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Confusion in the Ranks

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Let me be blunt here: Why should you, the casual player, worry about what’s being done with the Pro Tour and the Planeswalker Points system?

At first glance, no reason.

I know I’m never going to be on the Pro Tour, or place high enough regularly at a PTQ to ever get a sniff of it. Most likely, none of the people reading this will, either. I’m here playing Commander and prereleases and sometimes FNM if my schedule allows. The stuff that affects the 1% of Magic players has no direct interest in me. End article, wipe hands and walk away.

But it’s more than just that. There are actually a couple reasons you should care even though you might not know anyone who’s currently on the Pro Tour.

1. It’s an incentive to play the game.

I’ve always believed that people play Magic for different reasons. I like it because it gives me a creative outlet with my decks and a chance to interact with people who enjoy an activity I enjoy as well. The best man at my wedding I met playing Magic, and several of my groomsmen played Magic as well (though we met in a different way; Magic only strengthened that bond). It’s a fun game that can pass the time or be the central focus of the day, all while making me feel smarter.

But just like I convince everyone who plays Magic to play Commander, I know there are other people trying to recruit others into playing their favorite formats. Some people love Limited and spend most of their time drafting; they love the idea of building their decks and seeing how good they can get at thinking on their feet.

There’s this big group of people who love to play competitively—the PTQ grinders and the Pro Tour people. Humans have this natural urge to win at competitions, and for many of these players, they have chosen Magic to be that competitive outlet. They thrive on being the best and the pride it takes to put in the long hours of preparation for an event against the best in the world. I highly encourage anyone who’s interested in such an avenue to go explore it.

And that’s what Wizards of the Coast has tried to do with this whole Planeswalker Points system. Sure, for us casual people, you get a point for playing in any sanctioned game (including a friendly Commander round-robin “tournament” that your local store can put together), but the system is in place for those people who want to be best in the world to go out and achieve that. They want you to play cards, not sit on some rating that you hope is high enough that you earn byes at the next big event.

What Wizards has done with Planeswalker Points is encouraging you to go out and play. Instead of people only playing a couple of times a year, you’re “encouraged” to play as often as you can. It gives you the hope that one day, quite possibly, you, too, can be on the Pro Tour. Some people smarter than me have said that this is a pipe dream and will basically shut down any player who isn’t fully dedicated in trying to make the Pro Tour.

You need this incentive of people trying to get on this unobtainable Pro Tour. Why?

2. The Pro Tour drives the game.

In baseball, there’s the major league (the highest level of baseball), the minors (the farm system that the major league uses to pick its new players), college and high school (where the minors pick their players), and Little League (where you learn to play the game). In order to get to the major league, there is a clear and simple path. As always, there are some exceptions, but with hard work and talent, you too can become a major-league baseball player.

Nobody plays in the minors who doesn’t have the dream of playing in the majors. The pay is horrible, you travel everywhere on the bus, and you could be shipped off at any time to a new team so you have to live out of your suitcase. If you don’t have passion or interest, there is no reason to play in the minors. For college and high school, it’s a little bit different: As long as you’re good enough, you can stay on the team, but it isn’t your life’s passion. With Little League, everyone gets a chance to play, no matter your talent level.

But what made you interested in playing Little League in the first place? Maybe because you went to a major-league game and saw a game-winning home run? Or your older brother played and you saw how much fun he was having with it? Maybe your dad played catch with you in the backyard and you want to go play with some friends now.

Baseball is the true model of trickle-down.

An entire economy is built on the idea of one day making the major league. A vast majority of the people who play baseball at any of the lower levels will never reach the minors, let alone the majors. Yet they spend money on gloves, cleats, bats, balls, private lessons, gas on driving to watching their children play on Saturdays, and so forth.

With Magic, you get an almost exact mirror image. People spend money on cards, and paid subscriptions to websites, and gas to drive to PTQs just for the chance of one day playing on the Pro Tour. When an outlet to get on the Pro Tour shuts down, there will be less money spent on practice drafting, on singles sold that retailers buy packs for, on every aspect of the game—because why bother trying to get on the Pro Tour if you know you don’t have a shot? Wizards doesn’t get their money, and more things might be cut.

At the moment, there is no “minor league” of Magic. Some might argue that the PTQs and the Star City Games events are the minor leagues. With Magic, it’s different because there are no teams where someone signs you up; the only way to get on the Pro Tour is if someone else doesn’t make it. While that’s understandable, it’s also quite frustrating looking at the glass ceiling that you can’t break through. The way that those are set up is like the college and high-school system: You can play, it doesn’t have to be your life, but if you’re not putting enough time into it, you’re not going to go anywhere with it.

That just leaves FNMs like Little League. Everyone can play, and there’s no pressure of wondering if you’re going to be the next big Pro Tour guy. But Wizards has promoted FNMs as a way to quite possibly get on the Pro Tour. Maybe. And to have those dreams crushed might drive people to other things. Like, I don’t know, Commander.

3. Without the Pro Tour, we don’t have Commander.

Sheldon Menery is often credited with being the godfather of Commander. As a high-level judge to Magic, he brought this wacky format to other judges as a way of passing the time and having fun after a long day of highly competitive playing. The judges got behind it, supported it, and spread it to the masses by showing their friends how to play. One thing led to another, and years down the road, WotC created a product exclusively for this format that the players created.

This was before the Internet. Now if you want to create something and get it out into the public, it’s as simple as creating a blog or an article about it and hitting “publish.” Of course, the real problem is, will people catch onto it? I wrote about Horde Magic a few weeks ago because I thought it was interesting and fun, and there has been some positive feedback about Pete Knudson’s format. People are getting behind it.

It’s not Commander numbers, but it’s a start.

For the most part, you can read about a new format on the Internet and get a true feeling of how it’s going to play out. But you have to try it. Magic’s a game where if you try it, you see what’s so fun about it. “Flipping cardboard and trying to manage deck manipulation and resource management” isn’t a selling point online. For Commander, most of us tried it out with some friends and played it. That’s why those Commander decks sold so well; it’s the experience all ready for you to try it out.

With Horde Magic, I proxied up a deck and played it with a friend. We had a ton of fun, and I wanted to write about it, spreading it around like Commander was. Cube is the same way; there are legions of fans of Cube, including WotC employees, and I have a feeling its growth has been helped by its regular play as a distraction at the bigger Magic events.

It’s an organic way of distributing ideas quickly and hoping it reaches lower levels of players (by “lower levels,” I’m talking about lower competitively, not less skilled). You feel connected when you find out that the people you hear about on the Pro Tour love playing the same Legendary Commander you do. It’s that back-of-the-baseball-card moment that makes the game personal (not that I’m talking about bringing back those Pro Player cards again).

With the Internet, you have a wider audience, but everyone’s shouting their ideas at once. It’s great, but trying to get everyone focused on one particular thing can be a nightmare.

Unless you make some changes to a Pro Tour system and you hear everyone vocalizing at once.

Would Commander be as popular today if it weren’t for the Pro Tour? I’d imagine not. By making the Pro Tours open and letting amateurs come in and mingle with the pros, you get an experience of making everyone feel as if we’re one big community.

Because we are.

And if one thing happens to the community, it happens to us all. The loss of the MPR system means fewer pimp foils for us. The bans in Commander means card prices will go down for PTQers trying to build a deck. Less people wanting to play in PTQs means fewer events to come together with your friends to just hang out. Everything is connected.

Shrinking Worlds to the top sixteen players in the world and moving to one central location (GenCon) is an interesting development. Some of the changes I like, some I don’t, and others are just really confusing. If you want to voice your opinion, please e-mail Mark Rosewater and Aaron Forsythe; they are the decision-makers.

Is some of this a slippery-slope fallacy? You bet. That doesn’t mean that this is an issue to be ignored. What WotC had before was a broken system, and they’re trying to change it. The trouble is that we don’t know what they’re changing it to. At the moment, this is all a work in progress, but it does and will affect all of us.

After all, we don’t know the next Commander phenomenon we might miss because of the lack of the Pro Tour.

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