On Pro Magic

I am not a professional Magic player. Those dreams died a long time ago when I realized that I just did not want to put in the time and effort into The Grind. Yet I barely remember a moment in the past 25 years where I was not thinking about professional Magic in some way, especially as I pursued a new dream of doing event coverage. Today I just feel sad – for players who did dedicate themselves to the dream and for the community of folks around the professional scene who also have their future held in limbo.
I don’t want to waste words on speculating and theorizing on why the powers that be have decided to whittle away at the elite level of play so publicly while not providing a plan. Rather, I want to talk about why I think this is a mistake and what I would like to see once we reach the next era of Professional Magic.


Discovery

Magic is a huge part of my life. It is my primary hobby and a source of income. I love the game and the friends I have made along the way. And one reason I keep coming back to shuffle cardboard is that sense of discovery. When I was a kid this meant cracking open a booster pack or a starter deck to see what new cards I could add to my collection. Today it’s about scouring spoilers for new deck ideas and tech for Commander.
For several years my discovery was driven by the Pro Tour.
At some point I had reached the limits of what I could figure out on my own. That’s when I found the pro scene. Suddenly I had new avenues of acquiring new knowledge. There were entire metagames to devour and intricate plays. Taking away the elite level of play cuts off a vital pipeline of keeping a certain stripe of player – one who is always eager to be up on the latest tech and decks – engaged in the game.
This is to say nothing of strategic discovery. Magic is an incredibly complex game and I know that I’ve gotten better by following the professional scene. These are players who are approaching the game at a level that I cannot easily achieve and being able to watch them and potentially consume the content they generate gives me that insight. But what happens when there is nothing left to strive for? What if just being the best amongst your group of friends is good enough? While plumb the depths of strategy for every little edge if none of it matters in the wider ecosystem of the game?

I don’t want to see Magic lessened in any way. I fear that without professional level play – some tangible level to aspire to – the incentives to innovate and develop new strategies will stagnate.

To be clear this is not a knock on people who enjoy the game as it exists in front of them. I am not trying to take away from people who are going to iterate and innovate on their preferred format and decks. They should enjoy it at whatever level of engagement they find appropriate. That being said, what is the point of striving to be the best if there is nothing to strive towards. But for those of us who do want to strive, a professional level has to exist to scratch that itch.

Trust

For years the Magic community has been told to wait for the next big thing in professional play. Even now we are being told that something is in the works for the 2022-23 season. The community’s trust can only go so far. And given the recent track record, why should there be any trust given to the people in charge if we do not know who they are?
There is no way to win back trust immediately but there are a few ways to start the process. The first is to restore the slashed prize pool of the 2020-21 World Championship. The second is to give the community some insight into who is making the decisions regarding organized and professional play and have them share their vision of the system.
I’m not asking for a detailed plan for every strata of competition; I’m not asking for the names of events or locations, or even prize pools. But knowing that someone is making the decisions, and having an idea of what the system could look like (not just what it won’t look like) could go a long way towards rebuilding trust.
I also believe that a good way to win back some amount of trust is to bring professional level players into the fold for a discussion. This does not need to be everyone who has ever achieved a pro point, but rather players who have sustained success at different levels of competitive play. Give them the parameters of what the system can and can’t be and then get their insight into what can make it succeed given the current limitations.

My Vision

If it is not clear, I believe professional Magic is a net positive for the game. I want to see the system return in the future even if I don’t have a shot of qualifying. I want to spend my days watching the very best sling cardboard and show me everything I don’t know about the game.
I want there to be Pro Tour level events with some sort of qualification path. I think the Player’s Tour System was a good base but could be improved upon. If anything, Magic is a global game and having large geo-region events is good, but pales in comparison to having the world’s best battle on the regular.
I believed that Grand Prix tournaments had outlived their utility before the pandemic and I don’t think they should return to that model. Grand Prix were originally super-Pro Tour Qualifiers – a way to battle against the best people in your immediate vicinity. They evolved into de facto Magic conventions with the main tournament – the Grand Prix itself – playing a vital role in the rise up professional ranks.
I’d love to see conventions continue. I’d love to see a tournament in the vein of the original Grand Prix – the best players in your region. I’d also love to see a parallel tournament that features rising competitive players as a stepping stone to whatever the Pro Tour is moving forward. We had a taste of this with Mythic Championship Magic Fests. I don’t know what the best version of these events will be, but I think having a stepping stone towards professional play is important, but it can’t be the same tournament where pro players have their future on the line.
There need to be broadcasts of these events. Magic is a dense game and trying to mesh the sometimes plodding pace of play with the excitement evident in other made-for-viewing games is a recipe for disaster. While it was not perfect the old Pro Tour broadcasts, with several games running concurrently, helped to keep the show moving. I do think something needs to be done to help the casual viewer understand what they are watching – perhaps using old matches from the archives and overlaying captions and graphics on them to help explain as interstitials – but it should not fall to the booth to explain the basics.

Arena

Magic: the Gathering – Arena is a wonderful program. It is an amazing tool for helping people learn and stay engaged with Magic. I think it is a bad vehicle for elite level play. Arena, for all its advantages, never lets the game breathe – it is busy. That is great for catching eyes but it does not give folks enough time to process the game thanks to the ever looming threat of the rope.
That being said, Arena should be used for invitational style events. These tournaments should be focused on maximizing for viewer experience and should leverage the unique elements of Arena – such as the ability to provide some truly bizarre game formats – as a way to be entertaining and informative.
Can Arena be used for some high level play in a new professional structure? Absolutely! But I do not think it needs to be the only way people can consume and participate in the highest echelons of play and reducing Magic only to Arena is a disservice to the game, the platform, and the community.

I don’t know if these are solutions. I don’t know if my ideas will fix anything. I don’t even think these are the best ideas out there. But they are mine as a huge fan of Magic and the professional scene. And hopefully I get to be a fan again, watching in the future.


	

Published by Alex Ullman

Alex Ullman has been playing Magic since 1994 (he thinks). Since 2005, he's spent most of his time playing and exploring Pauper. One of his proudest accomplishments was being on the winnings side of the 2009 Community Cup. He makes his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born and raised.

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