Last updated on February 23, 2023

Disaster Radius - Illustration by James Paick

Disaster Radius | Illustration by James Paick

A little under two months ago, WotC announced a set of sweeping changes to Magic’s organized play system. The announcement of the announcement was vague, just stating that an announcement on organized play was coming. Nothing else.

That announcement led to a wide variety of speculation on the changes and whether it would be a positive or a negative change. The pandemic crippled Magic’s paper tournament system, with the Grand Prix and Pro Tour being nothing but a distant memory.

The date eventually arrived, and with it came the return of the Pro Tour, a new MTG Arena tournament system that created quarterly Championships, and new paths to both an upcoming paper Pro Tour and the World Championships. To put it simply, the announcement blew expectations out of the water and spread new hope for Magic’s competitive scene through the community.

But the recent Streets of New Capenna Championship, the first major tournament in the new system which will feed the Pro Tour and Worlds, suffered multiple hardships and hiccups, many of which are symptoms of greater problems with the new system. The issues ranged from too many players receiving byes and poor communications between tournament admins and players to rampant disconnects, timeouts, and client crashes that worsened existing problems.

These problems weren’t one-off issues, so they won’t be going away anytime soon. That’s why today I’ll be summarizing what went wrong in the SNC Championship, the issues with the digital focus of Magic’s organized play system, and what can be done to prevent the next set Championship from experiencing the same issues.

The SNC Championship and Its Issues

The SNC Championship was an invite-only tournament that started on Friday May 20, 2022 and lasted through the weekend. It featured 223 players, $450,000 in total prizes, both Historic and Standard gameplay, and participants who played exceptionally well would receive Pro Tour invites. It’s safe to say that the new system for competitive play put a heavier weight on this tournament compared to previous set Championships or Arena Opens.

Round 1: Three Byes

But issues started to pop up before round 1 even started. The tournament began with 223 players, which meant somebody was going to receive a bye.

SNC Championship round 1 byes

But in this case, three players received a bye instead of just one. This doesn’t make too much of a difference. One more player will have a win than they should have. But looking back, this was the first sign of the soon-to-come administrative and system errors that would affect the tournament.

Hall of Famer Invites

As the tournament continued, Hall of Fame players like Paulo Vitor Damo da Rose (PVDDR) spoke out about how their Pro Tour invites were revoked for trying to qualify through the tournament. Members of the Hall of Fame receive invites to a regional Championship and Pro Tour once per season.

But a new rule states that Hall of Famers’ free invites are revoked if those players attempt to qualify for those tournaments. So, in the case of the SNC championship, PVDDR had his Pro Tour invite revoked for playing in a tournament that would qualify him for it—one he was invited to.

Server Issues

Things continued to get worse as the tournament progressed. More and more players spoke out about rampant disconnects, crashes, and timeouts with each round. Fable of the Mirror-Breaker in particular was causing frequent and consistent crashes when played.

Since the tournament was exclusively held online, each player had a clock which continued to run down if their game crashed or the client timed out. It’s not always apparent when your client times out or if your opponent is just thinking, which means players didn’t even know when their client was disconnected. This also meant that rounds couldn’t draw after going to turns, which inevitably led to some players playing to win by timing their opponent out instead of pushing for a normal win.

Put It All Together

While none of these issues are particularly damning on their own, the collection of them all together at one 3-day event means you can’t help but notice how poor of a tournament is being run.

This isn’t some local store event where things like this happen and we can blame the Companion app. This is the set Championship where winners will be going to the World Championships. It has to be run well.

Greater Issues with Online Play

Unequal Invites

The fact that Hall of Famers can’t play in certain high-level events without losing their free invite to the Pro Tour is somewhat counterintuitive. The current rule system almost pushes you out once you reach such a high level of status and play in the Magic community, handicapping you if you manage to stay in.

And if you’re not at the Hall of Fame level (which virtually everyone isn’t), you’re still better off not being a member of the MPL or Rivals League if you’re looking to qualify for the World Championship. Only five spots were reserved for current MPL or Rivals players for the 2022 Magic World Championship, compared to the eight spots set aside for non MPL/Rivals. This actively makes being a top-level competitor in the previous year a handicap if being the World Champion is your goal. Which it is for most players since Worlds is the ultimate tournament.

PVDDR mentioned this in his tweet on May 22, 2022, pointing out that you could have 81 Qualifier Points and not be invited to Worlds, while somebody with 57 points could be. While some may argue that this is to make sure the next generation of players has access to the higher levels of Magic, I’m not so convinced that the World Championship is where tournament runs should be subsidized. If anything, the set Championships or other Qualifiers should be the recipient of that.

Poor Communication

And as if systematic disadvantages weren’t enough, poor admin communication at the SNC Championships and previous tournaments resulted in some players failing to qualify for Worlds thanks to byes being given out to certain players.

In the case of Percsalert, who experienced some MTG Arena client issues and had to go through admins to restart the game and try to correct things, admins assured him that awarding both players a win wouldn’t affect his race to qualify for the World Championships. In the end he ended up losing a tiebreaker to the person he beat who received the bye a few months prior.

A similar situation happened with another player, Tristan Wylde-LaRue, who ran into the same tournament admin. He was awarded a match loss and nearly prevented his Worlds qualification in the end.

MTG Arena’s Lack of Optimization

These issues are present because MTG Arena isn’t prepared to host such large scale and important tournaments. There are too many points of failure to be considered the best platform for organized play, like the lack of in-client matching, the off-client communication, and the reliance on screenshots and recordings to determine who deserves a win.

MTGO is already capable of doing this with far fewer issues, so why are we using MTG Arena?

Moving Forward

With everything that happened at the SNC Championship and previous Worlds-qualifying tournaments, it’s safe to say that the current state of online competitive play is unacceptable. Outrageous admin decisions, frequent crashes that make the game client incredibly inconsistent, and an overall tournament system that incentivizes not being at the higher levels of play are all fixable problems. A lot of players, myself included, hoped that the new organized play system would finally rid the game of the weird rulings, lack of support to seasoned professionals, and that it would put more of an emphasis on, well, playing Magic.

MTG Arena vs. Magic Online

I see the overarching problem as the MTG Arena client not being ready to support large (and important) tournaments. The challenge system in the client isn’t exactly what you’d call “intuitive.” It has multiple modes that confuse first-time users, and the best way to make up for crashes or errors is to restart the game and have the player who lost game 1 concede immediately.

Online play has always been somewhat important in feeding Worlds, even via MTGO. The difference is that Magic Online has built-in tournament support and ways to effectively regulate matches and time. Arena needs outside resources like MTGMelee and Discord to effectively function. These secondary tools create openings for issues with communication and make it difficult to correct otherwise simple issues like a disconnect.

If Wizards is dead set on using MTG Arena, whether it’s because it’s “the client of the future” or just because they want to promote Historic more, then the client needs to be ready to support that. A built-in tournament system that can automatically handle standings, track players’ time, and track communication would solve nearly every problem that popped up at the SNC Championship.

World Championship Qualification

As for Hall of Fame players having a more difficult time getting to the World Championship, I don’t think that this is the right place to implement such a system. I agree with Reid Duke that it’s best that the next generation of Magic players get their chance in the spotlight, but that spotlight should be Qualifier events and set Championships.

Worlds is meant to be the best of the best who’ve overcome numerous challenges and consistently proved that they deserve to be in the top 32. Having players with 40% fewer wins than non-qualifying MPL players enter that top 32 turns Worlds into just another high-level event.

Wrap Up

Finale of Devastation - Illustration by Bayard Wu

Finale of Devastation | Illustration by Bayard Wu

I think it’s important to remember that we’re still vastly ahead of where we were with competitive play three months ago. There’s a Pro Tour with plenty of opportunities to qualify, there’s more accessibility to events with online Championships, paper is coming back more and more, and Magic is at its most popular year yet.

The current state of online events, particularly higher-level invite-only ones, isn’t acceptable for the long term. MTG Arena is a skeleton of a tournament client and needs new systems that don’t rely on third-party programs and websites. Maybe if some of the focus on Alchemy and adding new digital-only formats was temporarily redirected to implementing a tournament system in the client, then the SNC Championship would’ve run smother, better players wouldn’t have lost matches to crashes, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the community.

What do you think of the organized play system and the SNC Championship? Do you think the complications with online play are a worthy trade for the newer organized play system and the return of the Pro Tour? Should we even have to make that trade? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments or over in the official Draftsim Discord. And while it might not help with the client's tournament-related problems, Arena Tutor can at least help you hone your MTG skills in preparation for the next event.

Until next time, stay safe and stay healthy!

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