I was talking to Mike Turian in one of WotC’s meeting rooms, and I’d just learned that he had transitioned into Organized Play and out of R&D.
Now, I realize many people don’t really care about this or track this—but I have a keen interest in who’s in and who’s out of R&D. I’m a fanboy, and it’s one of those things I’ve always kept an eye on. I like knowing who makes the game. Also, it’s important to me, for the purpose of interviews, to know who currently stirs Magic’s pot. So hearing that Mike had moved to “OP”—I had to wonder what could have driven this decision.
Excerpt from a currently unpublished interview:
Trick: Now, the last time we talked, you were a member of R&D, and now you’re more predominantly a member of Organized Play.
Mike: Right. I transitioned up into Organized Play. I finished work on Scars of Mirrodin; I was the lead developer. I was in R&D for that. For Mirrodin Besieged, I was on both the Design and the Development teams. . . . I also did some work for Magic 2012. By the time I was doing development work on that, I was actually primarily up in Organized Play, transitioning up into Organized Play to help with that facet of the company and that facet of the players’ experience.
. . .
Trick: What happened that took you to Organized Play?
Mike: Uhhhh. [laughs] So I’m working on a project that will hopefully be released soon enough, and that was the primary driver of me going up into Organized Play.
That caught my attention. Something so big and exciting and new from Organized Play that Mike Turian moved from R&D for it? I was hooked. This was a developing story I needed to follow.
And follow it I did. For each and every announcement concerning Organized Play after our interview, I thought, “Surely this is the thing Mike was talking about.” And each time, he’d contact me and say, “Not yet. Think bigger.”
A few months pass. ManaNation and GatheringMagic.com merge. Life goes on. Then, in July, I receive the following e-mail from Wizards:
The Magic team would like to bring you (and a few other guys) out to Wizards to discuss some upcoming changes. The timing would be prior to GP Pittsburgh. This is, of course, extremely confidential (even the meeting invite is confidential, please), and I’d like to know if you are willing to participate by mid-next week if at all possible. As soon as I have that answer, we’ll get your travel arrangements started.
Now, my earlier trip to Wizards, the one where I talked to Turian, was paid for out of my own pocket; I piggybacked it onto a vacation with my wife. Here we were four months later, and Wizards was e-mailing me to come back for some top-secret meeting?
Intriguing! I was in.
August rolled around, and that meant one thing: GenCon. I was there shooting video, talking with people, and having a great time. One of the people I talked with was Scott Larabee, Manager of Organized Play programs. He was attending GenCon to oversee the U.S. Nationals competition, but also to take part in a panel about the Commander decks and the Commander format. He had designed one of the Commander decks and also sits on the Rules Committee that oversees Commander as a format.
Before the Commander panel, I was chatting with Scott and Sheldon Menery (Level 5 judge, Godfather of EDH). At one point, while the lobby around us was fairly vacant, Scott looked at me and asked, “You’re coming up for the meeting in August, right?”
I stammered out something along the lines of, “I’m . . . not . . . supposed to . . . talk about . . . the meeting?”
I had no idea how to respond. Obviously, Scott was in the know, but the e-mail was quite clear that I wasn’t to discuss it with anyone. Scott’s question did have an important implication, though; it was a tip that the meeting might have something to do with Organized Play.
The timing for the trip ended up being excellent; though the invitation e-mail mentioned GP: Pittsburgh, it coincided with PAX. PAX is the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, coincidentally the same city Wizards is headquartered in. I had already been planning to attend PAX, so I had a convenient cover story for visiting Seattle. Thus, I was able to speak freely about my trip to Seattle while others could not.
The day had finally come; I was in Seattle, and I called a cab to take me to Wizards of the Coast. I arrived a little early and found Brian David-Marshall in the lobby on a phone call. In turned out that Evan was also there doing interviews with a few WotC employees. I wondered who else might be attending. And I began to again aggressively consider just what this meeting might be about.
Under the belief it was tied to Organized Play, I had come up with a few theories:
- It was an overview of how coverage would work for Pro Tours now that they would no longer be public events.
- They were looking for help in expanding their coverage of Pro Tours. (I admit to harboring dreams of sitting in the Pro Tour commentators’ booth.)
- The meeting was a briefing on the schedule of events for 2012 beyond the first quarter of the Pro Tour and Grand Prix schedule.
In the end, though, I actually had no clue what the meeting was going to be about—a fact that my main WotC contacts took far too much pleasure in.
I had no idea what the meeting was about . . . that is, until I saw Mike Turian coming down the way.
The “big” thing. Was it finally here?
I had no idea what “it” was. But I was excited about whatever it would turn out to be. For them to bring us out to their offices was a clear sign that whatever it was, it was big. And the fact we couldn’t admit we were there was an even clearer sign of how serious it was.
Once we gathered in the boardroom, there were roughly a dozen people present. For Wizards employees, the board room had:
- Paul Levy – Brand Manager for Magic
- Aaron Forsythe – Head of R&D
- Elaine Chase – Brand Director for Magic
- Brian David-Marshall – Pro Tour historian & commentator. [He was there mainly on the Wizards side of the fence, though he obviously had some journalistic interest.]
- Mark Purvis – Senior Brand Manager for Magic
- Tolena Thorburn – Senior Communications Manager
- Scott Larabee – Manager of Organized Play Programs
- Mike Turian – Digital Manager of Organized Play
- Greg Collins – Grand High Poobah of Event Coverage
Representing the media/non-Wizards folks:
- Yours truly
- Evan Erwin, StarCityGames.com
- Luis Scott-Vargas, ChannelFireball.com
- Raphael Levy
Raphael Levy was present as a representative of the players. He is the elder statesman, as it were, of Magic players. Though he didn’t represent any site, having the longest active streak among Pro Tour players, he did represent an important perspective for what we were going to discuss.
Once the presentation began, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was going to be epic.
Mike Turian led the presentation. He pulled up the Planeswalker Points website and showed us what he’d been working on. He and Matt Place (ex-R&D member) hatched the initial concept five years ago. Recently, R&D members like Erik Lauer and Aaron Forsythe, as well as Dave Guskin, helped further with the project. It was clear that Mike Turian had been the main lead on it from the start—including defining what functionality the site needed and how it should look.
At one point, Mike handed control of the laptop and projector over to Scott Larabee, and they went into more of the nitty-gritty tournament-structure stuff, explaining how Pro Tour invites will work and how Grand Prix byes will work, and so forth.
All through the presentation, people would ask questions, get clarification on how things worked, and make comments. Questions, on the whole, were rather sparse. Raphael Levy had a good list by the end of the presentation, and both Scott and Mike, as well as some of WotC’s other staff, answered all of them.
Wizards had done a good job of putting together a solid product, and, from the looks of it, it was nearly ready to go live. As they described it during our meeting, their efforts were now confined mainly to fixing bugs, checking translations, and ensuring all the historical data was processed correctly. So when they told us that September 6 was the target date, I had no trouble believing it.
I was not a hard sell on Planeswalker Points. I have wanted an improved competitive system for a long time. I had previously approached it by researching alternative Elo-based rating systems, but found none that gave any sizable improvement. What we had was “fine”—I mean, it worked right? It had worked for over fifteen years.
The points-accrual system that is the Planeswalker Points system just seems to work better.
Wizards has their full walk-through and FAQ online (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article), so I am not going to delve deeply into every facet of this change and what it means—however, I am going to talk about several aspects of it for those who need an explanation.
A Quick Review
Our current ratings system is based on the work of a chess player and physics professor by the name of Arpad Elo. He is the father of the rating algorithm used by many gaming systems for ranking their players worldwide. Magic adopted it early on (though not initially; in the very early days, it originally used a points-accrual system).
Elo allows for a system that attempts to predict which player will win based on ratings. A 1700 player should beat a 1500 player, right? In chess, this is quite usually right, but in Magic, it’s a bit harder to say given the variance that occurs in games.
With the Elo system, a good player was always risking points when he or she entered a tournament, while a better player had a higher probability of winning a match based on play skill. If the deck failed, the player lost points in the same way he or she would if the loss were directly a result of play.
This potential to lose points leads to a few problems, one of which being that competitive players were prone to sitting on their points and not competing for fear of sliding back down a Sisyphean hill. This was the only way to protect their points without risk of loss.
A system that discouraged play at any time is subpar, and Wizards recognized this, but for a long time, it was the only viable system.
The DCI ranking system is being put out to pasture (eventually; not right away). Players will no longer sit on ratings and choose not to play in FNM or a PTQ in order to protect their precious rating points. Where previously we all were judged based on how high our rating was, we’re now going to be compared on how many “Planeswalker Points” we accrue.
Think of it this way. Rather than a system that purely rewards a player on perceived skill, and leaves him or her at risk of being perceived as having lost skill, this new system is about play skill and quantity of Magic played.
Why? Because with Planeswalker Points, you can never lose points. Ranking in Magic is no longer about gaining and losing rating points, it’s about how fast you can gain Planeswalker Points. The better and more active the player, the more points he or she will earn.
The equation that determines how many points you earn from an event is:
Points = Event multiplier × (Match points + Participation points)
|1x||Sanctioned Magic tournaments, Prerelease events, Launch Parties|
|2x||Game day events, WPN Premium Qualifiers|
|3x||Friday Night Magic, Grand Prix Trials, WPN Premium Tournaments|
|5x||Pro Tour Qualifiers, National Qualifiers|
|8x||Grand Prix, National Championships|
|12x||Pro Tour, World Championship|
To figure out how many points you earned for playing in your local FNM, it breaks down like this:
3 × (7 + 2) = 27
For playing at your local FNM and going 2–1–1, you collect 27 points.
What happens if you play and lose the first two rounds and drop?
3 × (0 + 2) = 6
So, for showing up, shuffling up, and scrubbing out, you’re still leaving with 6 points. But something is better than nothing. And most important, it’s better than losing points despite two losses. With the new system, there’s also less incentive to drop early—if you keep playing, you can still win points.
So, what if you make a trip to a Grand Prix? How do those points stack up?
Let’s say it’s a 900-player event. You go 5–2 on Day 1, and then go 3–3 on Day 2.
The GP multiplier is ×8. A 900-player event earns 7 participation points.
8 × (7 + 24) = 248
You would earn 248 points for sneaking into Day 2 and then winning three matches on Day 2!
What About Your Current Stats?
This new system does not mean players are getting zeroed out and starting from a level playing field. Wizards has churned all historical data in the DCI records and has generated scores for everyone under this new system—meaning that when you log into the new system, you’ll see a score already. During our meeting, we got a peek.
Me? I’m a lowly Guildmage with only a few hundred points.
Luis Scott-Vargas? 48,000+ points. An Archmage already. Archmage is the top rung of the ladder.
Raphael Levy? 63,000+ points. An even higher Archmage.
Why am I so low despite playing the game since Ice Age (with breaks)? Most of my play has been unsanctioned with friends. Because my ranking only rarely got over 1,600, and I got tired of seeing it vacillate drunkenly, I stopped being competitive, as I never devoted the time and effort to seriously improving it.
Comparing our stats was humbling, to say the least. But I had to remind myself that I purposely made the decision five years ago to dive into making a Magic site and forgo playing major events in the interest of writing and making videos for the game. So, I wear my low level of points as a badge of honor, reminding me all the other stuff I did.
At least, that’s what got me to sleep the night after the meeting.
This is all a major change to the system. It’s got implications from top to bottom. We’re going to see a major shift in player behavior at events. Fewer drops, as players can keep pushing for wins. I want to keep exploring all the changes that come with this big news.
The year is broken into three competitive seasons, each roughly four months long. The current season began on August 29 and will run through Christmas (December 25). All competitive points in this season will be totaled, and from them, the benefits for players in the following season will be determined. At the end of the season, your competitive total will be reset and the battle will begin anew.
So, if on December 25 you’re in the top 300 players in the world, you’ll have three byes to every Grand Prix in the upcoming season. If you’re in the top 2,000 players, you’ll earn two byes. And if you’re in the top 15,000, you’ll have one bye. You’ll have these byes for the entire period running from December 26 to the middle of April (I’m estimating here). This also is when they determine who will be invited to the next Pro Tour, which will take place during this season.
In the past three years, I’ve asked Scott Larabee, Manager of Organized Play, numerous times: “Why can’t we have more Grand Prixes?”. His answer has always been, “Because we can’t take more people to a Pro Tour.” Given that GPs directly feed Pro Tours, it made sense. They’d have to add a day or make Sunday more than just the Top 8.
Adding more GPs created the problem, because currently, the Top 16 competitors at a GP receive an invite to the next Pro Tour. You might have noticed that next year, they’re adding more GPs. So, more Pro Tours? Not so much.
Instead of the immediate invites for top finishers at Grand Prixes, players will have to use their fat Planeswalker Points to get to the Pro Tour. It’s hard to say how many points will be needed to get to the Pro Tour, because that’s based solely on player behavior (a phrase used multiple times during our meeting), and with a colossal shakeup like the introduction of the new system, there’s simply no way to know how many points players will accrue.
To receive an invite to the Pro Tour based on “rating,” your competitive point totals for the season will have to be among the highest in the world, using the following breakdown:
- In the top ten in North America
- In the top ten in Europe
- In the top five in Japan
- In the top five in Asia-Pacific
- In the top five in Latin America
- In the top sixty-five in the world who are not already invited
Along with this change comes the reintroduction of “pass-downs” for invitations. If someone who falls in one of the above categories wins a PTQ, his or her invite will be passed down to the next eligible person. For pros in the Pro Club at Level 6 or higher and for Hall of Fame members, the invite will not be passed down.
However, this change also comes with good news. Every player qualified by ranking or through winning a Pro Tour Qualifier will have his or her airplane ticket purchased by Wizards.
To give you an idea of just how these changes affect the caliber of players on the Pro Tour, we looked at Raphael Levy’s numbers during the meeting. Based on his performance in the unofficial season leading up to August 26, he had accrued enough points to be ranked approximately 140th in the world. Were he not a member of the Hall of Fame, and thus always invited to the Pro Tour, he would likely have not been invited to Pro Tour: Philly.
This is after he placed in two Top 16s for GPs in that time period.
However, he wasn’t playing the right game when it comes to accruing points. The leaderboard for the system when we saw it was heavily weighted by top grinders at StarCityGames Opens, with Alex Bertoncini being ranked second in the world. Had he been grinding FNMs and playing in even more events, there’s no question he would have been higher on the ladder.
While I am concerned about the changes being made and their effect on the pros, who have been an integral part of the Magic ecosystem, I also remind myself that this is their job. They’re being paid to adjust and to learn these new systems and rules. While I feel their pain at having the system bucked, I also look forward to seeing what point totals can be achieved when the pros fully adopt this new system.
The New Power of FNMs
FNM is now truly a major force in helping your competitive career. Its ×3 multiplier is a major benefit, given that it will always run weekly no matter what city you’re in. The new system incentivizes players to find bigger FNMs rather than the old system, which encouraged players to snipe smaller FNMs as ringers. The bigger the FNM, the bigger the participation bonus.
This might be the thing that most excites me about the system—the boon it gives FNM. Whereas many have viewed FNM as missable, given their low K-value for the Elo system and FNM’s tendency for unusual metagames as more casual homebrews are brought to the table, it will now become a must-play event for its valuable points.
Oh, I almost forgot. There’s another reason to hit your FNM.
Wizards didn’t have a great deal of info on this event, but the two most important details are:
- This event will be comprised of the top one hundred players with the most points accrued solely from FNMs over the course of the year.
- Wizards will fly all one hundred qualified competitors to the event.
The details about the event are still very much undecided. We don’t know if it will be tied to another event such as a Pro Tour or Worlds. We don’t know when it will happen, though it seems likely to be in the fall or winter of 2012. And we don’t know what the prize will be. But we know that they’re taking this event seriously, and want to make it a major attraction as a reward for those top FNM grinders.
I wonder if Wizards will continue to offer FNMs at the Pro Tour even after the events stop being public. Will they play host to the most competitive FNMs in the world? Could be interesting.
What These Changes Means for Independent Tourney Series
Tourneys like the SCG Opens or TCGPlayer Opens are going to be heavily affected by these series because, by WotC’s rules, they can only have a ×3 multiplier—the same as an FNM, whereas a GP has ×8 and a PTQ has ×5.
It’s a glaring inconsistency in the system, but it’s also necessary in WotC’s eyes to limit the potential for abuse of the system.
Player Behavior Will Heavily Impact the System
As I said earlier, Wizards is fully aware that they don’t really know what is going to happen as a result of these changes. They just can’t predict how players will respond.
Will it be an overwhelming swarming of events? Will it be a slow growth as players evolve to the system? Will player points jump sharply, causing Wizards to need to shift their numbers around?
The expectation is that the combination of the new system and the increase in quantity of events during the 2012 GP schedule will cause the average GP event size to drop while the overall attendance for the year will increase. The 2010 Grand Prix attendance average was over 1,200 people per event. And based on our records, so far, the 2011 Grand Prix attendance average is almost 1,100 (approx. 1,079) players per event (Thanks, GP: Paris!). So, will 2012 be even higher? I think so.
If the system creaks or shows weakness, Wizards will adjust. They made it very clear that there is a misconception that the systems they put in place are set in stone. They want to make players aware that they’re committed to the overall structure of the new system, but they’re not against massaging or morphing it as required.
I’ve already voiced these concerns to individuals at Wizards, so none of these should come as a surprise. The fact is, I have very few concerns, and those I have seem somewhat minor or unlikely. Nonetheless, here they are, for your review and discussion.
1. The more active Magic regions will have an unfair advantage for the FNM Championship. Stores like CoolStuffGames, which regularly have sixty-player-plus FNMs, will see their players rewarded with large participation bonuses, thus propelling them to the top of the FNM Championship ranking. This puts the players at smaller stores at a disadvantage for the FNM Championship. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No. But it is something to take into consideration. Also, this new system might have an inverse effect and see smaller stores suddenly inflating with great attendance to their weekly FNM events.
2. This might drive pros away from the game. In my opinion, pros are the players most adversely affected by this change. It becomes harder for them to make it to the Pro Tour, and with the new sliding prize pool for the Grand Prix circuit, it’s potentially harder for them to make money even on the Grand Prixes.
Pros are a critical core element to the Magic ecosystem; they provide the beacon by which players choose their decks and model their play. Will this disrupt the system in place? However, they are also the ones most rewarded for their play efforts. In a sense they are paid to deal with the changes Wizards enacts, while most of those changes appear 'in game' on cards or mechanics, they also must adjust to competitive environment changes.
3. Players might not “get it” or accept it. This is my chief concern. With every major change, we know there’s the twenty-four-hour crazy flu that is injected into the Magic community, and the community immediately begins tearing into Wizards for rocking the boat. But this change goes beyond the introduction of double-faced cards or planeswalkers. This goes all the way to the grassroots of Magic in a way I can’t easily recall happening before.
I truly believe that this change is a net gain for the community, and a net gain in a way that will be visible in the short future as stores get more players, events get more players, and competitive Magic picks up again.
What do you think? Please give your feedback and thoughts in the comments. What concerns you about the changes? Do you agree or disagree with my own concerns? Where do you stand on it? Let’s talk!