Monday, April 25, 2016

Pro Tour Player Club Thoughts

I just got back from Barcelona where I made Top 8 in an amazing tournament, but like everyone else I have no interest in talking about the Pro Tour because of the bombshell Wizards dropped on us Sunday. My apologies to Steve Rubin – he seemed like a really nice guy, and had the decency to shuffle and sideboard quickly for game 3 of our match, even when a draw was what he needed for top 8.  He didn’t know I was going to draw with him anyways, but just wanted to see his deck post sideboard with Infinite Obliteration first. It’s a shame to have his first victory overshadowed by this announcement.
                There are a lot of problems with Wizards’ announcement about changes to the prize money payouts. First, there’s the timing of the changes to next years’ Platinum benefits ¾ of the way through the season. Second, there’s the wisdom of the changes for the future. Third, there’s the veracity of the claims in the post. And fourth, there’s what’s unsaid – namely the lack of increase in prize money over more than a decade.
                Of all the issues with these changes, only the revocation of platinum benefits for 2016-2017 can be labeled unethical and morally wrong. I’ve interacted with Helene for a great many years and believe she cares deeply about the pro magic community, so I can only assume one of two things. Either the decision was not hers to make and she is taking the fall, or she did not realize the ethical issues with the change. While I think the changes are ill advised, the beginning of a season is the time to make these changes. A great number of people have put in a lot of effort and expense to achieve the platinum benefits listed on WoTC’s website. Revoking those benefits after 75% of the season is done is unconscionable. Promises were made to players and they must be kept.
                In terms of long term strategy, cannibalizing platinum benefits in the interests of having a flashier top prize for one tournament is ill advised and damaging to the game. Removing the hall of fame benefits I’m fine with, but the platinum players are the grinders who make up the core of the personalities and brands Wizards wants to promote with the Pro Tour. Taking all their benefits and putting it into one top heavy payout at the end of the year makes things problematic for the magic “pro.” Magic is already incredibly difficult for the amount of recompense, and already has lots of variance. The last match of a Pro Tour doubles your win, and the difference between 9th in the swiss and making the top 8 is enormous. The platinum benefits gave players at least a little bit of a cushion against those swings. Not a single person I know wants all of that on the line in a single end of the year tournament, and I know the people who are most likely to win that tournament. Even if the total money were the same, the increased variance isn’t good for anyone.
                However the prize money is dropping significantly despite Wizards’ claims to the contrary. I really don’t understand this – they know Magic players are bright and can do basic math. Did they just expect no one to do the simple math? In a group where many people simulate the probabilities of hitting land drops with 24 vs 25 lands? Helene offered on twitter to show the math adds up, so it’s possible I’m missing something, but as of yet she has not volunteered that math. For simplicity I’m assuming the 2016 attendance numbers hold for 2017 – one could argue that the assumption is off by a little, but the net change will just be to reduce the magnitude of the effect slightly. Either way, it’s a significant cut. There are 34 platinum pros this year who will receive 11k less from PTs, that’s $374,000 in total. If we assume 20 play in World Magic Cup Qualifiers and 20 attend the World Magic Cup that’s another $20,000. The announcement also lists no appearance fees for Grand Prix, and while it’s possible that’s an oversight, it seems much more likely that it is not. If each of the 48 Grand Prix average 10 platinum pros receiving $250 each, that’s another $120,000 annually. Now we add on the Hall of Fame reduction – let’s say that only 20 players attend each pro tour on average and now receive $1500 annually instead of $6000. That’s another $90,000, a bit more if some of them make the World Magic Cup. Sum up all the numbers and it’s a net cut of $604,000.
                On the other side of the ledger are the increases to the Worlds payout. The pros who achieve platinum this season will instead get a $100,000 increase to the Worlds Payout, should they be lucky enough to qualify. This is a net reduction of $500,000 or the prize money (excepting appearance fees) of approximately two Pro Tours. The following years, assuming WoTC doesn’t change things again, the Worlds payout increases another $250k, making the net reduction $250,000 from that point forward, or the payout of one Pro Tour. Then they say “The appearance fees … were meant to assist in maintaining the professional Magic player’s lifestyle… we believe that the program is not succeeding at this goal, and have made the decision to decrease appearance fees.” So they’re saying that the program was not enough to maintain the Pro Player lifestyle, and as a result they’re cutting it? This is impressive doublespeak. Sometimes it feels like they have a low opinion of us when they write these things.
                And of course the final, biggest problem is that the Pro Tour hasn’t seen an increase in prize payouts in a very long time. In the last decade Magic revenue is up by at least 300%, and probably more. It’s impossible to know for sure since their earnings reports don’t break things down by game, but I’ve heard enough from enough reliable sources that I think 300% is a reliable low end estimate. Meanwhile, the prize money has increased little if at all. In 2006 a Pro Tour paid out $240k, now it pays $250k. There were also benefits similar to platinum going back even further. In 2001, when Ben Rubin smashed me in the finals of the Masters Chicago, the prize was $150k/tournament on top of the Pro Tour payout – so even more than the platinum benefits. Over a decade and the prize money has barely budged. This sort of short termism has plagued Magic throughout the years, most notably in starving MTGO of resources. I’ve written enough here, but Matt Sperling dives into this (and more) in his post here,, which you all should read.

                In a perfect world Wizards would roll back the appearance fee changes (except for the Hall of Fame, we don’t need it) and consider maybe increasing the prize money some time. Instead, our likely best case scenario is pushing back the platinum changes one year and still having a significant reduction. The players and fan base all love Magic, it’s a part of all our lives. Magic players are one of the most loyal consumers of any product out there, and one of the most profitable. It’s a shame to see WoTC treat them with such little respect, and I doubt it will be a good long term decision for their bottom line either.

Based on the comments below and on twitter, it appears the GP appearance fee will remain $250, or the same as Pro Tours. So the reduction in prize money would be 384k followed by 134k, rather than the numbers I have above. Thanks for the help.

Update #2: The Pro Tour was in Madrid, not Barcelona :)