Monday, May 13, 2019

The Death of Competitive Magic Via the MPL

This is where we are. The latest face of the "pinnacle of competitive Magic", unsure what his plans for playing paper Magic are. Who was given an invite and travel to the latest paper Mythic Championship, and just didn't go.

The core of competitive Magic as we knew it for almost 25 years is dying, and the new structure meant upgrade it is the cause.

Why, the First Time?

Mark Rosewater talks a lot about the idea of why different player profiles play Magic. Timmy/Tammy wants to feel something, Johnny/Jenny wants to make and discover something, and Spike... well they say prove something, but I think that's off. 

Wanting to prove something gets you to beating people at the local shop to say you won, but that's it. Why does anyone play competitive Magic beyond that level?

It's about the art of self improvement.

I've long pushed for thinking about Magic, and especially tournament Magic, as an artificial system of binaries and absolutes. Previously this was in a discussion of ethics or overall purpose, but in this case of learning and drive it's a huge upside. 

There's a binary system of absolute truth and falsehood, defined largely by the rules of wins and losses. It's slightly obscured by chance, but part of the process is learning how to gleam that slightly obscured truth. The confounding factors are just numbers and wizard rectangles, much easier to piece together than non-artificial systems with confounding factors that exist beyond defined bounds.

Eventually, it goes beyond learning the game and learning at the meta-level of learning how and what to learn. After a few times getting stuck against a wall, you start seeing the pattern of how to start finding the ways out of that part of the progress maze. And then the next time you get stuck it's easier to the pattern forward, and so on. And each time, you are rewarded with a sugar cube for solving the maze. And by sugar, I mean money.

There were always clear goals to push towards. Not skill and theory, but tangible goal posts from event finishes. The Pro Player Club was a great implementation of this, with each tier being a step up in how much your results stuck, a boost to the next level, and with a natural end game of content. Even people who won a Pro Tour, won two Pro Tours, made the Hall of Fame came back because they wanted to see if they could do better next time.

Because next time, the game changes and you have to figure it out again. And you aren't competing against computer-defined behaviors like a video game or repetitive barriers, but your competition is the Sisyphean task of out gunning other people making the same progress. The system was consistently rebalanced to provide some inertia to those who were successful, but not so much they could case their efforts and not idle back up the hill next season.

Money, future chances at money, future chances at the same challenge you entered in the first place. All great stuff.

(I'm unsure any of these incentives exist any more.)

The other answer, outside psychographics, is the people. Namely a group of people interested in the same goal of self improvement, speaking the same language, willing to share information and good times along the way.

Competitive Magic captured people over the years as a struggle to self-improve, to out perform others, but in a way that brought people together in the pursuit with incentive drops along the way.

But it's all useless and artificial? Not really. These abstract skills are probably some of the most useful, and many people who excelled at competitive Magic have successfully translate this into whatever field they want. There's even more about understanding luck and failure, playing to your outs, but that's just the lessons you learn on the way to the goal of learning self improvement.

The Monkey's Paw

For years, the constant complaint about the top level of competitive Magic, or professional Magic, was the rate of return. I've been qualified for every Pro Tour from 2009 through now, largely on Pro Club status. I literally won one. Tournaments were loss leaders for content production in the professional Magic economy. Or maybe they were heavily subsidized excuses to fly around the world and hang out with friends. I always liked that view better.

The other issue was lack of organized support. The system existed, but the publicity potential was squandered compared to other avenues. There's a classic tale along the lines of a player known from another circuit being referred to as a Hall of Famer, despite being at their first Pro Tour, and the player hearing the reference being an actual five Pro Tour Top 8 Hall of Famer who was completely unknown to the person speaking.

I think we got what we wished for, but definitely not what we wanted.

Loss of Traction

With the initial MPL announcement, the end of the Pro Club was announced. There was no replacement for non-MPL Pros to stick around at Mythic Championships beyond spiking a good result.

A similar announcement occurred years ago, in 2011. In a similar fashion, no replacement was announced. The end result then was a really awkward roll over to just revert to approximately the same thing, but in the uncertain period I wrote about the same thing at the time. I'm mostly just sad I get another chance to articulate the same point better.

Traction based on consistent results is how you keep people around long enough for them to actually improve and become the players you want showcasing your game.

Honestly, the canary in the coal mine was the Silver level under the briefly lived cycle system. You got an invite, but you then couldn't earn another points invite via Silver until all the points used for the first one rolled off. 

In each case, failure is a clean exit point. Any prior investment is just gone, and you are back to square one. When someone won their first PTQ, lost at the Pro Tour, and went home unqualified they had a glimpse of something else and maybe the fire to try again. When a Silver pro fell off and realized they now have to rebuild their small house of cards from nothing and all their previous work doesn't matter, they usually just quit. The old system always left a hook, the starter Pro Points from your failed Silver Pro Tour giving you a reason to base to re-Silver on, the remainder Silver invite from a bad year at Gold giving you one last shot at redemption.

Brad Nelson left the Pro Tour for years under basically these circumstances, almost right after his run to Player of the Year. 

Now, it's just worse. Unlike the Silver roll off I discussed, there's no traction at all. Maybe there's something bubbling in the works, but the utter lack of information on it for months is not promising. Gerry literally quit the MPL in part because of this, so I have doubts anyone actually knows something I don't. This includes even the Wizards of the Coast Organized Play department, which is a line that grew from a joke to probably the truth over the last six months.

That, and the fact that all of the equity that could have supported it is being funneled right into the MPL.

Payment Plans

I've spit out a lot of numbers for how much money is being paid to the MPL players. I'm going to condense this down.

An MPL player's compensation is a $75,000 contract, three Arena MC invites, a Mythic Invitational invite. The last four events pay out about $14,000 a person. A 4/32 shot at a Worlds invite is another $8,000 of value, a 4/32 chance of being seeded into Day 2 of any of the three Arena MCs via MPL League standings is another couple thousand each (all extracted from the equity of the at large invites). Overall, the MPL is around $140,000 a person for the year. The MPL is around a $4.5 million dollar expense in player salaries and expected payouts. I'm not even unbalancing the equity for the fact that the Mythic Invitational, an event advertised as a streamer showcase, pitted them against MPL sharks there as favorites to take most of the event equity.

Wizards of the Coast has a $10,000,000 E-Sports budget this year between all the MCs, Mythic Invitational, Worlds, Grand Prix, etc. If you calculate the budget for Arena events that the MPL is more than half the invited player list of ($3.25 million), you quickly realize that somewhere between 15-20% of the entire Pro Play budget covers just getting the MPL into rooms to play Arena, not even their player and streaming contracts.

33rd place was Jeremy Dezani. Or maybe Corey Burkhart. They got nothing. Or Andrew Elenbogen, Greg Orange, Luis Scott-Vargas? They all got about one Gold status worth of equity, about $10,000, once you balance for Andrew's lack of classic Worlds invite. 

And just them, no one else.

Part of this "Mythic" jump to a $10 million total prize pool was the scrapping of travel benefits for qualified players. Winning a MCQ is now a ticket to the right to front an uncertain amount of money, possibly multiple thousands for things like Barcelona in the summer, flying across the world to get repaid probably $500 later.

Players are being told they can't defer an invite if they can't afford this expense. 

Maybe the stores running the MCQ can choose not to hire a judge so they can include a plane ticket in the prize. Or charge $80 a person. This issue is just being unloaded on the lower level players in higher expenses and worse events. 

If you total up the old prizes, travel awards, then take the new prizes and subtract the unavailable money being paid to get MPL players and streamers to Arena events, I wouldn't be shocked if the annual prize pool available to MCQ winners was reduced.

And you now have established non-MPL Pros, realizing there's not equity in showing up to the biggest events in the game. Or the smaller ones, since coverage and the resulting sponsorship airtime was cut there as part of the expense redistribution.

Mythic Points are so top heavy, and it seems only the top few finishers matter. The extreme level of result required to even be in position to reach that, the level of time investment to grind all the spot-by-spot qualifiers to give yourself the max chances, you are basically shoving all in on your life and some money to even have a shot.

There's not money, there's not invites to future events. There's still the future challenges, the people, and the top level carrot of the MPL, right?

 Magic Promotional League

Through a series of events, some much more forseeable than others, sudden openings in the MPL appeared.

We got THE Mythic Champion Autumn Burchett replacing the first. Good choice, though that does make the MC finals worth 10 times the 2nd place prize of $20,000 and the first place equity about half the total raw prize pool for the MC. And at the time, we assumed it was double dipping a bit on Mythic Points for next year's MPL while giving prior successes zero points (aka Andrew Elenbogen again).

Then again, someone added to the MPL now has zero lifetime Mythic or Professional points.

There was an expectation set that the carrot of the MPL was based on success in the established artificial system. That has been demonstrated to not be the case. Instead your expected viewership numbers translating to Arena income count.

That leaves the people and future challenges as hooks to competitive Magic, or really competitive Magic as a casual endeavor. 

I'm not even sure how far that goes.

When the second opening appeared out of nowhere, me and some friends jokingly made a list of how every MPL member would eventually fall out. One of my favorites was "Ben Stark realizes it is game theory optimal to skip Mythic Championships to stay home and stream Arena draft".

Wait, what was the clip I posted first about Savjz saying attending an MC wasn't worth a week off streaming, or Jeff Hoogland just never going to events unless someone pays him to wear an owl suit?

The incentive structure is literally now telling people to not go to events. Stay home. Don't play anything. It doesn't actually get you into the MPL anyways. 

Or Wizards might suddenly book a crucial Arena qualifier overlapping with a team Grand Prix, long after you would have locked in two friends and booked a flight. 

Streaming isn't really communal. At the volume needed to make it worth doing, it's performative entertainment, with people shouting into a rolling chat void for the attention of the performer.

 So you are told to stay home. At least you have self-improvement for self-improvement's sake right?

Doubtful. Streaming is again entertainment first, education second. There's little reward in being better and learning unless you are the best, more reward for finding a niche and producing Mycosynth Golem videos.

Even if you are aiming for that #1 Mythic spot for raw numbers glory, the structure promotes jamming to try and win, and not losing while figuring out things. This is all sorts of unhealthy, both antithetical to the old competitive Magic search for the truth and teaching all the wrong lessons along the way.

The dark side of this is that streaming is fickle. The eyes go where the hype is, familiarity is not sticky. People play Super Smash Bros Melee regularly in the same way they play competitive Magic, but people watch the newest fighting game in droves in comparison whenever I check the Twitch numbers.

Why, the Redux?

There are still avenues towards the whole process I described as the core of competitive Magic, if you are really into doing it for the sake of doing it. A good Discord is a wonderful place.

But I don't think the people who have seen the other side of things can be told "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain".

One of the first things you learned on the Pro Tour is everyone can win or lose in a Magic tournament. Even if you look to the all time greatest, you aren't looking at a Magnus Carlsen level disparity. It's not just randomness, the game literally changes too much and people catch or lose the thread of what matters for a given day.

This was doubled down on in less fortunate ways in how the first two MPL members were removed. People who play a game aren't assured to be role models in other or any way. They aren't going to be immune to human greed and faults. I have no doubt Yuuya cheated looking at the pictures, my doubts come towards when he gave in. Was it always since he first won a Grand Prix with Tron in 2007, or maybe a few years ago when he looked just short of Hall of Fame status and needed a little more each even to get in, or maybe now when the stakes just got too high to not have someone in the group fold to temptation?

The MPL players are being built up into some paragon of the game's greatest. Can you really view that knowing the margins between them and the next best are so razor thin but the pay gap is infinite?

Do you really want to consume stream content produced primarily for entertainment, when you know the depth the game had to offer?

The old incentive structure is hanging on by a thread, and I'm going down with that ship until it sinks.

After that, who knows? Maybe an alternate tournament circuit that preserves the old style. Maybe a new hobby like rock climbing.

At the least, I feel like I want to go to Grand Prix Seattle and hang out with some of the people I've played with, worked on improving with, from every era.

Will the Twitch viewers from this Arena MC be there for Arena MC Seattle in fifteen years?

Glossary / Comparisons

Silver/Gold/Platinum - Old Pro Club levels, based on total points earned from GP (open) and PT (invite only) finishes. Silver was worth 1 invite when it was earned plus 1 the next year as it rolled over, Gold good for all the invites in a year, Platinum good for extra money.

Pro Tour - Used to pay out $250k total, with flights to the event paid for (almost) all players. 400+ players

MC - Pays out $500k total, no travel expenses, lowest prize $500. 400+ players

Arena MC - 32 MPL players, plus 4 non-MPL rollover invites, plus 16 Qualifiers. Total payout is $750k, or about $14,000 a person

Mythic Invitational - One shot event, didn't award Mythic Points. 32 MPL + 32 personalities, $1 million prize pool. About $15,000 per player.

Worlds 2019 - MC winners, Top 4 MPL and Top 4 non-MPL on Mythic points invited. Average payout is just over $60,000 per player.

Worlds 2018 - PT Winners, and around 20 top Pro Point finishers. About $10,000 per player paid out

Pro Point - Earned by Grand Prix and Pro Tour finishes, based on record or elimination round results. Determined Pro Status and Worlds Invites

Mythic Point - Only earned at Mythic Championships, Arena or Tabletop. Determines Worlds Invites, and nothing else as far as we know.


  1. Wow, thanks for the information. Crazy crazy reallity, hopefully this will change.

  2. As of yesterday, the Arena MCs also have 16 discretionary invite slots for "diversity".

  3. "Maybe the stores running the MCQ can choose not to hire a judge so they can include a plane ticket in the prize."
    How much do you think they pay judges, really? What I got paid to judge an MCQ wouldn't cover a plane ticket outside of Spirit... and I might have change for a coke inside the airport.

  4. Rock climbing really is fantastic