Removed From Game – Putting the Id in Madrid

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Tuesday, July 29th – Rich is a long way from home for the next couple of weeks. First it’s off to Madrid for a Sealed Deck and Draft Grand Prix which was sure to be monumentally well-attended, and then next week he’ll be reporting back to us from the fun and frolics of Magic Weekend in Chicago, the home of the U.S. Nationals this year. As usual, a topical blend of information, speculation, abrogation, and possibly even navigation

Hola from Espana. That’s the end of the local culture references for this article, as I have just burned my entire Spanish vocabulary in that opening salvo. Oh well, have to make do with the mother tongue. This week I am, as you may have surmised, in Spain, for the latest in the Summer Series of Grand Prix. In a room full of almost 1500 people, there are some great stories waiting to be unearthed, so let’s dig.

Setting Records

It’s possible that Wizards know exactly why the Grand Prix circuit is seeing burgeoning popularity. If they do, they need to bottle it, because the vibe at these things gets better and better. At a guess, some of it has to do with the simple core fanbase expanding for the game. Six million people is the official estimate of players and fans around the world, and events like this one (the third largest Magic tournament of all time) are something to say you were a part of. Actually, I feel like I’ve cheated by slipping in that statistic in brackets. It’s almost like I want you to ignore it, or at least give it a grudging glance and then dismissal. Let’s have another go.

There have been over one million sanctioned events since Magic began, and only twice in history has this field ever been surpassed. On average, we’ll have to go another 300,000+ tourneys before we see the like again.

Of course, we won’t have to wait anything like that long. Grand Prix: Buenos Aires annihilated the South American record last month. At Grand Prix: Indianapolis there was near-heart failure at the size of the playing field, over 1100, more than 200 clear of the previous best. Even Grand Prix: Birmingham in dear old Blighty was way up on past performances. And now 1450+ crammed into the Convention Center here in Spain’s capital city.

Personally, I think there’s more to it than just the popularity of the game, significant though that is. With a move away from regular large tournaments on a local basis (think 50+ players) towards more store-based and small-group activity via the Wizards Play Network, the chance to be in a room with not just dozens but hundreds of players has been given added resonance. International travel comes into the equation too. Although in the short term prices of flights may be rising, the overall affordability of hopping on a jet across Europe for the weekend has risen staggeringly over the past decade. Although Raphael Levy may partially jokingly be hoping for a small field when the Grand Prix: Manila rolls around, it’s hard to imagine an event that won’t attract 600 players minimum from now on. Indeed, here in Europe breaking the 1,000 barrier seems commonplace, and the sight of two pods on the green and blue tablecloths is pretty much expected every time the venue is unveiled on Saturday morning. At a guess, the next big test of the rolling Grand Prix juggernaut will come this Fall, when Grand Prix: Paris takes place at Euro Disney, a venue with, shall we say, some other attractions nearby? Since Paris currently holds the World Record, there’s every chance that a new mark could be set.

A Common Language

Waiting to catch the flight over, I stayed with some friends. In recent weeks I’ve found myself doing some commentary work on other games, notably Pro Evolution Soccer, the deadly rival to FIFA. American readers may now resume caring. The constituency is somewhat different to Magic, but so is the language of the game. Despite the fundamental rules of soccer being so straightforward – kick ball in between two posts, score 1 point, highest score wins, end – the sheer incomprehensibility of some of the conversations between high-level players was breathtaking, yet to both these people and the wider fanbase for soccer, there was nothing unusual in phrases like ‘Christmas tree,’ ‘in the hole,’ ‘pressuring the wingbacks’ and so on. Frankly, that lot pales into insignificance with listening to my friends discussing Mario Kart on the XBox360. ‘Ah well, after that initial turboboost he’s going to get punished with bananas.’ ‘Yeah, bananas are basically pipe but are potentially useful as defensive weapons.’ Huh? But the thing is that almost every hobby has its own world of language, and once you’re admitted into the club a whole range of vocabulary opens up. Split ends, tight ends, and cover two are probably second nature to some of you gearing up for the real Football season, but when ‘I curved out beautifully after a mull to six’ seems commonplace we forget how bizarrely constructed some of our chat can be. As for me, walking the streets of Madrid late on Friday night, amongst a sea of (to me) incomprehensible Spanish babble, I heard the words ‘red deck wins’ and I knew I was home.

Being Prepared to Win

It seems that through a combination of more playable cards, more internet knowledge, and more Magic Online than in times past, it has become much harder for Pro players to display their basic ‘edge’ over opponents. I certainly belong to a time where any number of opponents would fail to deal you damage with a pinger at end of turn, or die to an on-table trick, or simply not know the rules in a way that disadvantaged them turn after turn and duel after duel. Those days have gone, and the best now have to find new ways of gaining a critical advantage that can turn 4-2 and missing out on tiebreaks into 4-1-1 and a place in the Draft portion of the event. Steve Sadin has always been a thoughtful guy, and his attention to detail sets him apart from even many of the most successful players I talk to.

If, for a moment, you’re prepared to allow the notion that Magic is in fact neither a game nor a hobby (although it is of course both these things) but primarily a Sport, then it is clear that the knowledge base for Magic is extraordinarily low when compared to the systems in place in other sports to allow the best to thrive and reach their potential. Sabermetrics in baseball is just the latest in a vast array of coaching guides, analytical and statistical tools, philosphical programming and logistic processes to help sportsmen and women win more. What was the outcome of your last mulligan decision? How about the last five… hundred? If you were deadly serious about improving your game, perhaps being able to see where your decisions went awry would be great, no? Most mature sports have coaches dedicated to miniscule areas of the game. Your average American Football team has roughly twenty coaches, plus on Sundays people whose sole task is to hand players Gatorade and towels when they leave the field. Inevitably, the key to all this is money, since expertise costs phenomenal amounts in time and investment. Magic as a sport doesn’t have billions of dollars to support such mechanisms on a sane financial footing.

For a few players however, this is no reason not to explore every facet of human knowledge they can churn through in their quest for an edge, and Sadin is at the forefront of that type of ‘new tech.’ The latest area of the game to come under his intense analytic scrutiny is the building of complex Sealed pools, and having seen the organisational excellence that can be accomplished in a space as tiny as an airline seat table, I have to say that you’re going to want to use this system to organise your own Sealed decks in future. Rarely has Limited Information been more mis-named.

Scheel Sealed

Few people in the game have a better record than Brandon Scheel over recent months. As Magic tends to do, you find yourself meeting people in the most unexpected places, and I first came into contact with Scheel on a Wizards video shoot in Kuala Lumpur, together with Zac Hill and Matt Hansen. Finishing 11th at the last two Pro Tours and then also in Indianapolis at the Grand Prix is an astonishing level of consistency, making Scheel among the favorites for U.S. Nationals next week. This weekend his attention was firmly on Sealed, and he was gracious enough to take on our Sealed Deck challenge, building a pool on-air in real time. Far be it from me to discourage you from listening to the whole thing at your leisure, but one thing stuck out that was so simple, so obvious, and yet done by so few it seems bordering on criminal.

Once Brandon had cut most of the unplayable cards, and got down to, more or less, four colors, he still had plenty to choose from, and on a visual level hybrid cards are a difficult thing to assimilate with eyes alone. So, in order to bring some clarity to the situation, he went through the apparently endless columns of cards, turning a few sideways, almost like a bookmark. Turns out that he was highlighting all the best cards in the pool, and by the time he had 14 or so at 90 degrees, it was blindingly obvious even to me what colors should be the focus of his pool. I won’t pretend that this little trick will turn you into a worldbeater, since if you turn Woeleecher, Zealous Guardian, and Mine Excavation sideways for their exquisite powerfulness, you’re still going to have problems. But every little helps, as someone once said, and Scheel showcased a shortcut that a lot of us could learn from.

An Uncommon Language

At first I was afraid, I was petrified. No, wrong gig. Anyway, at first I was puzzled when the players were given 40 minutes for deck construction. Surely 30 was the correct amount, even taking into account the fact that Eventide is only just coming out of its shiny wrappers in a big way, so there’s an unfamiliarity factor to consider. Well, yes, there is an unfamiliarity factor to consider, but it has nothing to do with simply not knowing what the activation costs or particular wordings are, since that’s very much a part of the game, and a part of the game where many games are won and lost. Rather this was unfamiliarity with the language of the cards. As most of you probably know, all Premier Magic events are run with English product. That may be fine in countries like Holland where pretty much everyone is encouraged to speak English from a very young age. It’s also largely fine on the Pro Tour, where frankly the ability of players from all over the world to speak my language in some cases more eloquently and fluently than I do is a little bit daunting. Come to a Grand Prix open to all in a country where English is not necessarily the lingua franca (and neither is French) and you have the real prospect of serious confusion. Hence the bonus time for deck construction, allowing hundreds of Spanish players to enquire of the judges quite what the wordings on unfamiliar cards was in their native tongue. Given the hybrid complexities of the environment, there were plenty of Pros who were glad of the extra ten minutes. In the end, most people knew mostly what most cards did most of the time. That just left working out how to use them properly…

The Pinnacle

If you ask a Pro what the greatest way to win a game of Magic is, they’ll probably give you a quizzical look. After all, the greatest way to win a game of Magic is to win a game of Magic, and the discussion is closed. Move slightly further down the food chain however, and you’ll find literally millions of people who love the thrill of finding the most convoluted, outrageous, and plain unlikely ways to win, and like an addicted gambler these players will happily tell you about their one life-affirming victory whilst simultaneously sweeping away a pile of losing tickets. Being easily frustrated, I find it hard to commit myself to these kind of projects, but the big kid inside definitely admires the sheer tenacity and creativity required to make these sorts of stunts possible. In Eventide, however, I’ve found a card that from a Coverage point of view I am simply longing to see someone make work. Perhaps you’ve guessed from the title? Yes, it’s Helix Pinnacle, your chance to spend a grand total of one hundred mana over seventy-three turns (approximately) in return for a game win you’ll be telling your grandkids about (‘Oh gramps, not the Helix Pinnacle story again…’). We were hopeful of running a High Score chart this weekend, since our calculations showed that round about 30 players would have the Pinnacle in their pool. Surely someone would have the balls of steel to maindeck the shrouded Enchantment. If they did, we didn’t hear about it, but I confess it will set my mind at ease to know that somebody somewhere has actually, once in Magic history, made this piece of utter toiletry work. If that’s you, let me know.

In Search of Greatness

We could spend a long time debating what is Greatness, in Magic or any other field, but surely part of the mix would be some sense of ambition. It’s fair to say that I am the greatest me there has ever been, although once cloning goes into full production that won’t be a cast-iron certainty. Thing is, that requires no ambition on my part, no effort – I am in that position by default, and that renders the notion of Greatness meaningless.

Here’s where I’m heading – Guillaume Wafo-Tapa wasn’t here this weekend. There are any number of sane reasons why he might not be, like a family commitment, holiday, illness, clash of tournaments, and a hundred more, but just for arguments sake let’s assume none of those are the reason why we didn’t get to see him. Suppose we didn’t see him because Sealed isn’t his bag and he thinks he’s going to make the highest Pro Level again this year, and Player of the Year continues to not be of interest to him. If those things were true, would that be a barrier to Greatness within the game? In other words, what is the deal with desire? Do you have to be a master of every Format? Do you have to be a Road Warrior? Do you have to devote yourself utterly to the game? Do you have to be wealthy and afford both the time and money to travel worldwide? Do you have to care passionately about every single opportunity to demonstrate your mastery over your rivals? Is there a point at which you’ve done enough in your career for people to say ‘It doesn’t matter that he’s not around much these days’ because your past results speak for themselves, and simple attendance is no longer required?

As you know, I regard G W-T as one of the legitimate threats to Shuhei Nakamura (who, incidentally, was his usual charming self after a washout performance on Day 1 that would have sent many more surly individuals running for the hills), but despite the Japanese frontrunner not picking up extra points, this was still a no-show that disappoints, if only from the perspective of having the opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest (Greatest?) players in action once again. Let’s see how French Nationals goes.

The Skies the Limited

In Round 7 of Grand Prix: Indianapolis, Jelger Wiegersma did something very foolish. He lost a match of Magic. Apparently Jelger shared my vision, and decided that such activity should stop forthwith. The last two rounds of Day 1 were successfully navigated. On Day 2 in Indy, Jelger went 3-0 in his first Draft pod. That took him to 11-1 (or actually 8-1 with 3 byes). He won again at the start of the next pod, and that meant he could Intentionally Draw his last two rounds, safely already in the Top 8. In that Top 8 he met Gaudenis Vidugiris of the USA, the man who had unfortunately had the temerity to beat the Dutchie a day earlier. Not this time, and Jelger, one of the most universally popular players in the world game, but not exactly blazing with fiery ambition, had won the Grand Prix. Fast forward to Day 1 of Grand Prix: Madrid. Keeping count? Jelger began the day of course with his three byes, but was already on a streak of 9 wins and two intentional draws. Round 4, win. Round 5, win. Round 6, win. Round 7, win. Round 8, win. That’s fourteen straight victories at some of the highest level events across two continents and three days of competition. That’s the kind of run that takes you perilously close to being the highest-ranked Limited player of all time. Sadly the run came to a close in the final round, but as Frank Karsten pointed out, when Jelger actually Decided (intentional capital, by the way) that his team of Dutchies were going to win Pro Tour: Seattle, they did just that. That absence of all-consuming desire is something that a lot of people should be very grateful for, because Jelger’s a bit more than a bit good. He’s horrifyingly good. And he’s a top man too.

Alright boys and girls, there’s a Top 8 to watch, so you’ll have to excuse me. If you’d like to know who wins, and I know that I would, you’ll just have to listen to my commentary, won’t you?

Next time around it’s the State of the Union, as I bring you the widest possible view of Magic through the prism of Magic Weekend in Chicago, where amongst other things I’ll be attempting to give away 1,000 Rares in exchange for answering 15 measly questions in The Magic Game Show. So if you’re coming to Chicago, see you there, and if you’re not, see you right here next week.

As ever, thanks for reading.