"My flight is at 6 AM."
"Mine is at 5:30."
"Want to share a cab?"
"Meet you in the lobby at…god, 4 AM?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"I don't know if I can take much more of this."
"Neither do I. See you next week?"
"Yep, I'll be there."
This was a typical scene over the past year. As I discussed, in a bit of an extended rant in my 2012 year in review article, the realities of pro play these days are exhausting. With the expanded Grand Prix schedule, there are tournaments seemingly every weekend. While greater availability of premier level play is great for Magic as a whole, it's proven to be quite the problem for pro players.
Let's look at the premier events I attended in 2012:
GP Austin (January 7-8, 2012) - Innistrad Sealed/Booster Draft
GP Orlando (January 14-15, 2012) - Standard
PT Dark Ascension in Honolulu (February 10-12, 2012) - Standard / Innistrad/Dark Ascension Booster Draft
GP Lincoln (February 18-19, 2012) - Modern
GP Baltimore (February 25-26, 2012) - Standard
GP Seattle-Tacoma (March 3-4, 2012) - Innistrad/Dark Ascension Sealed/Booster Draft
GP Salt Lake City (March 31-April 1, 2012) - Standard
GP Indianapolis (March 10-11, 2012) – Legacy
PT Avacyn Restored in Barcelona (May 11-13, 2012) - Innistrad/Avacyn Restored Block Constructed / Avacyn Restored Booster Draft
GP Minneapolis (May 19-20, 2012) - Standard
GP Anaheim (May 25-26, 2012) - Innistrad/Avacyn Restored Block Constructed
GP Vancouver (June 23-24, 2012) - Avacyn Restored Sealed/Booster Draft
GP Atlanta (June 30-July 1, 2012) - Legacy
GP Columbus (July 21-22, 2012) - Modern
World Magic Cup (August 17-19, 2012)
GP Boston-Worcester (August 25-26, 2012) - Magic 2013 Sealed/Booster Draft
Players Championship (August 29-31)
GP San Jose (October 8-9, 2012) - Return to Ravnica Team Sealed/Booster Draft
PT Return to Ravnica in Seattle (October 19-21, 2012) - Modern / Return to Ravnica Booster Draft
GP Philadelphia (October 27-28, 2012) - Return to Ravnica Sealed/Booster Draft
GP Chicago (November 10-11, 2012) - Modern
GP Charleston (November 17-18, 2012) - Standard
GP San Antonio (November 24-25, 2012) - Standard
GP Toronto (December 8-9, 2012) - Modern
That's nineteen Grand Prix, three Pro Tours, and two special events—and there were two North American Grand Prix that I skipped on top of those. That equates to traveling 24 weekends out of the year, barring any kind of additional travel required for playtesting, time zone acclimation, and anything else. All told, I was on the road for Magic over half of my weekends last year.
Now, to those of you at home dreaming of playing on the Pro Tour, this might seem like a great problem to have. After all, you wish you could travel around the world and play in tournaments for a living. Unfortunately for those of us who do it, the reality isn't quite as wonderful as it might appear from the outside.
Grand Prix are hardly moneymaking enterprises for pro players. We have to pay for all of our own expenses. Those of us who are Platinum level in the Pro Players Club do receive an appearance fee of $250. But when you do the math, that amount only helps defray a fraction of the costs.
My typical expenses for a Grand Prix break down something like this:
It's actually probably higher than this on average since I'm coming from the west coast and need to take flights at very specific times in order to make things work out for my day job (more on that later). I'm specifically choosing a lower amount than what I actually pay to avoid people accusing me of inflating the numbers.
Again, this number is frequently higher. I generally split rooms three or four ways at Grand Prix to help defray costs, but some events don't have easily accessible affordable hotels. Grand Prix Chicago comes to mind, where my personal share of the hotel for the weekend was nearly $250, if I recall correctly.
I have to get to and from the airport somehow. Sometimes I can split rides with other players (like in my example in the intro), but frequently when flying in, I'm on my own getting to the event site.
Eating on the road isn't cheap, especially at convention concession stands with their incredibly inflated prices. Two full days at an event plus two half days traveling adds up in food costs. Again, I generally spend more than this and am sure some people will suggest that this number is too high, but it's the reality.
Entry Fee: $40 ($60 with Sleep-In Special)
Adding all that up, it costs me about $700 on average to attend a Grand Prix. Subtract from that the $250 appearance fee and I'm still $450 in the red.In order for a Grand Prix to be profitable, I have to finish in the Top 16, at which point I've made a grand total of $150.Of those nineteen GPs I listed above, I finished in the Top 16 or better at six of them.At all the others, I lost money.And this doesn't take into account the cost of acquiring cards for decks to play in those events and money spent on product to practice drafting. It also doesn't take into account the value of that time if I were to spend it doing something else.
This breakdown isn't new. Grand Prix have never been profitable on the whole, even for the best players. No one ever went to Grand Prix to make money. They went to Grand Prix because they enjoy playing in tournaments—and to accumulate Pro Points. This is where the problem lies with the current system.
The expansion of the Grand Prix program came with it a reimagining of the Pro Players Club. Before the current system with its three tiers—Silver, Gold, and Platinum—the Pro Players Club had eight levels, each with progressively increasing rewards. In the revamped system, WotC removed the lower and middle levels that provided appearance fees, airfare, or invites and replaced them with a very stratified system. If you hit Silver, you essentially get a pat on the back and firm handshake—sorry, third place, you're fired. If you hit Gold, you're on the train, but you receive no benefits aside from a lovely set of steak knives. If you hit Platinum, you can legitimately call yourself a "pro" and receive paid airfare and hotels to every Pro Tour along with appearance fees for both Pro Tours and Grand Prix.
This stratification—and the introduction of the Players Championship and World Magic Cup—has dramatically polarized the incentives for accumulating Pro Points. Pro Points go from being totally worthless aside from bragging rights to ensuring your qualification for the following year to suddenly being worth somewhere in the range of $15-20,000.
The thresholds for each of the levels in the Pro Players Club are clearly designed with the increased number of Grand Prix in mind. In order to achieve Gold, you need to accumulate 30 Pro Points throughout the season. In order to achieve Platinum, you need 45 points.
It's easy to look at the current standings in the Player of the Year race and come to the conclusion that these levels are totally reasonable. After all, Yuuya Watanabe already has 57 points, with Josh Utter-Leyton and Stanislav Cifka not far behind with 44 after only a single Pro Tour this season! I'm personally sitting at 36 points, in 8th place overall, only a few points shy of locking up Platinum for the year myself.
But let's take a look at my own points breakdown. Four of my points come from the World Magic Cup, where I placed in the Top 16 with Team USA. Six of my points come from the Players Championship. Three of my points come from my poor finish at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica in Seattle. And 23 of my points come from my finishes in Grand Prix.
So far this season, I've attended twelve Grand Prix. There are four more North American Grand Prix before the end of the season, of which I will be attending three. Assuming I manage to keep up my average of approximately two Pro Points per event, I'll likely end up with nearly 30 points from Grand Prix. Frankly, even I'm disgusted by that.
Attending a huge number of Grand Prix has simply become too important for success as a pro Magic player. This is particularly problematic because of the huge gaps in reward at the different levels of the Pro Players Club. The system is very much all or nothing. If you're not going to go to essentially every Grand Prix, it's difficult to rationally justify going to any of them because the absolute worst-case scenario is getting stuck with 29 or 44 points after spending so much time and money traveling to events. It's very similar to the old problem with the Planeswalker Points invitations—you have to put in all of the effort upfront, but you don't know until the end if everything was for nothing, so you can't stop going.
It doesn't just hurt established pro players, either. Because the current thresholds are designed with these extreme Grand Prix travelers in mind, they're far too harsh for players who are unwilling or unable to go to every event. Let's look at a few hypothetical scenarios:
Jim manages to win the first Grand Prix of the season in his hometown, which qualifies him for his first Pro Tour! He finishes in the Top 32 there, which isn't quite enough to qualify him for the next event. He manages to win two more PTQs that season, competes in both of the remaining Pro Tours, and finishes in the Top 32 of all of them. Final Pro Points: eight from the GP, six from each Pro Tour. 26. Not qualified. Sorry, try again next year.
Eddie wins a PTQ for his first Pro Tour, where he makes Top 8! He loses in the quarterfinals, but his Top 25 finish qualifies him for the next Pro Tour, where he stuns everyone by making a second consecutive Top 8! His studies keep him from preparing sufficiently for the third event of the season, and he unfortunately misses Day 2. Final Pro Points: 43. Sorry, two PT Top 8s in a season just isn't enough for Platinum.
How about a non-hypothetical example? Last year, Josh Cho was the Cinderella story of PT Avacyn Restored, making it all the way to the semifinals of his very first Pro Tour before being eliminated by eventual champion Alexander Hayne. Because it was the final event of the season, the 22 Pro Points Josh earned were not enough to earn him any kind of pro level for the following season. He failed to put up a big finish at PT Return to Ravnica, and now he's back to playing in PTQs.
It is quite simply too hard to get on to the Pro Tour now. I say this as someone who is in the Hall of Fame—I never need to worry about qualifying again. But if I did, I'd be seriously worried about my ability to do so. Winning a PTQ, as daunting as it may seem for many of you, is the actually easy part. Good luck accumulating enough points to actually stay on the Pro Tour without flying to every Grand Prix on the planet, even if you do manage to put up a great finish at the PT against the best of the best.
I understand that WotC has a stated desire to reduce the size of the Pro Tour. As someone who is perpetually qualified, this is in my best interests—the less competitors in any event, the more equity any individual player has in that tournament. But I'd rather have the Pro Tours go back to being a little bigger if it means that the dream of "going pro" could actually be a reality instead of the borderline fantasy it is for most players right now.
I understand that growing Magic from the ground up is more important than catering to those of us at the top. The current system is untenable for either group. Running more Grand Prix gives more people a chance to play competitive Magic, and that's great. But expecting pro players to travel half the weekends out of the year—losing money on most of them—in order to just stay qualified for the Pro Tour? That can't last. I'm fortunate to have a work situation that is remarkably flexible, so I'm able to hold a job in addition to traveling to events, but not everyone is so lucky. And even I'm sick of the travel, since it's essentially an eight-hour commute twice a week—one that generally starts before dawn so I can get back home in time to work on Monday.
I've talked to a lot of other pro players who've had similar Grand Prix schedules over the past year, and virtually all of them have expressed that there's no way they're going to keep it up. LSV and I have both publically stated that if there aren't changes to the system, it's unlikely we'll attend virtually any Grand Prix next year. The incentives aren't there to go to the events individually, and neither of us can handle another year of travel like the one we had last year.
How can it be fixed? Well, I'm not sure. It's not an easy problem. While I personally long for the days when there were only a half dozen Grand Prix in North America all year, I know that the expanded event schedule is important to the growth of the game, so I'm not going to suggest cutting down on events.
One solution, that I find extremely unlikely to happen, would be to bring back a fourth Pro Tour. Some of you newer readers might be shocked to learn that once upon a time there were as many as six Pro Tours in a year. Now Magic is bigger than ever, and there are only three. Adding another Pro Tour would go a long way toward allowing WotC to run enough PTQs and Grand Prix to provide play opportunities to as many players as possible while avoiding the need to grow the size of the Pro Tour events themselves. That would free up more PT spots for returning players and allow WotC to marginally reduce the PT point requirements for getting on the train. It would also at least somewhat alleviate the GP problem by giving players an additional PT to accumulate points at, which would help reduce the importance of points earned at Grand Prix.
Another possibility is to only count the best X of a player's GP finishes over the course of a year and reduce the Pro Players Club thresholds accordingly. If the Pro Players Club only counted, say, your top five Grand Prix finishes in a season, players would still have incentives to continue going to events to improve upon their best finishes (unless they managed to win five Grand Prix) but wouldn't feel like they might as well not go to any events if they can't go to them all—posting five solid finishes would put them in the thick of the points race rather than hopelessly far from anything worthwhile. Assuming Pro Players Club levels were similarly scaled back, this would reduce the pressure to attend every event and allow players to feel like they can compete even if they can't travel to every event.
The issue of the actual tournament expected value could be addressed by substantially increasing the prize pool at PT and GP level events such that the best players are more likely to be able to turn a significant profit or by increasing appearance fees/assisting players with sponsorship arrangements, etc. If WotC were interested in making pro Magic a legitimate career option, this would probably be the best direction. Look at a game like League of Legends. The top League of Legends teams are paid salaries to compete in regular broadcast tournaments on top of sponsorship deals and significant ad revenue from streaming and website traffic. While Magic doesn't have the fan base of League of Legends to justify all of this, it would go a long way toward making "pro Magic player" a realistic profession.
I understand that for many players attending tournaments isn't simply a value proposition. Most players who go to Grand Prix do so primarily for fun, with perhaps the outside shot of making back some of their money. But for pro players who are essentially expected to attend Grand Prix simply to stay qualified or retain their Pro Players Club benefits, looking at the real costs of these events is important. Personally, the biggest cost is time. I simply can't afford to spend every other weekend traveling to a Grand Prix. Granted, if my expected return were far higher (rather than being an expected net loss), I could justify more of these trips, but ultimately I just haven't had fun going to Grand Prix in a while. They've become a physical and mental drain. And that's a problem.
I don't claim to have all of the answers, but I do know that when players like LSV and me—people who have spent the majority of our lives dedicated to Magic—decide that we don't want to go to tournaments anymore, something is seriously wrong. I love tournaments, and I want to keep attending them. I just don't want to feel like I have to go to everything or nothing. Last year I went to everything, and I just can't do it anymore. Next year may very well be nothing. Something's got to give.
If you have any opinions on the state of pro play or ideas for how it might be improved, sound off in the comments. I'll be back tomorrow with my normal strategy article for the week.