Chatter of the Squirrel – The Boat, and a New Type of Tournament Structure

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Wednesday, September 24th – There is, and will always be, a market for the possibility of professional – and I mean “pay the bills” professional – Magic-related gaming. It’s what got me started and why I continue to do loony things like ship $1400 for a ticket to Berlin. But honestly, so long as several times a year there exists an opportunity to make an amount comparable to a twentysomething’s annual income, that market is going to be sated to an extent.

No, not the Queen Mary, but we’ll get to boating later.

I had a bloggish introduction planned for this week, the gist being that 1) I hated waking up with something like brilliant prose clattering about in my head waiting to be marketed to NGOs worldwide, only to completely lose track of anything resembling coherence by the time I trekked the 40 minutes to work, 2) that for the first time since I’ve been here I did absolutely nothing constructive at CIJ today, despite a whole host of projects desperately needing completion, and I wanted to call myself out publicly to re-invigorate my motivation, 3) that the first thing to spring to mind when I thought about that was my need, despite hundreds of excellent local kopi-shops within spitting distance, to write each and every one of these at Starbucks, and 4) that for the first time in my life since I met one Christie Cole at the tender age of 15, for a variety of different reasons, at least some of which have both first and last names, I feel perfectly content to avoid the pursuit of women. This last fact dawned on me gradually, like the emergence of hairline flecks of gray, barely visible, but represents such a fundamental shift (especially if you know me) that I haven’t yet, at present, learned how to react.

But, if you’ll note the past tense of that first sentence up towards the north of the page, I had a lot to talk about this week, so we’ll save the emo for the album and the skatepark concerts. Right now, there’s a list to tick.

First: decks. I still have yet to lose a single game, playing against real decks, with the Standard list I posted last week. Many a foil Thirst for Knowledge has been conquered. The only changes to the list have been the subtraction of one Yavimaya Coast for one basic Island, which may or may not have been correct, but I wasn’t having a problem accessing Green and I hated taking damage. The Reveillark matchup can be awkward, but thanks Pull from Eternity (sometimes) and Extirpate and Counterbore for preventing some true ridiculousness. You both have some dead cards, but at least yours can be marginally useful, as opposed to Sower of Temptation.

As for Vintage, we’re up to three Chromatic Spheres, three Scroll Racks, and only one Planar Portal. Eye of Ramos was in fact the worst ever. The people who are good at this format swear that Tendrils is the best kill, but that to me requires a lot of Black mana, and if you’re going to Personal Tutor for a kill, why not just Grapeshot? Twenty isn’t difficult by any means in this deck, and having one spare Sphere is much easier than two. Plus that gives you an excuse to play a Mox Ruby, which is fairly decent in the deck anyway. The other innovation, courtesy of Adrian Sullivan, was to replace several of the lands with Land Grants. This accomplishes a number of things. It ups your storm count if you’re choosing to kill via that route. It helps you shuffle cards away with Scroll Rack and Top, even if you’ve already played a land. And perhaps most importantly – oddly enough – it allows you to Chrome Mox away “lands” as you’re going off, so you never have to draw them again (while, furthermore, you’re getting more mana!). Because this deck frequently powers through so many iterations of the combo, the percentage points gained by having one, then two, then sometimes three fewer “lands” in the deck really do add up.

In short, I think the deck ought to be a real contender. At the very least, Vintage maestro [email protected] DeGraff has taken a second look, and given my comparative ignorance of the format I’ll count that as at least a marginal victory.

So this week the lovely Lindsey Kary, of Steve Port and Being Awesome In General And A Riot At Parties fame, asked me to talk about the upcoming Game in the Gulf cruise, taking place February 7-12 of next year. Its qualifiers have already started – Congratulations, Julian, and I can only imagine what it’s like to say “I won a free cruise playing Magic” – and by the looks of it this event is going to be one of those things people remember for the rest of their lives. I know Steve is pumped, and for a TO with such a high standard of excellence to begin with the fact that he’s so excited about this is telling in and of itself.

One of the reasons I’m excited to talk about this topic, though – and don’t worry, I won’t just be gushing Steve this entire time, and no, he’s not paying me to say any of this – is that it blends in perfectly with the topic I was going to write about this week to begin with.

I’ve been playing at a series of events here at CCEGames, a four-week Arena-ish affair with a substantial cash prize to be had at the end of it. Another local store, ManaWerx, is apparently planning or has already implemented a similar meta-prize, and on a larger scale I know both StarCityGames.com and Legion Events are either moving forward with or expanding their existing $5k tournaments all around the United States. Then, of course, comes the Cruise. But point being I’ve noticed in general a tremendous expansion, over the last two or so years, of the number of independent events with substantial prizes being held entirely parallel to the existing professional circuit established by WoTC. Over the last year specifically, I’m sure some of this growth is related to the gutting of a Pro Tour and the subsequent void to be filled there, but I think it marks at least the beginning of a trend that can be nothing but good for this game.

The reason? It’s tangible.

There is, and will always be, a market for the possibility of professional – and I mean “pay the bills” professional – Magic-related gaming. It’s what got me started and why I continue to do loony things like ship $1400 for a ticket to Berlin. But honestly, so long as several times a year there exists an opportunity to make an amount comparable to a twentysomething’s annual income, that market is going to be sated to an extent. Moreover, a larger and larger number of players are, I believe, learning where they stand in the overall hierarchy of Magic-playing ability. Put simply, players are getting better, and I think it’s much more difficult now for a random Joe with a good group of local players behind him and a solid, but plateaued, grasp of the game, to experience prolonged success on the tour. People know themselves better than we frequently realize; I’ve been encouraged more than once, for example, to be less aggressive at some local tournaments – and bear in mind most players here are still playing “real” decks – because players don’t necessarily want to be in a pod with an established “pro*”. Contrast this to ‘98-‘99 when Neil Reeves or Brian Davis would routinely sit down at a draft table in Memphis or Little Rock and each and every one of us, either out of ignorance or bravado, didn’t even bat an eye as we had our clocks cleaned time after time after time.

Point being these are the types of people who might be a little reluctant to PTQ – and numbers and experience lately have shown me that. While more and more people are attending PTQs, apparently**, I’ve also seen for the first time in my life Magic players skipping a PTQ that is in their own city. When I started, it didn’t matter if you were the kid with the sick-combo-Goblin-King-Mons’-Goblin-Raiders / Horseshoe CrabHermetic StudySigil of Sleep deck***, you wanted the glory, baby, and you were shelling out those dollars.

These higher-stakes-but-nevertheless-local half-Grand-Prix-ish tournaments**** serve as a way to sell Tarmogoyfs, or barring that, Flooded Groves, to that previously-unreached crowd. You make it worth the while of a middling-but-improving***** player to shell out X dollars for a set of lands if it seems like it is going to tangibly pay off in the short term. You don’t have to worry about winning your money back next February in Ulaanbataar, or whatever, because at the end of a League round three weeks from now you could be looking at a cool $500. Or a roadtrip with $1500 on the line for first place. Or a cool way to convince your girl that Magic is alright after all, with cocktails and sunshine and a gentle coastal breeze coming off the waves. Close. And Now.

I don’t know if the seemingly-recent upswing in these types of events is due to WoTC’s intervention or not. If so, I’m beginning to see the tangible results of the “acquisition” push and am duly impressed. If not, kudos for TOs for their innovation and their willingness to put money on the line, to stick their necks out and do something truly remarkable.

Look, I don’t know the figures on what kind of payout structure is financially sustainable in the long term. But as a comparatively high-ranked player who one of these days will be returning to the States, the prospect of playing in one or two thousand-dollar-plus tournaments every month is incredibly exciting. It’s a motivational factor, and more importantly is a means for WoTC to market that ever-alluring perennial card pro image without having to re-establish the year’s crucial fifth PT.

Most importantly, though, it makes Magic exciting again. Temporal. Of course, I understand there are PTQs, and during a PTQ season you’re having to innovate constantly anyway. But even PTQs are exciting because they promise something else, something more, and if I’m learning anything over here – and I just jotted down this note in the margins of my copy of InfyJ – it’s that the only thing better than wanting something more is wanting something in and of itself******. Every week there’s something to work on, a Nik’s Red deck that scored first place last week and I won’t won’t won’t let that happen again, or the now I know to hate draft those Scourges of the Nobilis, or the I’m maindecking my Chaotic Backlash because I’m up against Qu this first round and I know he loves the White spells, or Zac is about to get slaughtered by my Detritivores because I saw him hand his Pull from Eternity back to Riz a second ago and say he didn’t think anybody knew about the tech. A thousand ways to call yourself champion, champion of something real, something more than a couple of booster packs. Most importantly, it’s an unprecedented level of independence from WoTC – not that this is inherently a good thing – but I think it speaks for the incredible marketability of the game when it can grow beyond its only “sponsors” being the very company that makes the cards. A whole host of competitive investors speaks to a tremendous degree of confidence in the brand, and a variety of competitive outlets for the game we all know to be great.

Which leads me back, yet again, to the genius innovation that is this cruise.

Man, do I wish I was in the ‘States to make this!

First, you’ve got your “VIP”-s, who in addition to representing a wholesale smorgasbord of the Magic community are also an absolute blast to hang out with if you’ve ever had the opportunity. Making an appearance will be Limited mastermind, R&D standout, and 2008 Hall-of-Famer Mike Turian, Magic Show maestro and good ol’ Tennessee boy Evan Erwin, and of course the one and only daiquiri-chugging Mountain-Dew-hawking Next-Level-Attiring format-innovating breakdance-battling Patrick Chapin. Between these guys and Steve, I’ve experienced some of my best times on the tour, and I’m told they’ll all be conducting Q&As, signing autographs, hosting master-classes, and of course just hanging out and having a good time. Mike will be sitting down for a chat about Conflux design, sharing some stories from down in the pits, and one lucky winner will be teaming with Patrick for a 2HG that’s certain, if nothing else, to provide story-fodder that will last a lifetime. Of course, the stories don’t end there, because Patrick is also planning to emcee a “greatest-of” Pro Tour history retrospective. If you’ve ever seen Patrick emcee anything, including a floor-of-PT-Hollywood Sanchez-fueled showdown that I’m sure has been alluded to on the pages of this very website, you know this will be something to see. To top it off, StarCityGames.com own ‘Ask the Judge’ Chris Richter will be hanging out and positively begging you to ask him about “layers.”

Of course, you’ve got to figure out how to get there. The easy way, naturally, is just to visit the Legion Events website and sign up from there. But there’s also a qualifier series that will pay for your spot on the cruise – check Legion again to see the times and dates – and I’m told some hosts (like StarCityGames, for example, conveniently enough!) will be covering the costs of travel to and from Galveston, where the cruise departs.

Once you’ve arrived, you know you’ll want to game. Steve is once again making it easy; an $89 flat-rate gamer-registration fee gets you into every tournament except side drafts, and should you miss a Limited event because you’re doing something crazy like, I don’t know, snorkeling in beautiful Cozumel – have done it, is nuts – or exploring the Mayan ruins at Progreso, you’re still entitled to your product. Other events? A PTQ for Honolulu – because one week’s worth of tropical paradise isn’t enough – and three-day-long multiformat championship whose winner gets the cost of their cruise taken care of on Legion’s tab. Plus, every participant in open dueling gets a raffle ticket for every game they play, and the winner of that raffle receives a print of the iconic Lord of Atlantis, signed by Melissa Benson herself.

I know the line “what more could you want?” is rather tired at this point. But really. I can literally think of nothing else, and I’m nothing if not a kid with a strong imagination.
If you’re wondering why I wanted to spend a week talking about all of this, it’s because I think Magic is heading in some truly new and exciting directions, and I want to support the people like Steve who are constantly at the cutting edge of an entirely different kind of “Innovation” than what we’re used to. This is the type of thing you don’t forget, a cruise equal parts gaming and adventure, a place where you can feel just as comfortable lounging around sipping a margarita as you can chatting with your buddies and drafting. To let sand sift between your fingers as you ponder your PTQ sideboard. To bring along your friends and show them that no, these “Magic people” really don’t sit around in their basements all day. To win. A whole lot. To, as Steve Sadin put it, “live like a millionaire for a week.” That statement connotes far more than dollars and cents. It’s why, I think, so many of us do it, shell out the cash to only barely make it back if we’re lucky, but to experience the flights and the cities and the people and the lights and the nights and the flickers of hope and the crushing defeats and maybe, just maybe, the glimmer of a trophy against the spotlight and the feeling of a full, full bank account that’s telling you yes, this is really happening, you really can have another year of this!

To, on this cruise, hear the cracking of packs and the crashing of waves, feel the heat of the sun and the tension of a just-in-time-topdeck.

Take care, y’all.


* And calling me an established pro is saying a lot.

** According to most TOs I’ve spoken to
*** yrstruly.
**** and I’ll stop with the hyphens.
***** err jk.
****** This will be revisited at a later date. But for right now: examine the difference between the thrill of the chase – a new toy you wanted for Christmas when you were little, a new girl nowadays, the exhilaration of spoiler season 3 weeks before a new set, the buzz surrounding a new film or TV show, etc. – and the delivery. The delivery’s great, but what’s best is the hunt. Well, sure. But when you arrive at a situation where the something in and of itself is your true fulfillment, well, that’s when you know you’re all set.