The Planeswalker Points system has a noble goal but a problematic implementation. As a tool for allowing players to track constantly upward progress it works admirably and can provide players at most skill levels a barometer against which to measure their results without the disincentive to play or the negative feelings that could come along with the Elo system. As a method for awarding invitations and rewarding success in high level play however it falls short due to its vulnerability to exploitation and its emphasis on quantity over quality of results. Related to this it suffers from the problems of uncertainty and burnout as the competitive nature of the system causes players to feel compelled to continue playing when they might not otherwise want to for fear of missing out on their reward and losing all of the work they've already put into the system.
With the first competitive season nearly in the books we've gotten a chance to see the impact of the PWP system on player behavior. The results have shown that at the top of the standings players have responded to the incentives and increased their play (or at least their point acquisition) dramatically. Many of the top point earners have acquired a huge percentage of their points from constantly playing in low-level events. A huge number of the players in the Top 100 have secured their place there by essentially exploiting the system.
The biggest hole in the current model that allows this to happen lies with the increased value of side events at Pro Tours and Grand Prix events. While the motivation behind this change is understandable – to avoid having players feel pressured to stay in the GP/PT to earn PWP when they're out of contention for any kind of prizes – the actual impact is much broader. Players are traveling to GPs and PTs with the sole intention of playing in these high value side events to earn points and doing so at a faster rate than players who are actually competing in the main event.
At GP San Diego I received 328 points for finishing in the Top 64 while Gerry Thompson played in side events during his byes missed day two played one round of the PTQ before dropping and played in seven side events on Sunday to earn more planeswalker points than I did. At the World Championships I once again placed in the Top 64 earning 468 points for my finish while my roommate Jeff earned more points playing in nothing but side events. Some players earned more points over the weekend than Jun'ya Iyanaga who *won the World Championships*. This is clearly indicative of a flawed point structure.
Similarly the FNM multiplier has dramatically over-emphasized the importance of those tournaments. If you look at the point totals of many of the PWP leaders you'll see that a huge percentage of their points come from FNM and many of them earn points from multiple large FNM events a week. This kind of behavior is not what the PWP system should reward. While players should not be penalized if they want to go to FNM and have fun (like they could be under the ELO system if they lost) they should also not feel compelled to do so for fear of falling behind. I drove out to Las Vegas for vacation over Thanksgiving weekend and I brought my cards with me just in case I made it in time to go to FNM because I thought I might need the points. I didn't get there in time and instead went out with friends as was the purpose of my trip. But the fact that I was debating this is insane and that should not be the sort of decisions the PWP system is forcing players to make.
I think the PWP system if implemented correctly is a great way to reward players who perform consistently well but fall short of winning an invitation. As the primary method for awarding invitations however it fails on a number of levels.
The removal of invitations from top finishes at Pro Tour and Grand Prix events poses a serious problem. It eliminates the possibility for a player who does not have the time (or frankly the desire) to play in a large number of events to get on the Pro Tour. Up until now a player who is interested in playing on the Pro Tour can legitimately imagine themselves qualifying with a top finish at a Grand Prix or winning a PTQ and following that up with solid finishes for a few events to earn a place on the "train". That's just not possible under the new system.
At this year's World Championships David Caplan finished in the Top 4 and was awarded an invitation to the following Pro Tour *only* because of the fact that he earned 16 PT points for his finish before the PT point system was eliminated – if he had lost in the quarterfinals he would not be qualified. Andrew Cuneo won a spot in the World Championships via the Magic Online Championship series and finished in 10th place; he is not qualified for Honolulu.
When I started playing Magic again a few years ago I won a PTQ for Honolulu where I finished in the Top 8. Under the new system I would not have been qualified for PT Austin which I went on to win.
It is absolutely crucial that players can earn invitations with top finishes at Pro Tour and Grand Prix events. There exists a sufficiently large number of players who are willing to game the PWP system that they can lock out anyone who is unable or unwilling to do so making it impossible for those players who don't commit massive amounts of time to qualify.
I can't imagine that it is WotC's intention to send the message that the Pro Tour is only for those who are willing to forsake everything else to play. If anything players like Paul Rietzl and Josh Utter-Leyton – players who are able to succeed at the highest levels despite holding full time jobs – should be held up as examples.
It's important to note that the PWP system not only selects against those who can't commit the time to compete but also against those in regions that don't have constant high level competitive play – that is to say virtually everywhere outside the United States and maybe parts of western Europe and Japan. The loss of Grand Prix invitation slots as well as the qualification path of Nationals to the World Championships has all but locked out players in small markets from possibly being able to make it on the Pro Tour. Sure they can win a PTQ but even that only gives them the chance to play at a single Pro Tour and they won't even qualify for the next event if they make Top 8! How many PT stars would never have had a chance to exist under the new system? Paulo Vitor Damo de Rosa? Martin Juza? Jeremy Neeman? These players would simply have had no opportunity to make their mark on the Pro Tour under the new system unless they won PTQ after PTQ after PTQ – but more than likely they'd get discouraged and give up long before then.
Even for those players who have the time and resources to game the system playing in multiple FNMs every week and flying to GPs and PTs to play in side events the current PWP invite implementation is not a purely positive one. The uncertainty of their potential invitations means they feel compelled to continue playing in events for fear of someone else passing them. The fact that the points reset from season to season gives the system the characteristics of a Dutch auction – even if they don't win they still lose everything they've put into the system up to that point for absolutely no reward.
Take as an example Chris Mascioli who is in 70th place as of this writing. Chris has been actively attempting to "grind" PWP since the announcement though he has not gone so far as to travel to GPs or Pro Tours for side events. His point total for the season thus far is 1936 with 615 of those points coming from FNM. That's nearly a full third of his point total! He has played in quite a few PTQs but has by his own omission failed to make Top 8 in a single event. Chris has spoken out openly against the perverse incentive structure of the PWP system despite the fact that he is positioned to reap its rewards saying that it led him to sleep overnight in a subway station so he'd be able to go to both FNM and a PTQ the next day.
Chris is certainly not alone in feeling like he has to play in events to keep up. I know that Alex Bertoncini who was several hundred points ahead of his closest realistic competitor still flew out to Worlds and played in upward of a dozen events over the weekend for fear of being overtaken. Zaiem Beg also in the Top 100 said that he has gone to FNM with a 101 degree fever more concerned about the potential of missing out on points than for his own health.
It's also worth noting the impact PWPs has had on what it means for people to "play" in events. Many players at Worlds were signing up for multiple events at once hoping that the rounds of those events would occur staggered in such a way that they could play in all of them. If not they'd show up to their round long enough to concede to ensure that they wouldn't be dropped. I know multiple players who signed up for events and simply conceded every round to receive participation points and for the potential of being awarded a bye at some point. Not only does this behavior hurt anyone who is attempting to compete in the PWP race without resorting to such shenanigans but it also hurts anyone who gets paired against one of these players and actually wanted to play Magic.
Also at issue is the importance of getting in on the ground floor of the system. A player who misses the early weeks of a season is at an enormous disadvantage. I can certainly imagine that a player whose goal is qualifying might not bother attending any Grand Prix during a particular competitive season if he can't attend all of them both because they lack a substantial number of invitation slots and because the chance of beating out players who are attending most of the GPs seems very small. It's also worth noting that the current competitive season is dramatically more important than any other because the top finishing players this season will not only get an invitation to PT Honolulu but will also earn byes for every Grand Prix next season while players who sat the season out for whatever reason will have to start from the bottom when the next season begins. It's a huge barrier to entry for anyone who is interested in getting into competitive Magic at a high level – they start off behind and have to do even more to catch up which could easily discourage many players from ever trying.
What to Do?
At a bare minimum some number of qualification slots need to be returned to Pro Tour and Grand Prix events. If reducing the size of the PT is a major concern these numbers can be significantly lower than before. My inclination is to award slots to the Top 8 of Grand Prix and Top 32 of Pro Tours – if that still results in too many invitations I could see cutting the GP slots to Top 4 and maybe the PT slots to Top 16 but Top 8 is a very natural break point and having to make Top 16 at a PT in order to qualify for the next seems like an incredibly lofty goal. The recently announced plan of inviting only the winner of a Grand Prix seems far too stingy particularly in light of how many players attend Grand Prix events these days. Many players interested in qualifying already skip PTQ events because they don't like the idea of playing in a tournament with several hundred players where only one can walk away with an invite. Are there players who are going to be more interested in an event with the same number of invitations with attendance upward of 1000? Perhaps the answer is cutting to higher thresholds than before like GP Top 4 and PT Top 16 but allowing invitations from otherwise qualified competitors to drop down.
As for PWPs themselves the bonus points from side events at premier events have to go. They were a solution to a minor problem that created a much bigger problem of exploitation. PWP multipliers should represent the general level of competition in an event if they're to have any legitimacy and these bonus multipliers have proven to be easily abused. Similarly the FNM multiplier is also a problem and likely ought to be reduced or eliminated. The value of FNM has led to significant levels of abuse and the importance of accumulating FNM points (and having access to large FNM events with many rounds in order to do so) is too high in the overall race for PWP.
As an aside that is somewhat related I'm also concerned for the FNM championships. As it stands only players who have access to stores that run enormous or fraudulent FNM events or live in areas where they can play in multiple FNM events every week have any realistic hope of qualifying. Other players who regularly attend and enjoy FNM and even those who are very successful at their local stores simply cannot compete. A friend of mine told me that his brother who has played FNM religiously for years and is in the top 10 lifetime for FNM points earned was very excited when he heard about the FNM championships but several weeks into the season saw how many points other players were earning and realized he had absolutely no chance of keeping up. As a result he has actually gone to FNM *less* than before the championship announcement because he felt so discouraged. I'm not sure what kind of solution exists for this problem but I feel it's important to recognize it as such; a problem.
Returning to PWP invitations another possible solution is capping the number of points that players can earn during a single competitive season from particular event types. For instance say that only the first 500 points that a player earns from FNM or side event level tournaments counts toward PWP-based invitations. This helps solve multiple issues at once. It reduces the need to constantly "grind" lower-level events ad infinitum and gives players an achievable goal after which point they no longer feel compelled to play if they don't want to as well as reducing the relative value of those events without necessarily the need to reduce their multiplier.
One big potential issue that I see with this solution is how events are classified. Would SCG Open level events be lumped in with the "lower-level" events because they have a 3x multiplier? Would PTQ and GP side events be lumped together because they are both a 5x multiplier (which they should not be by the way but that's a separate argument and one that must be resolved separately)? It's possible that the correct solution is to exempt only PTQ Grand Prix and Pro Tour events from the cap but that leaves out competitive larger events. Perhaps the best solution is to have a relatively high cap – say even 1000 points – but have that cap include everything outside of those three event types. This kind of cap would still allow players to earn a large number of points from a variety of event types but would reduce the impact of "grinding" and give players less incentive to do things like enter multiple events at once and concede or no-show when the rounds conflict.
Players would have to play a great deal to reach the cap but would not have to play non-stop for the entire duration of the competitive season to do so and could not actively harm other players' chances of qualifying by playing so much that those players would have no chance to keep up. It would also mean that the PWP invitations would tend to go to players who both played a lot and posted solid finishes at competitive events since that would make the difference among players who "capped" their lower-level event points.
The system also needs to award performance bonuses for top finishes in GP and PT level events. The relative value of performing well is too low compared to just showing up. As it stands it's worth as much to win round 1 of the PT as it is to win playing for Top 16. It is worth more to go 6-3 and miss Day Two of two Grand Prix events than it is to finish 12-3 and make Top 8 of one. The current bonus multiplier for finishing in the Top 8 of a PT needs to be extended further down the standings and also applied to Grand Prixs. Right now I feel even the 50% bonus for Top 8 at a Pro Tour seems somewhat low – a player who wins the Pro Tour earns fewer points than someone who simply attends each Grand Prix and wins a round or two on top of their byes. I think multipliers closer to 200% for Top 8 150% for Top 16 125% for Top 32 and 110% for Top 64 are closer to reasonable – perhaps even higher than that. Even with a 200% bonus my PT Austin win – which was worth 612 points without a multiplier – would only be worth 1224 points which is approximately equivalent to going 6-3 in six Grand Prix events and failing to make day two.
The relative value of performing well vs. poorly in GP and PT events is of particular importance when considering the structure of next year's Pro Player Club replacement as well as invitations to the new World Championships. The current invitation policy for next year's Worlds is based on top Professional PWP and the assumption is that the Pro Player Club replacement will use the same. Without performance bonuses the baseline point accumulation for players who attend every Grand Prix is going to dwarf that of a player who attends two events and wins them both. That seems highly problematic. Whether the Pro Player Club replacement levels are competitive (i.e. Top X Professional PWP) or based on thresholds (players with over Y Professional PWP) the system is going to be dramatically skewed toward players who attend every event compared to those who do well in a small number.
I know I am not alone in feeling like this is a problem – I don't want to attend Grand Prix events every weekend. Traveling to them is expensive and flying across the country week to week conflicts with the ability to do virtually anything else. But the relatively high baseline value of attending each Grand Prix means that missing a single event can put a player substantially behind with little potential to make up the difference by doing well in future events. This makes attending Grand Prix a very all-or-nothing proposition. I don't want to go to every Grand Prix but I don't want to feel like I might as well go to none of them either. It's important that performing well is dramatically more important than simply attending events at least as far as Professional PWP goes in order for this not to be the case.
I know that Wizards of the Coast recognizes the importance of the Pro Tour dream. I know that they want to reward top players for their achievements. I know that they don't want playing competitive Magic to turn into nothing but a grind. But I also know these positions are at odds with many of the changes they have put into place. I have faith that they will do what is in the best interests of the game as a whole in the long run and I hope that some of these thoughts might help guide them in that direction.