Magic: The Distancing

During the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March, Wizards of the Coast announced sweeping structural changes to organized Magic play, including the cancelation of April’s Players Tour Finals and the May 2020 Mythic Invitational. At the same time, Wizards of the Coast partner Channel Fireball Events announced the cessation of Magic Fests through Mid-May. Channel Fireball Events announced Magic Fest Online as a replacement, but by the time mid-May came about, unconfirmed rumours began circling on social media that Channel Fireball Events was in dissolution, and all future Magic Fests would be canceled. The future of competitive paper Magic in 2020 was dead in the water.

With paper Magic: The Gathering relegated to kitchen tables and webcams, Wizards of the Coast and its partners made efforts to shift the focus of competitive play completely to Arena. Wizards of the Coast announced the Magic Online Super Qualifiers on March 20, which would give MTGO players an opportunity to compete for a spot on the Players Tour. At this time, Wizards of the Coast provided a road map for competitive play outlining how previously canceled Players Tour events and upcoming events like Mythic Invitational Core Set 2021 would be moved to Arena. They also announced a new event called the “2020 Season Grand Finals” and would feature the Top 16 from the Players Tour Finals and Mythic Invitational vying for a $250,000 prize pool.

On May 24, Wizards of the Coast banned Grand Prix Austin champion Austin Bursavich for a Twitter thread he posted on May 13 revealing many of those upcoming changes to competitive play before they were officially announced.

“Bursavich made the tweets because he claims the members of the MPL and Rivals were already alerted of the information coming in the announcement roughly five days prior to his posting,” said Nick Miller of Star City Games. “Bursavich wanted to balance the playing field, pointing out the head start the MPL and Rivals members got by knowing the format and structure of the Players Tour events in mid-June, weeks before everyone else.”

The ban proved controversial among fans and pros, drawing support for Bursavich from many corners, including 2015 World Champion Seth Manfield. Bursavich appealed the suspension, but as of this writing the appeal has not been addressed.

“Magic esports was already in an unstable phase to start 2020 before the arrival of a global pandemic,” said Hipsters of the Coast‘s David McCoy. “And now that COVID-19 will be with us for a while, Magic esports has entered a period of unpredictable flux. The 2020 partial season is in ruins and the 2020-21 season, of which we knew very little about other than the start and end dates, appears to have changed dramatically.”

McCoy saw some upside to the shift toward online play for all top-level competitive events, especially for players outside of North America. “The (hopefully temporary) death of tabletop Magic and the rise of MTG Arena to take its place leaves professional Magic in a strange place. MTG Arena makes professional Magic much more accessible. Asian and (especially) Latin American players have always had a paucity of local events and have been forced to travel much farther distances to get to North America and Europe, where the vast majority of events in-person are held. Tournaments on MTG Arena don’t require travel, thus greatly reducing the cost for those players to attend.”

However, Wizards of the Coast came under fire for these decisions when it was revealed that players were not allowed to defer their invite to a later date. This was a disappointment to competitors like Morten Iversen, a longtime Danish player who qualified for his first Pro Tour earlier this year. In an open letter to Wizards of the Coast, Iversen lays out the emotional significance of being a Magic player and what the Players Tour means to the community.

Above: Wizards of the Coast had to make some significant changes to Magic: The Gathering during the pandemic.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Nobody could have predicted the dramatic shift in behaviour and social isolation required in 2020, McCoy continued, likening Wizard of the Coast’s attempts “to cope with the fallout from COVID-19 and is akin to taking a mulligan on the 2020 schedule.” McCoy pointed out the negative reaction to these changes from the professional Magic community, but concluded that there were no perfect solution to the dramatic upheavals brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an open letter to the Magic community, pro Magic player Eric Froehlich pleaded for the community to understand the difficulty of the situation and to understand how the participants in the Magic Pro League—a Wizards of the Coast-sponsored competitive league consisting of the best players in the world—were constantly working together to improve organized play so that it benefited as many players as possible.

“The truth is that when there are budget cuts or when changes happen that are bad for the players, it’s often for reasons so far out of the hands of OP,” described Froehlich.

“All of us want and need the same things,” he continued. “Whether in the league, outside of the league with aspirations to get in, completely uninterested in playing competitive but enjoy watching coverage, and Wizards want and need Magic to be successful. We want there to be a dream worth chasing with a clear path to get there. We want amazing competitions to watch and enjoy, to get to compete in if we’re lucky, but to at least get to dream about.”

On May 29, Elain Chase, VP Esports at Wizards of the Coast, released a statement officially scheduled Players Tour, Players Tour Final, and Mythic Invitational events to Arena. Beginning with the Zendikar Rising expansion set (fall 2020), Chase explained that organized play would shift “to set-based competitive seasons for the first time ever.” Chase also announced the cancellation of “all outstanding 2020 in-person high-level Magic events including MagicFests,” confirming the social media rumours from earlier in the month.

“We realize this isn’t what anyone wants,” Chase continued. “Most of us have forged friendships through the camaraderie of competition in far-flung places around the globe. Late nights in hotel lobbies, when players who had worked so hard for so long earned hard-won success, and tears and comforting when the bad beats hit. Hugs and high-fives and debates over the best way to roll to see who got to choose to play or draw. The nervous excitement before opening that first draft pack. And countless other small moments that we all share and treasure.

“Those thoughts will be at the forefront of our minds as we think about the future of tabletop play. But while the world rebuilds face-to-face gatherings, Magic competitive play isn’t going to wait; it’s going to continue online and from home. We change, we adapt, and we play on.”