Chatter of the Squirrel – Invitational

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I love casual players. I was one for five years before I played in my first tournament. But I want to swear up and down for as long as it takes to get my point across that the Pro community is not composed of a bunch of evil, selfish bastards lurking in the wings to steal casual players’ lunch money. By and large they’re tolerant, nice, fun, good people who love the game every bit as much as any kitchen table squad I’ve ever seen. Don’t let the one rules-lawyer you always run into at PTQs ruin your taste of tournament players more broadly. There’s a reason he’s still playing at PTQs and trying to win his games unfairly, believe me

“Follow the one who seeks truth, and run away from the one who has found it.”
Andre Gide

Everyone, their mothers, their cousins, and their forgotten long-lost in-laws who skitter into town as Big Momma lies on her deathbed to eke their names into her will at the last second seem to have something to say about the Invitational voting process this year. They seem to think that they absolutely have the final, definitive, this-is-certainly-correct answer about who ought to have been voted in, who shouldn’t have, and how the voting process does and does not need to change on down the line.

I am one of those people – but at least I have the decency to precede my article with a pompous-sounding quote that warns against accepting anyone’s militant absolutism. That obviously makes me more objective, which means that what I say is more valid than what anyone else says. Clearly. Buy all our playsets and toys.

I don’t usually tackle “issues,” and this horse has probably been beaten so much that it’s beyond death and enjoying mild success as a reincarnated Kentucky café bluegrass singer right now. Nevertheless, I enjoyed talking about it for a little bit on the Magic Show, and figured I should expound upon what I said and what (necessarily) wound up on the cutting room floor.

Evan won. This is sweet, and is probably a very good thing for Magic. I did not vote for him.

In fact, I did not actually even come close to voting for Evan, despite his being a good friend of mine and a very dedicated Magician. My order went roughly: Gerard, Cedric, Cunningham, SAHNchez, Professor, Evan. That doesn’t mean, though, that he’s not a qualified candidate or that he somehow doesn’t deserve to be there. It’s just that there is a lot of quality competition.

It’s important to me that every single participant at the Invitational is at least a tournament-caliber Magic player. Moreover, I think playskill is a relevant if not determinate factor for who ultimately deserves your vote. I voted for Gerard, in part, because he is in my opinion currently the best (non-Eternal) player on the ballot – but he is also a good man, a good storyteller (more on this later), a good ambassador for the game, and most importantly extremely passionate about going to the tournament. At Nationals he was talking to everybody, campaigning, and letting people know how much it meant to him personally to attend this event. That affected me enough to click his little picture on the Wizards webpage and register a tally in his column.

There’s a misconception, though, among the Pro community that Evan is somehow a giant donk with absolutely no redeeming qualities who managed to lucksack his way into the Invitational atop the backs of dumb “casual” players who don’t know any better. When examined closer, however, I don’t think this argument is particularly valid.

Let’s get the most glaring issue out of the way first: Evan is not going to be winning Pro Tours any time soon. It’s not like I am taking jabs at him from behind the safety of my computer screen, either; we’ve talked about this in person more than once. At the same time, the Chicken Littles of the world have to realize that when compared to the broad spectrum of all Magic players of all varieties all over the world, Evan is really really good. As The Ferrett repeatedly points out, chances are that if you’re on StarCityGames.com taking time out of your day to read Magic strategy, you’re better than probably eighty percent of Magic players*. To put this into perspective, most people who actually play Magic on a semi-regular basis don’t even know there is a Pro Tour, much less how they could actually go about qualifying for it. So even if Evan isn’t Kenji, or whatever, he’s probably not going to downright embarrass himself.

Moreover, if he loses some high profile match because his opponent is outplaying him every single turn of the game, that’s really good for Wizards. Magic involves skill! Yes, the everyman can make it to the top, can score a chance at Magic’s highest honor – but ultimately, the better player takes it down. I am sure BDM is salivating at the journalistic possibilities already.

Also, I know for a fact that Evan tries harder to actively get better than almost any other player I know. He’s constantly examining his decisions, and I honestly believe if he had access to a better playgroup he could improve immensely. With the amount of preparation he’s going to be doing for the Invitational – remember, unlike the other players, he doesn’t have much else to test for – I expect for him to put up at least a middling performance. To put it another way, if I were Evan, I’d take GWalls’ bet.

Finally, and this is the core of Why I Think It’s Okay For Evan Erwin To Be Playing In Magic’s “All-Star Game”: the vote was for storyteller. Evan’s video was hilarious. I am not qualified to say whether it was objectively the best submission, obviously, but it was certainly in the top tier. In addition, I am sure that the Magic community at large has heard about ten times more of Evan’s stories than anyone else’s. If we’re judging on the criteria that, you know, we’re supposed to be judging on, Evan wins hands down not close for the majority of the voting public.

That said, I also gotta represent my boys The Pros.

Professor touched on this a little bit last week, but I have to ask a genuine, honest question: why is there such vitriol and venom directed by nominally “casual” players towards what they consider to be the Pro community? I don’t think I need to sort through exactly what I mean by this, but it’s almost as if people are bitter that someone else cares about being good at the game. I don’t hang out at my local game shop, Triple Play, all that much, but when I do there’s still this divide between the tournament players and the strictly casual ones that I just don’t understand. Bear in mind that maybe two or three of we “tournament players” have actually played at Pro Tours, but many of the casual players just hate when they get paired up against one of us in a draft. “How can I beat somebody who just cares about winning?”—never mind that I spend most of my time playing eight or nine player Type Four games. “I’d be on the Pro Tour too if I just netdecked like all the rest of you guys.” Actually, most players at a PTQ netdeck, and most of them don’t qualify. In fact, every Constructed PT I’ve played at, I qualified with a “rogue deck.” It’s just not that easy. But for a lot of these players there’s almost a willful predisposition against getting better at the game. They’ll ask for help but refuse advice, complain about losing but fail to take the steps to get better. What is the desired end here?

Look, I love casual players. I was one for five years before I played in my first tournament. But I want to swear up and down for as long as it takes to get my point across that the Pro community is not composed of a bunch of evil, selfish bastards lurking in the wings to steal casual players’ lunch money. By and large they’re tolerant, nice, fun, good people who love the game every bit as much as any kitchen table squad I’ve ever seen. Don’t let the one rules-lawyer you always run into at PTQs ruin your taste of tournament players more broadly. There’s a reason he’s still playing at PTQs and trying to win his games unfairly, believe me.

This is not to say that every Pro is a saint, of course. I’ve seen the Wizards Storyteller vote boards. But I encourage everyone whose passions have been riled by these incidents – and the Fan Favorite vote debacle of last year – to take it from a different angle. These people wouldn’t be campaigning so devoutly – and, sure, flaming so liberally – if they and the people they represent didn’t really and truly care about the game. The fact of the matter is that every Invitational candidate I know on a personal level views the tournament as the opportunity of a lifetime. I am talking seventy years from now when they’re reflecting on all that’s happened in their lives, one of the things they’ll be thinking about is the Magic Invitational. I mean that. And when you’re that passionate about something, sometimes it can cloud your judgment. That doesn’t justify inappropriate behavior, but it does (I believe) cast doubt on the argument that “Pros just don’t take the tournament that seriously,” or that somehow they don’t think it’s significant. I’ve found the exact opposite to be true.

A lot of the people railing against Evan are not familiar with his work, and a lot of those same people have a vision for what the Invitational ought to be that’s been reinforced by years of tradition and circumstance. In these sort of circumstances, with this much on the line, tempers flare. It may not be justified, but it happens. We can sit around all day and talk about why moving the Invitational in a more casually-oriented direction – and I’m talking four or so “community-builders” who are also reasonably good at the game themselves – is a good idea. It facilitates community involvement, it opens up new avenues for marketing, it makes for a great front-page story, etc. But although these arguments provide evidence that the “New Invitational” is rational from the point of view of Wizards and the majority of the players, they cannot provide grounds for asserting that somehow every single Magic player in existence ought to be happy with the new system. I think we need to realize that if a whole subset of players is very disappointed about Evan’s win, the solution is not to excise them, turn our backs, and create a rift between the “Pro” and the “common man.”

I’ve heard a few solutions posited about how to move the Invitational forward in the future. Some people say that there should be two Invitationals, one strictly for Pros and one for “community-builders.” I don’t like this system for a number of reasons. While it’d probably be much easier for me to “qualify,” as it were, for this type of thing, I think it’s absolutely essential not to diminish the abstract significance of the Invitational as a tournament. We can’t have two cards designed every year because it trivializes the prize, especially when the players aren’t competing on a level playing field (I had to beat Kenji/Hoaen/Herberholz vs. I had to beat Flores/Erwin/BStark). We can’t alternate between an “All-Star Game” and a “Rosewater Casual-Wacky-Format-A-Thon” because it pays immense disrespect to the players who work their heart out every year to be good at this game. Like it or not, Magic is as good of a game as it is because of the professional community**. I think the best solution, as stated earlier, is just to incorporate a few solid players who are known for their community contributions into the larger pool of nominees. Let the voters sort out the details.

Finally, I cannot talk about the Invitational this much without voicing my support for Marijn Lybaert on this week’s ballot. Please, before you click the “Back” button: this is not a “vote for my friend because he’s my friend” sort of entreaty. I honestly think Marijn is an extremely deserving candidate who has contributed to the game not only in terms of tournament success but also because of his community involvement – but a lot of people are unaware of his contributions to the game because of the Euro/American divide and because he hasn’t actually been around a long time. I’ll be brief. Unlike that last sentence. Promise.

In terms of tournament successes: over the last year he has made the finals of a Grand Prix, Top 8ed one Pro Tour, tied for Top 8 in another, and earned a very solid four Pro Points in San Diego, attributing three of his losses to play errors when most people were unwilling to acknowledge the prevalence of skill in the format at all. He has juggled these finishes with the completion of a University degree, a very demanding job in architecture, and an absolute sweetheart of a girlfriend. Of course, anybody could look up these finishes on the Internet, and while they’re extremely impressive he’s by no means the only player on the ballot to have achieved tournament success.

What you probably don’t know is how active he’s been in unifying and establishing the competitive Belgian Magic scene, along with other top Pros like Bernardo da Costa Cabral. Specifically, he’s played a key role in the development of up-and-coming stars like Fried Meulders and Jan Doise, playtesting with (and, in some cases, learning from) them on a level that most of us in America, with its closed teams and tech gaps, aren’t really used to. Even more impressively, he’s actually sat down and started writing articles in English to try and reach a broader audience, many of which he’s mailed to me for editing help***.

The best reason, though, is the following picture:

... and MArco Blume is Hagrid

I mean, we all want to fell Voldemort, amiright?

Cool. Morals of the story? Congrats Evan, don’t hate, and vote my boy. Take care.


* Yes, I invented that percentage, but at least it isn’t an entirely artificial construction that forms the core of my argument about how often archetypes beat other archetypes, in stark contrast to a certain Storyteller nominee and former Invitational competitor.

** I don’t have enough room here to explain why this is, but I’ve actually done a lot of thinking on the subject. If anyone would be interested in reading this, please let me know, because I’ve wanted to write it for a long time but couldn’t convince myself I would actually have an audience.

*** I mention this only because a writer who admits he needs editing help is about as rare as a dodo bird eating a wooly-mammoth sandwich atop the lost continent of Atlantis.