Broken Promises: Thoughts on the Pro Tour Changes

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This weekend, during the Top 8 broadcast of Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, Wizards of the Coast announced changes to pro player benefits for next season, as well as the prize pool for upcoming World Championship events. The details of the announcement can be found here

The important details of these changes are as follows:

  • Platinum players will now receive an appearance fee of $250 per pro tour, down from $3000.
  • Players in the Hall of Fame will now receive an appearance fee of $1500 at only the pro tour including the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, rather than every pro tour.
  • The 2016 World Championship Prize pool has been increased to $250,000, from $150,000
  • The 2017 World Championship prize pool has been increased to $500,000, with a $100,000 first prize.
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    Before discussing all of this, I want to state that most of these changes do not meaningfully impact me at all. I have not seriously pursued competitive Magic professionally for several years, and have no real aspirations of reaching Platinum or qualifying for the World Championship in the near future.

    The one change that does impact me is the Hall of Fame appearance fee change, which effectively costs me $4500 a year, assuming I attend every pro tour. It’s also a change that I’m totally fine with. With the growth of the Hall of Fame every year, paying out appearance fees to every member is a steadily rising cost with dubious value to WotC.

    While I think that it’s good for Wizards to have popular Hall of Fame members at events, like LSV, Finkel, or myself, I don’t think they get much of a return from having less recognizable members showing up, especially with little to no preparation, which has been the reality of the system in recent years. While I may be somewhat less likely to attend pro tours in the future based on this change, I think it’s totally understandable. I didn’t push myself to succeed at Magic to get into the Hall of Fame with some kind of expectation of a monetary payoff in the end.

    The changes to Platinum appearance fees, however, are an entirely different matter.

    Let’s put aside, for a moment, whether the reduction of appearance fees and the increased prizes in a single tournament are a good thing. That’s at least a reasonable argument someone could make. But what is not reasonable is that Wizards of the Coast advertised the benefits of reaching Platinum status in the Pro Player club as one thing, and then three quarters of the way through the pro season, after players have spent time and money and sacrificed other aspects of their lives in order to achieve that status, changed those benefits to something much worse.

    This is really the crux of the problem of this whole announcement. Wizards has essentially pulled a bait and switch on their most dedicated pro players, telling them all year that if they achieved a certain threshold of success that they would be rewarded in a certain way. Players have spent all year aiming for that critical threshold, sometimes flying to tournament across the world on consecutive weekends in the quest for those precious fifty pro points, and they have now had the rug pulled out from under them just before the finish line.

    I do not simply think this is a bad policy change. I think this is incredibly disrespectful toward some of Magic’s most dedicated ambassadors. I believe this is deceitful, and downright immoral, especially given that it’s aimed at players who have devoted their lives to the game.

    It’s especially offensive to me that this announcement was made just days before the release of the Enter the Battlefield documentary, made by the team from Walking the Planes, and featuring a swath of pro players. In the movie, the players talk about how important and valuable it is to reach Platinum, because that’s the level that truly allows them the ability to play Magic for a living. It will be truly unfortunate if viewers learn about pro Magic through the documentary, and then find the stars online only to find them talking about nothing but how much they feel like Wizards screwed them over.

    I think, at a bare minimum, WotC absolutely has to honor the previously announced benefits to Platinum players in the 2016-2017 season. There is simply no reasonable excuse for them to back out of honoring their commitments they made to the players who have spent the past year earning Platinum status.

    As for the changes moving forward, I generally view them as a negative for players. I’ve played on the Pro Tour long enough that I’ve seen all of the different payout structures it has used over the years. There have been a variety of different methods WotC has used to inject additional money into the system on top of PT prize pools, all in an attempt to make the dream of being a Pro Player more realistic.

    This change feels a lot like a combination of the Masters series and the End of Year POY ranking payout. The Masters was a single-elimination tournament series run alongside the pro tour which invited the top 32 players and paid out big prizes, while the End of Year payout was exactly what it sounds like – a payout at the end of the PT season to players based on their ranking in the player of the year race. These each had major problems – the Masters series was highly unpredictable and high variance, while the EOY payout mean that a player had to wait until the end of the season to see any money, which doesn’t help pay rent during the year.

    Pushing so much of the payout to the World Championship is both of these problems in one – players don’t have any reliable income from Magic during the year, and there’s massive volatility in what they can expect from the World Championship – or if they can expect to make it to the World Championship at all. Unlike the Platinum pro player level, a player can’t be sure of a spot in the World Championship, unless they win one of the early year slots by spiking a pro tour. If players are competing for top pro points spots, they can almost never be certain they’re safe. While a player can reasonably make educated guesses about the value of points to them in the quest for Platinum, the “winners take all” nature of the World Championship will cause massive volatility in point value, essentially making players feel forced into pursuing as many points as they can get.

    Sounds like another of Wizards’ failed OP plans of the recent past, doesn’t it? Remember when Planeswalker Points gave invitations to the pro tour? Yeah, that didn’t last long, and for good reason.

    Pushing so much money into the World Championship pushes pro Magic that much closer to gambling. Instead of being able to reliably expect that you can make a modest living by hitting Platinum, you have to go all-in on making it to the World Championship, and then hope to run well when you get there. While the best players win more often, Magic is still a game with a lot of variance, and getting mana screwed out of most of your year’s earnings becomes a very real possibility when one tournament is worth so much.

    While I think these changes are all pretty terrible, I can understand how they came about. My guess is that someone high up in marketing at WotC looked at the success of major eSports events, from League of Legends to Hearthstone, and decided that they needed to emulate their success by having a huge marquee tournament with a big prize pool. Half a million dollars with $100,000 to first place is certainly exciting, and is much more likely to draw eyeballs than the $40,000 payouts at the pro tour. It’s the same reason that Grand Prix give out $10,000 to first place now – it’s just much better optics from a marketing standpoint when you can point to an individual big number.

    The problem is that they wanted to do all of this without actually spending any more money. All of the money to pay out $10,000 to GP winners came from the rest of the prize pool, and now all of the money to pay for a $500,000 World Championship is coming from Platinum players – not just in 2017, the year of the championship itself, but today, from players who earned those benefits over the past year. They’re just pushing money around to make things look bigger at the top, but that just builds instability at the base.

    We keep hearing it all the time – Magic is the biggest it’s ever been. Record sales and profits year over year. And yet what we get are cuts to event coverage and WotC stealing from Platinum players today to fund their marketing drive in 2017. We hear Hasbro reps talking in investor calls about how they’re investing in eSports, and yet they’re apparently refusing to spend an additional dollar to try to compete with Hearthstone – who we were told not long ago, by the way, they don’t view as a competitor.

    I love Magic. Outside of my parents, Magic – and specifically the competitive Magic community – has been the biggest influence on my entire life. It’s taken me around the world, to countless countries and nearly every inhabited continent. It has led to every job I’ve held in my adult life, and introduced me to nearly all of my closest friends.

    I may not be as heavily involved in competitive Magic as I once was, but I want to see it succeed. I want to see the community thrive. To that end, I believe these changes are a step in the wrong direction.

    In the end, it is of course up to Wizards what direction they want to go with Magic, and with the Pro Tour. If they decide that a winner-take-all World Championship is what they want, that is of course their right. I may disagree with them, but that decision is their right.

    But it is not their right to exploit and deceive those who have devoted themselves to the game. I cannot in good conscience encourage anyone to play competitive Magic in a world where Wizard does not honor their promises to players. I hope that Wizards recognizes their mistake, and restores the benefits Platinum players have earned for next year.

    This isn’t simply about money. It’s about trust, and WotC has lost mine with this announcement, and certainly that of many other players. I hope they can earn it back.

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