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Rule of Law – Wizards Drops the Ball with New Announcements

Unfortunately for Wizards of the Coast (“WotC”), Public Relations Nightmare isn’t a black flyer with power and toughness equal to the number of swamps you control.

I’m sure you’ve read this announcement about Worlds 2012 by now.

This is the latest tip to be revealed of the iceberg that is the changes to the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour system. Earlier announcements revealed that Planeswalker Points (PWPs) would replace the Elo rating system and that the Pro Players Club would be discontinued.

Reaction to change is often negative, regardless of whether the change itself is harmful or beneficial. Most of us naturally fear change, but there’s even more to it than that. People self-select for participation in the Pro Tour, so those choosing to get invested must have positive feelings for much of the current system. Announce that things are changing, and you open the door for the possibility that what we liked about the PT will be leaving us. That nostalgic and historical elements can become bound to current system elements like Pro Points or Elo rating is another reason change is fighting an uphill battle for acceptance.

So there is a natural bias towards panic and negative reactions in general, but that doesn’t strip WotC of the responsibility of announcing and implementing changes in a way that accomplishes basic public relations goals. The three questions Wizards of the Coast’s announcements needed (and continue to need) to accomplish are as follows (I pulled this from a paper titled “Strategically Communicating Organisational Change” that I found here. This paper is intended to aid companies in announcing major changes to their employees. Common sense and good PR principles aren’t limited to that exact context, however).

1. Is there a need for the change?

2. Is this change the remedy for the concern?

3. Have significant disadvantages to the plan been resolved?

I’d give WotC a B on addressing Question 1, a D on addressing Question 2, and an F on addressing Question 3.

The primary reason the scores are so low on Questions 2 and 3 is that WotC has rolled out so little of the total scheme that it has left players to speculate, guess, worry, and panic.

1. Is there a need for the change?

WotC did a decent job explaining problems with the current Elo system, but never tried to fix the identified problems from within that system. For example, they indicated that players were sometimes “sitting on” their rating when they reached a certain level, but they never tried a system that finds the peaks during a given time period. The failure to attempt alternatives within the Elo system weakens WotC’s argument that the current system is irreparably flawed (that’s what this first question is all about: is the change needed?). It doesn’t necessarily mean the new plan is a failure. The problems identified with the Elo system were complex enough to suggest that perhaps an overhaul was indeed the best solution.

That’s why I gave them a “B” grade on Question 1.

With regard to Pro Points, the grade would have to be lower, since little explanation for why they had to go was given.

2. Is this change the remedy for the concern?

This is where things start to fall apart regarding the recent announcements. To communicate to invested parties – and make no mistake, players traveling around the world now and booking travel for 2012 are highly invested in all of this – that the plan proposed is the appropriate solution to existing problems, you have to communicate the plan. “Trust me” only gets you so far, and the bigger the change, the more ground you have to cover.

Revealing only part of the new system at a given time is the result of one of two realities, neither of which is very comforting for current players:

A) WotC isn’t sure what the rest of the system will look like, and they’re still piecing it together, or B) they know much more than they are revealing.

“A” is so problematic that we can mostly rule it out. If things are still being hammered out to the extent than not even general outlines of changes can be revealed, I hope they would just wait until they had more figured out before they announced any changes. Scenario “B” is somewhat more comforting from a “where will we eventually end up” standpoint, but is still very frustrating.

The purpose of announcing a change is to let the affected individuals learn of, adjust to, and eventually accept, the changes. In that order. If players can’t learn what the changes are in a way that lets them adapt to the changes, they won’t accept them.

Players like Brian Kibler and Paulo Vitor Doritos have been very vocal on Twitter already stating that they are unable to plan their travel (or decide not to) without knowing what all the major components of the new system are. They aren’t being irrational; in fact, they are describing precisely how their decisions have been difficult to make with limited information. In Kibler’s case, he stated he would have traveled to an extra GP last month if he knew being in the top 10 in Professional PWPs would earn an invite to a $100k tournament. Paulo was annoyed that he missed Pro PWPs by dropping out of a GP early because he knows his Player Club level will qualify him for every PT next year (that much had been announced even though the extra bonus for the top 10 PWP players hadn’t been).

3. Have significant disadvantages to the plan been resolved

This article critiques the manner of presentation of the new system rather than system itself because the presentation was so poor that it made insightful critique of the system impossible! I can’t argue that removing a PT was a bad or a good idea; we don’t know if a PT will be removed. I can’t argue that the incentives offered actually exceed prior incentives for certain players; we don’t know what incentives will actually be offered.

Notice that this question doesn’t ask “Are there significant disadvantages to the plan?” Rational planning involves recognizing that any proposed change will have advantages and disadvantages to be weighed against each other and against prior plans. As outlined above, discussion can’t currently advance far enough to include disadvantage/advantage analysis. The “F” grade here reflects the fact that the announcements have left a major elephant sitting in the Pro Tour’s living room: “When all is said and done, is the new Pro Tour something I want to participate in?” We’ve been told we can’t turn back, but we haven’t been told where we can choose to go.

Potential disadvantages to the system were identified by Zvi, Finkel, et al. and many others. WotC hasn’t given anyone the tools to argue that these disadvantages have been resolved. The optimists can only say “I think they’ll work it out” or ask us to reserve judgment, but that doesn’t bring people very far along the “learn, adapt, accept” timeline I mentioned above.

Why Might WotC Be Doing This?

At this point I should address some possible explanations for how someone could decide to roll out changes bit by bit rather than comprehensively. One motivator could be fear of overwhelming readers with so many changes that they can’t process what’s really happening. By rolling things out in small, digestible chunks, players will learn the nuances of each component, rather than be forced to skim a very long announcement of many changes.

This rationale mistakes “information” for “useful information” and also doesn’t give enough credit to the audience. Those most invested in the outcome will be very willing to digest a large number of changes. Those less invested can learn what they need to know by skimming. Perhaps even more importantly, I believe this rationale misses the point that a useful understanding is reached only when you have enough information to make decisions. When will that point come in this case? It doesn’t feel close.

Putting everything into one announcement would have reduced the sexiness of certain sexy changes (like the new fan-friendly 16-person playoff or never losing rating points, etc.) through deemphasis and distraction, but it would have eliminated much speculation and fear regarding as-yet-unrevealed aspects of the new system and allowed players to dig into the material and start planning.

Another potential reason they are slow-rolling announcements is that the general landscape is known, but many of the specifics are still being tweaked. Again, they should have either worked everything out prior to announcing anything, or they should have announced the general landscape without the fine-print. Things like whether there will be cash awards for cumulative performance can be announced without specific numbers in place. The fact that the top handful of Professional PWP players will likely receive a special bonus could be announced without specifics if they truly were unavailable. That way players like Brian Kibler could have said to themselves “OK, it looks like Professional PWPs are a critical category, and since I can’t earn them at a 5k in Tennessee, maybe I’ll go to the GP in Europe” or whatever the case may be.

To the extent many key components were so up in the air that they could not be formed into informative announcements, deciding to overhaul the system, and certainly announcing an overhaul, were premature. Question 3, above, suggests that companies should communicate clearly how significant disadvantages of the new plan have been resolved. If not explaining it well suggests poor communication, what does not knowing what the disadvantages are suggest, and what does not knowing the plan suggest?

Those saying we need to calm down a bit and wait for more information are right. Those saying WotC is doing itself a disservice with these announcements are also right. My hope is that WotC will dramatically improve clarity going forward so we can all see that the sky isn’t falling. That’s my hope, and it’s getting harder and harder to cling to with every one of these announcements.

-Matt Sperling
Join the discussion about the PWP overhaul on Twitter, I’m @mtg_law_etc there.

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