When Flesh and Blood revealed its organized play system a few months ago, one aspect of it engendered more debate than any other. It was announced that players who held PTIs, or Pro Tour Qualifications that can be banked and subsequently used on any event of that players choice, would be able to gift that qualification to another player. Here’s the exact language from Pro Tour: New Jersey’s info page.
“A player may gift for redemption up to one PTI to another player per Pro Tour by emailing email@example.com with your name and GEM player ID#, and the name and GEM player ID# of the recipient. The player gifting the PTI must send the email from the same email address as registered on their GEM player account. PTI gifting requests received after 1.00pm Friday April 29 (NZT) will not be accepted. Please note that a gifted PTI must be used by the recipient to play at Pro Tour New Jersey. If the recipient does NOT attend Pro Tour New Jersey, the PTI will cease to exist.”
The obvious consequence of this gifting policy is that it makes Pro Tour Qualifications available for purchase. Indeed, this has come to fruition, and I’ve heard stories of Pro Tour invites selling for approximately $1000.
Anecdotally, I don’t see much support for this policy among players. The biggest supporters of PTI gifting seem to go as far as saying that they believe the policy is not great, but probably low impact, only adding a few players to any given field that are dead money anyway.
I could not disagree more with the community stance . I think PTI gifting is one of the best features of the Flesh and Blood organized play system and brings with it an actual laundry list of player benefits. I do understand why first impressions of PTI gifting are likely to be negative. The most visible players (usually the most successful) in the Flesh and Blood community are not apt to personally benefit from such a policy. It’s also hard to accept that someone can just throw money around to achieve a goal that you had to invest your blood, sweat, and tears to achieve. But if this phenomenon upsets you when it comes to Flesh and Blood, you are NOT going to be happy when you learn about the global monetary system and how it works for participants with a head start in acquiring capital.
That’ll be the last time I directly reference capitalism this article. Not because it isn’t painfully and obviously intrusive in this discussion, but just because I don’t even have to go down that rabbit hole to make my point. PTI gifting proves its worth on a lot of axes, and you don’t have to accept the futility inherent in our lives of endless toil to get on board.
Imagine an established team of talented players that believed in each other’s skills, strengths, and above all, ability to better each other’s results through their teamwork. Be it in testing or deckbuilding, draft or constructed, this team wants its players to be there for every Pro Tour as they try to take over the world of Flesh and Blood as a cohesive unit.
Further imagine after some initial success, one of those players has a tough ProQuest season and doesn’t qualify for the next Pro Tour. Now some members of that team are more incentivized to work harder than others. Where previously they were happy sharing prizes to finance the grinder lifestyle and defeat some of the variance inherent in competitive TCG play, profit sharing becomes contentious. Logistics just don’t work, and members of the team go their separate ways.
This is basically the story of every Magic Pro Tour team ever (with less emphasis on profit sharing, which I never understood). With gifting, it’s possible that a cohesive and focused team could put together a sustained run at the top, working together to finance a far more stable and comfortable lifestyle than the typical professional TCG gamer by pooling their PTIs for when an individual player comes upon tough times.
This is a defense that comes close to the purest intentions of PTI gifting—a circumstance that can only come to fruition if you are willing to accept the reality that the ability to gift a PTI must equal ability to sell. If you thought the cost of selling to competitive integrity was too high, this argument alone probably wouldn’t sway you. It’s still worth mentioning as an upside.
A Wider, More Talented Player Base
Who do you think is more likely to fork over money for a Pro Tour invite: a player who isn’t good enough to qualify, or a player who is abstractly good enough but through some other limiting factor did not qualify?
It’s talented players, and it’s not even close. Over confident players might take the shot once or twice, but eventually they will learn their lesson, especially in a lower variance game like Flesh and Blood.
When I was at my peak Magic-playing prowess, I was also working long hours (and the majority of weekends) as a lawyer in New York City. I had completely given up on playing Pro Tours, not because I wasn’t good enough to qualify, but because I simply didn’t have the time. Then I ended up with a rare weekend off and booked a trip to a Grand Prix in Atlantic City.
I finished fourth in that limited Grand Prix despite having never seen many of the cards before. I had to take several work calls while playing. I then weaseled some more time off for the Pro Tour this finish qualified me for. I mostly playtested on the subway to and from work playing games of Cockatrice (a bootleg, rules-less Magic client akin to dollar store Tabletop Simulator) on my laptop against myself. I narrowly missed a Top 8 and qualified for the next Pro Tour. I cashed the next Pro Tour as well, but came up a win short of chaining another qualification. So that was it. I had accumulated all these Pro Points, had proven that I could compete on the highest level despite having minimal time to prepare, but I was just done because I didn’t have time to play PTQs.
I would have bought Pro Tour invites for the rest of the season in a heartbeat, and I’m confident the level of competition on tour would have been higher for my inclusion. What was really being tested in this scenario: my skill or my free time to play PTQs?
If you want the best players to be part of an event, you must understand that they will come from all walks of life. Some will have families. Some will have demanding jobs. Some will just work in industries where the money is made on weekends like hospitality. Some won’t feel comfortable in the environment created by their local game stores. And some people will just never get the chance no matter how great they are because of their lot in life.
And if I’m wrong and a bunch of bad players buy up PTIs, then they’re essentially functioning as gaming tourists, bringing more money into your economy without ever threatening to take the prizes you are competing for. Where’s the downside?
More Challenging and Enticing Qualifying Events
This is hard for embedded TCG vets to understand, but a lot of people do not care about playing a Pro Tour. What they want are local events they can drive to and have a good time at, and maybe take home a nice prize. Many of the players who want only this are very, very good.
I had a Magic friend who was clearly on the level of a consistent Pro Tour competitor, maybe even had the potential to be elite. He just didn’t care though. He was married, had kids, and liked playing Magic. He would go to a tournament if his friends were going and the prizes were decent.
Players like this deserve to have something to play for. Bringing these folks into the fold via the increased prizing that a transferable invite represents finally serves a portion of the player base that has been ignored for too long, while simultaneously strengthening the ProQuest scene.
What if Magic sought ways to bring more players into the PTQ scene rather than using how many people avoided it as evidence that it was unnecessary? Things like exclusive promos and transferable invites are financing an endeavor that is critical, but costly, for the long-term success of a TCG. Where so many others startups threw money at the problem and quickly folded, LSS is picking their spots and creating valuable goods for players out of thin air. That’s how you make the economics of these systems work in a game’s formative days.
Respecting Capacity for Travel
We all still need to figure out our own comfort level when it comes to potential Covid exposure. For some people, they’ve gotten to a place where they are comfortable interacting in a semi-local scene, but not hopping on a plane across the country or world to compete. This just isn’t the time to pressure someone into participating in an event.
Sure, you could bank a PTI for an extended period, but there’s no possibility of return while you hold that ticket. Should you need immediate cash, selling a PTI could get it for you without exposing you to potential risk. Indeed, this applies in the absence of Covid. More options for players are always appreciated, and LSS relinquishing control of the good is extremely player friendly.
What is your Magic Pro Tour Invite worth if your circumstances don’t allow you to comfortably travel? Nothing. How many stories have you heard of 16-year-old kids who went to a foreign country with no money and no place to stay simply because they had a Pro Tour invite? For me, the answer is far too many. After PT Amsterdam I happened to run into a fellow player at the train station who had no money and needed a train ticket to catch their flight back to America. They had actual zero dollars to their name, and no plan beyond hoping someone they knew came by. This is beyond crazy, it’s straight up dangerous.
Just let players collect equity without forcing them to jump through hoops.
The End of Secret Language
Can you pay someone to concede to you in the last rounds of a Magic tournament? The rules would tell you no.
But I’ve conceded to someone who I knew needed pro points before. They gave me money after the tournament equivalent to the prizes I gave up and then some. I didn’t ask for that money before conceding. They didn’t offer it. I just knew the person was a regular in the scene.
I’ve had someone concede to me when they were dead to make the Top 8 of a tournament and I was still live. I gave them money after the tournament. I didn’t offer it before they conceded, and they didn’t ask for it.
Almost every Magic player who was around the pro scene for any length of time made similar “good faith” deals. It was looked at as equity maximization. After all, pro points only had value to a small set of individuals, and the best way to maximize the outcome for everyone involved was to assign those pro points to the right places. Top heavy payouts also meant that if you could put your opponent in the Top 8 and share prizing with them, you were incentivized to do so.
This was complete and utter bullshit. I hated participating in it, and my policy for years now has just been “never concede, only ID in my favor.” The winks and nods were a system that benefitted those in the know who could say the right magic words to get what they wanted without getting themselves disqualified by a judge. Every now and then someone would mess up their spell and catch a public shaming. It was all a bad joke though.
When Pro Tour Champion Andrew Elenbogen tweeted this to me, my immediate reaction upon reading the words “making bribery in Magic tournaments legal” was revulsion, even as I was singing the praises of being able to purchase a Flesh and Blood Pro Tour invite. That’s how deeply my own denial of what has been going on is embedded within me.
Andrew is 100% right. People have been buying Pro Tour invites for years. How about we open up the option to people who aren’t members of the “ol’ boys club”?
Eradicating Notions of Meritocracy
Do wealthy players have an inherent advantage over less affluent players in a TCG? If you’ve ever spoken about a TCG to the broader public, you know they usually think the answer is yes on a very fundamental level.
“Doesn’t the player who just buys all the good cards have an advantage over everyone else?” is probably the question I get most often when describing competitive play. “Of course not,” I patiently explain. “All the good players know the deal and will basically spend whatever is necessary to have the cards they need.”
Really me? All the good players? Card availability and a host of other economic factors exclude a huge percentage of the population from our hobby before we even get out of the gate, and the idea that any competition could successfully gather the best and brightest is a cruel joke.
Even if you want to write off card availability costs, how many other things can you purchase that make you a better TCG player?
-Time off work
-Better accessories for tracking board states
-Your own hotel for a better night’s sleep
-Medications to fix mental issues
The list basically goes on forever.
So how does selling PTIs fix this wealth gap? It doesn’t. Not even close. But at least it’s honest about what we’re doing here. Money is an edge that cannot be negated, in life and gaming. Denying the problem exists is worse than putting it out on display, because only by acknowledging the gap can we bring ourselves to be mindful of it.
You want competitive integrity? Find a way to give impoverished individuals the option to even sit at the table. That’ll do far more to level the playing field than eliminating the option to purchase a Pro Tour invite.
As I spend more time interacting with the folks behind Flesh and Blood, their thoughtfulness shines through time and time again. Selling Pro Tour invites simply strips away several layers of bullshit. It puts power back in the hands of players, and lets you engage with the game in the way that best suits your needs. Most importantly, like every decision made by LSS, it’s a policy that is grounded in logic and reality. They’re treating their players like adults, acknowledging their product for what it is, and trying to come up with the best experience possible for as many people as possible. I suspect that selling of PTIs is not mentioned by name due to various tax consequences and international laws. There’s no way LSS is shocked by transferability being used in this fashion. I’d go even further, and say that reading between the lines of the game’s policies on draws, intentional draws, and concessions suggests that LSS was both aware and disdainful of the dance that goes on at the conclusion of Magic tournaments.
Indeed, when covering the Calling: Indianapolis, the impact of their attempts to mitigate this aspect of TCG tournaments was palpable. At SCG Tour events in the last few rounds, Nick Miller would furiously scribble out tiebreaker math, trying to figure out which players were likely to play and which were likely to draw so we could get actual matches on camera. In Indianapolis, we looked at who was playing and featured the matches we wanted to see. No tiebreaker math. No secret deals. Everyone battled to the end.
Let go of the way you’ve been trained to think about TCGs. To defeat some old problems, we’re going to have to turn to some unexpected solutions–including ones that might not make the best first impression. Give the policy some time though, and I bet you’ll find the honesty and ingenuity of PTI gifting refreshing.