This weekend, 400 players will gather in Washington D.C. to compete in Magic: The Gathering's Pro Tour for the $40,000 top prize. How do you get to the Pro Tour, and what is it like preparing for the most high-stakes Magic tournament of all?
Magic's Pro Tour was launched in 1996 as the highest level of competitive play. Several Pro Tour events are run each year, mostly in the U.S., with roughly one per year in Europe and occasionally an event in Japan. Players who "make the Pro Tour" get their travel and hotel expenses paid for by Wizards of the Coast. Of course, some Pro Tours are more desirable than others — there's been a Pro Tour in Valencia, but also two in Philadelphia.
Making the tour is a daunting task for the average kitchen table Magic player. You get invited to the current Pro Tour if you earned enough match points in the previous one, an avenue not open to most of us. Same goes for being in the Magic Hall of Fame or being a member of the Pro Players Club. You can earn your way in by making the top 8 of a Grand Prix tournament — these are large open tournaments held in major cities around the world. Anyone can enter a Grand Prix, so conceivably you could practice your Magic skills, make the elimination round of a GP, and be on your way to wherever that season's next Pro Tour stop happens to be.
There are also Pro Tour Qualifier tournaments, locally run events where the winner gets a golden ticket. These have become so popular that recently Wizards made it a two-tiered system. Now there are open tournaments called Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers (PPTQs). Win one of those and you get a seat at a regional Pro Tour Qualifier. The winner of that tournament actually gets to go to the Pro Tour.
Ostensibly, this ability to get to the Pro Tour through local, open tournaments makes it all very meritocratic. In reality, you need vast amounts of free time, enough disposable income to fund card-buying and tournament travel, and a network of friends to split the gas money and let you borrow a few cards for the crazy deck idea you just thought of. What this means is that a game built on 1-on-1 card duels becomes much more of a team sport at higher levels (and that most of the players are 20-somethings).
This was readily apparent at Pro Tour Honolulu, held this past October [disclosure: Wizards of the Coast paid my travel expenses so I could attend]. Many players arrive a week early, paying their own hotel costs so they can focus entirely on practicing and planning for the tournament. In Honolulu, a favorite Pro Tour stop for obvious reasons, it's become traditional to rent a beach house for an entire team of players. If you can imagine what it's like hanging out in a Hawaiian beach house for a week with a bunch of friends doing pretty much nothing but play your favorite game, it's easy to conclude that just getting to the Pro Tour is its own victory.
And yet, the players attack the tournament with a singular focus. I'm not sure many of them actually care where the Pro Tour is being held, because they eat, breath, and sleep Magic the entire time. I talked to Ari Lax, winner of Pro Tour Honolulu, about tournament prep and figuring out the format. "The team originally started in early 2012 for Pro Tour Gatecrash," Lax said. "I had just come from turning my last Pro Level invite into a 9th place finish and likely another two years on the PT, and Emanuel Sutor, a player I had met the previous year, had just requalified and wanted to work hard and make his finish count. From there, we just started contacting people we knew were qualified, great players and great to be around, but didn't have a team to work with. The mentality has stayed the same since then."
The team Lax was a member of, all of whom joined him on stage after he won, appeared to number close to a dozen. Like most Magic teams, it's an amorphous conglomeration of Internet friends, friends from the local game store, and few people who know some people who know some people who knew they needed a team and are good at Magic. From one major event to the next, the team shifts or disbands and reforms. Some teams are sponsored by Magic websites, either the kind that sell cards, the kind that publish strategy articles, or the kind that do both — you'll see players wearing branded t-shirts pretty often.
Of course, teaming up to take down a big tournament isn't just a matter of solidarity and bonhomie. When Lax walked up to pose with the giant novelty check, someone from the Wizards brand team leaned toward me and whispered, "They're not just happy for him." Apparently, a lot of teams agree ahead of time to split all of the team's winnings equally among every member, and Lax had just added $40K to the pot.
It's one thing to say, "They spend a week testing and practicing before the tournament even starts," but what does that look like? Magic is played in several formats: constructed formats in which you build a deck ahead of time from the entire pool of available cards, and limited formats in which players open random packs of cards and build decks with whatever they get. For the last few years, Pro Tours have mixed both formats. Testing is a complex process of figuring out which cards work best, which other cards they work well with, and what decks other players are likely to be using.
"We try to approach testing in a very organized and methodical method. It's almost business like, but we all still enjoy doing it," Lax told me. "For Constructed... we start working on ideas of decks just to try out new cards. Once we have some basic knowledge established about what early ideas are performing well (1-1.5 weeks into the process), we start tracking results in a spreadsheet. As decks tend to be very fluid at this point, we also make sure we have notes on the composition of each deck so that we can look back later and notice if changes we made caused massive differences in results. Around this time, we also begin to form an idea of what decks we consider 'the gauntlet' that we expect to play against the most at the event and have to focus our attention on."
Testing for a limited format, like booster draft, is significantly more difficult. "We just play a lot and keep posting about our experiences with everything we draft. I want to make this process more streamlined, but draft is so much harder to modularize than Constructed because the process for a single draft is longer and has so many more decisions."
For this weekend's Pro Tour, in D.C., the constructed format is called Modern, a format that allows players to use any cards printed in roughly the last 10 years (excepting a list of banned cards deemed too powerful for the format). In Honolulu, it was Standard, a constantly shifting format that only allows cards from the most recent Magic sets. The format was essentially a blank slate when Khans of Tarkir was released not long before the tournament, but Lax and his teammates quickly hit upon a key card.
"Siege Rhino was a big part of it and likely one of the best cards in the deck, but in testing the list my teammate Steve Rubin had come up with felt like it didn't really have major weaknesses. All of your cards could either answer anything or were hard to deal with threats that built up incremental advantages, and eventually no matter what your opponent was playing they would just fall behind and the deck would run away with the game."
One of the things that makes Magic a fascinating game is the concept of archetypes. These are broad styles of building and playing a deck that fit a particular strategy, and they coexist as a sort of rock/paper/scissors system of checks and balances. There are aggro decks that hit hard and fast, control decks that play reactive Magic and dictate the pace of the game, combo decks that "go off" like Rube Goldberg machines for ridiculous victories, and mid-range decks that try to hit the sweet spot of powerful creatures, useful solutions, and gradual, inexorable victories gained by grinding out card advantage a little at a time.
In Honolulu, Lax was playing mid-range, a green-white-black archetype that used to be called "Junk" until Kahns of Tarkir's clans came along and gave that particular combination of colors a name: Abzan. When Lax sat down at the table for the final best-of-5 match, he was facing a very different deck piloted by a very different player. Canadian Shaun McLaren was playing a red-white-blue deck with its own clan affiliation, which the commentators called Jeskai Wins. What archetype was it? Well, that's where things get interesting.
The Pro Tour is played in a giant convention hall with a roped-off section of hundreds of tables. Off to the side are the featured match tables, covered from multiple angles by cameras so the match can be broadcast via live online stream. There's a coverage team that offers color commentary on featured matches, but by the third day, when only the Top 8 competitors remain, they're all featured matches. The room has been partitioned because everyone who's been knocked out is watching the match on a tv showing the web stream. Since the broadcast shows which cards are in the players' hands, the final round players are isolated from the crowd.
And quite a crowd gathered around that single TV to watch Lax and McLaren battle. McLaren seemed to be the crowd favorite by a small margin, possibly because Lax had developed a reputation (deserved or not) as a bit of a heel, possibly because McLaren, defying expectation, didn't have a team. He practiced with his brother and some friends at his local game store. That "doing it on our own" spirit seemed to resonate.
McLaren's deck could work in a different ways and fit into two different archetypes. This is because competitive Magic decks have a "sideboard" of cards, and between games they can swap cards in and out of their decks. In most cases, this is simply a matter of bringing in a few cards that work against your opponent's particular deck. Playing again a red deck, you bring in your creatures that have Protection from Red.
But McLaren had a deeper, more transformative sideboard. His deck could be extremely aggressive, hitting with cheap creatures and using spells to deal damage directly to his opponent's life total. Or, it could play as a control deck, packing counterspells, sitting back and whittling down life totals, keeping his opponent's creatures in check. The choice depended on the deck he was playing against, but also whether he was playing first in that particular game (this is determined by the roll of the die in the first game, and is then the loser's choice in subsequent games in a match). If McLaren was "on the play," his aggro strategy was much stronger, but if his opponent was likely to choose to go first, he could significantly change the way his deck functioned.
That's why the final match in Honolulu was so fascinating. It was thrust and parry, attack and counterattack. Lax's deck was fairly static, while McLaren could completely alter his strategy. By game four, McLaren was down two games to one. He needed to win two in a row. He had Lax down to five life. But Lax had a ton of creatures on the board — almost enough to kill McLaren on his next turn. Whatever McLaren drew on his next turn would likely determine the outcome of the tournament.
There's a thing in Magic in situations like this called the windmill slam. You need a certain card right now to win you the game, and you either have it or you don't. So instead of drawing your card and tucking it into your hand as usual, you rip it off the top and slam it down on the table face up so everyone knows. Do you have it?
But not McLaren, despite Lax's urging. On the coverage video, Lax can be heard saying, "Am I dying? You gonna slam it?" Instead, McLaren peeked at it, then left it on the deck for a little while. He'd seen it, but not even the coverage cameras could pick up what card it was. The excited tension in the room where we were watching the coverage built. Finally, McLaren drew. We all saw what it was (a Mantis Rider), and a loud cheer erupted. Loud enough that Lax heard it and guessed it meant he'd won.
"The moment he peeked at the card and smirked, I was fairly sure I wasn't losing the game that turn. You can see me start to grin there, but I was still thinking through how I would play against anything he could play there that I wasn't immediately losing to. Once he picked it up and the cameras saw it, I could hear the cheer from the crowd watching in the next room. From that point on, I was just sitting there thinking 'Wow, I'm a Pro Tour Champion.'"
McLaren may have come out ahead of Lax in one way — second place earned him $20,000, which he presumably didn't have to share with anyone.
You can watch Pro Tour D.C. live this weekend from the coverage site, where they post player interview, decklists, and of course the livestream. There might not be any moments as weirdly dramatic as McLaren's anti-windmill non-slam. But if you're a casual Magic player, it will give you a great look at high-level play, decks that might redefine the Modern format, and an individual competition that's somehow become a team game.