In Development – Sprinting Toward Christmas

It’s incredibly tricky to design a complex system that works.

That’s one of the big challenges in my field right now – trying to get biological systems to work more like the idealized take on engineering projects, where you can plan the whole thing ahead of time and it should basically work when you actually make it. What tends to actually happen is that some interaction you never thought of – or never even knew about beforehand – smacks you upside the head and sends you back to the drawing board for your next try.

All of that is a decent analogy for where we find ourselves with Planeswalker Points. The system was built with some clear goals in mind, but it is a complex one, with several “toggles” that impact how it works in the end – multipliers and event access being two biggies. Even though the basic incentives were clear, the actual outcomes can be a little quirky.

…and, of course, we always want to come back to asking, “How does this impact my participation in the game?” With that in mind, let’s check in on the PWP system with just about three weeks to go before the close of this inaugural qualifying season.

Goals and incentives

It’s probably good to start any discussion about how the PWP system is turning out by looking at why we’d even want to have a ranking system for Organized Play. After all, we aren’t running some kind of bizarre, Ender’s Game-style Magic battle academy where we’re going to select the best Magic players around to fight threats to the Earth’s survival.

The goal is for you to play more

The whole point of a ranking system for Organized Play is to incentivize us to participate in organized play.

The old system obviously collided head-on with this goal from time to time. For a lot of players who had decent but not crushingly high ELO ratings, it was easy to find that the smart choice was to avoid playing for weeks at a time if they wanted to go the next Pro Tour or retain their byes for an upcoming Grand Prix.

So that’s an obvious fail.

On the other hand, I’ve seen several complaints from players who previously were able to maintain a high rating with modest frequency of play. Whereas before they could rest assured in their invites or byes, now they face the real risk of being bumped out of position by someone who’s “just playing more often.”

But given the real reason we have a ranking system, this is correct. You want to reward “just showing up” as well as excelling at the game.

Mechanically, we want to reward “just showing up” so that people will, you know, show up…and buy cards, and so forth.

Philosophically, we want to reward excelling at the game so that players remain engaged. After all, engaged players are going to keep buying cards, drafting avidly, acquiring new cards to update their Constructed decks, and so forth. They’re also less likely to treat Magic like a flavor of the week and switch to a different hobby.

…and to bring that toward something beyond a simple statement of facts, I’d argue that the problems in the current system are probably being overstated, and that it’s pretty close to working well.

It’s not skill plus time, it’s skill multiplied by time

The intuitive fear, from “pro players” and “amateurs” alike, is that under an accumulating system like the current one, you’re just going to be bumped out by the people who have the time to grind events each and every weekend.

Put baldly, the fear is that mediocre players will just “buy their way onto the Pro Tour” by attending more events than the rest of us can manage.

It doesn’t actually work that way.

Imagine that you’re the highly motivated and yet curiously mediocre player that everyone’s afraid of. You reliably win 50% of your matches (which is probably much better than a truly “mediocre” player, but makes the math very easy). You have the rare combination of money and time to burn, and over the course of the qualifying season you’re going to hit up every single SCG Open weekend, Pro Tour Philly, Worlds, and then fill the remaining gaps with FNM.

Congratulations – by a generous estimate, you’ve earned a little over 1700 Competitive PWPs and a place outside the top 100 Worldwide. No Worldwide invite for you.

Now, this could potentially earn you a regional invite if you’re from Latin America…but even then it’s dicey (and you have spent a tremendous amount of money attending GPS and other events that aren’t in your area).

Maybe this mythical mediocre grinder does exist out there, somewhere…but if so, they don’t seem to be scoring above the 50% mark and they aren’t really on my radar.

In contrast, two genuine sharks in the PWP rankings pool can be found in Melissa DeTora and Sam Black. DeTora, in particular, has talked about making the decision to travel widely to earn PWPs from events with high multipliers, once she did the math and realized she could position herself well in the rankings as a result.

But keep in mind that Melissa is also a good player, who top eighted a GP this year. Likewise, Sam, who top eighted a PT. It’s this combination of skill with a focused grinding of high-multiplier events that has placed both Melissa and Sam in the top ten of this season’s Competitive leaderboard.

On the other hand, eleven of the twenty-four players who top eighted one of the first three PTs of 2011 aren’t in the top hundred, which can seem a little jarring.

In fact, those eleven unfortunates would lose to our theoretical “mediocre supergrinder,” as none of them have broken 1700 points this deep in the season.

The take-home is clear – consistent application of skill beats either grinding or skilled play taken in isolation.

But what does this mean for me?

The take-home message for you depends, as always, on your goals. Let’s take a look at those one more time. The big ones include:

So how are these going to work in the coming year?

Grinding into the PT gets harder

After being fairly tournament-inactive (due to that whole “wedding” thing), I’ve jump-started my Competitive PWPs in a fairly silly manner simply by showing up and playing “well enough” at two of the four days of Worlds. The culprit here is the same thing that drove Zaiem Beg and Carrie Oliver to go to San Francisco – that 5x multiplier for Public Events at a Pro Tour.

It’s a multiplier that’s shared by PTQs and National Qualifiers, but the PT Public Events setting has the distinction of being a veritable candy store of events from which to harvest 5x points – sort of like one of those bonus coin levels in an old school Nintendo side scroller.

For example, in my relatively low-key two days at Worlds, I was able to play in the Legacy Open, the big Modern event, and three Standard public events. My 4-1-1 in Modern netted me some 80 points…and I had lots of time left over to fill my day with Standard queuing if I’d really felt like it. So for the current season, those of you who were able to make it to Public events at Worlds had a significant advantage over everyone who couldn’t.

Conveniently, none of that matters for the future. With PTs switching over to closed events, we’re stuck with the following targets for our multiplier-harvesting needs:

This places the advantage firmly with players who can regularly attend GPs, especially if they can also hit day two with reasonable frequency.

Even a “bad” day at a GP – say, with just four wins – is far more lucrative in terms of PWPs than the same wins scored elsewhere.

Any GP you can day two is going to be worth about 300 points, or six of those 4-win FNMs, or top eighting three SCG Open tournaments.

Of course, you can also pull down that nearly 400 points by winning just half of your rounds at the Pro Tour level. If you managed a comparable record to our posited GP day two, you’d take in a chunky 470 points or so, which tallies to a rather depressing nine and a half 4-win FNMs.

It’s all starting to sound like one of those old Total Cereal ads.

Without PT Public Events to let players “cram” for PWPs, you really do need to be playing in GPs and the PT to do well on rankings, unless you’re able to supergrind the SCG Open Series.

PTQs are qualifying kings, or perhaps dukes

One upshot is that PTQs regain their position as the likely best way to qualify. When I asserted before that PTQs would be the best path to the Pro Tour for most players, I hadn’t realized what kind of weird skew you could generate by powering through a few days of Public Events at a Pro Tour. With the PT option gone, that skew dies down quite a bit, and the closest equivalent is GP Trials at a GP, which really doesn’t add much to let you compete with dedicated FNMers…unless you’re going to a lot of GPs.

Which we already said was going to be key to grinding in, of course.

So if you want to grind in, you need to go to as many GPs as possible, and then spend your non-GP time attending PTQs (better) or FNM (okay, but not as good).

…and, of course, if you happen to win your PTQ, then the qualifying question suddenly becomes completely moot and you’re good to go. That’s the part that elevates PTQs to duke status, at least for me. They’re good PWP harvesting points for those non-GP weekends and you might have one of those “oops, I qualified!” moments (that are no longer available at GPs, by the way).

Pulling down those GP byes

In much the same way that the removal of PT Public Events will tend to “stabilize” qualification toward players who are doing well on the Tour and at GPs, it will also tend to focus the 3-round GP byes toward those same players. Since GP byes don’t have the “oops, I’m qualified” option that PT qualification offers, it will be very hard to hit three byes if you’re not playing in the PTs and at GPs. At the same time, the 2-round and 1-round bye cutoffs are likely to be plausibly within reach for players who attend some GPs and play in PTQs (2-round) or just play at FNM regularly (1-round).

…and do reasonably well, of course. That qualifier remains true.

If you’re looking to fix your byes for the coming season, here are where the cutoffs stand as of my writing this article.

There are three weekends left before the season closes out (technically four, but I’m not playing on Christmas day, and most people won’t be in much of the world). I suspect the 3-bye mark might rise noticeably, but the 2-bye and 1-bye levels are likely to drift upward only slightly. So if you’re trying to get over that hump in the time remaining, add a few points and you’ll have your target.

Pro Player benefits

With this system still undefined, it’s hard to say exactly how it player benefit will work out. That said, since the Professional Total is distinct from other ways of accruing PWPs, it should map relatively well onto the old Pro Point system. Obviously, Wizards can set the various rewards (appearance fees, travel allowances) wherever they want, but one thing to keep in mind is this:

As weird as it may be to see your favorite PT regulars pushed down the ranks by names from the Open Series or that you simply don’t recognize, keep in mind that that’s relevant for ranking-based invitations, but not pro player benefits.

Consider the following comparison. Here’s the top ten for the current Competitive season:

…and here’s the current Professional top ten:

I imagine the second list looks more familiar to those of you who’ve followed PT coverage this year. I’ve highlighted Richard Bland and Andreas Ganz as they are the only players who currently appear in both top ten lists.

The uncertain conclusion

If my take today strikes you as a little vague, that reflects the uncertainty that’s left for the coming year. The removal of PT Public events will go a long way toward removing weird jumblings of the Competitive Rankings, which does help remove some of that uncertainty. I might summarize my take on the coming year like so:

PTQs are still the likely best path to qualification for most players
If you were able to earn Pro Points under the old system, you’re likely to be able to qualify off your Competitive score under the new one
Pro player benefits don’t have to change much (not saying they won’t!)
A moderately motivated player should be able to pick up at least one GP bye each season

For now, at least, it looks like a lot of the weirdness and noise in the PWP system is a product of implanting a new system on the old tournament structure. Once those two elements come into alignment, I think PWP can start generating results that make intuitive sense most of the time.

Special thanks to Ryan Bogner for inspiring me to take one more look at PWPs before the season closes out. Incidentally, Ryan’s calculations show that Wizards will end up giving some 30-40 extra invites to PT Dark Ascension based on their decision to use parallel Competitive Worldwide ranking lists to determine invitations. I see that as a positive sign that they’re trying to make things work.

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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