One of the things being discussed lately is the current system for determining tiebreakers, and to a greater extent, over byes themselves. For those who are unaware, the current system for Grand Prix works this way.
- Have 1300 Planeswalker Points in this or the previous year : You get 1 bye (i.e. you start competing in round 2 with a record of 1-0)
- Have 2250 Planeswalker Points in this or the previous year, won a Grand Prix Trial, or are a Bronze or Silver level Pro : You get 2 byes
- Are a Gold or Platinum level Pro, or are enshrined in the Magic Hall of Fame : You get 3 byes.
Hall of Famers and high level pros like Jon Finkel, Brad Nelson, Ben Stark, and others have joined the discussion, with opinions ranging from support, to disdain, to the veritable shoulder shrug from Paul Rietzl.
Byes are a way to redistribute equity to pros. Stop awarding them, pros might go to slightly fewer gps, I certainly would. Not a huge deal.
— Paul Rietzl (@paulrietzl) September 1, 2017
This topic has plainly struck a chord in the Magic community. When you have professionals who rely on their byes to help them get closer to earning a living, decrying the system as unfair and broken, there may be something to examine. In what ways is the current system flawed or even broken? What are the options to make the system more fair for all players? I would argue that there are two issues vying for attention here. One is a real problem, while one is smoke and mirrors. I’ll explain.
The Non Issue: Having Byes Is An Unfair Advantage
Yes… and no. It’s easy to look at someone with 2 byes, another with 0 byes, and come to the conclusion that the first person has an unfair advantage over the second. In a vacuum you can argue that, but Magic d0esn’t exist in a vacuum, and as Riley keenly observes, “..it’s difficult[…]to do anything in a vacuum apart from getting dirty and damaged“. Byes are earned through time spent testing, traveling, and winning. They’re earned by professionals who dedicate huge amounts of hours testing their final sideboard slots for the Pro Tour. They are earned by people who play in a Grand Prix, scrub out at 2-4, and get back in the car the next week for another 10 hour drive to try again. They are earned by people who take a vacation day from work to arrive on Friday so they can win a Grand Prix Trial. Or they’re earned through years of commitment to the game, top PT finishes, and induction into the Hall of Fame. Whether it’s 1 bye or 3, no one can say that they haven’t earned it.
Additionally, byes also provide a highly desirable stepping stone for the aspiring competitive player to reach on their journey towards the Pro Tour. Knowing there are byes to be gained is a massive incentive for those who are in the Preliminary and Regional PTQ grind and haven’t been able to break through to the PT, or even those who have made it before and are trying to get there again. A bye represents so more to the competitor than a free win: it’s more rest, less stress about making day 2, and less chance of running into the random brews that terrorize early rounds of Grand Prixs.
The Real Issue: The Tiebreaker System Is T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E
If the only issue with byes were that the Pros and grinders who have put in hundreds of extra matches get 1-3 wins to start a tournament, then there would be practically no issues. If you don’t play in enough Grand Prix or other events to get byes, you can make up for it by winning extra matches at the Grand Prix you do make it to. You’re trading free weekends, time at home, etc, for the cost of having to win 1-3 extra matches right now. Is it the best system in the world? No, but it rewards players who play and win while allowing those who don’t play as much to still compete.
The issue is that the system doesn’t really allow you to compete with the pros. Not really. Because there are 15 rounds and hundreds/thousands of players in a Grand Prix, Magic needs tiebreakers for people at identical records. The current system uses your opponent’s match win percentage to break ties. When you have 3 byes and your first opponent has a 100% match win percentage, it is literally impossible for other players to keep up, as by definition their opponents have lost when they won.
Here’s the thing: implementing the solution to the tiebreaker problem is EASY. The solution to the tiebreaker issue is simply this:
- Opponents match win % is not counted until round 4.
Boom. Done and done. I’m far from the first person to think of, discuss, or endorse this solution, but it is clearly an effective one. In this way, players who have done the hard work to start 3-0, no matter their byes or lack thereof, can all have much more equality as they compete for the desired 13-2. This entire discussion is framed by the fact that Wizards of the Coast is understandably disincentivized to make this kind of change. Well known players drive Twitch viewership and interest. The stories of first-time Top 8 competitors are inspiring, but given a choice between watching Juza v Manfield or (Insert first-time Top 8 name) vs (ditto), I know which match most people are going to vote for. (Unless it’s a mirror matchup that’s been on all day or some such nonsense.)
It’s a tough problem for WotC, but given the statements from the pros themselves, it might be time to look at making the current Grand Prix tiebreaker system a thing of the past.