad sets. Players stayed involved and drafted bad limited formats, and played bad constructed metas, because grand Prixs and PTQs were in those formats. And players played in those events because they were pursing the proverbial blue envelope.  (History note: a long time back, players who won PTQs were given a blue envelop by the TO. That envelop contained info on how to let Wizards know you had won – it was a world before email, after all.) 
I think this is really important. 
Right now, Wizards is doing amazingly well at designing sets and formats. The limited formats have ranged from fine to great over the last couple years. The Standard format has been pretty good to really good. People have wanted to play because Magic is an amazing game at any time, and been close to perfect for years. 
It’s fun.
That has not always been the case. 
I remember some bad times. Necro summer.  Combo winter.  Urza’s block limited, where cards like Pestilence were at common. Affinity w/ Skullclamp.  Avacyn Restored sealed. Fate Reforged limited. For that matter, Masques block limited (sorry, Joshua) and Masques block constructed.  These were all times when players stopped playing Magic. The limited formats were less bad – most of those formats just lasted three months. The constructed environments lasted longer.
Those formats were bad, and we did not like them. That said, I remember doing a bunch of Masques block sealed events, with paper cards, because we were practicing for sealed PTQs. I played a hundred or so matches of Masques block constructed for the same reason – and it got me a PTQ Top 8.   
The same thing was true of most of those other formats, until I finally switched from trying to qualify to judging. At that point, I could just avoid the formats I did not enjoy. 
The problem is that too many other players do that, too, if they are not trying to qualify. This is fine when Wizards keeps knocking the ball out of the park with its set design, but that won’t always happen. Sooner or later, Wizards will release a set that isn’t all that fun. The Pro Tour – and the attempt to qualify for it – has always been the backstop that kept players engaged during the rough times. Without it, Wizards may not be able to keep players around. This could have serious ramifications for the future. 
Back in the day, we followed players that were good at Magic. Se listened to, read and rooted for people like Zvi and Kai because they were good at Magic, and good a deck design. The had skills – skills which were mainly applicable to Magic. When Magic was at low points, they kept playing, because that’s how they could leverage those skills, and because they knew things would eventually get better. That may not be the case with streamers. Streamers have another set of skills, and equipment, that can be easily transferred to other games when Magic is in the doldrums. If Magic is not fun to play or watch, streamers will have little incentive to keep playing Magic – and a strong incentive to find another game their audiences may like better. 
So long as Magic keeps designing sets that are well above average, things may work out.  
Seems like a really big gamble.   
Wizards really needs to figure this out.
So far, I have just mentioned the impact on players. The Pro Tour grind also drove interest in magazines, listserves, websites, blogs and streams. The very first major listserves and websites were created to share decklists and tournament reports. Players wanted to know what was being played, and what hot new sideboard tech existed.  The Dojo, SCG, CFB and this site all pulled in a lot of eyeballs by providing that information. Articles on the current PTQ constructed formats were always well read, right up until the format rotated. We all devoured tournament reports and sideboarding advice for Odyssey Block Constructed, right up until the PTQs changed to a new format. After that, no one cared. 
Next time, I’ll look at where we have been since people phoned in to “qualify” for Pro Tour #1. Wizards has changed things a number of times. 

In the meantime, keep grinding.

“4MWords” on Arena