The Case Against Grand Prixs
It seems in recent times that Wizards has really pushed Grand Prixs as the main platform of the professional experience. While this might be more budget friendly for Wizards I believe it is a disappointing development for fans of the game and for the borderline tournament player. To me, Grand Prixs fail in regards to the competitive balance of the Pro Tour and in regards to providing valuable tournaments for low level players
The Competitive Case
When Tomoharu Saito won his Player of the Year title in 2007 he became the first player of the year to not have either won a Pro Tour or top 8 multiple Pro Tours. He really powered his way to the title by grinding through the Grand Prix circuit, as have both Shuuhei Nakamura and Yuuya Watanabe in the two following years. I feel this damages the competitive integrity of the player of the year race in three main ways. First is the differing number of Grand Prixs top level pros attend. The second is the wild fluctuation between the play quality and the number of players in different Grand Prixs. The third is the seemingly random distribution of Grand Prixs that can play a significant role in players’ success.
Hi ho hi ho
Most sports have taken the opinion that quality matters much more than quantity. As an example take Tennis. A few years back Serena Williams was obviously the best active female player. However because she didn’t prioritize playing in small events the rankings dropped her out of the top spot. But there was a large outcry and the rankings were tinkered with so that she would hold the number one rank that everyone knew that she deserved. Magic however has done no such tinkering to make sure that Grand Prix grinding isn’t the best way to win the player of the year title. While Yuuya Watanabe did play fantastically last year and is a very worthy winner of the Player of the Year title, it’s hard not to take note of the fact that while he played almost every tournament down the stretch in an attempt to gather up points Gabriel Nassif who finished fourth in the race couldn’t even be bothered to attend the Grand Prix held in his home country. Would things have played out differently if Nassif had competed in all the same tournaments that Watanabe did? Possibly. But the fact that the system is set up in such a way that every year we have to contemplate such things is a big problem.
Conversely any big name pro who wants to be considered the best in the world will attend all Pro Tour events, in much the same way that Serena Williams competed in all the major tournaments or a golfer like Tiger Woods will make it a point to play in a tournament like The Masters. Tournaments with all the best players provide more valid results and should provide the backbone for determining a player of the year.
Spanning the Globe
2224. 517. The first is the number of players who competed in Grand Prix Madrid. The second is the number of players that competed in Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur. Just looking at those numbers and you can tell that there’s no way those two tournaments should be treated equally. Rich Hagon has written up a very nice article at StarCityGames.com laying out these problems. As he stated providing the same points is unfair to the player who can only play in Madrid because they have to perform much better to earn the same amount of points, but increasing the number of points depending on the number of players puts a cap on the amount available to players who happen to attend smaller events which is unfair to them. The only fair solution is to much closely monitor the number of players in each tournament so that they are as close to each other as possible. Even if you were willing to follow Rich Hagon’s example a 1000 player Grand Prix is still significantly different than one of 517. Pro Tours however do a much better job of providing consistency. The largest was 417 and the smallest was 381, a difference of just 36 players. Those tournaments are much more worthy of having the same point distribution.
One other problem is a difference in the player bases who attend. If one country or region has a higher level of player than another then even if the numbers are roughly the same the difficulty of two events could be quite different. Certainly there are some Grand Prixs that have higher level of players than others. Conversely the difference between players at Pro Tours should be very small. The core pro players fluctuates very little and since regions have roughly similar amounts of PTQs for each Pro Tour those players will be close to each other in play skill. While there will be differences in the quality of the field between Pro Tours, they won’t be that large once again making them a fairer competition to play a role in determining a yearly champion.
Luck of the Draw
A third flaw with Grand Prixs is in the way actual tournaments are distributed. Lets say you’re a Japanese pro who is better at limited player than constructed. What limited events do you have in Japan this year? None. How about other Asian Grand Prixs? Nothing. If you’re committed to playing a ton of events that’s not a problem but if you’re on the fence you might not even have a chance to get your run for Player of the Year started. And yet two Grand Prixs that were relatively nearby for him were exactly how the 2009 player of the year started his ascension. Without them he might not have felt he had a chance to win and began traveling the world to earn extra points from Grand Prix. Even though it seems that Wizards does a fairly good job of balancing the formats available at Grand Prixs on a world scale, the regional balance can still be very disruptive.
In general Grand Prix do a poor job of providing the basis for the Player of the Year race. That’s one big strike against them. However I don’t think that is there only flaw.
Any coverage is good coverage?
From a fans perspective the difference between coverage at the varying levels is very different and kind of random. American Grand Prixs have recently become the best events to watch as you can actually watch them thanks to the live coverage of matches by ggslive.com. However outside of American GPs, following the GPs is a painful process. At European Grand Prixs there are the match right ups, which come up a good deal late and the standings, which are incredibly hard to follow and are incredibly delayed, but at least they often provide podcasts, which are good for something. Non-European Non-American GPs are in that state but without podcasts. And while Pro Tours do have some of the same problems, because they are high priority events there is much more coverage, including video features and deck techs, podcasts, some special articles that vary from Pro Tour and the live top 8 coverage. Hence because of the prestige and special care given to Pro Tours their coverage is more enjoyable.
Getting in the Game
The greatest thing that Grand Prixs would seem to have going for them is that they are high level events that everyone can take part in. I will admit that Grand Prixs are great tools for low level players if you get to attend but for people who are fans of the game they often don’t work out. For example, for me and my group of friends, we will attend pretty much any event within about a 3 hour radius. Unfortunately, in the past four years only once has a Grand Prix been held within that area. And that’s the case despite having a city of a million people (Hiroshima) well within that radius. Grand Prixs fall in the unenviable space of being neither local nor global events. Local events are easy to attend and readily available. Global Events, i.e. Pro Tours, usually provide a lot of support for the people who earn the right to compete in them. Because of their in between status they fail to fit the participatory needs of players who are fans of the game. I believe that they do well for the hardcore PTQers who will travel far to attend, but they shouldn’t be pushed as a key part of the Wizards tournament play spectrum because being able to attend them is just too undependable for many players.
In too many ways Grand Prixs simply fail to provide for the needs of fans of Magic. From providing more valid results to a more enjoyable tournament viewing experience to more opportunities to play tournament level via PTQs, Pro Tours are pretty much all around much better than Grand Prixs. I think Wizards made a big mistake reducing the number of Pro Tours and would really like to see them increase the number of Pro Tours and decreasing the number of Grand Prixs. If economic reasons prevent that from being a viable solution then there are a number of things they could do. Things like the Magic Online Championships show a path that could be used to level the competitive playing field. I think having tournaments on Magic Online for the super-elite could bring a better balance to the Player of the Year race. And better support for local events is a better use of Wizards money than Grand Prixs are, at least as far as the rank and file are concerned. I’m sure the smart people at Wizards can come up with any number of good solutions but I wish they would stop pushing Grand Prixs as a key part of their organized play provisions.