You Lika The Juice? – Getting It Off My Chest

Bennie is officially off the leash… and he has some choice things to say about a number of important topics and Magic luminaries. Who bears the brunt of his tongue-lashing this week? Read on to find out!

I was listening to the Wizards August’s Hallowed Halls podcast the other day, hosted by Randy Buehler, and some things were said that really resonated with me in light of my recent departure from writing for MagictheGathering.com. When talking with Elaine Chase, Randy said something like this:

“I’d like to hire someone who can channel a casual player sitting around the kitchen table. I feel I know how to hire the next Mike Turian, but I don’t know where to find the next Robert.”

He was referring to Robert Gutschera, who is apparently the “casual guy” at R&D. He crops up in Mark Rosewater columns and occasionally answers Ask Wizards questions; he also was involved in the creepy and interesting Hecatomb game.

Now, I finally got a chance to meet Randy Buehler this year when he came down to the SCG Power 9 in Richmond back in March. While I’d never been on the Pro Tour, I’d been writing about Magic for ten years, and four years for Wizards of the Coast, including as a weekly columnist for them the previous twelve months. Randy and I had never corresponded with each other directly before, so I thought this would be a great time to finally get to meet him. I didn’t think it presumptuous to assume he would have some clue as to who I was.

I caught up with him Saturday morning as he was walking by. “Hi Randy, I’m Bennie Smith!” He stopped, flinched and looked at me with this wary, deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression. “Welcome to Richmond,” I continued, and stuck my hand out. He let me shake his hand and mumbled something I couldn’t understand before shuffling off.

I was a little bit stunned. My first thought was this is how you treat someone who’s written for you for the past four years? My next thought was f*** that, even if I were a perfect stranger, this is how a Magic “ambassador” acts when he’s at a Magic event?

My final thought, bubbling up from my Southern roots, was your momma sure didn’t teach you proper manners!

I relayed my encounter to a friend the next week; his opinion was that Randy is a “Pro-Magic elitist,” and since I have not won any pro level event, I wasn’t worthy of attention. I don’t know if that’s the harsh truth or not, but my encounter with him and things he’s said and attitudes expressed through his writings and podcasts aren’t at odds with that characterization.

For instance, at the end of that podcast he also had this to say:

“Congratulations to… Craig Stevenson won English Nationals, that’s the StarCityGames writer, crazy he won Nationals, hats off to him.”

How does Randy come across in this statement? “Wow, how in the world would some writer from Star City win something like Nationals?! Crazy!” Oh, and by the way, Craig isn’t just a writer for StarCityGames… he’s also the freaking editor! Craig also happens to have competed at the Pro level too, so it shouldn’t be nearly as surprising that he’d win Nationals as it would have if, say, Ted or The Ferrett has won Nationals (no knocks to those guys). [I’m staying out of this one… – Crazy Craig.]

It’s entirely possible that Randy is unaware of how he rubs the casual player, but as someone who’s the Director of Magic R&D he needs to take a step back and think about it. If Randy is indeed interested in finding guys like Robert Gutschera – if he wants to better connect with the casual player (which incidentally, is the vast majority of his customer base) – then he needs to get his head out of his Pro Tour Hall of Fame ass and realize that there are plenty of non-pro people out here who are smart, who love Magic, who write about it, edit Magic websites, and even sometimes win big events — Crazy, isn’t it? You don’t have to go through the crucible of the Pro Tour in order to matter in Magic.

The next Robert Gutschera is probably not going to be found gravy-training the Pro Tour, so it wouldn’t hurt to pay more attention and respect to sites like StarCityGames.com and the writers there who care so much about this game we love.

Into The Online Tech
By now I’m sure you’ve seen the new direction Wizards has decided to go with their Magic Online column. Let me tell you, being the last ever Into The Aether columnist doesn’t quite have the same pleasant ring to it as being the last ever English National Champ (nudge nudge Craig). Naturally, I’m curious to find out what people think of this new direction. I like Frank Karsten’s writing, he’s a top-notch Pro player and he communicates well, and having a regular column of his available for free is definitely a good thing for the Magic Community. The buzz I’ve been getting from the Magic Onliners that I have met during my 18-month tenure writing about MTGO has been a mixed bag of hope and disappointment. The disappointment seems to come from what appears to be a dramatic narrowing of what the “Magic Online column” is going to be focused on. The past eight months while I was writing ITA, I did my best to cast a wide net and cover as much of Magic Online as I could, and I was still often criticized for missing major parts of the MTGO community. Frank’s column is a dramatic pullback in quantity of topics, but with an increase in quality that comes from narrowing that focus and bringing his Magic-playing talents to bear. That’s where the hope comes from, that the obvious pluses of a Frank Karsten column will outweigh the minuses of not giving enough MTGO-related “stuff” to the masses.

We should definitely all give Frank a honeymoon period where he can settle in, get into his groove and show us what he’s got planned. We should also remember that Frank is not a Wizards staffer; I know first-hand that “behind the scenes” MTGO stuff isn’t something he can go out and actively seek, pro-player or no. That stuff comes crops up when and where Wizards decides it’s appropriate, and if there is not enough of it for some people’s tastes it is not the writer’s fault.

Another positive thing to keep in mind: if there is enough demand for MTGO-related content that is not being met directly by Wizards, there’s opportunity for other sites and writers to step into that void. Our own blisterguy already has a very good Magic Online-centric column, and Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar Tribal Wars articles have been awesome! So here’s another thing I’d like to toss out there for those of you who play Magic Online – is there any Magic Online format or topic you’re concerned will not get enough love under this new direction? While my online account is not nearly as comprehensive as I once had (indeed, it is downright puny), I have recently joined an online clan with a pretty extensive membership and will certainly keep playing Magic Online. I’d be happy to pick up some slack if there’s demand for it. I’ll go ahead and say upfront though – I will find it hard to not talk about online Vanguard on rare occasions, it’s just too much fun to walk away from! I’m up for covering just about anything else too. Are there Prismatic fans here? Rainbow Stairwell? Let me know. In a lot of ways, coming back to writing for StarCityGames gives me the opportunity to delve into brand new directions.

As for my clan? FullFrontaln00bity! I ran across them while covering their free-for-all multiplayer tournaments and felt a kinship with their blend of casual and competitiveness… and the name just cracks me up. Go FFn! While I was writing Into The Aether, I felt the need to not align myself with any particular clan so this is my very first excursion into the interesting world of online clans, and these seem like a really cool group of guys.

Bend It Like Becker
I felt the need the say something about my good friend Ken Krouner explanation of Joe Crosby’s absence from Nationals after taking offense to Ted Knutson reporting of it during the coverage. Now, I know Ken and Joe Crosby are longtime friends, and it’s to be expected and even commendable to leap to a friend’s defense. And maybe I’m feeling a bit curmudgeonly after my musings on Randy Buehler and I’m channeling Jon Becker, but something Ken said really struck me wrong:

While Ted irresponsibly made up a story about Crosby’s absence, the truth is he was up in time with a deck prepared, but due to fatigue from winning multiple late night poker tables he decided he simply could not put his all into this tournament. Joe has the utmost respect for the game and its events. This was not a case of forgetting to set the alarm.

U.S. Nationals is an event that numerous players like myself would love to have the chance to play in. Joe was qualified for it; he signed up to play. He then went home and played in multiple late night poker tables to the point where he was too fatigued to actually go play in Nationals. How in the hell is that showing respect for Magic and its events?!

He gets kudos for later helping the players in the Atlanta house who made Top 8 playtest the night before the big day, but I can’t help but feel baffled and even a little irritated at his rather cavalier disregard for the opportunity he had to participate in one of the bigger Magic events out there. I know next to nothing about online poker, but I’m fairly sure that opportunities to play online money poker tournaments are abundant; U.S. Nationals comes once a year. Once you sign up to play, respect would have been to spend the evening before getting rest and/or preparing for the Big Game. The impression was that, for Joe, Nationals was apparently Plan B in case he scrubbed out at the poker tables.

Bah, humbug!

Going forward
Looking over what I’ve written so far, I’m a little dismayed at the overall negativism. Most people who know me know that I tend to have a rather sunny and cheerful disposition, so if any of you are new readers I just wanted to reassure you that I’m rarely like this. In a way, some of this has backed up while I was writing for Wizards, since I didn’t feel particularly free to vent on things that bothered me. Eighteen months of holding my tongue… well, now I’m free again to fully participate in community discussion!

I’ve also been added to the Battle Royale queue, and am certainly looking forward to the opportunity to build an interesting budget deck and battling against whomever is left standing at that point. Can Craig hold on until then? Will we get the Last Into The Aether Columnist versus the Last English Champion feature match? The suspense is killing me!

Until next time,

Bennie Smith