For most players, Magic is a hobby. It is a way to spend a free Saturday relaxing with friends, slinging some spells across the kitchen table or at their local gaming store. The vast majority of players will never play an event more competitive than a Prerelease or FNM, if that. Of the small portion that venture further, an even smaller portion play anything more than an occasional local Grand Prix or Open Series event, and only if they can find the time to pry themselves away from their real life for a full day or weekend. To these casual players, Magic is a source of entertainment, regardless of their results. Simply put, it should be fun just to play.
I am not a casual player in any sense of the word. Playing for fun alone is reminiscent of a bygone age, when each pack revealed exciting new cards. I was born to compete, and I have taken that mentality into every one of life's arenas, sometimes to my own detriment. To that end, it only made sense that I would make my way via competition, and Magic was my preferred avenue, as long as you ignore the silly constraint of money.
An interesting caveat of the path I have chosen is that Magic is not necessarily fun on a day to day basis. While they are not the norm, I certainly have days where I wake up with little to no interest in playing a tournament. The drudgery of preparing for an event nearly every week can be similarly demoralizing. I do not have the luxury of playing my favorite cards or decks if they do not give me the best chance of winning. I necessarily take an approach whereby the ends justify the means.
That is not to say that I endorse any means sufficient for success. Subverting the meritocracy of competition via cheating or other such behavior is the most heinous and unforgivable of sins. It is most important that I achieve within the established paradigms of competition. What I mean is that my joy in Magic comes mostly from achievement and not necessarily from the process, although I very much take pleasure in seeing improvement in my play and understanding of the game.
Additionally, I do not mean to say that the process is never enjoyable as it often is. I genuinely enjoy playing Magic and certainly would not focus so much of my ambition on it were that not the case. Unilaterally enjoying every tournament is simply not paramount to my happiness with the game as long as attending those events actively pushes me further towards my end goals. I play for the moments when my opponent extends his hand in defeat, for the moments when I end the day with a win, for the moments when I leave with the trophy.
Such moments are few and far between, but they are enough for me to maintain the desire to continue through the myriad of defeats that accompany them. However, I believe that my position here is rather unique, even among the competitive community. After a recent unsuccessful excursion to New York City in the hunt for Open Series points, I was particularly upset at squandering a weekend that could have at least been used as a break from the competitive grind. Using the least desirable medium to vent my frustrations, I posted a cryptic Facebook status. Two responses to this I found to be rather poignant. The comments below have been re-posted with permission.
The first was by Brian Braun-Duin:
" I feel like you shouldn't ever play in an event that you don't want to. It is almost always going to be a feel bad situation…"
And the second by Jim Davis:
"I feel like you shouldn't ever play in an event that you don't want to. I've been struggling with this as well. Where do you draw the line?
Yes, you want to be having fun, but I set qualifying for the Players' Championship as a goal for myself for the year. Should I just give up because I'm a bit burned out and in a rough patch and not having a ton of fun? Or should I press on because playing in the IQs that are local to me is the best way to make up the Open Series points I miss out on from not being able to travel across the country every weekend?
Where do you separate the game being a game, and the goals you set for yourself? Like you don't quit going to the gym because leg day sucks and you're sick of it because you know you want to get in better shape. You don't not do suicides at hockey practice because they suck and aren't fun. The only big difference is that Magic is a mental game, and it's hard to focus and play well when your head isn't in it.
If anyone has a magic answer please feel free to enlighten me."
Unsurprisingly, I fall squarely into the latter camp. I have certain goals set for myself, and will make the necessary sacrifices to achieve them. Telling me to take it easy and not play an event that will help me accomplish my goals because it is a "feel bad" is akin to telling me to give up. It essentially tells me that the Players' Championship is not worth the effort. That it is not a worthy use of my time. That it should not mean as much to me. After all, Magic is just a game, right?
Now I am sure Brian did not mean to say as much in his post, and was merely looking out for my best interest. But I find his view to be hopelessly optimistic for a determined competitive player. Moreover, the notion that Magic is merely a game comes up surprisingly often in a community dedicated to it. When you do poorly at an event, especially one of particular importance, the first words of comfort offered are often: "Don't worry, it's just a game." While well-meaning, this sentiment is demeaning because Magic is much more than a game to me and a growing subset of players who want nothing more than to achieve lasting success in the game they love.
Most importantly, it is exceedingly arrogant to assume either of these positions is more valid than the other, yet conflict between the casual and competitive has existed for as long as I have been playing. Everyone has their own perspective and many are ignorant that other valid viewpoints exist.
I would never think of belittling someone who does not go to a tournament simply because they are not in a good enough mindset that day, so long as they understand that such a mentality will diminish their chances for competitive success. Nor do I look down upon anyone whose relationship with Magic consists of a weekly Commander game with their sweet Zurgo Helmsmasher deck. Just know that the opinions I present in this column come from an entirely different perspective.
By the same reasoning, I will not accept any attempt to belittle the work I put in as making the game no longer fun. As Magic continues to grow, competitive success will become harder to achieve, and more work will be required. To harbor any animosity towards someone who is willing to sacrifice casual fun for dedicated work, or vice-versa, is simply ridiculous.
If I am being honest, I have not increased my preparation to be commensurate with this increase in difficulty. I do not work hard enough for the lofty goals I have set, sacrificing some happiness in the long term for happiness in the short term-a tradeoff that I am no longer willing to accept. After every tournament I see that there was more that could have been done. I could have tested the G/B Devotion vs Jeskai Aggro matchup the night before the elimination matches in New Jersey and walked in with a good understanding of my approach. I could have built a Mantis Rider sideboard in the time leading up to the event. Instead, I walked in blind, sideboarded incorrectly, played sub-optimally, and justly lost.
So was I happy with a semifinal finish? Sure. Was I content? Not at all. Complacency breeds mediocrity, and I have no interest in being mediocre.
Most of all, I do not want to look back on my playing career and feel regret over unmet potential. Every missed opportunity feeds these fears, which is why Grand Prix Worcester hurt so badly. Opportunity is not a guarantee. Hard work and meticulous preparation, while necessary for success, are not sufficient. Every Pro Tour that goes by with me sitting on the sidelines sees me slide further behind the curve, increasing the distance left to climb. I strive to remain undaunted, but I am perfectly aware of the difficulty of making that climb. Fortunately, I also remain stubbornly resolved towards doing so, despite the Sisyphean experience of missing so many close calls in my previous chances, only to return to the same grind.
I noted in a previous article that it is important for you as readers to understand my perspective in order to properly evaluate the information I present. Well, this is my current relationship with Magic, and all of my interactions with the game are necessarily filtered through this lens. I remember a time when I wanted nothing more than to break out my eighty-card, unsleeved deck from its rubber band and sling some cards at the lunch table. There are times when nostalgia kicks in and I long for those times. But my experiences playing competitive Magic have been the highlight of my young life, even if they came at a cost. If it helps to use the moniker Spike to categorize my position so be it, but not all Spikes are the same. My approach may be extreme, but I find anything less to be inadequate.
There is no joy in second place. Not for me at least.