On Chasing Top 16: The Travel and the Motive

Initially, this was something I planned to write at the end of the season as part of a series of articles going over a year in a review—a recap of my travel undertaken in pursuit of a Top 16 berth, the various pitfalls thereof, etc.  However, I’ve also explored some Best Finish Limit data recently (see SixPrizes later this week or next), which makes it relevant to now, as players consider their actions for next year and TPCi is presumably looking through data to decide on an approach to the structure.

The other, better reason for now, rather than later, is even simpler: I was trying to explain the level of madness incumbent here to a friend the other day and came up short.  This is my ready-made explanation, now. I hope this is interesting to a few of my friends that otherwise have no idea what I’m doing with my weekends, my friends that are considering this Top 16 chase next year, or anyone in between.

As I’ve written about before, I’m not particularly good at being involved in anything halfway (in a way, I guess that’s a skill I’ll be looking to develop in the future). Another key detail that got me into the Top 16 mess heading into the year: I love to travel.  I can’t really explain that except to state it outright, as it’s not as though I particularly enjoy “touristy” things in any particular vein, but in general, the number of places I’ve gotten to see is an essential part of my involvement in this game worthwhile to me.

The Math Behind a Top 16 Chase

One of the primary concerns anyone should have with chasing Top 16 is the sheer amount of travel involved. And, in the past, I was definitely not an exception to that. As a family, we made something of a half-hearted—in hindsight, at least—effort at Top 16 in 2016/17, but made the serious mistake of discounting International Championships’ importance in the run. Only 1 player made Top 16 that season without the aid of an International’s bloated payout. Going into this season, now that this had been clearly laid on the table, the effect would certainly only be more pronounced—everyone now knew the key to the Top 16 berth.

Therefore, we knew the Internationals would be an essential part of that chase this year in addition to the Regionals of past.  Last season, Regionals had a best finish limit, capping after only your best 8 finishes. This season, though, that limit was removed—with the introduction of more generous point kickers (more points at events with less people, basically), this made attending as many Regionals as possible essential.

Planning to chase Top 16 next year?  Here’s an estimate of how I’ve spent (or will spend) my weekends from September 1st, 2017–July 8th, 2018:

International Championships: 4.  Some players will probably get away with 3, but I don’t think anyone will do it with 2 this year.
Regional Championships: Personally, 15 or 16 this year.  Adding Special Events will push this to 17-18.
League Cups: Practically, this is probably a minimum of 8 weekends’ investment if your area is mediocre at scheduling and we allow for an occasional whiffed Cup.  If for some reason you are able to defy gravity, you could do it in 4, but I don’t think that’s been the case for most of Top 16.  In most cases, this ends up being more like 10-12 weekends in pursuit of maximizing the Best Finish Limit.

That worse out to somewhere between 27 and 32 weeks’ investment.  For those counting along at home, there are about 44 weekends in a current season—and that’s assuming you don’t really prepare for events at all.  If I attempt to go through and tallied the Pokemon-free weekends of my calendar, I come up with 7 since September—the large bulk of which were between Memphis and Dallas.  Of the upcoming April “break,” I’ll probably play Cups on 2 of 3, so that’ll add another, but after that, it’s very possible I’ll play this game every weekend between now and July.

Uh, what’s the point of this again?  Glad you asked!  The value of being in North America’s Top 16—which I suppose a few of my readers won’t understand at all—has never been higher.  Essentially, for being in Top 16 at the end of the season, you’re able to skip Day 1 of the World Championships.  As soon as TPCi announced that this year’s World Championships would have such a low Championship Point bar, it became apparent that the Day 2 bye would be altogether more valuable. My early math put a guess on Day 1 in Nashville at around 700 players. Given the precedent for round structure, the value of the Day 2 invite quite literally will never be higher.

Of course, the key to making any of this seriously viable is to have a good first quarter of the season. The Top 16 a certain date before each International Championship is provisioned a travel stipend or award for the upcoming tournament. While the season’s first international event, in London, relies on last season’s standings, the potential was there for any ’17/18 early performer to ride the International Championship travel funds quite literally around the world. We saw this with 2017’s Top 16 class, and there was no reason to believe the strategy shouldn’t work this year.  So far, that’s been my own approach to the season, after a good finish in London.

There’s a lengthy argument to be had over whether this is in any way “right”—at the second International Championship, in Sydney, only a small handful of North American players were in attendance, which essentially enabled those that were riding the Top 16 money to simply put more distance between them and the chasing pack. As an aside, if you are chasing Top 16, I believe there is no better value proposition than Oceania’s International Championships. If you have the time, flights can be had more cheaply than you might imagine—whether you’re willing to put up with the 50 hour journey is your own call.  Of course, the easiest bet is to earn a spot in the stipend payouts.

Most people in a position to chase the Top 16 understand this, though, so I’ll end there with the discussion of the goal and move onto the route there.

(And now: “The Math I’ve Never Done”)

In the course of almost 8 years of playing this game, there are a couple questions I don’t know the answer to. I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on it. I have absolutely on idea how many cards we own. I have no calculated record of how much travel has been involved. Simply, questions I don’t care to answer. I’ve already broken one of those today by doing that weekend calculation above, and I’ll break another to look at the amount of travel I’m on the hook for this season.  This includes the (major) trips I’ve taken or am scheduled to take before the end of the season.  Notably, this leaves out the potential that I forage into Mexico City later this year.

Without getting into League Cups, because those would require far too much time to backtrack and calculate, this is the map of every city I have traveled to or plan to travel to for an event bigger than a Regional:

Zooming into the United States:

To be honest, even looking at this makes em a little dizzy, but so incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded. It’s truly a blessing. The sum on that? Simply going point-to-point, without accounting for tedious things like actual driving distances, this is more than 60,000 miles of travel since last Labor Day. I’m basically averaging a casual pair of cross-country roundtrips per month. I’m not sure whether the map or the number makes me dizzier!

Of course, Sydney and São Paulo are large contributions to the overall mileage, but nonetheless, it feels crazy to even think about.  Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to love about this idea as a concept and like I say, I don’t think anything else in life could’ve quite afforded me this opportunity at my stage in life, so I’m eternally grateful for that.  I’ll look back on it some day and be happy with what I spent my time, funds, and energy on, I think.  But, like I say, it is exhausting in the meantime.

In full disclosure, one key aspect of making this work is funds.  Personally, between the IC stipends, prize money, and my work with SixPrizes, I’ll come out ahead on this season—maybe not by a ton, but certainly more than 99% of people traveling this much for something that isn’t officially a job would.  For much of the Top 16 “class,” I believe coaching, article writing, and the emerging trend of sponsorships are how they make up the deficit—I don’t think many people make enough money to sustain themselves (though a few claim to, and they seem to have substance to it), but I certainly don’t think most are playing at a large loss.

Some of you are judging me out there.  That’s fine.  You know who you are.  I’m aware that I’m normally more sensitive than I should be to judgment.  This isn’t an area where I have such an issue.  I’ve made money traveling the world with people I love and doing something I cherish, while being a successful student at a fairly esteemed university.  Judge away.

The Motivation of a Top 16 Chase and Next Year Reflections

Why do any, or all, of this?  Like I said earlier, I have a hard time with halfway.  That alone is reason to pursue Top 16, especially as I personally don’t have any real drive toward “glory” as an incumbent factor—in fact, my position in a pseudo-spotlight is mildly uncomfortable as it is today, and while I wouldn’t trade it, I also am quite comfortable where I am in the established hierarchy of NA Players at this point—wherever that is.  “Being the best” isn’t a factor for me.

From a material perspective, I laid out the case for chasing Top 16 earlier.  Worlds Day 1 has never been more of a lottery worth avoiding.  That part is easy.  On the grounds of these two things, I’ve had no reservations about the time commitment—as long as I’ve been playing the game at all, playing it at the highest level has been the natural progression.

I’ve not-silently admitted, though, that chasing this level has made me reconsider playing at all.  It’s, as previously noted, exhausting, and as I’ve written before about what the game has meant to me through my time in it.  To recap in a paragraph, though: given I left formal high school for an environment where I was consistently out-aged at 15, in more recent times, this game has been my social circle.  It’s done innumerable things for me, and I won’t rehash what I wrote before, but I’d be a completely different person without what I’ve been through over the years in the game.

I’ve been somewhat vocal about an intent to scale back next year.  I’ll probably attempt to go to London (or, wherever in Europe it lands) if a cheap flight arises, but otherwise realize Oceania and Latin America are probably impractical.  With that will come a reduction in Regionals and overall time investment, which is sorely what I’m looking to do at this point—the burnout effect is real, folks.  Looking to next year, I’d be unsurprised to see a Best Finish Limit reimplemented for Regional events, but I’d caution that I think it’s mathematically less useful than some want to believe it is.  That justification will be on SixPrizes sometime later on, even though I intended to feature it when I started today—this has gotten long enough without it.

In a way, what the game has meant to me is part of why I’m hesitant in my own head to scale back next year—I have no idea what’s on the other side of that.  But, I think it’ll give me the opportunity to better appreciate the time I do get to spend at events.  A friend who may or may not prefer I not quote them directly noted that it’s not a matter of enjoying events these days, but enjoying the weekend off free of events.  Somewhere, I lost cabin pressure on that balance too, and while I genuinely wouldn’t trade much of my experience for anything, the last month’s been a rough time probably much in response to the sheer amount of time spent on the game recently.

March is a weird time to write this, but I think part of it is having myself on record before TPCi announces some glorious new gimmick meant to change my mind—and, maybe that’ll happen!  But, for now, if you’re considering the Top 16 chase, this is the perspective of someone on it at the moment while also trying to be something outside of the game too: it’s an experience I’m not sure anything else can provide, but not something I think most people will be happy pursuing multiple years in a row.  I’ll be curious to see how this evolves over the next few years.  People smarter than I have predicted burnout will come to reign among this Top 16 group, and I’d happen to agree at this point.  Time will tell.

As it is, I have no plans to break ties with the game—I definitely have no idea what the other side of that would look like!—but the crazier of the travel schemes will definitely be off the table next year, and maybe I’ll see if anyone would entertain me reprising that judge role from Memphis earlier this year a time or two.  Who knows.

As I sit on the end of a day that started by getting off the plane from Portland, it’s probably not coincidence that I have this sentiment to express today.  It’s been a long day, and a long month, and a long season.  But, I’m looking forward to finishing it out with some of the best people in the world.  See you along the way.


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