The Ladder to PTQ glory: Life on the 1st rung
For many players, reaching the Pro Tour represents an iconic achievement in competitive Magic.
Almost every weekend of the year, players can be found making pilgrimages across their countries and continents, cramming themselves into cars, trains and planes to chase those elusive Blue Envelopes.
Claiming one marks the crossing of a threshold, a point at which a player can say: “Here. This is what I prepared for. This is the moment I fought my way through a scrum of serious competitiors to claim the prize. This is where I earned the right to play with the best.”
As someone who would love to play on the Pro Tour, if only once, I understand the dream very well – but I can’t claim to have made it over that threshold yet. There are a legion of players who can say the same.
Inspired by the efforts of local PTQ grinders, I decided it was time to look at the ladder of competitive progression. Throughout late 2013, I interviewed a number of players at various levels of competitive progression, or ‘rungs’ of the ladder. This week, in a series of special articles, I’m going to examine the mindset of a group on each rung.
What is it that motivates us, at the various stages of our Magic careers, to chase the dream? What factors are most important in helping us make the step up to the next rung of achievement? What sacrifices might we need to make to get there?
The PTQ system
First, the basics.
PTQ stands for Pro Tour Qualifier; the term describes a tournament which awards an invitation to a Pro Tour as its top prize. This invitation, famously sealed within a Blue Envelope, carries with it free airfare to the event – a highly relevant benefit, considering just how wide the geographical spread of Pro Tour events tends to be.
The Pro Tour schedule currently features four events each year, so the PTQ schedule is aligned with those tournaments. There are four qualification seasons, during each of which 200 PTQs will be staged across the world.
The winners of these PTQs, alongside a variable number of top finishers from Grand Prix tournaments and a smaller group of ‘Pro players’ who are qualified on the basis of performance, will make up the participants of each Pro Tour event.
The PTQ circuit continues to grow in popularity. While WotC doesn’t publish attendance figures, older players can attest to the fact that a great number of PTQs were attended by less than 100 players; in 2013, there were ‘…two in the UK alone which topped 300,’ according to the UK’s Community Manager, Dan Barrett.
This is the nature of the ladder. Let’s meet the people who choose to climb it.
The first rung: new kids on the PTQ circuit
I wanted to spend some time talking, initially, to players who had only recently resolved to try their hand at the PTQ circuit. One batch of Facebook spamming later, I had my panel. Allow me to introduce them:
The first thing I noticed was that, although some aspects of their experience varied wildly – Neil has been playing for less than a year, for instance, while David has clocked at least 14 years in the game, on and off – a few key ideas arose time and again in their answers:
“I’m absolutely cack-handed at the game just now, which I suppose is the reason why I want to start going to professional events,” explains David, in typically jovial tone.
His responses to my questions reveal someone who enjoys the game, but is keen to balance his involvement with family time. His wife, too, seems pretty relaxed about his hobby.
“Honestly, she sometimes just comes home with a few booster packs at a time and hides them in silly places,” David confides, a practice which certainly isn’t consistent with worries that Magic is taking over a loved one’s life.
There are similar noises from the other panellists. Neil cites a belief that some players take the game, “…far too seriously,” whilst all of the responses contain references to fun, enjoyment of the game and shared experiences with friends.
One issue which does pop up, unsurprisingly, is money. David’s statement is the plainest: “I’m actually quite limited by cash-flow,” he says.
Although the statements from our players express general concerns rather than citing specific worries, It’s not the last time that financial constraints will be raised in the course of my interviews.
“The parts of the game that seemed simple were always more difficult than I thought when a more experienced player would talk about them,” Graeme writes.
We’re discussing the most important things our players have learned since deciding to get serious about the game.
Graeme describes ‘sequencing plays and the stack’ as examples of areas which contained more complexity than he expected.
“My main goal is to concentrate on making less simple mistakes in matches,” he says, a sentiment most of us who have ever sleeved a card can relate to.
Managing resources can also be a challenging concept for newer players. David cites sharpening up this skill as the most important step in his development so far, “…especially regarding life-total.”
Neil completes the picture by telling me that he now understands, “Finding the right 1 or 2 drops can have a massive difference at the start of the game – and cards that work well together can really make a big problem for your opponent.”
The pattern is clear: this group of players credit understanding of the fundamentals for elevating them from a purely casual environment onto the competitive ladder.
In the grand scheme of things, this group of panellists have relatively few and modest goals.
“I would like to come first in a FNM, one day!” Neil tells me.
Each of our players expresses a similar wish, be it to ‘win something’ or ‘make some Top 8s’. Clearly, this group don’t expect to simply walk into their next PTQ and run the tables – which is a good thing, if only for their sanity. They recognise that at this juncture in their careers, they are not knocking at the door of the Hall of Fame; instead, they are just beginning their Rocky-esque training montage.
Every single one of the group indicated, when questioned, that they would be increasing their commitment to the game in 2014.
First rung report
There are threads running through all the submissions that unite these players. To sum up their mindset – and help us compare their experience with the later groups in this series – we’ll use the simple report below:
It’s a picture with a generally optimistic outlook, which will be familiar to many of us who’ve discovered the competitive game over the years. But how will it compare with the players on the second rung?
Join us tomorrow, when we’ll meet a group of seasoned PTQ campaigners and take a snapshot of their attitudes and ambitions.