In September of 2017, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) announced that there would be an exhibition event running alongside the Team Pro Tour in Minneapolis in August of this year. They announced that this exhibition event would have a prize purse of $150,000. Naturally, this got many players excited, as this would be a tournament that was separate from the Pro Tour and had the chance to be something truly epic. I was even excited for this event, even though I assumed I would not be able to play in it, as it was originally purported to run alongside the Pro Tour.
On Thursday, WotC finally announced what it would be: The Silver Showcase.
The reaction to this announcement for many Magic professionals was immediate and negative, demonstrated by this tweet from Mike Sigrist, who is best known in the Magic Community for being a longtime player... and also someone with a lot of great finishes at Pro Tours and Grand Prix events.
Magic Players: "I play magic all day everyday, I fly all over the world, please give us some more prize money, please?"— Michael Sigrist (@MSigrist83) June 28, 2018
Wotc: "Were having an additional 150k tournament!"
Also Wotc: " Invites go to: Some of the top 10 ever and some people who don't play Magic"
It may surprise many Magic players that the professional Magic community found this announcement frustrating. A lot of players had a reaction of rolling their eyes at professional Magic players over this, and I totally understand that reaction. After all, what's not to like? It's a tournament with eight prolific players playing in an awesome format with money being donated to charity.
On the surface, this tournament is awesome. I love them selecting the highest lifetime pro point earners to play in a tournament featuring an old format in Rochester draft and old sets like Beta, Legends, Antiquities, and Arabian Nights. Those are iconic sets from when Magic first started out and embody an old and beloved style of drafting. This format truly encapsulates the history of the game, and having professionals who have been playing the game for decades to showcase it is an awesome idea.
Past that point, it begins to break down. What sparked most of the controversy is that WotC chose to fill the other four spots in the draft with players who are not heavily invested in the Magic community. While Brian Kibler is a Magic Hall-of-Famer, he left the game to pursue playing the more lucrative Hearthstone, which is the same for Stanislav Cifka, who won a Pro Tour but eventually quit Magic for Hearthstone. Amaz is a Hearthstone streamer who only started playing Magic recently, and while David Williams has played on the Pro Tour for a long time, he is best-known as a pro Poker player and for his run through a season of MasterChef.
This is a tournament that is meant to celebrate 25 years of Magic's history, and instead of inviting some of the best players who have ever played the game, such as legendary Hall-of-Famers like Kai Budde, Gabriel Nassif, Luis Scott-Vargas and others, Wizards of the Coast instead elected to invite people who either quit Magic to pursue other games or who are best-known for their careers outside of Magic. The message here is simple: to get paid to play Magic, you have to quit the game and become more famous and make more money elsewhere rather than stick around.
The minimum prize for playing in the Silver Showcase is $12,500, and that amount of money is more than winning a Grand Prix, more than Top 8ing a Pro Tour, and up until this year, more than anything other than Top 4 of the World Championships. This tournament has the highest value-per-player ratio of any tournament ever, and half the players are Hearthstone pros.
Magic professionals aren't playing the game for the money. Being a Platinum Pro, for example, earns you $15,000 a year—less than working at McDonalds—and players still have to pay for their own travel, food, and lodging to attend enough events to even do well enough to be one of the 30 players in the world who manage to achieve Platinum. Combining pro perks with my tournament winnings over the course of each year, my hope is to do slightly better than breaking even, and I'm currently ranked 16th in the world.
This isn't something I'm unhappy about. I don't feel like I'm owed anything by WotC or entitled to make money playing Magic professionally. Players who are unhappy with the system are welcome to quit at any time, something I personally will not be doing, as I love this game and the tournaments I travel to play in. I make enough money from content production and the occasional big payday from spiking a tournament to live comfortably. I'm extremely lucky and consider myself blessed to be able to live this lifestyle. I don't eat, breathe and sleep this game to get rich. I play because I love the game... or am maybe addicted to the game. Not totally sure.
The truth is that many professionals have dedicated huge chunks of their life to competing in Magic and selling the dream of the Pro Tour, despite the fact that doing so earns them almost no money. They do it because they love the game, but there is also the chance that eventually, this will change, and pros will get paid more to play Magic. Maybe the game will become bigger and more popular and some of that money will trickle down to the Pros. It's now clearer than ever that this is extremely unlikely—even as Magic grows, WotC has no incentive to give that money to professionals—but we still cling to it because it represents hope. Professionals care about the future of the game almost as much as WotC does, for this reason and others.
So for WotC to hype a special exhibition event to celebrate Magic's history months in advance and then eventually reveal that it is going to feature non-Magic players and have a prize payout where last place is more than many players make from Magic in an entire year... well, that stings a bit. Why is Kai Budde, one of the greatest players ever, not in that tournament? This was a chance for WotC to give back to players and demonstrate their appreciation for all of these players' contributions to the game.
They chose to take it as an opportunity to market Magic to players of other games over honoring their most devoted professionals. They don't owe that to us, but it hurts nonetheless. At any other time, that would have been perfectly fine. If they decided they wanted to run a promotional event at some random point throughout the year and invited Amaz, a popular Hearthstone streamer, I believe most professionals would be in support of it. But the timing here was undeniably poor. They chose to market Hearthstone pros in a tournament celebrating 25 years of Magic history in a period of time where being able to financially support oneself playing Magic professionally is becoming less and less feasible. A lot of pros were upset, not directly because of the event itself, but because of what it represented: WotC doesn't invest in professional Magic players and professional Magic isn't an attainable lifestyle.
What further upset professional players is that for the last few years, Wizards of the Coast has been steadily cutting perks away from professionals. Outside of tournament prizes, the only money pro players earn is that $15,000 the roughly 30 Platinum players get in appearance fees over the course of the year, assuming they show up to enough events.
A few years ago, WotC attempted to take even that away. They made an announcement that they were going to cut roughly 80% of appearance fees out from Platinums, reducing their yearly earnings from $15,000 to something closer to $2,000-$3,000. This sparked such a community outrage, that the hashtag #PayThePros sprung up and WotC eventually decided to renege on this plan.
Since then, they have been steadily cutting Platinum and Hall of Fame perks anyway. They used to pay for hotels for Platinums when they traveled to Pro Tours. That was removed. They also reduced appearance fees for pros who travel a lot by only giving appearance fees for the first six Grand Prix attended instead of all of them. Most recently, they made a drastic change to the Pro Point system, of which one of the major changes is that players will have to earn Platinum every quarter of the year rather than being able to just earn it once to have all year. While the new system does have some upsides as well, the end result is yet again another slight loss in value for Pro players.
These changes were all accepted because they assured pros that they were going to reinvest that money into prize pools for events. And to be fair, they have. The prize pool for the team Pro Tour next month is the largest ever. This year's World Championships is also paying out more than any previous year. The team series now awards prizes to top performing teams. These changes are still worse for professionals, as the value of being a pro is now tied up in your finish in specific events instead of a guaranteed income, but WotC has reallocated those funds into bigger prizes for events.
Despite that, it still raises questions to see a $150,000 tournament where a lot of money is being given out to people who don't even play Magic anymore or who just started playing the game. Was that money reallocated from reducing pro perks? In some ways it feels like a betrayal of trust. Professional Magic players are now earning less guaranteed benefits in order to be able to get more from tournament winnings and the best paying tournament of all time isn't even entirely for us. Keep in mind that $150,000 is the amount being given to only 8 players, while the pinnacle of professional Magic, the Pro Tour, pays out $250,000 in total split among over 400 players.
It makes one wonder whether it is worth continuing to play professional Magic when WotC is always trying to reinvest guaranteed money to pros elsewhere and is interested in creating tournaments marketing players from outside the game instead of their own players. The blunt answer is that it's not. To be fair, it has never been worth it to play professional Magic from a financial standpoint, but things are only getting worse.
I'm not in love with WotC choosing Hearthstone players over dedicated Magic Hall-of-Famers in the highest-EV event of all time, but I can accept that if the tournament is actually going to be something that promotes Magic effectively. If this event is going to be worth the promotion, then it is completely understandable.
The problem is that this tournament does not feel well-thought out. If I'm being completely honest, it feels like WotC noticed the success of the Beta draft that took place at Grand Prix Las Vegas a few weekends ago and decided to just piggy back off that event's success for this event. Considering that this event was announced in September of last year, it does not inspire confidence that the event produces the feeling that it was hastily thrown together last-minute. They had a year to prepare for this. They also have pro Magic players they can use as a resource to make sure they aren't doing things that will create backlash. Use them.
In this event, players are playing for a huge cash prize while the cards opened are going to be collected and donated to charity. I think this is the reverse of how it should work. WotC should be donating most of the prize money to charity and players should be keeping the cards. The cards are a part of Magic history and are worth a lot of money anyway. This is an event celebrating Magic's history. Let the players keep the iconic cards they open and improve the coverage experience. Someone opening a Black Lotus on stream to celebrate Magic's 25th anniversary? Epic. Someone opening a Black Lotus on stream but not getting to keep the card? *air leaving tires sound*
I think it's great to see WotC donating to charity, but donating the cards after a booster draft feels like a random way to do it, as they could be donating a small amount or a huge amount depending on the value of cards opened. Turning a charity donation into the gamble of cracking a pack feels worse to me than donating a set amount and allowing the players to experience the thrill of the pack lottery.
The purpose of bringing in Hearthstone pros is to market Magic to a wider audience. Presumably, having these players playing in the event means that they will promote the event to their followers, which can draw other people in to watch and get excited about Magic. This makes sense for something like an event on Magic Arena, WotC's new digital platform that could easily market itself to Hearthstone players.
It does not make sense for a Beta, Beta, Beta, Antiquities, Legends, Arabian Nights Rochester Draft. That draft will take hours because of how slow Rochester is, and those sets were not designed for limited. They have tons of confusing, poorly worded, errata'd cards, in addition to an enormous amount of unplayable cards and basic lands in the packs. Someone watching Magic for the first time is not going to be excited to watch a boring draft take hours and then people struggle to play Magic against each other with heinously bad cards, many of which just no longer even work with rules changes. The excitement there is for long-time Magic players who can appreciate the history and nostalgia.
When it's all said and done, I think they had a good idea for this event. Old-school pros, old-school sets, and an old-school draft format is neat. Bringing in outside personalities and donating money to charity is also a great thing. Mixing together a bunch of great things, however, isn't always the best plan if they don't work well together. You don't put peanut butter on your pizza, even though both are great in their own right.
WotC's head was in the right place. They wanted to make a cool event, which I respect, but they didn't stick the landing. The format feels like it was concocted in the last minute, as does the decision to invite players outside of Magic during an event hyped as a celebration of Magic's history.
I want to be clear, however, that I don't hold anything against anyone invited to this event. I'm happy for them and hope they have a great time playing in this unique event.
Over the past few years WoTC removed hotel perks, lessened appearance fees, tried to cut them altogether (#paythepros) and changed to a volatile pro system. Now they are throwing a lot of $$ into an event featuring hearthstone streamers.— Brian Braun-Duin (@BraunDuinIt) June 28, 2018
Will pro magic even exist in 5 years?
This wasn't meant to be a direct complaint or an attack on WotC. Is WotC moving away from professional Magic? Is it dying? They are pushing money into prize payouts over consistent earnings for pros. To me, that signifies that they don't think they are getting their money's worth out of Platinum players and they'd rather have the higher prestige that tournaments with bigger first prizes provide. They are also moving toward promoting players outside of Magic, in order to draw into other markets. This includes things like extending special invites to players like Amaz in the past (and again at this event) to play in the Pro Tour.
Couple this with the fact that WotC does not do much to promote their pro players makes me believe that they either don't know how to effectively promote them or that they don't think marketing professionals is a valuable use of time and resources. Consider the SCG Tour. Players in the Top 32 of the SCG Tour are more well-known than a lot of Platinum pros, despite Platinum pros having significantly higher accolades. SCG markets their players, WotC does not.
When someone wins a Grand Prix or Pro Tour or the World Championship, where are the interviews, promotional videos, retweets, articles and so forth? WotC doesn't do any of that, at least not in any consistent or significant way. They focus exclusively on the cards, the lore, and the game. The Pro Tour is a marketing afterthought for them, and it's easy to see why the Pro Tour and the pros that comprise it aren't more popular than they are.
To me, this raises the question: "Is the Pro Tour even worth it for WotC?"
Personally, I think the dream of pro Magic and professional players are important to the game. Professional players market the game, come up with decks, spread interest and excitement for cards and sets, and sell the dream. Without a dream of going pro or playing pro Magic, a lot of players would quit playing Magic instead of continuing on in perpetuity. It's why video games have achievements now. Players need to feel like they are playing for something, that there is something to achieve, to acquire, or to conquer.
Professional Magic offers that. It gives players a chance to improve and see a tangible benefit to improvement. It gives them a chance to continually play Magic on harder and harder difficulty levels in order to get better. It lets players play countless hours of Magic and feel like they are working toward something or achieving something instead of just throwing away hours of time. This is all important.
However, they could probably accomplish this without the Pro Tour existing in its current form.
They run Pro Tours four times a year, but they don't hype them in advance, they don't market the players playing in them, and their coverage focuses heavily on the cards specifically from the new set and their advertisements are all from the Magic story over the competition, players, and event itself. The people who watch Pro Tours are predominantly people who are interested in the dream of Pro Magic in some capacity. They either hope to get there one day themselves or, like how I watch sports, are simply entertained by watching players play a competitive venture at a high level of play.
Pro Tour viewers tend to be more enfranchised players who are already up to speed on the Magic storyline or care less about it than the competition, decks, players, and the Pro Tour itself. The event loses its luster when you don't know any of the players playing and thus don't have any reason to care about them or who wins or loses. I also find it doesn't appeal to me very much when they constantly force through a narrative about cards from the new set that are doing well versus just letting the tournament tell its own stories about the players. Don't try to force selling the cards to me, sell me the thrill of the competition and let that inspire me to want the cards myself.
It feels like WotC is dragging around the dying body of an archaic Pro Tour system and pro players are just getting dragged around with it as well.
I feel like they should either:
1.) Get rid of the Pro Tour entirely and replace that aspect of Magic with promotional events featuring top players and/or non-MTG personalities that will bring in a lot of viewers and/or attract potential new Magic players. Allow players to compete for spots as well, so that you don't totally throw away the dream of Pro Magic for players.
2.) Continue to run the Pro Tour but actually invest into it. Make sure coverage teams are well-versed in the format and decks so that they don't stumble around blindly and have no idea what they're talking about while covering matches. Actually market the players so people have players to root for or against and player-driven narratives to follow throughout the tournament. If the format is boring, or a match features an unliked deck on camera, at least make it so viewers can still be invested in the tournament because they want to see this first timer make top 8 or see how well their favorite pros are doing. Marketing players also has the added benefit of selling players on the deck they chose for that event, which is a win-win.
Pay top professionals reasonable amounts of money so they stick around all year long, and then as part of that contract, make them do deck techs, promotional pieces, and other pieces of content to also drive interest and promote the game. Reallocate the money to pay for this by reducing the number of people you're paying. Instead of paying lots of "professionals" a mere pittance, pay less players but give those players enough to make a living off of it.
I'll be honest: I'm no expert. Maybe these ideas are way worse than they sound to me. However, the fact remains that right now the Pro Tour doesn't seem like something WotC actually cares about, based on how disinterested they are in promoting it. Is the Pro Tour successful for WotC? That's a question I cannot answer, but if they aren't getting any value out of the Pro Tour and pro players are constantly unhappy with dwindling perks being pushed into less consistent forms of payout, then maybe it's time for a change.
Maybe it's time to just rip the bandaid off and jump with both feet forward into a new future.