The Ladder to PTQ Glory: What it really means to climb by Dave Shedden

The Ladder to PTQ glory: Life on the 1st rung by Dave Shedden

Throughout the course of this week, we’ve taken a snapshot of the observations, attitudes and aspirations of the players on the PTQ circuit – a snapshot made possible by the help of a diverse group of players at various stages of their competitive development.

Today, it’s time to stitch all their testimonies together.

In the first part of this article, I’m going to map out the likely steps a player must take – based on the reports of our panellists and a little analysis – in order to claim a blue envelope; I’ll also highlight the qualities which will improve their chances of success, and the sacrifices they will most probably need to make.

In the second part, I’ll examine what happened at the recent Dundee PTQ – and what it means for our featured players.

Let’s get cracking!


Getting on the ladder

Rung 1

We start with some very good news: pretty much anyone can get involved in the competitive scene.

From our initial panel, we learned that enjoying the game and becoming aware of the opportunity they had to grow was enough to interest them in PTQs. In that spirit, the lessons they prized most highly were largely theoretical in nature: the value of card advantage, of mana curve in deckbuilding, of sequencing plays and so on.

To progress, it’s likely our first-rung players will need to build up their networks.

They’ll have to find other people to play with, preferably of greater experience, to help them develop their skills. In light of the fact that they’ll need to travel to tournaments further afield if they want to build toward qualification, these contacts will also become people who can share the burden of car-sharing, hotel rooms and all the other costs associated with regular PTQ trips.

Perhaps most importantly, these other people are likely to form the communities which our second and third rung panels prized so highly: groups of friends whose company can sustain a player’s enthusiasm and morale, even when results are not encouraging or travel becomes a grind.

It will also be important that first-rungers accept the increased commitment required to mount a campaign. Although the panellists from Monday’s article were optimistic about increasing their investment in the game throughout 2014, there were some warning signs in their comments about ‘taking the game too seriously’ and the presence of financial restrictions on their participation.

If a more serious approach is off-putting, players may be happier simply dabbling on the edge of the competitive scene; likewise, as unjust as it may feel to acknowledge, financial pressure is a good indicator that sustained PTQ’ing might not be realistic.

This is not to say that our first-rung players can’t progress to an eventual qualification – some of them may very well do so. But the reality is that only a small percentage of the players who have ever registered in a PTQ have gone on to reach the Pro Tour. Those who are in a position to make greater commitments emotionally and financially will be at an advantage in their pursuit of a Blue Envelope.


Grinding toward success

Rung 2

Again, we’ll start with the good news.

Almost anyone can step up to this level simply by getting along to their local game store, taking part in small tournaments and making a few new friends. If those friends already have an appetite to get along to some PTQs – or if they can be cajoled – then in principle, there’s nothing to stop a group of them planning some road trips and getting out there.

Our second panel highlighted the benefits of getting organised and properly testing their PTQ formats – something that was echoed by players further up the ladder. They oscillated between serious testing and little testing; this inconsistency seemed to be matched by inconsistency in results.

To step up to the next rung, players will likely need to ‘professionalise’ their preparation. This means following a best-practice approach to investigating and testing PTQ formats, with an agreed methodology and regular ‘office-hours’ for testing each week/fortnight. The crucial element is not simply knowing what good preparation looks like, but following through with it consistently rather than intermittently.

A side benefit of this approach will be an increased level of ‘Magic Fitness’, born of a methodical, iterative testing process which sharpens technical play and strategic awareness.

However, this rung comes with an admission fee, in the literal sense. Going on trips costs money; it also takes up time, which could otherwise be spent on an individual’s education, career or relationships.

These are not small concerns – and there is no shame in deciding that work, degree or partner should come first. If two weekends a way every quarter are going to be a problem, players may want to rethink their commitment to the grinder’s lifestyle.


Nearing the summit

Rung 3

Rung 3 is where our quest really starts to bite.

In his interview yesterday, Brad opined that attending more than 10 PTQs each year was something that a player had to do in order to qualify regularly… and the unspoken assumption is that such a player is already doing everything else right.

If that assertion appears to imply that winning a Blue Envelope must be a major, burning life goal for our players if they want to be successful, so be it.

The players on this rung must treat PTQ grinding almost as a parallel career. They will typically play Magic most days of the week, via online channels and paper tournaments, to keep their mental reflexes sharp, their format understanding current and their play habits good. They will make plans which account for the logistics of tournament careers, and the challenge of maintaining good physical and mental condition throughout demanding events.

The most relevant comparison I can conceive is that of the Athletics hopeful. Such a person knows that their sport can become self-sustaining if they can ‘get over the line’ and win something, attracting sponsors or qualification to a bigger stage; however, they also know that only a small proportion of their peer group will achieve such success – and that unless they train for huge portions of their free time, that they will be out-competed by those same peers.

The players best equipped for this cut-throat rung are those with understanding partners, flexible careers, or few existing life-commitments to compete with Magic.

To reach the next rung, where one qualification should lead to another and another, they must hone an edge which distinguishes them even from the other strivers around them: developing their thinking by listening closely to the experienced players around them, working out how to spot opportunities which others don’t and break rules others dare not to maximise their chances of success.

To be truly serious about Pro-Tour qualification, players in the modern era must be prepared to shape their lives around it to a great extent. If they can’t make such a commitment, it’s important that they admit this – and the implications – to themselves, or risk serious unhappiness.


Atop the ladder – and reaching for the Train

Rung 4


Most of the players reading this article would be thrilled to have a Magic career as decorated as our fourth-rung panellists – but achievements like these come with a price. Not only have they pushed through a similar pain barrier to our Top 8 hopefuls, but they’ve done it for longer and they’ve risked burning out their love of the game to some extent.

Even now, there is another difficult choice ahead about commitment. In yesterday’s article, Stephen revealed that he is obliged to think carefully about whether he will dedicate himself to a Grand Prix grind in order to amass enough Pro-Points to climb aboard the ‘Gravy Train’ of Gold Level Pro status.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.

For all the incredibly hard work they’ve put in, our fourth-rung players earn the right to dream big. Stephen highlights reaching a Pro Tour Top 8 as his next major goal, while keeping a potential win in his sights for the future.


How it all works in the real world

Last Saturday, Dundee hosted Scotland’s largest ever PTQ. 139 players filled the very spacious and well-appointed Abertay Student’s Union building, many of our panellists among them.

So how did they fare – and what did the story of this PTQ teach us?

Faces (3)

The two Graemes, from our first and second rung panels, chalked up 4-4 records. They weren’t thrilled, but equally they weren’t depressed; the camaraderie element which featured so prominently on our lower rung reports was definitely at play and they were in good spirits when I left them, having played on for fun.

Faces (2)

Peter, from our third rung panel, dropped in the middle-rounds once he was out of contention, as did Brad; another third rung panellist, Greg, played on to a 6-2 record, which left him a little way outside the Top 8.

Faces (4)

Despite suggesting before the event started that he was insufficiently well practiced, Duncan’s experience with Sphinx’s Revelation decks of various stripes and natural ability was good enough to take him to the sharp end of the tournament.

Our most successful panellist on the day, he reached the top 8 and was eventually eliminated in the semi-finals.

Faces (5)

As the audience will doubtless already know, the Blue Envelope was claimed by columnist Graeme McIntyre, playing RG Monsters. Graeme has written a detailed primer and a tournament report which will give you the nitty-gritty of his experience – but most interesting for the purposes of this article are the overarching factors that contributing his success.

Everything I’ve learned from our successive panels suggests organisation, hard work and overriding commitment to the cause are essential ingredients in a successful qualification campaign.

It’s fitting, therefore, that a player who has so vocally and consistently advocated for the hard-work approach should claim this prize. No-one in the Scottish Magic community is in any doubt about how important the game is to Graeme; he will rightly view this victory as a vindication of his endeavour in recent years.

The important lesson for all PTQ hopefuls is this: if you want to go to the Pro Tour, you had better be prepared to strive as hard for it as Graeme does and as his peers do. Otherwise, you can expect such players to be eliminating you from contention at each event, because they will go the extra mile.


Personal Reflection

A few months ago, I wrote an article in which I expressed my disappointment at a decline in my abilities over the past several years of relative Magical inactivity – and resolved to work myself into a position where I could reasonably challenge for PTQ Top 8s.

In the course of writing this article, I’ve come to realise that such an ambition is patently unrealistic; I set myself a target based more on wounded pride that on my ability to make the necessary commitments in my life.

Talking to the players on our third and fourth panels, I realised that the exceptional levels of commitment they displayed were something I couldn’t hope to match. What right did I have, then, to aspire to their levels of achievement?

I’m a partner to an inspiring lady, a father to a sparkling toddler who’s soon to have a younger brother, and I enjoy a pretty decent career.

I have to be honest with myself. I have to tell the man in the mirror that I’m not prepared to risk any of those things, never mind all of them, to compete with Duncan, Greg, Peter, Brad, Stephen and Graeme.

The people who climb this ladder do so through hunger and sacrifice; they earn their shot at glory. Those of us who put other things first in our lives will be much happier, if we accept that we are making that choice, and that it’s the right one for us.

Personally speaking, I’m grateful to the people who have taken part in this series for helping me realise that I’m happier the way I am.

Of course, if you are prepared to work and to sacrifice… and if the desire to claim that Blue Envelope burns in your chest… let me be the first to wish you the best of luck. It’s there for the taking, if you want it enough.


This series would not have been possible without a group of superb contributors. My thanks go out to everyone who gave up their time to take part.

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