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The Grind: Part 2

Friday, October 15th – What is it about The Grind that keeps Magic players coming back? Signs point to obsession bordering on psychosis. Read the epic part two of Jeff Cunningham’s masterful GP report!

In accordance with the bet made between Jeff Cunningham and Gabe Walls in
Part 1,

there is
a charity auction

on eBay for the U/G Madness deck and Astral Slide deck, both signed by the players and foiled.

6.

I wake up as Aeo and Daniel arrive back at the room from their revelling. The air conditioner is blasting arctic frost, while I’m lying as still and placid as a china doll, under a single impossibly crisp white sheet. Aeo carefully claims the other side of the bed. Meanwhile, as Daniel’s eyes adjust to the darkness, he makes out Geoff’s form on the other bed, splattered like road kill, the blankets and sheets twisted between his limbs in an aggressively lewd display. “No, f*** that,” Daniel mutters, opting for the bare floor instead.

I’m a light sleeper and despite the half a pill I’m coming out of it. This is for the most part due to Geoff’s irregular baritone snores interrupted by whooping coughs, symptoms which a quick iPhone WebMD search reveal as indicating a particularly virulent avian flu — a not unlikely diagnosis, all things considered.

It’s around 4:00 a.m., and a familiar situation, albeit with a different offender and locale. I head to the front desk, get bedding, and bunk in
bathroom. The only consolation, as well as tangible indicator of progress in the past decade, is the fact that I haven’t subjected myself to curling up
en fetus

under a damp towel-blanket.

~

I come to consciousness by the dull ringing of the phone through the bathroom door. I get up and walk into the other room. The clock is flashing 8:45 — pairings are now going up at the site. Ma’s still kold — having slept through the alarm and the wakeup call. I shake him awake and tell him to get up now. I throw on the first clothing I can find — a tie-dyed t-shirt and jean-shorts, not kidding (actually I was kind of happy about that part) — and turn to find Ma packing his bag for later. “Dude— we need to leave
now!”

As we are leaving, Aeo, who has awoken and answered the phone, says something about Max and the lobby.

As we hit the lobby, I realize there’s no time to wait, or check my brother’s room — there’s simply no time for a missed connection. The best thing for everyone is to assume that Max won’t wait around the lobby and will leave as soon as possible, hopefully realizing the tournament is about to start. We run to the site and get there with a few minutes to go. I borrow someone’s cell phone and begin trying my brothers’ cells, but can’t get anyone. I’m actually pretty shaken up.

Round 10, the last round of Sealed, I’m playing against Tim Bentkowski.

He has a good U/G deck and we split the first two.

Game 3, I again have a good curve, but he’s throwing out blockers and regaining control. The crucial turn, with a bunch of small creatures in play, I can either Pacifism his blocker, or play another guy. If the Pacifism lands, it’s pretty much game, but, as PV puts it, “the picture of the card jumped to my face”— Negate, for some reason. One way you can tell that you’re on top of a format is if you start getting the visions, i.e., if all of a sudden for no apparent logical reason you receive, more than a read, a pungent image of your opponent having a particular, sometimes unusual, card. (You can’t just be vaguely afraid of Wrath and then the one time he has it claim ESP.) It must just be that you’re so familiar with the tricks in the format, the dynamics of the board in the context of the format, and the card pool of the draft, that your opponent’s body language and timing telegraphs on a subconscious level a very small range of cards. But sometimes you can’t help but be spooked or wrong, and so you will be faced with difficult decisions…. I can’t remember the exact situation; how much I would depend on him tapping out later, or how much I could withstand another blocker. I do decide to go for it, he does have the Negate, and the game unravels from there.

7-3, and out of Top 8, and probably Top 16, contention.

I find Max after the round and learn that he made it in time but lost the round.

I figure that we’ll be at the same Draft table as we’re both 7-3 with atrocious breakers. I tell him that if I end up passing to him, I will be forcing U/W. I say that if he’s passing to me, he can go whatever he wants and I’ll figure it out (assuming he’ll want his claim at blue or white). He agrees, and says that he’ll make it obvious.

Yeah, I know. While we’re at it, why didn’t we just rob a bank and bury the money in the woods? Or accidentally run over a girl and then vow to keep it a secret? These plans always work out, right?

Table numbers go up and, indeed, we’re both at the last table, and Max is passing to me.

In the first pack, I open a Fireball and a Pacifism. My preference is strongly for U or W, preferably U/W. I’m fine playing red, especially with blue, but I tend to only go that way if I naturally end up there. The problem with red in M11 is that it has a couple of great typical first picks but beyond that is extremely shallow. At such a soft table (i.e. with so many players liable to thoughtlessly commit to red) this presents a considerable deterrent to getting involved in red.

Still, I mull it over, and knowing Max could just as easily go either colour, I go with the Fireball. Throughout the rest of the pack, he ships me a ton of white, virtually no blue, and some red scraps. Last pick, he passes me Combust. Seems like an obvious enough ‘gift,’ I figure.

In the second pack, I open up a Serra Angel, pass a third pick Overwhelming Stampede, and, throughout, pass an obscene amount of blue. I keep it flowing, looking the other way while an eighth pick Aether Adept and a twelfth pick Azure Drake go by. Yes, drink deep, brother…

In the third pack, I take a so-so white card, and then Max ships me Mind Control. At this point, I essentially offer the table an icy “nh,” knuckle the felt, and toss my 31 into the muck. When you’re beat you’re beat.

My deck turns out okay, but a little rough in the details, and with some filler.

1 Ajani’s Pridemate
1 Blinding Mage
2 Cloud Crusader
1 Fiery Hellhound
2 Infantry Veteran
1 Manic Vandal
1 Serra Angel
2 Squadron Hawk
1 Stone Golem
1 White Knight
1 Wild Griffin

1 Armored Ascension
1 Chandra’s Outrage
1 Combust
1 Fireball
2 Pacifism
3 Thunder Strike

9 Plains
8 Mountain

I find Max to figure out what happened. He had also opened Fireball, and the guy passing to him cut blue hard. He had received a maindeck playable red card with the Combust thirteenth pick. In pack 2, he didn’t want to move into blue at the risk of either me moving into it, or the person to his right cutting it off again in pack 3. He ended up getting into green, but only after passing on the Overwhelming Stampede.

He has drafted the thuggiest M11 deck I’ve seen to date — multiple Arc Runners, multiple Lava Axes, multiple Act of Treasons. If his deck was a weapon it would be a gym sock full of pennies. On consideration, I can’t blame him for much of his reasoning or his preferences. He’s new to the format and back to the game (the tournament started with me giving him a crash course in the M10 rules) and has jerry-rigged a crude but effective enough strategy. My failing is far worse — stupidly assuming he’d care about a claim at blue, or that I ought to let him have first chance at it. He would’ve been happier if I had just said, “If I’m passing to you or you’re passing to me, I’ll go U/W and you can go any combination of R/G/B.” I would have first-picked the Pacifism, and ended up with the insane, streamlined deck that had been tantalizing me through the ordeal of the Sealed rounds. The sheer strangeness of the situation — thrown off my plan because my brother was passing to me — just adds another frustration onto those already accumulating. Things were becoming insular and weird.

Round 11, I’m playing against a local player, Enrique Angulo. In a genuine effort to be friendly, I note that I think I saw him in Day 2 at the last Grand Prix I attended. He looks at me as if I’m f***ing crazy and tells me that he’s made Day 2 at three of the four Grand Prix he’s played in. Had I descended completely into the realm of phantasmagoria, where even a familiar pairing assumed the aspect of a bitter grudge match?

I’ve heard he has a mediocre R/G/B deck, although with two Corrupts and two Fireballs.

Game 1, I curve out, and get him down to two, and then he hits something like running Corrupts to end it. For a second I become confused and actually suspect him of using Game Genie.

Game 2, despite drawing the second Squadron Hawk again — one of the worst feelings in Limited Magic — it literally feels like you’ve been mugged — my Manic Vandal hits his Gargoyle Sentinel. Despite getting him down to two again, and being way ahead, I hit a massive land clump and die. Near the end, after it would matter, I draw and see a Combust staring me in the face, which pushes me past the threshold.

I concede, behaving abominably all the while (what I’m told is known in the Starcraft parlance as the “b.m.”)

7-4, out of Top 32 contention, and officially on tilt.

I go outside and steam. Again, I feel like I’ve spilled out before I’ve even started. I was running badly and, now, playing badly and acting badly. I was sick.

I wasn’t officially ‘dead’ yet, but the only light at the end of this particular tunnel was a dim one. This fact remained obscure to my fragile consciousness, and my pulse, however weak, served as proof enough that the grind wasn’t over.

7.

I was going to give an analysis of M11 Limited, but that seems pointless. Instead I’ll scribble out a few half-truths.

Limited formats can often be usefully divided into those where principles of aggression are or are not emphasized. In recent memory, in M11 and Zendikar they were, and in M10 and Rise they weren’t. Whether or not these principles apply is dictated mainly by the natural character of the set’s commons – whether either the aggressive or control elements are prevalent enough to define the format one way or the other. Do the commons fall along a good, low mana curve? Are there plenty of good destabilizing cards or finishers? Is there a reason to risk supporting more expensive spells? In M11, efforts to go U/W Control never worked for me; the natural character of the cards was toward a focused aggressive deck, and so typically efforts in the other direction would give up too much value.

Different skill sets are employed in each type of format. Where principles of control apply, there’s more of a focus on long-game play — on questions of restraint, inevitability, splashing, etc. Where principles of aggression apply, there’s a closer focus, on short-game play — on stability, mana curve and combat dynamics, etc.

I tend to prefer formats where principles of aggression do apply. I didn’t like ROE as much as the rest of the world seems to have. One of my favourite formats was Onslaught. Morph is a great aggressive mechanic. Not only does it add a whole other dimension of strategy, via morph analysis, it also creates a natural glut in the three-drop, which rewards careful mana-curve management and the subtle adjustment of card valuations (Vitality Charm, for example, became a high pick).

  • In aggressive formats — and I’m mainly talking about Draft here; Sealed’s a whole other dynamic – green is almost always the worst colour (this is somewhat less true in formats with weird parameters, e.g. heavy artifacts/multi-colour). I’ll speculate that this is because R&D hasn’t yet grasped what green needs to look like to actually be competitive in a real-world aggressive format. While green is perfectly fine in slower formats, where more value can be gained out of splashing and mana acceleration (like Cube, e.g.), in aggressive formats, the burden of its emphasis on slow uncompelling fatties, combined with its not having removal, as well as its other issues (having to play a lot of mana sources, having to draw the right balance of acceleration and fatties, risking being ‘trapped’ in Draft when there is, as is typical, no definitive best common, other colours getting good/better fatties in the name of flavour) is too much to overcome. If Green is going to remain so narrow and unsophisticated in terms of its colour pie allotment, it needs to be compensated with greater power. In M11, aggressive and also straightforward, these issues are especially exposed. Priority commons Giant Spider and (some argue high pick) Giant Growth are openly lampooned by Azure Drake and (free pick) Diminish.

  • When drafting an aggressive deck, I deprioritize control cards, for example, Wrath, in M11. Wrath is best in a Control deck against an Aggro deck. The same applies to, e.g., Wall of Frost and Condemn (without a critical mass of evasion creatures). Kai’s pick of Condemn over Scroll Thief “because it’s the better card” baffles me. I have no problem passing these cards in the effort to construct a tight aggressive deck.

  • Anything that costs over four, and even things that cost four, should be deprioritized more than usual. I let these cards ‘come to me’ — i.e. I take them when there’s almost nothing left in the pack, whereas I actively take good early drops. Certified bombs notwithstanding, the power difference between early and late pick five or six-drops (Ancient Hellkite vs. Harbor Serpent, e.g.) is not disparate enough to justify taking the early ones over even middling inexpensive creatures. 4-5+ drops are overrepresented for what is optimal in aggressive formats, so you should plan to fill up that slot at the various discounts that will be offered during the ebb and flow of the draft.

  • I never thought I’d say it but I miss Taylor Putnam.

  • Probably the biggest scrub concept is that of needing distinct ‘win conditions’ – especially these days, with inevitability properties incidentally built into so many cards, creatures and removal should be enough of a win condition.

  • One tool I rediscovered in this format was pick orders, which are not usually viewed as having much utility due to being so deck-dependent. Because the format was so straightforward they regained value. They help resolve internal contradictions, and identify issues with each colour. It’s good to take each colour and rarity and organize them by pick order, and then to incorporate these groups.

  • In this sense, Karsten’s old “The List” method is sometimes very useful, in contradistinction to his “Aggregate” method which in my estimation should have been received with the same incredulity that met my proposed “Run-Goodz” line of professional Magic apparel.

  • Personally, I’ve never really understood drawing in Limited. When you choose to draw, you’re actually only getting a fraction of the card from the arrangement. Say the game ends on an odd turn — then both you and the opposing player have both drawn the same amount of cards. It’s hard to believe this half a card will be more valuable than the potential card advantage offered by the tempo boost of going first. I’m willing to admit I might be wrong on this point — I’ve just never heard what I’ve felt or intuited is a satisfactory explanation, except for in extreme specific situations.

8.

I manage to cool down. I get something to eat at Burgertown, and apologize to Enrique for having lost my cool, which he graciously accepts.

I pick up a Bye in Round 12, and narrowly beat a weak W/B deck in Round 13.

I show up at Max’s match just in time to see him lose. He had been in a difficult Game 3 last-turn situation. Though there was plenty of time on the clock, his opponent had called a judge to watch for slow play (as is his prerogative). The judge had implored Max to make a play and Max had evidently done so prematurely. He had defaulted to the aggressive play, which as it turns out would have worked, if he hadn’t botched it by casting Act of Treason on the wrong creature. He is upset. Part of me wants to launch into a critique on the slow play rules, which do contain a number of ambiguities. None of them really apply here, though. I wasn’t around to see what happened, and it’s difficult to say that the ruling wasn’t fair. Suffice to say it was an unfortunate situation, and that he is out.

I’m 9-4. So is Ma.

In the second draft, I show up ready to draft U/W. The time to be flexible and multi-dimensional is in money-draft, not in the sleepy suburbs of Day 2.

1 Augury Owl
1 Azure Drake
2 Blinding Mage
1 Cloud Elemental
4 Scroll Thief
1 Serra Angel
1 War Priest of Thune
1 White Knight
1 Wild Griffin

1 Armored Ascension
3 Excommunicate
1 Inspired Charge
1 Pacifism
1 Preordain
1 Redirect
2 Unsummon

9 Plains
8 Island

I had a Mighty Leap in the sideboard which probably should’ve been in over the Charge, or possibly a land.

Round 14, I’m playing against the guy who beat Max last round, although there is no hostility.

Game 1, I make a sloppy bluff, attacking a White Knight into his Azure Drake turn 4 or 5, and am forced to Unsummon his Drake. It doesn’t matter because between Blinding Mage, Scroll Thief, and some Excommunicates I get way too far ahead, even despite his Mind Control.

Game 2, the deck plays out like Turbo Land, with me getting a couple of Scroll Thieves in play and then Time Warping over and over.

10-4

I run into Brett Shears after the match. He’s also X-4. Brett’s one of the original grinders. He won GP Denver about a decade ago, showing up the night before after a 24-hour bus-ride. He also famously invented the raw-dog Gravedigger line of play. If the world had any justice, any time anyone laid a Gravedigger on an empty yard against impossible odds, essentially laughing into the void, Shears would receive a fraction of a penny in royalties.

He knows I started yesterday out 0-2, and then today as well. Yesterday, the triumph was “inspirational.” Today, the character had changed.

“You love the grind.”

“It’s almost pathological.”


Almost

?”

By Round 15, I’ve realized how crazy my deck is. If the earlier grind was an endurance test, then by now the endorphins have kicked in.

It was as fun as cube drafting with Geoff Ma.

Jeff: Oh. I didn’t know they named a card after your mom.

Geoff: ?

Jeff: (reveals Stalker Hag to the table)

All: (laughs)

Jeff: Oh. Heh. Weird. This card’s exactly like that aunt of yours I met the other day. (I met his single aunt at a family dinner.)

Geoff: No clue what you’re talking about.

Jeff: (reveals Raging Cougar to the table (Portal))

All: (laughs)

Jeff: Wow. This card’s named after your jeans. (His jeans were kind of muddy that day.)

Geoff: What…

Jeff: (reveals Bog Tatters)

All: (tumbleweeds)

Ma gets knocked out this round by Paul Rietzl, who Ma claims charmed away his ability to play Magic. “He was just so nice. It was like what the f***. It really threw me off.”

Is anyone else sick to death of Paul Rietzl nice guy act?

Round 16, my opponent sits down and says that this match is for all the marbles. I don’t have the heart to correct him; that, at 33 points with miserable breakers, a win will be the same as a draw — either gets us into the Top 64, which is as good as we’re going to get. To draw is the only logical choice. The fact is, however, that I’m simply too far gone to say ‘uncle.’

Despite losing an unlosable Game 2 after a string of outrageous bad luck as well as his I have to admit lion-hearted effort, I am able to comfortably take Game 3 and the match.

12-4, 43rd

In order to get home in time, we must leave immediately. I say goodbye to a couple friends and then we load into the SUV. We make a short stop at Voodoo Donuts. While Jackson is waiting in line, me, Max, and Ma walk to a taco stand in the bright neighborhood. A young woman takes our order.

The general feeling expressed based on our mutual experience is one of exhaustion and emptiness. The emotional rollercoaster of a long Day 1, followed by the uphill climb of Day 2, has taken its toll. The sheer numbers game of coming out on top over 1400 people, with nothing (really) to show for it unless you finish Top 16 has become palpable. I’m not trying to whine about how difficult it is. I can’t say I played perfectly. I’m just standing in awe of the modern day massive Grand Prix and reflecting on the experience.

It should be fun. Somewhere along the line — maybe only at this tournament, for me — it verged on being just too unfair of a contest. Even back when Grand Prix only drew in 500 people, the prize support felt pretty thin (first place — box of crackerjacks (no toy), second place — used VHS copy of
Liar, Liar

). Now, when they’re all doubling and tripling in size, the tension is almost taken out of the experience because it has become so bald-facedly -EV (particularly when EV considers time and travel cost, and doesn’t include Pro Points). It felt absurd, unjustifiable, masochistic.

But I knew I loved the grind, would remember it fondly, would be back…

9.

Because there is the compulsion to delve headfirst into Magic, to master it, it is important to consider what Magic is in its essence so that you can evaluate with some clarity what obsession with it entails.

Magic, like Poker, Chess, Tic-tac-toe, or World of Warcraft, is a game. All games are ideological. That is to say that all games present a second reality of sorts, a closed system in which agents interact. These second realities even suggest their own senses of physics – for example, when one immerses himself in a 3d video game, he enjoys running, flying, etc, in the virtual world, without expending any physical energy in the real one. In Magic, it’s the same, just with different symbolic actions – the pseudo-physical tension of curving out, finishing an opponent with a flurry or burn, or sustaining complete control of the game.

Fundamentally, what makes a game appealing is that the reality it presents accords to a simpler order than ordinary reality and is therefore more open to mastery, one of the deepest human desires. It may seem misguided to describe, e.g., an elegant, complex game like Go as according to a simple order but what I mean to say is this: a series of coherent problems are presented in an organized framework in which progress is more tangible and measurable than in the real world. In a game, unlike in real life, you’re positioned to efficiently receive a string of problems, which neatly scale to increasing levels of difficulty. Here, the drive to mastery finds efficient artificial satiation.

Because games are ideological in this way does not mean they are necessarily bad; besides offering relaxation and entertainment, and sharpening problem-solving skills to an extent, they also provide a ground for socially disparate individuals to work together on a common project, and so to become closer in the process. These aspects aren’t to be written off. Games are a good thing. But it is important to be aware of the sense in which all that is being mastered is a hall of mirrors.

Magic presents compelling, changing problems, with many stages of sophistication, while at the same time maintaining an appealing physics. Social, creative, and logical skills are called upon in a variety of ways and are rewarded. Typically understood, these things are what make it a good game. However these aspects also speak to the potency of the game, and the potential for pathological obsession — i.e., the drive to commit oneself, beyond the pall of good sense, to mapping out the higher strategic echelons of the game in order to fully conquer it. This is necessary to compete among the best — to become great at anything, one needs to obsess about it — indeed, to love it — but in such a game, this leads one toward even more inbred types of engagement, problem-solving, and socialization.

After any big Magic tournament I have an ambivalent response: part of me wants to retreat, part of me wants to redouble my efforts toward mastering Magic. This ambivalence is not surprising. There is a tension between success in the real world and success in the second reality of the game. Games have an opportunity cost, which varies depending on who you are and what your potential is. I don’t mean to come here and insult gamers as a class; I just mean to call attention to a line which from my experience has been blurred.

This line may continue to be blurred by gamer friends, who inadvertently act as codependents, or by delusions or illusions of Pro Tour fame. What may become unhealthy obsession can easily be rationalized as mere hobbyism, or romanticized as the rollicking life of the grinder. The latter is another manifestation of the same narcotic elements that make the game compelling in the first place, and which shouldn’t go unconsidered or underestimated. It’s not just ‘fiending’, or the Pavlovian Magic-sweats you get at the prospect of a money draft. The problem isn’t that Magic isn’t fun (I think it was Rob Dougherty that said something to the effect of “There’s only one thing I’d want to do in a day more than drafting, and that’s only for about twenty minutes.”); it’s that what makes it so fun is the substitution of artificial short-term problems for complex long-term ones. The game must always be held in the context of broader aspirations and responsibilities, at the risk of one’s only being qualified to play, make, or bet on games (which isn’t necessarily so bad, of course), and of becoming unduly cynical and misanthropic (probably bad). Even if it doesn’t fill all of your time, it can fill your spirit. There’s only so much ‘obsession’ to go around. To be direct: it might be the case for you that the most prudent decision is to turn your back on Magic completely.

Beyond gamers, we’re Magic players. What’s the character of Magic now?

Magic is a small hamlet situated between Poker and Scrabble, to the West and East, respectively, and North of Pokémon. The rise of poker has partly defined the character of the modern era of Magic. Before Poker, the prize-money of Magic used to have a legitimizing ring to it. Now, the financial aspect of tournament Magic has been utterly dwarfed by that of poker. This in turn licenses an association between Magic and Scrabble, a game in which the top players dedicate their lives to the game but who compete for pitiable amounts of prize money. Despite Magic’s much heralded growth in the past couple of years, and ever-increasing turnouts for tournaments, the prize payouts have not been adjusted, and there are still only four PTs per year instead of the 5, 6, or even 7 of earlier times. Has Hasbro come to the conclusion that there is no need for fuller prize support because Magic’s success evidently does not depend on it? One couldn’t blame them for this if they are right. And why would Magic emphasize its prize support when facing an unfair fight against Poker with its buy-in system? So Magic will be increasingly defined as a game for hobbyists or grinders of the saddest variety – top-level success will still be fruitful, but the lower-level drives toward it will be that much more irrational.

I position Pokémon as below Magic but on the same vertical axis. In considering what makes Pokémon lower we clarify those aspects of Magic which make it like Pokémon. When I think of Pokémon, I think of something aesthetically juvenile, laden with gimmickry, and obviously primarily motivated in many places by commercial interests. Aesthetically, Magic has been going downhill since The Dark. Initially, Magic maintained some elements of higher fantasy, incorporated real-world flavor text, and involved a more diverse set of artists working from a looser, more permeable, style guide. Now we have a revolving door of cookie-cutter villains, an endless store of puns and trite turns of phrase, and a homogenous body of artwork generally reminiscent of superhero-type comics. I’m not meaning to get huffy about ‘low-art’… it’s just obvious that in some sense a desirable seriousness has been sapped out of Magic. Foils, the new card face, and mythic rares are all part of this same trajectory. And don’t even get me started on Unglued, which did for the Magic brand about what the Spice Girls did for women’s lib.

With all of this in mind, it’s important to consider that the advent of modern Magic is coincident with the rise of engaging Limited formats. It’s difficult to say how necessarily these two things are related. Maybe it’s the case that a streamlined aesthetic process is the result of having to produce sets for large audiences at regular intervals; there is a tendency toward establishing formulas to alleviate work and to reduce risk. Maybe the trade-off is worth it and being able to play draft Magic is just more desirable than whatever was appealing about the classic form. (Though I think we might notice sets feeling mechanically homogenous sooner than is anticipated.) Regardless, there is certainly room for improvement. See Geordie Tait impressive recent articles which identify an unprecedented amount of careless flavor text from recent memory. I’ll admit that this whole aesthetic point feels pretty half-baked, if not outright quixotic. It’s a difficult question to consider. Maybe it’s already affected the social climate? Judging by recent forum activity, the prognosticate is that by 2013 trolls will outnumber ordinary players. I do know that when I look at Revised cards I see a classic game. For now, more than before, Magic shares a certain fundamental immaturity with Pokémon.

Finally, Magic is ‘small’ — i.e. a small pond. No matter how many Pro Tours Kai wins he’s not going to be in the same league as Roger Federer. Beyond this obvious example is the important corollary that there aren’t the resources (money, interest, importance) in Magic to support greatness. The greatest articles, strategy expositions, set designs, and players, will never exist because the resources do not exist to justify their production. Almost everything to do with Magic is pulp. Is this miniaturized field worthy of your dedication? It’s also worth acknowledging that the population of this small hamlet is skewed 99% male.

So far, I’ve focused on the negative aspects of Magic’s ‘location’. Let me say what I think is good about it. Like Poker, Magic is engaging in a variety of ways, while maintaining a sleek ‘physics’. However, where Poker culture seems to veer toward a more mature degeneracy, Magic’s seems to remain immature. I have not considered the relative merits of the two. While there is more money in Poker than in Magic, there is some money in Magic, as compared to, say, Scrabble. As well, the social-strategic aspect actually means good Magic players are often relatively well-adjusted, if unprofound. Despite my earlier fussiness about Magic’s aesthetics and homogenization, the fun of exploring new blocks is still undeniable, and, for all of its faults, the game retains many measures of integrity.

Another one of Magic’s saving graces is its physical aspect. Players still commune in physical spaces. Without this the game would just be another way to spend time on the computer. (Although, it is true that increasingly the most efficient way to play and improve at Magic is on MTGO.)

Because the game itself is so engaging, it is populated by interesting people. Where else could I have met the likes of Josh Ravitz, Mark Zadjner, and Kenny Hsiung (GUI), to name only a few. This social aspect is so much of what makes the game, as Matt Sperling recently reminded me. If there is one thing I will never question about Magic it is the (at its best) cheerful atmosphere it cultivates. The laughs.

Magic has let me travel around. If this has sometimes been in a strangely cloistered way, it must mostly be my own fault. I’ve hung out at Gabriel Nassif Eiffel Tower crash-pad. I’ve wandered the streets of Osaka with Mitchell Tamblyn. I’ve broken into a spacious janitor’s closet in a condemned casino near Venice with Brett Shears and lived like Swiss Family Robinson.

Several times, I have moved somewhere new and been welcomed into its Magic community whole-heartedly. This has been appreciated. The Magic community could fairly be described as open, and equal opportunity, although I remember having a tougher time on my way up. In parts of the community a submerged strain of negativity and mean-spiritedness exists.  

Paul Rietzl ended his recent report on a note of gratefulness. In the end, it’s difficult to say how much of what is written here is valid, and how much is not just projected cynical fantasy. Often, I feel grateful too. However, I do maintain that this gratefulness is tempered by a deep ambivalence toward the game and its role in my life so far.

10.

As we drove home, the illuminated technological sprawl passing by outside the window, my mind began to wander:

Were we all spirits trapped in a strange dimension?

Would Walls really make me go to Grand Prix Nashville?

Squadron Hawk or Wild Griffin?

Yes, these questions helped to ease the mind. I asked my brothers, and pseudo-namesake, to wake me up once we reached Applebee’s.