Why Modern and PTFRF Were a Success

We recently had a Modern-format Pro Tour (Pro Tour Fate Reforged). There are some PTs where I don’t watch much, and some where I watch a lot. This one was somewhere in between. I watched a few rounds on Friday, a little on Saturday, and about half of the Sunday coverage.

I liked it. Modern, that is—I liked watching Modern on camera.

I don’t play a lot of Modern, so that’s not the reason why, and while Ian Duke was a nice addition to the coverage team, I mostly didn’t notice the coverage all that much in either a positive or negative ways that weren’t the norm (e.g., LSV in the booth is always positive, but that wasn’t new because he’s always great). No, what I mean is, I liked watching the actual games of Modern being played out. (FRF is also a pretty good limited format to watch, and the Zvi Moshowitz vs. Martin Muller match was just awesome, as in literally a thing of awe.)

So, who cares that I liked it? Well, I think that my liking it actually means something—more on that in a bit. First, some context. WotC announced that they were no longer going to have a Modern PT, and there was a huge backlash, and so we got a Modern PT back. Hooray, right?

Apparently not. Numerous prominent pros (such as, but surely not limited to, PV, Brian Kibler, and Ari Lax) have been on record on Twitter and/or via articles that they don’t like Modern as a format. This is articulated pretty well in PV’s latest article. For expository purposes, I’m going to paraphrase him with the full acknowledgment that I’m glossing over many important details. Basically, the argument goes that many Pro players don’t like the current Modern because there’s only one “fair” deck (Abzan) that’s got a good chance against the whole field. There are too many basically “unfair” linear aggro/combo decks that are easy to hate out from the sideboard, so it basically comes down to whether or not you draw your sideboard silver bullet or not. Whether this happens is not a function of skill, so it’s bad—or at least, bad as a PT format.

Matt Sperling has a rebuttal which essentially argues that the format is as healthy as a non-rotating format can be expected to be. It’s not really broken according to his criteria for broken (which are well-considered—go read it if you haven’t), so don’t fix it.

As far as I’m concerned, they both have solid arguments. I think PV is right that a lot of Pros are going to dislike any format where there are matchups that are essentially unwinnable based on deck choice and/or sideboard configuration. I also think Sperling is right that this problem is probably intrinsic to any non-rotating format because of simple combinatorics. Furthermore, it’s actually more contained in Modern than it could be. So where does that leave us? Well, I think the two of them can argue on that axis forever without either one of them being fundamentally wrong, so I’m not sure how productive that is in the long run.

I want to take this issue on from another angle, though I’m going to guess it’s one that some, maybe many, Pros won’t like much.

I think PTFRF and the Modern format was a success. Not, perhaps, for some of the established Pros, but it was successful in achieving the primary goals that WotC is actually trying to accomplish. So what is the Pro Tour trying to do? Indeed, it’s surely multiple things, and while I’d guess “make the Pro players happy” is actually one of the things on that list, it isn’t at the top of it.

The Pro Tour costs WotC a fair amount of money. Prize pool, airfare for players and judges, rental of the space, logistics, coverage and lots of other things I’m sure I don’t want to know about all cost substantial dollars, and I’m pretty sure the primary function of all those dollars isn’t as a charity for the PT players.

I believe the point of the Pro Tour is to increase WotC’s revenue, and most of that revenue comes from selling cards. (And MTGO, but that’s mostly really selling digital cards). How does the PT sell cards? By getting people excited about the game. For some players, it gives them something to aspire to—they want to be on the PT, and they buy cards to try to get on the Tour. I’m going to guess (though I bet WotC knows with some precision) that’s not a majority of the player base. Me, for example—I have no aspirations to get on the Tour, and I buy a pretty fair number of cards.

So how does a Modern PT help sell cards to people who aren’t trying to get on the Pro Tour itself? Again, I bet there are multiple ways. The most mundane way, but probably a pretty important one from a sales perspective, is that by having a popular non-rotating format, players can convince themselves that the money they spend on cards now is at least something of an investment, because some of the cards will still hold value for Modern. (In some sense this is technically true of Legacy as well, but the numbers there are pretty bad.)

The other way, and the main reason I think WotC spends money on the hours of live coverage, is by creating excitement for the game. Players who are fired up about the game are more likely to play, and thus more likely to want cards. And that’s where I think this PT succeeded. First, the MTG community demanded a Modern PT, and they got it. Hey, WotC listens to us!

More importantly, though, is that I think this version of Modern is actually fun to watch. (See, I said I’d get back to that.) Yes, there are individual cards that hose entire decks, but from the viewer’s perspective, that creates drama. Will the Twin player draw the Blood Moon that wrecks his opponent? Does the Burn player have the Combust that aces Twin? Can the Affinity player deal 20 (or maybe 10 infect) before Creeping Corrosion comes online? Can the Amulet Bloom player go off on turn 2 before that Torpor Orb hits the table? Can the burn deck draw enough gas before it dies to the turn 4 Splinter Twin? Yes, there’s a lot of variance, but if it’s the right kind of variance, it’s fun to watch because it creates drama. (Mana screw and mana flood are mostly not fun to watch.) I think what we had with this Modern PT was the right kind of variance.

I can see why as a Pro player, this would be maddening. You want to play a “fair” deck to reduce variance and give yourself the best opportunity to outplay your opponent, or maybe your build is just a little better than your opponent’s because you’ve been more diligent in testing, and you want that edge to count. You don’t want it to come down entirely to factors that are beyond your ability to control in-game, or at least prepare for in deckbuilding. I suspect a lot of Pros miss Birthing Pod because it is an outstanding variance reducer. (I suspect this is the same underlying logic that has led several Pros to say they are no longer interested in limited GPs because they have no control over their sealed pool.)

But what’s good for the some individual Pro players is not the same as what’s good for the game, or even good for the PT from WotC’s perspective. My son and I enjoyed the coverage, and we’re excited to play Modern. I think that’s what WotC wants, and so I think this PT, and this Modern format, are actually successful.

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