Reflections on my Online Pro Tour Experience and Organized Play

Rich Cali
June 29, 2020

I recently participated in the Online Player’s Tour. Even though the event didn’t meet my expectations of what a PT would feel like in many ways, it was still my first PT and resulted in a lot of thoughts and feelings surrounding it. Today, I want to take some time and talk about the event as a whole. Some of my feelings have already been expressed by a decent portion of the player base. However, after personally experiencing the event, I really wanted to put my thoughts to paper.

This is more of a personal piece than a strategy article. While there are some elements of preparation that I will discuss, I don’t have a lot to say regarding the specifics of my deck choice, the match ups I played against, or what I would change. I am primarily aiming to discuss how the entire situation felt to me, my thoughts on the event, and what could have been done better in my eyes.

Changes to Organized Play

When Magic Esports announced that the paper event I qualified for would be moved to an online Standard event on Arena, I was quite disappointed. As I discussed in my PTQ win report, I didn’t prioritize a PT qualification for most of my Magic playing career. I spent my time playing Legacy and decided at some point in the past few years that while I could shift my focus to other formats that had more opportunities in Organized Play, I would enjoy Magic more if I primarily focused on Legacy.

However, over the past year I had a lot of near-misses in events that would result in a PT qualification. As a result, I decided that I should take a real shot at making it to the PT at least once. When I spiked the first Legacy Super Qualifier on Magic Online back in March, I was over the moon. The idea of making it to the PT was still very foreign to me and this was the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of Magic growth over the past year. I could breathe a sigh of relief that I’d finally have the same experience that I have been viewing from the outside for years.

As many people know by now that’s not what I qualified for. I qualified for what appeared to be a hybrid Grand Prix/PT event that lacked the feeling of either because I was in my apartment the whole time. If they announced the change sooner, I would have adjusted my expectations. I would have played in that Super Qualifier regardless of what qualifications were tied to it. The difference is that I wouldn’t have breathed the same sign of relief if I still won (and subsequently had to retract my relief 2 months later when they officially announced the event). Because they didn’t announce it sooner, it looks (and feels) like their announcement of a long string of PTQs on Magic Online was preying on the dreams of the competitors.

I understand that Wizards of the Coast, like most other companies in the world at that time, were in a really difficult spot because of COVID-19. However, WotC has a long history of not being transparent about their intentions and plans for the future. Although this particular situation was certainly unprecedented, most people anticipated that major events would be cancelled as a result of the pandemic. If WotC even had an inkling that this would be shifted to an Arena event, it would have been much appreciated by a lot of the player base if they announced that as early as possible.  

While this would have been great for players like me who were primarily seeking the PT experience, it doesn’t really address the most predatory change made: The ~2 million dollar prize cuts that were made across the board for the rest of the year. There is no world where invested players would ever respond favorably to that. If Wizards of the Coast didn’t want to appear like they were promoting a fake promise (a predetermined prize pool that didn’t exist), they needed to announce this change with the addition of the Super Qualifiers. This probably would have resulted in the Qualifiers not being as successful as they were (which, to be fair, is something WotC could have fixed by changing some numbers in the events), but the clarity would have been much appreciated by the players who were committing to playing as many of these as they could. However, WotC didn’t announce that, and I can’t really justify their decision in any sort of good faith.

If Wizards of the Coast wanted to mitigate this issue substantially, they should have allowed players to defer the event. I understand that this might have made certain aspects of future PTs more difficult (primarily in accounting for a larger amount of players) but I can’t think of a cleaner way to not make the player base feel like they are having money taken away from them directly. This would have also completely removed the issue of players not having the PT experience they were looking for, so i’m still flabbergasted that this wasn’t an option.

As a result of all of these complications and expectations, I had a lot of trouble getting into the right mental space to test for this event. Most of my loved ones that I talked to about this echoed a similar sentiment: This was still a high-stakes event that I worked hard to qualify for and should feel proud about the fact that I made it. Rationally, I knew that was actually true. While this was probably not going to be the ideal PT experience I wanted, it was definitely going to be a tough event with (albeit greatly reduced) meaningful prize support. Emotionally, I had trouble internalizing that and it was a real uphill battle to prepare for this event. Eventually, though, I got into the swing of things and was able to start taking it seriously.

The Event

I played a relatively stock version of Jund Sacrifice, copying the main deck from Yuuki Ichikawa’s PT list from the weekend before:

Even though I had a lot of trouble psyching myself up for the event, I felt comfortable with my deck choice and preparation. Despite this, the best I was able to muster was an underwhelming 3-5. I am not a Standard aficionado and don’t really have any particularly meaningful insight on what I would change or what went wrong with either my decklist or my approach to individual matchups. 

However, I am confident that my means of preparation was insufficient. I did some dedicated testing with a friend, but for the most part I played a lot of matches alone on the Arena ladder. This type of practice and testing works well for me when i’m preparing for a format I have a lot of experience in, like Legacy. As a result of years of experience and dedicated testing sessions against a wide range of archetypes in that format, I generally have a decent sense of what my opponent’s plan is, what kind of cards they are prioritizing in any given matchup, and what their plays suggest about their hand.

I don’t have that base of experience in any other format, and especially not in Standard, where I didn’t play a game of the format until I started testing for this PT. Playing against a smattering of decks on ladder might have been useful to get used to Jund’s play patterns, but it didn’t really help give me a deep sense of what my game plans should look like and the best way to execute those plans against well-prepared opponents. Next time, I'm going to make sure to work more closely with like-minded individuals instead of taking a lone-wolf approach. Coaching is a resource I don’t use nearly enough either, and I think it’s a fantastic way to shortcut a path to higher-level play.

All of that being said, I wasn’t at all unhappy with my record. In fact, in a big way it generated a lot of excitement in me. I love tough competition, and even though this event didn’t feel the way I wanted it to, it was very clear that the quality of the competition was very high. Every game was really intense and my opponents all had a very solid sense of what their game plan was. By the end of the day, being crushed in the event re-ignited my fire to get another shot at an event like this, which is a very positive outcome in my eyes.

While it was a bit weird to play an event on Arena that had to be paired through Discord, I think the event ran very smoothly. It was very easy to find my pairings and my opponent’s decklist, and the direct challenge feature worked pretty seamlessly for me. The turnover for each round was quite a bit longer than expected, but apparently this was a set-up cost for them to do coverage. While I would have certainly preferred the event to be on Magic Online, especially since that program already has the infrastructure built-in to run tournaments, I was pleased with this setup.

Final Impressions

As for my final thoughts on the event: it didn’t meet my expectations of what a PT would be, but the high level of competition did contribute to an overall intense feeling. I still don’t really feel like I achieved my goal of playing in my platonic ideal of a Pro Tour, but I think that’s irrational. When I look at Pro Tour Top 8s of players in the future, I won’t be discounting their result from this event. If that’s the case, then I don’t think it’s reasonable for me to discount this as a meaningful PT experience, even if it’s not what I expected. Considering how much it meant to me to do poorly, it would have been pretty fantastic to do well and if that’s not a sign of a meaningful event, I don’t know what is. If there are more qualifiers for this type of event, I will probably seek those out and try my best to do a bit better next time!