Everyday I’m Shufflin’ – Money In The Bank

The new biweekly column by Reuben Bresler is all about the grinder lifestyle and how to play Magic while not breaking the bank. Read how to save money on trips, make a few extra at Opens, and answer some reader polls!

Magic isn’t cardboard. Magic is a lifestyle.

It’s also about smart people engaging in ruthless mental combat with each other and then going out to the bars that night and unwinding. It’s about carpooling for long road trips and flying standby. It’s about sleeping on hotel floors and friends’ couches and tiny back seats. It’s about grinding out long games in order to grind out long tournaments in order to grind out cash, prizes, and Pro Tour, SCG Open, and DCI rating points.

Magic is more than just the physical cards.

“Everyday I’m Shufflin'” is going to be a reflection of the Magic community as I see it as a road warrior and grinder, not just deck lists and tech. Sure, it will have tournament reports and theory crafting, but mostly it will be about the Magic culture as a whole. What I hope this column will do is give tips and hints on how to be a better Magic player, how to improve your tournament experience, and how to save (and make) money at Magic tournaments. I will also open a window into the lives of famous, up-and-coming, and otherwise interesting Magic players and personalities along the way.

I also want this column to be a part of the community. What I mean by that is that I also want your input, dear reader. I will be including poll questions in many articles and helpful feedback from readers about previous topics.

Besides, if you wanted that technology stuff, there are way better writers to read than the SCG Open equivalent of a Bulblin Rider (Google it).

Cover me

When I went to SCG Pittsburgh, I didn’t like Standard very much. To me the format at the time was not nearly as robust as it is today, having devolved into a lot of variations of U/W Control and Mono-Red aggro. But I still wanted to play Legacy because I had Top 8’d SCG Cincinnati and, more than that, I still wanted to see all of the friends I’d grown accustomed to seeing every couple of weeks.

So I decided to be a coverage runner for the Standard portion.

Doing coverage isn’t easy. For a description of the duties, check out the jobs section that pops up on the front page every time there is about to be an Open or Invitational. There, you will find a detailed description of the job. Basically, it’s doing the grunt work for the Coverage Team. It doesn’t sound appealing when I put it like that, but compared to a day in the coalmines (or a day in Caw-Blade mirrors), it’s pretty enticing.

For me, it was a great way to stay in touch with the format without having to actually enter the tournament. It allowed me to watch over the shoulders of great players for entire matches in the feature match area, studying their nuances and play styles. It let me talk with the big name players and the surprise upstarts to hear their take on things. It afforded me the opportunity to walk around the room and see the big picture or the metagame and watch as certain archetypes flourished and some floundered. More than helping SCGLive, I think it helped me.

Coverage running was a great experience. The coverage guys are a really great and professional group of people and were a pleasure to work with. I would suggest to everyone interested (and who can handle the work) that they give it a try.

As incentive, I received $100 in store credit and $20 cash (for lunch reimbursement) for being the coverage runner on Saturday, which I turned into a Ravages of War for my friend’s cube and a pair of Phyrexian Metamorphs for my Legacy Mono-Blue Control sideboard. To get the same payment out of the tournament, I would have had to top 16, which would have been quite difficult seeing as I had no interest in playing the format. And counting my Draft Open Top 8 (with a $50 payout) and selling some cards, I even made money on the weekend, including gas, food, and hotel.

Little things like this are a great way to break up the monotony of the grueling Magic schedule while making a little bit of cash in the process.

Many of you are a lot like I was that weekend: you have a dislike for Standard but love your Legacy deck. Or perhaps you’re a new player with a few Standard decks to choose from, but no access to the expensive up-front cost of a Legacy deck. Maybe you just don’t want to play Magic this weekend because you’re sitting on your rating until the Grand Prix or Pro Tour, or you’re spending all of your attention testing Modern and don’t have a solid plan in either of the formats. In any case, being a coverage runner is a great way to go to SCG Open Weekends and still have a great time without having to touch cardboard. And you get paid to do it! That sounds like a good deal to me.

If you have done coverage running and have a funny story or just something to say about the experience, I would love to hear from you. I would also like to hear your suggestions for possible hosts for future coverage.

Inauspicious Beginnings

I have not been to a big Magic tournament for three weeks, since SCG Pittsburgh. Not exactly the ideal start when you’re writing about life on the road as a Magic player.

Two weekends ago, I was a groomsman in one of my best friends’ wedding in McConnellsville, Ohio, right around the time round 5 in the Standard portion was happening. That would have been a long walk to the pairings board at SCG Richmond and back, so I missed it.

This past weekend, I was planning on going to SCG Boston, but I couldn’t find a mode of transportation that suited my needs. I have work bright and early at 7:30 am Monday through Thursday, meaning that driving wouldn’t work at all since the 13.5 hour drive to Columbus would mean leaving at or before 6 pm, during the heart of the Legacy Open, to be back for work on time.

I attempted to fly standby, but unfortunately all of the airlines stop flying round 9:30 pm and don’t start again until 6 am. Four-hour flights (with a layover) were the flights in my price range, so that idea got the axe as well.

Disappointing, but it was a learning experience. Here are two tips that you can learn from my weekend that you should utilize for the future:

Pinching Pennies: Bankroll Management and Calculating EV

One of the most important parts of any hobby is bankroll management. Bankroll management is a poker term that refers to the careful allocation of funds in order to minimize losses and maximize winnings. This past weekend, I could have gotten to Boston and back in time for work on Monday if money was no object. However, a round-trip flight with no layovers would have cost much more than I was willing to spend on one weekend. It is important to set limits on your spending so that you don’t overspend and find that you cannot go to other tournaments not based on scheduling, but based on not having enough money to go.

First, let’s discuss bankroll management. I know, it sounds boring, but it’s crucial to continuing your Magic career.

A bankroll is the amount of money you have set aside for Magic. I have a collective bankroll for poker and Magic set aside from my ‘real money.’ Bankroll management is the most important part of any game with cash prizes as far as I’m concerned because without money you can’t play anymore. Especially in hard economic times, it’s important to have a tight rein on your finances.

The best way to keep control of your bankroll and, eventually, becoming profitable is to figure out expenses and estimate expected winnings. The way that I calculate whether it is worth it to go to any given tournament is to calculate the Expected Value, or EV, of attending that tournament. This tells me if, on average, it is profitable to attend. Here is the formula I currently use to calculate this, as given to me by SCG Open mini-boss and Applied Mathematics math professor Dan Musser:

EV = ((Total Prize Pool — Cost to Enter) x Probability to Win Prize) — (Cost to Enter x Probability to Not Win a Prize)

That may look complex, but once you get used to it using it becomes second nature. Here’s a basic example:

There is a tournament where the winner gets $500; there is a $10 entry fee; there are 120 people; and there are no other prizes.

EV = (500 – 10) * (1/120) – 10 * 119/120

EV = 490/120 – 1190/120

EV = -700/120

So the EV of that particular tournament is almost-$6. This isn’t a great tournament EV, since on average everyone will lose $6.

As another example, let’s add up the total combined prize value of this a recent PTQ I attended in Columbus for PT Philadelphia. The plane ticket for the winner is for a round-trip flight to PT Philadelphia, which let’s say is $650. Then eight booster boxes of NPH for top 8 (36 packs each) and nine packs for 9-16th place. At $15 for 4 packs, that’s $1350 in value in packs, which is $2000 total. Divided by the 140 players that attended, it comes out to be almost -$11 per person for your $25 entry fee.

Let’s compare that to SCG Denver, which was the same weekend. First place at a Star City Open is $2000 by itself. Top 16 is $5000 total. 17-32 I didn’t factor in because I don’t know what the payout at the PTQ was, but at the Open it was $50, which was better than I got for 12th place at the PTQ. That weekend, there were 117 players playing. That’s more than $42 per person in prize for your $30 buy-in, which is +$12 per player. So players in the Denver Open would average 23 dollars in prize more than players in the Columbus PTQ.

From there, you can factor in travel costs and other variables, like the free sleeves or appearance fees you receive at different levels at SCG events or hotel accommodations, as part of your ‘entry fee.’ It may be daunting at first, but if you are going to be playing a lot of Magic for fun and profit, then you have to factor in all of the variables. If making a long trip will prevent you from playing in two other events, it’s almost never worth it.

There are many other ways to decide what to spend when and where. For example, many people consider Magic trips to be ‘mini vacations’ and, instead of worrying about specific costs, treat the losses as entertainment costs and the winnings as just a nice bonus. I would be interested to know what you all have to say on the subject, so feel free to leave comments at the bottom of the page.

Travel Channel: Tips for Standby

As a general rule, I don’t drive more than four hours for a PTQ and no more than eight hours for any one SCG Open or Grand Prix. I have broken this rule before, most notably when my friend Brian Toon and I drove 14 hours to Montreal for a Time Spiral Block Constructed Grand Prix, but I typically don’t do such silly things. This typically means that I simply don’t go.

But driving isn’t the only option.

I read a small bio about SCG Open end-boss Alex Bertoncini in the US Nationals coverage in which he said that he flies standby to many of the tournaments he attends, which was very surprising to me. I had assumed that the price of airfare would have made for bad Expected Value. Also, as a result of the danger of bankruptcy and the threat of terrorism, I had further assumed that the major airlines had stopped offering standby flights to people who weren’t military or friends and family of airline personnel. As it turns out, that isn’t the case with every airline.

So Friday afternoon I got online and began researching how to fly standby.

For those of you that don’t know, flying standby means your ticket is fulfilled when an extra seat is available on a plane to wherever it is you’re going. People whose flights are delayed and wish to take an earlier flight are typically the folks who use this service. But in the world of Magic grinders, there is no ‘original’ flight. Instead, you show up at the airport… and wait.

Well, that’s not exactly true. In fact, there is a decent amount of preparation involved. Here are the steps you should follow to get a standby flight:

  1. Standby tickets are not advertised by the airlines, which is why these cheap travel options are not well utilized. In order to get standby tickets, you need to either contact an airline directly or inquire about flying standby or visit a website that does it for you. There are a number of websites that contact airlines and purchase standby tickets.
  2. Call the airline ahead of time, even a few days before. Instead of just showing up at the airport, calling an airline will let you know when flights to your destination are, when they land, the layovers, and most importantly how many empty seats are on the given flight.
  3. Arrive at the airport early, at least an hour before your flight leaves. Keep in mind there is a chance you could be bumped to another flight (such is the nature of standby) so be open to finding accommodations for the day after, just in case.
  4. Do not check any luggage unless absolutely necessary. I cannot stress this one enough. Because you are basically an air nomad (yes, dork, you’re just like Aang), there’s a chance your bags will leave on a different plane than you do (though to the same destination). Since you’ll only be gone for a few days, and you’ll likely want to flip through your decks on the way, it’s better to only take a carry on. Plus, travelling light lends itself to a more relaxed trip overall.
  5. Once at the airport, check in at the airline station… and be nice. Flying standby is an unusual occurrence, and airports are stressful places by nature, so airport staff may be unhappy about having to do additional work, especially if you have a long line of tired travelers behind you. Be patient as you can be so as not to give them an excuse to delay you.
  6. Go to the gate and don’t leave. Just because you showed up early does not mean you get to go shopping or get a drink at the airport Chili’s. Check in with the gate attendant. Many airlines have an electronic list of standby passengers at the gate. Listen for your name to be called at your airline’s gate. It’s always a good idea to double-check the gate info on your ticket, too.
  7. Be patient. Standby passengers are the last ones to board the plane, so don’t go bugging the nice airline people until the last minute. Then, if you don’t get on the flight, ask to be placed on the standby list for the next flight to your destination. Otherwise, pat yourself on the back for getting a cheap flight!

There are many ways to increase your chances of getting to your destination via standby flight. Here are my hints for flying standby:

  1. I would suggest attempting to fly standby on United or Southwest before the other major airlines, as they seem to have the best standby regulations for Magic players’ needs. American and Jet Blue are not options, as they require proof of a ticket to the same destination at a later time.
  2. If multiple people are trying to fly together to the tournament, don’t expect to be on the same flight. Single passengers have a better chance of getting a standby seat than a group.
  3. Be aware that airline personnel are allowed on standby flights before the general public.
  4. Oftentimes the last standby seats are also the worst. So be prepared to sit way in the back of the plane between fat people next to the lavatory. Hey, at least you’re early.
  5. Sometimes there is a check-in fee, usually $25, for flying standby. Have some extra cash handy just in case.

Now with all of that said, I didn’t end up flying standby this weekend so I don’t know exactly how it works. I am excited to try out what I’ve learned (possibly for SCG Atlanta).

Additionally, there are alternatives to flying standby. There are some smaller airlines with great fares to specific cities that beat even the cheapest standby flights if you book early enough. For example, there is an airline called Allegiant Air that has a hub in Orlando, so a flight to Orlando booked a month in advance is under $100 from several small airports around the country.

Bottom line: do your research! It pays off. The less money you spend on travel the more you have for what really matters: playing in as many Magic events as you can.

I would be interested in hearing if other people have tips for how to travel cost effectively, be they other tips on standby travel or on good ways to get around in another fashion, such as trains or buses. I would also be interested to know about this topic from our non-North American readers and about travel options abroad.

Questions of the Fortnight

Every two weeks, I’ll have the results of the previous week’s poll results. This week’s questions are:

The End of the Beginning

Thank you for reading today’s first installment of Everyday I’m Shufflin’. They will be appearing biweekly here on Star City Games, so stay tuned! If you would like to hear and read more, please visit InContentionMagic.com, the Magic podcast that I co-host with Matt Kranstuber and Sam Stoddard.

See you next time!


Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @badcorehardass