From Scrub to Pro Tour: The Philosophy of Fun

Now you’re a seasoned veteran. You’ve witnessed the birth of ten new sets and watched the metagame evolve. Prerelease cards fill three whole pages in your binder and the Player Rewards program has made you a rich man. You’ve gone from a Timmy to a Johnny to Spike and back, and you attend PTQs regularly. You are the Stack Master, the Combat Damage King, the Timing … okay, you’re really good, and you’ve got your eye on the Pro Tour. Then you finally make it, and the dream is complete. Now the only thing left to do is win $30,000, and get your face on an invitational card. Is this the pinnacle of achievement? Or did you lose something along the way?

Philosophy has always been a subject I’ve found boring. It lacks real world application, goes from simple to dense in the space of three punctuation marks, and gets often gets lost in its own”logic.” However, I must pose a rather philosophical question. Do you remember when you first started playing Magic? (That’s not”The Question” – be patient). Try to think of all the wacky things you did before you understood timing rules, or how to use the stack. How many times did you incorrectly or illegally assign damage when you tried to use esoteric abilities like banding? (Still not The Question). The answer to these is simple:”I broke the rules all the time, but I had a damn good time doing it. That’s why I still play Magic.”

Now you’re a seasoned veteran. You’ve witnessed the birth of ten new sets and watched the metagame evolve. Prerelease cards fill three whole pages in your binder and the Player Rewards program has made you a rich man. You’ve gone from a Timmy to a Johnny to Spike and back, and you attend PTQs regularly. You are the Stack Master, the Combat Damage King, the Timing … okay, you’re really good, and you’ve got your eye on the Pro Tour. Then you finally make it, and the dream is complete. Now the only thing left to do is win $30,000, and get your face on an invitational card.

Is this the pinnacle of achievement? Or did you lose something along the way? When you look through your Vault – a.k.a. your”play binder,” filled with four-ofs that you would never trade away – do you notice weird stuff that you once though was great? I’m talking about Millstone and those odd copies of Yavimaya Ants you used in your mono-Green trample deck. Remember the fun you had, using terrible cards or just dreaming of using them? There’s a reason you keep them in your binder – it’s a subconscious appeal to a time when the game was less serious, when getting that Goblin Bomb to go off was what you lived for (obviously, none of these are”The Question.” I am unashamedly building suspense).

If you are standing, please sit down, and vice versa.

Tell me: Which is better, to be a pro or a scrub?

Oh My God, He Did It He Asked The Questi… what? Yes, you heard me correctly. That is indeed”the question.” Before you answer without thinking, consider the philosophical aspect of the question. When you’ve just started playing the game, every pack you bust is like a Christmas present, since you never know what’s inside but it could become the best card you own. Every time you get a new rare an entire deck grows within your mind (excluding the”laces” of course). Gameplay situations are always new and you gain a sense of satisfaction from becoming familiar with the rules and then using them to you advantage.

Now, you no longer bust packs if it’s not at a draft; rather, you purchase the singles you need online or trade for them. You organize cards by cut and dry valuations: playable, playable, crap, crap, Limited-only. You no longer see to the heart of the cards but rather use them as tools to put you at the winners’ tables. Another match won is a step closer to the top 8, but making a mistake or losing frustrates you for the rest of the day.

This is the crux of the question and is true for every situation I can think of: school, parties, card games, and sex, to name a few (yes, even people that play Magic get laid once in a while). [Knowing the parties that John-Matthew attends, it may be more than that… – Knut] Can you really appreciate something until you become experienced at it? At risk of alienating female readers, I’ll start with the one that has already caught your, uh, eye. For example, the first time you”got some” was awesome, even though it ended faster than game one of your first Constructed tournament. When you’ve become the Don Juan of the Magic community (if such a man exists, I’d like to shake his hand), each new conquest is rated against those that came before it; some pass the test and some go into the crap rare pile. So is it better to be able to tell the difference, or is it better when inexperience makes even bad sex, good sex?

The remainder of this article will detail the road from my own humble beginnings to the glories of Pro Tour: Amsterdam in an attempt to answer”The Question.” While I don’t consider myself a pro – I went 1-3 at Amsterdam – I know that I will probably never recapture the feeling that originally enamored me of the game we all love. But remember, we’re thinking philosophically; and it’s the journey that counts.

I began playing cards sometime in 1995, around the release of Ice Age. My brother stole about seventy-five cards from a box someone had left unattended at Ultrazone, a laser tag place we used to hang out at that boasted a solid population of Magic players. Three days later, my friend Byron’s mom found an abandoned deck in her classroom. We read the rulebook without comprehending much (and damn did that take forever!), then shuffled up and had a go. I got crushed by Byron’s blue Homarid deck, since the illicit contents of my own seventy-five-card pile contained less than ten basic lands. These original decks included such powerful cards as Homarid Spawning Bed and Words of Binding. Obviously, both decks sucked and we didn’t know what we were doing, but we enjoyed ourselves, and I’m glad now that we didn’t just write it off as a stupid card game.

Flash forward a few months. We now have access to a growing pool of cards since we’ve been eating packs like Ravenous Rats (or Baloths, or anything Ravenous, for that matter). Busting packs was like heroin. Despite the deep social currents at school that held playing Magic to be something”only losers do,” I busted packs in the mall, right in front of everyone. At this point I was hooked. My decks had evolved to include the good cards I’d popped (Gargantuan Gorilla, anyone?). My rules understanding had come to include basic combat, the difference between instants, interrupts, and sorceries (remember, this is back in the day, pre-Sixth Edition rules changes). Here is a great example: I have a Strip Mine in play. Byron taps his four mana to play Ernham Djinn. I respond by using my Strip Mine to kill one of his land, then declare his spell countered. Why? Last in, first out, of course. Strip Mine’s ability goes on the top of the stack; when it resolves, he wouldn’t have enough mana to play the Djinn. Amazingly, this made sense to him as well. Ahhh, the good old days.

At some point after the”CounterStrip” episode mentioned above, we entered what I call the Dark Days. Byron and I picked up our first copies of Scrye and Inquest, which did incalculable damage to our fragile, new players’ minds. While it helped us to not get ripped off by more experienced players in trading (and conversely, to rip off the little kids that played Magic at the Public Library), we suffered nonetheless. Actual Strategy Conversation:

Byron: Why do all these decks run four of each card?

Me: I dunno. Cuz they’re good, I guess.

Byron: But doesn’t that take all the fun out? I could make a deck with twenty Mountains and forty Bolts.

Me: I think you can only run four. Aren’t you more likely to draw it if you have four?

Byron: Yeah, but still. They’re taking all the utility out of their decks. I’d rather run a Bolt, an Incinerate, and a Fireball. And a Meteor Shower, that card is so cool.

Me: I guess you’re right. But I hate Meteor Shower and all it’s stupid X’s. X pisses me off.

In retrospect, the moment I realized that Scrye, Inquest and their”bah-roken combos” were all stupid was the moment I became a competitive player. But that’s not what it was about back then, it was about the fun, which I must grudgingly admit those silly magazines provided.

Flash forward again to the release of Visions. I am playing at my first tournament ever, a sealed deck at Total Access Games (TAG) in Mechanicsville, Virginia. I don’t remember very much about it except that my deck was fifty-five cards (seventeen land) and ran Sands of Time in the main. I had no grasp of the format and little understanding of Limited deck construction or synergy. The end result was me getting stomped. The same went for my friend Byron. However, in the car on the way home all we could talk about was how we’d do better at the next one and how much fun we’d had.

After that first tournament I started playing at Richmond Comix on Midlothian. I quickly meshed with the greater population of players there and began playing in the Arena league. I started to play tournaments where I mostly lost, but I was learning so much about the game and becoming more competitive each week. At this point I was playing three times a week, Arena on Monday and Friday and tournaments on Sundays. I dreamed of going to a PTQ and finally made that a reality with an Extended Counter-Post monstrosity featuring Arcane Denial and Millstone.

The results mirrored that of my dismal future Pro Tour, with me going 1-3. There were bright spots throughout, however: I won a game against a Mono-Black Ashen Ghoul deck (a terrible matchup for me) by dropping a Light of Day and then attacking with twenty soldier tokens at once (theme week on MagicTheGathering.com tells us that part of White’s flavor is strength in numbers). Also, my friend Mike Murray from Richmond Comix won a Black Lotus by rolling four sixes. [Ah,”Feed the Monkey,” perhaps the greatest math tax outside of the Lottery. – Knut] Most importantly, my game had evolved to a point where I knew what losing was like and never wanted to again. Playing with a ton of other enthusiasts was exhilarating and I wanted to keep doing large tournaments.

Unfortunately, this is where Byron left the party. After his first Arena season with Tempest PreCons, he had to choose between cards and his clarinet, and the clarinet won (I tried to Disk on his end step, but it must have had a Fate counter). On a side note though, his clarinet got him a full scholarship to Ithaca, regarded by many as the nation’s finest music school, which is something Magic couldn’t do. The fire had already been lit underneath me though, and I kept playing. Around this time was when I played my first real competitive deck, 5-Color Green. I took it to a high placement in a Vanguard Arena season (I used Squee every time. Start the game with 1/6 of your deck in hand at the cost of four life? Uhh… yeah. Put that in Inquest). The fact that the deck was competitive was secondary to the fact that it was fun to play, especially with Vanguard cards. I also managed to win an 8-person tourney or two.

I continued to play at Richmond Comix, and I went through distinct phases. I started with the combo phase and Prosperous Bloom. Then Control, playing a Stasis and Mono-Blue Madness (Energy Field Draw-Go). The aggro phase (Gobbos and White Weenie). Eventually I began my four-year stint at the University of Virginia (go Wahoos!), about a month after the release of Urza’s Block. At this point I could no longer afford to play Standard in relation to both money and the time commitment it required. My Extended decks fell off as well, since I was missing all the new cards that came out. However, the time off was good for several reasons. First, I never had to play against Wake. Not once. I’m glad about that, because it sounded like it sucked. Second, it cleared all the preconceived notions I had about the metagame and allowed me to take a fresh stance on card valuations when I came back.

So the time machine takes us to the release of Onslaught block, which is when I came back to the game. In Limited, it was like I had never missed a beat, though I was perhaps a bit rusty with my good friend”the stack.” I lost a couple games due to my unfamiliarity with new rules regarding morphs, but I was back on track and having fun again. I finally had a real job, so I could afford to buy a box or two when a new set came out. Making broken decks had less to do with putting in a serious effort to trade up for cards since now I could afford them (kind of. Got any Exalted Angels? Vengeance? Please?).

Whether I am playing on a higher level now than when I went to college I cannot say. I did manage to capture some high placements in big tournaments though, winning a Mirrodin-Sealed PTQ at Star City Games in Roanoke, and coming in second at VA State Champs with the janky Black-Red deck you’ve probably called a pile. [Just before losing to it. – Knut, intimately familiar] Winning a ton of product was cool (and two days ago I got my 500$ check from Hasbro) but the competitive aspect gave me the adrenaline rush I used to get only from busting packs.

So, on to the holy grail of competitiveness, the Pro Tour. The exhibition hall we played in was enormous and I spent nearly two hours there the day of registration walking around, watching Rochester drafts, and trying to get people to play Type 2 (not a single person I spoke to had a deck). The singles were ridiculously expensive, like eight Euros for a Starstorm (that’s like ten bucks). I also saw a foil Japanese Birds of Paradise for a staggering 120 E (that’s around $175). But I digress.

It was strange to be playing Magic in such an foreign environment. I’ve always considered myself to gravitate more to the casual end of the spectrum, and to be in an unfamiliar country surrounded by unfamiliar people speaking indecipherable languages was unnerving. It was difficult to find conversation, even with the Americans, and I found myself reading a book in between rounds rather than discussing what had happened in my match. Furthermore, I was unaccustomed to the rather ruthless drafting style employed at my first table: after a seventh pick Brown Ouphe and ninth pick Viridian Joiner, I was cut off from Green on both sides. I managed to draft an okay G/w deck featuring two Skeleton Shards, a Duplicant, and lots of artifact creatures, though I was missing notables like Goblin Replica and Soldier Replica. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights, and subsequently played like one, making tons of mistakes and going 0-3 in my first pod. In truth, while I had desperately hoped to make Day Two, I figured that my first Pro Tour would go much the same as my first PTQ; and the only place to go from here is up.

My second pod was what made me question my place in the game and is part of the genesis of this article. First of all, I had to draft at a seven-person table, which I like much less because it doesn’t feel like a”real” draft. Much more importantly, once the draft started, the guy sitting to my right (a stocky American with a shaved head…I never caught his name, but will remember his face forever) decided it was pointless to play since he couldn’t even ruin a 1-2’s chance at day two (we were all 0-3). The judges informed him he couldn’t drop since the draft had already started, so he proceeded to draft without looking at any of the cards. Even worse, another player at the table validated his spoiled, childish behavior by laughing and cracking constant jokes to the chagrin of everyone else who came to play in a competitive environment.

It’s difficult to describe how angry these two players made me. I had spent $500 on a plane ticket halfway across the world to play my favorite game on the most competitive level, and these two selfish players turned it into a farce. One single-handedly ruined the draft for five other players, while the other one joked about it. I don’t care how many Pro Tours they’ve played in, it was my first, and I was entitled to normal drafting pods whether it was in the 3-0 bracket or the 0-3. Perhaps I am not angry, so much as I am disappointed. I went to Amsterdam to play with true professionals, not babies that ruin other people’s play experience because they couldn’t muster better than a goose egg in the win column.

Sorry if I got off on a rant there, but those two guys put a dark spot on my first Pro Tour. I had a nasty deck featuring goodies like Crystal Shard and *two* Grab the Reins, but the manner in which I came by them was unfair, and I could take no pride in the deck’s creation. I won the next match in the final turn of extra innings, and decided to pack it in; I was tired, and I had my requisite one win on the Pro Tour. I meant to go back to the RAI on Day Three to watch the finals and play some drafts, but after waking up at 10am I decided to sleep for an extra half hour and didn’t wake up until 6pm. Whether that was due to certain recreational aspects of Amsterdam’s culture or jet lag I will never know.

So, a final flash back to The Question: Is it better to be a scrub or a pro? While I’ve spent eight pages trying to synthesize my attitudes towards the game over the years, I am no closer to an answer. Which actually is The Answer: there is no answer. The way to enjoy Magic is in the present. While I used to get my kicks from the newness of the game and the ideas that would burst through my head when I saw new cards, I now find joy in drafting the perfect deck or winning a competitive tournament.

Becoming better at the game has also opened a new avenue to enjoy it in combination with another love of my life: writing. Without that PTQ win in Roanoke I would probably have never written an article on Magic in my life, which would have been a shame because it’s quite rewarding. Much like the metagame changes with the release of each new set, the things you enjoy about Magic will metamorphose as you continue to play (so essentially, it should be fun forever).

One last thing – a special thanks to Judge Sheldon Menery for being a friendly face in the midst of a foreign country – and to everyone else, play hard, and have fun.

If you have back, feed me!

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