The first thing I remember about the Pro Tour is the decorations.
No, wait, back up just a little bit.
The year is 2006. The location is Charleston, South Carolina. Your humble author, after a couple years of working PTQs and Prereleases in game stores and convention centers throughout New England, steps onto the floor of his first Pro Tour. Prior to that point, I had looked at the Pro Tour mostly as a representation of the best strategic play the game could offer: the sharpest minds playing the game at its highest level, using brilliant decks and incisive strategies. I didn’t give much thought to what the Pro Tour looked like, or what it would be like to actually watch one happen. What I did not realize about the Pro Tour at that time is that, at its core, it is a bright, vivid, real-life advertisement for everything that is cool about Magic: the Gathering. Walking into that exhibition hall was my introduction to the grand spectacle that is a Pro Tour.
The first thing I remember is the posters, describing past Pro Tour champions and their winnings. At that point, the Hall of Fame was still off in the distance, but the Wizards marketing machine still wanted to point out that people made significant sums of money playing this game. A large, wall-sized banner depicted “Ten Years of the Pro Tour,” with photographs of former champions like Nicolai Herzog, Olle Rade and, of course, Kai Budde. Off in the corner, I could see the Pro Tour Players’ Lounge, with food and computers for all the world-weary travelers who’d be joining us to Play the Game and See the World (not yet captured by Wizards as a slogan). If memory serves, PT: Charleston took place during the World Cup that year, and the cheering that came from the Players’ Lounge when one football team bested the other was not insignificant. It bears mentioning, if only to underscore the spectacle, that this PT also hosted the Duel Masters National Championships, signified by a rather large robot positioned off to the side of the Side – excuse me, Public Events stage. This predates the (goofy) Goblin King and (stunning) Serra Angel statues that are now Pro Tour mainstays.
Since that Pro Tour, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to judge at three National Championships (2006 through 2008) and two World Championships (2007 and 2008, when Wizards bucked the normal North America-Europe-Asia three-year rotation and stayed in the United States on consecutive years, much to my delight). I don’t even refer to them as tournaments anymore — though the focus is on organized play across the spectrum of play skill and competition — but as shows. After all, Magic is a game. It’s entertainment. Rather than stodgy, airless halls filled with silence, there’s the constant thrum of energy from people actually playing the game. Well, that, and the periodic calls for draft number 37 or pairings for the iPod event emanating from Public Events.
(As an aside: you can tell a lot about how Wizards perceives the Pro Tour and its role in promoting Magic in the way the terminology for non-Pro Tour events was changed from Side Events to Public Events. Calling the infinite drafts, pick-up Constructed games, and late-night EDH battles that are commonplace at any large-scale Magic show a “side event” indicates some sort of exclusion, like this is what you do in addition to playing in this high-level, invitation-only event. Explicitly calling these events public speaks volumes about how Wizards wants these events to be perceived. They are for everyone, from the PTQ grinders to the FNM novices to the guys who missed Day 2 of the PT on third tiebreakers. In case you haven’t noticed, the PTQs that traditionally take place at Grand Prix and Pro Tours are brutal affairs, where the guy against whom you’re paired for the first round is the same guy who won a Pro Tour just a year ago. Eep.)
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous columns, one of the biggest sources of joy I find in being a part of the judge program is the other judges with whom I get to work. Judging has introduced me to some of my closest friends, and exposed me to opportunities — like my current job — that I would have otherwise missed. Going to high-level events such as Pro Tours are a great way to reconnect with current friends and make new ones. The judge staff at any given Pro Tour is diverse, and deliberately so. Fourteen different countries will be represented in the PT: Austin judge staff, which gives us lots of opportunities to discuss differences in judging philosophy and tournament operations, and also to share our respective cultures.
I’m reminded of an experience I had at Worlds in Memphis last year. My roommate for that show was Naoaki Umesaki, from Toshima-ku in Japan. While Umesaki-san and I didn’t see all that much of each other over the course of the weekend, the two of us did wind up at a post-Worlds dinner at a TGI Friday’s in downtown Memphis. Some twenty-plus judges rolled into the restaurant, and I ended up at a table with Umesaki-san, SCG alum Riki Hayashi, and Eric Shukan. At some point during our meal, the conversation turned to the acronym R.T.F.C. For those of you just turning in, RTFC is a popular term in the judge community; it stands for Read The Friendly Card (though more adult variations do exist). If you keep an eye out for late-night judge gatherings, chances are decent you might see a judge or two with the (in)famous black RTFC shirt.
As it turns out, RTFC wasn’t a concept with which Umesaki-san was familiar. After some helpful translation assistance from Riki, we were able to explain the acronym, and the look on Umesaki-san’s face as Riki got the message across was utterly priceless. But this is just an example — just being able to spend large amounts of time with a group of intelligent and friendly people who share your passions is worth all the sore feet, discarded pack wrappers, and layers interactions you’ll encounter over the course of a fourteen-hour day.
In between the spectacle and the shenanigans, there’s also the (pretty good) chance that if you work hard enough at a Pro Tour, you might actually learn something, too. Barring the regional judge conferences that occasionally pop up, Pro Tours are some of the greatest gatherings of skill that you’ll find at any given time. To further capitalize on this, there are seminars, and seminars, and more seminars. There are chats on the floor, and over dinner, and peer reviews. I can’t think of a single major event where I haven’t come away with some new perspective on judging. I imagine it’s much like the thrill I get when I explain something to a new judge and see a lightbulb turn on over their heads. It is wonderful.
My first such lightbulb took place — once again — at PT: Charleston. One evening, I found myself at dinner with an august group of judges, each of whom was more experienced than I was. Over a plate of mashed potatoes and salad — I was vegetarian at the time — I was put through a scenario that, at the time, had me stumbling over DCI policy like a rank novice. (For discussion’s sake: while deck-checking a player, you notice that her sleeves are marked. Not enough for it to be a major issue, but enough that she’ll need to re-sleeve at the end of her match. During the subsequent round, you notice that the player still hasn’t changed their sleeves. What do you do and why?) The important part of the story is that, throughout the discussion, I was treated like a peer, with patience and respect. I’m sure that my ignorance was trying at points, but being able to bounce that off of people who were willing to guide me through it was a massive takeaway. Much of my own teaching style with newer judges nowadays steals shamelessly from that very interaction.
The too-long-didn’t-read here is this: I’m going to Pro Tour: Austin in less than a week, and I am extremely excited. Should you see me — I’ll be the heavyset, bespectacled guy in the black DCI shirt — feel free to say hi and challenge me to a game of EDH. I’ve stolen some tech from fellow writer (and fellow judge!) Sheldon Menery Kresh build and promise you this: Hamletback Goliath is the new hotness. Sheldon insists that Stalking Vengeance has won more EDH games than any other card, and he may be right, but there’s something gleefully silly about saying to one’s opponent “okay, so you just cast Garza Zol? Cool. My Goliath is now an 11/11.”
Before I bid you all a fond farewell, a highlight from a five-player game this past weekend: imagine, if you will, a player with an active Bloodchief Ascension, a Minion Reflector, and a Thousand-Year Elixir. Imagine that this player casts Magus of the Jar, and uses Minion Reflector to create a copy of said Magus. Then imagine that said player activates each of the Magi, forcing each of his four opponents to draw (and discard) fourteen cards. When all was said and done, the player in question — one Phil Deneka, for those of you who play locally, a man not to be underestimated as an opponent with decks of any size — had gained a whopping 112 life, draining us each for 28.
Yeah. I didn’t win that one.
See you all in Texas!