Three Standard Pro Tours?
What's up with Modern?
No more Block Pro Tours?
Wait, what do you mean no more Block Pro Tours…?!
A lot has been going on lately in the Multiverse. Two weeks ago, WotC revealed the new path to the Pro Tour. Then, last weekend, at Pro Tour Magic 2015, a lot of info about next year's Pro Tour schedule was unveiled. One of the loudest pieces of news was the revealing that all four Pro Tours next year would be Standard. Then, just yesterday, WotC decided to change one of the 2015 Pro Tours to Modern after all. There are a lot of questions that come to mind:
— Why did WotC originally want to get rid of the Modern Pro Tour when the format has been doing so well?
— Why did they add it back?
— No Block Pro Tours? Really? Really? Really?
— What does three Standard Pro Tours mean, and how will WotC keep the format fresh and interesting?
Lots of good questions.
So, first of all…
What's up with the new path to the Pro Tour?
There are small but important changes like Gold being more realistic to acquire. The GP cap going up to six without the level needed for Gold increasing is a big net positive for players trying to work their way up. Even beyond that, there are more total pro points awarded at PTs, not to mention PT points being smoothed out some. Good finishes that didn't already spike hard are going to be worth more, like finishing 53rd at the PT. Knowing what record you need to hit certain benchmarks helps smooth out the variance a little too.
There is a much bigger change, however. The Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour is over eighteen years old. During all eighteen of these years, there have been Pro Tour Qualifiers, the winner of which would be invited to play in a Pro Tour. That's changing.
There are still qualifiers, of course, but there really is one more level being added to qualifying through the PTQ system. What does that mean? Is that good or bad? What are the implications?
Well, the short answer is that I think this is a big win for Magic. This is a really good thing. In determining how “easy” or “hard” it is to qualify for the Pro Tour, part of the equation is how many slots there are and how many people are fighting for them. Under the new system, there will likely be slightly more people invited than before (due to more Grand Prix than ever before), but that's not the important part.
More importantly, the PTQ system has finally been reconciled with the GP system. Grand Prix didn't use to be such a big part of the Magic experience. There used to be only a few US Grand Prix a year. Now, there is one nearly half of all weekends. Grand Prix have become a major and important way of qualifying. They are big and prestigious tournaments. They also happen to fall on weekends.
Which is when PTQs happen to fall.
For years, players have been forced to choose between attending GPs and attending PTQs. Weekly PTQs played an important role in the Magic tournament experience, providing a legit, meaningful tournament nearly every week. Twenty-four Grand Prix and double that many SCG Opens means there is never a shortage of big tournaments.
The new regional PTQ system awards either four or eight slots among a player pool half the size of many PTQs or less. In many ways, it is like playing in eight PTQs at the same time, instead of having them all spread out across eight weekends. As a competitor in a regional PTQ, your odds of qualifying for a Pro Tour are comparable to your odds of qualifying when facing a win-and-in situation in a PTQ. Win this round and you lock up Top 8. Then, one out of eight actually takes the blue envelope.
Then, in the other seven weekends, you can play in Grand Prix, SCG Opens, local tournaments, Pre-TQs to qualify for next season's PTQ, or just take a weekend off of Magic without falling way behind in the grind. This isn't to say that grinding isn't rewarded. After all, you can play in as many Pre-TQs as you want, and they are local and convenient.
For many players, having Top 8ed a PTQ is their greatest Magical accomplishment. That is no small feat either. Now, qualifying for a regional PTQ is a similar achievement. If you can accomplish that, you are something like ten times as likely to be qualifying for the Pro Tour as someone playing in an old PTQ.
Part of what makes the new system genius is balancing rewarding people that want to play in a million tournaments with increased opportunity, while not requiring people with far less time to grind endlessly or give up the dream. If you don't have much time to play in events, it is far easier to play in a local Pre-TQ (that doesn't take anywhere near as long as an old PTQ), then play in a four- or eight-slot regional PTQ (which also doesn't take as long as a PTQ). If you have the time and drive to play in tons of tournaments, you can play in every Pre-TQ you can find and compete in GPs without losing PTQ weekends.
Another feature of this change to the system is the creation of an event that in many ways captures the experience the old National Championship used to provide. I am actually a bit jealous of this aspect of it. I really miss the National Championships and am excited to see some of it return. Magic World Cup Qualifiers are great, but the stakes just aren't high enough to give it the same weight. These new regional PTQs will tend to invite more people than GPs, while having a tenth, maybe a twentieth of the field. That means each individual player's stake in the event is quite high.
So, what's the catch?
Well, change can always carry with it some risks, some challenges, and some growing pains. For instance, Mexico, Central America, and South America will combine to include three regional PTQs. By population of players, this is totally fair, if not slightly generous. The issue is that this is an enormous amount of distance some people will have to travel. Depending on where they come from, some Mexican players may need to travel almost 1000 miles to get to the regional PTQ. The distance and difficulty is even more difficult in South America. For some, plane tickets will be a mandatory part of reaching a regional PTQ.
Is this a deal breaker?
It doesn't have to be. Pre-TQ wins carry with them some prize, and the truth is, there have always been regional advantages and disadvantages for qualifying for the Pro Tour. There are so many more options to qualify in the midwest than in Idaho, for instance. South America has always carried with it plenty of challenges in this area, and advances will be made to make it more realistic, more possible for more people.
Why was WotC going to get rid of the Modern Pro Tour?
Wasn't the format doing extremely well?
Modern has been doing well. Very well. The better question is, “What does WotC need to do to support Modern and the Modern tournament scene?” Part of what it takes to make a format successful is getting everyone to play it. Just look at Commander. There are so many ways people could play casual Magic, but Commander provides a basic framework for those that want it.
WotC tried with both Extended and Four-Year Extended, but neither really caught on. Meanwhile, Legacy was successful and beloved. WotC learned from this and decided their next experiment for a format to fill this gap would come from the Legacy philosophy.
— No rotation - Even if you don't play the format all the time, whatever deck you do have from the format will generally stay playable year after year.
— A very wide base of playable decks - Power in a format naturally tends to appear in a pyramid, and Legacy was no different. Cards kept getting banned from the top, making a wider and wider cross-section of cards at the top, until the format was sufficiently diverse to help compensate for the lack of rotation.
— A minimum length of game to increase chances of games being satisfying and interactive - In Legacy, tier 1 strategies that usually win on the second turn are generally considered too fast, while turn 3 is no problem at all. Modern is a turn 4 format, and tier 1 strategies that usually win turn 3 are too fast. By contrast, Vintage is a turn 2 format, with decks that usually kill on turn 1 being “too fast.” This isn't to say that Vintage decks can't kill on turn 1 often. It only speaks to the normal use. Is the deck a tier 1 strategy and kill on turn 1 most of the time? If so, it's too fast.
WotC making Pro Tours Modern over the past several years has helped promote the format and get everyone on the same page playing them. It's also helped reveal what kinds of strategies the Modern community is okay with and what kinds of strategies make for too poor of gaming experiences.
Now that the format has caught on, WotC doesn't need to push it with Pro Tours as much. Modern played at the Pro Tour level basically ensures a new ban has to take place every single time in order to mix things up, to make for compelling stories and viewing, and frankly, because the Pro Tour provides enough incentive to the best of the best to break the format. When formats get truly broken, they often need to be fixed. Usually rotations do this, but with no rotations, there are only bans. Sometimes the format can adjust and people play with different cards to adjust to fight the surprise threat (Mono-Red Dragonstorm), but sometimes the threat is too strong (Caw-Blade).
The Modern community has tolerated a lot of bans but doesn't want bans every year. Part of the recipe for the format is supposed to be knowing that you can play your favorite strategy year-in and year-out.
Finally, from a practical standpoint, Modern Pro Tours are very poor at promoting the new set. It's not just a case of “make more cards for Modern.” Without power creeping (which would have many problems of its own), and without banning many more cards (to widen the pyramid), new Magic sets are generally not going to have all that many cards that show up regularly in Modern.
It's not just about selling new cards, it's also about Magic that people want to watch. Watching people play with new cards is exciting, while watching people go through the motions of a Pyromancer Ascension Storm combo deck gets old.
But didn't they add it back?
A lot of the success of Modern, a lot of the strength of Modern, relies on the confidence of players that Modern will be supported; it insists that Modern is for real. While Modern Pro Tours have serious costs and downsides, as detailed above, WotC also wants to make crystal clear that they are fully committed to supporting the format. If part of what it takes to do that during this key transitional period is at least one more Modern Pro Tour, so be it. Maybe more bans end up being part of the price, but hopefully now it is obvious just how serious WotC is about Modern.
It will be good for Modern when the format can successfully transition past needing to be propped up and needing annual bans to keep it functioning. It's definitely moving in the right direction and getting close. Meanwhile, the format is one people love and play because they love it. Just look at Modern tournament attendance. There's a reason Modern numbers are always through the roof, and look at the Grand Prix schedule for next year. There are going to be more Modern Grand Prix than ever before, and that's to say nothing of there being more non-GP Modern tournaments than ever before. The Modern Community has really stepped up to the plate.
What about the Block format?
There is no question: I will miss Block as a format. I would like to see a Block Pro Tour return from time to time. The format is generally so interesting, so exciting from a brewer's perspective. Different cards are good, and we see strategies we've never seen before. It even provides a sneak peak of the future, of the next year's format.
Unfortunately, not many people play Block. It can be interesting and fun to watch, but most people tend to be interested in formats they're actually going to play. I suspect we'll miss it once it's gone, and if enough people miss it and speak their mind, we may see a Block Pro Tour return in 2016. Remember, these changes are only for a year, and the next year will determine what 2016 looks like. It's also worth remembering that there are other times and places for Block to be played if people are interested in it.
But Block Pro Tours were usually so fresh and different. If there are too many Standard Pro Tours a year, won't the format get stale?
How will WotC keep Standard fresh and interesting if there are tons of Standard Pro Tours every year?
My guess is that sometime in the next couple of weeks, Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir at the latest, WotC will announce some big reveal for next year, some shakeup to tournament play. I could imagine it being a change in the ban policy, the rotation schedule, or maybe even some other twist that ensures the format will get shaken up more often.
What might a change to the ban policy be? Maybe there's a rotating ban list where every three months a card or three are banned for three months (to be unbanned in three months). Maybe one card is banned in the middle of each set's three-month release, a month and a half in.
While brewers would enjoy such a move, I am doubtful this would be WotC's path unless they came up with some elegant way of adding legitimacy to it. Maybe if the community voted on one card to ban halfway into each set, maybe that would work, but people don't love bans and it adds to the barrier to entry for playing in tournaments. Bans can be complicated, cause hard feelings, and be generally frustrating when you just traded for some twenty-dollar card.
It is very possible that WotC could find a sweet way to do this, but I think a change to the rotation schedule is more likely. A change to the rotation schedule could take many forms. For instance, what if Standard was always the six most recent sets? Now, every single set is going to mean a brand new format, even if most of the cards are the same.
Another possibility could be two rotations a year, with every other set rotating out two sets. For instance, what if Khans of Tarkir Standard contained:
— Born of the Gods
— Journey into Nyx
— Khans of Tarkir
Then, when the next set comes out, it is added to the mix; but when the third set of the block comes out, it replaces Theros and Born of the Gods. When M16 comes out, it is just added, but that fall, when the next big expansion comes out, Journey into Nyx and M15 rotate out. It may seem a little strange now, with blocks being three sets, but if the fall set had one small set and was a two-set block, and the spring set was a standalone set (being coupled with the core set), it could work. This would also sync up perfectly with the timing of having a Modern GP when the second set comes out.
What would that look like right now?
Well, under either of the above plans, Standard would currently be:
— Dragon's Maze
— Born of the Gods
— Journey into Nyx
Doesn't that seem so awesome?
— Pack Rat
For the past several years rotation has been extremely uneven among different sets. Some sets are legal for fifteen months, others for twenty-four months. Sometimes, the loudest, most overpowered cards can linger for so long if they are in one of the twenty-four month sets (like Sphinx's Revelation or Thoughtseize). What if every card was legal for eighteen months?
The freshest, most interesting, most exciting Standard formats are generally right after a rotation. If every set involved a little rotation, every Standard could be a new puzzle to solve, a new world to explore.
My preference would be to just make Standard the most recent six sets, rotating every time. The every other plan has the potential to miss some of the time, to not change enough occasionally. Additionally, it is harder to remember that just “the most recent six sets are legal.”
Under such a scheme, there wouldn't even be a need for a Block Constructed format. The biggest advantage to block is effectively “rotating out” four of the sets. If every new set rotated a set, you would get that goodness naturally. However, there is a major advantage to this style of Standard over Block. Block formats often fall apart due to only having three sets worth of cards for people to choose from. This plan would give us the novelty of Block, the newness, while keeping the format six sets big. That's a lot more room for diversity, for alternative card choice.
I don't know what WotC will announce in the weeks to come, but I am excited to see what it is, and I have a pretty good feeling that it's going to make for an even better tournament experience moving forward. The old way of doing Standard has worked for a long time, but the game is much bigger than it ever has been. There are so many players, so many tournaments, and people figure out so much, so fast. Times have changed and more is needed to keep the game new and exciting. The landscape is changing and evolving. Now is the time to let WotC know our thoughts, our ideas, our concerns, and our feedback on the next generation of Standard formats. They have demonstrated a clear desire to learn and respond to the feedback we give them about the formats and what makes them fun.
The game is about to take a big step forward, and we are helping determine what that step is.