Magic for the Right Reasons
Magic is a wonderful game. I took a break from it for a while, and I missed the game a lot. There are some things I didn’t miss, like traveling or having to run around assembling my cards or waiting between rounds, but then there are the games. I love the games, the drafts, the deckbuilding, the theory and of course the people. Most of my best friends are Magic players. I’ve been given the opportunity to maximize what I love about the game and minimize what I don’t, both for me personally and everyone else and I intend to make the most of it.
The key to making Magic work for you is to play Magic for the right reasons. If you know why you’re playing, you’ll be able to get the most out of your time. For my last article here, I think the most important thing I can do is help everyone take stock. Over time, your reasons for playing change, both as Magic changes and as you change. If you play for the wrong reasons, you won’t enjoy playing as much and will grow frustrated with yourself and the game.
The most basic of all rules for playing Magic is something I’ve said many times at tournaments. It’s easy to forget it, and for short periods professionals sometimes have to break it, but here it is:
If you can’t have fun playing Magic, don’t play.
It’s as simple as that. Magic is a game, and games are meant to be fun. Magic is worth playing only so long as it is fun. That can include all aspects of the game, from opening boosters, sorting collections and engaging in savage trading to casual Fridays, daily playtesting and hard-core tournament play. It can even just be the good times you have with your friends, with Magic as your excuse to get together around a table. Perhaps you can even travel together to exotic locations, meet new people and kill them. [Er... I’m sure Zvi means that figuratively, of course. — Knut] There are benefits to Magic besides having fun, but fun is vital for two reasons. The first reason is that I consider fun to be one of the most important things in life, and if you can’t get it from a game, especially one as vast as this one, then you need more fun in your life. There is much work to be done. The second reason is that no matter what opportunities the game gives you, over the long run the reason that the benefits are worth the investment of time and energy is that you enjoyed the ride.
What that means is you need to remember what makes Magic fun for you. It’s different for each player, and it’s not just about Timmy, Johnny and Spike. I’ve been referred to by some on this site as the ultimate Spike, playing the best deck and doing what it takes to win, but that’s not true. I’m all three, and a fourth as well because I enjoy figuring out what makes the game tick. If I had been a pure Spike, I wouldn’t have been able to motivate myself to build all the cool decks I’ve built over the years and I certainly wouldn’t have won a Grand Prix with TurboLand. Even if it was the best deck, I would never have figured that out. When I’m working on a deck, I get to enjoy all four aspects: I learn what works, I get to engage in competition, I get to do giant things and construct gigantic combinations. It is exactly when you take those other aspects away from me that I grow restless with the testing process.
Ask yourself: When do you most enjoy playing Magic? You may want to ask the same question about life in general, but there’s only so much introspection that one can shoot for in a single article. Do you enjoy it more when you’re casual or cutthroat? Would you rather be drafting or playing Constructed? Is playtesting fun, a necessary evil or the first branching into the second after you’re tired and run out of cheese nachos? Don’t forget the cheese.
The other good reason to play Magic is that it makes you smart. Does anyone remember the old “chess makes you smart” buttons the USCF used to pass out? I do, and it was considered one of the game’s big selling points. If Chess makes you smart, Magic makes you smarter. It teaches you to think, it teaches you to adapt. It is a crash course in logical thinking, concentration, economics, mathematics and statistics while giving you all the benefits of competition that sports coaches love to talk about. I learned more from my playing hours than from my school hours while I was in High School, and that’s another good reason to play. You still need to be having fun, but that adds another advantage. The more fun you’re having, the more you learn. I bet I could have learned foreign languages from the game, and I still want to try that some time. Kamigawa block left us all with a little bit of Japanese in our vocabulary. I wonder how fast I would pick up Spanish or French if I played with their cards for a year or two.
“But mostly I think it’s the fame and the money.” — Zaphod Beebelbrox
Do not play Magic for the money. Use the money as an excuse that lets you keep playing Magic. There are several ways to make money off this game, and all of them except one are extreme long shots. The one that isn’t is shameless commerce, also known as dealing, trading and minding the store. Alex Shvartsman is a good friend of mine who makes a good living off of the game by dealing, as do the owners of Star City. Dealing is shameless commerce, and that means I’m for it. Without dealers we’d all spend a lot of time doing things most of us hate. Dealers buy low and in bulk, they sell high and spend a little time wondering why in the world someone would want that many Mudholes before reminding themselves they bought them for fifteen cents and are now getting a dollar each and that whatever funny business is being planned will likely be very funny indeed and is probably worth every penny. Even if it isn’t, that is not their problem. Dealing can be honorable work, giving people what they need and saving them time in exchange for value, and most dealers are honorable. If you want to be a dealer, make sure you want to be doing what to people like me seems rather boring.
Trading exists in many varieties, from the honorable man who seeks to make sure both sides get what they want to the predators ripping off nine year olds and everything in between. As long as you’re up front about what you’re doing, I have no problem with any of them except ripping off nine year olds — and once they hit about fourteen, they need to learn better. The problem with trading to me is that you have to choose. In the first method, you accept that you’re not going to profit or that you’re not going to make it worth your time. You probably won’t even break even in terms of value, instead giving up value to save time and build your deck or collection. The more you enjoy trading, and for the first few years I did enjoy it, the more time you should spend trading to save yourself the cost of going through dealers. However you may want to consider investing in either friends who can loan you what you need or even better buying all the cards you’ll need for Standard and maintaining a collection. It may sound expensive, but having a complete collection often saves you a lot of time and money moving from deck to deck. It can lead to success at tournaments and if you make good deals you can even come out ahead in the end.
The second option is to trade for profit, which for most of us is tedious and time consuming and makes us feel like dirt at the end of the day if we maximize our profits. Most people aren’t cut out for hardcore trading. I never liked it, even when I was handed gift trades. You could also mind the store. Minding the store is by all accounts a crappy job. That comes from my talks over the years with various employees at Magic shops, and your experience might be different. With the economic climate, a crappy job doesn’t look as bad, but it’s still pretty crappy and sometimes the job can be downright awful depending on the store. If you enjoy hanging out at the store and probably getting good opportunities to play then that can help a lot, but at its core chance are you’re accepting pretty low pay for doing things that are rather menial. Owning a store and/or organizing events works too, but few succeed. Even less get a job with Wizards. Still, those are real ways to profit.
There are those who play tournaments to win prize money. This is a mistake for all but a select few. All right, if you think you can make good money playing, stand up. If your name is Kai Budde, Jon Finkel, Brian Selden or Bob Maher, please sit down. You can stay. Kai and Jon can stay because they’re just that good, and Brian and Bob can stay because they’re almost that good and can do it without spending time preparing. Since the first draft of this article, they introduced the Pro Tour Players’ Club, which expands the number of slots available. That means there’s probably about twenty more person out there, several of which I don’t know about, that can stay as well. To see if you’re one of them, roll four ten-sided dice. If they all come up as one, you can stay.
Still standing up? Good job, but I have some news. Even if you do make a profit, and chances are still very low that you’ll make anything at all after subtracting all your expenses, it won’t be worth your time and effort given how smart you are. Stupid people don’t win Pro Tours. If I were to relax the requirements to allow those who can make enough to live on this way, I would let perhaps a hundred more people stay standing — the number is higher than the number who can do this at the same time because many of them will choose not to try — but they could all make a lot more money doing something less fun. I was one of the one hundred, and for a while I made decent money on Tour. If I wanted to (and had not been offered the intern position), I could have continued to make a living playing Magic, especially now that the club has been reintroduced, but I could also have devoted that time to something else and made a lot more money. That brings us back to the first rule: If you can’t have fun playing Magic, don’t play. Don’t play just for the money.
What the money does for you is take away the cost of playing the game. There is both the monetary cost and the cost in terms of time. Magic is not cheap and nothing will ever make it cheap. You can have the best card shop in the world with the best prices, and you would still have two choices: Pay a lot of money, or spend a lot of time making sure you don’t have to. When you trade to avoid spending money on Magic, you’re essentially doing a job by trading and then spending the income on cards. If you’re very good, you can win enough in prizes that you can pay for your Magic habit; this requires you to be more or less a top level PTQ player depending on your local area. If you’re exceptional and can survive profitably on the Tour, you can spend a lot of time on the game and come out with something to show for it. However, don’t fool yourself. Even when I was tearing up the Tour, I was investing a ton of time and my hourly rate would have made me wince if I’d calculated it. The reason I didn’t mind was that I was enjoying the ride and learning a lot doing it.
There are those who play tournaments for the fame and the glory. Let me warn you before you start down that path that this is a very special kind of fame. It’s great to have a large group of people who think you’re amazing and have the mad skills. Don’t misunderstand me. It will get you the respect of the other Magic players. If you get far enough you’ll get the respect of fellow geeks as well. There’s something to that I suppose, but at the end of day you’re not any different and most people will see that. Most importantly, the biggest perks of fame don’t apply: Unless you write well and enjoy it you’ll have a very hard time cashing in on it, and it most certainly will not get you the girl. Trust me. However it will help you be proud of your gaming, which is a worthy cause.
A similar motivation was best put by one of the immortals on Highlander: “Haven’t you always wanted to be the best at something?” I had a chance to try and be the best, but I came up short. For a while I could make the case that I was third, but I realized I would never be second — Kai and Jon were just better than I was. I’d taken my shot, proven all there was to prove both to others and more importantly to myself. When I was willing to put in the work I was one of the best, but I would never be the best. Testing yourself and your limits can be one of the right reasons, and I’m glad I took the shot, but if it hadn’t been fun along the way this would never have made up for it. There’s also the excitement of competition, which I would file under fun. Playing in tournaments is fun, it’s the waiting between rounds and sometimes the preparations and travel that drive me crazy. Eric Taylor’s goal is to win a Pro Tour, others will want to qualify, or make it into the money. Some like me will shoot for the top, looking for Pro Tour Player of the Year and the all time money lead. A sense of accomplishment is great. Be proud, but keep it in perspective. Pride is not a virtue of the Avatar.
The point is to know what you love about Magic, what keeps it fun for you, and seek that out. Those of us who have moved up to high level competition often have the red-pill problem: Once we know how the game works at the highest levels, we have a hard time going back to the casual level. Casual Magic was a blast, and I can still have a blast playing, but when I play purely for fun rather than to win and to learn, there’s something artificial about it. It feels like a lie. For me, the joy is in playing to win and to learn what wins games and tournaments. I want to break this game down, learn what makes it tick and then write about it. I’ve missed writing these past few months, which is why I’m writing this early. I’m doing this for the right reasons.
As I leave this great website and move on to Wizards, I want to finish by saying one thing: Whatever your level of involvement in Magic, remember that it is a great game. Do not be ashamed of the fact that you play. There is nothing wrong with playing unless you decide that there is. People react the way you do. Even before I hit it big, I realized that when I talked to people about what I did with all my free time that they had no idea that there was anything shameful or hopelessly geeky about the game. The way they knew was that I would get sheepish and embarrassed the moment the game came up, which was the signal: What I’m about to tell you is kind of embarrassing. Your reaction should be “Oh my, what a nerd/geek/loser.” That didn’t change when I started winning - it changed when I started acting like I was a winner because I was involved in the game. What we do is a far better thing than all those people out there watching television and playing golf. Imagine what would happen if everyone who played golf had to act like it was a secret shame. You’d start treating it like one. We can transform how people view Magic, make it something to put on your social resume rather than something to hide. All we have to do is act like it.