The last couple of weeks have been...interesting times, to say the least. You might even say that strange things are happening to us.
The UC Berkeley Men's Octet is pretty darn talented.
The path to the Pro Tour received a massive shakeup. While the San Diego Comic-Con panel featuring new Khans of Tarkir info is juicy (wedges! orcs!), it'll have to wait a while. Let's take a deep dive!
First off I'll launch Operation Linkstorm, because nothing that follows will make the least bit of sense without reading the official Wizards announcements.
The 30 July Magic Online Premier Play update gives details of the PTQ and MOCS events' return, including makeup events.
The Pro Tour and Grand Prix schedule includes all dates and locales for said events (with the exception of one Japanese Grand Prix and three geographically distributed events on the same weekend) for the season.
Read all that? Good. There's been plenty of digital ink spilled on these topics and What They Mean, both on this here site here and elsewhere. That said, they've tended to focus rather narrowly on one part of the high-level Organized Play experience. I'm starting to see ripple effects and possible futures.
Of course, specific predictions are the stuff of dated science fiction, but present-day readers of The Forever War forgive Vietnam veterans training recruits on a "planet Charon" past Pluto because of its timeless truths about war and what comes next. There's no way my predictions are 100% correct, but it's the spirit of exploration that counts.
I'm going to start with a few premises that aren't universally accepted but which I believe to be true:
1. Wizards is looking at the big picture with its reform of the PTQ system. That means new PTQs, the Grand Prix Schedule, Magic Online, and the World Magic Cup as an organic whole. The incomplete announcements Wizards has made so far do not reflect the whole scope of Organized Play in 2015.
2. Wizards is dealing in good faith. Wizards is a business. It exists to make money, and the Pro Tour is part of the marketing budget. That doesn't equal bad faith. When there's a genuine problem, Magic players from A to Z will let Wizards know, but problems happen even when there's good faith to start with. Genuine bad faith would destroy the Pro Tour and Wizards knows this.
3. Wizards is listening to feedback. When Planeswalker Points invites didn't work, that system got scrapped. When Magic Online premier play became unacceptable, it got stopped. Heck, if Wizards ignored feedback, Grand Prix tournaments wouldn't award any invitations to the Pro Tour, much less the eight that every stop now receives. If something makes sense to Wizards and fits the budget, it will be done.
Now, speaking of Magic Online, I suspect (as I have no inside source) that the original plan at Wizards was to get people acclimated to a two-tier PTQ system with Magic Online's system of preliminary PTQs.
Back when Wizards thought online PTQs would return March 12, 2014, it announced a certain detail that attracted modest notice at the time, though it did receive a mention in the StarCityGames.com news article on the topic: the two-stage PTQ process. Granted, this wasn't (and isn't) a perfect match for the paper two-tier PTQ system that is coming, but if all had gone according to plan, there would have been more than four months of two-tier Magic Online PTQs before the paper announcement. The narrative could've gone, "These have been a success on Magic Online and our paper PTQ series is about to become a victim of its own success, so..."
Instead, the two-tier paper PTQs became more of an "oh, hey, this is a new thing" announcement, which brought all the Chicken Littles to the yard.
So let's talk about this two-tier paper PTQ system, shall we?
First off, some of the numbers for the Regional PTQs seem completely and utterly wrong.
For instance, that a total of 31 Regional PTQs and 16 of them, more than half, are in the United States and Canada.
Actually, that proportion isn't so far off-base. At the risk of using old data, I looked back to April 2012 and a deep-dive I made into early World Magic Cup data . (Kindly forgive the lack of commas.) Using the spreadsheet, I examined the number of players who achieved at least 300 Planeswalker Points in the eligibility season worldwide. The regional breakdowns:
US, Canada, Puerto Rico: 5351 players
Europe (including Israel, Turkey, and South Africa, but not Denmark because I left it out of the original population sample): 2931 players
Latin America: 467 players
APAC: 906 players
Japan: 728 players
Total: 10383 players
The United States and Europe numbers make perfect sense, accounting as they do for so many players, though Europe has proportionally fewer slots. Latin America, APAC, and Japan are more problematic, but one must remember also that Organized Play opportunities are vastly different between these regions and it is far easier for a Japanese player, for instance, to accrue 300 Planeswalker Points in a single season than it would be for a Peruvian player. (I chose Peru mostly so I could rerun this classic picture of the 2012 Peru team featuring Gabriela "Heavily Armed Hello Kitty" Ruiz, who became eligible for the nation's WMCQs off just 57 Planeswalker Points.)
Even so, precisely one regional PTQ in Japan seems oddly low. What could Wizards be thinking?
Well, to start, even though Wizards administration puts Japan in its own category, geographically Japan is linked to the Asia-Pacific region. Summing the two yields 1634 players, which puts four APAC + Japan Regional PTQs at just about the right number (five would be nicer, but so it goes). There's also a significant point regarding player mobility: players may travel outside their immediate vicinities, and even across Wizards play regions, to participate in Regional PTQs.
Players aren't the only ones who will be mobile. The Regional PTQs surely will rotate between cities. There are eight Europe Regional PTQs but far more countries on that continent, to say nothing of far-flung administrative additions Israel, Turkey, and South Africa. To reward eight nations at the risk of angering all the others with permanent placement would be folly. Now take Latin America or APAC and do the same thing with three slots! It's absurd. They'll rotate. They must.
When Wizards was paying for plane tickets for winners of individual PTQs, that meant booking a lot of travel for locations that aren't exactly happening hotspots. (PTQs for winter Pro Tours held in Fairbanks, Alaska, for example... that's not a lot of choice for getting to hub airports . I also can attest from personal experience that getting flights in and out of Lubbock, TX is not easy...sorry, Mad Hatter! Even StarCityGames.com's favorite airport, Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional, is so limited in its selection that a West Coast trip always means a connection.
So 90s it's not even funny. Especially not to Clear Channel.
Carefully choosing Regional PTQ locations would allow Wizards to "stack the deck" somewhat regarding what flights they have to book and how many. (All those who believe Regional PTQs will start clustering around hub airports, raise your hands!) As a further bonus, Regional PTQ placement would also allow Wizards to manage how many of those tickets it has to buy by minimizing the number of Regional PTQs with 129-plus players.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Wizards giving away 248 invitations to a single Pro Tour via Regional PTQ is a total fantasy. Wizards itself thinks Regional PTQs will average 100 players. I don't think they'll average that many myself. For one, the number of Advanced-and-better game stores is a hard cap on the number of possible Preliminary PTQs; the language of "potentially more than 3,000 Preliminary PTQs" is going to run into the hard reality of not every store running one, not to mention the attrition from players who win Preliminary PTQs but have life get in the way of the Regional PTQ.
With perfect distribution of players worldwide to induce Wizards to give out 248 invitations via Regional PTQ, it'd take 129 x 31 = 3999 participants. Even if there were 3000 players distributed to give maximum numbers of invitations--crowding 129 at a time into certain Regional PTQs and leaving others staffed with only eight players, to emphasize the absurdity--only 22 of the 31 Regional PTQs would give out eight invitations. (129 x 22 = 2838 players; 8 x 9 = 72. Summing those leaves 90 players at loose ends, not enough to make a 23rd Regional PTQ give bonus invitations.)
Even with all my grand contortions, I only come up with 212 Regional PTQ invitations, down from the total number currently given by single-slot PTQs. The additional Grand Prix flights have to come from somewhere, as does the airfare for players who go 11-5 at each Pro Tour while not making the Top 25. This is the route, and I can't begrudge Wizards for it.
The Regional PTQ system poses its own set of problems, of course. Will a nation such as South Africa, which formerly had single-slot PTQs, be stuck thousands of kilometers away from any Regional PTQs? Will a "Europe" Regional PTQ slot go to them every year, or every other year? Will a Grand Prix go to South Africa in 2016 to put eight slots within reach?
Nations such as South Africa aren't the only ones vulnerable. US states and territories could also find trouble. Take Puerto Rico, for instance. Previously it had a decently reliable rotation for individual PTQs, but what are its chances of getting a Regional PTQ slot, even once a year? Hawaii makes a surprising amount of sense for a Regional PTQ location (guaranteed low-ish turnout, plus a "safety valve" for APAC and Japan grinders plus those North American and Latin American players willing to make the flight). Now, I know Hawaii has Advanced-level stores because it gets PTQs, but hours of Google searching have left me unable to find a table or map of Advanced-level stores, which is soon to become very important for finding Preliminary PTQs and Grand Prix Trials!
So far I've dealt with near-term consequences of the Premier Play changes. What about things farther out--for example, the end of Gold Pros visiting PTQs for plane tickets because they get those now instead of cash? How will the placement of the July 2015 Pro Tour's Regional PTQs in the same block of time as the April 2015 Pro Tour affect things? (It's hard for a Silver-level player to participate in a Regional PTQ and a Pro Tour simultaneously!)
Moving out into Wild Speculation Land, there are a few wrinkles for 2015 that the Regional PTQ system suggests. For one, will Magic Online's end-stage PTQs remain the only single-slot invitation events in the land, or will they evolve to have fewer rounds and more blue envelopes? For another, will the World Magic Cup Qualifiers stay as they are or be replaced by another system?
Holding three separate tournaments across the same number of weekends was, and is, wasteful in countries such as Guatemala and Luxembourg. In the United States, the World Magic Cup Qualifier patterns for three years running have enriched certain locales (California, the Ohio Valley Midwest, the Baltimore-District of Columbia area) at the expense of other hotbeds of Magic activity (Texas, Florida, and Washington State come to mind). The two-step PTQ system brings to mind the old-school ways of the Regionals-Nationals path. Could a new system of Nationals fix some of the World Magic Cup's ills?
There's an old line about science fiction stories--usually I see it attributed to Frederik Pohl --that a good one should predict not just the automobile but the traffic jam.
In 2015, where will Magic players drive?