Do I have your attention?
I like looking back on things. You can gain a deeper understanding of the present if you try to figure out how the past shaped it. Our lives as Magic players changed when they announced the PPTQ system; a set of tournaments that would lead to a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier that would decide a delegate to the Pro Tour. This system has been met with both praise and disdain, but primarily because there was a fear that PPTQs would “dumb down” competitive Magic. We'll get to that part later.
Today I want to examine a system that, for all intents and purposes, seems flawed and broken to me. I won't be pulling punches. I won't be dumbing things down. I won't espouse rhetoric or propagate nonsensical claims. I want to examine the intrinsic problems that exist within the PPTQ system, how to possibly fix them, and the ramifications of allowing them to exist.
History Repeating Itself
Do you guys and gals remember City Champs?
One of the more... interesting... ideas WoTC rolled out some near ten years ago, City Champs were tournaments that people played in in order to win and qualify to be the “Champion” of your city. This granted you byes at the now-defunct Regionals tournament which fed into Nationals.
The theory was to create a path: Local to Regional. Regional to National. National to World.
Sounds familiar, right? Local PPTQ to Regional PTQ. Regional PTQ to Pro Tour.
The reason why, at the time, this seemed so revolutionary is because it put a lot of the power in the hands of local stores. Your LGS could run four of these City Champ events which fed into a final, combined City Championship, and that event would determine your winner. At the time the buzz surrounding it was palpable. Creating another tournament series fostered a new level of prestige that local players hadn't ever seen. Your typical FNM player who never traveled to a bigger event all of a sudden had something to push for. If they could become a City Champion, maybe it would lead to bigger things!
But then it didn't.
City Champs lasted for one year and was discontinued.
Much like the current PPTQ system, too many local stores signed up for it and under-delivered. A large sum of the player base was poisoned by very low prize support, small turnouts, and a goal that was sequence-oriented and required a level of commitment beyond just bouncing around all the game stores in your area. And then there were cities that didn't even have stores, and players who would have to travel distances comparable to the ones they'd have to go in order to get to Regionals in the first place. At that point, what was the reason to participate in City Champs at all?
Quickly written off as a novelty, City Champs faded into obscurity; primarily being reduced to an example of what not to do going forward. City Champs was Poochie from The Simpsons.
Why PPTQs Are Poochie
Right out of the gate, I was a huge supporter of PPTQs. Anything that creates a path for a Magic player to ascend to the Pro Tour seemed like an outrageously interesting concept. But then the horror stories started to roll in, as did the tales of people winning their eleven-player events. Low prize support and shady store activities began to strip the pool of positivity I had generated. Once the last PTQ had fallen, I read a lot of upsetting things about how PPTQs were playing out.
Originally my title was “Why PPTQs Could Kill Magic,” but I figured it would be too dramatic and almost entirely false. Magic is the biggest it has ever been, and as someone who has been slinging spells for almost sixteen years, I'm always in awe of how humongous it is. We are coming off the release of arguably the best Core Set in history, yet doesn't it feel like something is missing?
Here's an example of some of the conversations I've had this weekend:
Me: “Hey! You going to the PPTQ in Tampa?”
It's too far.
There's one close to my house in August.
Who drives for PPTQs?
Friends I have made over years and years of playing have essentially given up the road and rest in their opulence and wealth of PPTQs surrounding their area. Others in far more quaint areas are forced to either travel to play in a tournament that, if won, would qualify them for another tournament that they had to travel to and win in order to send them to the Pro Tour. The spirit cannot sustain the massive drop in expected value from these events, and eventually succumbs to malaise.
I have watched too many players take a step back from Magic because the PPTQ system offered them too little. I live in an area where one occurs every six months and the closest ones are - at the least - two hours or more away. The “local” scene - one that takes years to foster - is dying because players no longer have the incentive to grind for a huge payoff. The comradery is almost non-existent, and a game which is supposed to bring us together is now the cause for each of our isolation.
This has also caused a lapse in the competitive scenes of each area. Tournaments used to contain a large amount of “ringers,” which is a term for players who have a high propensity for winning. These people often raised the bar in a scene, and caused everyone to step up their game in order to defeat them. There are players who, if I beat at an event, made me feel like winning was secondary to taking them out. It made us all play better and study harder to be good Magic players. These were the halcyon days, and they helped a community grow.
Lastly, and possibly most prominently on my list of concerns with the PPTQ system, is the difficulty that a large amount of stores seem to be having at running them effectively. My social media feed on any given weekend is littered with “drove to a store and there was a cap that they didn't announce” or “paid twenty dollars of entry, Top Eighted, and received four packs” or “the turnout was so low we had to play our sealed decks in Top Four instead of drafting a Top Eight.”
The mentality that every store that can run a PPTQ perpetuates the fallacy that all stores are capable of running a PPTQ. Under the old PTQ system, tournament organizers would typically book hotels or venues that could house over a hundred players, sometimes many more, while most PPTQs are held within the store. In the event that fifty people show up to a store that can only accommodate thirty, twenty players get shafted out of a PPTQ and are left with a very sour taste in their mouths. As a WotC Advanced Store, should this be happening?
Between poor prize support and low turnout in non-major metropolitan areas, this tournament structure gives way to the possibility of turning players off from attending them. This isn't to say a large amount of them aren't ran well and smoothly, because of course they are. This is more meant to expose a glaring weakness that needs to be addressed.
I can keep the fix simple: bring back PTQs.
Six months ago, PTQs existed alongside PPTQs and I believe that is a system that provides the “best” of the two worlds WotC understands to exist. A PTQ allows for players all over the area, within hours of travel, to test their skills against the strongest players in their state (or cross-state area) and qualify for the Pro Tour. Winning a PTQ meant something, and playing in them was intoxicatingly fun and rewarding.
For the players who are unable to win a PTQ, preserve the PPTQ system and allow a “last chance” Regional PTQ each season for those who were unable to win one of their own. This gives the competitive crowd multiple avenues to achieve their PT dream while still maintaining the feel of the PPTQ system.
Another aspect to fixing the PPTQ system is stricter guidelines on who should be allowed to run these events. They don't need to have a lofty status because they are far more accessible, but standards should be set in place in terms of prize support and space to accommodate players. The days of a store than can only hold twenty people running a PPTQ should be over, because they don't give everyone the opportunity to participate. I've heard stories of a store in Orlando that didn't have enough seating, so players were sat outside at picnic tables under an awning during a thunderstorm. I thought it was a joke until multiple people posted about it, and one of them even contacted me and told me all about it.
A criterion is required for determining which stores possess the capabilities to run these events, and must be far more stringent than we see at present in order to prevent bad experiences from polluting the overall vision of PPTQs. This way, a PPTQ will feel more like a polished product being offered to players rather than a tournament that can be wantonly signed up for. Eliminating horror stories is paramount to their continued success and giving them a future.
Obviously I'm playing in a PPTQ.
I'm one of the lucky ones to have a fantastic LGS in my area, so while it's unfortunate we only get a PPTQ on rare occasions, at least I know it will be ran to perfections. Not everyone gets a 2 Drop Game Shop.
But there are a lot of people who aren't as lucky. Taking what we know works and what we know doesn't is going to be extremely important to refining the PPTQ process over the next few years in order to create a product that doesn't get stuck in people's craws and which presents a clear pathway of what qualifying for the Pro Tour looks like without all the potholes.
What do you think? Is the system perfect? Flawed? Am I overreacting? Do you miss PTQs, or are you glad they're gone?
With such a complicated issue facing us, close examination is all we have when it comes to uncovering the truth.
I just want better tournaments, better communities, better players, and more fun. Is the PPTQ system hurting that overall? You tell me.