Chatter of the Squirrel – Why The Top 100 Win Matches

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Wednesday, December 31st – Two weekends, two second-place PTQ finishes. “Kowalifying.” Certainly not satisfying. At least the guy I lost to this time around was Cynic Kim, i.e. An Actual Player, but still. Stings, daggers, grail-shaped beacons in the sky hovering exactly one micron beyond arm’s length, all glowing and neon and come-hither. An almost profound and certainly reinvigorated respect for how difficult this hill is to conquer.

Two weekends, two second-place PTQ finishes. “Kowalifying.” Certainly not satisfying. At least the guy I lost to this time around was Cynic Kim, i.e. An Actual Player, but still. Stings, daggers, grail-shaped beacons in the sky hovering exactly one micron beyond arm’s length, all glowing and neon and come-hither. An almost profound and certainly reinvigorated respect for how difficult this hill is to conquer.

A retrospective. Come Hollywood earlier this year I had come to taking the Tour for granted, conceding two rounds because I didn’t think I’d be playing on my Luce year and still making Day 2, seeing myself as more or less a staple. It wasn’t a priority, I didn’t treat it as such, and when the time came for Berlin to roll around I’d lost the magic. Oh, I was still playing well, thinking well – the playtesting I did for that tournament was some of the best and most rewarding of my career – but I had stopped seeing the Tour as the genuine blessing, the genuinely-rewarding experience that it is. It had become routine. It had become regular, standard. I was going through motions. I didn’t want it, not in the hungry carnivorous way you have to want it to really succeed, and my dedication suffered even though I was playing more than I ever had ever played before. And it showed. Despite putting up a Day 2 in Berlin, I had allowed sickness to get the best of me and punted my way out of the money again and again and again. When you want it bad enough, that doesn’t happen.

It was fine, I told myself. I had an entire PTQ season ahead of me, and how hard could Malaysia be, anyway? But a combination of a tougher field, an awful format, and an early lapse in understanding that cost me the first Malaysian PTQ, and I find myself rallying too late in the season for it to matter. It might make me feel good to say my last three finishes have been ninth, second, and second, but with the points I lost earlier in the season that’s not going to be enough to get me there, and at the end of the day I have to confront a truth that normally-successful people really, really hate to acknowledge:

I tried very hard to accomplish something, put in the best of my effort, and failed.

It is probably very egotistical of me to say that I’m not accustomed to this happening – this distinct lack of correlation between effort and performance – but that gap, or fear of it, is one reason I think there are so many people who never give themselves the burden of trying anything. When you do that, you make yourself vulnerable. It’s easier to hide behind – you’re not so much hiding, really, as withdrawing – behind a veil of apathy or inscrutability or a sort of deliberately-cultivated air of mystery and pat yourself on the back because well, I didn’t even try. But there’s a certain honesty to failure, a certain habit of reckoning that it enforces, even mandates, and I’m looking forward to next season already. Because I want it. And I’m back on my A-game, truly some of the best Magic I have ever played, so I feel like I can earn it.

If 2007 was a year of unexpected success for me personally, 2008 blended expected (and, I hope, earned) successes of superlative magnitudes with extremely surprising failures.

But the most significant event in my life didn’t involve cards. It didn’t involve a girl, a graduation, or even a certain trans-Pacific plane ticket that planted me smack dab in the middle of peninsular Malaysia for a year. It involved the death, by suicide, of a man I had met only once, met only briefly at that, but whose literary legacy influenced my own fiction more than any other force, and whose immensely… forthright perspective on the world challenged every single one of my assumptions about irony, cynicism, happiness, naïveté, pleasure, and meaning. David Foster Wallace made it possible to be honest again, to appreciate things and people and let them know they were appreciated, to look past our blanket criticisms of “cliché” terms and ideas to discover the value underneath. This landmark and (in the literary world) earth-shaking optimism earned his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, a position in Time’s list of the hundred greatest novels of all time, and earned him a MacArthur Fellowship, the only award in America granted to a person purely for his or her being a ‘genius.’

To see this optimism shattered by suicide detonated many of my assumptions about goals, success, happiness. But, as detailed in “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace,” even this suicide was more complicated than the anhedonic end-of-the-road meaninglessness so frequently attributed as its cause. Much of it was chemical, and to hear DFW’s wife and father talk makes a person want to swear on a Pfizer Bible to the effectiveness of anti-depressant medication; they both cite his doctor’s recommendation to break the medicine as what kick-started his decline. But a lot, I think, had to do with despair, a subject Wallace covers in many of his books, but only defines once, in an essay called “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again:”

“The word’s overused and banalified now, despair,” he says, “but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me, it denotes a simply admixture – a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death.” He later clarifies: “It’s like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”

The jumping overboard being particularly applicable to the essay’s subject matter – namely, the incongruous unreality of being aboard a Caribbean cruise ship for a week – it’s easy nevertheless to see the fundamental disconnect between this and other, more classical definitions of despair: it’s not that life doesn’t mean anything, that there’s no point to anything and everything and hey why not get it over with now if we’ve got to get it over with sometime. No, it’s that it means so much, and is nevertheless definitely going to end. And we’re all going to have to experience that end ourselves. Personally. Irrevocably.

We are indeed small, futile, weak, selfish, and without any doubt at all we are, every single one of us, going to die. The failure, Wallace’s tragic failure, is an inability to realize that shouldn’t make us want to jump overboard. It should make us want to jump in.

With all of that in mind, particularly the jumping-in, the realization that we need to have something that lets us participate in our own lives and give them meaning, give them purpose, I want to examine now some excerpts from a classic Wallace essay and think, for a moment, about how they apply to Magic – how they apply to that mystical entity of “Pro Magic Player” that ostensibly every single person taking the time to read a Magic Strategy Article wants to be. The piece, written originally for Esquire back in 1996, examines what it means to be a “professional” at something, the sacrifices a person has to make to truly call himself elite, the gains he can hope for when he does that, the reasons so many of us strive for excellence in the first place. It will make, I think, for a fitting conclusion to the year, simultaneously a retrospective and an affirmation – and will, I hope, provide some insight as to why, for example, myself and thousands of people like me go back to the grind, year after year, for these tiny little glimpses of glory, meteor streaks in a starless dark, shadows in some epic Renaissance fresco.

The essay is called “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” and chronicles the escapades of a top-100-but-not-superstar-but-still-unreal-good-in-the-scope-of-things tennis player at the Canadian Open.

Wallace, addressing the reader: “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.” This from unquestionably one of the greatest English-language writers to ever live. The idea of the near-infinite magnitude of the world, our own little microcosmos, with billions running around and doing every which thing, running and jumping and writing and lawn-mowing and basket-weaving and shuffling cards and serving tennis balls and juggling live fish while performing a striptease*. The idea that to be the maximum at something – to be among the maximum – is such a grandiose concept that the mind can barely conceptualize it at all.

I am lucky, almost unspeakably lucky, along with at least some of the people reading these words right now, to know what this is like.

In many ways, it was the excerpt I just quoted that inspired me to write this article. Because I think that’s why many of us play, ultimately, just as people play professional tennis or professional golf or circle around the racetrack at professional lawnmower racing or whatever. There is money, sure. But for the guy ranked 96th on the PGA tour, the guy sitting comfortably at 79th in the ATP tennis rankings, the money does not rain down in little burlap sacks with freshly printed black dollar signs on the side, nor is fame ushered in like a tidal wave in some great cascade. They do it, I believe, to maximize themselves, to take a talent and push it to its uppermost limit, to stress-test themselves against the best in the world and see whether or not they thrive. It’s competitive, but not necessarily comparative. What matters is less how they rank compared to Roger Federer or Tiger Woods, and more whether or not they belong on that same professional plane in the first place.

I assert with confidence that at a few points in my career I’ve been amongst the top hundred in the world, but I’ve certainly never broken the top fifty. You can use arbitrary rankings or arbitrary finishes, but without some kind of professional board to average out the disparate results it’s necessarily going to be subjective. But we’ve gotten there through DCI ranking, PT finishes, Pro Points, whatever – point is I am, or I have been in, the same type of position as Joyce. And there is a definite profundity to knowing that of everyone who has ever slung a Magic card, from kitchen-table crusaders to your staunchest veterans of the PTQ grind, you’re in the uppermost echelon. You feel beautiful in your excellence – and, crucially, because of the excellence, not because of you. There is value to that. I believe that, ultimately, is what most of us hunger for.

Tell me if you’ve heard something like this before:

“It turns out that a portion of the talent required to survive in the trenches of the ATP Tour is emotional: Joyce is able to keep from getting upset about stuff that struck me as hard not to get upset about. When he points out that there’s ‘no point’ getting exercised about unfairness you can’t control, I think what he’s really saying is that you either learn how not to get upset about it or you disappear from the Tour… He can’t afford to think in good/bad terms, to nurture bitterness or frustration… I’m kind of awed by Joyce’s evident ability to shut down lines of thinking that aren’t to his advantage**.”

This resonates especially with me because, for whatever reason, I noticed a surge of irritability flare up in me from like mid-October to early November – tendrils of anger, threads of frustration – that disappointed, confused, and irritated me precisely because I could not pinpoint their origin. I am known for, and take pride in, being an almost eerily levelheaded person outside of my Magical exploits, and to see these lapses of discipline not only re-enter my personality but penetrate the guard of my will actively scared me. Where were they coming from? What was their cause? It’s no surprise to me, though, that I also hit a rut at this point – and this is especially dangerous because lapses in performance typically stoke the flames of this psychological devolution.

But how many players do we know that are filled with natural talent only to be buried alive by tilt, who just can’t let it go despite the most epic of pep-talks and Saito-quality face-slaps. I remember Marijn’s first lost in Valencia on Day 2 practically booted him from the tournament, he was so morbid. One of the most impressive things you’ll hear about Cheon and LSV over and over and over again is how they’ve managed to shrug off a rare mistake and keep persevering. We have to strive for this kind of distance and objectivity, because without it we relinquish control. And before anything like strategy, planning, scheming, bluffing, Jedi-mind-tricking, whatever – before any of that can come into play, we have got to have control.

“[Jacob Hlasek]’s backhand’s a one-hander, rather like [Ivan] Lendl’s, and watching him practice it is like watching a great artist casually sketch something. I keep having to remember to blink. There are a million little ways you can tell that somebody’s a great player – details in his posture, in the way he bounces the ball with his racquet-head to pick it up, in the casual way he twirls the racquet while waiting for the ball.”

Playtesting with Frank Karsten, watching him arrive at decklists and crunch numbers and generally just do something genius – doing these things I feel exactly like Wallace would watching the hypothetical great artist. Certain decisions that require extreme cerebral effort for me come intuitively to him, particularly data recall. Teaming with him is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my Magical career, and though I think we complimented one another well his exhaustive research was what really spurned me on to my extensive syntheses and summations of in-game data (which you can read in all their glory here). I’d like to think they fueled one another, but that’s not for me to decide. Still, it’s in the details – the one-of Giant Growths that certain players intuit, the savage tempo swing of Plumeveil, the oh-obviously-we’re-having-trouble-with-big-creature-swarms-so-the-card-we-clearly-should-go-to-is-Collective-Restraint that just comes so clearly to the true masters. Or the effortless mind tricks, the nickels and dimes of gained information, the brisk analysis of even the most complex combat, the crisp swiftness with which some players tap their lands and announce their spells. These herald greatness at the doorstep.

Of course, we’ve been focusing on the game itself, the process of sitting down and playing a match, but there are evident parallels in attitude, as well, and even these are revealing. I remember a month or so ago there was some uproar into Evan Erwin use/highlighting of the term ‘donks’ from the mouths of Pros, and the appropriateness thereof, what kinds of attitudes (if any) such statements betrayed. So when I read DFW’s account of Joyce’s attitude towards one of his opponents, I couldn’t help but note the parallel.

After being asked what he thought of his quarterfinals opponent, Joyce responds, “He had a big serve, but the guy didn’t belong on a pro court.” It’s Wallace’s observation that takes the cake, though: “Joyce didn’t mean this in a mean way. Nor did he mean it in a kind way… you couldn’t really even call him ‘sincere,’ because it’s not like it seems ever to occur to him to try to be sincere or non-sincere.”

There are certain types of statements that people who are really good at something make that really impel us to uppercut them off a bridge, or something. I remember a specific conversation I had with Brian Davis in, like, 2000, where I just couldn’t get it out of my head that Glacial Wall was awful out of Chevy Blue against Nether-Go. “But they have to kill it or they can’t win,” I’d argue, “and anything they have to kill has got to be good, right?” I didn’t understand, or know how to articulate, that things a control deck ‘has to kill’ are only good if they have to kill them on my terms and not theirs. But Brian didn’t know how to explain this to me beyond the lengthy explanation he’d already given, and so finally, frustrated, he simply declared, “You’re just not seeing things on the same level as me.”

At first, I was offended, but I realized eventually that this was not a disparagement of my ability but a simple statement of fact. It was an attempt to reconcile causally the disconnect between my vision or reality and his, and the thing was, it was accurate. I was just not there, yet, and he was, and that was the root of the problem. Similarly, I think the more elite, or able, a person gets, the easier it is for his or her comments to be misinterpreted, both because people are looking to be disappointed and because we sort of by definition*** are not understanding exactly what they mean when they say something.

There are plenty of other segments I could quote: ruminations on what essentially amounts to “barn” culture (specifically, how savagely Michael Joyce is barning Andre Agassi), lamentations over the decaying state of the Players’ Lounge, different play styles as a parallel for different kinds of decks. But what I wanted to talk about the most is actually one incongruity between Magic and Tennis, something that the whole theme of the DFW article revolves around: the extent to which tennis greatness involves sacrifice. Not just a sacrifice of time, effort, money – a sacrifice of something else, some amount of selfhood, of agency, an almost grotesque**** willingness to devote oneself singularly to tennis, especially when that willingness may be impelled from the outside. That sacrifice of self is a necessary prerequisite to this penultimate level of greatness. Because I don’t think Magic is at the competitive level to require that, and the fact that it isn’t has a lot of implications.

I remember Rich Hagon talking one time about his observing a PT testing session and being surprised to learn there weren’t spreadsheets everywhere keeping track of data*****, mountains and mountains of information being produced and analyzed for every single play. No, it was a bunch of people talking about their games to one another. Of course, this works both ways; if Wizards re-instated the lost Pro Tour, it may give players the incentive to re-up the ante in terms of preparation, but it also affects how seriously Magic can be taken as a competitive outlet. Namely: if players aren’t pushing themselves to the limit, and aren’t even close, how legitimately can we demand a *Pro* Tour in the first place?

I do not know the answer to that supposedly-rhetorical question.

But reading Wallace talk about competitive tennis – and again, understand that I understand the myriad differences between pro tennis and pro Magic and am not at all attempting to imply a direct similarity – and seeing statements like, “For one thing, Pros simply do not make unforced errors,” and you realize that the uppermost echelon of tennis players is just a level above the upper echelon of Pro Magicians. We routinely see major mistakes in the Top 8 of major events, and no less of a player than Hall of Famer Mike Turian is famous for proclaiming that almost every single match he has ever played is rife with mistakes of some kind.

I mean, read the following paragraph and ask yourself if we can ever get this good:

“Television doesn’t really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do – how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times, right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot-square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something over 90% of the time. And this is the world’s 79th best player.”

Again, my question may not be rhetorical. I genuinely have no idea. I understand variance, etc., and how difficult it is once players reach a certain ceiling to improve beyond that, or at any rate to translate a deficit in ability into a meaningful percentage of wins. But I also can identify strongly with the sentiment expressed here:

“[Mark] Knowle is technically entitled to be called a professional, but he is playing a fundamentally different grade of tennis from Michael Joyce’s, one constrained by limitations Joyce does not have.”

Replace Knowle’s name with mine, Joyce’s with Shuuhei Nakamura, and ‘tennis’ with ‘Magic: The Gathering, a Richard Garfield Trading Card Game,’ and you understand how I feel sitting across the table from the person whom I consider, at present, to be the greatest player in the world.

People sacrifice entire childhoods to tennis, replace hours and hours and hours of conversations and gatherings and after-school activities and bits of receding sanity to make themselves excellent. We, for better or worse, are not in a position at present where we have to do that. I’m not sure any of us would want to. But it does seem like there is a fundamental difference between the greatness that some of these athletes have – a greatness suggests a kind of absolute universal maximum – and the greatness that the top 100 Magic players have, which while exceedingly impressive is by no means absolute. It could be, of course, that a) such labor wouldn’t be worth the time and b) such labor would be unlikely, due to variance, to produce fruits. But I am interested, if nothing else, in what would happen were we to take our game to that level and birth a new set of norms.

Call it a thought experiment, if you will.

I do not make much of a secret of the fact that I find my relationship with the game of Magic fairly profound. It has been good to me, brought me places I would never have been otherwise and introduced me to scores of remarkable people. I find that knowledge of its structures helps me to understand and articulate phenomena I would have never noticed otherwise – both personally and professionally. Still, I wonder: if we were to do whatever it takes to maximize our mastery of this game – where would we be headed?

Join me next week when I talk about Haste, and why it may be the most important keyword in Magic – especially on cards where the word itself is nowhere to be found.


* I have seen this, and it wasn’t pretty. Pretty encompassing basically every conceivable meaning, here.

** Another supporting paragraph that you don’t need to see to understand the point being made, but which is useful enough that I might as well include it for the sheer resonance it has with so, so many Magic players:

“An important variable I’m skipping is that children are (not surprisingly) immature and tend to get angry with themselves when they screw up, and so a key part of my strategy involved putting the opponent in a position where he made a lot of unforced errors and got madder and madder at himself, which would ruin his game. Feelings of self-disgust at his errors, or (even better for me) bitter grievance at the universe for making him have ‘bad luck’ or ‘an off day’ would mount until usually by sometime in the second set he’d sink into a kind of enraged torpor and expect to miss…[Mark Knowle] seems not to notice that [Michael] Joyce gets as many bad breaks and weird bounces as he.”

*** That is, by virtue of their eliteness, e.g. if we understood fully what they were talking about we’d be the elites.

**** See, again, the title.

***** He was obviously not testing with the aforementioned Frank Karsten