Is the return of Nationals to Magic: the Gathering what you’d hoped it would be? – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge, by Graeme McIntyre
“To win a national championship, you’ve got to be a little lucky.” – Lou Holtz
Wizards of the Coast made a pretty big announcement regarding the way in which players will qualify for the World Magic Cup from this year onwards. The short version is that they are scrapping the three single qualifier World Magic Cup Qualifiers and replacing them with a National Championship with both finalists qualifying. The long version is available, here: The return of Nationals and changes to Grand Prix.
While Nationals was a highly celebrated tournament, the forthcoming new design of this tournament has been met with mixed reviews. I’m going to outline the facts, talk about the direct positives and negatives, and then make some broader remarks. It’s worth noting that this is an opinion piece about a reasonably controversial topic, rather than something more theoretical or substantive. I would also like to take the opportunity at this stage to point out that the opinions expressed in this article are of my own, though ultimately I want to hear what your personal thoughts are on this topic, so please do let me know in the comments, whether they are below, on Facebook, on Reddit, or on Twitter (@).
“Bringing Back Nationals”
The reason stated for getting rid of nationals in the first place was that the World Magic Cup Qualifier system was intended to encourage growth within communities to the point at which the company felt the countries in question were sufficiently developed to go back to having nationals as a sort of “Crown Jewel” of each nation’s competitive play each year. They feel this has been accomplished now, and as such have got the ball rolling on bringing nationals back.
I have a feeling that, as with many changes within the organised play system since Magic: the Gathering’s growth spurt following Duels of the Planeswalkers, this might simply have been a matter of trial and error. The previous system simply wasn’t appropriate for what the game has grown into. That said, it’s possible that it was indeed part of a large scale plan, as described. The bottom line for the players doesn’t really change much either way.
The return to three person teams is naturally framed in a positive light. It’s difficult when there is an obvious weak link on a team, and the chances of success for the other team members is significantly higher if the impact this player has is mitigated by having them play as few rounds as possible. There is certainly potential for either the weakest player to drastically impact the experience of their team mates, or for them to have a pretty bad time, having been given the minimal amount of rounds to play, and those rounds heavily supervised. That player is also likely to get the blame for anything that goes wrong if the team does poorly. If you don’t bother having a 4th person, this is all avoided. You can read my article on team building in MTG here: 4 Problems Every Magic: The Gathering Team Will Experience, And Some Pragmatic Solutions For Them, by Graeme McIntyre
The flip side of that is that fewer people actually qualify. This means fewer people have the good experience of having a team which can co-operate and be successful, but likely more importantly, a quarter fewer people need to be paid for flights, and prizes. This is almost certainly the most important part as far as Wizards are concerned. There are some difficulties in concern to what happens if someone suddenly falls ill, or needs to work, or has some other crisis which stops them from attending, but presumably there will be something which can be done about this e.g. 3rd place is probably given the slot, in practice, rather than leaving a whole country high and dry.
So in short, this was mostly a cost saving exercise, which needn’t be the end of the world, as the money looks like it ultimately goes back into giving people invites and prizes, but more on that later.
“A shift back to Standard”
The World Magic Cup was Team Unified Modern last year, but this was received poorly, mostly among participants in the event, I assume, as on the whole my understanding is that Modern is a very popular format in terms of viewing figures. Without the actual data in front of me (Wizards will almost certainly have a file on the way that each event is received by people at home), it is difficult to do much other than offer a potential hypothesis; Team Modern isn’t very good to watch because, unlike its single player counterpart, the format is actually fairly narrow, and given to non-interactive games.
The World Magic Cup constructed portion is going to be Standard, moving forward, and corresponding Nationals (which feeds it) will also be a Standard event.
This is one of the more controversial issues of this change. Modern has been fairly heavily marginalised over the last few years, with its removal from the Pro Tour and now from the World Magic Cup, there are only a handful of Grand Prix, a Pre Pro Tour Qualifier season and the corresponding Regional Pro Tour Qualifier which support the format.
There are two sides to this issue. On one hand, this has left many people who have invested hundreds if not thousands of pounds/dollars into the Modern format, who will now find that they’re going to struggle to get a game of it at anything but the local stage unless they want to travel outside of the country for Modern GPs. Many of these players also express difficulty in keeping up with Standard, which, due to its more fluid nature, is quite expensive to play.
The other side of this is that Modern has a number of problems, and isn’t received well by the Pros because it’s full of non-interactive decks, blowout cards, and is generally a massive nightmare. I’ve written before on multiple occasions throughout the years bemoaning the format, and while there are fresh horrors to discuss now sufficient to write another article, I’ll not go into them here.
I own loads of Modern cards. I could, for instance, build Zoo, Infect, Jund, Junk, Grixis Control, Jeskai control, Burn, various Delver decks, Affinity, Grishoalbrand, RG Valakut and various Tron decks without too much trouble, so I’m invested. I also find the argument that Standard is overly expensive compelling – the amount of people who don’t have Heart of Kirans and want them for the weekend’s PPTQs is pretty bad considering you’d be lucky to get one for £17 at the moment.
I’m pretty glad to have seen this change happen, though, as I dreaded playing Modern this summer, as I did the one before, and was *so* relieved to win the first Modern WMCQ and the first Modern PPTQ I played last year. After having played the WMCQ in the format, and discussing the format with my former teammates Pete and Eduardo (Aaron likes it, it ought to be noted), and the other teams we spoke with, I felt no better about Modern as a team format either.
The biggest problem is the mana bases are all shared, meaning that even though there are plenty of good cards you need to play worse lands if you want to share colours. One of the biggest defining factors of the format is the powerful manabases you can build. This incredibly limiting factor resulted in a format in which there were far fewer good decks and configurations of decks. The format ends up being like normal Modern, but with worse mana and worse/fewer decks e.g. Modern minus all the bits that people say makes it a good format. I’m happy for next year’s team, which will get to play Standard, as this will actually be quite innovative.
As far as I’m concerned, Modern is a failed project as far as the competitive side of the game is concerned, and it’s good that it’s going to find its place alongside Legacy as something which can be played in a largely casual way.
“Sunday Pro Tour Qualifiers”
There will be Pro Tour Qualifiers on the Sunday of Grand Prix Events. These will be limited to 225 people, run either as a single event in which the Top 8 at the end of the Swiss rounds play single elimination rounds, the winner of which is invited to the Pro Tour, or 8 32 man flights, the winners of which play a single elimination top 8.
This is great news, and likely where some of the money from the 3rd invite to the World Magic Cup goes to. A 225 person event to go directly to the Pro Tour is a very realistic route to accomplishing this goal, and it makes the idea of going to GPs more attractive too. I’ve said a bunch of times over the last few years that Top 8’ing a GP would be enough for me in Magic to be content at having accomplished something fairly meaningful in the game, even if that was my one big win. I’ve been pretty ambivalent over the years, which is naturally something of a barrier to accomplishing this goal; one really must attend events in order to win them. This change is exactly the sort of thing which is needed to tip the balance for many people, and spur them on to actually chase their goals. It’s also the way that you get people going to Grand Prix to make Pro Points, which makes captaincy races more of a big deal.
This is a big, smart gesture on Wizards’ part.
“The End of in-store Grand Prix Trials”
As the heading suggests, the Grand Prix Trial Program is over. Combined with the PPTQ system, these were difficult to make happen and frankly they were often pretty Mickey Mouse ways for a player to randomly get byes for a GP. If you’re a local big shot and people like you, most people will just scoop to you to let you get the byes if you’re going to the GP and they’re not, and while this is good practice on an individual level (it’s the essence of community, in my eyes) it doesn’t make for a good tournament scheme.
They were a relic, and now they’re gone. Nothing to see here, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve discussed each of the issues raised in the Wizards’ article in a direct way, but there are some further considerations I’d like to discuss.
Nationals used to be a two day event with 14 rounds. Half the rounds were draft, half Standard. The top 75 players in the UK would qualify on ranking using the ELO System (to give you an idea, I was generally on the cusp, and had to be quite careful to make sure I stayed qualified around the time of the year when this was decided) as well as 1 in 8 players at each Nationals Qualifier, which would generally be 32 man events in Scotland and 64 or so in England. For many Scottish players this was the biggest thing they would ever qualify for.
The top 4 of this event would go to the World Championships.
What we’re going to get in practice is a 300 person Standard event, which will optimistically happen over two days the first year. The following year, once people have moaned and said it wasn’t anything special, it will be a 275 player over one day. 12 rounds of Standard, say, followed by a Top 8 in which the final two are given an invite.
That… sounds a lot more like the World Magic Cup Qualifiers we have now than the event I described before it, right? Yeah, I thought so too.
For me the big difference is the lack of a draft section. I used to draft 2-3 times a week in paper every single week, in my local shop, and 1-2 times a week online. I’d discuss and think about draft almost as much as I did constructed. Now, I don’t play any limited at all, because there are neither sealed PTQs nor Nationals to practice for. My big hope is that Wizards bring the limited section in for next year, because I think this solves a lot of problems, even if it is a costly thing to arrange. Having the limited in the event is a great thing on its own, but it also justifies running the event over two days and 14 rounds. It becomes a mammoth tournament over two formats, and it would bring the best and most dedicated players to the top. It also far better represents the multi-format event which it qualifies for.
On a personal level, I am in an interesting spot, having been born in Scotland and living in England, allowing me access to either event. I didn’t play the Scottish WMCQs because it’s costly both in terms of money and time to get to Scotland three times in 3 months to play a WMCQ, and – ultimately – I thought that England would likely produce better teams, on the whole, meaning that the chance of doing well is higher.
Now, it’s a single trip to Scotland, where only one of the team members is unknown, if I qualify. The Captain is likely to be either Stephen Murray (hardly a lemon) or Bradley Barclay, who is a phenomenal Magic player, one of my closest, oldest friends and lives in London. The idea of going to the World Magic Cup with Bradley as the captain is very appealing, regardless of whom the other person is (and chances are it would be someone pretty solid anyway – it’s not like the Scottish players are bad at all, but there is a better chance of an outstanding English team, in my opinion).
No need to make a choice this year, anyway, as the deadline for changing it is in January, but I could see changing my nationality back in a couple of years, depending how things go.
All in all, I am a cautiously optimistic about the chances which have happened because I think there is something which can and will be improved upon. As it stands, Nationals will be a large WMCQ, but I strongly expect it will be changed to include a limited component in the next year or two.
Community Question: So now that you’ve had a bit more time to process the announcements, is the return of Nationals what you’d hoped it would be?
That’s it for this week. I’ll write something about Standard for next week, seeing as I’ve had a run of less practical writing of late.
All the best,