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Disorganized Play and The Magic Pro League


Back in December, Wizards announced the Magic Pro League along with sweeping changes to the organized play system. Many long-standing staples of tournament Magic, like the World Magic Cup, the Pro Club / pro points system, and Nationals, were cut from the slate to make room for more Pro Tours (rebranded as Mythic Championships), Magic Arena tournaments, and Magic Pro League play. Along with the structural changes came a boost in prize money, with $10 million being given away in 2019

At the time, this announcement received a lot of praise and hype. Ten million dollars is a lot of money, especially based on the traditional Magic prize pool. Pros who made it to the Magic Pro League were thrilled by the fact that professional Magic finally looked like a stable and fairly lucrative career option. Optimism for the state of competitive Magic (and perhaps Magic in general, considering Kaladesh had just rotated from Standard and we were in the middle of a return to the much-beloved plane of Ravnica) was near an all-time high. 

Yes, there were a lot of missing details. Beyond the top 32 players in the Magic Pro League itself, nothing was announced regarding the status of all of the other pro players, and apart from "it's a bunch of pros paid to stream who are auto-qualified for Mythic Championships," there wasn't a very clear understanding what the Magic Pro League really was. But Wizards promised that these gaps would be filled in over the next few months by, according to Elaine Chase, "a regular cadence of communication to share specifics," as they would be "taking every opportunity to listen to feedback and adjust to make Magic esports and competitive gaming the best it can possibly be." Basically, Wizards didn't have every last detail figured out, but it would listen, improve, communicate, and share, and everything would reveal itself in good time (over the next few months).

Fast forward to present day, and many of the important questions are still questions, and many of missing details are still missing. We still don't know how to qualify for the Magic Pro League, to the point where even current Magic Pro League players aren't really sure what events count towards qualifying again next year. We still don't really have a system of competitive play for players outside of the Magic Pro League outside of Mythic Championship Qualifiers. And the Magic Pro League itself has turned from a source of optimism about the future of competitive Magic to a long, slow, collective nightmare that we can't seem to wake up from. In just five months, one Magic Pro League member was kicked out of the league (along with the Hall of Fame) and banned for cheating at a Mythic Championship, while another was (apparently?) booted from the league with no comment or explanation for some sort of uncouth behavior. Then, to top this off, just this past week, beloved and respected pro Gerry Thompson quit the league, citing Wizards' inability to do what it promised back in December (listen and communicate) as two of the several reasons for his departure. 

Following these departures, Wizards managed to make the entire situation more confusing by choosing a Mythic Championship winner, a former Grand Prix winner, and someone who has never even played in a Grand Prix or Mythic Championship as its replacement Magic Pro League pros. While each replacement player adds some form of value to the Magic Pro League, the selection process and lack of transparency brought back to the forefront issues that have plagued the Magic Pro League and 2019 (dis)organized play since it was announced back in December: nobody really knows what the Magic Pro League is intended to be or how you can get there because the communication regarding organized play is almost entirely lacking and Wizards seemingly refuses to listen (or at least communicate in a way that shows they are listening) to the community or even members of the league itself. 

The mess of organized play and the Magic Pro League has created another mess: since Wizards has done such an amazingly poor job of communicating the goals, intentions, and structure of the league itself, every addition and departure from the league has led to an endless debate in the community. Did player X deserve to be kicked out of the league? Should player Y have been added to the league? The loudness of these questions and the bad press that has come along with them falls squarely on Wizards' shoulders. It's not really fair to blame players for caring about the Magic Pro League and asking these questions since Wizards' goal in creating the Magic Pro League was to get players to care about it enough to watch its Twitch streams and Mythic Championships and maybe even play Magic Arena as a result. Instead, the fact that Wizards created the Magic Pro League without having any announced criteria for inclusion—or seemingly a plan for when things go wrong—is fueling these conversations. The end result is that this creates an almost impossible situation for the players, who end up in the middle of a heated conversation that Wizards created by its lack of planning and/or communication.

Take the new additions to the league, for example. Jessica Estephan is a good Magic player and holds a spot in Magic's history as the first woman to win a Grand Prix. Having a slot in the Magic Pro League for the top points earner among women makes a ton of sense (so much so that it makes you wonder why Wizards didn't think of these a few months ago when creating the Magic Pro League). However, since Wizards apparently didn't think or plan far enough ahead six months ago to make a spot for the top woman player and instead cut strictly by pro points (with small regional considerations after a couple of the top 32 turned down their invite to the league), the mid-season addition of Jessica has lead to a huge debate. 

As far as I can tell, this 100% goes back to Wizards and either a lack of planning or poor planning. The question shouldn't be "why is Jessica Estephan in the Magic Pro League?" but "why didn't Wizards come up with a functional plan for the Magic Pro League to begin with?" If Wizards had simply taken the time to structure the Magic Pro League in a way that took into account the barriers that some players face back when they created the league (which, remember, was just under six months ago, not six years ago), with slots based on region or other factors, then Jessica probably would have been included from the start and, as the top pro points earner among women, rightly so.

Magic's organized play has traditionally tried to take into account the fact that it's easier for some people to qualify for events than others. One of the clearest examples of these is regional invites to things like Worlds. It's not really fair to ask a South American Magic player to hit the same number of pro points as a North American player since it's magnitudes harder for a South American player to get pro points because there are far fewer local events and travel to other events is significantly more expensive. The Magic Pro League seems to have forgotten this lesson back in December when it was being created, only to (maybe?) remember it now mid-season, which is the cause of much of the hubbub. Combine this with the fact that players from traditionally barrier-heavy parts of the world are seeing the number of invites they get to Mythic Championships cut even while Wizards talks about shifting the tournament scene to break barriers and represent the broader cross-section Magic community and Wizards plan seems even more haphazard and disorganized. 

Further complicating matters is the second new addition to the Magic Pro League: Janne "Savjz" Mikkonen, a professional streamer who has recently re-dipped his toes into the Magic world thanks to the release of Magic Arena. While Savjz was invited to and performed well at the Mythic Invitational (featuring the farcical Duo Standard format, which we'll thankfully likely not see again) and has performed well on the Magic Arena ladder, he doesn't really have any meaningful history or results in competitive Magic, which has created a sort of "Michael Jordan playing baseball" feel or, to keep things in the Magic realm, calls back to the Silver Showcase, where Hearthstone pros made up a big chunk of the players chosen to Beta draft, of all things.

Savjz's addition to the league is the one that really throws a wrench into trying to figure out the rhyme and reason of Wizards' invites. Autumn Burchett won a Mythic Championship and was ranked among the top 100 players in the world last season, which seem like reasonable qualifications for being in the Magic Pro League. Jessica Estephan won a Grand Prix and also was the top pro point earner among women last season, which also seems like reasonable qualifications for the Magic Pro League. Savjz has a lot of Twitch viewers while also being good at a bunch of different games, including Magic Arena. Does this make someone a Magic pro?

The problem lurking beneath all of this is that Wizards still hasn't announced anything for most of the competitive Magic community. Back in December, the rallying cry from Wizards (and some of the Magic Pro League players) was, "Give Wizards some time. There's no way Wizards would just dump all of the Platinum, Gold, and Silver pros with no warning. Something will be announced soon, no doubt." Now, we're nearly six months in the future, and Wizards still hasn't communicated anything meaningful in this regard, despite previous promises for regular communication. People who have dedicated their entire lives to the game—for years or even decades—simply have no idea what their future in Magic looks like or if they even have a future in competitive Magic anymore, because Wizards either doesn't have a plan for organized play or isn't willing to communicate its plan if it does.

The most likely explanation for this disaster is simple: what we are seeing this year—the Arena Mythic Championships and the Magic Pro League—were supposed to take place next year in 2020. But then, sometime last fall between September (when an article was published about organized play and six tabletop Pro Tours) and December (when the Magic Pro League was announced and big parts of the October article were walked back), Hasbro decided that it needed to capitalize on Magic Arena's growing popularity now, rather than a year from now. This left Wizards in a position where it basically had to make everything up as it went along because the timeframe was so greatly accelerated, which leaves us where we are now: with everything seemingly still being made up as we go along. 

If there's one thing we've learned in 2019, it's that making $10 million in decisions on the fly is a great idea. If you do a quick google search for "Magic Pro League," you'll see that the top articles, all from non-Magic sites like Kotaku, Screen Rant, and DoT Esports, are "Magic: the Gathering's New Pro Players Prove to Be Controversial Picks," "Magic: The Gathering's Pro League Is a Total Mess Right Now," MTG Pro Divisiveness towards the MPL Is about Money and Lack of Direction," Gerry Thompson Resigns from the Magic Pro League, and "MTG Pro Reid Duke Upset over Magic Pro League Changes." This isn't exactly the type of press you're hoping for as a fledgling esport, although if there's a silver lining, it's that these articles managed to knock the ones about MPL members being kicked out of the league and Hall of Fame for cheating or harassing women off the top of the search results.

In this end, this leaves us with a Magic Pro League and organized play system that basically makes me feel bad for quite literally everyone involved. I feel bad for Wizards because my assumption is that it was put in an almost impossible (or at least, extremely rushed) position by Hasbro thanks to the success of Magic Arena. I feel bad for the Magic pros in the Magic Pro League since they aren't getting the support promised from Wizards. I feel bad for the non-MPL pros since it's been almost six months and there's still no path forward for them as competitive Magic players. I feel bad for the new additions to the MPL because they are left in the middle of a whirlwind of issues created by Wizards' lack of planning, communication, and/or transparency. Finally, I feel bad for the community, many of whom just wanted the Magic Pro League to be a cool and fun way to watch their favorite Magic pros but ended up with a never-ending stream of negativity, bannings, harassment, and other problems, which—at least, from my perspective—has made the league itself decidedly unfun, at least so far, despite all of the awesome people in the league.

If there's any good news, it's that we're already (almost) halfway through 2019, and in theory, 2020 will give Wizards a chance to reset organized play and potentially the Magic Pro League in a way that actually works. Here's what I believe Wizards needs to do to salvage organized play and the MPL from the mess it's in currently.

  1. Decide What the Magic Pro League Is About: There are two paths forward for the Magic Pro League. It can be a fun, entertaining league designed to get Twitch views and entertain the audience, or it can be about having the highest-ranked Magic players in the world playing each other on a weekly basis. So far, Wizards has seemingly tried to do both, and it simply doesn't work. The players who will generate the most Twitch views are not the players with the most pro points, and trying to hit both marks has left the purpose of the Magic Pro League muddled and unclear. Along with choosing a path forward for the Magic Pro League, another possibility is having multiple leagues (perhaps a league for the highest ranked pros, a challenger league for aspiring pros, and even an invitational-style league for whoever Wizards wants to include or thinks will generate the best product on Twitch).
  2. MPL as Entertainment: If the MPL is primarily about entertainment, then Wizards should just announce that it's an invitational-type event and then simply choose whoever it wants in the league based on whatever criteria it desires. If Wizards goes this route, it would be beneficial to bring back the old pro points system (this might need to happen either way) for competitive players to have a way to continue to play Magic and qualify for Pro Tours, which would also fix the issues that all of the non-MPL pros are currently having. Basically, take the old pro system and layer the Magic Pro League on top of it as a way to generate interest and advertise Magic Arena.
  3. MPL as Competitive Play: If the goal of the MPL is to have it be primarily about competitive play and the top players in the world, people need to know how to qualify. Make slots for whatever groups or regions are necessary and then give the invites to the top performers from those groups and regions, probably along with some sort of at-large system for current MPL members, top pro points earners not in the MPL, or whatever other criteria Wizards chooses (Mythic Championship wins, "draft master," "constructed master"; the possibilities are endless and completely at Wizards' discretion, but they need to be announced so players know what Wizards is asking of them). 
  4. Plan Ahead: We're already almost halfway through 2019. This means we're almost halfway through the year-long Magic Pro League contracts. For the 2020 version of organized play to not repeat the same mistakes as 2019, the groundwork should already be laid for next year. Again, I really believe that a big portion of the problems we're experiencing now are from lack of planning (again, likely due to pressure from Hasbro to move the clock forward thanks to Magic Arena). But sooner or later, Wizards needs to get ahead of the curve and start announcing plans for the future (as was common in past years), or we will risk falling into a continuing cycle of flying by the seat of our pants and making multi-million dollar decisions on a moment's notice, which hasn't worked for anyone this year.
  5. Communicate: While planning ahead is important, Wizards also needs to take the next step and communicate those plans to the community in a timely manner. Many of the problems we're dealing with at the moment came from a lack of transparency and communication from Wizards. This is a self-inflicted problem and needs to be fixed quickly. Nobody really knows what is happening or will happen with organized play, which is a big change from the normally very structured and thought-out system the Magic community has grown to know over the past 25 years. The lack of information leads to speculation as players try to fill in the blanks left by Wizards, which isn't good for anyone. Wizards needs to figure out what it wants to do with organized play but then also take the next step and tell the community.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What are your thoughts on the current state of organized play? What about the Magic Pro League? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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