My last two articles have hopefully managed to get you from qualifying (the bit that all the other writers here help you to do) to the country of destination. In this final part, we’ll look at some of the ways that you can maximise your Pro Tour experience.
Getting to your Bed
Assuming that you’ve got your hold luggage safely, you’re now confronted with 173 different options for getting from the airport to your bed. Just like sideboard choices, they all have strengths and weaknesses. For comfort, security, and ease, nothing beats an official taxi. By official, I mean an actual car with a lighted Taxi sign on the roof, which you pick up from an official queue which has been signposted within the airport. That sounds like quite a fussy definition, but unless you’re in a major westernised city (Tokyo, London, New York would be examples) there are likely to be a stack of unofficial drivers wanting your business. There are so many reasons not to go down this route it isn’t even funny. By and large, these drivers are car owners who are unemployed, or spending their one day off a week from their other two jobs to do a spot of moonlighting. These drivers are not regulated in any way. They have no cab number. There is nobody to complain to. Their cabs have not been vetted as — and I think we can all agree this would be handy — roadworthy. They are not bound in any way by a formal pricing structure. They may offer you one price, and upon destination you discover that price happened to miss out the word ‘each,’ lost in translation. Since these cars probably have no Sat-Nav or official route system, there is nothing to stop them driving all over the city, piling on the miles and the roubles/yen/denarii/insert currency of choice here! Above all, and thankfully this hasn’t happened to me but has to friends, unofficial drivers sometimes take the opportunity to drive you to the middle of nowhere, then demand the money upfront, and to be honest, you have little choice at that point other than to pay whatever they demand, since you’re certainly not navigating your own way to your hostel from there at 11pm. For the sake of balance, I should say that many of these unofficial drivers are genuine human beings trying to scratch out a living by carving a tiny slice of the tourism pie. They are by no means all gangsters and crooks. That said, don’t touch them.
Airports are frequently a fair way out of the city, London Heathrow being a particularly hideous version of this, although JFK in New York can find you sitting in a cab for an hour before you hit downtown Manhattan. If you’re travelling alone, because things have just worked out that way, an official taxi can be prohibitively expensive. I generally expect to pay anywhere up to $50 for a cab ride from an airport before I start thinking of it as ‘expensive’, and $50 is a big chunk out of your budget before you even ‘get there.’ At this point, public transport links become a good option. Many international airports have excellent links, whether it’s monorail, tram, train, or bus. The tricky part is working out how to connect these all up, and I’d be cautious if you have no language skills in that country. Still, airport tourism information desks are incredibly useful if you speak at least some English, since it seems to be a requirement worldwide for that particular job. I acknowledge that if your only language is Slovak then this advice may be less than helpful, but these people are paid to be helpful to foreign travellers who don’t speak the language, so use them.
Although public transport is almost always a slower option than a cab, you frequently get much more of a flavor of the country on your ride in. Freeways are pretty soulless places the world over, and bus routes will often meander off the beaten track to service local communities you would have absolutely zero chance of coming across any other way. One of the big highlights of Memphis worlds for me last year was spending an hour in the company of a spectacularly non-politically correct bus driver, and I saw and heard more things than I ever expected to. Then again, perhaps not every bus driver is a former-drug-addict-helicopter-pilot-South-American-racist-sexist-gun-runner. Then again, maybe that’s the profile for a bus driver these days.
If public transport fills you with dread, increasingly there is a halfway house option. Cheaper than a dedicated cab, they are often confusingly described as ‘limos’ or ‘executive’, which to my mind conjures up the height of luxury, which these are not. In essence, these are minivans, with room for anywhere between 6 and 15 people, plus luggage. These hybrid taxi/bus affairs will take you to your door (if you’re staying at one of the main downtown hotels) or at least to very nearby if you’re anywhere in the city centre. The trade-off for this is that you might be the ninth person on the drop-off list, and spend a long time watching other people get off before you get the chance. Nonetheless, as a single traveller I’ve often found these the perfect solution. Significantly cheaper than a full-on taxi, and with the added chance to chat with other random human beings who have found themselves in Malaysia (or wherever) too.
I know that many of you have mentally straightened to attention at that word. You know that I’m a hugely experienced traveller, and that you are now just moments away from my priceless wisdom as to how to avoid that most irritating of journey complaints. Here it is:
Wasn’t that a disappointment?
Regrettably, I don’t have The Answer for you. I have some thoughts certainly, but no grand plan that is going to change your sleep pattern painlessly and effortlessly every time. If you have the luxury to do so, it’s not a bad idea to make at least some token gesture towards aligning your body clock with your destination in advance. For me, Japan is 8 hours ahead. Suppose that I might typically rise at 9am (5pm in Japan). In the week before I leave, I might attempt to get to bed at 10pm and rise at 6/7am. Although this is only 2 of the 8 hours I need to adjust, I’m just making the point that this is the correct direction to go in, rather than actively staying up until 3am and rising at 11am, thus setting you even further away from your target.
The next part of the plan is contradictory, and you’ll just have to choose which you go with. The first is to say sleep on the plane, which is a fine idea, allowing you to ‘stock up’ on zzzs, but it takes account of neither the fact that you may not be tired or the fact that you may want to test, play or generally have exciting fun at the start of your awesome trip. So, the second idea is just to say sleep when you want. This is a fundamentally good plan that allows your body to tell you what to do. It’s an even better plan if you can have the best part of a week in the country before the event, because then you have more chance to give in to your need for sleep. After all, this plan utterly falls apart if you’re listening to your body and your body tells you it’s time for bed halfway through deck construction.
To my mind, time zones going backwards are much easier to deal with than going forwards. For me, travelling to the U.S. is a joy. I get up early, catch a morning flight to Chicago or wherever, the clock ‘stops’ while I’m onboard, and when I arrive, it’s only lunchtime. Sure, I’m going to be tired early in the evening, because by 9pm it feels like 2am the following morning, but in essence, travelling this way round just involves a long day, and you can relatively easily adjust yourself with a single long night of sleep. For me, going forwards is much more problematic, since even getting up at 4am to go catch a flight to Japan is like rising at midday there, and that’s still a mile off where you need to be once you arrive. As I say, I don’t have The Answer. Perhaps you do? This would be a really useful time to contribute on the topic in the forums. Thanks.
The Days Before the Pro Tour
Lots of people wonder when they should travel to the Pro Tour. They wouldn’t mind turning it into a proper holiday, because how often does a free flight to Honolulu land in your lap? On the other hand, they don’t want to be stuck in a totally unfamiliar country with days to wait before anyone they know turns up. Depending on the location, my dedicated scientific analysis dictates that Monday is the correct day to travel. Time zones permitting, you’re likely to still arrive on Monday, get to your bed, and stay there. There are then three full days before the Pro Tour starts on the Friday. These days can then be neatly divided. On Tuesday, that’s your chance to just gently feel your way around your new environment. You’ve just had a day where you simply had to read all the signs and be in the right place at the right time, so there’s no need to do the same to yourself on the Tuesday. Get up, have some breakfast, take a walk for a couple of hours around your hostel, see what downtown life has to offer. If you’re out of town, get a bus in, and make sure you know what bus you need to get back, and precisely — precisely — where it goes from. This, by the way, is one of the biggest mistakes people make. They know they’re on the bus, they know what bus number they’re on, they know it goes downtown, all fine. But city centres often have bus loops that mean your return bus may go from nowhere near where you step off upon arrival. Check it out.
Food, Part One
Assuming that you’re on your own, you get to eat whatever you like for lunch. In truth, I’m one of the fussiest eaters alive, and believe that both fruit and vegetables are inherently bad for you. (Okay, I don’t actually believe that, but my diet indicates that I do). It will not surprise you to learn that I am therefore extremely conservative when it comes to cuisine choices in a foreign country. One of my highest priorities is to establish the whereabouts of bottled water and bread. Between these two, I can survive the week. Add in diet coke, and I can survive the week comfortably. Add in cheese and ham, and I have my five star hotel. Going hungry is such a dumb thing to do, particularly if it’s going to make you feel sick, headaches etc. You should always have some kind of supply of food for when the mood takes you, and remember that with jetlag doing its thing you may want food at some apparently unusual or inconvenient times.
I’m not unrealistic about the quality of the food I like to consume, and have phrases like ‘The Golden Arches — Your Guarantee of Mediocrity Throughout The World’ etched on my brain. Thing is, a guaranteed mediocrity, and a slice of home, may be just what you require. It’s a great plan to partake of local cuisine (more on this later), but don’t let the food police tell you that somehow you’re a lesser human being for liking fries.
The Rest of Tuesday
Having established a bulkhead around your hostel, you can see what opportunities present themselves. Maybe there was a cinema showing the latest Bond film in English with Japanese subtitles. Even more entertaining, in Japanese with English subtitles. This, you may be assured, can be cracking fun. Almost nothing beats seeing a Hollywood film dubbed into Russian with the official deep-bass translator playing all the parts. All of them, women included. Perhaps there was a park where you can sit in the sunshine and contemplate sideboard plans, or, daringly, write postcards home. (Trivia moment — I have never seen a Magic player writing a postcard home. Ever.) Maybe you want to watch the world go by from a riverside cafe. Maybe you want to get your shopping out of the way early in the trip so you don’t miss out later. The key is not to expect too much of yourself on the first day. Yes, you’re there to enjoy yourself, but charging off into the Himalayas or wherever may take more out of you than you suppose. Take Tuesday to chill, and there’s a good bet that by the end of Tuesday plenty of folks will have arrived, meaning you can spend the evening playing and testing.
This is your sightseeing day. Most Pro Tours are in some pretty funky places, so there’s always something cool to do. In many ways, the trouble is that there’s far too many things to do, and nobody can decide. One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you is this — Be The One Who Decides. This might sound like I’m encouraging you to be selfish and dictate to the rest of the group. I’m not. Fact is, I’ve frequently chosen places to go almost at random, and said so. But the simple act of announcing, ‘I’m going to the Walk of Fame and the Oscars place in 20 minutes’ can utterly galvanize the troops, who themselves are struggling with the whole Choice thing. If you’re genuinely interested in tourism, the internet gives you all the information you could possibly desire. Bill Stark is someone who is absolutely fantastic at Being The One Who Decides, and it’s a great service to be on the other end of. Also from the other end of this, I’d say be open to possibilities. When I worked on cruiselines, I spent a fair amount of time planning each and every hour of every port stop. I knew exactly which shrine I wanted to go to, how much money I needed to go into the museum in the afternoon, and which mall had the most game stores in. That’s fine, and if, using your skill and judgement, you’ve arrived at the perfect itinerary, go you. However, after a while I began to realize that some of my best experiences were the ones that were happening by accident. I just tagged along, turned a corner coming out of the port, and suddenly there was this amazing street festival, or piece of architecture, or tattoo parlor. Well, not the tattoo parlor, but you get the idea. Of the hundreds (literally) of cities I’ve visited, it was the ones I knew least about and had fewest expectations of that have stayed with me the longest. The unexpected trumps the known heavyweight sights time after time. So be open, and fill your Wednesday with memories.
Until 5pm. Then it’s time to test!
Thursday is the first full-on Magic day. If you’re a dedicated sightseeing type, you could do a half-day trip somewhere, but my experience of these is that they leave you wanting more, and wishing you weren’t tied to commitments later in the day. By mid-afternoon it’s time to go down to the tournament site. There is absolutely no purpose to getting there early. Every single Pro Tour, a disconsolate-looking group of backpack wearers huddle around lampposts outside a deserted conference center having discovered that the venue that opens at 4pm opens at 4pm. Not 2pm, 3pm or even 3.30pm, but 4pm. The WotC website will tell you if the Last Chance Qualifier is happening at the tournament site (frequently not the case), in which case you can get in earlier in the day. Although arriving early is suboptimal, so is arriving late, assuming that you’re looking for cards for your deck. The traders will be ready to take your money, and you should make the acquiring of remaining cards your top priority. In particular, traders will run out of usually-unfavorable rares very quickly. In Berlin, it’s fair to say that Orzhov Pontiff wasn’t something traders were stockpiling, and as a result the prices went through the roof. 10 copies of a card doesn’t even service 3 people if they all want 4 for the board, and there might be 100 players running your particular archetype. It’s also worth contemplating whether the cards you’re looking for are multi-purpose or only fit in one very narrow slot. At the simplest level, Child Of Alara (WUBRG) will be of no use to anybody outside of a 5-color or reanimation strategy. Prismatic Lens, representing artifact fixing and acceleration, could belong almost anywhere. Be aware that although traders at the Pro Tour love to buy cards — that’s what keeps their machine supplied with goods to sell — they also enjoy selling cards at the best price they can get. In general, you are much better off putting your deck together before you travel than relying on one of the four traders to sell you four Cryptic Command at a price you like.
Having shopped for your final pieces of the puzzle, it’s time for registration. This seems a good point to suggest that you program the phone number of Scott Larabee into your mobile. Scott is the Tournament Organiser, and he’s the man who ultimately gets to decide whether to let you into the tournament if you’ve been hideously delayed by events outside your control. The more warning you give Scott, the more chance you have of being allowed to register late, so as soon as disaster strikes, call him. Wizards want you to take part in the event you’ve qualified for, so if they can make it so, they will. If you’re under 16 (I believe this is the cutoff) you’ll need a parental consent form. As always with documents, make sure that you have the right ones with you.
The Player Party can vary massively, and my best advice is to go with the flow, and expect nothing. Most of the time you will get a Pro Tour T-shirt marking your participation, there’s some local-flavor food, and sometimes some form of musical entertainment. There’s likely to be free draft sets, and generally some basic land, although sometimes yours that you cunningly packed comes in handy here too. If it’s a Constructed Pro Tour, there are likely to be very few players actually openly running what they’re going with the following day, so you shouldn’t base your expectations on what you see on Thursday. Whether you base your expectations on what you hear on Thursday depends entirely on how good your connections are. I’m not a good choice for advice on this one, since my ears are closer to the ground than most, and anything I miss I can generally get from two of the most connected men in Magic, Bill Stark and BDM. It’s been a while since these two turned up to a PT and were amazed at what Constructed decks were unveiled on a Friday morning. Although the frontal approach might just work, in general you’re not going to get very far by walking up to Raphael Levy or Olivier Ruel and saying, ‘What are you playing tomorrow?’ whether or not you’ve prefaced it by introducing yourself. While it’s a myth that most Pros are unapproachable — for the most part they have time and courtesy for almost anyone — there’s a reason that they’re the best, and part of that is that they’ve spent time testing and networking, and giving that edge to someone they’ve never met isn’t sensible, and therefore they don’t do it.
Food, Part 2
If you come from one of the massive Magic nations like the U.S. or Japan, you may well have set yourself up within your own little group of players. For most players however, the Pro Tour breaks down along National lines, at least when it comes to food. By and large, you can expect The Belgians to go eat together, or The Dutchies or The Brits etc. I think the meal on Thursday evening is one of the most special parts of the Pro Tour experience. Everyone is nervous, whether it’s about deckchoice or pick orders. Everyone is excited. Everyone is hoping for a win, or a glorious topdeck. Nobody has the bad beat stories. Everyone understands that around the world at that very moment, billions are toiling away, while they get to party. Given how great this time is, I highly recommend setting aside your own dietary preferences. If seven of your new friends are going for sushi, go for sushi. You can always opt for a bag of potato chips or a chocolate bar when you get back to your hostel if you didn’t like the meal, but you’ll be hard-pressed to improve upon the experience of that night before meal out with National colleagues. Randy Buehler mentioned in one of the webcasts that he had an inflexible rule at CMU, which was that if you were going to veto a meal proposal, you had to replace it with an alternative. ‘I don’t fancy that’ gets you nowhere. Good rule, RB. After the Last Supper, it’s time for bed, and for goodness sake actually go to bed. Don’t sit up and test until 4am. Get some sleep.
So this is what it’s all been about, getting to the start line. I’ve known some people left a little flat by their PT experience at the actual table, and it seems to me that this is because they’ve forgotten that what the Pro Tour is a group of people playing Magic. Once you sit down for Round 1, the first thing you’re likely to do is lay a land, perhaps cast a Wild Nacatl, and pass the turn. This is not a special occurrence. This is ordinary. In many ways, you want the playing experience to be as ordinary as possible. You’ve qualified presumably because you’re at least semi-competent, and now that all the adventure is out of the way, it’s time to play cards just like you normally do.
Are there cheats at the Pro Tour? Sure. Is the Pro Tour a den of iniquity where everyone is waiting to stab you in the back? No. One of the things that the Pro Club levels have done is create a much broader spirit of community within the Pro ranks, and although there are still going to be occasional players with what we in the trade refer to as ‘balls of steel,’ for the most part you need to be no more careful at the Pro Tour than anywhere else. Indeed, arguably you are much less likely to be cheated at the Pro Tour, due to an abundance of judges, and high-level ones at that.
Don’t Make Me Sad
This isn’t something I’ve talked about with other regular students of the game in the coverage business, so I can’t tell you whether this is a unique position. Simply, if you are at your first Pro Tour, I implore you not to drop out until the end of the first day. No matter how hideous you think your deck choice was, no matter how badly you think you’re playing, no matter whether your second draft deck at 0-5 has only one creature, and that’s a Cylian Elf, keep playing. Qualifying for the Pro Tour is incredibly hard, and a great achievement. Yes, your score won’t allow you to compete on Day 2, but it does allow you to compete through the whole of Day 1. You have no idea who you’re going to meet in those final rounds. They may not be part of your Pro Tour Story, but maybe you’re going to be part of theirs. They might get an incredible topdeck to beat you, and you’ll feel miserable, but they’ll have a story to tell their family and friends. The only story I have of the last round of my first Pro Tour was that I got a bye, because somebody couldn’t be bothered to carry on playing.
When there are so many thousands of people who would kill in a heartbeat to exchange places with you, to leave your seat empty seems to me to be — and please forgive the almost unused word in this day and age — dishonorable. Honor the game you love, honor your opponents who have travelled halfway around the world to play you, and honor yourself by having the decency and strength of character to see it through to the finish. That second win of the day at 8pm might be the sweetest of your life.
Winners, This Is For You
In a perfect world, you’ll be still playing in the Pro Tour on Saturday, and in a wonderful turn of events, on Sunday too. This next piece of advice is unbelievably narrow in application, but here it is anyway. Winners, don’t expect to do much for a couple of hours after the final. There are a stack of media commitments for the winner, ranging from the official photo with Craig Gibson to an appearance with Randy and BDM on the final tournament center of the weekend, and a setpiece audio interview with yours truly. It can also be a little disconcerting when you win, because although it’s obviously a massive deal for you, and thousands upon thousands of people around the world watching live, in the tournament venue itself most people are still busy going about the business of playing Magic, and you may well find yourself at something of a loose end. Still, at least there’s 40,000 reasons why that shouldn’t be too much of a problem to you.
The End of Your Trip
Perhaps more than many groups, Magic players don’t always know how they’re going to fit in to a new and uncertain social environment. To a first-timer at the Pro Tour, the added factor of so many of the game’s Legends can make things seem rather awkward. For what it’s worth, I think a certain amount of being ‘un-cool’ is a really good idea. Be a big kid. Ask the Hall of Famer you’ve looked up to for years to sign your playmat. Come and get your photo taken with Randy, or LSV, or Paulo. Tell your favorite artist that they are your favorite artist. Get a picture of every opponent. Whatever is going to give you good memories to look back on is worth it. Remember that many others will be just as uncertain as you, just as nervous, just as hopeful of meeting new friends and having wonderful new experiences.
With a little planning, and some common sense, your trip of a lifetime can be precisely that, and if you play well and have a little bit of luck, maybe the start of something more.
As ever, thanks for reading…
Oh, and one more thing — at this precise moment, where’s your passport?