Outlining the Online PTQ Season

Posted in The Week That Was on September 18, 2009

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

A couple of weeks back I interviewed DCI program manager Scott Larabee about the 2010 Pro Tour schedule—a schedule which indicated that there would be PTQs taking place on Magic Online for the first time in the history of the Pro Tour. Scott was unable to provide more detail about the PTQs at that time but the final detail were just released and can be found in the form of a fact sheet here. I caught up with Michael Gills—who you have undoubtedly met if you have been to a premier event this year and tried to get into one of the Magic Online Live Series Championships—to discuss the details of the MTGO PTQ season for San Diego.

"My job title is Digital Games Program Manager, which basically means that I am in charge of designing and running all of the various programs that support Magic Online—and other games," said Gills by way of introduction. "This covers all events, championships, programs—like Magic Online Player Rewards—and prize support."

After fifteen years of going to church basements, hotel ballrooms, and tournament centers to qualify for the Pro Tour, players will now have sixteen opportunities to qualify from the comfort of their own homes. Players in densely populated areas with high attendance numbers will get critical extra chances to qualify. More importantly, it will open up the opportunity to qualify for the Pro Tour to players in areas where Pro Tours are not accessible.

"This is something the fans have been requesting, and with the improved stability that Magic Online has had this year and the success of many other programs, it was finally time to offer them," answered Gills, when asked about why Wizards finally decided to do this after a decade and a half of only "IRL" qualifiers. Of course, while not specifically being a PTQ per se, the Magic Online Championship Series has been qualifying players for the World Championships all season long. "We have been looking into different ways of making the Pro Tour more accessible and the great response we have seen with the MOCS has shown us that Magic Online is a great avenue of doing so."

Many players speculated that there would only be one or two slots available when the program was originally announced. I know that I was shocked to learn that there would be so many slots up for virtual grabs.

"After pleading with Scott Larabee, that is the number we were able to get," joked Gills, when asked about how they came to arrive at the number of slots for the San Diego season. "On a more serious note, we wanted to be able to offer players this opportunity throughout the entire PTQ season, and sixteen seemed about right."

As you look through the dates of the events you will notice that for the most part they do not conflict with either Friday Night Magic or the traditional Saturday PTQ schedule. According to Gills, that was not a coincidence.

"This was a major factor," he confirmed. "Magic Online is a strong component of the entire Magic: The Gathering experience and we wanted to enhance the brand's offerings, not replace them. In addition, we made sure to vary the event times to support multiple time zones as well."

This is a Sealed Deck PTQ season that will utilize Zendikar throughout the physical PTQs, but the first few events online will use Magic 2010 until Zendikar comes online a couple of weeks later. I asked Gill to walk everyone through the process of signing up and playing in that first Magic Online PTQ.

"Once the event starts," Gill began to explain, "You will be given the six sealed M10 boosters to open and will have 30 minutes to build your deck. You don't need to worry about having sufficient basic lands, as you can add those to your deck as needed. Once the 30 minutes has passed—or everyone has submitted a deck in your shootout—the first round begins where you will be randomly paired against an opponent to play a best-two-out-of-three match. You will have a total of 25 minutes on your match clock, so make sure you play in a timely manner. This means that whenever you have priority, your clock is running. If you ever run out of time in your match, you lose. Otherwise, the normal rules apply; Swiss pairing for later rounds, the cards you didn't add to your deck are your sideboard, etc."

"Each shootout will run for six rounds," he continued. "At the end of these six rounds, all players who finished 5-1 or 6-0 will advance to the PTQ Finals Tournament that will be set up an hour or so after all shootouts have completed where they will get a new set of sealed product and begin again. In the end only one player will earn the PT–San Diego invitation as well as the Superdraft invite, though there are plenty of digital booster prizes for other high finishes."

I asked Gills to back up and explain the concept of a shootout.

"That is the name we gave to the six-round Swiss tournaments that any player can join," he elaborated. "Since we want these events to be open to as many players that want to play as possible, we broke the initial rounds of the PTQ up into 512-player shootouts. This will allow many players to compete and finish these initial rounds all at relatively the same time. We will initially set up two shootouts, with one starting 30 minutes after the other. You just choose which of these two shootouts you wish to join. If these two initial shootouts get close to selling out, then we will add an additional shootout that will start 30 minutes later. If that one gets close to full, then we will just do it again as often as needed. Each shootout will last for approximately six hours, and then the PTQ Finals Tournament would last roughly the same amount of time. So from the start of the first shootout to the Top 8 Finals would be from 14–16 hours. Fortunately, playing from home makes taking breaks easy!"

The Superdraft that Mike mentioned is another new tournament that will be unfamiliar to us denizens of New Jersey church basements.

"This will be a fun event we will hold on-site that will only be open to the players who qualified for the Pro Tour through the Magic Online qualifiers," explained Gills, while also pointing out that Online PTQs don't have the airfare award that come with winning a physical PTQ. "Each participant will win a minimum of a $1000 to help offset their travel costs as well as other prizes."

Gills said they were expecting between 500 and 700 players to sign up for each PTQ. There is obviously going to be some concern on the part of players about the ability of Magic Online to hold up under the stress of that many players in an event at one time.

"We have been talking with our development team about this, and they are taking various steps to make sure we can handle the load," assured Gills. We haven't had (a server crash) in a long time now but if we did, we explained how we would handle the PTQ itself in the rules."

Players used to the traditional PTQ scene may be concerned about players getting help from already qualified players or getting together for a PTQ party and consolidating resources as players from their group are eliminated. To some extent you have this already at physical PTQs where a player with a network of friends is at an information advantage in terms of what decks people are playing, how match-ups have been playing out, and what sideboard cards to be prepared for.

"Internet game play has its own unique challenges like some that you mentioned," said Gill when I posed this question to him. "In the end, though, the winner of an online PTQ has to have the resources to get themselves to the Pro Tour and the skills to show the world that they deserve to be there."

Looking over the PTQ schedule, the Thanksgiving weekend at the end of November and the Christmas weekend that closes the PTQ season both look like they could be among the busiest days for MTGO short of a new set release. Gills closed the interview with some sage advice for anyone looking to qualify those weekends: "Make sure you don't eat too much turkey, or the tryptophan may make you too drowsy to be at your best!"

FFfreaKing Out for PTQs: Five questions with Brad Nelson

After making a name for himself on Magic Online, Brad 'FFfreaK' Nelson debuted on the Pro Tour by facing Luis Scott-Vargas in the first round in Honolulu.

The last few months have been quite a whirlwind for Brad "FFfreaK" Nelson. After being one of the more dominant MTGO players for years, he broke out at Pro Tour–Honolulu with a 9th-place finish. As commentator Randy Buehler pointed out, his finish would have been a Top 8 on MTGO, where you cannot intentionally draw. Since that event he went to Nationals, where he again finished one heartbreaking spot away from the glory. He made the Top 4 of the event, but lost the 3rd/4th playoff and is the alternate for the U.S. team. He has also been attending North American Grand Prix and $5K tournaments. Ironically, he has barely had time to play in any of the Magic Online Championships and is concerned that his MTGO playing time is down to "only" 30 or 40 hours per week. I could think of no better player to get a reaction from about the new online PTQs than Brad, who will be eligible to play in these until he racks up some more Pro Points or earns an invite through some other means.

BDM: What do you think your reaction to these would have been last year or earlier in the season?

Brad: I am very excited about these even now. This is exactly what [Wizards] should be doing, and [they] finally figured out a good way to make it happen. The best part about online PTQs is that you can win an envelope in your underwear! This is especially great for players that live in smaller areas like me. Being able to PTQ without having to drive 300+ miles is very exciting. The competition will be bigger and better since it's open to everyone in the world, but that's a small price to pay for this convenience.

BDM: As it stands right now, you can play in these. Will you?

Brad: Every single one I can. There would be no reason to not play in these events. First place is such a good prize.

BDM: Based on your experiences with the Magic Online Championship Series, how large do you guess these will be?

Brad: At the beginning the tournaments will be very big. About three flights on Thursdays and four on Sundays would fire. Once a month has expired I would guess it would be closer to two and three will fire.

BDM: What impact do you think opening up the Pro Tour to more of the top online players could mean?

Nelson plays in the Semifinals at U.S. Nationals while his deck's designer, Conley Woods, looks on.

Brad: This is a tough question to answer. There are some really good [Magic Online]-only players out there. The best thing we have going for us is the passion and drive that keeps us grinding.

The Pro Tour isn't our turf, though, and I know it would be on an individual basis if the players put the work in to catch up on the format. The PT format is always a month ahead of Magic Online, and [they] wouldn't be able to test online for it. I know if the players did their homework that they could walk into the Convention Center as if they have 100 times. I could really see some good players making their debut this way—even if they play LSV round 1.

BDM: What advice would you have for anyone playing in these based on your experience with large online events?

Brad: The best thing you can do is make sure you are in an area that is comfortable. Make sure the surroundings will help you get into a groove. The initial rounds are where many players in real life drain energy, distracting themselves from the main objective. This is true playing online as well. Make sure you keep your mind in a good spot during the waits, but drop everything you're doing when the next round starts. Many people play Magic Online while they are on AIM, Facebook, or any other web site, and this is very bad for your game. You will miss things about the game when doing this.

This is by far the most important rule! DON'T GO INTO AUTO PILOT. Do not get bored with the tournament and think you just have to be there to win. This is not a video game and you must not treat it as one to succeed. The day will go long, so be prepared to stay focused.

Firestarter: Sound Off About Online PTQs

What do you think about the Online PTQ schedule? What about the formats? Head to the forums and share your opinions on this huge announcement.

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