I’m playing in slow motion, staring at each of the cards on the table. I have become the Terminator.
I am composed of pure logic. My gaze sweeps from card to card, and in my mind’s eye there’s a set of white crosshairs on each of them as I dispassionately evaluate each option; LED readouts flicker at the edge of my vision, providing helpful updates like "Threat Potential: HIGH," "Warning: Dream Thrush provides extra mana for Acolyte," and "Cards in enemy’s hand: Three." I am concentrating as hard as I can. My Bad Player Counter rests firmly at zero. My play is, as far as I can tell, flawless.
Unfortunately, Sheldon is the T-1000, and he does that little trick of looking like a harmless cop until he reaches out and spears me right through my left eye. Ouch. Game over.
This game is Not Fun anymore.
Now that I have officially launched my Quest For The Pro Tour, the game has changed for me in ways that I couldn’t have begun to imagine.
Jeff "Joltin’ Joe" Moeller, my friend and one of the local champs, keeps watching me with barely-contained glee; Jeff went mad with Professional Magic lust a few years back and gave his life over to the beast, going whole hog for the Pro Tour. He won. He came back from Chicago with ashes in his hand and a low finish, and was so burned out on it he quit Magic… For about three months. Now he’s back and buying cards like a madman.
Jeff believes that I, too, will eventually spiral into the madness of raw competition.
There is a vast difference between the way that I used to play and the way that I play now. Before, I’d throw together a deck and play; oh, I was serious about the competition, but having fun was the primary goal. I could lose. I could make stupid mistakes and laugh. I didn’t really have to think about much, strategy-wise; I’d just look at the table, briefly evaluate my options, and then say, "Oh what the hell" and go with whatever seemed fun. I got better through practice, but I wasn’t working at it that hard.
Now? Every game is an opportunity to improve myself. Each mistake I make is an error that must not only be noted, but catalogued and recorded for future reference. I must not make that mistake again. Every play I make must be seriously considered, to see whether it is indeed the optimal play. Each card I put down must have a valid reason for being played AT THAT MOMENT. Don’t overextend. Don’t underplay. Don’t tap the wrong mana.
It used to be effortless and fun. Now it’s a lot of work. Magic is now my freakin’ job.
And even with all of this effort, at the end of every game, Sheldon or Jeff or any of the "serious" pros I’m pitting myself again, will offer critique and post-game questions: "Why didn’t you hit me twice with that Meteor Storm at the end of the last turn?" "Why didn’t you play White here?" "How come you didn’t use Dream Thrush to return the Shackles to your hand in response to my Plague Spores?"
It is then that I begin to see what they see: They see a lot more.
Adrian Sullivan recently wowed a crowd recently in a bravura performance where he played out loud. Every turn he guessed, with astounding accuracy, exactly what was in his opponent’s hand based on a first-turn Duress and an understanding of the board position, i.e., "If he had a Wrath of God, he would have played it by now. Since he needs five mana for his best card, if he drew a land he would have played THAT. Therefore, the card my opponent JUST DREW is Professor Plum, in the dining room, with the candlestick." The crowd apparently applauded at this astounding display of skill, and they damn well should have.
But it’s not unusual for the pro. And it’s completely unheard of for the casual.
Adrian sees things I do not. Sheldon and Jeff are aware of layers of strategy that I have not burrowed into. I am playing with total, 100% awareness of everything that I am doing – and I do not see enough. Yet.
If I am a Chessmaster 5000 set to think five moves ahead, they are Big Blue. Jon Finkel is Deep Thought.
And I am not a bad player. I am, in fact, pretty darn good – but my strategies are useless in this new environment. I’m great at predicting local metagames – but how the hell do you do that with Sealed? I am excellent at multiplayer weaselling – but when you’re playing a duel in a tournament, it is at best difficult to convince your opponent that the real danger to him is that guy three tables over with the set of Crosises in his deck. "No, attack him! Walk over and hit him for five! Don’t listen to the judge – what does HE know?"
And yet I improve thanks to work and effort. With every game, I get better. I examine more options. I become more aware of the threats. Like Henry Sugar concentrating on that one Jack of Spades, I am beginning to see through my opponents’ hands and understand what they have to play against me. When I place the effort into it, I am a far better player than I was before – and will continue to improve with every hand dealt, every deck built. I am playing a lot. I learn, Meester Fawlty, I learn!
But here’s the thing; I don’t like playing pro.
I just don’t care enough.
I lack the eye of the tiger, and maybe I need Burgess Meredith to come up and give me a shoulder rub… But it all seems so SILLY.
And it’s not because I lack the competitive spirit. Try my skills at editing, Sparky. I’ll tell you hands-down, I am the best Magic editor on the net – and when I’m not, that BURNS. I am sneaky, I am bursting with new ideas, and I am continually striving to make this site SO Number One that all of the others will quake when they mention my name. If my writers knew about all of the evil thoughts that swarmed in my heart, they’d stake me and throw me six feet underground in a coffin weighted with lead sinkers.
When it comes to writing, I am a blood-maddened alpha wolf. Every time one of Shawn Jackson’s columns comes up and I’m not in the Top Ten, I go berserk, flinging vases about the room and screaming, "Why? WHY?" If I could, I’d beat that bastard bloody with a set of wire coathangers… But since I can’t, I’ll slink back to my keyboard and write something even better for next time. Every page I write is better than the last. I’ll slice a vein to get my heart’s blood on the page for you.
It’s just a GAME, dude.
I can’t find it in my heart to go into all-out "crush the enemy" mode with that fierce glee. I came to have a good time; Sheldon and (the former pro) Jeff came to win. The difference is vast.
If there is anything that I have learned this early in the journey, it’s that there IS a huge gulf between the casual and the pro mindset, and that by God no wonder we have so many misunderstandings.
Casual Player: "Hey, let’s play a game together for fun and social interaction!"
Pro Player: "Well, I’m certainly willing to have fun and social interaction – as long as I can beat the crap out of you."
Casual Player: "Huh?"
You wonder why there’s so much hostility. The more I play, the more I realize that fun is a byproduct at the top levels, and NOT the primary goal.
Honestly, I’d be willing to give the whole thing up in a heartbeat – except for the fact that one day, I stupidly told about three thousand people that I could do this. Oops.
Why the hell didn’t I write about my Quest For Catherine Zeta-Jones? At least THAT would’ve been fun.
Think I jest about the zest of my quest? I now have a notebook, which I carry with me at all times, where I record all of my losses. With notes. With the Wakefield-Patented Bad Player Counter on the side. I am documenting everything I do and what I did. How stupid is that?
But this is not the burning ambition of a man who wants to win. This is the ambition of a man who wants to prove that he’s better than the bunch of over-egoed oafs out there who call themselves "pros." There’s a big difference. Once I get rid of this Sisyphean burden, I will lay down to rest gratefully.
But until then, every game is a grudge match. Yes, I’m getting my face kicked in. Yes, my nose is a tangled mess, and I’m looking like Blondie at the end of Fight Club. But I’m learning, and if there is one piece of advice I have to give you wannabes out there, it is this:
This is Serious Business. The only way to get better is to play. A lot. At full-out intensity. There is no substitute for experience – because I read every article on the net nowadays, and edit more that you never get to see. Trust me. If reading strategy articles made you a pro, Finkel would be my cabana boy right now.
But none of that matters. What matters, as in all other things in life, is practice and dedication. Nothing else makes it happen. And if you’re not willing to devote that to this game, then go home.
Pros are, by and large, intense people. They’ll slit your throat for a game of Pictionary, and actually act like it matters when they won. Whatever they do, they are driven to be the best at it – but a lot of us don’t operate that way.
A lot of us already ARE the best at what we do. We’ve set out to be the best husband, or the best worker, or the best pimp in Texas or whatever… And we did it. We DO it. Every day we go in there and thrown down full-out, struggling for the pinnacle of our own personal goals. We claw and hammer and ratchet our way to the top. And Magic? That’s the steam valve. When we sit down to play, this is for fun. We are the best at what we do when we do it… But Magic is Miller Time.
Which is why, even should I accomplish my quest, I will never be a Pro. Truth is, I LIKE being a scrub. It’s way more fun.
As for me, Sheldon will probably continue to beat the crap out of me for awhile. As will Jeff. But I can always take a couple of punches from Mister Miyamoto, and besides… I know who’s the more popular writer. I know who got this editing job.
I chose my battlefield long ago. And when it comes to the things I consider critical… I’ve already won.
Boo AND ya.
(NEXT WEEK: Why You Suck, Man! Why You’re Just Totally Gay! Why You Play With That Gay Card, Huh?)