Wizards of the Coast just dropped a pretty major announcement regarding its pro level organised play. Obviously, the eye-grabbing part of this is going to be the big ten million dollar commitment, but we are here to talk about another major part of the announcement for those who are following the pro scene of the game. The Magic Pro League, which includes the 32 top ranked Magic players, will receive “competitive pro contracts”.
This news comes at a very interesting time as the topic of how pro players are treated by WotC is a hot button issue right now in the MtG community. On the 21st of September, Gerry Thompson announced he would be declining to take part in the World Championship, to protest the state of professional play in MtG. A few weeks later, he was a guest on the Cedric Phillips Podcast episode ‘Change Worth Fighting For’ to further discuss his position and discuss the community’s response to his protest. Just three days ago, there was ‘An open letter to Cedric Phillips, Gerry Thompson, and the Pro Magic community at large‘ which posited why the author thinks Wizards of the Coast don’t, won’t, and shouldn’t cater to the pro players. Today, Wizards announced how they will cater to the pro players.
So what does this announcement mean for, not just the pro players scene, but the game in general? I can’t talk about this without addressing the context in which it arrived, in particular, the open letter that engaged a lot of the community on the r/MagicTCG subreddit. When I first I read the article, my initial reaction was one of anger, which I admit is entirely unreasonable. The reason was that I immediately felt two disingenuous rhetoric devices were being used. Firstly, I felt the main thesis of the open letter was ‘you, the pro players, don’t matter for the success of the game. These people, the average players, coincidentally also the people who will be reading this piece, are the only people that matter’. Come on, talk about playing to the cheap seats, but really, this is just a personal reaction. The main issue I felt was that the letter was addressing the most unfavourable interpretations, and occasionally straight up straw-mans, of Cedric and Gerry’s arguments.
A lot of the individual arguments and points made in that open letter were spot on and great points, I will fully admit. First there was a quite thorough analysis of the early 2000s that the open letter termed as the ‘Pro Player Era’ of Magic. It rightly pointed out the change in flavour of magic from the whimsical to edgy. It conflated this with the focus on the pro players in the marketing of the game. Yes, those pro player insert cards are hilarious and sometimes cringe-worthy. I am not going to argue that the Pro Player push was good or effective. However I question how it links to the Magic flavour going edgy. Remember, the early 2000s were by and large the ‘attitude era’ of pop-culture, especially in the nerdy corner. These were the years Shadow the Hedgehog had a gun and ‘Manhunt’ the game was in the news. The letter states that how this pro player era went is why WotC don’t seem to have any great interest in supporting pro players currently. I think that’s certainly plausible. However, it contributed to MtG’s dismal financial state in 2008 and I think we can’t ignore the impact of the one of the most prominent financial crisis in recent years on disposable income spent on a hobby like MtG.
Yes, these are ridiculous
Also, while the pro scene was being pushed in this era, I would not say the pro players were necessarily ‘taken care of’, at least not so in relation to the points Gerry raised in his protest. So while it’s true that this type of pro-focused marketing was not necessarily good for the game, this is not the type of pro scene/player marketing that is being asked for. As seen in replies to Gerry’s reddit post, a lot of readers of r/MagicTCG subreddit, people who are already on the top tier of being engaged to the state of the game, didn’t know about the World Championship or who was competing. That’s bad support of the pro scene. You can improve this without inserting a picture of LSV into a booster pack. Look at the League of Legends pro scene. Any players following the eSports scene knows who Faker and Doublelift are and Riot is not plastering their faces on the top-up cards or the box cover. They do, however, market their world championship and those who are competing in it properly.
Another point that the open letter makes was catering to the pro scene that made the game grindy and complex. While this may be true, it’s inconsequential to the debate at hand. Yes, pro players will often complain and voice their opinions regarding the game designs but so does every TCG player ever. The usual steps are, learn a game, play three matches, complain about a card, and complain about game design. Catering to the pro players taste in game design to the detriment of the general audience of the game is not a necessary element of taking care of the pro scene better.
The open letter also points out that Magic is a different game at the Pro level to the casual or semi-competitive one. It’s hard to argue against that, but that’s nothing new in the world of games, both physical and digital. Pro League of Legends meta is different from your nightly bronze matches. Soccer or Football in the park is different from FIFA and NFL matches. But this doesn’t mean we ignore the pro level competitive scene or the impact and influence it can have on the more casual or semi-competitive play and purchase habits. If there’s any doubt on pro play still being influential on the casual scene, match up the price trends on Arclight Phoenix to the Guilds of Ravnica PT and the rise of Pascal’s Izzet deck. Yes, there’s probably a lot of local players that never read Pascal’s decklist or subsequent article. Yet the idea of the deck and what it can do filtered down and Arclight got a huge bump in demand and price.
The open letter essentially posits the conclusion that what is good for the gander is not necessarily good for the geese. That Wizards won’t cater to the pros since they are not Magic’s primary audience. True, but the aim is not to highlight the pro players to the detriment of the rest of the magic players. It’s to promote pro players in a way that can have a meaningful impact on the experience, and of course purchase trends, of the general Magic audience. It’s no longer necessary to speculate whether Wizards would support the pro scene again since Wizards have announced precisely that they will. That leaves us with whether Wizards should and why?
I know that seemed like quite a detour but it’s important to how this announcement can be received in context. This announcement shows, in support of what the open letter posits, that Wizards have no plan to going back to the old model of supporting pro players. However, I would say this was a long time coming and is heralded by the introduction and rise of Magic Arena. Wizards want to position their pro players as ‘influencers’ vying to be eSport stars.
The rise of Twitch and popularity of gaming streams is something MtG is late to the party to exploit. MtG, the physical card game, is hard to stream without specialist equipment and not easy to follow for the viewers without great effort from streamers. There’s MtG online but it has the user friendliness and visual appeal of an out of date spreadsheet. Enter Magic Arena which is, let’s be blunt, designed for exactly this purpose because Hearthstone is so successfully eating MtG’s cake in the digital front. Now Arena is stable enough for mass consumption and gaining traction. That was just one part of the recipe, and until now the other was missing. I am predicting that WotC want to encourage a trend that is already happening; pro players streaming on Arena. Remember, on top of the contracts, only five million of the 2019 price pool is going to the physical version. The other five million is going to Arena.
Which one do you think…
is more visually appealing?
The open letter did credit Magic Arena positively but it also supposed that all of the pro tour could be moved to Arena. I am not going to predict such a thing. I think WotC envisions a complementary relationship between Arena and physical, for both casual and pro players. Arena is a cheap and easy option for casual players to more actively engage with MtG regularly and for pro players to practice and stream. Physical would still be the core product they make money from. I don’t think this is physical MtG’s death-knell however, but I am going to call it the final nail in Magic Online’s coffin.
This might not be exactly the kind of support Gerry was asking for but it’s certainly a good step and an interesting one. Top 32 players is certainly not a lot of pro players worldwide that will be seeing a contract and we also don’t have full details of what the contract will pay or demand. However, this will surely go a long way to extend the appeal of the pro scene. These 32 players are not supposed to be the pro scene. It’s the end goal, or bait, for the pro scene. Keep an eye on the twitch numbers. I predict the number of Arena streams is about to go up. In the coming days a lot of already established twitch personalities are going to be checking out Arena. Hearthstone streamers especially are an easy target considering how many of them have uttered the phrase, ‘I used to play Magic’. I am sure Wizards hope they get their own ‘Ninja’ out of this move. If he or she ends up being one of the top 32 that are on their payroll, all the sweeter.