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The Pro Tour Was Magic

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What made the Pro Tour and professional, competitive Magic: The Gathering so special? What do we risk losing if this is the end of its existence?

We lose many things, but the biggest thing we lose is something that gets overlooked.

We lose one of the world's best training grounds, and cultures, dedicated to the art of clear and effective thinking, and to figuring out on a gears-level how things work.

The players lose the ability and the aspiration to 'play the game, see the world' and realize that the true prizes were the friends we made and the skills we developed along the way. Those are big things to lose, but not as big as losing access to a culture of clear and effective thinking.

If that culture, one of the few still remaining, ceases to be, we then lose the fruits of those who could have joined that culture. It's easy to underestimate how costly this would be, both for the game and for the world at large.

The game, and Wizards as a company, also lose the aspirational dream of the professional Magic player, and the spectacle and draw of competition at its highest level. The game loses its history and its connection to its history, all of which become devalued. The game's competitive aspects become devalued. All of this happens in a way that is needless, and which nets out less than no money since reasonable versions of the Pro Tour could easily be run at a profit. But none of that is the (by far) most important thing that is being lost.

A huge percentage of my best friends come from the Magic: The Gathering professional community. A huge percentage of my best friends come from the rationalist community. The rationalist community is one of the few other spaces that still aspires to a culture of clear and effective thinking. Almost all of my friends have a link to one or the other of these two groups. This isn't a coincidence.

I often focus and spend time on sports and other competitions that share the dedication to rewarding those who are the best. That doesn't mean not caring about anything else, but it means that what matters most is being the best and figuring out how to be the best, as best and for as long as you can. I often focus on gambling and trading, another area where it's important to cooperate with and build knowledge and skill alongside other experts, not because that's how you directly get ahead, but because it makes you better.

I have often hired or worked with competitive Magic players outside of the context of Magic. Consistently they shine. They know how to think, and they care deeply both about figuring things out and being right, and about having the dedication and work ethic to seeing things through. It's hard to know how much of this is selection, and how much of this is training and culture. I think both are important. Even if I am wrong about that and it is mostly selection, bringing such people together still lets them strive for new heights.

Those same skills, and the culture around them, including people like the judges, are the reason Magic has been able to produce a quality product for over a quarter of a century. They're the reason we have the game we have today.

I don't expect Magic: The Gathering professionals to save the world, but as a group they're in my top five by probability for who might do such saving should the world get saved, and I wouldn't think that about the counterfactual people who would have been such professionals.

I realize these are bold claims, that most who read this won't fully agree, and that I can't provide proof of any of that. I understand that, but I believe it remains important to share the model explicitly, in its entirety.

Player and Performer

We live in an age of streaming. The player has become an entertainer. If you want to make the big bucks as a player, you do so by building a following of people who want to watch you play, putting in the hours day in and day out being entertaining for those viewers.

If you succeed, you can do better financially than one used to be able to do on the Pro Tour. It's not the best living, but it is most certainly a living playing the game of Magic.

The problem is that once we choose that path, we are no longer primarily testing for, rewarding and building a culture of the skill of winning. Which is the skill of being right, and the culture of objectivity and truth seeking, where one made their reputation primarily by brightening the light of science via Magic technology, be it deck construction, playing skill or principles, or any other way. We are no longer keeping records, with streaming archived then forgotten after short periods of time. Everything becomes fuzzy and transient, and the verdict is determined in the attention market of the internet.

That public record, and our efforts to keep it enriched and correct, is necessary to the project I speak about. A transient world, in which vague impressions soon become all that remains, won't do the thing that Magic does, or that sports do, or that any other careful discipline does, in training us to think carefully and value precision and get into all sorts of almost Talmudic arguments.

The biggest thing about streaming is that it is not only transient, it is truly all-or-nothing. At one point I was starting to gain a little traction, but if I wanted to make it work, it was clear I'd have to do the job, and be 'on' for the audience, like it was a regularly scheduled full-time job, day in and day out. The rewards for half measures are almost nil. No more weekend warriors. If you do this for real, this is who you are.

That's why you saw streamers realizing that events cost them so much money. It's about the momentum and buildup of that constantly being there, the same way a regular job gets mad at you when you miss work, except it's a harsher penalty. In a real sense, looking busy becomes important, and what you're doing starts to look and feel remarkably like you're in a largely bullshit job, even if that seems like it shouldn't resonate or make sense.

The game of Magic might remain mostly the same for a while (I'll get to that concern later), but the game of being someone who plays Magic seriously will have been completely transformed. Things that are judged by internet opinion are in a completely different magisteria, and train and encourage completely different behaviors and cultures. Our stars won't be the same type of people to start with, and they won't be the same types of people when we're done with them. Nor will those who seek to follow in their footsteps.

That does not mean there can't be exceptions who seek the old ways. It especially does not mean that we can't seek to establish those old ways via new methods, even if those methods do not involve large prize competitions as a primary revenue source.

A great model of what we could seek out is the speedrunning community. The speedrunning community cares a lot about, and is primarily rewarded by, internet attention dynamics, but it keeps score in a supremely objective way because every run has a timer attached to it. The world record is the world record, your personal best is your personal best, and everyone involved cares deeply about a dedication to excellence, however someone defines and seeks excellence. Thus, I am hopeful for the speedrunning community. Similarly, my favorite streamer for a while has been Jorbs, who strikes a balance between a dedication to excellence and understanding, and also finds ways to be greatly entertaining. There's no one else who still tempts me to spend a few hours watching videos for the hell of it. He used to play Magic, and gave it up because he realized it wasn't being supported. None of that is a coincidence.

The artist, the rock star, the writer, the actor and the stand-up comedian can also guide us, and point to ways in which we can elevate the craft, its study and those who value it, but also point out how much the craft ends up being about attention and perception, and how this transforms those who walk those paths.

Thus, I retain hope, even if the Pro Tour is truly dead and nothing stands up to replace it, that we can build something new in its place. It has been done, so perhaps it can be done again, but we will need to find a new Way.

MPL and Streamer

Was the MPL a failure?

As a permanent solution to competitive Magic, it clearly was a failure. As a short term way to present the product to the public, it was also clearly a failure. Compared to what one might have expected from a competent implementation, it was a rather large failure. A lot of money and effort went into a bunch of events, and very little came back out of those events. The MPL didn't do the cultural thing that the old Pro Tour did, and it also didn't capture viewer interest. It was so bad at capturing interest and at being a part of Magic's history that someone like me couldn't drum up any interest whatsoever in the best players in the world playing some of the highest stakes matches in the game's history.

There's no question it had to go. The danger is that there won't be a replacement that will do the job, but we can all agree the job was not getting done.

I still think the MPL did an important job that is easy to neglect, which was to transition our best players into being many of our more successful streamers, in ways that may allow many of them to survive there after the death of being a professional Magic competitor as a job.

The chance that we will retain LSV, Nassif, Huey, Reid, Cuneo, Paulo and a host of other such folks within our community is much higher than if they hadn't been subsidized into making that transition. This will be a huge leg up in allowing us to retain a cultural link to our past, and retain a core that can bring us forward into an alternative future.

That does not mean this was an especially good use of funds or attention. Certainly, we could have done better by not botching the execution on many different levels, and not wasting massive amounts of money in various places. We got much less than we could have gotten.

As I was writing this, I started watching the MPL weekend's second day, saw their explanation and it didn't help me understand what was going on beyond 'winning could qualify some people and losing could doom some people, somehow.' Meanwhile the comments section was mostly about a qualifier that was announced as Standard allowing players to use Historic decks and no one from Wizards offering any answers.

It's still a huge win over having done nothing. Sure, we spent far less than we should have, far more foolishly than we could have, and lots of it was mostly wasted, but that's actually fine relative to doing nothing.

That's the thing about super valuable stuff. The return on doing 'anything worth doing at all' is usually super impressive, leaving lots of margin to make lots of mistakes and waste lots of time and money along the way. That's my model of why start-ups are great investments. You're getting people to Do A Thing At All, or even to Create A Thing That Might Do A Thing At All In The Future, even if that mostly doesn't happen, or the game theory behind the whole thing is a disaster. Yet every so often you change the world and make thousands of times your money while creating orders of magnitude more value for the world than you make in profit, so none of that wastefulness sinks the enterprise.

Turning Magic into a legitimate, real Thing At All That One Might Do for the right people, and selecting some of those right people into it, creates opportunity for good things to happen. We justify it in ways that don't even take into account its main benefits. That's how valuable it is.

I'd have done the MPL vastly differently, as would almost everyone. And I agree it was a failure that had to end, but I'm not convinced some important good didn't come of it all the same. And it's important to keep experimenting. We now know several ways not to do the MPL and several things not to do if one wants to do professional-level Magic. Excellent.

Master and Commander

Commander is now the most played Magic format. It is very much not my cup of tea. The last time I played a game of Commander, I had three opponents, I steadily used a deck Brian David-Marshall lent me to get into a position where I was clearly going to be stronger than all three combined, and left after many turns with a headache that seemed related to the game, a concession from the other players that allowed me to go home and nurse said headache, and no desire to play the format again.

That doesn't mean there wasn't fun there. There was definitely fun there and I don't begrudge it to anyone. It's just not the kind of fun I enjoy. Commander is large and contains multitudes, so there is surely some subsection of it I would enjoy despite it not being my cup of tea, the same way a cup of tea isn't usually my cup of tea, but game space is deep and wide and my collection alas is not, so I haven't explored for it.

The thing I want to note about Commander is that it did not, even a little bit, come from either Wizards itself or from the kitchen table.

It came from the Pro Tour and Grand Prix circuits, and from the people who work behind the scenes to make those events possible. It came from those people getting together and expressing their love of the game, as shaped and sculpted by those competitive forces and that competitive culture, and their deep grasp of how Magic ticks. This happened over many years, through many iterations, in an organic fashion.

This would never, ever, ever come out of Magic Arena or Magic Online, because they are set up not to allow players to do what they want to do, only what Wizards decides to explicitly permit.

There's also a good reason this didn't come out of the kitchen table. Something supremely complex and fiddly and kind of super expensive and clunky was created by people who were in deep enough to not have any of that faze them, and to know enough to make the most of the costs they were paying. And then it had the means to spread, and truly become a thing.

Similarly, Old School is not super competitive, but can you imagine it coming into being and becoming what it is without a truly professional history and culture? This seems more possible, but still doesn't seem that likely to me.

Saying 'regular people play Commander so why care about the Pro Tour' is a strange thing to say when Commander directly comes from the Pro Tour and wouldn't exist without it. Wizards only supported it after it already hit the big time, and every time they make a Commander-dedicated product I worry the project will lose a little more of its magic. The part of me that Commander does appeal to loves the idea that the cards were made with something else in mind entirely, and thus the format is full of serendipity. Designing cards for commander with commander in mind is kind of the opposite of all that.

Where will the next Commander come from?

Research and Development

It's not only Commander. Who makes Magic: The Gathering?

Mostly former professional Magic players, or at least those who aspired to be professionals, make Magic: The Gathering.

There are exceptions, of course. The creative team comes from elsewhere, as one would expect. There are many who have been around since at or near the very beginning, and predate the Pro Tour. But the best source of new talent to make new Magic cards is the professional playing of Magic.

It's also the best source, as far as I can tell, of people to make any other collectable card game. A lot of Magic pros have gone on to create a lot of great games, and this too is not a coincidence.

Consider the game I am working on now, Emergents. Without the Pro Tour and the resulting constant contact with those in R&D, and their willingness to talk shop all the time (and to offer me an internship at one point), I'd never have gotten the skills to make a game. My first hire was Brian David-Marshall. My second was Alan Comer. Our third will follow the same pattern. There's an argument Brian would have met me and would be making games regardless, but likely not the rest of us. Magic not aimed at the same deep level of understanding would not have done the trick, nor would this group have ever even met.

Again, I attribute this to the nature of the competition and the culture that surrounds it. Magic has built up a culture where we care deeply about understanding the game at its deepest levels, and knowing what makes it tick. Wizards has spent decades helping us by explaining its reasoning, and exposing the gears of the game and its design.

I am excited to hire streamers, but I am excited to hire them as streamers. As entertainers and marketing, and as people who can provide valuable endorsements and insights into how to reach the customer base. I'm happy to hear their thoughts on design, but I don't expect much for at least the first several years. Even if they have the talent, they've been learning the wrong skill sets.

Enfranchised and Elite

I have hope for the community in two ways. I have hope that we may be able to organize ourselves around the pursuit of excellence using metrics that don't rely on elite Magic competition, and potentially keep that sufficiently distinct from entertainment to allow us to capture at least some of the thing that matters.

And I have hope that we can potentially establish a new Pro Tour without Wizards. We don't need them. Players as a whole are perfectly willing to support elite competition with a combination of entry fees, subscriptions, purchases of merchandise and other similar support. Brian David-Marshall and myself at Interpop would doubtless stand ready to create additional revenue streams that such a system would work toward.

Would this be 'rewarding' Wizards by letting them off the hook and saving them a bunch of money? Yeah, sure, you could look at it that way. I don't care. They still give us a great game, as much as I have been disappointed by recent sets and decisions, and they've been letting us down far more on the competitive side for a long time.

What Wizards needs to do now is pick a side. Having an official system crowds out other systems by denying them focus and legitimacy. If we want it done right, we'll have to do it ourselves. Thus, the best thing Wizards can do if they're not going to do it for us is to make sure we know that there's no big savior coming to bail us out, and also no one waiting in the wings to punish those who would build something with our own two hands.

Please don't continue pretending you're going to provide the thing. Consider this:

Thus, when I see talk that we will 'still have ProTours and Grand Prix events' this scares me. We know that such events will not come with the support they need to do their jobs. Support, at the levels we want, will not be forthcoming. As much as it stung to hear "stop thinking about being a professional Magic player, that dream is dead" I really, really appreciate the bluntness and honesty.

Don't try to walk it back. Own it, make it clear (and mean it) that you'll provide various forms of technical and other support for anyone looking to support elite play, and let us get to work. My ideal would be various forms of subsidy offered to any Magic tournament with a sufficiently large attendance or prize pool, in addition to efforts at grass roots. This could mean some mix of providing help with coverage and advertising (ideally in the form of a budget that can be used however the team sees fit), using their relationships with the play network to organize and subsidize qualifiers for anywhere that's interested, giving the event some sort of elite status that puts it into the historical record and awards some sort of points that matter somehow (even if it's not directly cashing out in official slots beyond the World Championships, or paying out any cash) and of course in a truly ideal world direct subsidy via cash payments is always great.

For digital tournaments, it's vital to give Arena and Magic Online the support necessary to run the tournaments, or anything else people want to do, without having to use various hackery to do it. I am confident that a little progress on this would go a long way.

And I'm sure there are other things I'm missing.

I'd also get out of the way in terms of how such systems work, and offer to support whatever the organizers want to do. Players will vote with their feet and the systems will evolve. If it's going to be a new experimental format, or something from the past like Old School or Premodern or Team Rochester or Set Roulette, that's great. If it's not, that's fine too. Again, players can vote with their feet and their dollars. Anything is fair game, except that we should shield Commander lest it be injured or destroyed.

That does not mean I would be unhappy if Wizards reversed course and decided to bring back a supersized version of the old system, updated with what we have all learned - it needs to be supersized because the game has greatly grown, and thus the elite system must grow with it to keep pace, and because it was always smaller and less bold than it could have been. That would be awesome. I simply don't expect it, and do not think it is worth our effort to ask for it.

Once and Future

Everyone's Magic is different. My Magic is even more different, and is not the Magic even of most Pros, as I come at it from a different perspective. It's not even that similar to what was my Magic back when I was good at Magic, as it's been a long time and my perspective has changed.

Many Magics will go on for a long time, regardless of what decisions Wizards makes and how the rest of us handle the consequences. If the game does eventually die by slow decay, it would take decades to do that, during which many good times will be had across the world. I'd likely still enjoy some of those good times every so often, drafting the booster or the cube. Good times will always be good times.

Yet something vital, that I think is vital to the world and not only to the game, risks being lost. Protecting that is now up to us.

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