A scrub is a player who is handicapped by self-imposed rules that the game knows nothing about. A scrub does not play to win. The scrub would take great issue with this statement for he usually believes that he is playing to win, but he is bound up be an intricate construct of fictitious rules that prevents him from ever truly competing.
-David Sirlin, Playing to Win
The final Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour took place in Richmond, Virginia on November 2019, almost 25 years after the first one was held in the middle of a blizzard in New York City in 1996. Technically, Pro Tours had already been rebranded as Mythic Championships, and technically they'll continue as Players Tours—but the original competitive structure that defined them has finally been sufficiently changed to represent the end of an era.
Pro Tours were invitation-only tournaments of about 300-500 players which, after two or three days of Swiss matchplay, broke into a Top 8. They happened every few months, and while not always the absolute pinnacle of organized play, became the yardstick against which competitive aspirations and achievements were measured. The gold standard of induction criteria for Magic's Hall of Fame, for example, throughout a flurry of changes in other areas of organized play, remained number of Pro Tour Top 8s—with five meaning a player was a lock, and three or four meaning they were in the conversation. The Pro Tour's large difficult field, coupled with Magic's inherent variance, meant that making a Top 8 involved extremes of both skill and luck—it was Magic's longstanding competitive threshold that, once attained, could never be taken away.
Now, the upper tier of competitive play has been effectively divided between small tournaments—comprised of the ultra-elite and low-mobility Magic Pro League, the lesser Rivals League, and some hand-picked streamers and personalities—and larger tournaments—Players Tours—occurring simultaneously in multiple regions. The numbers, the significance, the history—it's all finally been scrambled.
The Pro Tour was crafted by Magic's first brand manager, Skaff Elias. At the time, Magic's inner circle was anxious about stabilizing the game's runaway success, fearing that it was following the trajectory of a passing fad rather than a perennial classic—more Beanie Babies than Monopoly.
The issue had been latent since the beginning. Richard Garfield has said that the epiphany that spawned Magic—and with it the entire trading card game genre—was that players didn't need to have the same game pieces. They could start with different distributions and trade amongst themselves to refine their lot. At the same time, however, as this visionary aspect of acquisition and trade was expanding gameplay beyond the box, and making Magic compulsively playable and buyable, it was beginning to threaten the longevity and profitability of the game itself.
The general problem, as Skaff saw it, was that with expansions being continuously released, players would eventually grow tired of endless acquisition. More immediately, a collector class had emerged that not only stockpiled the most powerful cards and drove up their prices, but dominated those players who wouldn't pay for them. And so the original game was turning into a largely monetary "meta-game," in danger of becoming known as a pay-to-win gimmick.
Skaff's solution was to establish an ongoing series of high-profile tournaments with big cash prizes at the top—an aspirational peak that would allow players to rationalize continuous spending. At the same time, the tournaments would limit the available card pool, reducing the influence someone's collection had on their ability to compete. In short, the function of the Pro Tour was to make gameplay central, limiting and regulating the investment needed to play to win.
In March 2019, I played in Pro Tour London. I'd played in 33 Pro Tours before, with one Top 8, but this was my first one in 12 years. The previous December, I'd made Top 4 at Grand Prix Vancouver to qualify.
I'd told myself then that I'd show up at my best for what was most likely my last ticket to the big game. It's not that I doubt my competitiveness, it's that, as an adult, investing in succeeding at the game doesn't make sense. Achieving consistent qualification requires dead-eyed determination in playing tournament after tournament where anything less than a top finish against similarly prepared players doesn't matter. After a decade of more-or-less casual involvement, I'd made my critical hit, and I wasn't expecting it to happen again.
Over the years, I'd helped other players prepare for the Pro Tour, often to good effect. I've developed tenets to help them evade common pitfalls—ways of tuning up their play, avoiding reactive decisions, and choosing a deck suited to their aptitudes. By the time I arrived, though, I'd fallen into old habits. I hadn't gotten a coach of my own, I hadn't improved my physical conditioning, and despite no shortage of games played my own deck selection process remained nitty, fussing over details with a similarly minded playgroup. I'd done things the same way I always had.
I was staying with Jason Adams, who'd won GP Vancouver. We'd tried to put in the time and think through Modern from every angle. But he also fell short, settling on a stock Dredge deck that seemed well-positioned but that he didn't know very well. We shared a compact room with twin beds in the Moxy hotel, designed according to a sort of millennial take on a rock star motif.
But when I think about PT London, I think about the eastern exterior of the ExCeL Convention center, located in an area known as the docklands. Overcast, drizzling, set against a man-made waterway, a few stragglers making their way inside, passing an already derelict Marvel Avengers promotional escape room as they go.
Inside, in contrast—crowded, a wide walkway, with conference rooms and upscale food vendors on each side. One entrance opening up to a Grand Prix, the next to the Pro Tour beside it. Industrial-strength HMIs blasting hard light onto concrete floors, the walls reverberating with gamers' screeches.
One of the things I like most about Magic tournaments is how they eclipse everything else. For two or three days, the competition takes over. Adventure. Escape. And winning could change your life.
The Pro Tour was invented by Skaff Elias to channel Magic's aspect of trade and acquisition—an addition necessary for the original game's survival. But Richard Garfield would have identified the Pro Tour itself as a sort of "meta-game"—one with special properties.
In a 1995 article for The Duelist, "Games Within Games," Garfield tells us that a metagame is a game composed of games: "When you play a number of games, not as ends unto themselves but as parts of a larger game, you are participating in a metagame."
The Pro Tour is a "metagame" not only as a series of competitions but insofar as that series provides the proving grounds for an especially fundamental metagame—the ladder system.
The ladder system visibly organizes players by rank. As such, it provides them with a quantifiable axis of success, since "even moving up a single rung of the ladder feels like a victory." Garfield observed that this metagame—which gives players a constant reflection of their own perceived value and progress—was especially compelling. He even made the bold claim that he could make any game popular so long as he could augment it with a ladder system, a claim well vindicated by the 21st century marketing development known as gamification.
The Pro Tour structured Magic's ladder system. Magic was no longer limited to one game against one opponent. The games became interconnected, serving as the bases for escalating levels of competition, played for stakes that determined one's rank.
When Odysseus entered Hades and found Achilles there, he tried to console him by remarking on his rule over the dead. Achilles responded that he'd rather be alive as the lowliest worker imaginable than a king in the shadow realm.
In terms of the Pro Tour, I'm alive again. Acquaintances I've known for 20 years, long since reduced to two-dimensional avatars, are once again rendered in 3D. Of course, for my part, the sensory overload and preoccupation with the task at hand has me reserving energy too much to engage in what, in other circumstances, could be interesting conversations.
Each day is broken into three rounds of drafting and five rounds of Constructed. The Limited format is War of the Spark—Magic's take on an MCU brawl—but as a prerelease, forcing players to learn the set in a short time. In order to keep my head fresh in the days leading up to the tournament, I streamlined my preparation. I'd figured out quickly that tempo-based blue/red stood above the archetypes and fit my style—I was somewhere between forcing it and really hoping I'd be able to draft it.
In the first draft I get a simple but solid version of the deck composed almost entirely of commons. In the first round, I'm paired against someone in my extended testing group. In the final game, I make an attack that telegraphs a marginal combat trick (Samut's Sprint) that, if I have it, will effectively end the game.
He blocks. I play the trick.
His face drops, and then twists into an expression of disgust.
"You play that? That card is terrible."
Apparently the group had ranked cards in the Discord the night before and decided that this one was unplayable, biasing him towards the likelihood that I wouldn't have it.
I shrug, "it's fine."
Almost immediately, though, he regains his composure. The lapse is relatable as grief. The viscerally felt response to a sudden plunge into a newly unfavorable reality. The retrospective impression of entire tournaments hinges on moments like this that seem as though they could've gone either way. In this case, the psychic disturbance can't linger too long—he was almost certainly losing anyway.
I win the next round but lose the finals. My opponent there has a slow controlling deck with a powerful card (Command the Dreadhorde) capable of reanimating our entire graveyards if the game goes long. I board in a conditional counterspell (Crush Dissent) that might be able to catch it by surprise. In the deciding game, though, I have an empty board, and when he hits six lands and plays something cheap, I decide to burn the Crush Dissent for the 2/2 that comes along with it. He plays the Command the Dreadhorde the following turn and I lose.
According to combinatorial game theory, as related by Richard Garfield in the appendix to his Characteristics of Games, games can often be decomposed into "positions"—units understandable as games. Subjectively, a position is just a decision—this or that—against a background of information. The core challenge is one of decryption: selecting the details relevant to a consistent interpretation and then tracing back the actions implied to the decision at hand.
My Constructed deck is U/R Phoenix.
I've chosen it because it rarely gets manascrewed or flooded and it beats up on the variety of Tier 2 & 3 decks people tend to play in Modern. But, as I would have advised a newer Pro Tour player, this is PTQ-winner thinking—ie., failing to sufficiently factor that the PT is largely composed of a winner's metagame. Phoenix is only winning at about 50-55% against the expected Tier 1 of Humans and Tron. Not that this Modern offered too much room to move. Jason said I should've just played a tuned version of Tron, which I could do in my sleep.
U/R Phoenix is standardized to a remarkable degree, with about 54 maindeck cards—mostly cantrips—effectively set in stone, making the remaining choices especially significant. I'm playing three copies of a card I think is versatile and underrated—Set Adrift—and otherwise have a closely managed list. I spent most of the ride into the city debating between two of three cards for the last two sideboard slots.
In the fourth round, I'm playing against a Dredge player I know from online, and he's playing too slow, insufficiently trained to the physical interactions demanded by the deck. I should've called a judge sooner—a mistake I've made before—but instead rush my play to compensate. I probably would've lost anyway.
Jason ends up suffering from the same mechanical issues as my last opponent, losing out his remaining matches. Somewhere in between, he remarks at the surreal flow of the day. That he feels tired and dull, even during decisive moments. We'd attempted such precision in testing, afforded the upcoming event such significance, that we'd forgotten that peak mental acuity wasn't a given.
I'm able to stay focused for the time being. I win the next three rounds, despite tough opposition—Robin Dolar on his W/U Control, Ken Yukuhiro on Cheerios, and Antonio Del Moral Leon on Humans. In the last game of the day, against a Jund opponent who only speaks Chinese, I play a card draw spell at the end of his turn and then forget to draw one on my turn. A spectator—after audibly muttering to himself "this is the Pro Tour?"—calls a judge. My opponent argues the case that I shouldn't get the card—even snapping at the spectator for meddling—but the ruling follows protocol and I get the card and grind out the game.
Winning a series of matches always ends the day on a high note. I'm at 6-2 with plausible avenues to the Top 8. It's one thing to be a participant, it's another to be a competitor. I'm eager to join some members of the team for dinner, which turns out to be some distance away. I'm surprised by how similar it is to the dinners I remember from 15 years ago. I'm foggy. I get back late. And just as I'm starting to drift off to sleep at the Moxy, the fire alarm goes off.
We're not only playing in Richard's game, we're playing in Skaff's. We're experiencing the game implicit in all ranked competition—more specifically in this case, competition built around a game involving a considerable degree of variance. Skaff's "meta-game" is complex only because the outcome of its underlying game is determined by both luck and skill.
As Richard Garfield has frequently explained, variance, or luck, is not the opposite of skill. A variant of chess in which, at the end of any game, a die was rolled to modify the outcome, would involve just as much skill as the original game. Instead, as luck increases, only the returns to skill decrease—the better player wins less. They'll still recoup the value of their superiority—it'll just take more time.
Luck increases the uncertainty of a single game's outcome by varying the respective advantages dispensed to players over the course of the game. This turbulence obscures the causes of the game's outcome, preventing players from knowing entirely whether a win or a loss was a matter of luck or skill. This uncertainty shelters players' egos, allowing them to continue chasing the rank they feel they deserve. The function of luck, then, is to increase confusion and controversy—about the relative strength of players, about the best strategies, even about one's own skill level—in order to keep a game vital and contested.
One sign of a superior player is their ability to focus on decisions they can control. The game always offers up an excuse—a way to blame the loss on factors they can't control. And sometimes in sum they might have made a loss inevitable. But by not dwelling on them and instead scrutinizing their decisions the superior player accelerates their improvement. In other words, the winning strategy in the ladder metagame is to ignore luck.
So, if one understands this simple heuristic, wherein lies the challenge? How does the metagame of competition itself remain vital?
I make my way down to what could loosely be described as a continental breakfast—alive.
My draft Day 2 goes badly. I open one of the most powerful cards in the set, a blue/black rare (Enter the God-Eternals), and get passed a pack where the best card is a good blue/black uncommon (Tyrant's Scorn). Around fifth pick I'm given the choice between a solid red card (Raging Kronch) and a barely playable black card (Vampire Opportunist), and seal my fate by taking the black card. It's easy to become "pot-committed" in these scenarios because even as the first pack is drying up, you've cut off the person you're passing to, which justifies the hope the second pack will be good. And by the time the second pack runs dry, it's too late.
During deckbuilding, I confirm that the player passing to me is also blue/black. Except for the rare, my deck is thin, with little removal. I'm hoping to escape with a 2-1, but know that 1-2 is the likelier possibility.
I win the first round against an aggressive white/red deck after drawing Enter the God-Eternals both games, bringing me to 7-2.
In Round 10 I'm called up for a feature match against former world champion Seth Manfield.
At the Pro Tour, feature matches are notable because they're the ones chosen for and surrounded by the film production apparatus broadcasting the tournament and recording the games for posterity. The lights are brighter—casting the rest of the convention center into darkness. There's just the players, the cards, and the table.
I split the first two games against his red/green deck full of wolves and Planeswalkers.
Before game three, I have to decide between two marginal spells to keep in the deck: Sorin's Thirst or Liliana's Triumph. The bad Shock or the Diabolic Edict. I can't figure out which is more relevant across a representative range of game situations, but find some rationale and shuffle up.
I open up with a perfect curve, ending with Enter the God-Eternals to kill his 4/4 (Bloom Hulk) and make my own 4/4 zombie token. He has a good draw too, but he's being pushed back on tempo. On the critical turn, he's forced to play an Arlinn, Voice of the Pack onto an empty board, with only the 3/3 wolf token to defend it.
But I'm staring at Sorin's Thirst.
I can only attack into his blocker, play a Relentless Advance to make my token a 7/7, and pass. He untaps and thinks... and thinks. I ask the judge to watch for slow play, but any thinking—the fact that he has any options—is a bad sign for me, given that my own position is stalled. He's just optimizing. He makes another wolf token with a +1/+1 counter. He then uses Pollenbright Druid's proliferate to bump it up, along with his Jaya, Venerated Firemage, then combines them with Domri's Ambush to finish off my zombie, effectively ending the game.
At high stakes, even losses that can strictly be said to be the result of bad luck are disappointing, even though responsibility for their outcome can be deferred onto outside forces. The process is even more complex when the loss can be said to be the result of a mistake.
The tournament player is trained to resist the temptation to blame a loss on anything but themselves. However, because of the limited number of iterations of games available at the stakes where the mistake occurred, lessons from a loss may not have a chance to be applied at that same level for a long time. The player's training has lead them to take on a burden—the weight of culpable negligence—that's no longer adaptive. The lesson risks becoming a lasting injury.
I lose the following round too, to a white/red deck filled with ping effects against my deck full of X/1s, putting the Top 8 out of reach.
I walk outside against the water to clear my head. I soon find myself lying down into crossed arms in some corner of the Grand Prix. Jet lag has me in a stupor.
I lose to Eduardo Sajgalik on Hardened Scales, which should be a great matchup. But I'm imprecise and inefficient. An early flipped Thing in the Ice isn't enough to close the game. I can't tell if I screwed it up or if the cards just didn't play out right.
Then I lose to Reid Duke on Jund, another good matchup. He's characteristically sportsmanlike, but I have no energy to give. Game one I open a hand that contains a sideboard card from the previous round, which is an automatic mulligan and, from the point of view of tight competitive play, obviously unacceptable. Game two, I'm stuck with Islands and Thing in the Ice only but still manage to have an out on the last turn to any land or any cantrip, but miss it.
I win the next, but then lose the next to a Whir Prison deck, after having finally cut my trump card (Shatterstorm) a few days earlier. My last opponent doesn't even bother showing up.
The "meta-game" of tournament play forces players to respond to the challenge of culpable negligence.
First, they must decide what their mistake reflects about their capabilities. Does it show a mere edge fracture, that being tested on, itself, almost counts as bad luck?
Or does it show a central flaw? And, if so—innate? Unavoidable? The recognition of which can only serve to remind them of their fundamental limits?
Or—a self-induced flaw? One which was avoidable by way of intervention somewhere down the line? The the question becomes—why did they allow this flaw to develop?
In any case, as long as their mind is still interior to the tournament, there's no insight worth three match points.
I'm exhausted. After hanging around for a bit—and watching as Yuuya Watanabe is, astonishingly, disqualified for playing with marked cards—I wander down the emptying mall corridor. I cross paths with Kai, and we trade some opinions on the format. It occurs to me that this marks the end of a two-year stretch where I've been competitively up to date. And indeed, I haven't played a game of Magic Online or Arena since.
Richard Garfield intended Magic as a game of perpetual discovery, with borders as fluid as those of Dungeons & Dragons. It ended up being a bit more of a combat sim.
There were two different types of gamer. "Explorers" played simply to relish in the possibilities, and "honers" play to win—relentlessly tuning out the noise caused by luck in order to better map out the game's underlying structure.
The honers entered into a competitive superstructure as the means of determining who understood best. This testing process itself functioned as a game, filled with highs and lows. At the heart of the challenge turned out to be those lows that had been within the honer's control.
They were ultimately forced to learn how to manage loss. But by what alchemy could they convert a loss into a win? Some redoubled their efforts within the game. Others took the insight back to the larger field in which the stakes mattered in the first place, in which the game turned out to be just one of many possible constructs available for exploration.
The Pro Tour was sustained by the collective imagination. The collective who grasped a Pro Tour Top 8's significance, built up over 25 years of concentrated mental energy, repetition, and history. The image is important—step outside its limits and the game turns into a marketing project. Marvel's Vs. Series paid out as much as the Pro Tour, but who cared?
It's easy to be disappointed in Wizards. By now, everyone understands the corporate MO: taking something genuinely cool created by some eccentric genius, and slowly but surely optimizing it for maximum profit, ie., maintaining fronts just long enough while ransacking the property for every last ruble. This tendency is only limited by the presence of an inner circle fighting to preserve the game's real value. Wizards hasn't been great at this. They went from one of the most free-thinking companies to one thoughtlessly chasing cultural trends five years after the fact, to say nothing of the recent series of foil-based currency schemes.
Players want desperately to access an extended world that has integrity and reality. Integrity exists to the extent that the world is structured around the game and not just marketing interests. As a construct, the Pro Tour needs some kind of continuity and boundary to feel real. If Wizards won't maintain the reality of the Pro Tour, how can players? At the same time its been infused with money, it's become derivative and forgettable.
The Pro Tour isn't about personalities, or even epic scenery, as much as it's about having adequate space to watch contested formats be worked out by the best in the game—getting to see the new ideas that break it open. In general in the game, there's been too much emphasis on personification as the key to engagement. Garfield and Skaff were right at the beginning to be skeptical of this premise as applied to a card game. Probably one of the worst things to happen to Magic, creatively, was for its approach to become systematized around Psychology 100 and Screenwriting 101.
There does come a time for change, though, one way or another. A group of young designers are waiting to revitalize the game, out from under years of stagnated design dogma and encroached corporate degradation.
And the Pro Tour is also waiting to take on new life under a transformed mythology. It won't be the Pro Tour of the blizzard of '96, held in the Puck Building in NYC, with its precedents for physical majesty, and a Top 8 emerging out of a wide field of the world's best players. It's one where the lesser competitors are confined to an intermediary realm, with only the most striking successes moving to the upper stratum, set against an electric background, where they compete through the greater fog of smaller fields with fewer rounds. So be it!
Winning and losing are nothing in the face of perpetual genesis!
May the Pro Tour never end!