This past year was a big one for Magic. It marked huge overhauls in Organized Play, from the expansion of the Grand Prix program and the introduction of the World Magic Cup and Player's Championship to the imagination of Planeswalker Points. It featured an explosion in tournament attendance along with Magic sales records being shattered again and again. By virtually any metric you can imagine, 2012 was the greatest year in Magic's history.
As the year comes to a close, I want to look back on its highs and lows—both for me personally and for Magic as a whole. What were the biggest successes and failures in 2012? What lessons can we learn moving forward from what worked and what didn't?
Personally, 2012 began on a bit of a low note. I was coming off of my worst season on the Pro Tour since I started playing again. I'd only made Level 6 in the Pro Player Club the year before, which meant that I no longer had my flights paid for Pro Tours and no longer received an appearance fee at Grand Prix. This was particularly unfortunate since WotC had just doubled the number of Grand Prix and committed to honoring Player Club levels throughout 2012.
For someone who attends 20 Grand Prix—about the number scheduled in North America for the season—the difference between Level 6 and Level 8 in Grand Prix appearance fees alone is $10,000, to say nothing of airfare, hotels, and appearance fees at the Pro Tour itself. Despite being qualified for life thanks to the Hall of Fame, I actually played in a PTQ in December and an FMN in Massachusetts while I was home visiting family for the holidays in the hopes of scraping together enough Planeswalker Points to make the Top 100 and earn a free flight.
These may come off very much as "first world problem" complaints, which they certainly are, but the reality is that playing Magic at the highest level is difficult to sustain without such benefits. Traveling from the West Coast, I'm lucky if I find flights to events for less than $500. Even with an appearance fee, once you add up hotel, taxi, food, and other costs, I need to consistently do very well to break even, let alone turn a profit. The value of Grand Prix comes from the ability to accumulate Pro Points, which translate into benefits for the following year, like those appearance fees, as well as standing in the Player of the Year race, which determines qualification for the World Magic Cup and Player's Championship.
Since I'm on the subject, I think the expansion of the Grand Prix program is fantastic for Magic as a whole since it provides a great way for a broad range of players to experience high-level competitive play. I get lots of messages on Facebook and Twitter from players asking me if I'll be attending their local Grand Prix because they want to meet me and have me sign cards or something of the sort. I think the opportunity for the average player to meet and talk with the pros whose articles they read and who they follow on coverage is great for both parties since fans get a chance to interact with their favorite players and the pros get feedback from their audience.
That said, I think the huge number of Grand Prix events is a net negative for pro players. As I mentioned earlier, GPs are generally a losing proposition monetarily. The main reason for pros to attend is the potential to earn Pro Points. More Grand Prix means more opportunities to earn Pro Points, but it also means that the pro level thresholds are calculated with the expectation that players are attending more events. This means that players who are unable or unwilling to play in so many GPs are at a disadvantage when it comes to making Gold or Platinum status. If you don't play in a ton of GPs, you really have to overperform in order to secure a spot on the train.
On top of that is the impact that the GP schedule has on events like the Player's Championship and the World Magic Cup. These events are both highly valuable and highly prestigious, which makes for a lot of competition for very few slots. With so many Grand Prix giving out a ton of points, the Player's Championship and the WMC slots may very well run the risk of looking like a list of which of the top players chose to attend the most Grand Prix. No offense intended to Martin Juza or Shuhei Nakamura, both of whom are excellent players, but their globetrotting ways definitely give them a huge boost over the competition. Every now and then a player might have an incredible PT season and make it to the Player's Championship without a bunch of GP points—like Jon Finkel this past year—but if things continue as they are, that will be the exception rather than the norm.
This is particularly troublesome because the constant travel of the GP lifestyle is grueling, particularly for players who have other major time commitments. Twice this past year there were full months with a GP every weekend. In 2013, there's a period of six weeks in the summer with an event every weekend without a break. In order to play in these events and miss the minimum amount of work, I generally have to take an early morning flight on Friday on my way there and another early morning flight on Monday on the way back. This means waking up somewhere between 4 and 5 AM and then spending seven to twelve hours traveling (depending on layovers and the like) twice a week—and doing that every Monday and Friday for a month and a half in the periods without a break from events.
Frankly, I can't keep doing that. I was talking with LSV in Toronto, and both of us agreed that after this current season (since we've already committed the time and effort to earning the points we have), we're unlikely to continue to travel to Grand Prix. It's just not realistic to keep up that kind of schedule and try to do anything else with your life. As much as it pains me to essentially give up on being able to realistically make Platinum status or qualify for the Player's Championship or WMC, I just can't keep doing what I've been doing.
I end up coming home on Monday every week, going straight into work, then coming home and pretty much heading right to bed because I've usually been awake since 1 or 2 AM Pacific Time. On Tuesdays I go to work, film my video for the week at night, and then crash. Wednesdays it's work and article writing. Thursdays I finally have a free evening after work, though I have to find some time to do my laundry and pack for my next trip because Friday morning it's off to the airport bright and early again. Rinse and repeat every week. My girlfriend has been asking to come to Grand Prix just so she'll get to see me on a weekend.
Anyway, the thrust of my point is that while I think the expansion of Grand Prix in 2012 has been great for Magic as a whole, it has created an unsustainable lifestyle for the pro players that WotC is trying to highlight. We may not have seen the effects of it yet, but I would not be surprised to see many of the top name pros from the past few seasons quietly disappear when they decide they just can't handle it anymore. WotC was quick to act when the Planeswalker Points qualifications were fostering unhealthy behavior and turning the entire system into a farce. While I don't think the GP issue is nearly as bad, it's still a real problem. I don't have any solutions to propose unfortunately—at least nothing that seems realistic. Bringing back an additional Pro Tour would reduce the relative value of GPs, but I don't see that happening just yet. We'll see.
Where was I? Ah, yes—talking about my experiences at the beginning of the year. To kick off 2012, I narrowly squeaked into Top 64 at GP Austin before missing Day 2 at GP Orlando. Hardly an auspicious start. I felt like I was playing well, but things just weren't going my way. Magic is like that sometimes, and it's important to recognize that. Sometimes you just don't win, and that has to be okay. It's important to be self-aware, however. It's easy to dismiss all of your losses as just bad luck, but that's not going to help you improve. As I discussed in my article on losing a few weeks back, you need to be critical and analytical about all of your losses in order to get better. I'm still doing it to this day, and I'm sure those of you reading this out there could stand to do a bit more of it too.
My next event was Pro Tour Dark Ascension, and one might say it went pretty well. Personally, PT Dark Ascension was obviously the highlight of the year, as my win put me in rarified air as a two-time Pro Tour Champion. It was pretty amazing to say the least, especially since I was down two games to one against Finkel in the semis and needed to draw a Whipflare or Slagstorm or my tournament was over. A pair of Whipflares and three Galvanic Blasts later (along with the help of an unblockable Wolf token) and I was in the finals against Paulo, only to break serve in the incredibly play first dependent mirror match to emerge victorious.
The funny thing is that winning a second Pro Tour just makes me want to win another that much more. Being a Pro Tour Champion is awesome—don't get me wrong. It's a huge accomplishment in its own right. A two-time Pro Tour Champion? There are only a handful of people who have ever achieved that feat. And three Pro Tours? Only two people have ever done that: Finkel and Kai. As much as I appreciate being in the company of Nicolai Herzog and Tommi Hovi, I want my name up there with the big two. I want to win the third far more than I wanted to win the second and maybe even the first.
But there's an important takeaway from PT Dark Ascension for me. The night before the Pro Tour, I had two deck lists written out. I was literally lying in bed, unable to sleep, agonizing over the decision of which deck to play. One was the Wolf Run Ramp deck that I ultimately ended up winning with, while the other was a G/R Aggro deck that I'd spent most of my testing time refining. I liked the aggro deck more, and I was certainly more comfortable with it—after all, I'd spent the better part of two weeks playing virtually nothing else. But I knew that if I wanted to win the tournament, I'd have to beat some of my teammates, and I knew that the aggro deck didn't stand a chance against Wolf Run. In the end, it was as if I had precognition, and sure enough I played against Paulo in the finals, where I managed to emerge victorious in the mirror where I almost certainly would have lost in the other matchup.
What's the lesson? No, it's not to believe in your own supernatural powers of foresight—I'm not Nostradamus and neither are you. It's that it's important to be flexible and not to get too attached to your ideas. Sure, there was a part of me that wanted to play Daybreak Ranger in the Pro Tour and get the last laugh, but I had to let it go. I ended up getting the G/R Aggro bug out of my system a few weeks later at GP Baltimore despite knowing that it was an even worse field for it because of my own success with Wolf Run at the PT. Jackie Lee ended up making Top 4 playing a list that was extremely similar to mine, so I at least felt vindicated in my choice. And somehow, winning the Pro Tour seems like the real last laugh to me.
After Honolulu there was a string of Grand Prix, most of which I attended, though I ended up skipping both Nashville and Mexico City due to other commitments and general burnout. At that point, I was already locked for Platinum and for a spot in the Player's Championship thanks to my Pro Tour win, so the only value of points for me was securing my seat on the US team for the World Magic Cup. LSV, Wrapter, and Ochoa were all within striking distance with a good performance at the Pro Tour, but I couldn't justify traveling to so many events just to pad my lead.
Thankfully, my lead held up. Unfortunately, it took an absolute disaster of a Pro Tour in Barcelona to make it happen. PT Avacyn Restored marked the first time in two years that no member of our testing team made Top 8, and by and large we had absolutely terrible performances. The deck that most of the group played—G/W Humans—turned out to be an awful choice for the field due to a terrible read on the metagame. I played a midrange Jund deck myself, but with incredibly suboptimal card choices due to the same bad metagame predictions.
So what happened? Our testing was extremely disorganized, and we relied too heavily on Magic Online results from prior to the release of Avacyn Restored for our metagame predictions. The most common deck by far online was W/R Humans, and we ended up devoting an enormous amount of our testing time to playing against it. The problem was that W/R Humans was largely pushed out of the metagame by Naya Midrange, a deck that we barely tested. Naya turned out to be a bad matchup for the G/W deck we brought to the tournament, which was a pretty disastrous position to be in.
The takeaway from Barcelona was the need to better organize our playtesting and be better prepared even before starting our testing process. We had very few decks built when people showed up in Barcelona, which led to a lot of time being spent physically putting decks together and not nearly enough games played with decks other than the ones sitting around. It's important to maximize the use of your testing time. We didn't do that in Barcelona, and it showed in our results.
After Barcelona came the World Magic Cup. This was the first time this event was held, and it was a pretty awesome experience. I had some reservations about teaming with the WMCQ winners who I'd never met, but Alex Binek and Joe Pennachio turned out to be great guys and solid players who actually carried the team over the course of the tournament. I wish I could have done better with my chance to represent the USA, but it was not to be, as Chinese Taipei had the miracle Bonfire to knock us out (as I'm sure you've all watched in slow motion dozens of times by now).
The changes that were recently announced for the WMC next year help alleviate many of the concerns I had after playing in the event last year, including the difficulty of preparing for the Constructed formats without knowing which players will still be in the tournament for the second day. I really like the fact that they're shifting it to team play throughout the event, as the team element is really what makes the event so special and so much fun.
My biggest remaining concern is with the WMCQ system. While the program seems effective for smaller countries, it's really not a good fit for countries like the US, where most players have to travel huge distances to get to any of the qualifiers. While I'd love the opportunity to play in the event again, I certainly can't justify flying to a WMCQ where the only real prize is for first place. I'm clearly not alone in this, as the attendance numbers at the US WMCQs last year were simply abysmal. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I'd really prefer a single large event like Nationals in the past. I flew to that before, and I'd fly to a three-slot WMCQ again. But hopefully I can just catch David Ochoa and Wrapter in the race for highest Pro Points in the US so I won't have to worry about it for another year.
Next on the list was the Player's Championship, which was hands down my favorite tournament I've ever played. Everything from the venue to the level of competition to the coverage to the general atmosphere was absolutely awesome. I wish I'd managed to pull out my final round match against Yuuya to make the Top 4, but despite that it was just an amazing event to be a part of. It was a fun change of pace testing with Finkel for the event after so many years too—maybe I'll do it again sometime.
Much like with the World Magic Cup, WotC has already responded to the small changes I'd suggest making to the event moving forward, like renaming it the World Championship. While Player of the Year has historically been a more meaningful title in Magic (since the World Championship in the past was just another Pro Tour with a slightly different method of qualification), only people who follow the game closely understand its significance. World Champion, though, means something to anyone who hears it. Telling someone you're the Player of the Year may get a quizzical look, but telling someone you're the World Champion of anything is impressive. Much like with the WMC, I hope to get a chance to play in the now World Championship again this year. As of now, I'd get one of the at-large invites based on Pro Points, but there's a whole lot of season left to go.
After the Player's Championship, there were a whole bunch of Grand Prix, most of which blur together in my memory. I generally did quite well in Grand Prix this past year with a bunch of Top 16 and Top 32 finishes, though only the one Top 8 in Anaheim (where I played the Jund deck I wish I'd played at the Pro Tour, which went on to absolutely dominate the format). In the stretches of multiple events, I typically performed well early on and then had my results dip in the later weeks. While it's obviously a small sample to go off of, I think it's pretty likely that my performances in the later events suffered as a result of fatigue. If I do keep traveling to Grand Prix next season, I'll certainly keep that in mind and see what I can do to combat it.
The last Pro Tour of the year was PT Return to Ravnica in Seattle. Our preparation for the event was much better than Barcelona, though the format was a tough one to get a handle on. Jund was the obvious front-runner, having just won the Player's Championship in the same format, and the addition of Deathrite Shaman made it even better. I spent a lot of time trying to find ways to beat Jund, and the best I found was Lingering Souls. I ultimately ended up playing Junk at the Pro Tour with essentially the same shell as Jund but with Path, Knight of the Reliquary, and Lingering Souls instead of Jund's red cards.
I did poorly in the event, in part due to Knight of the Reliquary substantially underperforming. I'd convinced myself that Knight was good in the deck because of how powerful the utility lands were—Gavony Township and Vault of the Archangel—but in retrospect, I wish I'd played Smiters over the Knights with a bunch Townships or the Wilt-Leaf Liege deck that I hadn't gotten around to building yet.
The takeaway from Seattle for me is not to get hung up on pet cards no matter how much success you've had with them. Knight of the Reliquary is my favorite card in Magic, and it took me to two PT Top 8s, including one of my wins. But Deathrite Shaman changes the entire dynamic of the format and makes the investment Knight requires to avoid Lightning Bolt too difficult. I let my love for Knight blind me in my deckbuilding when I really should have let her go. Sorry, dear. Modern just isn't a good home for you anymore. But we'll always have Legacy! I hope…
And that brings us to the string of Grand Prix leading up to the end of the year. Remember when I said I generally did well in Grand Prix in 2012? Well, that only lasted until December apparently. The last time I won a match at a Grand Prix was round 8 of GP San Antonio. After sneaking into Day 2 there at 6-3, I lost my next three matches before I dropped. Then at GP Toronto, I went 0-3 (as I discussed in my article on losing recently). And then at GP Indy, I got a horrible Sealed pool and went 0-3 once again, capping my streak off at 0-10 in my last ten matches played. A great way to finish off the year, right?
But you know what? 2013 is right around the corner, and if 2012 is any indication, coming off a losing streak is a fine way to start the year off right…
Anyway, that's it for this week. I hope you enjoyed this little retrospective. Have a safe and happy holiday season, and I'll see you again next year.