Flow of Ideas – Dear Magic: Thank You

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Thursday, November 26th – No matter how many PTQs from which I have dropped, or GPs at which I have failed to make Day 2, the life skills I have learned from Magic are firmly encrusted in my psyche. Magic has taught me more than just complex words and basic mathematical equations. It has improved my skills dramatically on all levels.

After a 0-3 drop performance at the Sealed PTQ last weekend, I had some rare time to sit on the sidelines and listen in to the conversations of fellow players who also had their participation in the event cut short. Interweaved amongst the shuffling sound of cube packs being packaged and high fives with friends who were still in contention came ruminations about the tales of what could have been; of how they were mana screwed, flooded, and glutted, of the “terrible” sealed pools they opened, of how Magic is a game composed of variance layered on luck layered over more variance.

“I’m done with this game,” some would say. “Sealed is too luck-based,” said others. “Magic just has no skill,” continued third parties, chortling in to bring up their tales of woe and hardship. The meandering moan of bad beat stories continued nonstop.

I’d sit in my chair, acknowledging that each of these people would be back like the rest. I listened to their tales with nothing but a content expression. When they would ask what happened to me, about who slew the mighty Gavin Verhey, I would shrug.

“I lost,” I’d say nonchalantly, setting aside my embarrassing losses to a three-color deck featuring Scythe Tigers in one match, a deck packing Noble Vestige in another, and drawing six consecutive lands in game 3 of one more. “It happens.”

They would momentarily carry a look which looked like a cross between stunned and dissatisfied, and then they would carry on with their morbid string of more or less interchangeable bad beats.

See you all at the next PTQ.

In this season of 0-2 drop Sealed pools, third turn Vampire Nighthawks two games in a row, and spins on the cascade wheel of variance which always seem to land on 1BR, nobody ever gives Magic the thanks that it deserves.

Does nobody think about what Magic has done for them?

Truth be told, this isn’t all some recent epiphany. I have wanted to write on this topic for some time, and Thanksgiving has provided an occasion to finally do so as we, and I put this so eloquently, give our thanks to Magic. This kind of column isn’t my standard fare; for once I’m not going to tell you how you should be sideboarding better, or why a 4/3 flier for five is better than a 5/5 at the same cost. Instead, this is combination one part reflection, one part Zac Hill, and one part feel-good blog entry. What you read here may be more important than any typical Magic babble. Or it might not. Your call.

No matter how many PTQs from which I have dropped, or GPs at which I have failed to make Day 2, the life skills I have learned from Magic are firmly encrusted in my psyche. Magic has taught me more than just complex words and basic mathematical equations. It has improved my skills dramatically on all levels.

I often tell people that I think of conversation in terms of the principles of “Who’s the Beatdown.” Yes, I think of actual conversations between two human beings as mimicking the theory behind attacking and blocking in a card game. It goes something like this. They’re talking and you’re busy playing the control, listening to what they say, occasionally nodding your head or adding in your thoughts via a Force Spike or Spell Snare. They’re beating you down with their commentary, then suddenly you interject with a Disfigure on their 2/2 idea — an innocuous, “I agree, but here’s what I think,” — and begin to distance yourself from their thought. You wipe the conversation clear with Day of Judgment, then move the topic somewhere new by casting a Broodmate Dragon. So much for talking about your time at some fancy restaurant — we’re talking about football now, honey!

While that may seem like a strange way to think about life, it’s not really that odd. Think about it. Magic strategy is just a way of saying things we already know but are hard to explain, and internalizing new ideas that intelligent people — Magic players or not — have been using for centuries.

Did you know that, in Russia, chess is a mandatory class in some schools? It’s true. If only the same were true for Magic in the U.S.

I went to Community College at 16 as part of a program which allowed me to start college early, for two years, at which point I could transfer to a four-year university. While a good deal, a number of kids couldn’t handle it. The stress and pressure of the new, more difficult environment cracked most students, and a remarkably low percentage of them made it through the full two years of the program.

Not only did I excel at such a young age, but my skills far exceeded many of my older peers. I had no problem making intellectual arguments, received 4.0’s in almost all of my classes, and frequently blew the minds of students and teachers alike with the information I retained and presented.

I couldn’t have done any of that without the concepts Magic provided me with. Fundamental concepts of Magic like value, quick analysis, and resource management were skills that were second nature to me, while others were still learning them.

The particular community college I attended prided itself on group projects, and I led those with ease. Magic taught me not only how to lead — owning your fate with every game you play, managing a team, and running a forum with thousands of members tends to do that — but also how to be original by knowing how to subvert traditional strategic ideas. Metagaming skills showed me how to do projects the audience would like — every time a group wanted to do a presentation that pandered to the teacher when the students were half of our grade, I wanted to violently shake them — and I tended to have an intuition for what ideas would work and what wouldn’t, derived from having a read on the minds of those around me.

One day I remember going to a playtesting session after school, and telling everyone that my group projects would be ten times easier if they just all played Magic. And I meant it.

I think you would be hard pressed to say that you have never felt the same.

People ask me all the time how I can be so calm before tests and presentations. How I can sit so calmly and confidently without a single bead of sweat rolling down the bridge of my nose. I always smile a little. Let me tell you, taking a test is nothing compared to sitting down in an arena with lights beating down on you and judges pacing inches away, playing a match with thousands of dollars on the line where every single choice you make could be the difference between success and failure… And then repeating that process nine more times that day. A handful of multiple choice questions with a short essay at the end? Please.

How about persistence and hard work? You know, sitting in front of your computer for the sixth hour, hopelessly flailing your deck against its worst matchup for the hundredth time, trying yet another new sideboard configuration, determined to pull the matchup in your favor… the night before the PTQ. When you’ve done that so many times, having the drive to stay up all night writing an essay, only to run the all-nighter back the next day, or studying for a test for hours on end, seems like child’s play. There’s no complaining — just action. Whenever I’m in class and one of my peers just straight up does not turn an assignment in because they didn’t have the drive to do it — because they valued the short game of sleep over the long game of their grade — and then complains about it, I just shake my head. Nice Goldmeadow Stalwart — you’re just going to lose to a Cruel Ultimatum eventually.

Similarly, knowing where to focus your attention, what’s most important in this moment, which choices you need to make, when to take a chance and when to play it safe, and so on, are all crucial skills. Knowing to kill Grazing Gladehart because you can’t win if it gets online despite the more immediately threatening Mold Shambler, and that the Hedron Crab that’s milling you is irrelevant until you have under 10 cards in your library; or that, say, the two-point multiple choice question you’re stuck on is irrelevant compared to the twenty-point essay on the back of the test that you should be writing.

Even more important is the ability to avoid tilting at everyday happenstance. Not tilting in real life is one of the most important things Magic has ever taught me, and I think anybody who has learned how to control their emotions or, at the least, know when they are tilting, would agree when I say that I am incredibly thankful for this skill. Having my ex-girlfriend scream at me two inches away from my face with tears running down the side of her cheek and retaining a cool composure without so much as an emotional blip, receiving a grade less than I expected on a test, being turned down from a job I thought I was well-qualified for — all of these are things I regularly see crumble people that haven’t played Magic (or poker) at a high level. Yet, my friends that I know well through Magic handle these difficulties without a problem. They know how to move on.

Speaking of moving on, being able to move on and let go, alongside the ability to be flexible, are things Magic teaches to the serious player. We all strive for perfection so much that we refuse to do anything except what we expect to cause our best possible result. We switch at the last minute, figure out metagame calls, and alter our sideboards based on a playbook of possibilities located only in our heads. I have playtested decks for so long sometimes, and then had to shelve them for the tournament just because they were radically poor choices. Some of you might remember me championing Death Cloud in the weeks leading up to Grand Prix: LA earlier this year, only to switch to Faeries the week before because ‘Cloud was on the radar.

Let me give you another example. A few weeks ago, I had the midterm for one of my classes. The twist to this midterm is that you could either write a paper out of class from a list of pre-arranged topics, or write a paper in class with topics you were given. Then, for the final, you had to do whichever choice you didn’t choose before. Additionally, if you wrote the in-class essay, the grading was not as strict as if you wrote it out of class.

The night before, I didn’t feel comfortable with the assigned material. I got cold feet. So I stayed up all night writing the essay. Finally, it reached seven in the morning and I had finished. Only, I looked over what I had written and realized that the paper, while not bad, was below my standards.

I then did the unthinkable. I decided to take the in-class essay instead.


I felt like I would get a better grade on the midterm if I took it in class… And I did. I aced the in class midterm, receiving an A, which I feel was likely better than what writing the paper out of class would have been.

A lot of people get attached to their work; they become committed. They’re in a relationship that’s depleting their money and are afraid to get out because they have so much invested; they’re working toward a major they realized they don’t like, but don’t want to spend another year in school to change; they accidentally bought an airplane ticket and are begrudgingly going because they don’t want to pay the $75 cancellation fee. Because of Magic, I have the ability to see the bigger picture and be flexible enough to let go of what isn’t going to work out despite the resources committed.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the people of Magic.

Magic players are some of the smartest, cleverest, and most enjoyable people to be around I have ever met. Some aren’t, of course, but on the whole I would say the majority of strong tournament players are excellent people with — wait for it — good social skills. The friends I have acquired through Magic are more than just Magic friends. We talk about life, go on quests for cake, and mingle with non-Magic friends. They are truly some of the best individuals in the world. I am thankful for each and every one of them, and it is fantastic to have so many connections around the world.

Do you know what it’s like when I tell people I have friends across the U.S., Europe, Japan, South America, and Australia? It’s flabbergasting. The average college state might know a few people here and there, but hundreds of other people from around the world? That’s a kind of acculturation I’ve only found through Magic. It’s truly amazing. No matter what language we speak, we can all unite under the white, blue, black, red, and green flag of a Magic nation.

And, of course, then there’s the Pro Tour. Wow. The Pro Tour drives a healthy competitive spirit that keeps my mind excited and sharp, always looking forward to the next event. I never get depressed or overwhelmed because I can always look forward to the next event as a goal to have everything in my life sorted out. Traveling the world, seeing my friends, and picking up some money along the way is a way of life I could not imagine being without. The Pro Tour has shown me that I can reach my goals if I try hard enough, and that I can apply that aphorism to any part of life. By rolling everything I have learned through Magic into one, by harnessing my dedication, I can succeed.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s writing.

If there is anything Magic has done for me, it has made my writing better. I started posting on Magic forums about eight years ago, and from a young age I learned the conventions of the craft. I learned proper grammar, I learned how to talk to people, how people like to think, how to interact with people, and how to get your point across concisely and make sense. I expanded my vocabulary, wrote rudimentary articles elsewhere, decided to become an English major, and eventually, through hard work, contacts, and a little bit of luck, crept into this position.

It’s actually an amazing coincidence. I had always wanted to write here each week, but thought my chances were closed when StarCityGames.com stopped accepting unsolicited submissions. I had been thinking about how I would do in a writing position in the shower the very day Craig sent me an e-mail about writing.

Maybe LaPille was onto something.

But I digress; my writing here has spurned me forward to not only write consistently, but to enjoy writing about something I love, something which often gets lost amongst the creeping due dates and deconstructionist viewpoints of the English department. I try to put out my best work and entertain you guys. Each week my Mom will call me and ask me how writing my article went. Some weeks I tell her I wrote an article, and others I tell her that I sent a word document containing 1,500+ words to the editor. But I try to tell her the former more often than the latter, and I think I’m succeeding at that.

Reading e-mails, forum posts, and Facebook messages from you guys is unbelievably rewarding. Every single e-mail I received that told me good luck at Worlds brought a smile to my face, despite not being qualified. It shows me that my writing is coming across as the player I want to be, and it’s only a matter of time until my results follow suit.

But more importantly, my work here at StarCityGames.com has given me confidence that I can write on a weekly basis. This quarter I’ve been writing for The Daily — the University of Washington school newspaper — (speaking of The Daily, look for a two-page article about Magic in the Lifestyles section this week or next; I’ll link it in my next article), and it’s been an adventure into a realm that was springboarded by my columns here. In fact, I don’t think I would have received the position if I had not been able to show how I could write a Magic column on a weekly basis.

It all comes back to Magic. Without Magic, I have none of this. No academic success, no literary skills, no columnist position, no understanding people, no people skills, no girlfriend… none of the attributes or friends I cherish every day.

0-3ing a PTQ? I could 0-3 every PTQ for the rest of my life and still say Magic has had an extremely positive impact on my life.

On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for everything Magic has done for me. Hopefully you are too. Post in the forums, or let me know in an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com how Magic has impacted your life.

This game is truly amazing.

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else