It's Monday, January 7th, 2019. Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers aren't a thing anymore.
On June 6th, 2014, I played in a Modern Pro Tour Qualifier. The store hosting the event chose to hold the tournament in the storefront. They didn't have enough space for the players, let alone seats. Players played their rounds standing up, battlefields on plexiglass dice displays. It was miserable. My two teammates from Grand Prix Providence from the year before wound up meeting in the finals. We went to Uno for dinner, our waitress referred to the PTQ champion as "Hawaii" the entire night, and we enjoyed each other's company, ignominies of the tournament we'd just paid money to participate in totally forgotten.
The Pro Tour Qualifier system, long a horrorscape of overmatched and under-supported TOs, was never built to support the breakaway successes of Zendikar and Innistrad nor was it prepared for just how effective Duels of the Planeswalkers would be at getting new players into the game. The way an LGS became eligible to run a Pro Tour Qualifier in the first place was a mostly opaque process that players could only guess was related to which shop in each arbitrarily-assigned region could add the most new DCI numbers to the chum bucket. That's the only thing that could explain how one store, in a region of New York known for the relative strength of its local scene, kept getting chosen to host the region's PTQs despite an utter lack of play space, competing LGSes that proved far more apt to handle a regular playerbase, and the strong, persistent odor of cat urine—the store was within walking distance from a junior high school.
At some point, Organized Play determined that they had hit their threshold of bad PR they were willing to tolerate every quarter on behalf of PTQs and the ill-prepared LGSes chosen to host them. They were scuttled in favor of a new tournament series called Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers. Instead of one tournament per region per quarter, any LGS could apply to hold a preliminary tournament that qualified you for a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier, where making the Top 4 yielded a Pro Tour invite (contingent on the RPTQ's attendance). By splitting one tournament into two, the PPTQ initiative allowed more stores to get in on competitive Magic in their area without the potential stress of figuring out the logistics of hosting a tournament of 100+ attendees. Meanwhile, the bigger LGSes could still apply to host RPTQs, so ostensibly, they didn't lose anything either.
In another timeline, PPTQs could have been seen as a clever fix to the issues with PTQs. In this timeline, they were roundly dismissed.
One of the smarmiest, dumbest overriding narratives about competitive Magic players is that they are compulsively unsatisfied. If you gave a Magic player a free $10 bill, the old maxim goes, they'd complain about how it was folded. This reduction not only assumes that whatever players are complaining about is above criticism—it makes no attempts at understanding or empathy. It assumes an entitled party from a compassion-fatigued point of view.
Entitlement and lack of perspective often carry the same symptoms. As someone who's spent the better part of the past decade writing weird, inaccessible blogs, about both observations of aspiring Magicians and my own modest exploits as one, I can verify that most Magic players don't have much of a frame of reference for the challenges that the average LGS faces.
While PPTQs weren't difficult for the average LGS to execute, they presented their own logistical puzzle. I'm using numbers from my own experience in Upstate New York; PPTQs can be anywhere from eleven (I won that one!) to 60+ players. They necessitate, at the very least, an L2 judge. The going rate for an L2 judge is anywhere from $100-$200 in store credit, and most tournaments will need two judges for the event to run smoothly. Another factor is the inconsistency of player turnout; maybe the PPTQ will be small enough that it only needs a head judge. Maybe it will be big enough to warrant a three-person judging staff. This game, too, is not without its own variance.
However an LGS decides to solve the judge compensation puzzle dictates the prize payout, meaning a tournament with decent payout is potentially understaffed (or the judge is underpaid) or that players can look at the prize payout, do the math on how much of the entrance fees go into the prize pool, and determine from that whether or not the purse is sufficient. The determination rarely takes overhead costs into account. Grinders that fancy themselves as business-savvy will dismiss LGS concerns about overhead as a lack of that LGSes commitment to selling snacks or singles or sleeves or whatever. "You make your money on the stuff you sell—tournaments should be for the players" is an ethos I've heard echoed through tournament halls the entire time I've been playing Magic. This sentiment doesn't carry a lot of understanding or empathy either.
If a local community is something you value, be prepared to pay for it. If that's irrelevant to you, keep sounding off in Facebook groups, but know that to gripe about prize payouts at the local level is to misunderstand the business side of an LGS and what your role is in its success. An LGS presupposes that you enjoy what it brings to the table—a place to game with your friends, presumably—and that you're willing to pay a little more than you usually would online (reminder: if your LGS sells singles through TCGplayer you can always shop for singles on their storefront exclusively) for things like singles or Oreos in order to allow the LGS owners to maintain that space.
It's important to note that while PPTQs may have been, on average, more comfortable experience that involved less traveling than PTQs, PPTQs were a very predictable failure in terms of getting the PTQ player-base excited.
I understand that this trait isn't unique to Magic and also varies from person to person, but one of the qualities that makes Magic so sticky is the amnesia it induces. I don't know how else to explain it. The immediate aftermath of a tournament is wanting to play in the next tournament, regardless of what transpired in the tournament itself. All the wasted time between rounds, the mana screw, unpleasant opponents—Magic erases them from our brains like clockwork. Any discomfort or annoyance experienced that day is obliterated in our minds, displaced by a clear view of how thin the margin was between a good finish and the one we achieved and what we can apply to the next tournament. It doesn't matter how much more comfortable or convenient PPTQs are if the entire player base has amnesia—all that matters is that one tournament got stretched into two.
If you don't mind playing more Magic, the PPTQ system is fine. It's not great, but it's fine. Traveling to RPTQs are more inconvenient but not much different than the average PTQ grind from before. The differences are that you had to qualify for it and that there's only one of them. Multiple PTQs in a season gave players multiple bites at the apple, but one RPTQ per season is only one basket to store your eggs in. Whether or not reality reflects this, most PTQ grinders view themselves as nits, min-maxing their way through the seasons, adhering to the logic that with tight play and enough exposure, the breakout finish is mathematically guaranteed. Taking away the opportunities for a PT-qualifying result changed the equation enough to drive a whole class of player away from the tournaments altogether. The fact that the Top 4 (usually) qualifies at an RPTQ is simply an attempt at balancing the equation.
PPTQs let me play lots of Magic on the weekends without having to travel crazy distances to make it work. My goal in Magic has always been to qualify for a Pro Tour (lol RIP), so I played PPTQs because they became the path to the Pro Tour once PTQs were discontinued. I never passed judgment on PPTQs as an institution because, frankly, I hated PTQs and still played in them anyway. My comparison of the two tournaments boils down to this: PPTQs are cheaper, require less travel, more comfortable, and qualify you for a PTQ. To be fair, that last bullet is a legitimate sticking point, but PPTQs came out favorably on all the metrics that I care about. Caring about prize payouts truly never occurred to me because Grand Prix payouts are trash and I still play in those and since I so rarely need singles, the way I typically support my LGSes is by going to their PPTQs. I always figured that if I cared enough about my expected value to examine prize payouts of Magic tournaments, I should probably just use that time to go into the office and get some overtime instead.
This idea is way, way more in the realm of pure conjecture, but I think the structure of PPTQ and RPTQs encourage a healthier relationship with Magic than a handful of 100-person winner-take-all tournaments every quarter. You can skip a PPTQ and not feel too badly about it. I'm happy to report that, over the three years they existed, I literally never set an alarm for a PPTQ unless I was someone's ride. If I woke up in time to play, great. If my body decided it needed the sleep, well, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy a weekend. It didn't feel like that with PTQs. The atmosphere was different, and it certainly wasn't better.
I was actually supposed to play in a PPTQ—my last one—last weekend, but a coworker got tickets to see Gareth Reynolds. So I did that instead. One of the benefits of PPTQs was that skipping one wasn't the end of the world.
The Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier experiment is over. I played in 45 PPTQs and won seven of them. The only time I ever sniffed Top 8 at an RPTQ was when I lost my win-and-in with Death's Shadow a couple years ago, when Gitaxian Probe was still legal. It was the only RPTQ I didn't practice for. I'll miss PPTQs, but I'm interested to see what they'll get replaced with. I suppose there's a nonzero chance they don't get replaced at all, and PTQs are bound to Magic Fests. That would be a bummer, but with eleven players qualifying at every Magic Fest now (the MF Top 8 plus the PTQ winners on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), it would make sense for local-level events that feed Mythic Championships to be done for good. I think that's a bummer.