The Dragonmaster's Lair - What Does It Take?
One question I get asked with remarkable regularity is “What does it take to be a pro Magic player?” Now, the questioner is undoubtedly looking for some kind of insider tip, some kernel of knowledge that will help propel them into the highest echelons of tournament play if only they can learn it. I've given any number of answers over the years, all well intentioned, but most of them actually didn't answer the question that was asked. In fact, the question most people intend to ask is “How do I get good enough at Magic to do well on the Pro Tour?” so that's the question I answer, offering up advice about networking with strong players, practicing on Magic Online, etc.
As for the real question – “What does it take to be a pro Magic player?” – the answer involves a lot more than just being good at the game. Dedicating oneself to any competitive endeavor asks a lot of a person, and Magic is no different. The lifestyle of a professional player isn't for everyone, and the realities of tournament competition can be rough on those who don't learn to adapt to them. I didn't have some kind of epiphany when I returned to the Pro Tour that suddenly turned me into a far better player – rather, I'd learned to better deal with many of the more subtle mental aspects of playing in tournaments. One of the most difficult lessons that anyone who wants to play competitive Magic has to learn is how to maintain perspective when things don't go your way. I bring this up now because it's remarkably relevant to my last few tournament experiences.
Going into Paris, I felt like I was incredibly well prepared. I had the best Standard deck in the room, as evidenced by its dominance of both the Swiss and victory in the elimination rounds, albeit in the hands of Ben Stark rather than myself, and it was a deck that I'd been playing for ages and knew inside and out. I'd done probably ten times as many practice drafts as the average competitor in the Limited portion, and my opponents in those drafts were among the best players in the world. All of the pieces were in place for me to put up a strong finish.
Except I didn't. I barely squeaked into Day Two at 5-3 and, once there, managed only a .500 record, ending the tournament 9-7, good for 110th place.
So what went wrong? Most of the time, when I have a poor showing in a tournament, I can put my finger on something I could've done differently, either mistakes I made in the tournament itself or holes in my preparation. Last year, I did poorly at PT San Diego and PT San Juan, and I can credit that to insufficient practice in Constructed at the former and in Limited at the latter – my records were 2-3 and 0-3 in the respective formats at each tournament. I know where my problems were, and they cost me.
But for Paris, my Constructed deck was awesome, and I knew the Limited format well. I drafted solid decks and played them well. The reality is that I just got unlucky. All of my Limited losses involved double mulliganing or severe mana issues in at least one game. I had one close Constructed loss, but my others – all to Valakut – involved total nut draws on my opponents' parts and strings of mulliganing into poor hands on mine. I rarely had a turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic, despite mulliganing aggressively for them, and my opponents always seemed to have the Lotus Cobra into Harrow on seven cards.
Typically, I hate to blame my results on luck because there's little to be learned from it, but sometimes that's just how things go. There's no lessons to be learned from games where you keep a solid three-land hand and discard and die before you see land number four. There's no insight to be gleaned from mulliganing a one-lander into a one-lander into a one-lander. It happens to everyone, and sometimes it happens to you enough times in a single event to derail your entire tournament. Sometimes, no matter how good your deck is or how well you play, you just don't win.
But the important thing is that that, in itself, is a lesson. Sometimes you just don't win. If I've learned anything from having spent over half my life playing games competitively, it is that. No matter how well prepared you are, no matter how good you are, no matter how much you think you “deserve” it – sometimes, you just don't win.
Back when I used to play on the Pro Tour in college, I hadn't quite grasped that concept. Of course, I understood that Magic was a game that involved randomness, but understanding it intellectually is hugely different from accepting it as reality. I'd prepare heavily for events, and when I got there and did poorly, I'd get frustrated. Sometimes, I'd even feel resentful of my teammates who did well with decks that I worked on, feeling like it somehow wasn't fair that they would succeed on the back of my hard work where I would not.
I had a bit of that same feeling creep up on me in Paris. For a moment, I felt bitter that I wasn't the one at the top of the standings. Why wasn't I the one winning with the deck I'd spent so much time on?
But I've grown up a lot since my early days on the Pro Tour, and this time, I caught myself. Sure, it would've been nice to do well in Paris, especially after all the work I put into preparing for the tournament. But I certainly was in no position to begrudge others' success from the fruits of my labor. Was it really so long ago that I finished in the Top 8 of PT Honolulu with a deck built by Neil Reeves? Or won PT Austin with a deck made by Ben Rubin? Or won GP Sendai with a deck originally designed by Patrick Chapin? It's easy to lose track of how much of our own success we owe to others – just like it's easy to lose track of how much of our own success is due to luck.
As Mike McDermott says in Rounders, "Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career." Do you remember how many games in your last tournament you won in which your opponents double mulliganed against you or missed land drops? I certainly can't. But I can easily tell you about all the games in which it happened to me.
When our opponents mulligan and lose, it's business as usual – just chalk up another “W” for the good guys! But when we mulligan, it's injustice! Why me? What did I do to deserve this!
We more readily recall those memories that are more emotionally charged, like how frustrating it was to mulligan to oblivion or discard for three turns without seeing a third land. We don't remember when our opponent is missing his second color for an entire game, except maybe with a vague sense of “he had a bad draw and probably should have mulliganed.”
What's the point of all this? That it's important to keep everything in perspective. Yes, sometimes you just don't win, and there's nothing you can do about it. But sometimes everything falls into place just for you, and chances are the frequencies of each of the two are a lot more similar than you think.
So I didn't do well at PT Paris. So I didn't make Day Two of the GP there either. Maybe I even got mana screwed playing for Top 8 of the Sealed Deck Challenge on Sunday too. Did I yell and curse, throw things, and pout? Nope. I just shook my head and laughed.
You'll rarely see a true pro get angry about a loss. In fact, I'd say that a player's attitude when he loses to bad luck tells a lot about how likely they are to succeed in Magic. Can you imagine LSV refusing to shake someone's hand because he got mana screwed? Or Nassif storming off in a huff while muttering expletives under his breath? Of course not! They have the proper perspective.
After Paris, I came home for a single night before heading out to Denver for the next event. The morning before the Grand Prix, I woke up feeling terrible. My head was killing me, and my body ached all over. It was particularly agonizing to swallow, and I quite obviously had a fever. I tried my best to spend the entire day in bed to rest, but I was in so much pain I could barely sleep. Even that night after taking painkillers and drinking probably a gallon of water, I spent pretty much the entire night tossing and turning, having feverish dreams of Contagion Engines (I wish I was kidding). I got up the next morning exhausted and still in agonizing pain and resolved myself to just dope myself up with DayQuil and various painkillers so I could at least get my appearance fee for showing up. I learned later that I was fighting with strep throat the whole time.
So, of course, I made Top 8 of the Grand Prix.
Success in Magic doesn't follow simple rules. The tournaments where you expect to do well are sometimes the ones where things just don't break your way, and that has to be okay because sometimes you'll find success when you least expect it. All you can do is prepare your skills so you can take advantage of when luck is on your side and manage your perspective so you can handle when it isn't.
And that's what it takes to be a pro Magic player.