I get asked a lot of questions on social media sites that I don't always have the time to answer. I try to respond to what I can, but I'm a very busy guy and the kind of passing answers I do occasionally have time for often don't do the questions justice. That's why this week I decided to devote my article to answering those questions. I put the call out on Facebook and Twitter to find out just what people wanted answered. Rather than give short answers to a bunch of different questions in typical mailbag fashion, I decided to identify the themes that ran through the questions I got and cover them in depth.
So, without further ado…
"How do I go pro?"
Perhaps the most common theme to the questions I received, which mirrors the question I get asked all the time both on social media and in person, was "What advice would you give to someone who wants to 'go pro'?" It's a fairly broad question but an understandable one. We imagine that those who have succeeded in arenas where we are ourselves striving must have some kind of special wisdom that they can impart upon us.
The most important single piece of advice I could give to someone who is looking to take their Magic game to the next level is to focus on learning, not winning. People get far too caught up in results to really make progress as players. When their only focus is winning, they end up asking all of the wrong questions.
When you think of "playtesting," what images pop into your head? For many people, playtesting seems to mean running a few decks into each other over and over and keeping track of how many games each deck won. What are you learning from that? "Which deck wins" is the frequent answer. But you shouldn't be trying to learn which of two piles of 60 cards happens to be a statistical favorite over the other; rather, you should be trying to learn why each deck wins the games it does.
When I'm testing with other pros, we talk about the numerical results of our testing, but it's a tool rather than an end in itself. The more important goal is getting a feel for what is happening in a matchup and why.
Take the U/W/R Flash deck that Gerry Thompson played in Pro Tour Gatecrash. When we were testing initial builds of the deck against Esper Control, what do you think the results looked like? Absolutely horrible! Based solely on the numbers, the U/W/R deck was worth dismissing if we expected virtually any Esper in the field at all. But from playing the matchup out, Gerry and others got a feel for why the deck was losing. It was incapable of closing out long games because its threats matched up poorly against the Esper deck's answers, and eventually the Esper deck would grind them out.
Enter Harvest Pyre. Harvest Pyre added an entirely different dimension to the matchup. Instead of the U/W/R deck having absolutely no way to win once the Esper deck took control, the U/W/R deck now had a tool to potentially win the game at instant speed if Esper ever tapped too low to fight a counter war. You could easily kill them when they tried to Nephalia Drownyard you or cast Sphinx's Revelation!
If we only cared about numerical results, we never would have found Harvest Pyre. We may have just shelved U/W/R entirely because it wasn't putting up good enough numbers. But our focus was on learning why the matchup was playing out the way it did, and as a result Gerry was able to make his first Pro Tour Top 8.
This applies to gameplay decisions as well as deckbuilding and deck selection. People frequently "playtest" by just going through the motions of playing out the games. They aren't really looking for different lines of play that might change the way a match plays out.
Back at the 2002 World Championship, Carlos Romao and his Latin American playtest partners found a completely different approach to the Psychatog mirror match than the one everyone else was taking. Conventional wisdom was to counter card drawing spells like Fact or Fiction to try to keep your opponent from getting a big lead in cards on you. The Latin Americans realized that there were simply too many card drawing effects to fight over and decided to just let them all resolve and save their countermagic for real threats, like Upheaval. It flew in the face of conventional wisdom, but it worked—Carlos was rewarded with a World Championship.
If you always play the games out the same way, you're never going to learn anything. If you experiment with different strategies and tactics, you might find something that works better than what you've been doing all along—perhaps even better than what everyone else has been doing all along, too. Focus on learning and be willing to try something new.
"What was it like back in the Dark Ages, and how does it compare to the present?"
Another major theme in the questions I received was comparing Magic now to times in the past. As most of you likely know already, I've been playing Magic essentially from the beginning. I was first introduced to the game at a gaming convention in Massachusetts when I was 13. At the time, I played a lot of computer and Nintendo strategy games and thought Magic looked really cool, so I picked up a few packs. I remember looking at one of the first price guides and finding my rares on there. It made sense that my Kormus Bell was worth five dollars because it seemed really cool, but I couldn't for the life of me understand why my Mox Jet and Bayou were worth five bucks—they were just like Swamps or Forests, and the Mox was even like a Swamp that could be Shattered!
The very first deck I ever built was nothing but Forests, Llanowar Elves, Wild Growths, and Craw Wurms. While my understanding of card prices and power levels may be a lot better these days, my deckbuilding style certainly hasn't changed.
A lot of people asked me about what it was like when I first "went pro." They wanted to know things like how I decided it was something I wanted to do or how many PTQs I played in before I won one. Things were a lot different back then. I played in the very first Pro Tour in the Juniors division because I decided I wanted to play and my mother called up and registered me. When the Junior Pro Tour ended, I qualified not by grinding PTQs but by winning the first Grand Prix I played in. It was only the seventh Grand Prix ever, and I didn't even really know what it was when I decided to go. I just had some friends driving up to Toronto that weekend who asked me if I wanted to come along. In retrospect, I'm pretty glad I did.
One of the themes of the questions I got about my experience with Magic over the years seemed to have a sense of nostalgia for the "good old days." Some of them expressed frustration over the current state of Magic and asked if I felt like the direction that Magic has gone in recent years is the wrong one.
Here's the thing. For every person who laments the bygone era of Counterspell and Whispers of the Muse and Yawgmoth's Bargain, dozens more actually play Magic now because those kind of cards aren't the best things you can be doing. One of the biggest advances in Magic design and development in recent years has been pushing to make the things that people want to play with actually be good.
I remember showing up to PT Chicago 2000 with my Red Zone deck and literally being laughed at because my deck was full of almost nothing but creatures. I was playing Rith, the Awakener in a format where Counterspell and Fact or Fiction were legal. When I made Top 8 of that event—by putting Armadillo Cloak on Rith, the Awakener, no less—the buzz surrounding my deck was huge, and I earned myself the nickname "Dragonmaster."
Why is this significant? Because my deck, in many ways, represented the way a huge portion of Magic's audience—and its potential audience—wished that Magic could be. Granted, the most important card in my deck was actually Armageddon, which I combined with Rishadan Port to keep my opponents from being able to play the game while I attacked them with my giant creatures, but the fact remained. People wanted to see huge monsters clashing on the battlefield. They wanted to see Dragons winning games—not just at the kitchen table, but at the Pro Tour.
Magic has come a long way since then, and frankly it's in a much better place. The current design and development philosophy that Magic has adopted appeals to a much wider audience. I hear the argument that the direction Magic is going has "dumbed down the game," and I find the notion fairly ridiculous. It's not like we're seeing Top 8s filled with clueless amateur players all the time. Quite to the contrary, we keep seeing strong players putting up impressive performances again and again. Magic is a hard game whether the best card to be playing is Thundermaw Hellkite or Yawgmoth's Will, and far more people show up to tournaments excited to attack with Dragons than to keep track of storm count.
On the organized play front, I think Magic is suffering from growing pains. The recent explosion in Magic's popularity has forced Wizards to balance competing priorities against each other, like the need to expand premier play with more Grand Prix with the desire to keep pro Magic viable as a pursuit or the need to foster in-store play with the desire to ensure players have positive experiences at PTQs. There are a lot of things that could be improved with Magic organized play right now, but the most important thing is that Wizards is listening and communicating.
Any kind of change in an organization as big as Wizards of the Coast (and its parent company Hasbro) can take a long time, but recent events indicate that WotC is very much aware of the issues players have and are taking steps to rectify them. They listen to feedback—not just from players like me with a big soapbox to stand on, but from everyone who presents valid concerns. And that's the important thing in the long run.
"How do playing and designing games overlap?"
Many of the questions I got had to do with my work as a game designer—specifically about how it relates to my position as a pro Magic player and where the skills of the two jobs intersect.
I think the most important skill that I have that pertains to both fields is my ability to identify and break down systems. When it comes to playing Magic, this is what gives me the ability to dissect metagames effectively and identify effective ways to attack them. I notice things like the effectiveness of Flashfreeze against both Cloudpost and the U/R combo decks in Modern that led to the development of the Counter-Cat Zoo deck that Josh Utter-Leyton played to a finals appearance at Pro Tour Philadelphia. I'm good at identifying what's important in different matchups and finding common ground.
This translates to game design because the rules and mechanics of games are exactly this kind of system. It's important to create interesting overlaps for players to discover, and it's important to look at the implications of you decisions. In SolForge, for instance, for a long time our level one creatures ranged mostly from 1/1 to 3/3. We had cards that gave +1/+1 to your creatures that were proving to be too powerful given the context of our file. We tried adjusting the kinds of costing we had on the card (for those of you who have played SolForge, you know that there aren't many knobs to play with when it comes to costs) and couldn't find anything we liked, so we decided to change the numbers on every other card instead.
We realized that the band of numbers we were using for creatures was too narrow, which is what was causing +1 to their stats to be too powerful of an effect. We started by just doubling all of the stats on all of our cards. Every 1/1 became a 2/2, every 2/2 became a 4/4, etc., and the +1/+1 effect remained the same—and it worked. We gave ourselves a ton more wiggle room to play with when it came to making creatures with a wide range of stats at each level as well. What was easy to view as a development problem with the +1/+1 card turned into a complete overhaul of our attack and health values because we identified the issue as a systemic one rather than pertaining to just this particular case.
I think my experience doing exactly this kind of thing in game design has definitely made me a better Magic player. It's funny, because in many respects I'm far worse than I was back when I played on the Pro Tour ten or so years ago. My memory is much worse—I used to be able to remember the entire contents of every pack I saw in a draft or even the contents of every player's deck in a team draft. Nowadays, I sometimes have trouble remembering my own picks, let alone everything I've passed! But I have a much better sense of what's important in the big picture in the games I play and the decks that I build, and I learn and adapt much faster as a result.
I want to close things off with a few quick answers to some other questions that came up.
Q: What is the toughest part about being a pro Magic player?
A: Definitely the travel. Keeping up with the Grand Prix schedule this past year was absolutely exhausting, and it is not an experience I plan to repeat. Starting next season I'm significantly reducing the amount I'm traveling to tournaments.
Q: What does the M stand for in BMK?
A: McCormick, which is my middle name and my mother's maiden name. I lost my mom to cancer back in 2007, and I use my middle initial everywhere now in remembrance of her.
And last, but not least, since I get this question all the time…
Q: What kind of hair products do you use?
A: I used to like Bed Head Manipulator, but I think they changed the formula recently because the last container I got was a totally different consistency and it was gross. I've been using this stuff called Grant's Golden Brand, which is pretty great.