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The Magic Pro Tour is back after four years with some controversial changes

What’s good for some isn’t always good for others

When Gabby Squailia started playing Magic: The Gathering in 2017 after taking two decades off, she was hooked. The game became an obsession. And, as a competitive person, she soon wanted to see if she could handle the big leagues. That meant Magic’s Pro Tour, the premiere public event for high-level Magic play.

“It did seem vaguely reasonable for a decent player who put the time in to make it to the Pro Tour once or twice,” Squailia says. “The reason this mattered to me wasn’t that I ever thought I could be a professional — I just wanted to compete against the best, and to learn from getting trounced.”

But Wizards of the Coast abruptly stopped the event in 2018, moving instead to Mythic Tournaments, a hybridization of the physical and online play that added layers of bureaucracy to the game. Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced other changes as players found their ability to play paper Magic — offline and in person — curtailed by the health crisis.

Now that the world is reopening, Magic parent company Wizards of the Coast is reestablishing the Pro Tour, yet it’s coming with some changes.

The new system aims to integrate the former pro structure with the game’s growing amateur play groups (which make up the vast majority of Magic players). There are regional championships set up around the world with invitations varying per event. Players can also get in the door through Magic Online and the Arena app; pros from the hall of fame are allowed one free entry per year. Players and others in the Magic community are divided on what this all means.

As Magic communications director Blake Rasmussen tells it, the Pro Tour never really shut down. He says that in Wizards’ view, the Pro Tour as previously structured had outlived its usefulness and it was time to pivot to meet the players where they were. That meant a more open field where high-level play and mid-tier play could coexist, even though it meant reshuffling how the company treats its top players, who had been part of a circuit called the Pro League.

“We saw the end of the Magic Pro League and the beginning of a sort of broader play structure that is as inclusive as possible, that gives people all around the world as many opportunities as possible to come in and play Magic at whatever level they want,” Rasmussen says.

But for some players, from amateurs like Squailia to pros like Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, the changes over the past four years haven’t been quite as positive. Jim Davis, a former pro player turned content creator whose YouTube channel focuses on Magic, says that in his view the tournament’s mutation has taken away elements of the circuit that made it worth playing, and paying attention to, for years. By reducing the level of competition, he says, Wizards has somewhat “killed a lot of what made the old Pro Tour so exciting, which was that it was an aspirational system.”

Davis also feels that the company’s decisions on how to market the competition have been perplexing. It’s good to have an event like the Pro Tour for people to follow along, he says, but in order to cultivate an audience, there has to be something that grabs their attention.

“People want to play Magic more than they want to watch it,” Davis says.

Frank Gilson, 28, right, of Anaheim Hills, concentrates as he plays Magic Photo: Clarence Williams/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Further changes have made the landscape prohibitive for pros. A lack of investment in pro-level players — no more free rides to all of the events, replete with plane tickets and hotel rooms — and a flattening of the competitive atmosphere is supposed to make the event more friendly to players of all skill levels.

“I live in Brazil. Everything is very expensive — it takes me 20, 24 hours for a flight to travel,” da Rosa says. “For me to go to a tournament, I feel like I have to dedicate a lot.”

Da Rosa, one of the top players of all time, is going to face difficulties making it to events from Brazil. While he could play online, in order to play in the real-life circuit he’s going to have to play in real-life events. Without support from Wizards, one of the game’s active playing legends is going to run into difficulty. “If you do the math, like how much it costs to get there, how much time you have to prepare, what the price for it compared to the number of entrants, it’s usually not worth it,” da Rosa says.

Rasmussen says that where Wizards had, in the past, focused on professionals and pro play, now the event will take a more wide-ranging approach that incorporates lower-level players and highlights their participation. “Our vision has shifted in that our philosophy now is to serve as many people as possible,” Rasmussen says. “That’s not to say that we don’t value those pro players. That’s absolutely not true.”

According to Rasmussen, response to the new tournament structure has been largely positive. Many players in the new tour are playing in their first event, and while there’s no comparison to the pre-pandemic crowds — that’s still a ways off — Wizards says it has been pleased with the enthusiasm it’s seen thus far.

“We are seeing a ton of people who are ready to get back in,” Rasmussen says. “There’s still going to be, and rightfully so, some hesitancy on some people to be in crowds of people, and that’s going to push numbers down. But even despite that, we’re seeing a lot of people champing at the bit to return.”

DeQuan Watson is a content creator whose work focuses on Magic. He’s a longstanding player and personality in the community, having worked for Wizards and Card Kingdom and at one time owned a game store. That background behind the curtain of the business side could explain Watson’s more measured response to the changes that Wizards has made — he sees it as a continuation of the company trying to adjust to meet its audience’s expectations.

“They have an insane amount of data,” Watson says. “So when people think they know what they’re talking about or wonder why they would make this decision — having been there, I can look at stuff from a distance.”

To Watson, the new setup is reminiscent of the way the Pro Tour was at the very beginning. Now, players of all skill levels can go online or to their local store, win events, and work their way up to regionals and make it to the tour. “I think that’s easier for people to understand and it’s accessible to a lot of people and it supports your local retailers,” he says. “So I think everybody’s winning in this scenario.”

But it’s clear not everyone feels they’re winning. Between top pros like da Rosa and amateur players expressing disinterest in the new format because it’s not providing enough to strive for, the message hasn’t landed smoothly. And whether the changes result in a stronger community across the board remains to be seen.