On this August day, I’m playing Magic, and it’s the hottest event in the city. Seriously. It’s 85+ degrees in San Diego and the humidity hovers somewhere between Georgia in the Spring and Satan’s Sin Sack. In spite of the oppressive heat, the people that surround me are positive. There’s something about a game were your next card may make the difference between stunning victory and an ignominious ass kicking, that leads the players to be the optimistic types. At the very least, today I count my self among them.
I’m not going to lie – I’m slightly intimidated. But the other competitors around me are jovial, happy too to go along with their optimism. At the end of the day they get to play Magic – a game they love, against top tier competition. At the tournament there are people dressed in team shirts and others who are trying out things to bring to the Pro Tour. If I was to scramble around for a sports metaphor, it would be like you showed up to play baseball and there’s a chance your first opponent is the Mets.
Everybody knows this, and it seems I’m not the only person who is trying to work the angles. Everybody here knows the intricacies of their decks front and back, and once they had a good idea they went and played it against a few dozen more decks to see the interactions. Going back to the sports analogy, the way your deck interacts with itself are the plays you can run. Perhaps some cards in your deck have cute synergy but knowing when to run that particular play against whatever messed up thing your opponent is doing is a key to winning.
Johnny B Goode
There’s a few different psycographics for players of Magic. It’s true of other games, but there’s something about this one that really makes them stark. There’s Timmy – he’s the player that loves big crap and giant effects. If you attacks you with a 10/10 he’s usually a pretty happy camper. Johnny is a player that enjoys the interactions between cards and finding synergies. Finally, Spike is the guy who doesn’t care about any of that, he’s the dude that wants to win and looks for every bit of advantage he can get.
I’ve been a player of this game since Ice Age came out, and as a player I’ve always been a Johnny. I love putting together clever things and seeing how they play out. Worse, I get really impressed when my opponent pulls off something cool. It’s the play of the game itself that I enjoy, and the outcome is usually secondary. I mean, I like winning, but a game playing motto of mine has always been, “I would rather lose a close game, than win a blowout.”
So before coming I practiced in a way that I had never actually played Magic before, since now I found myself at Regionals, and because I didn’t want to suck I spent countless hours looking at the metagame. Game after game trying to figure out the best way to leverage my deck and get my opponent to 0 life. Shuffle after shuffle, trying to get my math right, and my curve right. Looking for those small advantages, because it would turn out that the smallest advantage could have immense outcomes at this level.
Coincidentally, the players here are almost all Spikes. They might care about a mechanic, or they may think about some synergy but always as a means to their end. Many of the people here were playing decks or versions of decks that had done well at previous tournaments. They don’t use terms like “play a deck,” no, instead the deck is, “piloted,” and the skill a player has with that deck is referred to, “how well they pilot.” Apparently at higher levels still some player and deck archetypes are known well enough to be known by name (at least in some circles).
The other players know this, and we sit at picnic tables outside playing games. Or they talk about their decks and how theirs will match up against what they think everybody else might have brought. But they have a sense about them, a sense that maybe they missed something. There are a few hundred cards in the format, and dozens of decks considered “competitive” (side note: the Johnny in me built a custom deck and willfully ignored the archetypes that these other players were worrying about. Hilarity ensured). But they kept talking through it to their friends, but not wanting to give up possibly useful information at this early stage to other competitors. It seemed to me like they were hyping themselves up. Getting pumped for the games ahead, and trying to work up some sense of inevitability. “I did my homework, I know the game, and I think I can win.” It was exactly the sort of feeling you get while on a sports team. You get excited and you go out and do some damage, and the same seemed true here.
Everyone else was acting like that kid in class with the bad home life, and rushing to get their homework done at the last minute. Another last minute check after another. They kept running the iterative math over and over in their heads, deciding on their deck lists and hoping that this one last tweak will be the difference between tasting victory and eatin’ shit.
“Can’t buy drugs if they spent all their
money on Tarmogoyf.”
A new weirdness if you’ve never been to something like this is the Deck List. Before you play your first game you write down the name and quantity of everything in your deck and then you do it for your sideboard. They do that to ensure your deck stays the same throughout the day. It also means that your Starting 60 (the colloquial term for your deck before you’ve made sideboard changes) needs to be the same at the start of every match. This is to ensure if you know what your opponent’s deck is, you can’t make changes to yours in the first game. This is another reason why the people around me are trying to figure out the odds of drawing a card that may appear a fraction of the time and be useful even less.
It starts late. The part of me sitting in the sun wants to blame the organizers, but at the same time there are a few hundred people here to play today. Along with them there are a few onlookers and some supportive spouses that are also in attendance. In spite of that, these things don’t always start on time. It’s probably safe to assume that it will happen, but I wouldn’t rely on it. Instead I advise you do what everybody else is doing and let you nerd flag fly and talk about Magic. After an hour though, the natives start getting restless. Outside some new drama is unfolding. A player has managed to lock their keys inside of their car and left the motor running. He, and his similarly uniformed friends, crack jokes while looking at the hanging keys forlornly. Because the Universe has a completely jacked sense of humor, that is the exact moment the tournament starts.
“What do you do when you’re not playing Magic?”
“I’m probably thinkin’ about
This tournament is built up into 8 rounds, and each round is a best of 3. That means that each player plays 8 rounds no matter what. Your opponent is chosen via something called “Swiss” style wherein you play an opponent and based on the outcome a computer ranks everybody and assigns their next opponent. Generally speaking you end up playing people with the same record as you. Win your first and you’re at 1-0 and there are very good odds you will play an opponent who is also 1-0. This system tends to naturally sort the players, and the higher ranked players often play each other; and the riff raff wind up playing against each other.
I’m not going to bore you with the specifics of each match. They’re not interesting to anybody else, I promise. However as the day wore on I began to feel something and at the end of the day I’m no longer sure that I am quite the same player that I was when I started. You see, everybody here wasn’t just playing to play, but playing to win. I distinction I was about to become acutely aware of.
It works out that there are 85 pairings that get listed, which means that there are 170 players (including me) that are at this thing. These pairings are posted on a big board with your name and what numbered table you sit at. I end up in a second hall and at number 77. Shortly thereafter we are informed that the AC is not going to work in this room. That means that I will refer to this hall almost exclusively as The Sweat Box. If you want AC, be in the top 40 tables and be better.
My opponent sits across from me and unrolls a playmat from another tournament, only his says “Top 8.” A Top 8 Finish means that among everybody at a tournament you made the Top 8 of the best players. In and of itself that’s a trick. I have managed to do it only a handful of times and never at an event this size (and a Top 8 out of 32 barely counts). Once there the rules turn into a single elimination, but getting to that level basically means that you ran almost undefeated. Maybe at the end of the say your record is 7-1 at worse. I, of course, ask about it. At which point my opponent is happy to explain about how he’s actually managed the feat twice at different high level events.
“I don’t know what I want to do at college,
so I decided that while I figure it out
I’ll just focus on Magic.”
In the first game I came out strong, and rushed him down and the game was quickly over. The deck I had put together was a Red/Black deck built around raw aggression. In Magic parlance it was something called, “Red Black Aggro.” I built it myself because I’m Johnny as Fuck, and it helped that the other decks I saw winning tournaments were slow. In Magic if you can present enough of a threat early on it makes it very hard for your opponent to catch up. Basically they spend most of their time trying to respond to what you are doing, and don’t do what they want to. This means that they spend their turns trying not to die, instead of trying to finish you. After, my deck failed to come together quickly enough and I lost. In the third game I managed to get a turn away from victory and made a tactical mistake.
After that, hand shakes all around and I asked for advice. The advice I got was this: Your deck works. Your deck is scary. I don’t know if anybody is prepared to deal with it. Here’s what to sideboard in – oh good you have those. What I got out of it was that I came within 1 play of beating Mr. Double Top 8. I lost, but most people would that day. But at least I knew that I wasn’t completely outclassed. Worse, I lost because I made a mistake.
Unfortunately, I was still in the Hot Box. My loss bounced me down to table 84, so while I wasn’t at the last place seat, I was sitting next to him. The next match I played with a dude that seemed more than happy to just be playing. He wasn’t trying to come out on top, just to hopefully get some prizes. Prizes started at around 32nd place or so, and amounted to free merch and packs. Nothing too exciting, but I have to confess that cracking victory packs is a hell of a lot sweeter than just opening normal ones.
This time I was determined to not make a mistake. Usually I employ a technique I’ve had referred to as, “Drunken Boxing,” when I play cards. I’m chatty, but I’m usually chatty on my opponent’s turn. I ask questions about them while they’re trying to figure stuff out and I frequently will throw them off their game. For me, it’s a win-win since I get to be sociable, and I eek out a win. Now though I felt compelled to give my full focus to the game I was playing. That brain space I was using to be sociable was now being filled with trying to work out my plays 3 turns ahead of time.
For the first game I again came out strong and the whole ordeal was over in just a few minutes. Generally speaking if an Aggro deck is winning, the game is short. The second game I stalled (that’s where I can’t keep a consistent number of things attacking to keep up forward momentum – like an NFL Football game where a team is stopped on the 2 yard line. It was like that.). The third again came down to a mental error. I missed something that my opponent had played that would have helped me out and allowed game 3 to go like game 1. Instead my opponent smiled, said, “Good Game.” and escaped from the Sweat Box.
Players at these types of events will frequently talk about their rankings as, “X/2” or some variant. The first number is the wins, which are ironically less important than the losses in this jargon. At this point, I was at “X/2” and my “X” was “0.” It’s a rough spot to be in. Again I became filled with running those plays over in my head. “If I had noticed that detail then the game would have gone this way, and X,Y, and Delta would have changed.” In other words, I focused on the screw up. As I shuffled my deck, I dwelled on not being beaten, but having beaten myself. I could almost hear the echo of my own voice saying, “I would rather lose a close game than win a blowout,” and for the first time I wanted that to tell that voice to, “Shut the fuck up.”