Flow Of Ideas - Journal Of Impossible Things
There are moments where you stand on the precipice of changing your view of a person forever. You don't even know that you're standing there until after you've already been pushed off the edge and the world is rushing around you.
In one moment, you have your current idea of someone. Who they are, where they work, what their personality is like. It's the image you've carved out for them in your mind, filled with interactions and thoughts that make up their whole being like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Tim is the lonely friend you've had forever. Lorelai is that girl who works the shift after you. Andy is the British guy you've been talking to on the plane for the last hour.
And then they give you a light push. The puzzle breaks apart, and the pieces change. Something new enters the big picture.
One moonlit summer night, Tim tells you about how he was the one who lit his house on fire, killing his father. During a quiet coffee break, Lorelai admits she has feelings for you. Somewhere late in the conversation, Andy mentions his work on Lord of the Rings in passing, and you realize that he is not just Andy of seat 24C but Andy Serkis, the actor behind Gollum.
You can't see these people exactly the same afterward. You can embrace them; you can forgive them; you can even be overjoyed by their presence—but they're never quite the same. For better or worse, this new information will always shape your perception of who they are and what they mean to you.
In two weeks, I begin a six-month R&D internship at Wizards of the Coast.
I've wanted this since I was eleven. I've worked at this ever since I realized it was a possibility. And in two weeks, I will no longer be Gavin Verhey, Magic columnist, commentator, and tournament grinder, but Gavin Verhey, Magic designer and developer.
This revelation certainly isn't morbid, and depending on how you know me, you may be sad, or happy, or both. However, it will change who I am to you and our level of interaction.
In two weeks, my two and a half year tenure as a StarCityGames.com writer will come to a close.
I've grown accustomed to stockpiling my ideas and then putting them into motion when they're ready, but now there is a limit to how many of those stories I will fully be able to tell. I want to show you as many as I can.
And so, I present to you my Journal of Impossible Things.
These are ideas for articles and pieces of articles that never will be. Some are more fully formed and poignant than others. Perhaps in another lifetime, another timeline, you would have seen some of these ideas germinate and blossom into articles. But in my hands, this is the end of their line. I blow these ideas, these seedlings of articles, to you.
While pure ideas may not sound like much, I think you'll find ideas are infectious. If you make a room for an idea in your mind, it will fill the space and grow. If you open the door to that room, that idea will scurry out and carry its message. Read the synopsis, and let your imagination fill an article that never was. Who knows—maybe some writer out there that's searching for inspiration (yes, you) will pick one of these ideas up and be the person to finish the job.
I've got a couple more ideas up my sleeve for the final two weeks, so don't miss those. Until then, enjoy this glimpse into the many worlds of my mind.
Is there one best play?
Jon Finkel infamously said that “There's no such thing as a bad play, a good play, and a better play. There's the right play, and then there's the mistake.” For a long time, that was a dominant belief. In many circles it still is. However, after several discussions, I'm beginning to wonder if that's actually the case.
If you talk to the best players, a lot of them have very distinctive play styles. Martin Juza plays around everything. Luis Scott-Vargas often plays as though they don't have it. Brian Kibler tends to play aggressively, even as a control deck. Paulo Vitor tends to play less aggressively, even as a beatdown deck.
All of these players are excellent at Magic. They excel on the Pro Tour and are widely considered some of the best in the game. You can give them all the same close matchup, with the same draws every turn and same plays by the opponent, and they are likely to win it.
However, during that game, they are probably going to make several different decisions. These may be judgment calls due to play style, mulligan beliefs, or otherwise. Is only one of them playing correctly, or do their individual styles lend them each a unique branch of strength? Can you factor in personal strengths into what the “correct play” is, or is the right play always static? Think about it.
I wrote one article in the style of someone else (which you can read here), and it was a lot of fun, and I've always wanted to revisit the idea. A lot of famous Magic personalities have a very distinctive writing style, and it would be cool to riff on.
The trick with writing conceits though is there has to be a reason why you're doing it. If you just write some generic article on decks or strategy or something in the style of Mike Flores, what does that really accomplish? Why is this better than writing this article in my own voice? When I do something unusual with my articles, I prefer to have a reason other than “for value.”
The ideas I had tossed around usually involved various insights into the community, though I never settled on what angle I wanted to attack it from. All I knew is that I was going to have the article divided up into sections, and each section I would have a new voice (aka exaggerated style of a Magic personality) to use.
Some of the names on the short to exaggerate were Mike Flores, Zac Hill, Mark Rosewater, Evan Erwin, AJ Sacher, Paulo Vitor, and myself. (A joke's no fun if you can't make fun of yourself too!) I always figured that Zac Hill's portion would be the most fun to write, especially because I like to consider myself a reasonable authority on Zaclish.
In addition to writing in the exaggerated style of a Magic personality, the other style I really wanted to try was writing in the style of a Magic planeswalker. More specifically, I was stuck on the idea of writing in the style of Nicol Bolas because I thought it would be awesome.
I actually began to use this conceit in the article introducing the Nicol Bolas Grixis deck I built for old Extended, but stopped a couple paragraphs in because of how absolutely ridiculous it was. It was all in caps (except when Bolas was talking to you telepathically), and half of it was just Bolas talking about how awesome he was compared to you.
I decided to set it aside and try it again if I revisited the deck (as I planned) or built another deck with Nicol Bolas. Unfortunately, the deck took off, and several others wrote about superior versions, so I never got the opportunity to try taking the reins as Bolas again.
This past year, I realized something: all of Magic's great players are still alive.
With the game being around for less than 20 years and attracting a young audience, most of the strong competitors who started with it back in the day haven't even breached 50. The game also isn't physically taxing and damaging like football is, meaning you can play into your old age. Jon Finkel, who many have called the best to ever play, is a mere 33 and still as sharp as ever. Compare that to Babe Ruth or Joe Montana, who are dead due to age and unable to play due to physical constraints respectively.
At this point, I truly feel like Magic is going to last for a very long time. It's impossible to say if and when it will end, but let's just imagine a world where it's still going strong 40 or 50 years from now. Will the best Magic players be going senile, or will they still be able to play in some capacity (albeit not as they once did) due to increased mental acuity?
What will the world be like when the best Magic players start dying off? The community is tight knit, and I don't imagine that will ever change. The impact of someone in the center of it dying is huge. Even when someone like Paul Cheon is forced to quit due to job constraints, he's still mingling with the community on Facebook. It'll be an eerie day when the first generation of Magic players begins to die off/retire, and a new generation takes their place.
When I had toyed around with this article in my head, I had a rather surreal opening. Several other current players and I are gathered around at a funeral, talking about the “old days” of Magic. It's unclear exactly what the reason is for us being here, but hints are dropped about the time period being in the future. Some laughs are had, and some stories are recounted. Finally, it's revealed as a comment in passing at the end: this is LSV's funeral. Then the article snaps back to present day and begins.
Just thinking about it makes me shiver.
I've always found the power of music amazing. We have no need for music to live, yet we yearn to hear a mix of sounds. It changes moods, atmospheres, and even people. If you've ever watched movie scenes before the soundtrack was added, it's incredible how much of a difference the music makes.
After learning a little about the art of mixed media, I wanted to write an article that had a soundtrack to follow it. My first impulse was just to make a MP3 that you started when the article began, but since everyone reads at different speeds, that doesn't work. The next solution was to have a new MP3 at each section of the article, as I meant for the music to change, but that's a bit clunky. Ultimately, I thought it might work to just record myself reading the article and then have the music playing in the background.
Unfortunately, I never found a reason to do this. As I mentioned earlier, there needs to be a reason why you're writing a strange conceit, and I never found the perfect intersection between music and Magic. I thought about doing a tournament report with music reflecting the ups and downs, but tournament reports are generally boring and unpopular so I stopped writing them. Perhaps someone else could give it a try.
There are so many great pieces in this TED talk that I've wanted to incorporate into an article, but ultimately wasn't able to. Watch it for yourself—it's well worth the 18 minutes.
One of the favorite things I ever tried was a topical blend column. For those who don't know what a topical blend column is, I provided two polls in an article for my readers, one with a list of Magic related items and one with a list of non-Magic related items. I took the top two finishers, found the intersection between them, and wrote an article. You can find the article that voting resulted in by clicking here.
The article was very well received (though it led to some of the most frantic e-mails I've ever received), and I had a phenomenal time writing it. I always wanted to do another, but I knew they would lose their fun if I did them too often.
I eventually decided I would do another after a year and make it a yearly thing. That year is just about up—in fact, this article was originally going to be the one where I had the poll for the next topical blend. However, since I only have three articles left, I had to decide what really mattered to me and write about that. Unfortunately, another topical blend didn't quite make the cut. Perhaps some other StarCityGames.com author will try their hand at it.
In my final college class, my teacher had us arrange the tables in a square so we could face each other to ease discussion. I sat across from this girl. Her name was Molly, and the only way I can describe her in one sentence is that she was a cross between a goddess and a chimpanzee.
She had an immaculate face and the widest eyes I've ever seen. She wore loose-fitting clothing that revealed her shoulders, but somehow clung to her body. Her voice was quiet, serene, and smooth like water trickling down a stream. You could tell she was kind; she projected innocence. When she thought nobody was looking, she would often make faces. Molly seldom spoke up, and when she did, she would never argue if someone refuted her point. I could always tell from her eyes and the way she shifted in her chair that she had a counter-argument ready to go but was just afraid to fight with anyone.
My favorite part of her character is when she would ask a question. She always raised her hand slowly, and then, immediately after asking, she had this unique way of moving her upper lip to cover her bottom lip while opening her wide eyes even wider. I've never quite seen anything like it.
She was gorgeous, but I wasn't attracted to her. I never really even interacted with her. Yet every day, I found myself quietly and often subconsciously studying her motions. The unique grace she carried. The innocent, yet knowing stares. The way her upper lip ate her bottom lip and the various faces she made.
She said very little, and we never really talked, yet for some reason she left a big impression on me that I can't erase. I don't know why. She was so perfectly normal, yet so oddly unique at the same time.
I have always wanted to write about Molly somewhere. Now I have.
Something I've always wanted to write about is making mistakes and failure.
Talking about our major failures takes a ton of courage. But we all make mistakes. We all do dumb things sometimes. A lot of Magic players don't like to admit their errors, instead choosing to focus on their successes—but that's a shortsighted error.
I've certainly made play errors and poor deck choices. You have too. Somewhere inside you know that when you lost it's your fault, but it's easier to complain about it than search for where you failed.
It goes beyond just Magic. I've done poorly on tests because I didn't study; I've made heart-wrenching mistakes with girls I loved; and I've done things I shouldn't have done to family and friends. We've all forgotten birthdays and accidently broken hearts; we've all made poor monetary choices and had to live with the consequences at some point or another.
Often, these experiences are what shape and teach us far more than any success ever could. If you're willing to discuss your failures instead of sliding them under the rug, you can improve far more than if you just ignore them.
The framework for this article I had was one of my “juxtaposition” articles, where I flash between Magic and moments from my life. I couldn't do those articles too often because they don't appeal to everyone, but this was certainly on the short list of upcoming ones to try.
One of my English professors once told me, “The best way to write an essay is like it's for a speech at a cocktail party: it should be formal, yet witty enough to captivate your audience.”
Whenever I write anything, I always think about whether or not it would fit in an appropriate cocktail party. If not, I usually add doses of formality or wit until it does.
Last year I became fascinated with the brief moment between two causal actions.
The moment after you twist the shower controls to off, but before the water stops. The moment after you stub your toe, but before your mind recognizes pain. The moment after your opponent nods that your Thoughtseize has resolved and reveals their hand, but before your mind can process what's there.
These moments exist in a rare space that's difficult to capture. They last only for fractions of a second, and if you're not feeling every moment of life, you'll miss them. I don't think many people even realize these moments exist, but I savor every one.
There's something oddly compelling about them. Maybe it's the expectation and anticipation of what's about to happen, but the thrill that it hasn't happened yet. Maybe it's the feeling of being psychic in your own world and being able to predict what's about to happen. Maybe it's the self-awareness that you are able to control your thoughts to match the reality around you. Regardless, these fleeting moments are somehow special.
I never found a way to work this into an article that made sense and went anywhere, other than an article I had conceptualized that was all about noticing small details. But the next time you take a shower, think about it as you turn off the water. Find a way to trap yourself in that moment and see if you notice the sensation I do.
I started a series that I intended to finish called “X Archetype in Every Format Ever.” I wrote one last month on Aggro-Control (which you can find here) and planned to do more over the course of the next year for beatdown, control, midrange, and then a final catch-all one that covered a few specific recurring decks like Burn and Ramp.
Perhaps some other writer will pick up this series. I can't be the only one that uses templates for deck design!
One of my favorite songs is Death Cab for Cutie's “What Sarah Said.” I could write a whole article about the song, tell you how it has evolved with me, and provide some Magic metaphors. It might sound weird to say I could write an entire article about a song, but I thought it would be an interesting conceit with a high impact.
When I was first given the album in 2005—back when I was young to the tournament scene—I hated the song and always skipped past it. The lyrics felt hollow, and I couldn't grasp them. The beat felt off, and the music wasn't pleasing to my ears.
Last year, I had my iPod on random, and it just happened to come on. I couldn't stop replaying the song over and over. Somehow, as I grew older, the song grew more pleasing to me. Like many songs the lyrics had grown more meaningful, but the whole song just “felt better” to me.
There are several incredible lyrics in the song which you can relate to life and Magic. The opening line, “it came to me then / that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time” strikes me every time with how it reflects so well with how so many of us put time and stock into Magic tournaments and then to individual plays and plans inside each game. The beat is haunting and melancholy, yet mixed with glimmers of hope.
But perhaps my favorite piece is what it all builds up to in the repeating final line. “Love is watching someone die,” the song says. “So who's going to watch you die?”
In the context of life, it makes you think. Really, who is going to be the one to be by your side, willing to watch you grow old and die? Which friends can you say that for?
In the context of Magic, it makes you wonder who is going to stick by you as you do poorly yet stick there with you to make sure you're still having a good time? Who is going to be the person that knocks you out of contention, then goes out to have dinner with you afterward?
You can overlap the two areas yourself and see what you find. It's different for everyone. But I know few songs make me reflect as much as this one does every single time.
The Top8Magic.com podcasts dramatically influenced me as a younger player.
Before I had ever even played in a Pro Tour I had the sounds of Mike Flores and Brian David-Marshall rushing between my ears almost every night. Perhaps some kids might stay up late after their bedtime watching scary movies or sneaking in some extra playtime on Halo.
I was a little different. I'd stay up just as late, except curled up in bed clutching my iPod and listening to the grimy sounds of voices in New York diners somewhere on the other side of the country. I'd listen and then re-listen the next night, absorbing as much as I could. For better or worse, I learned a lot about deckbuilding theory, how to draft, and more alongside Mike, Brian, Matt Wang, my now-editor Steve Sadin, and various other special guests.
It wasn't just gameplay. The networking was invaluable. Through being an indomitable fan of the podcast and through putting in the time to navigate their impossibly difficult message board system, I got to know Mike and Brian. Through them, I really grew my contacts and spring-boarded further into the Magic hemisphere. Without their friendship, you might not be reading this article today.
As a tribute, at one point I started writing a half-serious list of 100 things I learned from the Top8Magic podcast. I planned to include in an article somewhere or potentially base an article off of it. While I did save the list and planned to add to it over time, in reality I started it and got distracted, never getting further than number nine.
For posterity, here are the nine I wrote down forever ago:
1: Billy Moreno wears crazy pants.
2: Increased specificity is indicative of increased sophistication of argument.
3: Jon Becker likes spiders.
4: If you try and force an archetype, the cards will come.
5: Sideboarding is not about bringing in cards that are merely good in a matchup, but about constructing a plan.
6: You can draft aggressive green decks in Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension.
8: Mock tournaments are a great way to test for new formats.
9: Always play the credit card game when Tom Martell is in.
Some of it is useful. Most of it is not. Regardless, I'm glad I finally got to put this somewhere.
So many Magic players could rise to the top, but they just lack the discipline.
How do you think the best in the world became that way? They didn't just sit around. They played Magic, tested matchups, honed their technical skills, and picked up a knack for deckbuilding. Say what you want about Brad Nelson's success this year, but if you look at him overall as a player he is the perfect example of someone who worked hard, played a ton of Magic, and was rewarded for it.
The problem is, for a lot of people, that's not fun. That's a grind. Magic is supposed to be enjoyable, and playtesting seldom is. It's not thrilling to play the same two decks against each other for hours on end. But if you did this, you could be one of the best in the game.
I realize a lot of you have full time commitments, and that's understandable. However, the many of you who are wannabe professional Magic players—the students, the part-time job workers, and so on—if you spent 30 hours a week actually playtesting serious Magic you could reach the pinnacle you're striving for.
You know it's true, yet you haven't changed your habits. You'd rather play here and there, playing in tournaments with decks that aren't fully formed. It's easier. But it's the choice you have to make. If you want to be the best in the game, you have to dedicate yourself on a different level. You can certainly still win if you don't, but your wins will never come with the ease that the people who live and breathe Magic have.
At some point, you have to make a choice about what level you want to play Magic on. Do you just enjoy the thrill of the hunt and playing alongside other competitors, or do you actually have the drive and commitment to succeed on the Pro Tour?
There's nothing wrong with the former, and you don't want to pick the latter if you're going to become miserable in the process. However, if it's the latter, you absolutely need the discipline to work hard, improve your game and playtest thoroughly. That's the recipe for becoming one of the best in the world. Nothing less will do.
I'm not just a Magic player. I'm a gamer, and there's a huge distinction between the two.
I play Magic because it's what I feel is the best game ever, but it's important to be able to stretch your mind. In my time as a gamer, I've played 20+ different collectable games and countless non-collectable games. I've played video games and role-playing games alike. I feel like they have all contributed to my Magic playing ability in different ways.
As a Magic player, you are likely to fall into ruts. You begin to see things the same jaded way and become oblivious to other avenues of play. Playing other games stretches your mind and can help you encompass other options. Plus, it's just fun! I can't recommend playing a variety of games enough.
Adam Prosak told me he was going to write an article about this, and then he eventually did. I wanted to let some time pass so I could distance myself from Adam's article. However, I agree with a decent amount of what he says (despite my dislike of Catan), and you could do worse to follow his advice.
I can also extend what he says even further. The way I like to think about it is that Magic is a mental marathon and other games are ways to exercise specific parts of your mind to improve your ability at that marathon. Want to get better at logic and reading people? Play a lot of Mafia. Want to improve your ability to work as a team? Play Pandemic. The comparisons are endless—feel free to ask me in the comments if you're looking to improve a specific skill and wondering what game you should be playing.
Games are fun, so play more games! Magic is the best game, and I recommend you play as much of that as possible, but that doesn't mean you can't take a break to pull out Stone Age when you're in the mood for something different and looking to prevent burnout.
Making a good play is nice. Making a great play is wonderful. Going into the tank and coming out with an incredible play is stupendous. Taking too long and getting a slow play warning is none of those things.
There is a simple fact of tournament Magic: you need to finish your match. Many players have a habit of playing slow, especially with complicated decks. I can't stress enough how valuable learning how to play quicker is.
First of all, it helps you avoid any accidental slow play penalties. Second, it helps you finish your match. When you're in a control mirror and game one finishes in your opponent's favor with 25 minutes left on the clock, you have to know how to crank out the next two games at maximum velocity if you want a chance at winning this match.
Though it may seem absurdly obvious to state, a loss is worth zero points, a draw is worth one, and a win is worth three. Why point this out? Well, let me put it this way. Don't play so fast that you lose because of all your errors because even a draw is worth more than a loss. However, if you feel you can only win a match by playing quickly, then you better pick up your pace of play: three points are far more valuable than one.
So often, I see players who are intent and focused going into the control mirror tank on turn five of game two when they're down a game. Unless it's a make-or-break situation, you can't afford that time. You can't afford analysis paralysis: you just have to go for it if you want a chance at winning the match.
To top it all off, if you play quickly you will often cause your opponent to naturally match your pace of play. If he doesn't know how to play optimally, you can induce mistakes out of him as well.
Do what it takes to learn how to play quickly. In many events, draws are the same as losses: you must avoid them at all costs. Playtest your deck enough to learn how to play it fast, and if that doesn't help, play games of speed Magic until you're at the point where you feel you can play rapidly at your optimal skill level.
There's nothing wrong with going into the tank when you need to, but you can't visit the aquarium every turn. Learning to speed up your play and not be sloppy is a valuable technique and something I recommend to everyone.
Something I notice a lot but always felt was a bit ridiculous to write about was the finesse a lot of players use when handling their cards.
When I play against a player, I can instantly tell how much Magic they have played by how they handle their cards. If they simply draw one at a time with no noise and place them one by one into their hand, then hold them in some sort of fanned position, generally it means they are new. If you watch experienced players, you'll see all kinds of irrelevant finesse that they have subconsciously honed.
There's the snap of a card as you draw it. The shuffling of each card into the hand. Do you slide your draws across the table toward you? Do you pick it up and set it on top of a facedown pile, then look? When you draw your opening hand, do you lay it out and pick it up, draw them one at a time, or something else entirely?
With attacking, there's all of the different modes of finesse. There's the classic lightning fast tap using only the card center to indicate an attack. Some people send them forward into an invisible red zone. Others can pick up their creatures with just the palms of their hands and then slam them down onto the table. Some people will grab them by the top and twist them sideways.
When you cast a removal spell, do you just show it and announce the target or do you do something else? Pick it up between your fingers and thrust it at the target? Drop it on the table like a bomb? Slide the side across the table a couple times to make an audible flick before revealing it to your opponent?
How do you manage your lands? Are they a cluttered mess? How do you rearrange them as you tap them? How quickly do you tap them?
Everything from shuffling, to casting spells, to sideboarding, to flicking cards in your hand differs from player to player. I always find it interesting to see what exists and what is prevalent. I don't know how many players pay attention to it, but I remember watching the best players in my area play when I started and wanting to draw cards like them. Over time, I learned how to.
I know as I'm playing, these tiny irrelevant areas of finesse add some shine to my gameplay and make me feel like I have some sort of edge. Weird? Perhaps. But I don't think I'm the only player that feels that way.
There's a local author who has garnered some national attention named David Shields. He has had books on the New York Times bestsellers list and certainly has his own unique style. He also teaches at the University of Washington, and I've had the opportunity to hear him speak several times.
His style of choice? Nonfiction collage essays. (Note that I said collage and not college.) In other words, he writes about something but will insert various quotes from other sources—any sources he chooses—to juxtapose his point. For example, he will be talking about the health of his father in one paragraph, and then the next paragraph will be a copy and pasted quote from a medical book talking about the effects of physical decay on seniors, and the next might be a copy and pasted quote from a movie. He would cite each of his sources as he listed them.
Last year, though, he came out with a book, and I heard him give several talks on it. The book is called Realty Hunger: a Manifesto and discusses numerous bits of contemporary culture. The important bit here is that it's his belief that the world where sources mattered was coming to a halt with the information era. Everything is starting to run together, and his book represented that notion.
How so? Every paragraph was numbered. Some of the paragraphs were his own words. Others were just paragraphs he lifted from, well, anywhere. Famous quotes, lines from philosophers, pieces from newspaper clippings, and so on. However, he chose all of the paragraphs with such precision that, unless you look in the reference in the back of the book (only there for legal reasons; he recommend you ignore it entirely), there's no good way to tell what are his words and what words are lifted from other sources.
Where is all of this going? I wanted to write a Magic article like this.
I wanted to find a topic, write my own words for about half of it, and then lift quotes from other Magic articles and the internet into my article. How hard could it be?
I began to compile quotes and tried putting something together under the guise of talking about deckbuilding because it was supposed to represent how decks come from a combination of past knowledge and present innovation from numerous people. However, it was far more difficult to go quote-digging in Magic articles than I imagined so I shelved the idea and never came back to it. Given enough time, I would have likely revisited the idea eventually.
I won't bother sharing the Magic quotes I found as they don't make much sense out of place, but there were some neat non-Magic quotes I was hoping to use. I made a Word file of them as I was writing that article. Here are three of my favorites:
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
“I was driving my grandfather to his doctor's appointment and complained about hitting 2 red lights in a row. My grandfather chuckled and said, ‘You always complain about the red lights, but you never celebrate the green ones.'”
"Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
In a single lifetime you're destined to meet a lot of amazing people. If you hang around with Magic players, you're probably guaranteed to meet a few extras. However, very rarely do you meet someone truly exceptional, so gifted and talented that they seem to be superhuman.
One of them is my friend Alex.
You last heard from him in 21, and even there he was being amazing—I saw the quote in his small section in that article scattered over several Facebook statuses. But let me recap and fill you in on some new details.
He got a scholarship to college on poetry, prior to which he toured for spoken word poetry competitions. He was training to be the speed typing world champion. In less than two years' time, he learned how to play the guitar, banjo, mandolin, keyboard, and at least two other instruments, teaching most of it to himself. He has written several of his own original songs—both music and lyrics—which he also has the vocal training to sing, and he's even been commissioned to write songs for an upcoming pop artist.
And then there's all of his University work. Despite being an undergraduate, Alex's job is to oversee and manage the logistics of several Doctorate and Master's programs at the University of Washington.
For his actual classes at the University, he writes some of the best student Creative Writing I've ever read and is pioneering the field in African-American literature with his eyes set on a PhD and has already been awarded scholarships along the way for his efforts. On top of it all, he's also an incredibly nice person who is willing to be down-to-earth and talk to you about anything.
If you thought preparing for a GP kept you busy, try matching Alex's schedule.
In addition to his above escapades, Alex just has some very real stories about his life that are moving and captivating. His philosophy on life is incredible; he's an inspirational person.
Eventually I wanted to write an article dedicated to Alex and collaborate with him on writing some of his life stories in it. That won't happen now, but it doesn't mean his mark is any less profound. He is an example of what you can accomplish if you really set your mind to making the most of this lifetime. He's lived more in his early 20s than some people could live in half a century.
If I ever find myself busy in life, seemingly swamped and running low on time, I ask myself this: could Alex handle this? The answer is always yes. I always know that if he can juggle all of those things in his life at once and still wear a smile on his face, I can certainly juggle all of mine.
The JSS is a program many of you may not have heard of. It's been discontinued for a few years now. It stood for Junior Super Series, a series which was only open to kids 16 and under (though it changed to 18 at the end) and awarded scholarship money instead of cash. It fostered a league all of its own.
The JSS was—quite literally—the minor leagues. Most of the players weren't very good, but there were always a few who had skipped out on PTQ invites to play or were Magic Online grinders. Every year, the JSS Championship—a tournament you had to win a JSS Qualifier for—was held alongside Nationals. This was the big event of the year for numerous Magic playing kids.
A problem, though, was that most of the kids in the event didn't know a lot about high-level competitive Magic. As a result, ridiculous play mishaps, insane Jedi mind tricks, and even some blatant cheating all took place. There are tons of good JSS stories out there. (You can see some of mine in my “Stories of a PTQ Grinder” series, the first of which can be found here.)
While not a ton of players are still around from the JSS days—a lot of them were just in it for the easy scholarship money—the few that are have turned into people you might recognize. Me, Ari Lax, and Travis Woo are a couple of the names off the JSS circuit. Eventually, I wanted to have all of us work together and compile stories for a “Stories from the JSS” article. Perhaps I'll have to leave that up to Ari now.
A little less than a year ago, Max McCall wrote a pseudo-infamous article called, “That Deck is Bad and You Should Feel Bad.” The article, in summation, basically just says that every deck in Extended is terrible and no matter what one you play you're going to lose to variance and some random dude is going to win the PTQ.
Max is a good friend of mine, and, if you were following our articles a year ago (before Max also got sucked up by Wizards R&D), you would know that Max and I went back and forth in our articles together a few times and occasionally wrote rebuttals to the other's points. We basically have opposite views on a lot of different things in competitive Magic. I suppose if you were to reduce it down to simple terms, Max is more of a pessimist, and I'm more of an optimist.
Therefore, I wanted to write an article entitled, “That Deck Is Good and You Should Feel Good.” I have a very opposite standpoint of Max, in that each of those decks has something good going on with them and you could win with any of them given playtesting and tight enough play. I've been waiting for a good opportunity to write that one, but unfortunately last Standard season didn't exactly have a lot of decks to cover. I was thinking about pulling it out for this Standard season, but it looks like that won't be happening.
As one last note, I told AJ Sacher that I wanted to do this a few months ago, and he told me, “That's the most Gavin-like title for an article I think I've ever heard.”
I'll take that as a compliment.
One Game by Richard Feldman is one of my favorite articles of all time. It does something unique and shows us how every little thing we do in a match can affect the outcome. It shows just how many decisions we have the opportunity to make. I think almost everybody can learn something from this article. (If you haven't read it, seriously, go read it right now.)
Of course, the one inherent flaw with Richard's article is that (spoiler warning!) he had to make our protagonist get flooded so the game would be cut short. Why? Because writing something that detailed is very complex and takes a lot of time. If the game proceeds onward for twenty more turns it would have taken Richard hours upon hours of writing to complete, not to mention it would have become much easier to miss tiny, yet important, details.
I'm always up for a ridiculous challenge though, so I began to think about how I could tackle this article and take it a step further, going all the way through a more drawn out game. I even went as far to draw up a couple of flow charts for a “choose your own adventure” version I wanted to try.
What I quickly determined after some basic flow charts is that it would take days of writing to complete. Would the finished product be cool? You bet. But the time input would be totally unreasonable. I'm not above committing 12+ hours to an article—I've done it several times—but this was even going outside of my limit.
What I finally decided was that, to make this work, it would need to be a compilation project where I could dole a couple specific scenes to individual writers. They would write them—not too much work for an individual person—and I would get all of them back and compile them, then publish it as a group effort.
This was a big project to work on, and I just never really pushed for mapping out the entire game and then uniting all the people to do it. But if there's a writer out there who wants to round everybody up to do it, I think you would easily have the article of the year on your (collective) hands. Perhaps someone will give it a try.
For quite some time I've wanted to write an article about something that has absolutely nothing to do with Magic and have the article not mention Magic once, yet be useful to Magic players due to the wording and metaphor. It can be difficult to strike that chord where absolute metaphor and useful intersect, but it could certainly be done.
For example, I could write an article on baking that secretly related to deck design, or an article on fishing that secretly relates to being patient with your countermagic. It's not too hard to come up with a reason for the conceit.
Why haven't I? I just never found the right place to try it out. That happens sometimes, when you think you'll write about something in the next few weeks and then new deck archetypes you want to write about get in the way. Then you come up with other ideas, and before you know it your original idea is pushed six months down the road. Perhaps somebody else will give it a try—it sounds like a fun and potentially hilarious article to write and read.
Something I've been curious about for years is how the life philosophy of a Magic player differs on average from a non-Magic Player. I generally find that competitive Magic players have different worldviews than a lot of other people, and I'd be interested to compare certain data points between the two.
For example, some of the things I would be interested in comparing is how much the two groups value short term versus long term outlooks, how highly they value money, what they think the point of life is, and how they immediately perceive people around them. I'd probably have them answer question on scales and then average the scales out for each group.
While I do have some base assumptions, I am honestly not sure how the two groups would compare after the results were tabulated. I never fully settled on a list of questions to ask, but I don't think it'd be too hard to pull off and get a ton of responses in a world where Facebook and Twitter exist.
One of my favorite stories I have never told in my articles is the story of my friend Jesse. This is likely the strangest friendship I have.
It didn't exactly start as a friendship. In fact, it was something a little different. Jesse—perhaps better known online as KingCobweb—was a gigantic troll on MTGSalvation, essentially making fun of users left and right. As someone who ran the site, I pushed toward getting him banned because how disruptive he was. The short version is that eventually it went through, and I banned him.
Now, I had dealt with banning a lot of upset people. While he wasn't happy about it, over time we began to message each other on AIM and talk less about his ban and more about Magic. Eventually, it turned out he had a good knack for combo decks, and we got to working on decks together. Most notably, we built Standard Dredge before anybody else had it, and a few years later worked on revitalizing Extended Elves.
We kept talking about Magic and working on decks on and off. Finally, earlier this year it turned out we were both going to GP Providence and in search of roommates.
Sure, who better to room with than someone who I was friends with mostly because I had once pushed to get them banned on an internet forum?
If I were to write a piece on the Magic community, I couldn't exclude this story. Life works in odd ways.
Have you ever wondered about the path not taken?
I'm sure we've all asked “what if?” about something in our lives at some point or another. Usually we can come to some kind of conclusion, retrace the steps of our lives to find how our life would have turned if something was a bit different. However, there's one question I can never wrap my head around: what would my life be like if I never learned how to play Magic?
It's just impossible for me to comprehend. I've been playing Magic since I was ten, and it's always been part of my life. I've asked many others, even those with less storied Magic histories, and they feel the same. What other hobby gives you friends in every country, a community you meet up with every couple of months, and a competitive atmosphere that challenges your way of thinking? There's nothing quite like Magic out there.
Alex West once told me that if he had just spent all of the time he had been using on Magic on learning how to play the piano, he would have mastered the piano by now. I think that's true for most things.
One day, I found myself watching the screen in an airplane. I couldn't hear the sound, but I just watched the actor's actions. People had always told me I would be good at acting. I watched closer. It didn't look that hard. If I hadn't started to play Magic, could that be me on the screen? Did I have a chance at being an actor?
When I was young, there was an audition for the part of Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace being held not too far from where I lived. I wanted to go and had been practicing the character all week. The day finally came, but it was pouring rain and the roads were slick. We called it off in favor of hot cocoa, something which I willingly accepted. I've always wondered if I would have had a chance. Sure, probably not, but you never know…
If you could see your two possible lives laid in front of you, would you be able to pick one? Would I have to make the choice between an acting career and a job in R&D?
I don't think I could bear to live a life without everything Magic has given me. It would be painful to not know all of these people, and I can't imagine any job better than working on Magic.
Then again, I'm sure that's what Gavin the professional actor thinks too.
What moment defines you as a person today more than any other? At one point can you see yourself heading toward your current position in life?
When I look at myself compared to when I started writing this weekly column, I see two very different people. I'm not even sure that the person I am two and a half years ago would like pieces of the person I am today. It's amazing how much people can change—how much you can change—in the span of a few years.
Looking back at my admittedly short life, every year I can see changes. Somewhere along the way, I shed my colder, reserved skin that was too concerned with formalities and what other people thought. I traded it for a personality that wasn't afraid to spontaneously break into goofy faces. A personality that realized that being adult could also mean being spontaneous and making your own decisions. I much prefer it this way.
This is the moment that I think defines the person I am today.
I'm walking through the cherry blossom trees at my school. It's mid-spring, and everyone is sprawled out on the grass. My classes for the day are over, and I'm busy running around to nowhere in particular.
My attention turns to a girl on the grass. I barely know her. She's in my class, and for some reason I move up my hand and yell, “Hey!” in her direction. She looks up, acknowledging my existence, then waves me over to her circle of friends. I lurch on over.
She introduces me to everybody. They're smiling and talking about some TV show I know nothing about. “They're all writers too,” she tells me. One of the girls turns to me and asks me, “If you were a sock puppet, what kind of sock puppet would you be?”
My Spock-like mind turns it over. The question is illogical, my synapses tell me. I'm a little taken aback. I see a rush of blue nearby. “Blue,” I say.
“Well that's a boring answer. Don't you have some character?” We all laugh. “Hey, do you want to go kayaking with us?”
I have never been kayaking in my life. The prospect terrifies me. What if I flip over? I don't want to get wet. And I'm supposed to meet Max in an hour for Regionals playtesting. The Gavin of that era would say no. The Gavin of that era would politely refuse and say he had other plans.
And yet, there was this impulse in the back of my brain saying, Go! You'll never know if you don't try.
“I'd love to,” I said.
I've had this rough idea for an article about seeing a bigger picture, but I've never been able to work out the details.
So many people look at the smaller bits of life but find the bigger picture out of focus, when often it should ideally be the opposite. (I'm not saying I'm exempt from this either; maybe that's why I never fully figured out how to write this article!) The trick is, I want the article to not seem like it's about seeing the big picture at all until you get to the very end.
The article would just seem like a bunch of loose, disconnected stories. Then, at the end, something is said that ties everything together and makes a larger story come into focus. It's like that moment where Sherlock Holmes makes all of the unrelated incidents snap together and, with one sentence, everything in the entire story changes its meaning. That's the essence I want to capture.
However, I'm no Arthur Conan Doyle. Perhaps some other Magic writer out there can take this idea to heart and unlock the mystery.