World Magic Cup Qualifiers Revisited
Gen Con is less than a month away and this year Legacy and Vintage won't be the only Magic World Championships decided in Indianapolis. The inaugural World Magic Cup will bring together 70 teams of three to four players each in a bruising brawl that will send four teams on to the next Pro Tour and one team home with the title of Team World Champion...maybe.
Just as the Players Championship will award the title "Player of the Year" the World Magic Cup will award the title of "World Magic Cup Champion." Note the distinct lack of the words "World" and "Champion" on both pages. What's the reason? Is Wizards looking to make a clean break from the past Worlds cycle or is it a bit of delicate dancing until the old Pro Players Club benefits expire and the Hall of Fame is modified as necessary to accommodate the new structure? Inquiring minds want to know but probably won't find out until 2013.
Now that the field for the World Magic Cup is set it's time to revisit this initial round of World Magic Cup Qualifiers: who made the field who didn't and how qualification might change for the next edition of the World Magic Cup. Let's go!
In the Field
There are 279 players on the Invitation List (280 minus one for that mysteriously blank final slot for Wales). Odds are that there will be fewer than 279 participants total; Victor Fernando Silva of Brazil for example has known U.S. visa issues that may preclude his participation. Throw in the inevitable "life getting in the way" and it's a good thing that the World Magic Cup is designed for a team to absorb the loss of a member though it creates a far tougher road to the Top 32 cut; all three players have to be on their A-games because there's no room for any one player to have a bad day if the team wants to make it to Day 2.
While the World Magic Cup demographics are still overwhelmingly male at least three women are on various World Magic Cup teams: Tatsiana Suponeva of Cyprus Carrie Oliver of England and Gabriela Ruiz of Peru. Magic's come a long way from Worlds 2003 when Eda Bilsel carried Turkey's flag as its National Champion and was treated as a novelty act in many ways (it's hard to read the second paragraph of her feature match coverage without wincing). That's not to say Magic is in a perfect place now but at the same time I won't deny the real progress that's been made. Not only are there at least three women invited to the World Magic Cup Carrie Oliver represents traditional Magic powerhouse England and is a recognized professional personality neither of which has a precedent from Team Worlds that I can remember.
Whereas Peru's 2011 National Championship was open (meaning under the rules of the time that only the champion would be invited to Worlds) as was the Cyprus National Tournament the same year the new World Magic Cup system gives four slots to every country large or small. Cyprus had a total of 39 players eligible for its World Magic Cup Qualifiers and Peru 137 players both at the 50-Planeswalker-Points-in-a-Season baseline. One of the strengths of the World Magic Cup system is the way it gives more players from smaller or less well-known Magic-playing countries a chance in the spotlight—and more chances at said spotlight. One bad day no longer means automatic dismissal from the international dream. That's good news not only for the Suponevas and Ruizes of the world but every eligible player in countries like Ecuador Macedonia Luxembourg and Panama. (The emphasis is on "eligible" as I'll discuss below.)
Out in the Cold
If Wizards' intent was to separate the team and individual aspects of international championships mission accomplished. Only half of the Players Championship field also will be at the World Magic Cup; five Americans (Owen Turtenwald Reid Duke Josh Utter-Leyton Jon Finkel and David Ochoa) and three Japanese (current and possibly last World Champion Jun'ya Iyanaga Shouta Yasooka and Shuhei Nakamura) did not make their countries' respective World Magic Cup teams. Had Luis Scott-Vargas not won a World Magic Cup Qualifier he too would have been out in the cold. Note that this is not particularly unusual going by previous Worlds tournaments; every year many more Americans for example would be at Worlds than were on the U.S. National Team.
On the other hand the route for a National Team member to reach the individual pinnacle is much tougher provided she or he is not already such a Pro Points crusher that an at-large berth is assured. The theoretical route would be a qualification for Pro Tour Return to Ravnica by a Top 4 placement at the World Magic Cup followed by winning the Pro Tour (!) and then the Players Championship against an absolute murderers' row of the game's best; by then of course a previously unknown player hardly would be an unknown. If the Players Championship-World Magic Cup system stays intact the days of an out-of-nowhere individual champion a Julien Nuijten or an Uri Peleg are gone. Whether that's a bug or a feature is up to interpretation.
The biggest loss from the standpoint of tradition is not the loss of Worlds itself but the tournament to decide the National Champion. This has been mentioned elsewhere most notably Sean FitzGerald in his "open letter" to Wizards from Ireland. I haven't seen any arguments that Brian Kibler for example is unworthy of being National Champion for the U.S. but I'll argue that missing a Pro Tour because of school or work commitments shouldn't disqualify a player from being a National Champion.
Qualifiers: What Went Wrong? What Went Right?
It's important to separate the rushed aspect of this year's World Magic Cup Qualifiers with the way things may play out next year. The one-season qualification procedure will be replaced by a yearlong qualification next year which would be an improvement albeit not the one I would like to see (as I'll get to in a bit). One 50-50 day at a Grand Prix was enough to get most players at least halfway to World Magic Cup Qualifier eligibility this year whereas a year-based eligibility procedure will require more (and more consistent) play.
The World Magic Cup Qualifiers for 2012 had to be shoehorned into various countries' Magic schedules which created several headaches. The sheer lack of time to build up interest as well as the more atomized nature of World Magic Cup qualification compared to the old Team Worlds likely contributed to reduced attendance. Conflicts with preexisting events such as the Baltimore World Magic Cup Qualifier in the U.S. being scheduled on the same weekend as a StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis featuring the Invitational also hurt.
The World Magic Cup must be given time to develop its new traditions; there's too much good about the structure to throw it away after only a year. That said...
Waiting on the World Magic Cup Qualifiers to Change
... There will be adjustments for both large and small countries to improve the World Magic Cup as a marketing tool for Wizards of the Coast. (Remember the whole Organized Play apparatus is designed to promote Magic and sell booster packs.) There is one big change I hope happens.
Points qualification changes. The short version: I want the Planeswalker Points thresholds for World Magic Cup Qualifier eligibility gone.
The long version: What did the Planeswalker Points thresholds do for the World Magic Cup Qualifiers? In smaller countries such as Latvia and Macedonia they unnecessarily restricted the number of players who could participate and they forced Malta to cancel its participation* because out of 48 players to score Planeswalker Points in Malta during the qualifying period only five had 50 or more points not enough to field a World Magic Cup Qualifier tournament. Malta actually had more players pay into Magic tournaments over the period in question than Latvia or Macedonia a total of 48 Maltese compared to 45 Latvians and 39 Macedonians. Players from Latvia or Macedonia however can cross land borders and play in other countries such as in Grand Prix tournaments. Getting out of the island nation of Malta is more challenging.
Wizards brought out the Planeswalker Points system meaning for it to be a fun and positive incentive system. Unfortunately in virtually every case it has appeared as a treadmill or punishment to the player base. "Play a bunch of tournaments and grind your way onto the Pro Tour minimal skill required" felt like a punishment and rightly was scrapped. The Planeswalker Points system for deciding who is eligible for World Magic Cup Qualifiers also represents a barrier to entry. "You didn't play enough" the threshold sniffs "so now we won't take your money to enter this tournament. Nyah nyah!" When Malta held an open Nationals last year 28 players took a swing at the invitation to Worlds and the plane ticket. The player base would have been there to support the World Magic Cup Qualifiers had the thresholds not been in the way.
Two Approaches to World Magic Cup Qualifiers 2013
Any changes made will be up to Wizards and Organized Play but here are two possible future directions for the World Magic Cup and its system:
A "whatever works" system that replicates Nationals in certain countries. Some nations simply aren't built for a system of three many-players-eligible winner-takes-all Qualifiers geographically distributed; my previous take on the World Magic Cup Qualifiers noted how the state of Texas was put at a disadvantage within the U.S. as the closest Qualifier Texans could play in was in Missouri several hundred miles away. (The Mexico World Magic Cup Qualifier in Monterrey was closer but no help for most Texans!) Countries with large or unusual land area (such as Russia and Chile) do not allow for easy travel to all three World Magic Cup Qualifiers and so the old Regionals-Nationals system makes more sense for these countries.
A "whatever works" system might function as follows. Smaller countries have open World Magic Cup Qualifiers while larger countries such as the U.S. hold World Magic Cup... Well "Qualifier Qualifiers" sounds ridiculous so let's go with "Regional Qualifiers" instead. The Regional Qualifiers would be open to all and a predetermined number of players from each Regional Qualifier would be eligible for the U.S. World Magic Cup Qualifiers along with Silver-and-above Pro Players Club members. The World Magic Cup Qualifiers themselves would be held in three locations across the country chosen to maximize travel convenience.
The tournament organizers who put on the World Magic Cup Qualifiers for the U.S. each put up at least $5000 in prizes for their respective Qualifiers—and at $30 a player all of them ended up getting burned. I don't want that to happen next year. Regional Qualifiers with modest travel awards to get to the World Magic Cup Qualifier make sense to me for the U.S. if not for any other nation.
Embracing the PTQ comparison in all nations. The inevitable comparison between Pro Tour Qualifiers and World Magic Cup qualifiers turned out to be fairly accurate from the perspective of tournament attendance even in the U.S. where no World Magic Cup Qualifier went past eight rounds and a cut to Top 8. What if Wizards embraced that comparison turning a potential negative into a positive? The World Magic Cup itself is structured so that multiple formats will be played on later days so why not emphasize that in the Qualifiers as well?
Imagine a slow burn of excitement as players qualify for the World Magic Cup each season: one in the fall with Limited one in the winter with Modern and one in the spring with Standard. Then it's a scramble for players to joust for the "top pro" slot as the last member of each country's World Magic Cup team. Giving each Qualifier in the U.S. a high cash prize as well ($10000 is effectively the floor now the way the StarCityGames.com Open Series has set the standard) will mitigate the disadvantages a "one size fits all" system would have for Magic's biggest market. The old U.S. Nationals gave out $20000 in 2011 as I recall.
No system is perfect of course. How National Champions are determined will remain thorny for example; my dream of one Commander game among the four Cup team members to decide the National Champion likely should remain just that (though can you imagine how fun it would be to see what happens when both Brian Kibler and Luis Scott-Vargas try to break Commander?).
I hope you've enjoyed this look at the World Magic Cup Qualifiers and I hope you're as excited for the World Magic Cup as I am. I'll be at Gen Con this year (say hello if you see me) and I'll have to take a peek at the action. The World Magic Cup marks a new phase of Organized Play and I want to be there when it dawns.
As always thanks for reading.
@jdbeety on Twitter
*I feel especially bad for Carlos Dalli who would've received the National Champion slot as Malta's top Planeswalker Points earner. He was in line for a plane ticket and then he lost it because Malta's player base didn't meet an artificial restriction that had little connection to the reality of play on the island. To me he will be Malta's 2012 National Champion even if he doesn't get to go to Gen Con and carry the Maltese flag. I know it's late in the process but it might be a good gesture for Wizards to extend a special invitation to the World Magic Cup to Mr. Dalli even if he won't be able to go on to Day 2 without a team to back him.