Listen up; I’ve got a story for ya. It’s a personal account but also a tale shared by many others that has remained untold for too long. It’s not about
glory and fame; rather, it’s a narrative of shortcomings, bitterness, and repeated disappointment. Six tournaments deep, and this is my story, one that
rings true for the majority of players ever to grace the tables of a Pro Tour.
It’s 2009, and I’m sitting in the thirteenth-floor lobby of a hotel in Austin, listening to far wiser mages as they chat on the eve of the Pro Tour.
It’s my first, having qualified by way of the PTQ (in my first Top 8 no less). However, having had a total of zero Magic accomplishments prior to my
win and moving halfway across the country just two months later, I find myself ill-prepared and knowing only a solitary soul at the event.
My preparation involved an endless but futile string of emails with Andy Roman and a series of MWS matches with Blaine Hatab where I often found myself
exiting the program to prevent my roommates from finding out about my dark secret. I came strapped with an innovative (read: terrible) U/B Faerie deck,
straight out of the previous year’s PT Berlin. I honestly believed it to be the best deck that I had found, but when asked what I would be playing the
next day, embarrassment prevailed, as I found myself muttering “Zoo” to cover up. To top things off, as the chats escalated, I could only wonder what
the card “Dark Depths” actually did.
In short, I was drawing dead from turn 1, and I didn’t even know it.
Sometimes, however, miracles do happen in this world. Coverage will often put the shiniest of tech on display for the world to see, but it should not
be forgotten that most players on the Tour are just as poorly off as you and are battling with only slightly modified stock lists. Thus, despite
finding myself pummeled by the Punishing Fire engine in round one by none other than Ben Rubin himself, I managed to scrap by, picking off opponents
with equally embarrassing 75s. As I found myself accepting a draw with Matt Sperling*, I was able to breathe easily again, firmly in the money and
qualified for another Pro Tour.
*In round 15 of Austin, I was paired against fellow SCG columnist and comedian Matt Sperling. Despite being fully aware that he had an almost
unlosable matchup, Sperling offered a draw on the note that “it would be embarrassing if [he] wasn’t qualified for a Pro Tour in [his] own
backyard.” If it weren’t for this act of generosity and compassion, I’d certainly not be here today. I owe my short “career” to this man, whether
he knows what he did or not, and for that, I tip my cap to him.
Many are not even fortunate enough to reach this platform. I’ve spoken to far more talented players who have failed to even make a Day 2, much less
cash an event. Truthfully, I had just managed to catch my breaks when they counted most, but that’s how life works sometimes. Naively, I began to feel
a sense of belonging — that I could actually cut it out here with the big boys. I could parade around knowing that I didn’t have to PTQ for another
season, run my mouth about my mind-blowing 2058 rating, and proudly show my parents my check for $850, as though I hadn’t just been wasting time buried
under a pile of cards instead of school books. I may have even been silly enough to have actually convinced myself that this was easy or
PT San Diego came too quickly, and I once again found myself caught with my pants down. My Top 50 finish certainly did not gain me any recognition
(which I stubbornly found incomprehensible at the time), and being fully indulged in college gave me few opportunities to properly prepare. Again, I
found myself armed with a severely outdated list, this time playing Marijn Lybaert Jund deck from Worlds. However, due to the absurd nature of the
format and a little mechanic called cascade, my deck happened to be one of the best in the room. I coasted to a 7-1 start before teetering off in my
second draft and only managing to scrap together a 10-6 record. However, that was still good enough for another Top 50, and I found myself chaining
events for a second time.
Three important things happened at that event that largely defines my career and view of Magic at the professional level.
First, I failed to see the payoff in working hard. I had done little to prepare for this event but still crushed everything, from Jund mirrors to the
breakout Naya deck in the hands of the Boss himself. I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty but also disillusioned; what’s the point in putting in all
of this time and effort when it seems to have almost zero correlation with results?
Several events later, and I find myself with a very different vantage point but the same, sour feeling. I’ve helped organized teams and put in
countless hours of playtesting and preparation, only to show up and be humiliated. I wouldn’t argue that my efforts are at least a little misguided,
but it’s incredibly frustrating when you find yourself learning more in twenty minutes over dinner at the player party than in two weeks of playtesting
leading up to the event.
Second, I was partially shattered from my disastrous fall from the 7-1 bracket. Friday night, I found myself going to bed with dreams of filling out a
Top 8 profile, and Saturday evening, I could be seen limping away with a finish that I would’ve been happy about pre-tournament. For the first time
ever, I really felt disappointed and upset, knowing that I had missed what I still considered to be my one real shot.
I recognize that part of being a good player is being able to avoid tilting off and such, but I feel like this phenomenon goes much deeper than that. I
recently had a conversation with superstar Christian Calcano after he was railed by no less than 30 comments for making a Facebook status about being
upset after punting away an 8-man on MTGO. Plenty of people joined in the fray, telling the big tymer not to beat himself up over something so
insignificant and that strong players know how to shake off these kinds of things.
Simply put, I’d argue that these people don’t get it, that the common knowledge is misinformed. Part of putting up good results is being emotionally
invested and motivated — having the so-called “fire.” This means a lot more than just being willing to put in the time to playtest and hammer out
lists; it means that you’re going to take each loss as though you’re being literally daggered by yourÂ girlfriend. I don’t condone players freaking out
when they get one-outered for a slot and a plane ticket after playing near-perfect Magic for an entire day, but I can sympathize with their anguish.
You can only be crushed so many times before you decide that it’s not worth putting the pieces back together again.
Third, and on the most sour of notes, is the DQ incident that ended the final round for me. While most of the details are recounted here, in short, my opponent
messed up with Lotus Cobra and was then disqualified for knowingly attempting to cover up his mistakes. While I walked away with a crucial match win
that put me in the money and on my way to San Juan, the fallout from that event has been far more impactful. Between the harsh comments directed
towards me in the forums of Sheldon’s article to seeing just how upset my young opponent was, I lost some of my edge and care for competitive Magic. I
no longer found myself to be that jubilant kid ready to battle on the Pro Tour, now just a removed and disenchanted frame that needed some distance
from the game.
PTs San Juan and Amsterdam were a further plunge into descent, and my results stand to validate this. I continued to show up unprepared but no longer
because of outside circumstances; I largely just stopped caring. The Tour had just lost some of its luster in my eyes. I no longer truly desired to be
on some quest for eternal (Magic) fame and was just content to be there with my friends.
This is a stage that I feel most second-rate “pro” players end up at and is probably the reason why most quit or are content to fall off. It’s a topic
that I’ve discussed often with fellow small tymers James Pirkey and Matt Costa, as I find it comforting to find someone who openly shares similar
sentiments on a topic that can otherwise be difficult to relate to. When the money stops mattering and hanging around the tournament center is the low
point of these trips, why would you even bother showing up? I realize that this sounds outrageous, if not almost insulting to most of the PTQ grinders
out there, but it’s the honest-to-god truth. I guarantee that you won’t be winning if your heart and head aren’t in it, and after a year of sputtering
success on the grind, that’s a very difficult thing to keep doing.
With these considerations in mind, I took some time to really evaluate my situation before heading off to Worlds. I resolved to find a squad and fully
invest myself in this event, determined to make my opportunity count and presence known. Despite associating myself with masterminds such as GerryT, AJ
Sacher, and Bing Luke (Prolepsis9), I found myself with little more than our Invitational Valakut list and an entirely borrowed stock White Weenie
pile. After three miserable days where it seemed that I couldn’t make a break for myself, I sat in 240th place and a full pro point short of what once
seemed like guaranteed Level 4 status.
Crushed and empty, I found myself incapable of returning to any sort of grind and ready to hang things up. For better or worse, GP Atlanta happened,
and here I stand, almost obligated to keep on trucking for few reasons other than the fact that I feel privileged to be qualified. Again, I recognize
the conceited nature of these comments, but you can only empty your wallet and unload your calendar so many times just to find yourself bashing your
head against a brick wall.
I’d be unnecessarily modest if I didn’t recognize that I have at least some small shred of talent at this game, but I harbor no illusions about
actually becoming one of the game’s best. There’s no need to sugarcoat it — almost none of us even have close to enough raw talent to be there. I
firmly believe that some people — PV, Juza, and maybe a handful of others — are actually just head and shoulders above the rest of the pack,
even at the Pro Tour level. We’re the kids in school who do their work and grind out their A’s, but they’re the true geniuses who operate on a whole
other level. In this light, investing absurd amounts of time becomes even more discouraging.
Listen — I don’t mean to tear down this wonderful game and discourage the rest of you out there who have yet to taste the professional scene. It’s
certainly an honor and a privilege to be part of, as it has afforded me numerous opportunities and friendships that I’d be hard-pressed to find
anywhere else. I’m just here to share a story of the grind — that it isn’t all just tales of first-place finishes and living the easy life on the gravy
Trust me, because I’ve definitely been in all of your shoes before and don’t feel that I’m all that far removed. I used to fall asleep with dreams of
playing on the Pro Tour, follow coverage of all of my favorite players, and take immense joy in every namedrop and piece of e-fame that I could get —
this desire has slowly become nourished to the point that the taste is ruined for me. You might just say that I flew too close to the sun. I’m no
longer even capable of playing a “casual” game or slugging it out in Commander or Multiplayer without feeling a little petty.
This isn’t “healthy,” and I certainly am not proud of it, but somewhere, my competitive nature took a stranglehold on how I approach the game and will
never let go. Don’t let this happen to yourself, as the game doesn’t really need any more AJs or Atens (in that respect at least).
I firmly accept that I’m something of a grinder and degenerate at heart and that these roles require some amount of “feeding.” I trekked over to a
local PTQ this past weekend while on Spring Break, not just to visit my friends, but also because I have an innate desire to team draft, credit card
game for dinner, and play RPS and Catchphrase for draft sets. I can hate it all I want, but it’s simply the nature of the beast that lives inside most
of us. We have all at least partially sealed our lives off to this game and the incomprehensible lifestyle that accompanies it.
Pro Tour Nagoya is quickly approaching, and I again find myself at a crossroads. I’m sick of squandering my chances and showing up to these events for
little reason more than to incinerate some money, but there’s also the part of me expressed throughout this piece that simply wants none of it anymore.
I recognize that it’s almost impossible to take a break from the game, as it is would be exceedingly difficult to ever get back to the point where I
am, but it’s important in life to take care of your priorities first, and for me, Magic is losing some ground. Where I’ll find myself come June 10,
both mentally and physically, is simply anyone’s guess though.
Awkwardly enough, I’ll end this by saying that I’ll see you all at GP Dallas. I am, as they say, a slave to the grind…
P.S. — I’d like to thank a few special people —Bryan Gottlieb, Gerry Thompson, Mike Gemme, and Mike Maclone — for their input and help with this
article. My writing is nothing without the help and inspiration that you guys provide.