Why Magic Pros Are Like Professional Writers, Or: The Great Pro Tour Rapture of 2016

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So Wizards of the Coast made some really big changes to its Pro program, cutting payouts to its top-ranked players. Basically, if you devoted your life to Magic and played really well, getting to the Platinum Level, you could be guaranteed an appearance fee to cover your hotel costs and plane fare to the next big tournament.
Now that appearance fee has been reduced to $250, which won’t even get you from California to Madrid.
(EDIT: Though apparently, the appearance fee is separate from the travel expenses, which are covered.  Doesn’t matter, as I’ll explain shortly.)
And the Pro Tour players are up in arms about this, because even if you’re really good at Magic, you can lose a lot due to randomness that’s out of your control.  The best player in the world can get land-flooded or face his worst matchup four times in a row.  If you’re trying to devote your life to Magic, well, your incentives just dropped like a rock because attending Pro Tour: Madrid may mean losing cash on plane fares, dinner, and hotel stays if you accidentally 2-5 drop.
The question is, does Wizards care if you make money at the Pro Tour?
And I wonder whether Pros face the dilemma that professional writers face – namely, someone’s gonna do it.
Which is to say that professional writers often experience difficulties getting livable payments from publishers because, well, there’s a million writers desperate to see their name in lights, and it almost doesn’t matter what you do to an individual writer because there’s someone surging up behind you to replace you.
Sure, there’s Neil Gaiman and Brandon Sanderson and Margaret Atwood, but me personally?  I’ve basically stopped writing short stories, and yet somehow Asimov’s and Apex have continued to thrive without me.  Because each of those markets gets literally a thousand story submissions a month, and even if I walk away in disgust because you can’t make a living on short stories alone, someone still wants to be in the big lights.
Big lights for very low wattage, moneywise.
Magic Pros who write articles for Magic websites will laugh when I tell them that a good rate for a short story is eight cents a word, or $120 for a 1,500-word flash fiction.  Professional writers would weep if they knew pros’ column rates for Magic websites, where you can write an article a week and consistently sell it.  (HINT: If you’re a big name, more than that.)
And Magic Pros might be even more astounded to hear that up until a couple of years ago, the “professional” short story rate was five cents a word, which basically hadn’t changed since the 1970s.  Inflation kept goin’ up; the short story market stagnated.
Why?  Well, partially because, like the Pro Tour, there’s an upper limit to the audience.  While the people who love sci-fi short stories adore them dearly, there’s not that many of them – at least not compared to music and movies and other entertainments.  Maybe if they sold two hundred thousand copies an issue they would pay a lot more, but right now Analog and Asimov’s – the top-tier magazines – are around 25,000 copies per issue.
But realistically, the pay is also low because people will accept low pay.
I’d say there are a ton of writers out there who’d write for Asimov’s for free – but it’s worse than that.  Yog’s Law states “Money flows towards the writer,” and that got created because desperate writers will actually pay vanity presses thousands of dollars to be published by people who essentially toss their books into the dumpster.
Magazines get literally a thousand submissions a month.  Slush piles are overflowing.  There’s lots of folks involved.  And here’s my personal paradox….
Writing a short story worthy of Asimov’s or Apex or Clarkesworld is really fucking hard, something that requires intense skill and grinding and, yes, also lots of luck, because sometimes the wrong slush editor sees your manuscript and tosses it, or they just bought a similar story last week, or the editor wasn’t in the mood for military fiction that day.
Like Magic, writing has severe variance baked in.
Yet anyone who’s made a Grand Prix Top 8 or gotten published by Asimov’s has a lot of skill.  Maybe they got lucky, yes, but your skill has to be much greater than your luck to win past those odds.  Everyone at the top is super-talented.
And yet…
My non-egotistic part of me has to admit that if every writer I knew got caught up in the rapture – and I know a lot of writers, including most notably me – the quality of writing in short story magazines wouldn’t suffer all that much, because someone nearly as good would fill their place.
Oh, we’d lose something.  No question.  Unique voices would be silenced when they vanished.  Certain literary greats would never be replaced specifically.  I’d miss a lot of the people I loved reading.
But remember when I said “it almost doesn’t matter what you do to an individual writer because there’s someone surging up behind you to replace you”?
With so many people pressing in, desperate to live the dream of being a writer, other unique voices would swell to fill the gap.  And in a few years you’d have some people mourning The Great Writer-Rapture of 2016, but there’d still be a lot of good literature out there because the folks who’d stepped in would have improved considerably.
Maybe it wouldn’t be as good as it had been, but it’d still be okay for most people.  And it would arguably be better in some ways.
And as it stands, people do stop writing short stories, because they figure out that novels are greater and more consistent pay, or they can’t hack novels and can’t justify spending hours on what’s essentially a loss-leader hobby, and we lose writers all the time thanks to this short pay scale and yet the river keeps on flowing.
So when I hear about pros hating this new tier structure, I wonder how much cash specifically a Big-Name Pro generates.  Yes, Pros sell singles by creating exciting new decks and outlining strategies – but like short story writing, if they stopped, would no one else step up to take their place?  Wouldn’t someone else create a cool new deck to showcase the latest set – maybe someone not quite as good, but still good enough to achieve victory at the PTQ?
Is this the Great Pro Tour Rapture of 2016?
Yeah, part of Wizards’ appeal is The Dream Of Going Infinite, but I wonder how much the PTQ-circuit guys really are invested in the cash.  I mean, they like the cash, just like we writers like getting a hefty check for our efforts.  (Seriously, man, buy my books.)  We’re incentivized by cash, to a large extent.  And yet…
Writing/Pro Tour Magic isn’t great or consistent money, and it’s not likely to be great or consistent money.  Yet people do it anyway because they want to be the best, they want to hold that trophy, and so if you’re a business then how much cash do you want to dump into a revenue stream that’s largely based on dreams and not actual payout?
And it’s not to say that the businesses are greedy jerks – they too often got into this crazy biz because of the love, and they want to see great Magic/writing, and they’ve made friends of Magic Pros/writers, and while they may acknowledge the Great Rapture they don’t want to cause it.  There’s often not as much money churning around in the hopper as people believe.
But even if there was, how much money do they want to give away to things that operate on axes independent of the dream?
And yes, I know that the pros will be like “Platinum is the dream!” – and while I’m not as in touch with the average PTQ grinders as I used to be, I wonder whether most of the low-level guys (who, remember, buy all of these cards the Pros supposedly generate demand for) are incentivized by living on the gravy train or are just desperate to get on the Pro Tour in general.
In other words, Platinum’s a severe incentive to the guys at the top already.  But how much of a goad is Platinum to the duder who’s considers coming in 15th in the Columbus PTQ a real accomplishment?  Is he really going, “Wow, I’ll road trip to three more PTQs this season because hey, there’s $2,750 more in it for me if I somehow get qualified and then top 16 the next several Pro Tours?”
I honestly don’t know.  I could be wrong.  Maybe they are largely incentivized by that, but I suspect mostly the dream is get on the Tour and see if I can be like $PRO_TOUR_CELEBRITY.
The terrifying thing is that, just like the short story writers I fanboy over, it may be that $PRO_TOUR_CELEBRITY may be an interchangeable thing.  Sure, it sucks if a specific PT stanchion goes away, but…
Someone else will Top 8 for a while, and they’ll become the New Celebrity.
And remember: the celebrity himself doesn’t move the cards, it’s all the people following the celebrity.  As long as someone’s making PTQ grinders crack open packs like Veruca Salt to get their hands on $NEW_HOT_CARD, how much does it honestly matter to Wizards who that someone is?
And what I see short story writers doing is going Okay, the money’s erratic and shit to boot, what can we do to leverage our  popularity?  And next thing you’ll see writers doing Patreon and Kickstarter and self-publishing and all sorts of things to supplement a sucky income…
Just like you see Pro Magic players experimenting with streaming incomes and endorsements and writing for Magic sites.
Which is not to say that this Platinum reduction doesn’t suck balls.  It does, for those affected by it.  Nor am I saying it’s a good thing.  But I am questioning whether the storyline of PROS ARE WHAT DRIVES MAGIC is as true as Pros think it is, because the truth may well be that Pros do drive Magic but Magic will always have Pros as long as the game itself is interesting, and though Wizards has shit the bed on a regular basis they’ve almost always improved the quality of their cards and their metagame.
I could be wrong on any or all of these accounts.  I suspect some of my writer-friends will be outraged because the Great Writer Rapture would devastate Fiction As We Knew It and how dare you say we’re replaceable I know I’m not, and some of my Pro Friends will tell me But Ferrett, you haven’t considered these ways in which pros help create the PTQ circuit for Wizards, and they’ll probably all have good points.
But both the Pro Tour and short story markets have endured a lot of churn over the past decade.  People go, new people fill their place.  And I wonder if that’s due to so many people wanting to do this thing that they don’t need that much incentive at the lower levels – and by the time you get to the top-tier levels and money starts becoming more critical than the dream you’ve already largely accomplished, the people in charge don’t necessarily have to satisfy you.
They just have to satisfy the people with the dreams.
And I don’t know how to fix that market imbalance.  I really don’t.

3 Comments

  1. KiRuR
    Apr 25, 2016

    You are absolutely correct and I am glad someone has the BALLS to say it. Great article!

  2. PDV
    Apr 26, 2016

    I think we see a drop (not huge, but noticeable) in the level of competition, because there are a bunch of people who can’t justify making this their second job anymore, when even if they do well they can’t make it pay out more than they put in.
    Also, the serious outrage is to ‘effective immediately’. If there was a year’s notice, then it would be disappointing but not horrible.

  3. Matunos
    Apr 26, 2016

    You’re really missing the point of what all the outrage is about– and you’re incorrect to say it’s just the pros that are up in arms about it, unless you think that about 30 platinum pros somehow control the Magic corners of social media.
    What people are most upset about is that they announced these changes effective 3/4 of the way into this season, significantly dropping the value of the pro points that the players have been grinding for. They pulled the rug out from under these players, who already spent time and effort (and money) and now won’t receive the benefits next season that were promised them.
    We can debate in the abstract the merits of greater tournament prize pools versus guaranteed appearance fees, but please understand that’s not what the community is currently raging about.

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  1. PROTRADER: #PTSOI, Magic’s Red Wedding | Blog.MTGPrice.com - […] on the changes Monday morning and is absolutely worth a read. There’s also Jon Finkel’s, and The Ferret’s. These…

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