Setting out on the journey that is this week’s article, I’m aware that some of this may come out as self-indulgent waffle. That clearly isn’t my intent. My intent is to bring you the inside story of my Kuala Lumpur week, featuring lots of backstage chat, lifting the lid on the fun and frolics that is Tournament Center and the live Webcast, and hopefully convincing you that, whether it happens three or four times a year, the Pro Tour is one of the most incredible gaming experiences you could possibly have. That’s the intent. If the self-indulgent waffle kicks in, I apologise in advance, but it really has been a very strange week.
I’ve known for a couple of weeks that I get to try my hand at being Randy in the booth. This is clearly different to being randy in the booth, which may have resulted in arrest or worse. Whilst it has become clear over recent months that some people out there regard everyone who ever lifted a pen/microphone for coverage purposes as little better than monkeys, I’ve got a lifetime as an entertainer behind me, and I’m here to tell you – fact – that Randy is a great host. By the end of this article, I expect you will have discovered how errors creep in to the Webcast, but when I got the call that I’d be teaming up with BDM I felt a massive mix of excitement and apprehension. Someone correctly said on MagictheGathering.com that these were ‘big shoes to fill.’ It’s also an inevitable side-effect of change that people suddenly get to realise what they’ve been missing, and recognise the fact that Randy is top-notch. As a result, I’d spent the previous two weeks doing enormous amounts of research in order to sound like I had some clue what was going on. One of the toughest things to get my head around was the idea that no matter what I did, to somebody somewhere I would be too ginger, too fat, too British, too camp, too… something. Talking with Randy and BDM and some of the good folk at Wizards, I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m going to be damned, I’m going to be damned for what and who I am, not for what and who I’m not. In other words, I’m going to talk lots, make some hideous puns, smile and laugh a lot, and be genuinely enthusiastic about the game I love. I love this game – how could I not, given what it’s done for me in the last 11 years?
So by this point, Monday, I’m pretty highly strung. Whenever I’ve got a big project coming up I tend to go very introspective and almost impossible to communicate with. I think at this point if my wife spent any more time testing me on the contents of Morningtide she’d go insane. And until I was confronted by having to have all this knowledge at my fingertips, I had no idea just how much information there was. 430-odd cards. 430 names. 430 casting costs. Hundreds of creature types, many monsters with multiple types. Hundreds of keyword abilities, many of them with specific costs or conditions, like prowl or champion. Hundreds of individual activated, triggered, and comes-into-play abilities. Hundreds of power and toughness. Thousands upon thousands of interactions. And the killer bit is, any one of these bits of information could ultimately trip you up under the pressure of the live show. Or just because you didn’t know it. As it turned out, the one major blunder I made repeatedly on the Sunday was magically transforming a Black 3/3 called Weed-Pruner Poplar – which | swear I knew was its name – into Black Poplar Shaman, which is of course a Lorwyn card which I also know very well. Pressure does strange things to you.
I spent the evening with my close friends Neil (co-founder of moxradio) Rigby and Dave (European Grand Prix and Pro Tour coverage stalwart) Sutcliffe. I imagine I wasn’t very good company as we played our way through the Morningtide Pre-Constructed theme decks, as I tried to recognise cards from the top right third of the artwork. I eventually got as far as the sofa at 1.30am, and woke 2 hours later to go to the airport. I generally need 8 hours sleep, so I’ll start the sleep deprivation list at -6.
I did something constructive about the sleep issue by sleeping for two hours on the plane from Manchester down to London. Wait, hang on, that can’t be right, it’s only a 35 minute flight. Ah, right, fog. So, my sleep counter goes to -4, but my travel plans in ruins goes to critical. By the time I got to London, my direct flight to KL had vanished. Inconveniently, so had all sign of anyone from Malaysia Airlines. It turns out that they have a sum total of two flights leaving Britain each day, and my 11am flight would be followed up by the second one, ooh, 11 hours later. Nice. So suddenly I’ve got a day in Heathrow airport. What to do? When in doubt, ask Mr and Mrs Information Desk. “So go on then, entertain me.” That’s how I came to find myself on a double decker bus heading out into the hitherto uncharted reaches of the local town, Feltham, in order to spend the afternoon watching the film version of “Sweeney Todd” starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. When I tell you that Bonham-Carter can’t really sing, I’m not offering you this as an opinion. I teach people how to sing, and she can’t. Having said that, it’s a top film if you don’t mind too much gore, Al or otherwise. Eventually I get back to Heathrow, spend a few hours looking through my voluminous notes on this year’s Pros, and get on the flight. I manage to sleep through a large chunk of the flight, getting more or less seven hours of much-needed shut-eye on the red-eye. Tuesday sleep -1, total sleep -5.
There wasn’t much of Wednesday to speak of, since Malaysia is 8 hours ahead of London time. My 12 hour flight therefore got me into KL at 7 in the evening. After a cab ride to the hotel, I meet up with my roommate Bill Stark and coverage boss Greg Collins. It’s at this point that I receive the bad news that in addition to Randy being absent, BDM will not be my experienced anchor on coverage all week, as he’s apparently well on the way to a good impression of death with pneumonia. It occurs to me pretty quickly that Bill would be the obvious replacement. He really knows his stuff and is incredibly hard working. What I don’t know at this stage is how comfortable or otherwise he feels about being in front of a camera all weekend. Oh well, Greg’s decision. I go in search of assorted Wizards friends and have a slightly uncomfortable conversation where I get to discuss Iraq with my American friends. It’s hard to know quite how to reply to a question as direct as “So what do most Brits think about the war in Iraq?” This isn’t a political article, or a political site, but it’s an indication that Magic people do actually have a perspective on the real world too, something we sometimes choose to forget. Now back in San Diego I got to meet a young lady from Wizards called Courtney Maheras. It’s pretty rare that I find someone who laughs at my jokes, so we agreed to hook up on Wednesday to explore the hotel restaurant, both being confirmed carnivores. Tediously, the lose-a-day delay meant that we had to reschedule, and we rather foolishly as it turned out decided on the following day, Thursday. That’s Thursday, the 14th. Yes, Thursday February the 14th. Mmm, Valentine’s Day. Wednesday Sleep -0, total Sleep -5.
I’ve done a huge amount of travel over the years, and one of the great truths I’ve discovered is that the truly special memories come at the most unexpected times. Yes, the acknowledged great sights, and sites, of the world can be spectacular, but who knew that Ghent in Belgium or Aarhus in Denmark are two of the most gorgeous places on Earth? Not me certainly, until I ended up there knowing nothing about them. So when Greg told me that I’d be recording the lifestyle piece by going to somewhere called the Batu Caves, I was mentally shrugging. Caves, fine, take some Magic players, great, steps and walking, not so hot, should be a neat day. It wasn’t neat, it was awesome in the truest sense of the word. Quite apart from the astonishing natural environment, and the monkeys, and the Hindu shrines, it was a great chance to talk with Zac Hill, a guy I’d first had the chance to hook up with in San Diego. He came across there as a really genuine guy, and that was confirmed during our trip. I sometimes get fed up of describing all these people I spend time with as “smart,” but Zac really is, and has a lot to say about stuff away from Magic too, which is refreshing. If you haven’t seen the monkey business we got up to, check it out on the mothership. Next up was the player’s party, at a huge Chinese restaurant. This was a cracking event, and because it was in a confined space where players couldn’t just wander off across the vast PT hall to Draft or chat, there was a sense of oneness and anticipation that was really great to be a part of. Plus, it means I get to talk to my friends without walking 15 miles around the venue. Bonus.
Then it was back to the hotel, and time for my — please notice my inverted commas — “hot date” with Courtney. Sensible soul that I am, I booked the table in advance and confirmed that, despite, yes, being a man and a woman and despite, yes, being married, we were in fact not married to each other, and that any hearts and flowers would likely result in vomiting rather than expressions of undying love. There would be a main menu just like any other day, wouldn’t there Mr. Hotel Restaurant Manager? “You eat steak, normal menu, normal table.”
So we get to our table. There’s rose petals strewn across it. Several botanical gardens have clearly been decimated in order to provide the horticultural display, vying desperately for space amongst the heart-shaped chocolates, five different drinking vessels, and a Commemorative Menu that includes five set courses For Him and For Her, featuring such stomach-churning nonsense as course one — Love’s First Blush through Filled With Love to Final Encounter. And then I see the strawberries and I start to sweat. There in a perfectly presented dish are two of the largest strawberries I’ve ever seen, with the green stems in place. My mind fast forwards two incredibly uncomfortable hours and reaches a point where I and my Beloved are meant to gaze longingly into each other’s eyes, entwine our hands, and feed each other these meal-ending morsels of sweetness whilst professing undying love. We look at each other across the table, and simultaneously utter one blissful off-the-hook word:
Having extricated ourselves from what would definitely have been one to tell the grandkids about (“Granny, did Grandpa really not spend Valentine’s Day with you when he was in Koala Lumpy?”) we were off in search off, you know, food. And then we found out the truth — every place in Malaysia was in “set menu for two, charming couple, seat for you with Romantic view” mode. I’m not kidding, we waded through about five seas of smiling couples before we finally found in a shopping mall the 100% antidote to all this wooing and cooing, a cheap and cheery coffeeshop/cafÃ© so impossibly antiseptic in dÃ©cor and staffing that we could have eaten our thoroughly blasÃ© lasagne and chips off the floor. And we nearly had to. A fun, but very surreal evening.
And then things start to go downhill. When Randy was delayed coming out to Pro Tour: Valencia last year, I was due to run Tournament Center with BDM for Day 1. The Thursday night I couldn’t sleep, so eventually at 2.45am I got up, plugged in my laptop, and set about reading BDM’s Friday column that should just have gone live, looking for things to ask him the following morning. That’s how I found out that there wasn’t going to be a Day 1 in Valencia, and I wasn’t going to be doing the Tournament Center. This time around there was no sign of hell or high water that was going to stop me getting in front of the cameras. And I just couldn’t sleep. Having thought I’d dealt with the jet lag, it turned out, no, I really hadn’t. As I stared at the clock — 3 am, 4am, 5am I was rationalizing it all and telling myself that it was only 9pm on Thursday evening back in Britain. Did I say rationalizing? My friends, by the time I got up at 6.45am I was ready to hit myself with a hammer. Sleep -8, running total -13.
Day 1 of the PT. I always feel that Day 1 of a Limited PT is a little like one of those weird illusions where you stare at the page for ages and then everything comes into focus, but different people see different things. On the one hand, calling Day 1 a “Triple Elimination” event doesn’t sound too bad. I mean, you’re only playing six rounds before the cut, so you’d have to be bad enough to lose at least half of them, and if you’ve lost at least half your matches, you can’t really complain about not still being in the running. Then I look at it from the point of view of the first-timer who won a PTQ. “You mean I can only lose twice, or that’s it? And a draw is as bad as a loss in terms of making Day 2? Man, that’s harsh.” And it is. Essentially, you’re allowed to get beaten by the Big Name Pro you get paired against in Round 1, and you’re allowed to get beaten by your own deck malfunction in Round 5, and that’s it. No more chances. You basically have to be better than almost everybody to progress, so it’s no wonder that you can make a thoroughly convincing Sunday Top 8 out of players who didn’t make Day 2, let alone Day 3. I guess it makes for a lot of intense matches. Me? I’d just be terrified.
As the day went on, and on, and on, and on, and the distance away from my bed grew and grew, things went extremely well on the practical side of things. There’s a dedicated pair of people for the Tournament Center, “Mort” the cameraman and Producer, and his glamorous Assistant Deb. They spend all day working at these 6-9 minute pieces, shooting, editing, uploading, getting photos for the plasma screen, and they do this whilst simultaneously turning a bucketload of footage from the Caves trip the day before into the 3-4 minute lifestyle piece that finally makes it onto the web. Dear God, they work hard. Bill Stark, it turned out, was a natural on screen, helped in large measure by the fact that he simply knew what he was talking about. It did us no harm at all that we talked each Tournament Center through before we shot it, since I was then able to turn to Bill in total confidence, knowing that he would have something good to say. It was an interesting learning experience for me, working with someone with such a strong background in journalism. Hanno Turbuyken, the leading European Grand Prix coverage writer, is another who approaches Magic from a professional journalistic standpoint, and their pinpoint precision, nose for a story, and ear for the tidbits of genuine interest to the public are in, no pun intended, stark contrast to my free-flowing style. It felt like a good fit, and I was glad that we were able to do a few specific features about the different regions of the world in terms of their Pros. There’s so much going on round by round, it’s hard to hold on to a bigger picture, but I think we managed to look at a lot of the big names we’ll be seeing through 2008. I certainly hope so.
The Longest Day (for me at least) finally ended, with all sorts of awesome stories lying in wait for Saturday. For me, it was time for bed, having been conscious for 39 hours straight, a good 21 too many for my taste. Friday sleep -0, Total -13.
Having actually had some shut-eye, Saturday felt a whole lot easier than the day before. So it was just the usual fifteen hours of non-stop watching, writing, scripting, talking and filming Magic as one of the most incredible Top 8s in years came into view. I think in some ways you might be horrified how little Magic I get to watch at these things. Every time I’m interviewing a player, I’m not watching Magic. When I’m working on Tournament Centers, I’m not watching Magic. When I’m editing the podcasts, in the Sunday webcast meeting, interviewing the head of Organized Play for Asia-Pacific, ditto. In fact, there have been days on Tour where I have to quite deliberately put everything else down and remind myself that there’s Actual Games going on beyond the curtain, and wouldn’t it be nice to, I don’t know, see some of them? Obviously this was exacerbated this time around because of doing the Tournament Center, but even without, one of my great pleasures of any day at a PT is when I finally get to sit down with a laptop in the Feature Match Area and watch an entire best-of-three start to finish in preparation for a Commentary on the audio coverage.
Once the main event had ended, it was time for the real work to begin, preparing for Sunday. For the past year, my role has been to stand on the floor of the Top 8 and watch the other Quarter Finals, feeding Randy and BDM match scores, cool plays, and also watching out for anything that they can’t see via the monitors in the Booth. I’d managed to sneak into the Booth for a few minutes on both Friday and Saturday, and rehearsed myself mumbling away to an overhead shot of the main table. On Saturday evening, we were able to persuade Paul Cheon and friend to come sit in the Feature Match Area and play some Magic, so that Bill and I could get a few precious minutes of simulated Top 8 play. In a way, doing the Booth is like the old children’s game of patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. We get five monitors in front of us. The first shows the Program, literally what you’re all seeing at home. That way when Bruce Towne the director cuts to show someone’s face at the start of a match, I can say, “and there you see him, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa.” There are two main free-roaming cameras, which basically live over the shoulder of the two players. These two give us the chance to see what’s in the player’s hands — some of the time. Some players fiddle about with their cards like you wouldn’t believe, but at least occasionally we can make out a card or two. At the very least, lands versus spells can generally be spotted. That leaves the two overhead shots. The first is fixed over the central table, the top-down “trench warfare” shot of the board, and the one that Bill and I generally find most useful to determine what’s going on. And then there’s the jib, the free-roving crane camera that gives you all the “swooping” shots at the start of the Top 8, and the wide-angle shot of the whole arena. It’s a minor miracle that more people don’t brain themselves on this extended monstrosity, but I’ve managed to avoid death thus far.
So, five monitors. Then you’ve got a match to watch and talk about, ideally in an intelligent fashion. Then there’s Scott Johns, drafted in to do my “real” job, reporting from the floor. Scott’s an incredibly polite guy, and it can be hard convincing someone like that to talk constantly in your ear while you’re talking on air to someone else who you’re meant to be listening to whilst simultaneously looking up the last one-legged Vietnamese player to make Top 16 in a Limited Pro Tour… you can see what I mean about patting your head… Thankfully, Scott was awesome on the Sunday, and came up with some brilliant lines which I was able to quote word for word, effectively claiming as my own! Yay! The Power Of The Booth…
Anyway, with our brief rehearsal out of the way, it was time to do some Top 8 research, checking such apparently insignificant details such as what country Jon Finkel was from, who was Nicolai Herzog, how would we recognize Guillaume Wafo-Tapa (he was the one on the left, okay), and how many ways you could legitimately attempt to pronounce Mike Hron’s surname. Then it was time for bed. Oh, except it wasn’t. I’d had an idea for previewing the Top 8, going round the actual draft table and introducing the players and the storylines we’d be following through the day. This seemed like a great idea when I sent it to my boss, Coverage guru Greg Collins, a few months back. When I got to my room, where Bill was already far away in the land of eternal PT victories, and I realized that in order to accomplish this straight-to-camera piece I basically needed a word for word script and that it was already midnight, I was slightly less impressed with my plan. Still, at least I was asleep by 5am. Saturday sleep -6, Total -19.
Oh thank you thank you thank you, a Top 8 sent from Heaven. Two Hall of Famers in Finkel and Herzog. Two more Pro Tour winners in Mike Hron and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. The first mainland Chinese Top 8er in Ming Xu. Portuguese Pro Marcio Carvalho. Double Italian National Champion Mario Pascoli. And the Spanish student Joel Calafell. As we sat down to begin the draft, the worst storyline we could come up with was just “hard-working Portuguese Pro finally cracks open the big one, as 4 PT winners fall by the wayside in a monster Top 8.” That incredibly awesome storyline was the “least interesting” possible outcome! We really couldn’t lose. To be fair, I caught my biggest break of the weekend as the draft started. As many of you will know, I’m a massive fan of Kithkin, and know vastly more about drafting that archetype than any other. So when our main man Jon Finkel started picking up the little White men I was ecstatic, and right into my comfort zone. Although there were of course a few nerves, as the day went on, sitting and just talking with Bill felt pretty natural, and, since plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, I’ll steal his line and say we appeared to get through the weekend without destroying Magic. Which would have been poor.
By the time I handed over to Scott Larabee for the awards, I was knackered. By the time Bill and I had wrapped the last Tournament Center of the weekend and I’d got to interview the winner — did I mention that Jon Finkel won the Pro Tour? — I was really knackered, and not even the prospect of a Coverage draft could persuade me away from my plan of food, maybe a bit of chat, and bed bed bed. So I’m standing in my room, thinking that maybe the food and the chat bit could be dispensed with and that bed bed bed is looking pretty inviting when the phone rings. On the other end is a lady who shall remain nameless, largely because I value my life. Suffice to say, not a lot goes on in the world of the PT without her knowing about it.
“Rich Hagon, are you standing in your room all alone and not out celebrating?”
“Er, yeah, kinda.”
“Room 3264. Come at once. We’ll put our clothes on for you.”
And that, my friends, is how I came to spend the final evening of my time in Kuala Lumpur with The Coven, a Wizards group of four spectacularly delightful ladies, at my first ever All-Girls-Night-In Pajama Party.
I told you my week was weird.
As ever, thanks for reading.