had the opportunity this past weekend to attend PAX East. I have never been to PAX Prime in Seattle and was excited to check out their "little" gaming convention's East Coast iteration. I assumed I would be able to manage the whole event in one day and only made plans to attend the opening day of the event on Friday.
Big mistake. Huge really.
I knew that I was missing out on a special weekend-long experience as soon as I hit the queue to get in. Throughout most of my career I have always attended these types of events in some kind of professional capacity and have not approached the show as a consumer. I made no such arrangements for this event and was shocked by the line, which snaked throughout a cavernous hall and was 10 people wide—and it turned out that was only the back half of the line. The line coiled into another hall before ultimately disgorging us into an amazing gaming convention.
As players rummaged through their goodie bags that were handed out as they entered the queue, each of them found a 30-card demo Magic deck in the bag. I got a red deck and my business partner in Top8Magic.com, Matt Wang, got a blue one. It was exciting to see how many of the attendees on line were familiar with the game or had easy access to someone nearby to show them how to play.
Once inside, there was ample opportunity to get an introduction to the game for the new players and a refresher course for those unfamiliar. Wizards of the Coast was set up to teach (or remind) people how to play as well as to provide tournaments for those of us with a working knowledge of the game. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Mike Turian was there all weekend providing a friendly face to square off against for anyone looking to experience the game. One of the other cool features that Wizards rolled out for the event was the opportunity for attendees to get an Eldrazi Death Hug. They had a Brobdingnagian tentacle set up for players to stand in and get their picture taken and inserted onto a promo Magic card for the Rise of Eldrazi Prerelease.
I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of the event by the time I was on a train that evening to head back to New York. As I traveled, my Twitter feed kept cascading 140-character story after story about gaming fans flying, busing, and training in from out of town to attend this festival of gaming. It got me to thinking about the Pro Tour and how it is perhaps one of the most misunderstood events in the entire pantheon of Magic events. Every Pro Tour is a gaming festival that every player within range of a plane, train, bus, automobile, or pogo-stick should be at least be considering attending regardless of whether or not they are qualified for the main event. Arguably there is more to do at a Pro Tour for the non-pro players than there is for those obligated to play in the main event on Friday. There are amazing public events, artist signings, special events like Massive Magic, trivia contests, opportunities to meet the people who make the game you love, and much, much more.
For the upcoming Pro Tour–San Juan, there is a special tournament on the schedule that is invite-only and will hopefully push a passel of players over the edge about buying a ticket and coming to see the Pro Tour—a true festival of Magic—up close and personal. That event is the WPN Championship and players can win a berth in the Sunday tournament only by playing in select Wizards Play Network locations throughout North America and Latin America from April 8-May 16. The winner of the event will win airfare and accommodations for Pro Tour–Amsterdam for him- or herself and for the Tournament Organizer who ran the event where he or she qualified. I caught up with DCI Program Manager Scott Larabee to find out more about the new program and to shed a little light on the WPN and the types of events you can find through that program.
Scott explained that the event's origins lie in a desire to get WPN locations more involved in the Pro Tour.
"We tested something like this out last year at Gen Con in the state of Indiana," said Scott. "Stores in Indiana could run events and the winners played in a closed championship. The winner got something and the winner's store got something. Stores really want to be involved in the OP that goes on at conventions. We did this as a way to test this out. in the same way we are trying to make sure that stores in the WPN are involved in the Pro Tour. It is hard for them to be directly involved. They would love to run Pro Tour Qualifiers, but we can't have everyone run one. We created this as a means for stores to be involved in the PT somehow, and it raises the awareness of the Pro Tour for people who may not know that it is going on."
Not every WPN location in North America and Latin America will be eligible to run one of these events. Only the most experienced Organizers will be given that chance. The WPN program has multiple levels—Gateway, Core, and Advanced—and Advanced is the highest.
"All Advanced locations in North America and Latin America are allowed to run one Standard event for this," Scott continued. "If you win you get to play in an invitation-only event at Pro Tour–San Juan. The player who wins will get to go down to San Juan and play in this Championship event—there are going to be no on-site qualifiers for this. You can only qualify in stores. That player gets to experience the Pro Tour—public events, artist signings, meeting people who make Magic, and seeing the pros in action—and a chance to win the WPN Championship, the prize for which is airfare and hotel to attend Pro Tour–Amsterdam. The Tournament Organizer who ran the event heor qualified at will also win airfare and hotel to Pro Tour–Amsterdam.
"It is really a no-brainer for Organizers to run it. 1 – They get a cool event they can run in their store; 2 – If they player who qualifies goes on to win they get to win too. There are other prizes as well. Second place gets a framed foil uncut card sheet of Rise of Eldrazi. Again if the players wins that we will send one to the store as well. Third and fourth place are complete foil sets of Rise of Eldrazi. Then we will send the same things to the store as well. They can do whatever they want with them."
Scott was aware that there is a hurdle for players who win this event to overcome in terms of paying their way to San Juan.
"Obviously from my perspective San Juan is not the ideal launch, since players would ideally have some option of getting there other than flying," he explained. "But we are giving players an excuse to go to San Juan. Even excluding playing in this event players are going to have a great time at the Pro Tour—you know that. When players come to a Pro Tour they have a great time whether they are qualified or not. If you look at the event, we have solicited 650 Tournament Organizers and about 150 sites have set up events. At the end of day you have to look at it and wonder "How many people are going to go?" If you think it is not going to be a lot of people then your odds of winning go up. It is kind of self-balancing in that way."
Wizards also ran a WPN Open event at Pro Tour–San Diego which gave away a trip to San Juan, and that event was considered a success.
"The ultimate expression of this is to have an opportunity to qualify for this in stores, and this is the first opportunity to do this," Scott continued. "When we thought of the idea before San Diego there was not enough time to implement it. Now we have implemented it. All of our programs are always in the experimental stage. We are going to see how this one goes. Are we going to do one at future Pro Tours? Probably."
There is always the chance that stores running a WPN Championship qualifier can offer to pay or underwrite the cost of the flight to San Juan for their winner in addition to other prizes they might offer.
"As an organizer I am incentivized because if my player wins I win something too," Scott suggested to any Advanced organizer who might be reading this. "I hope it is a really good event for the store. For the player I don't have to hope, because I know what the player is going to experience. They are going to go to San Juan—which is a pretty cool place to be going—and they are going to come to the Pro Tour and see all the amazing stuff we have going on. Pro Players that you follow from home, artists signing cards, guys from R&D gunslinging, and all these great events with really great prizes.
"The thing I really want is for people to see that, come back home, and tell people how cool the Pro Tour is. This is the same reason we started giving away airfare with Pro Tour Qualifiers. The attendance rate for Pro Tour invitations before we gave away tickets was lower than what it is now. Now we have players who win an invite and when they come home tell all their friends: 'You have got to go to the Pro Tour.' There is no better marketing than word of mouth—and someone is going to have the chance to do this again by flying to Amsterdam."
Scott explained that the program was put in place not just for the player who wins the berth in the Championship but to shine some light for players in the WPN ranks who might not be aware that there is this amazing Magic festival called the Pro Tour that takes place four times a year all around the world. It is also so that there are more exclusive events for Tournament Organizers who have put in the time to rise through the ranks to the highest levels of the WPN.
"For advanced stores this is a way to say, 'You guys have done the work to become an Advanced location and we want to give you compelling exclusive programs,'" Scott explained. "We are in the process of rolling out more programs that Advanced locations will be able to run, and this is among the first program of its kind."
I asked Scott to explain what each of the levels in the WPN entail and how an Organizer achieves them. The base level is Gateway, and those locations can run Launch Parties and get Gateway Support Kits. The next level is Core, and that is what you need to achieve to run Friday Night Magic and Prereleases. Advanced level is where you get to run Game Day and are able to get larger allocations of product for bigger Prereleases. All totaled there are 650 Advanced locations in North America and Latin America, and that is a number that continues to grow.
"To be a Gateway location you need to contact us and say you want to join the WPN and then you can schedule an event that can be displayed in the Event Locator. It can be anything. It can just be an 8-person Booster Draft. Then you are a Gateway. It is really easy. At that point you can run Launch Parties," said Scott as he ticked off the different levels. "To become Core you need to do some stuff in a 12-month period. You need to upload at least four events and in those events you need to get at least 30 unique players playing in them. And then one of those events has to have at least 12 players in it. You also have to sign up six new players to the DCI. If you can do all that you can be Core. You are not just having the same eight people every week and are actively trying to get new players playing."
"To get to Advanced you need to have run 20 events, have 100 unique players, and one of the events has to have at least 32 players. You also need to have 20 new people signed up. These guys are really good. They are running lots of events, big events, they are turning in all their paperwork, and they are drawing in new people into the DCI."
Scott concluded the interview by pointing out that there were two blacked-out weekends for the Qualifiers and included a little teaser about an upcoming announcement about a Magic program.
Find a Qualifier Near You!
Find a Qualifier Near You!
"The dates when these events take place is April 8 through May 16, but in North American and Latin America we have blacked out April 17 and 18, which is the Rise of Eldrazi Prerelease weekend," said Scott. "We have also blacked out National Qualifier Day which is May 15. This is what used to be called Regionals."
You can find out more about WPN Championship Qualifiers here.
Ken Roth is the owner/operator/Advanced organizer of Gryfalia's Aerie in Bloomington, Illinois. He is also someone who knows a thing or two about the Pro Tour having played in the second Pro Tour ever run and judging at many more after that as a Level 3 Judge. He had thought he was retired from the game but when he found that all the stores in town had closed their doors he jumped back in with two feet just over three years ago. He will be running a WPN Championship Qualifier at his shop on May 1st.
BDM: How did you get involved in running Magic tournaments?
Ken: I started judging Magic events back in the Ice Age / Mirage block era of Magic, after playing in Pro Tour 2. The Chicago area was in need of judges and Paul Waterman, his brother Pete, and I started working for the local Tournament Organizer to help improve the quality of events in town. After I became a Level 3 judge I continued to work Midwest events for a long time before retiring—basically to get married. Eventually I decided to open a game store in my new home town. Of course the first tourney scene I worked had to bring back to town was Magic!
BDM: What do you do to make your FNM and other Magic events special for your customers?
Ken: For starters I think it's very important to be consistent. Just as much as Wizards works to make Friday night the night for Magic, we work to have local players know what events to expect which week, what prizes will be available, and that the events will start on "Gamer On-time," which is as close to the posted time as possible. We also remember that this is FNM, not the Pro Tour, and small screw-ups shouldn't lead to match losses and "gamesmanship" shouldn't rule the day. Most players are there to have fun, with winning a nice extra goal.
BDM: What can you tell us about your player base?
Ken: Our overall player base, besides containing quite a few high school and college-age players, also has a rather large number of family play groups, with brothers and sisters often playing against each other, or parents being paired up against their kids.
Bloomington/Normal has precisely two players with lifetime Pro Tour points. We're proud to report that soon we will have a third, who will probably quickly have more points than either of the other two. Mike Nyberg has recently come in Top 4 at the St. Louis Star City Games Standard $5K event in December 2009, made Top 32 in the Legacy $5K event the next day, and won the Extended PTQ in Indy on January 10. Pete Steadman made Top 8 at the first Midwest Masters Series the same weekend in Indy. Also one of our younger players, Zach Stolbom, has made at least one PTQ Top 8 and far too many frustrating 9th place finishes. These three and several others can be found on any given night practicing in our tourney area.
BDM: What is the Standard metagame like at your events?
Ken: Our Game Day Top 8 was NOT dominated by Jund. First place was a PolyGenitus/Iona deck. He beat a modified Boss Naya deck in the finals—which used Cunning Sparkmage with a Basilisk Collar to take down a crippling Iona in game 2. The other two semifinals decks were a Jund and a mostly white-blue deck. While Jund was common, it certainly didn't dominate.
BDM: Any predictions as to who will do well in your WPN Qualifier?
Ken: Eben Kinkade is our Worldwake Game Day champion. Interestingly enough, Tara Kinkade, his wife, is our Zendikar Game Day champion. We're not sure what to expect from them with Rise of the Eldrazi, but I foresee a possible Kinkade vs. Kinkade finals. Of course we have lots of other players who intend to make sure that they will be in the finals instead!