The Pro Tour is one of Wizards most valuable means to promote the game of Magic, but it is far from perfect. Although the number of people playing Magic is ever growing larger, the number of people watching competitive Magic and following the Pro Tour climbs at a much, much smaller pace. In the past we’ve discussed the plight of tournament coverage but today we shine the spotlight on the structure of the Pro Tour itself. Though there have been small changes such as the recent one with PTQ events and the changes made to the National Championships several years ago, the overall design of the Pro Tour, Grand Prix, and PTQ circuits remains very similar to how it looked over a decade ago. Today we look to the world of professional tennis and bowling for inspiration on how to fix some of the problems of the Pro Tour.

The Pro Tour Today

In case you missed it last week, we took a look at the Pro Tour today and highlighted three core parts of the tournament structure which make it difficult for fans to get invested in the Pro Tour. To recap, they are the confusing misalignment of Pro Tour, Grand Prix, and PPTQ seasons, the convoluted and unfriendly process of qualifying for the Tour, and lastly the anti-climactic nature of the World Championship (to be held at PAX Prime less than a month from now). But it isn’t like we can just blindly make changes to the tournament seasons, the tour qualification process, and the championship without reason. So to get inspiration we took a look at the PGA Tour and the FedEx Cup championship for professional Golf.

Today we’re going to take a look at two more of the world’s premiere single-player competitive tournament circuits. First we’ll look at the world of professional Tennis which features the ATP ranking system, and then we’ll take a look at 10-Pin Bowling and the PBA Tour which has an eight month season and events much similar to Magic’s Grand Prix structure. Next week we’ll wrap things up with a proposal for how to drastically re-design the Magic Pro Tour for the better, using what we’ve learned from Golf, Tennis, and Bowling.


Not unlike its partner golf, tennis is one of the world’s most popular individual sports and that is also true of competitive tennis. There are several governing bodies worldwide for tennis tournaments, but the one we are going to focus on is the Association of Tennis Professionals, better known as the ATP. Unlike golf which has tour cards and Magic which has the pro player club, tennis has one consolidated set of player rankings that are used across all of the different tournament circuits. There are, in fact, four different levels of competitive tennis sanctioned by the ATP. The highest level of competitive tennis is the four Grand Slam tournaments, and while those award ATP ranking points (more than any other event) they are sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). The ITF also sanctions the lowest level of competitive tennis, known as the ITF Men’s Circuit.

Women’s competitive tennis has two tours which are the ITF Women’s Circuit and the Women’s Tennis Association’s sanctioned events. Women compete weekly on the ITF circuit to gain ranking points to qualify for the WTA circuit which consists of four levels of play. The structure is identical to the men’s circuits but with fewer events. For this reason we will focus on the men’s tournament, with the understanding that since men and women are not segregated in Magic we are only concerned with the overall structure, not the gender of the competition. Women also have their own golf tournament circuit as well, but are also allowed to compete on the PGA Tour if they can qualify, which is why I did not review the LPGA tour last week.

Season Structure

The pro tennis season is aligned with the calendar year and kicks off in January. The championship is held in November and for the most part there is little competition between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Unlike Magic, there are no demarcations of the year which correspond to tennis like expansion sets correspond to Magic. Weather could have an impact as most tennis is played outdoors, but regardless tournaments are held around the world all year round.

Like Magic, tennis has four major tournaments throughout the year (Grand Slams), a world championship, and an international championship similar to the World Magic Cup. The Grand Slams are spaced out in the year with the Australian Open taking place in January, the French Open in May and June, Wimbeldon in June and July, and the US Open in August and September. The championship is held in November while the international championship, known as the Davis Cup, is a series of events taking place throughout the season.

An important point here is that every level of competitive tennis uses the same season  which aligns with the calendar year. While Magic doesn’t align with the calendar year, it suffers more from having misaligned schedules between different tiers of play, than with the calendar.

Qualifying Process

Tennis tournaments are structured very differently from Magic tournaments. For starters there are far fewer players, but more importantly the entire tournament is a single-elimination bracket. This is known in tennis as the draw. Qualifying for a tennis tournament means getting your name put on the draw, and depending on the event this can happen in a variety of ways. It’s also important to note that different events at different levels can have a different number of spots open in their draw.

The entry level of competition is the ITF Men’s Circuit and consists of what are known as “futures” tournaments. Think of these as Grand Prix Tournaments, since there are a ton of them and they’re open to the public. These events come in four varieties in that they can offer either $10,000 or $15,000 in prizes, and they can offer room and board (hospitality) or they can decline to do so. Obviously the higher paying events will attract more talented players. The format for these tournaments is not very straightforward, but once you get the hang of it, hopefully, it will begin to make sense.

The main draw consists of a 32-player head-to-head bracket. This is just like your office’s NCAA March Madness bracket with the top seeds positioned to only face each other in the final rounds. The 32 spots in the bracket are reserved as follows:

  • 20 spots for the top-ranked players who register
  • 8 spots for players who win the qualifier draw
  • 4 wildcard spots

Those final 12 spots are the not-so-straightforward part. The qualifier draw is easy enough to explain. For the four days prior to the main event, there is a 64-player qualifier tournament which is seeded as follows:

  • 56 spots for the top-ranked players who register after the top 20
  • 8 wildcard spots

So, the top players get byes right into the main event while everyone else has to compete in the qualifiers. That’s fair enough but what is a wildcard spot? These are spots that are awarded to players who otherwise would not qualify for the event on ranking alone. Often, the local club where the tournament is being hosted reserves these spots to give to their own players who are locals but couldn’t otherwise fall in the top 60 players who want to compete. Sometimes wildcard spots are given to high-ranked players who were registered in another tournament but got eliminated early and decided to play in the lower-level event.

One important thing to note is that those numbers above are not consistent. There could be more or fewer wildcard spots awarded in both the qualifier and the main bracket. However, this general structure is consistent from the lowest level up to the highest level of the sport. The main difference being the quality of players who come to play. Sure, if you’re ranked 200th in the world you can register for one of the top tournaments, but almost everyone ranked ahead of you will have also signed up, therefore bumping you out of the bracket.

As a final note, I am admittedly leaving out a lot of fine details. For example, high-ranked players are required to play in a certain number of events at certain levels. Also, players of various rankings have different deadlines for registering for certain events. However, for the purposes of comparing this system to Magic, this is plenty of information to go on. Also, next time you see tennis on TV you’ll have a better idea of how they got there.

Crowning a Champion

Throughout the season players gain rankings points and attempt to move up the ladder of competition. Each rung awards more points for placing well, so you want to compete on the highest rung possible. As you go up there are fewer events but they award more points and more prizes. The rungs are:

  • ITF Men’s Circuit (18-35 points for winning, 534 events)
  • ATP Challenger Tour (80-125 points for winning, 178 events)
  • ATP World Tour 250 Series (250 points for winning, 39 events)
  • ATP World Tour 500 Series (500 points for winning, 13 events)
  • ATP World Tour 1000 Series (1000 points for winning, 9 events)
  • ATP World Finals (1100-1400 points for winning, 1 event)
  • Grand Slams (2000 points for winning, 4 events)

The championship is the ATP World Finals which is held in November and feature the top-8 ranked players at the end of the season. There is no qualifier or wild card draw for the championship for obvious reasons. The eight players are split into two groups of four and play round-robin. The top two players move on to the semifinals and so on and so forth. The event takes a week to play out but for a variety of reasons simply doesn’t carry the notoriety of the grand slam tournaments.

The French Open, for example, has a field of 128 players in the main event, and another 128 players in the qualifier rounds. Each set of rounds takes a week to play and the resulting two-week competition is incredibly intense with the top ~250 players in the world competing for money and ranking. While the World Finals are technically the championship of tennis, the winners of each Grand Slam are held in high reverence, not unlike the winners of Magic’s four annual Pro Tours.


Shifting gears now, I’ve always loved bowling. Who doesn’t? You and your friends head down to the local alley, get a pitcher of your favorite adult beverage, and then roll heavy rocks towards pins. What could be better?  It’s just like grabbing your friends and jamming a few games of Commander at the kitchen table, or at a local gaming store (with or without adult beverage). But then, just like with Magic, there comes a time when some people want a little more than just the fun of the bowling alley. For those people, there’s the PBA Tour.

Season Structure

The PBA tour this year began in January and essentially concludes in December with the PBA World Championship. This is similar to tennis’s calendar and having a season structure that aligns with the calendar year has obvious benefits. There are about 30 events over the course of the year with some events running simultaneously. For example, from May 11th to 14th the PBA Wolf, Bear, and Badger Opens were all hosted at the same venue with preliminary rounds taking place on the 11th, 12th, and 13th, with the finals for each event occurring on the 14th. There are also four major tournaments, not unlike golf or tennis, which are the USBC Masters, the Tournament of Champions, the U.S. Open, and the World Championship.

There is a quirk in the PBA Tour schedule which is a bit difficult to understand. The USBC Masters and the Tournament of Champions took place on back-to-back weekends in February while the U.S. Open will take place early in November and the World Championship will happen in mid-December. The break between the four majors is difficult to understand and in stark contrast with golf, tennis, and even Magic.

Qualifying Process

Bowling is closest to Magic in that the majority of tournaments on the PBA Tour are open to the public. While several events are invitation only, the vast majority are open events, like Magic’s Grand Prix tournament and Pro Tour tournament structure. The tour used to feature a system closer to that of the PGA Tour where players who finished high enough in competition were awarded exempt status for the following season’s Tour. This system was in-place from 2004 until 2012. Many popular players slowly lost their exempt status and many of the tour’s events began switching from exempt to open-status. Eventually, only a handful of events honored the exemption status and it was done away with.

Now, the most common structure is for players to participate in a multi-day event where the top 64 players on the first day come back to compete on the second day. The PBA Tour is very similar to Magic in many ways, but the qualifying process is much simpler. Instead of having a complex series of qualifier tournaments or circuits, players simply arrive for the event and compete, like at a Grand Prix. However, it’s important to note that bowling has a much smaller following, especially in the competitive scene, than Magic. Though tens of millions of people bowl, very few consider competing any higher than their local leagues. With little sponsorship money available these days, the prize money is also comparable to Magic’s with many events offering more money than a Grand Prix but much less than a Pro Tour.

Crowning a Champion

The PBA World Championship is a multi-format six-day event in December and it is open to the public. The first four days of events each feature a different format. In bowling these are known as patterns, and specify the way oil is distributed on the lanes. The different formats allow players to focus on various strengths and exploit some weaknesses. Entry into the event is capped at 312 players and the top 25% after four days of competition move on to the next round. The first four days are collectively known as the World Series of Bowling, while the final two days are the PBA World Championship.

The fifth day, also the first day of the World Championship itself, features six rounds of competition on what’s known as the “championship” format, which features evenly distributed oil over the whole lane (different from what you’re used to at say Brooklyn Bowl). After these six rounds, the top 24 players move on to championship day. Three more rounds of eight games each determine the final five players who will compete in a step-ladder for the title of World Champion and the $60,000 top prize that goes with it.

Next Week

We’ve now taken a look at the competitive worlds of golf, tennis, and bowling. While there are many similarities there with each other, and many differences, there are also things in common and contrast with Magic. Next week we’ll take everything we’ve learned and use it to design a better Pro Tour. Spoiler alert: there will be no more PPTQs in my proposal.

The Quick Hits

  • Brazilian Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa has some helpful hints if you’re looking to improve the speed at which you play, or if you’ve ever just been wondering what is going through the head of top pro players [Channel Fireball]
  • Meanwhile, Paulo’s teammate Sam Pardee takes a look at things you can do outside of the tournament to help improve your performance once you get there [Channel Fireball]
  • Martin Zimmermann introduces us to Momir Frenzy, a variation of Momir Basic which can be played on paper and looks like a fascinating cross between Cube and Momir [Gathering Magic]
  • Mark Nestico refuses to pull any punches as he tears down the PPTQ system to bring back PTQ’s which is kind of something I’m going to recommend next week but my PTQ’s will be a bit different from the ones Mark wants to bring back [Star City Games]
  • The prize payouts for Magic Online are being revamped and Danny Brown has all of the important information you need to know before the changes go into effect in August [MTG Price]
  • In what’s quickly become one of my favorite quarterly set reviews, Mike Linnemann reviews the artwork from Magic Origins. It’s not what you think it’s going to be, and you’ll be better off after reading it [Gathering Magic]
  • Level 2 Judge Paul Crosby isn’t as scathing as Mark Nestico, but he has a lot of issues with the PPTQ system from a Judge perspective, and offers up some advice to fix it [MTG UK]
  • Ant Tessitore presents a few of the more flavorful gems from Magic Origins for the Vorthos in all of us [Gathering Magic]
  • Jason Alt has compiled a grading system for determine just how likely it is for your Commander opponents to quickly dispatch of you in retaliation for things like choosing Rafiq as your leader [Gathering Magic]

Wallpaper of the Week

This is a nice painting of Jace Beleren walking through one of the cleaner areas of Ravnica for sure. But it doesn’t really feel like it conveys the title “Telepath Unbound” very well. Maybe he’s in the process of having his hair no longer be bound by the hood of his cloak? I guess I was just hoping for a little more action with the title Telepath Unbound…

Grade: C

What We Learned is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.

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