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Not So Grand Prix

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I often wonder how honest Magic article writers really are. This might seem like an odd conundrum, especially coming from someone who has been writing articles for quite some time himself, but when you think about it, Magic articles often feel very 'plastic' and 'fake'. This is mostly because almost all writers are producing content for sites and shops that do not want to cope with any bad publicity and are discouraging writers to produce anything other than tournament reports, deck techs and format analysis. Writing negatively about any Magic related subject is generally frowned upon since it does not help the popularity of the deck/format and thus is not really helping sales and is often attracting angry posters in the comment section. All of this really encourages people to write simple, positive articles that more or less say: "this format is great, this deck is fun and/or great" often with instructions on how to play the deck. Painting nice pictures is great, but the truth is there are quite a few clouds in this idyllic scenery.

I love playing Magic, it has been almost fifteen years of slinging spells and I still enjoy it, but I can't honestly say that it is without its flaws and that I enjoy every aspect of it at every time, and this dissatisfaction often leaks into my articles in a subtle way. This time around I decided to be a bit less subtle about what bothers me and many other players whom I have lent my ear when they decided to voice their dissatisfaction.

'Grand' Prix

No beating around the bush - GPs are horrible. There are so many things that are wrong with GPs, I can't even fit them all in one article. I guess it doesn't really matter, so I will tell you a story. I am writing this article returning from a Team Sealed GP in Rotterdam where I played with my friends Aleksa Tealrov and Miodrag Kitanović. I registered our team and paid for the tournament online a month or two ago, not really thinking much about the price or the  tournament since the point was to go and have fun with friends and to try and win as much as we can.

When we all arrived and met in Rotterdam we wanted to settle all debts so my teammates had to give me their thirds of the entry fee. When they told me the tournament cost was 225€ and that they have to give me 75€ each, I started laughing in disbelief. I paid for the tournament online and it never hit me how expensive this tournament really was. Getting 12 boosters and some Magic memorabilia for this amount of money is what someone would call a daylight robbery. You might say "But wait, there are tons of expenses for the organizer, those people have to eat, too!", and you would be right - renting halls big enough for thousands of people is very expensive, and there are plenty of other costs, like judges and whatnot. Okay, we agree that the organization is expensive, but let's talk about numbers: GP Rotterdam was sold out at seven hundred teams - which is 157,500€ from main event entry fees alone. This is a substantial amount of money, which is further increased by side event entry fees as well as other various smaller profits. Even after deducting the venue and product costs we can safely assume that organizing a GP is a pretty profitable endeavor.

I'm not saying that the tournament organizer should work for free, but there we have another interesting issue - the bulk of the work that has to be done for the tournament and side events to actually run (more or less) smoothly is done by judges.  Judges are employed by the TO to run things and from the first hand experience I can tell you that they work really hard. In recent years, since Wizards discontinued the promo foil 'payment' for judges who are working at GPs and TOs became directly responsible for compensating judges, prices of GPs skyrocketed and with each GP, TOs are checking how low can they go with judge compensations and still get enough judges to organize the event. Now, both of these things are pretty bad, but in combination it is hard not to be angry at the TOs and how profit driven they are. Not that being profit driven is a bad thing, it is just the way they are doing it that is somewhat unnerving. Profits should be increased by improving your service and the selection of services, not just by increasing prices and cutting on salaries for your peons.

Obviously, there are different TOs, and not all are the same in all aspects, but the rising price trend for the main event doesn't seem to be stopping, and that is a concern, since, you know, a GP is not really such a great tournament to begin with.

Let's talk about GPs, and let's be honest - these tournaments underwent a bunch of changes during the last couple of years - the biggest of those being the changes in payout structure and in lowering the amount of points needed on day one to advance to day two. These changes were synchronized at first, the number of people in day two was increased with 18 points being the magical barrier, and accordingly, the payout was increased and stretched to more people, even up to top 180, depending on the size of the tournament. This payout scheme wasn't going on for long before they reverted it back to top 64 payouts for tournaments with less than 3000 players, but the 18 points barrier remained, which makes very little sense. With 18 points, there are a bunch of people in day two who are almost immediately playing something that could be described as single elimination rounds, and it feels very bad waking up early for day two, getting there, losing round one and having close to no chance to get even the minimum prize of 250$ for top 64. Interestingly enough, most GPs are limited to less than 3000 players, so the payout is almost never extended to more than the top 64 finishing players, and it makes sense, it is far more profitable for the TO to organize a 2500 player GP than a 3200 one.

All of this amounts to a lot of disappointment, and how would it not? Imagine paying 60€ for a constructed event, winning eleven out of fifteen rounds and getting nothing for it. Literally nothing. You just spent two days of your life trying to outsmart and outmaneuver other players who are doing their best to do the same to you and you did pretty well and you don't even get a sandwich. (a bit off topic, but there should be side events that give out food as prizes at GPs) I've been there, and it is the crappiest feeling ever, you can't help but feel cheated. It is not a much better feeling when you travel over hundreds or thousands of miles and then end up opening a bad sealed pool, or not drawing your mana and then just barely missing out on day two.. All these feelings are pretty bad, but let's be honest, even making top 64 (which is not an easy feat whatsoever) is nothing amazing. We all know that everything but the top 8 and the PT invite is really a consolation prize for those who are trying to get on the Pro Tour, and for those who are already there, they are playing just for the pro points anyway. If you are grinding pro points and playing all the GPs you can, winning even one pro point is something you can comfort yourself with, but I don't even want to imagine the disappointment of ending a season just short of gold (or even platinum) after putting so much effort and money into travelling to a bunch of GPs.. That must be heartbreaking.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that GPs must be great EV (expected value) events, I just feel that they could be a bit less dream crushing with better prizes/lower entry fees and a good system that awards you for the effort - something that rewards you for going to many GPs, since the planeswalker points system doesn't really do that well enough with the byes.

In contrast, lately most TOs improved the EV of side events greatly, making side events a rather profitable endeavor, which shows us how good value for money events can actually be. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the main event is the milking cow that pays for the judges and the venue and covers all the expenses, while the side events are what keeps players happy and lets them go home with something.

I've talked to some people that are attending only the side events, and I feel they are definitely the smart ones. One would think more and more people would do that and stay away from the largely unprofitable and disappointing experience that is a GP and get their dose of Magic from side events or somewhere else completely, but GP attendance doesn't seem to be dropping, since GP Rotterdam I just attended was sold out. How is this possible if a GP is such a horrible event? I might have an answer.

Grand Grand Prix

What is best in life? Crushing your enemies according to Conan the Barbarian, but I think I have to disagree. In fact, exactly the opposite answer is true for me - building friendships is the best thing, and where better to meet new friends and have fun with old ones than at a GP? When people complain about GPs being horrible, I always remind them that it is not about the main event. It is not even about side events, it is about having fun with friends - we are what makes GPs grand! No matter how badly you fail or how unlucky you get, it is all quickly forgotten if there are Magic buddies who will cheer you up and who you can tell the bad beat stories to. This is the most fun part of Magic in general, but this is especially important at GPs. At some point I realized I love post-GP dinners with friends more than GPs themselves and it actually felt very right.

For exactly this reason I dislike the fact that GPs are getting more expensive. This increase in prices is banking on tons of pro point grinders and Pro Tour chasers who have no choice but to play every GP they can, all the while pushing away people who want to try their luck at a big event, but what is more important to them is to have fun, travel a bit and enjoy themselves. I feel that Wizards has to decide what they want GPs to be, big PTQs and a stepladder for aspiring pro players, or a huge fun event for friends and families. At the moment GPs are trying to be both, and it is not working out as well as it might.

I do feel like it might be a good idea to separate GPs into two different segments.

A first one that would be semi-professional, have less players and would require qualification or a significant number of planeswalker points to participate. This would allow for a bigger percentage of GP players to participate in the PT among other benefits, like easier logistics and organization, tournaments that do not run for 12+ hours on day one..

The other, more casual part could be something similar to the side events of GPs, just bigger and with a wider variety. Bazaar of Moxen in France is very close to what I have in mind. Somewhat competitive, since people won't travel if there is nothing to be won, but also a lot of different stuff to do and no big pressure to do well in a single event.

It might sound like a bad idea to effectively 'split' GPs, but if you consider the fact there are many GPs that are sold out already, and the game is still growing, this might be inevitable. Creating a strong middle between casuals and professionals is in Wizards' best interest, since at the moment it often feels like it is super hard to cross to the pro side of the game, we might need a few more stepping stones along the way.

On the other hand, casual players who are not interested in becoming pro certainly want to separate themselves from often edgy and salty aspiring pros, as well as from expensive, tiring huge events with more or less no prizes.

What to Consider Before Going to a GP?

I believe the main question is do you really want to go to a Pro Tour or not?

If your answer was 'Yes!', read this paragraph.

You believe yourself to be good enough to compete with the best and you want to prove it or maybe you just want to experience the top level of Magic? Either way, the most important thing for you is the correct mindset. You need to be aware that this might take a long while, even years if you are not particularly blessed by the gods of randomness. This isn't patronizing, since I don't know how good each of you reading this article is at Magic, but the reality is that there are a LOT of other people trying to do the same thing you are. They are also good players and they also give their best, and the Pro Tour slots are very limited. How then to climb your way through the crowd? Well, you need some edge over others, and no, there is no secret instant way to beat a GP, and if there was, Marcio Carvalho would be the person to ask, not me. Well then, how to get an edge over the competition? There is little you can do but to play your best once the spell battle commences, but there is some edge to be gained beforehand. If you are attending a constructed GP, thoroughly testing and running a tier 1 list gives you good chances of a decent finish, but you will need a bit of luck to go one step ahead. Some sneaky twists in the stock list or unexpected sideboard cards might just be what pushes you over 100 other guys playing the same deck, so always try to innovate instead of just running 75 cards you saw win a tournament last weekend. At Limited GPs, just be mentally prepared for a bad/mediocre pool, it happens to most players, so chances are you will be one of those. From there, it is an uphill battle, but one that can be won with enough determination and focus. One last, and maybe the most important thing is to plan your non-Magic necessities in detail. Bring food, and I mean real food to the event, bring lots of water and have a good night of sleep the day before event. If your brain is not on 100%, you already lost any edge you might have had.

If your answer was 'Not really..' read this paragraph.

Do not participate in the main event of a Grand Prix. No, really, just skip it. If you want to travel with friends who are playing in the main event, great, but playing side events is a far more profitable and less tiring endeavor. On top of that, you get to choose what and when to play, for how long and what prizes you want to get! If you get unlucky in one tournament, there are plenty more waiting for you so if you ever get disappointed, it won't last very long.

Conclusion

Grand Prix are becoming a huge and expensive thing. I feel Wizards are not really thinking too far ahead and considering how they might be able to improve the player experience concerning GPs. I offered my ideas and views, but I am sure there are even better solutions out there. Why don't we all try to come up with something and bombard Wizards with tons of e-mails of ideas and suggestions? Something might even stick, who knows?

Until the next GP, good luck and have fun!

Stjepan Sučić
Stjepan Sucic

About Stjepan Sučić

Stjepan started his Magic career in 2003, and had some decent finishes over the years, including a World Magic Cup top 8, Pro Tour and Worlds top 32 finishes, and a GP top 8, with 61 pro points total.

During the summer months he is also a Magic Online grinder who you can easily find in the draft queues. Stjepan boasts a 74% win rate in his real life Magic career. When he is not playing Magic, Stjepan enjoys watching Starcraft and playing MOBA games.

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