For many, the New Year is oftentimes a period of reflection, both on the events of the past year and plans for the one to come. In essence, a period of looking at what went well in the prior year and what could be made better for the coming one.
This year, I hope that certain conference rooms in Bellevue, Washington are pretty reflective in nature. We’re around a third of the way through what has, thus far, been a disorganized and disjointed transition season for Play! Pokémon. In the last few months, the landscape has changed dramatically for the Pokémon TCG circuit, and while some had more foreknowledge of the coming conversion than others, I believe all would agree that the shifts to bi/tri-weekly Regionals and League Cups have left something to be desired. The drama that has unfolded over the last few months begs the question:
What exactly went wrong with the implementation this season — and how can it be improved for the future?
Obviously, that’s an enormously broad question; one that cannot be tackled simplistically or succinctly. To do so would be foolish, and I’m not going to try. Instead, today, I’d like to look at the second most prestigious events of the year: Regional Championships.
With five events in the books, I think most would agree that the 2017 North American Regionals circuit has been a rough ride at times. Fortunately, there has been a recent trend toward the positive — San Jose was mostly a well-run event, prizing is finally showing signs of progressing to players’ pockets, and minors will no longer be receiving the fee-laden American Express Travel Certificates as payout — but few attendees of some of the year’s worst events will forget their experiences anytime soon.
Today, I’m going to walk through Regionals and potential options for improving them in the future. I firmly believe this current model of 14–17-hour Day 1s followed by 8am Day 2 starts is bad for players, bad for staff, and bad for event integrity. I’d like to propose a few alternatives today, while exploring the various issues facing the construction of a quality event circuit. It’s easy to wish for immortal judging and flawless execution, but since people are fallible, I believe putting all participants in an event — staff, judges, and players alike — in a position to succeed should be our ultimate goal.
- Well Traveled, Good Intentions
- Why The Current Structure Fails
- Some Solutions
Well Traveled, Good Intentions
If only because I’m writing this for a different audience than my normal pieces, I’d like to start with a brief overview of my background in the game: succinctly, over the last six and a half years, I’ve traveled through the better part of 20 states playing this game. Through an abundance of City Championships and a lot of local League Challenges, it’s come to my attention that I had the “distinction” of playing the most Pokémon of any North American Masters last year. Whatever you make of that — if nothing else, I argue I’ve seen the game played in a lot of different places over a lot of time.
Moreover, in more recent years, I’ve spent some time on the other side of the game as well. I’ve worn the familiar red and black-striped polo for a few City Championships and League Challenges over the years, and have served in a few different roles at various Regional Championship events over the years as well. I don’t claim to be familiar with the nitty-gritty of the judging side of things in the way that the regulars are, but I add this detail in hopes that it dispels the appearance of a player screaming about things beyond their understanding — I don’t claim omniscience, but hope to lend a semblance of perspective. Even then, I don’t have all the answers: my goal today is to spark discussion.
I want to make something very readily apparent and clear off the top. This game wouldn’t be anywhere without the thousands of volunteer (or all-but-volunteer) hours put into it over the years by a great many people, and it certainly wouldn’t be moving forward without the continuing efforts of so many. This piece serves not as a criticism of any of them, only an examination of what’s happened and a discussion of potential alternatives for the future. I only name happenings of specific events because it’s the the only way to avoid arguing against a ghost; certainly not because I have anything against the individuals involved in them.
With that out of the way, the first topic I’d first like to briefly examine the pure facts surrounding this year’s Regionals before analyzing the apparent repercussions of some of the shifts made.
The following is some simple numerical- and time-related data I’ll refer back to frequently:
During the 2015/2016 Pokémon Organized Play Season, a total of 20 Regional Championships occurred over 10 weekends in geographic North America. This season, that number was reduced to 16 (British Columbia, Alberta, New England, and the Kansas City Metropolitan Area events eliminated), each on a unique date.
In 2015/2016, the full Autumn Regionals schedule was known by July 8th, 2015, but announced on Pokémon.com on August 28th, 2015. 2016/2017 saw the full October–November schedule known to players unofficially by July 22nd, and confirmed by Pokémon in early September.
The following charts display comparative attendance for Regionals from last season, this season, and the net change in attendance.
Where possible, data was drawn from my notes on announced event attendance. Where my notes were incomplete or non-existent, I consulted the Pokémon.com event uploads. Due to variance in parental setup of minors’ Pokémon Trainer Club accounts, these Junior/Senior numbers may slightly vary from actual attendances.
One note on the preceding data: all Regionals thus far have traditionally been Autumn events. Historically, aggregate attendance has declined noticeably from Autumn to Winter to Spring. Orlando may or may not partially be the beneficiary of moving earlier in the season; further analysis will be necessary later, once more data is available from other events that moved outside their traditional season.
In addition, briefly, to alleviate some ambiguity and wordiness further in the piece, I’d like to establish standard definitions for some inherently unclear terms:
> Day 2 Cut: Any form of additional Swiss rounds played by a lesser number of players, usually determined by a power of two or match point cutoff.
> Match point diversification: The concept of players being relatively evenly spread across various levels of match points. One common criticism of no-tie formats were the X-2 bubbles that plagued most top cuts; ties reduce the relevance of tiebreakers by separating more players from each other based on match points. This is a common argument in favor of the inclusion of ties in the tournament structure.
> Round time: The period of time elapsing between the start of one round and the start of the following round. This encompasses the 50+3 time limit of each round and all TOM/overhead operations involved in starting the following round.
> Tie rate: The number of matches in a given rounding ending in a draw. The most concrete data available in Pokémon suggests a 17% rate in Masters (from 2014). I, however, in calculating Day 2 and Top Cut cutoffs, observed rates anywhere from 14% to 22% at various Regional-and-up events over the last few years.
> “Top” Cut: The stage of a tournament including single-elimination finals.
> Variants/variance: Elements of a tournament that impact a player’s success. This encompasses everything from a player’s pairings (and the decks they play against) to a Round 1 opponent’s final record (win percentage) to an opening hand of six Energy. Generally, players aim to minimize variance, and I’ll later argue that a tournament structure should play a role in that as well.
> > Controllable (or “internal”) elements of variance: These are within a player’s locus of control. This mostly includes pre-tournament things, especially deck composition and choice, but also can manifest in certain in-game decision-making processes. For example, thinning one’s deck helps protect against poor Ns to 1.
> > Uncontrollable (or “external”) elements of variance: These are completely outside a player’s control. The critical example is, especially in the modern era of relatively straightforward matchups, randomized Swiss pairings.
> > Note: Some things, like an opponent’s in-game actions, can arguably fall under both categories.
Why The Current Structure Fails
If you think everything is currently fine and dandy, I’d love to hear from you. I don’t think many people currently think that way, though, so I’m here today. This section of the article will discuss and outline some of the problems inherent in the tournament structure. I’ll then discuss what I believe a model tournament ought to achieve and some potential ways of getting there.
Point 1: Long Days
“We feel strongly that a 14-15 hour tournament day is not fun for most participants.”
—Dave Schwimmer, Organized Play Manager, on the topic of 50+3.
I could not agree more with this sentiment. Even sticking with just this season, though, a disconcerting pattern emerges. Generous estimates would place player involvement in Phoenix at around 15 hours, Orlando at 13, Philadelphia at 15, Fort Wayne at 14, and San Jose at 13. Even Orlando, which was brilliantly run, falls just ahead of what TPCi evidently considers “too long.” Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best-intended efforts, a pattern of late-night events isn’t news to anyone that’s been playing Pokémon for awhile. Let’s do some math real quick:
Under the current model of tournament operation, a best-case scenario, where round time is around 70 minutes, a 9:30am start time (allowing time for check-in and a players meeting, though we’ll discuss those later), a nine-round tournament without a lunch break will wrap up around 8:00pm. I’m not sure about anyone else, but in my view, even that finish isn’t an especially spectacular outcome for an event with no food breaks. If we allow an hour for lunch, as many organizers have done, we end up closer to 9:00pm.
When considering that an average staff member arrives, at the latest, half an hour before registration opens at 8:00 and leaves no sooner than standings’ posting, the people responsible for floor operation of the event are working 14-hour days for cardboard. This is a major issue in the current tournament structure.
Furthermore, I contend that 70 minutes isn’t a viable expectation for round time anyway. Even Jimmy Ballard, who boasts one of the best Regional events of the year on an annual basis, isn’t that aggressive. Outside of Madison, I can’t recall a 300+ Masters attendee event that ended before 10pm. Jimmy’s 75-minute schedule lands around 9pm as well. For most events, 75 minutes isn’t even a reality.
In recent events, I’ve clocked the average round time at somewhere more approaching 80 minutes, and most notably, there’s a disconcerting trend: later rounds take longer. We’ll get more to this later when considering administrative issues in an event, but it’s an important concept to keep in mind.
But Christopher — Dave Schwimmer says rounds took 65–70 minutes in 2013/2014! What gives?
I suspect events that fell short of the Day 2 cutoff, which are inherently easier to run, brought down the average in that season. Edmonton comfortably ran around 60 minutes this past season, but other, large events struggled more. As we’ve seen all events grow over the past few years, and now explode in size this year, I suspect that even TPCi’s computation of average round time has to have risen. In any event, attendees of events that have groaned on into the evening hours will likely agree: something is amiss with event timing.
Point 2: Event Staff Overworked, Underpaid
Often, judges bear the brunt of post-event criticism. Sometimes this criticism is a true case of frivolous prosecution, but, unfortunately, these accusations sometimes have merit. I believe the player-judge relationship has frayed in ways that weren’t imagined only a few short years ago. There are a variety of reasons, one of which I’ll get to later when discussing ties, but exposures like streams have opened new rifts in the community as well.
Why anyone wishes to staff an event in the current environment is a mystery to me: 14–16 hours of high-pressure work on Day 1, followed by a slightly lesser allotment on Day 2 (on minimal sleep, naturally), for cardboard and rubber. All while opening oneself to community-wide criticism that may or may not be valid. In a game full of cliques, an inherently difficult job only becomes worse under the conditions we have today.
I strongly support reforming the tournament structure to make staffs’ lives easier, but also believe some portion of tournament entry fees (which would need to be increased) should be diverted toward staff compensation. Right now, Regionals are a debacle, and with minimal compensation, only the truly brave are willing to put up with the long days. I’m not proposing that anyone’s in it for the money — or that we want people to be in it for the money — but that proper compensation would put an extra air of legitimacy over the position, overall raising quality levels.
Believe me, I understand the argument that failing to criticize poor judging shows passivity, if not contentedness, toward that poor judging. Thousands of dollars are on the line, and it’s time that event staff be put in a position to succeed — by reducing the strenuous nature of Regional events and putting people in positions correspondent to their knowledge. Events cannot improve at large until staff conditions do.
For the remainder of this article, I will work with Dave Schwimmer’s outlined timings from 2014. While I am skeptical of some of their currency, I do believe they represent ideals that ought to be pursued. With that in mind, for projecting conclusion times of various tournament structures, I’m going to work with an 8 minute allowance for the resolution of +3, and an extra 12 minutes for processing time. My belief is that this is, at best, aggressive, but what I’ll be modeling with.
Point 3: Survey Says
A few weeks ago, while thinking about the groundwork for this article, I created the following poll in the Virbank City Facebook group, allowing players to select the most important factor to their enjoyment of a tournament. The results were as follows:
Many players expressed a sentiment that the poll should’ve allowed the selection of more than one option or that these options were largely interrelated and couldn’t be separated. While valid points, I wanted to test a theory of mine: above all else, the player base largely prefers to ensure the competitive integrity of events. The data, by extrapolation, means time-saving measures like retroactive result correction (to avoid repairing the present round) and “rolling-start” 55-minute rounds aren’t something the community largely endorses.
The polling data, while far from scientific, tends to support the idea that players value event integrity above all else as part of their event experience. Notably, the poll likely attracted the attention of the competitive player at a disproportionately high rate compared to that of the player not seeking a Worlds invitation.
And, critically, more than ever, events have to be about selling an experience. The days of pitiful prizes and players simply seeking points are over. In their stead have emerged Day 2s featuring small percentages of the field and high-stakes final matches. The influx of new players demonstrates the allure of Pokémon’s new prizing structure, but many of these players are used to events of MTG’s quality — 10pm conclusions wouldn’t exactly be acceptable.
Things like side events and prize walls are a tremendous step in the right direction, and it’d be great to see TPCi begin supporting such ventures with various promotional items (ideally, not things like more playmats). But even so, it appears only a minority of the community is concerned about that. With so many players failing to achieve concrete progress in the tournament, keeping players interested in attending events will rely more and more on a positive event experience. Organizers like the Krekeler/Curry team and Jimmy Ballard are well ahead of that curve, and it’s not a coincidence in my mind that they are some of the most unanimously praised in the game. I believe we’re getting there in this respect, but streamlining the tournament process will be a key step to arrival.
Point 4: All Tied Up
For those singularly focused on winning, there’s less hope on the present horizon. We’ve now played 50+3 for years, and while the efforts of Jeff Brower, Carlos Pero, and others on the tournament operations side have made events more bearable, it’s still too often that events fall flat. 50+3, and the ties currently married to it, have a problem.
It is widely stated that TPCi’s intended purpose with Best of 3 is not to play three games, but to provide as insurance against a bad one. The attitude is more or less that if a match deserves a win, it should be by a decided enough margin that a player can 2-0 or 2-1 in that amount of time. Otherwise, it was evenly enough matched to warrant a tie.
Similarly, the purpose of ties is a bit strange: to speed tournament progression.
Let’s address ties as a method to speed tournament progression first. At a fundamental level, it’s a good thought. By eliminating Sudden Death (that is, next-Prize-wins) procedure, in theory games should end more quickly. However, it gets iffier in practice. For one thing, even in the eyes of some of the best, the onslaught of match slips created by end-of-round hysterics can have a crippling effect on tournament operation.
Remember what I said earlier about round times getting longer as a tournament progresses? The following is all happening at once, and increasingly so as the day wears on:
- Some, if not most, matches are ending normally.
- Judges are attempting to patrol not only for the normal incidences of slow play, underhanded behavior, etc., but for conversations about tie evasion.
- Players are either desperately/carefully trying to close out games or avoid ties, exacerbating the above dilemma for judges — reducing efficiency of their work, overall tournament progression, and increasing their susceptibility to error.
- Some players do engage in extra-procedural methods of determining a match’s winner. So-called “gentlemen’s agreements” are considered illegal under current rules as a request for concession.
- At some point in an event, someone gets caught doing the above. The judging fallout is usually not expedient.
- Even those not caught often delay the tournament through an awkward “who’s going to sign the slip first?” game.
- Meanwhile, up at the stage, tens of match slips now make their way to the hive at the end of a round.
- … along with tens of drop requests, which are currently a parasite to tournament movement. If you ever wonder what’s taking so long between Rounds 7 or 8 of a tournament, it’s probably not unsafe to look toward the process of dropping players from an event.
Arguably, the influx of slips will happen under any tournament structure. Players will likely utilize their allotted time no matter how much is given. With that said, movement to something like Best of 1 would reduce uniformity in match completion times (instead of most players finishing in the 40–50 minute range it takes to complete two games, more would finish spread across the entire round). The more games played in a round, the more the time of each individual game will regress toward the mean. Based on this principle, I believe Best of 1 has the potential to mitigate (but certainly not eliminate) the end-of-round dilemma we currently face.
Point 5: Integrities at Odds
Aside from the fact that a ton of things are all going on at once, there’s an incumbent issue in the player-judge interaction in the late stages of the tournament. Today’s tournament structure encourages players and judges to be opponents to each’s best interests.
It’s 100% within the best interest of a pair of 5-1-2 players that someone win their match. It’s within a judge’s interest that our 5-1-2 players complete their match in an as quickly and by-the-book manner as possible. These interests all-too-often conflict, which is a serious dilemma posed by the current structure.
A majority of examinations into human personality will tell you that persuading a person to act against his or her own interests is a tall order. The authority of a judge in a Pokémon Trading Card Game tournament, with precious exception, isn’t likely to be enough.
Is it a unique dilemma? No. There will always be scenarios that drive players to act contrary to the rules of the game, and the judges are there to curtail such activity to the extent possible. But, the dilemma of tie-avoidance is uniquely pervasive in its frequency, the social pressures surrounding it, and the unintended consequences it creates (i.e., the movement of the Day 2/Top Cut cutoffs).
A tournament structure that encourages players and judges to act in opposition to each other is inherently unhealthy. To me, this is the number one impetus for change to the current system.
So, while keeping an event timely, we also need to ensure that event integrity is not compromised. This goes back to improving judging conditions, but also to the adoption of a set of best practices. I understand fully why certain elements of the tournament process will not be universally adopted. With that said, I fail to understand any major event that doesn’t utilize a paperless registration system like Carlos Pero’s.
Point 6: Junior & Senior Stagnation
This current year’s system is also having a perplexing non-effect on Junior/Senior attendances. Both changes in attendance are relatively inconsequential. The “traveling” crowd is no longer diluted between events, so it would presumably follow that attendance should be higher. Outside of Philadelphia, though, the opposite has been true more often than not. It seems the establishment of cash prizes has failed to overwhelm the matter of higher entry fees in the minds of casual players’ parents. It remains to be seen whether younger players are simply traveling less than past years or if local players are failing to show up at the same pace as past years. At the end of the year, this question will be somewhat addressable through analysis of Championship Point distribution, but for now, it’s a bit of a mystery.
- Events take too long — even by TPCi’s own standards.
- Staffing conditions are subpar, partially due to event length.
- Overall event experience is of increasing importance.
- Players believe event integrity is very important.
- Best of 3/ties are creating a situation where judges and players naturally oppose each other.
- Junior/Seniors attendance is exhibiting disconcerting stagnation.
One thing I don’t want to lose sight of: there is finally some good news on one front — prizing. Prizes have been buffed for Regionals at most player counts, creating a new incentive for players to want Top 16 over Top 32, Top 64 over Top 128, etc. One under-considered impact Top 64 prizes will have: players will be encouraged to take natural ties later in the tournament rather than risking their personal chance at cash payouts altogether. If we’re going to keeping chugging down this road, decisions like this one are the right direction.
Now that we’ve laid out the problems facing the current tournament structure, what does an ideal structure have in it? I’m glad you asked.
In this section, I’m going to highlight two main aspects of a tournament that can be looked at for improvement and propose solutions for each. Like the rest of this piece, everything is meant to incite discussion, and I look forward to thoughts.
The Day 2 Cut
At heart, one purpose of a tournament is to determine the best player in the room on a given day. For everyone that doesn’t see competitive success on a given weekend, a tournament’s secondary role as a source of entertainment takes on increased importance.
This growing dichotomy in event purpose is something MTG addressed itself when it altered its prize payout and Day 2 cut structures for this tournament season. I believe they put it quite well:
This year, we kicked off a revised, more top-heavy prize payout, and we also changed the cut to Day Two to X-3 when it was previously X-2, meaning a record of six wins (or five wins and three draws) on Day One will get you through to the next day of competition. A number of players and fans have remarked that it doesn’t seem logical to increase the number of participants in a Grand Prix Day Two while limiting the prize payout to 64 players.
First, those two changes are meant to satisfy different audiences. The revised Day Two cut is intended to give more players the opportunity to experience playing on Day Two. For many, making Day Two is an accomplishment by itself. On the other hand, the more top-heavy prize payout is designed for the very competitive players and to acknowledge the fact that being a top finisher at a Grand Prix is a real achievement.
—Helene Bergeot, Director of Organized Play, Wizards of the Coast
I’m not proposing that Pokémon is Magic, nor that there is direct translatability in anything between the two games. However, with that said, I believe this sentiment translates remarkably well and is something Pokémon should consider very carefully in the future. This is the first change for which I’ll advocate: larger Day 2 cuts.
For further context, at most Grand Prix events, a player with a Day 2 starting record of 6-3 has a low chance of making Top 8 anyway. At the most recent Grand Prix in Milwaukee, 8 players started Day 2 with 9-0-0 records — Pokémon hasn’t had that many over the last 3 seasons. Magic advances players that likely can’t even make Top 8 to Day 2. Meanwhile, Pokémon excludes players that most certainly can. To me, no matter what form individual rounds take, this is a systemic issue with the structure. Mathematically, at our current tie rate and with the provision of a 6th round at 800 players, the point at which a 6-3 player cannot make Top 8 is nowhere on our horizon.
This tournament structure artificially removes players that are technically within reach of Top Cut. While I understand that a line needs to be drawn somewhere, I believe Day 2 is a small enough affair as it is that it wouldn’t be too much more of a hit on the efficiency of Day 2 to cut to 6-3.
Short of a 6-3 cut, the bigger crime is that anyone is eliminated from Day 2 on Opponents’ Win Percentage. This one is easy: make 32nd place’s record the cutoff point. Add a few more players; save a lot more drama. I strongly believe that the tournament structure should reduce external variance wherever possible, and the fate of one’s opponents is one prime example of external variance. It has no place in eliminating someone from contention before single elimination.
This obviously isn’t without flaw. The biggest issue I foresee is that it keeps more players in the tournament for a longer period of time. Offhand, this seems as though it could create greater round turnaround time and dilute judge presence on the floor for a greater period of the day. However, I’m not convinced the effects would be as drastic as presented. By keeping more players in tournaments — and limiting the number of drop slips being processed — this may actually speed up tournament progression. Furthermore, at the point in the day where judge presence is especially needed, typically Junior and Senior play has already concluded, meaning reinforcements begin to filter in. I definitely welcome input, of course, on other unforeseen issues this could invite.
One other note, regarding prizing: it’s been suggested by some that Top 64 prizing should instead scale based on Match Point levels, removing the bubble. When asked about this idea, Wizards of the Coast has cited the nature of a multinational operation making such a move impossible — the inferrence is that legal reasons prohibit such an arrangement in some countries. If they can’t finagle it, I don’t see Pokémon doing so.
Of all the reforms I’ll propose today, I believe this one is the easiest to apply and most likely to gain wide support. As I’ve said, tournaments are addressing the needs of different audiences now more than ever. While this diminishes Day 2 as an intrinsic accomplishment, it creates a healthier tournament environment by eliminating Opponents’ Win Percentage’s effects on Day 1, stops artificially eliminating players from Top 8, and creates an opportunity for more players to achieve “success” — something I believe will increase retention rates from tournament to tournament.
Best of 3 … or Not Best of 3?
This debate isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and in a way, everything else hinges on it. Regardless of the Day 2/Top Cut structure, we have to get players qualified for advancement first, and doing that is a contentious matter. Like I’ve said before, I believe the tournament structure’s foremost consideration should be limiting the influence of external variance — factors outside a player’s control.
Adding time onto Best of 3 rounds is likely untenable. 60+3 or straight 60-minute time limits are oft-cited as a potential solution to the problem, but they also drive round times up in a way that can’t really be afforded. I agree with the idea that players will adapt to utilize whatever time they are afforded and believe any gains an extra 10 minutes could provide would be mostly washed out by players adapting to simply have more time to make decisions.
Eliminating +3 is an idea that’s been floated, but I can’t help fearing the reality it would bring about — at least in today’s game. Right now, in a way +3 is a pseudo insurance policy against slow play. Enforcement of slow play is, of course, imprecise and often lacking. I’ve talked about this before in Underground pieces, but the reality is slow play cannot be enforced at every table in the room at the same time. +3 prevents overt gaming of the clock, and for that reason, I believe it’s an invaluable part of the tournament circuit. Similar to ties’ reimplementation with Best of 3, I believe the elimination of +3 would bring about a cascade of unintended consequences that could result in a net wash in time savings — just think of the disputes over slow play that would arise.
If we can’t add time, what options are left? I’ll cover the three most frequently discussed:
Option A: Bo3 with G2/G3 Tiebreakers
This is often the most widely discussed option, but it’s not one I believe would fix very much. In essence, this would be the implementation of single elimination rules to Swiss play. Often called the “4-Prize rule,” in short this means that Game 2 or 3 can be considered “official” when either player has taken four of their six Prize cards.
In theory, this would reduce the number of ties in a tournament. This lessens, but does not eliminate, the drama surrounding ties. An unintended side effect would arise in lessened diversity of match point records — one pro of ties is that they result in many players at varying match point totals, which reduces the need for tiebreakers.
This could accompany the total elimination of ties, but I don’t believe that’s A) likely to happen or B) something we actually want to happen. The argument that ties save time looks a lot more convincing when juxtaposed with games that must have a winner — Sudden Death Game 3s would probably be commonplace enough that round time would bloat beyond palpability. Furthermore, ties do provide benefits like intentional draws (which do save time when managed correctly) and match point diversification, as discussed above.
This system, while reducing the negative side of ties, would likely result in more games being drawn out to their “final” conclusion, which would not help tournament speed at all. Furthermore, a common knock against it relates to alternate win-condition decks. Any variant of the 4-Prize rule favors one of the Game’s 3 win conditions over the other two, which is an awkward thing for tournament rules. Perhaps that sacrifice is worth bringing more matches to actual conclusions, but I’m not convinced. Furthermore, of the options I’ll discuss, I believe this has the least likelihood of implementation because it risks lengthening tournaments while going against TPCi’s vision of Bo3 in the first place.
Option B: Bo3 with One Less Round
This is an interesting idea I saw floated on Virbank when this discussion came up about a month ago. This doesn’t attempt to fix any issue with the tournament structure other than sheer event time. Eight rounds simply takes less time than nine. Additionally, more players will naturally make Day 2 even under the current X-2 or 32 model, and the potential benefits of more Day 2 players have been well covered today.
What’s lost with the 9th round? For one thing, it means you’ll face one less deck on Day 1, meaning each other matchup is “that” much more important. On the flip side, if one less win were required to guarantee Day 2, this wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue. This transforms Day 1 into more of a qualifier than it is right now — somewhat resemblant of Worlds’ structure. The 9th round does, at present, contribute to match-point diversification for Top 8, which could be significant.
With eight Day 1 and five Day 2 rounds and attendance around 600–700, I calculate the Top 8 cutoff would oscillate somewhere between 29–30 points — only a point lower than it is today. By eliminating Round 9 of Day 1, the win % required for Top 8 does go up. More players would be involved in Day 2, but to reach Top 8, it will technically be “harder” without Round 9 on Day 1. A record of 10-3 (77%) or 9-1-3 (80%) would likely be required, where right now 10-3-1 (75%) or 9-1-4 (78%) are typically sufficient. It’s a very small change, but not something I believe should be completely ignored.
Of course, I cannot predict how shifting to an 8-round Day 1 structure might impact players’ approaches to things like late-tournament ties, and projecting Top 8 cutoffs with a variable tie rate is an inexact science. It’s possible the bubble could fall as low as 28, but I wouldn’t expect it. Heading into Day 2, most if not all tournaments would have more than 32 6-2s, so the expansion of Day 2 wouldn’t require anything more than adherence to the current “X-2 or Top 32.”
I’m intrigued by this idea, though I’m concerned that it doesn’t inherently address the issue of ties’ ugly side. Perhaps, the time savings of Swiss minus one round coupled with tiebreaking rules could result in a net more positive experience, but I’m not inclined to head down that wormhole today. I also believe further analysis would be advisable to determine just what impacts the loss of the 9th round could have on match point differentiation for Top 8.
Option C: Return to Bo1
Best of 1. Those who have been around long enough will remember the days of games where a player didn’t so much as take a turn due to actual donks. At Nationals 2012, I went 6-3 in Seniors with an Eelektrik NVI-based toolbox. In my three Swiss losses, I didn’t take a single turn. Turns out Tynamo wasn’t too durable in a format featuring Mewtwo-EX NXD and the old Turn 1 rules.
Best of 3 was somewhat celebrated on its implementation for the elimination of situations like that. Now, games lasting a single turn would only put a player in a serious hole — not hand them a total loss. Then, in November of 2013, with the beginning of the XY-era, the rules eliminated first turn attacks. One of Best of 3’s main selling points vanished. Now, while a player can still draw nothing and be eliminated from a game without doing much of anything, the process is rarely expedient with 180-HP Basics. It’s a valid reason to still have Best of 3, but not nearly as attractive as it once was. Meanwhile, one of the major issues with Best of 1 — donks — has since been banished.
Best of 3 attempts to reduce variance in deck performance. I look at it this way: Best of 3 protects players, largely, from things that are within their own control. Certain decks, like Greninja, have a habit of producing utter trash for hands. Similarly, a poorly built Yveltal list may find itself with clunky hands more often than a well-constructed one. While true randomness prevents “poor deck performance” from being a completely controllable factor, it is one that is infinitely more in a player’s hands than his or her pairings.
The true potential benefit of Best of 1 lies in the ability to play more rounds in a day. The most important factor to success that a player cannot control is his or her opponent.
Round 1 opponent playing your niche auto loss in a room of positive matchups under this current system? Have fun with that 7-1 climb back. By creating more opportunities for players to face different decks, we remove an element of luck from the structure. We shift the primary source of variance in tournament performance from a player’s matchups — something uncontrollable — to deck consistency — something more controllable. An element of skill is carved out and an element of luck is diminished.
The table at right estimates tournament completion times for various round times under a Best of 1 system. How many rounds should we play? Using the numbers outlined earlier, I’m choosing to estimate 30+3 rounds at a 55-minute round time. I believe I’m being overly generous — now that matches would be ending at a more diverse spread of times in the round, I believe the end-of-round overload on TOM operation would be minimized. But, for sake of argument, 55 minutes it is. The table shows the possibilities under a 50-minute assumption, though.
I don’t believe we want to push much beyond a 12-hour day, so I suppose I’d lean toward 10 or 11 rounds. With 10, a 7-3 advance bar for Day 2 makes sense, but 11 is a bit more awkward at 8-3 and I’d want to do more math than this space warrants to examine the potential repercussions.
Of course, the alternative is to simply play 9 Best-of-1 rounds and be done by 7pm. This is certainly a compelling option for those sick of events running through midnight, but 9 Best-of-1 rounds isn’t exactly a compelling way to create a class of Day 2 players either. Perhaps, with a 6-3 cutoff, players would be willing to forgo the “insurance” Best of 3 provides against bad starts. With Best of 1, there’d be less ties, meaning the risk of going X-2-2 instead of X-3 or similar would be significantly lower.
I believe value lies in playing more rounds, but also understand the temptation to cut from overall tournament time. Of those two options, I currently favor heightening Day 1’s round count by some amount over a return to straight 9-round Best of 1. But, either variant of Bo1 would significantly mitigate the negative impact ties currently have on the structure while also allowing for further staggering of match end times, reducing TOM load at the end of a round. For that reason, while the specifics would need to be ironed out, I most favor a return to Best of 1 Swiss for Day 1 of major tournaments. If long days are acceptable, then I believe it’s superior to spend them exposing different players to as many different opponents as possible. If long days are a major evil, then Best of 1 would still eliminate one of the major flaws in the structure: the negative side of ties.
Now, if we return to Best of 1 for Day 1, what does that mean for Day 2? I could see a number of solutions, but one is to make Day 2 a Best of 3 affair. The transaction costs of running Best of 3 collapse significantly when the number of players is reduced, and at that point the field has been sifted enough that TOM’s influence is lessened (there are simply less pairing possibilities in the room; it’s less of a statistical anomaly to be paired to the lone bad matchup in the smaller room).
Players may argue they’d build decks differently for Best of 3 than Best of 1, and that would invite the potential for alternate Day 2 formats back into the equation. The primary problem with Standard Day 1/Expanded Day 2 in the past was the small number of players it realistically affected in each format. Players spent their time on Standard and winged Expanded if they made it. If Day 2 is larger, it creates the potential that more players would need to care about the alternate format, increasing the amount of attention it would garner community-wide.
I’m not going to attempt to jump further down the rabbit hole and suggest a concrete solution for Day 2 under a Best-of-1 Day 1, but I would love to hear discussion of the issue in addition to the other ideas I’ve raised today.
In terms of relevancy, this pales in comparison to the rest of the issues I’ve covered, so I’m going to keep it relatively brief. But, with the advent of major prizing now being decided on opponent’s win percentage, is there a better way to structure Top Cut?
There are two main schools of thought I’d like to look at. The first would eliminate tiebreakers as a method for determining Top Cut’s participants, but instead use them to determine seeding. The other would incentivize players to finish as high in the bracket as possible, limiting intentional draws and potentially reducing the effects of the bubble on the bottom of the bracket.
The first works like this: simply, whatever 8th’s record, all players of that record make Top Cut. Then, as many players as necessary are paired in “play-in” matches that bring Top Cut down to eight players. The losers of these play-in matches end up in places 9–X, depending on the number of extra players who advanced beyond 8th. Here’s how a sample bracket would look.
With the following standings:
1. Player 1 (12-0-2)
2. Player 2 (11-2-1)
3. Player 3 (10-2-2)
4. Player 4 (10-2-2)
5. Player 5 (10-3-1)
6. Player 6 (10-3-1)
7. Player 7 (10-4)
8. Player 8 (9-2-3)
9. Player 9 (9-2-3)
10. Player 10 (9-2-3)
11. Player 11 (9-2-3)
We’d get the following Top Cut bracket:
The biggest issue is that a pseudo bubble continues to persist between 5th and 6th place. Both players have the same record, but due to opponent’s win percentage, one gets a bye into Top 8 and the other has to play his or her way in. But, if Championship Points for 9th–11th, in this scenario, were increased over the rest of Top 16 sufficiently (under the current structure, I’d imagine the 80 for Top 8, 60 for losing the play-in match, and 40 for the rest of Top 16), it’d be a lesser issue.
This removes bubbles, which is definitely something to be happy about, but does add an extra round of Top Cut on Sunday. Events are already pushing the “can I safely fly home Sunday?” boundary, and this would solidly annihilate it. Moreover, balancing prizes would get tricky — you have to give more to the play-in losers, I’d argue, but that’s a variable cost that makes budgeting trickier for TPCi.
The other alternative involves a modified Top 8 Magic has utilized at some events recently:
This doesn’t solve any problems with the bubble, but it does incentivize players to make use of all 14 rounds. Right now, when a player has 30–31 points after Round 11 or 12, they’ll be coasting the rest of the day. This structure rewards that early excellence and incentivizes its continuation with a bye into Top 4 for the top two seeds, and a bye into Top 6 for the 3rd and 4th seeds. By placing an emphasis on finishing higher in the bracket, players are discouraged from intentional draws and the match point differentiation surrounding Top 8 becomes more drastic. In a way, this could allow the Top 8 “bubble” to fall further.
Many opposers of intentional draws will likely be a fan of this sort of structure, and it’s something I could see supporting myself. In a game like Pokémon where a single bad matchup could spell doom, a player could go 14-0-0, hit a key autoloss, and be left with the same standing as someone who squeaked into Top 8 at 10-4. Like the other idea, it adds an extra round, but it certainly adds a different dynamic to Top Cut.
Overall, while I’m not sure Top 8 really needs any changes, I’d probably favor the elimination of bubbling (the first idea) over reseeding. But, of all the issues I’ve addressed, this is the one that least needs alteration in my view.
There are a couple of things that could be done to drastically alter the tournament landscape. Some may be for the better, some may invite disaster; all probably should be considered in seeking an alternative to the status quo. It’s easier to say the “grass is always greener on the other side” or quote similar idioms, but in this case I truly believe real change is something Pokémon should be exploring. Personally, I’d favor either a shift to Best of 3, X-3 cuts (simple change; leaves some element of ties’ ugliness in play), or (a more radical departure to) Best of 1 with more rounds.
Obviously, I have nothing more than the power of a keyboard in this, but I hope you’ve found my exploration of this issue interesting and that it’s sparked some thoughts of your own. I’m looking forward to hearing from the diverse group of perspectives we have in the community, and who knows? Maybe Pokémon will be listening. This season has already seen multiple positive changes in the way prizing is handled — elimination of AMEX certificates for minors and an increase to payouts at the largest events. I’m confident the game is headed in the right direction, even if things like League Cups seem to have been put out before their time.
To all, a happy holiday, and I’ll see 6P Underground subscribers next week with a preview of Dallas Regionals.