In the Loop

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Over the last year, I derailed and transformed my life by winning some Magic tournaments. It’s safe to say I put more time and effort into this singular pursuit over the last year than anything else in my life — I’m still working out what that says about me. As I take stock of this year and look ahead to the next I want to reflect on what it took to get here and why I put myself through this. 

The most striking thing about this chain of events is its utter improbability. After making the finals of the first Open I joined a last-minute expedition to Worcester where, lost and fatigued and wondering why I’d even gone, I played my pet deck and somehow won the whole thing. Spiking the first two Opens locked me in to a dozen more — after my failed bid in Season 1 of the SCG Tour points race I played Pittsburgh as a convenient getaway and won to loop myself in for Season 2. Switch any of those results for one of my many total failures and nothing later ever happens: I’m watching coverage at home instead wondering what might have been. An honest attempt to learn from my experience has to acknowledge how unlikely it was and ask what lessons I would be learning in the alternate universe next door. 

Did I run well? Obviously. Magic players routinely misunderstand the role of luck in ways we all take for granted. I’m lucky that I had Turn 3 Karn but that’s the whole point; I’m lucky that I drew the Nissa but I only needed the Nissa because they had an above-average draw to put me in that situation; I got lucky to beat my bad matchup but unlucky to face one of its few pilots in the room. Even if you can correctly disentangle all the factors in whatever bad beat you’re telling me about, what’s the point? We sign up to play a game where luck and skill are inextricable. Like any hierarchy, skill offers you a vision of itself with you at the top: it’s easy to imagine that you’re the temporarily embarrassed millionaire or Hall of Famer or whatever accolade seems just out of reach. Luck is what lets those of us who aren’t atop the food chain come back for more. 

Getting sucked back into the loop in Pittsburgh. (Photo Courtesy StarcityGames)

Luck plays a much larger and more complicated role outside the tournament hall. I’m lucky that I could focus on the grind without worrying about money. I could do that thanks to a general frugality and a medium-term life plan based on careful saving — which I could afford to follow as I was already fortunate enough to not need to worry about money. I’m unlucky that my father died as I left for a full month of Opens — am I unlucky or lucky that it felt more annoying than earth-shattering? I’m lucky to live in a place where grinding was, if not easy, at least feasible — I was unlucky that my life was miserable and I had to escape there to stop myself drowning. If I’m unlucky that my results were all I had to define myself by I’m lucky they were damn good.

I had the freedom to go to Massachusetts on a whim and commit to this exhausting quest because I had nothing else going on. After moving to Canada in late 2018 I had to rebuild my life from scratch and face the daunting prospect of making friends as an adult. For all its flaws the Magic community is famously good at enabling that. Some early results in Toronto got the notice of a polite but cliquish local scene and my eventual teammate Tariq Patel. I began 2019 hoping to build on those bonds and find a healthy role for Magic in my new life. 

I’d moved with the explicit goal of “say yes to everything,” forcing myself to get out of my comfort zone instead of falling into the stagnation I was prone to in the UK. When I said yes to the SCG Tour I couldn’t say yes to much else. Meeting people and maintaining connections is hard when half your weekends are spoken for and your time at home is spent preparing for next week’s Open. Toronto became a base to recuperate and do laundry rather than a real home. As the grind took a physical and mental toll I was increasingly amazed by Edgar Magalhaes and Matthew Dilks managing perfect attendance when they wanted to while holding down 9-5s — I was reluctant to pursue job opportunities knowing that juggling those with the grind could lead to be fumbling both. 

(Photo Courtesy StarcityGames)

The more hoops the system makes you jump through the more it selects for an abundance of money and time and a lack of other commitments. Some succeed at the game because they devote themselves to it with complete focus; some because they have the talent, drive, and resources to succeed at almost anything and happen to be drawn to Magic. If the pursuit of Magic success can’t coexist with a stable career or social life that second group won’t bother showing up. 

In the recurring Twitter debates over who should get to play in what ‘meritocracy’ is a common theme. Often the biggest fans of that abstract ideal are also the most eager for the grind to be as grueling as possible without recognizing the inherent contradiction. It’s much easier to be the best player in the room when the other candidates are stuck at their desk job in the next state over or at home a $600 flight away. Those of us who couldn’t hope to be the GOAT love to debate who is; the fact that Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa has his absurd resume despite living in Brazil, where your worst tournament journey is easier than his best and it’s hard to ever break even on a trip without winning the whole thing, should count for a whole lot more than it does. A platform like Arena has so much democratic potential, allowing those who can’t road trip to Ohio on a lark or don’t feel welcome in a not-so-friendly LGS to throw their hat in the ring, but this potential is wasted by a system that’s needlessly opaque and obtuse.  

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As you spend more and more time away from home you find your people on the road. Seeing the same people every week and sharing this maddening struggle with them leads to a fast and intense bonding that’s hard to replicate elsewhere — and when you have to turn down invitations at home because there’s an Open that weekend these people become your social circle by default. Once that happens you’re yet more likely to attend just for the social aspect even when you can’t stand the thought of playing Magic. The grind becomes even more all-or-nothing. 

Like any subculture competitive Magic has its own subtleties and unspoken rules that any newcomer has to learn on the fly. I found the SCG scene more inviting and fun than the European GP circuit but also more riddled with drama and shaped by chasing status. Even if you shouldn’t define yourself by your results that’s all the community had to define me by. People I never would have met were introducing themselves and seeking my attention or approval — well-known figures in the scene gave me an automatic respect (at least in public) that their average opponent couldn’t always expect. As someone who can be reserved I enjoyed this seamless integration into the scene and the rare sense of belonging somewhere but there was always that voice in my head reminding me that so much of this was contingent on one result in a win-and-in jump-starting the whole process. As with any nerdy, competitive endeavour some people bring the easy confidence they have in any social situation, reserving a permanent seat at the cool kids’ table regardless of results, while others earn a grudging respect through competition. Even players who have proven themselves to some degree can have their results dismissed as luck if they aren’t close to the right people whereas that guy who’s well-liked is always somehow a secret ringer waiting for his big break. 

If you can avoid defining yourself by your results it’s still easy to define others by theirs. Back in the UK, stuck in a rut in and out of Magic, seeing people I knew succeed often led to a complicated reaction: jealousy that I couldn’t taste that success myself, confusion as to why and then guilt that I was consumed by these feelings instead of supporting my friends in their moment of triumph. It was perversely easier to root for people I didn’t know well as it was less tempting to imagine myself in their shoes. I had a front row seat to Autumn Burchett’s rise to stardom — seeing them move from beginner at my LGS to peer on the national scene to global Magic sensation while I chilled on my plateau forced me to confront uncomfortable truths about why my self-worth was tied to my Magic results and why those were so lacking. It shouldn’t take having your own success to gain a proper perspective on others’ but it’s an easy problem to have.

The structure of organized play can encourage this mindset. In the race for the Players’ Championship it became hard to enjoy your own success when your relative position mattered most. An objectively good result like a Top 16 finish at an Open was a letdown if others on the leaderboard matched or exceeded it. My happiest moment in the race wasn’t any of my Open wins but a much easier Regionals win that gave me a crucial points buffer — my lowest moment was watching too many of my friends dominate a weekend when I bombed which would have lifted my spirits if I didn’t have a direct interest in their failure. To some extent this is unavoidable in any invite-based competition but it’s a shock to the system to find yourself forced to root against the same people you’d grown so close to across the year. I was ashamed that my previous experiences prepared me well for that. 

Adopting a healthy attitude to your process and results is much easier said than done. Most advice on Magic Twitter is either empty self-help grifting or well-intentioned but not clearly actionable. It’s tough for the genuine advice to apply to a wide audience with any consistency while offering something new and specific compared to the dozens of versions of that advice tweeted (and retweeted, and retweeted…) every week. The common refrain that you should treat Magic as one long session rather than putting too much stock in any one tournament is useful — if you were engineering the perfect player in a lab, that’s the attitude you’d want them to have. However, if you could translate abstract thought into emotional regulation so easily, most of this advice wouldn’t need to exist in the first place. I find it’s easy to convince myself my success is a fluke and my failed weekends represent the ‘real’ me — if I don’t allow myself to revel in those successes I end up ignoring them while still bearing the full emotional brunt of my losses. For me trying to stay neutral and detached about my results is like jamming a square peg into a round hole. 

(Photo Courtesy StarcityGames)

This informs a broader skepticism about mindset and results influencing each other. Magic’s newest heartthrob Chris Kvartek attributed his astonishing success in 2019 to improvements in his life that removed external sources of stress and allowed him to focus on the grind with the right mentality. While I relate to much of what he said it’s unclear how this causation operates.

My PC dreams had seemingly ended with a whimper in Season 1 and I reflected publicly on my struggle finding a healthy role for the game in my life. A few weeks later I won another Open and then a third shortly after. In between I began a fulfilling relationship that dramatically reshaped and improved my life outside Magic — the wins that followed felt very natural as if part of a larger narrative. Would that story survive scrutiny, though? Maybe my sunnier disposition subconsciously improved my focus in a specific domain but that’s impossible to quantify. It wasn’t work-life balance or inner peace that let me draw Leyline of the Void in the Hogaak mirror or rip Urza’s Tower at the right time. The structure of the system means that, of a hundred Chris Kvarteks, only a handful can ever accomplish their goals. His story is inspiring precisely because it’s so unlikely. There is a risk here of assuming that if results don’t immediately follow from a change in your life there must be something wrong externally that’s leading you astray. Kvartek clarifies in his thread that this constructive mindset should be the goal in itself. It’s hard to disagree — of course it is! — but also hard to see how to get any closer to that goal. 

A decade ago Jeff Cunningham took a holistic view of Magic’s role in the life of the typical grinder and the larger gaming ecosystem. His analysis is as notable for what has changed as for what hasn’t. The observation about the role of games as an artificial source of order and structured challenge in a world that lacks those is as relevant now as ever. Though the names on the carousel may change there will always be a new generation of young obsessives channeling their drive into a pursuit where achievement and the recognition that goes with it seem much more attainable than traditional career or life goals that were markers of manhood in ‘simpler’ times. The grinders’ sheer replace-ability gives them little leverage against those in the ivory tower (or first-floor corporate office) designing our newest Skinner box. Cunningham’s take on the dangers of the grind is not original but it was less popular in its time.

Discussing burnout is much more accepted today — this can be an encouraging sign that the community is more willing to talk about mental health or an alarming sign that a demographic still reluctant to have those conversations feels their situation is bad enough to start one. The nostalgia for an old-school aesthetic and design looks quaint when the official lore is in a dire state and the last year of releases broke every format wide open. As for “by 2013, trolls will outnumber ordinary players,” that one is left as an exercise to the reader.

Where is Magic now? It’s no longer a “small hamlet situated between poker and Scrabble”: it’s a resurgent esports empire devouring everything in its path. Hearthstone delenda est. Unfortunately for last decade’s grinders the spoils of this conquest are held by a select few. The allure of a pro Magic lifestyle was always a false promise for most — now, it’s a reality for a handful and a tragically remote prospect for the rest. Even those who want to throw themselves at that goal at the expense of all else find it tough to justify (if they can figure out where they are meant to jump). 

Amidst all of the year’s other concerns Magic’s essence as an activity is also in question. The physical game carries an institutional memory that can still summon its old guard away from their careers and families for occasional jaunts. None of its competitors can boast that longevity. The embrace of and emphasis on Arena makes sense in light of its stunning success but its new visitors don’t share that emotional attachment. What will they do when the next sleek digital card game comes along with all of the money and publicity and none of the baggage of Magic’s ancient rules engine or farcical Organized Play system?

The grind itself stands to change too. For many their fond memories of the grind are drawn in its grim physicality: all-night road trips, after-hours hustling in dingy hotels, friendships forged in a fast food joint. A grind that can be broadcast to thousands from the comfort of your bedroom is a new animal: sanitized, presentable, identical. If the tournament report still existed it would look very different in the Arena era. 

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I know I’ll be back. If I’m lucky, and I play well, and the stars align, the waitress at a rest-stop Waffle House will have to ask what my trophy is for. Until then I’ll vomit words onto a page and hope this will all make sense to someone.