Origins of a Magic- the Gathering Tournament Grinder (part 2)

[Read the beginning of the story here: Origins of a Magic: the Gathering Tournament Grinder (part 1)]

The Third Wave – Learning to Play the Game

Add another 10 years to the life total.  In the summer of 2012 I was in a golf league with a friend from work.  One afternoon as we walked across the fairway, making small talk to pass the time between shots, he told me he was celebrating  a birthday this weekend.  When I asked what he was planning on doing, he said he was going to be playing Magic with some other guys from work.  I laughed at him.  Then I made fun of him.  After all, that’s what friends do – or at least that’s what mine do.

I was surprised the game still existed, even more surprised that anyone I knew would still play it, but I was most judgmental that playing Magic was how he was going to spend his time ‘celebrating’ his birthday.  We were young professionals.  We had graduated college, gotten good jobs, were making a good living, and he planned to spend a birthday in his mid-20s playing a card game?  At this point I was 29.  Grad school was behind me and I was making the most of my free time.  Many of my weekends, and a lot of my weeknights, were spent out partying with friends.  I had made a lot of close friends through work, but some of them had scattered to new locations, so I travelled a lot going out in bars in cities across the country.  For my 28th birthday, over 20 of my friends and I flew to Miami and rented the hotel suite where Jersey Shore: Miami was filmed.  We spent the weekend on the beach nursing hangovers before getting ready to go out to clubs again at night.  Sure we were slow to grow up, but it was also a lot of fun.  And he was going to spend his birthday playing Magic: the Gathering?  I just didn’t get it.

A few weeks later, another friend of mine, Kevin, shared an article he had read on a tech website: The Verge.  It was all about Magic: The Gathering and something called the Pro Tour.  He and I both confided that we had played Magic when we were younger, though the topic had never come up before in the 6 years we’d been working together.  The concept of a Pro Tour really opened my eyes.  I had no idea how big the game had gotten while I had my back turned on it.  That you could be considered a ‘professional’ at this children’s card game?  People traveled internationally to compete?  There was a Hall of Fame?  It was crazy.

Reading that article lit the spark in my friend Kevin.  I thought it was an interesting read but I had no intention of playing.  One Friday evening Kevin and I were hanging out having some beers and he suggested we go buy some cards and play.  I wanted no part in it – why would I spend money on some cards that I’ll play with once and never use again?  If Kevin wanted to play a couple games for old times sake I’d rather get my little box of ‘MAGIC CARDS’ that I already owned at my parents house and play with those.  At least that way I wouldn’t be throwing way $10 or $20 on some useless cardboard.

But Kevin is one of the most enthusiastic and persistent guys I know.  Against my wishes, I agreed to play and we set off on a quest to find Magic cards.  We found ourselves in a local Target looking at a display of Intro Packs.  Return to Ravnica had just come out.  Kevin bought the one with the biggest creature (Carnival Hellsteed of the Rakdos Raid).  I always preferred evasive threats so I chose the one with the dragon (Izzet Ingenuity).

We took the cards home and opened them for the first time.  We had to reread the rules to remind ourselves how to play.  As it turned out, a lot of the rules had changed so we mostly had to learn how to play all over again.  What the heck were Planeswalkers?  Man, this game was different now.

We battled these decks against each other a few times over the next couple of weeks.  We played combat tricks in our main phases.  We forgot that double-blocking was a thing.  We missed onboard kills.  We wasted removal on the first creature we could.  We were the most casual of casuals, but we were having a great time.

After we were comfortable playing again we started buying booster packs to improve the stock decks.  To keep things in check we agreed we’d only buy cards together.  When we’d get together to play, we’d first go to the store and each buy a couple of packs to open and add to our decks.  It didn’t take long to figure out we liked cracking packs at least as much as playing games.  Soon we were both buying packs independently of each other, tearing them open at home just for the rush.

If we were going to be buying infinite packs to open anyway, I decided to come up with a way to justify it.  I suggested we each buy some packs and then create a deck from those packs to play against each other.  It combined my two favorite Magic activities: opening packs and deckbuilding.  It turns out that I was too late to have invented sealed deck, but I’m glad we at least discovered it.

By the fall our collections were growing quickly.  We began building our own decks from scratch and quickly had a gauntlet of mediocre decks to choose from on any given night.  Kevin mentioned he had heard that some of our co-workers got together to play Magic on a regular basis – the same group that I had heard about a couple months earlier.  This time though I was entertaining the idea of joining them.  I messaged a couple of them at work and got on their group e-mail list.

When the next e-mail came out they said they were getting together to do something called drafting.  I wasn’t familiar with it so I looked it up to understand the mechanics of how a draft worked.  I didn’t know what I was getting myself into but I was interested to expand to playing with someone besides Kevin.

We sat at a table gathered around a box of Return to Ravnica.  I received my first piece of draft advice – the same advice that millions of other first-time drafters receive: BREAD.  Bombs, Removal, and EAD (three other things that nobody ever remembers).  I remember my first pick was an Augur Spree.  From there I don’t remember how the draft went except that I made the classic rookie mistake of staying married to my first picks the rest of the way.

I ended up with a pile of Rakdos cards – calling it a deck would probably be generous.  I got run over in most of my games.  Not only was my deck poorly drafted, but I still was a poor technical player.  I think I stole a couple games with a Stab Wound but overall I came out of that draft humbled.

It was fun, but I’m a competitive person and there’s a limit to how much fun I can have losing.  Whatever the activity, I want to be good at it: not because I want to be better than anyone else, but because I want to see how far I can push myself to be the best at it that I am personally capable of.  As soon as I got home I started looking up strategy articles.  I found Channel Fireball.  I watched draft videos.  I discovered Pro Tour coverage archives.  Once I found a reason to be competitive I had a new appreciation for the game.  I dove in headfirst.  I consumed content as fast as I could find it.

I came to the next draft more knowledgeable and more prepared.  I became a draft regular and I loved it.  I was getting better.  I wasn’t winning drafts outright, but I had caught up to most of the other guys within a month or so.  We usually played out our drafts as 7 rounds of round robin to get the most play out of a single draft and I was finishing in the middle of the pack.  We drafted throughout the winter and I started winning more.

I became a draft junkie, doing simulated drafts online and watching any draft videos I could find.  Limited Magic was the competitive scene I needed and didn’t know existed.  First of all, you got to crack new packs of cards every time.  It was always exciting because when you sat down you never knew what cards you’d see or what deck you’d end up with.  It also required savvy deckbuilding skills.  You had to make decisions and build your deck on the fly.  One of the most compelling traits about draft was that we all started with equal resources.  Winning at draft wasn’t about having the most money to spend on a constructed deck.  No matter the resources (monetary or playing experience) at the start of every draft any player had a shot to win.

The Final Phase – Addiction

Our group of friends drafted once a week.  After a couple of months, I was craving more.  I still wasn’t confident enough to attend a real store to play with strangers – that sounded intimidating.  I had still only played casually with friends.  What if I made stupid mistakes and the other players thought I was bad?  What if I didn’t know exactly how one of the cards worked and I looked stupid?  What if I forgot a rule or didn’t perform my game actions in just the right order and I got accused of cheating?

On November 23, 2012 I attended my first FNM with another friend from my playgroup.  I was a little apprehensive but I felt prepared.  We had been drafting the format for two months at home.  We sat down quietly around the table while the TO distributed our packs.  This felt real, it felt dramatic, I was a little nervous – so this was what high stakes magic felt like?  (Yes, this is a pretty comical viewpoint in hindsight, but I try to remind myself of it every time a new player is apprehensive about attending a local store event for the first time.)

I don’t remember what I drafted at that first FNM, but I know I quickly dropped to 0-3.  There were a couple of close games, but I didn’t come out on the winning end of any of them.  In the 4th round I played a younger kid, maybe 10 years old, who was just learning the game I think.  I beat him to get my first sanctioned Magic win and came in 9th out of 10 players.  The losses didn’t turn me away from public play, but it was a reality check and motivated me to get better.  [I didn’t return to another in-store event until the Dragon’s Maze pre-release 5 months later.]

Around this time I was wrestling with the idea of playing Magic Online.  On the one hand, being able to play anytime I wanted from the comfort of home sounded incredibly appealing.  On the other hand, I felt like it would become too easy to spend time and money playing and I didn’t want to go overboard.  Limiting my gameplay to drafts with my friends would impose a natural limit to how much I would spend and would keep my involvement with the game to a casual, social experience.  The problem was that I enjoyed playing too much.  And I wanted to get better.

Every year at Christmas my company gave us over a week off for a company wide shutdown.  Living in New Hampshire, a lot of my friends take that opportunity to go skiing or on a trip.  I’ve only gone skiing once and spent most of that time waiting for the skiing to be over so that I could go into the lodge and start having beers.  So I had over a week off and I had recently discontinued my cable service since I don’t watch a lot of TV.  I think you can see where this is headed.

On December 22, 2012 I downloaded and installed Magic Online.  I made a single purchase from the online store – one draft set.  After all, I didn’t want to get carried away and spend too much money.  I was just going to try it out.  By the end of the week I had made 8 such ‘small purchases’, drafted more than 10 times and I was completely hooked.  I no longer had TV to watch, and since I was saving money by not having cable I could totally justify spending money on playing Magic almost every night of the week right?  I played regularly online over the next few months even as my regular draft group slowly lost interest and our live drafts became less and less frequent.

In the two and half years since, I don’t think I’ve gone more than a week without playing at least a few games on Magic Online.  It was here where I finally started make great strides up the learning curve.  The accessibility that Magic Online gives you to high quality opponents and the sheer number of reps you get playing games of Magic is incredible.  Downloading Magic Online is the single biggest piece of advice I’d give any new player looking to take their play skill development seriously.

In the spring I was presented with an opportunity to go to Hawaii for work.  I applied for and got the position which would have me move to Honolulu for almost 6 months.  Everyone I knew was excited for me and I was really looking forward to a change in scenery after living in Southern New Hampshire for almost 5 years.  I was going to a new city where I wouldn’t know anybody and one of the first things I did was look up local game stores where I could go meet new people to play Magic with.  After playing so much Magic Online I finally felt confident in my skills and familiarity with the rules and was looking forward to attending store events.

There were two of us engineers from New Hampshire that made the trip to work on the project in Hawaii.  Oliver and I spent the first weekend cruising around the island together in my rental Jeep Wrangler.  We had never met before and as we got to know each other Oliver asked what my plans were for my time on the island.  Now I know most people would say the beaches, or snorkeling, or hiking, or swimming or golfing or going to check out the volcanos, or….. basically anything besides sitting inside a game store with a bunch of nerds.  But I could only answer him honestly and hesitantly told him that I was planning on going to a game store later in the week to play Magic: the Gathering.

His eyes perked up and he started telling me how he used to play with his brother but he hadn’t played in years.  I’m not going to lie – it was a relief to hear him respond so positively rather than passing the judgment that I expected.  In fact, he was interested in joining me.

Over the next few months, we played a lot of Magic.  We drafted at the store 1-2 times a week.  Outside the store we bought a couple boxes and also used all of our prize packs playing sealed decks against each other 1-on-1.  We enjoyed talking about the game.  We talked about card evaluations.  We talked about what plays to make in certain scenarios.  We talked about deck building.  We even sat down and did a full Theros set review leading up to the Theros pre-release.  We ranked every card on a grading scale independently and then discussed our ratings and reasoning with each other.  We looked at each color and ranked the best 5 commons and best uncommons.  We looked at each color-pair and tried to evaluate what the core archetypes and best color pairs would be for limited.  We were in it pretty deep.

During these 6 months in Hawaii I became a better and better limited player.  I went from being excited to make prizes to fully expecting to be at the top tables at each event.  My confidence grew and my success inspired me to start dreaming bigger.  I felt like I was actually getting pretty good at this game and I wanted to see how far I could push myself.

When I returned to New Hampshire in the fall of 2013 I was ready to take on constructed formats.  It had only been a year of playing Magic, exclusively limited, but I had gotten so much better and felt like I was at the top of the local FNM game.  I was ready for something bigger – a new challenge.

I went to my first Pro Tour Qualifier in January of 2014.  I had never been to one before so I didn’t understand the scale of it, but it was one of the biggest PTQs ever held at 309 players.  I didn’t come close to making top 8, but it was my first taste of competitive Magic.  I didn’t make too many huge mistakes and I exceeded my personal goal of not getting DQ’d for rules violations.

I may not have had much success in that first PTQ, but I’ve been having fun grinding as many Competitive REL Magic events as I can ever since.  I’ve been to many PTQs, PPTQs and four GPs (one of each format: Modern, Legacy, Standard and Limited) but without a win and no GP day 2s so far.  Although I haven’t achieved the amount of success I was hoping to yet, I know that I’m still learning.  I lost in the finals of a PPTQ a couple of months ago followed by losing a win and in to Day 2 at a limited GP in Atlantic City the month after, so success is not far off.  These types of finishes keep the fire alive because when a victory is so close but just out of reach it only motivates me to work a little harder the next time.

There have been a couple of key milestones along the way that have elevated my game to the next level and I’m on the lookout for the next opportunity that will help me take that next big step forward.  It is this constant opportunity for self-improvement that drives me to keep playing this game because I know I still have so much more room for growth as a player.  I know I am capable of having more success than I have had to this point and I will keep working to push myself forward a little at a time.  When it’s our competitive drive to perfect this game that keeps us engaged as players, it’s no wonder that we end up as players for a lifetime.  And I’m looking forward to that challenge.