In December of 2006, I travelled to Paris, France to be inducted into the Magic the Gathering Hall of Fame. It was my first tournament in 2.5 years and my last until Pro Tour Fate Reforged. A lot has changed since, with both the Pro Tour and me as we went our separate ways; this article is a reflection on those respective evolutions from my somewhat unique vantage point, as experienced on a cold Maryland winter weekend that seemingly unfolded from nothing.
My induction in the Hall's second class was contingent on a few factors: I was a full-time pro (read: I didn't have a job and attended every PT) from 1997 through 2004, I was part of a team that won PT New York 2001, I was loud and sociable with staffers who'd eventually become voters, and I wrote. A lot. First for the Magic Dojo, then for StarCityGames (amongst others), and finally for Wizards of the Coast. I wrote on Draft strategy when it was still new, I wrote about the culture of the Pro Tour when that concept was just becoming a thing, and I wrote with now cringe-inducing self-righteousness, insight from the inside, and an influential voice. If you knew me then, that should all ring true. If you weren't around? There's your introduction to your author.
Returning to the Pro Tour was a far more difficult choice than leaving it. My Magic career was built on a degree of talent, a powerful competitiveness, a belief that the rules were a tool to be used, and reps. I loved drafting and literally did it more than anyone in the world in a time before MTGO, and that (along with my Magic writing career) gave me the results to live the Pro Tour lifestyle before appearance fees were a thing. Around 2002, I started to lose the ongoing urge to solve R&D's continually recycling puzzle and tried to maintain my results without putting in the time. Then, I lost the desire to win at all costs.
Winning, through Magic, was medicine for me. Throughout my years in the game, I was unaware I was suffering a serious depression, with small Magic successes serving as synapse-popping relief. When those successes stopped in 2003, there ceased to be much value in my continuing to play. With the financial realities of the PT making survival without finishes all but impossible, I was done after 2004 Worlds.
After a few months with Upper Deck, I was done working in collectible gaming. I'd previously augmented my income with poker and was approached about working in that industry, co-founding a content creation company. I started studying poker in depth, drawing on my Magic experience to understand some of the dynamics with that community. In 2006, I started writing for Bluff Magazine; by the 2007 World Series of Poker, I was writing for ESPN, who would be my primary client for six years. There, I learned about television, public relations, marketing, and social media use for personal promotion, the latter of which helped me to transition into my present job, managing Social Media for Pinnacle Sports, a leader in yet another gaming industry (sports-betting).
Sometime during my poker writing, I finally came to a better understanding of depression, enough to fight my own and beat it for the most part (depression never completely goes away in my experience, but is manageable). I met my wife in 2009, got married and bought a house in 2010, and had my daughter Edie in 2012. I'm six weeks away from having a son. Life is very, very different than it was Back In The Day (to be referred to as BITD for the rest of the article) where winning or losing a match was the framework for my happiness or lack thereof, and I'm a very different person for it. For the better, I think.
That experience forms the framework of the perception from which I'm writing this article looking at how the Pro Tour has changed in my absence.
On the Decision to Return
It's important to know off the top that I'm pretty terrible at Magic now. In the years since I've stopped, I've probably averaged three Cube nights a year as the total sum of my playing experience, and most of my games have been played in casual, multi-player formats. The game works differently than in my heyday, both in terms of dynamics and structure. More than once this weekend, I wanted to play a trick after first strike damage was on the stack. You should get my meaning.
Coming back was about a confluence of factors:
- WOTC increased the appearance fee for Hall of Fame players to $1500.
- I hadn't taken vacation for a year.
- With a child coming in six weeks, the time to get away was now.
- DC is close to my home outside Toronto, with the resulting airfare low enough for the appearance fee to cover the trip.
- There were a lot of old friends I hadn't seen in a long time.
I felt confident about putting aside my ego for the tournament. I had no doubt that I'd experience what a great Magic writer named Josh "OMC" Bennett once referred to as "facesmashery." But in the face of all of the above, I was okay with that. I've been known to advise players who are looking to improve their games to get their asses kicked by better players without making excuses. There's no better learning tool.
Magic serves as great connective tissue and prize money as incentive, but short of winning a PT, relationships are what make or break a life experience. For me, Facebook makes for a nice way to keep a little up to date on people's lives, but it doesn't replace sharing an experience and eye contact. There were a lot of old friends to see, both players and staff. That's why I chose to have my ass handed to me in Maryland.
A month's worth of playtesting in bullet points:
- Decided to go to Pro Tour Fate Reforged
- Mentioned it to Huey Jensen, asking if he knew anyone who was looking to test. Billy suggested I speak with Ben Stark, mentioning there was a team of pros forming who preferred online testing.
- Reached out to Ben, suggesting I'd be able to do some 15-20 hours per week of testing.
- Got admitted to the team eventually known as Team Work.
- Started reading some of the posts on our Facebook page. Didn't recognize card names. That is the moment it dawned on me that I hadn't afforded the proper respect to the task at hand.
- Purchased a MTGO account. Lost a lot. Read cards a lot.
- Joined a team draft being done on Cockatrice. It began at 8:30PM ET, customarily about 90 minutes before I usually crash.
- Drafted and played until 10:30PM. Quit after my first game. Recognized that possessing no knowledge of the cards or the technology (either MTGO or Cockatrice) made things really, really ugly.
- Gave up.
This wasn't a frustration play. It was pretty obvious from that one game on Cockatrice that I was going to be a massive detriment to whichever of my new teammates--many of them strangers-I played with. Unable to dedicate myself more fully (in anywhere close to a capacity that would really allow me to be competitive), I resigned myself to PT failure. Still, the drafting had me intrigued.
About a week after the Cockatrice catastrophe, I was invited with the rest of the team to join a Google hangout to discuss Fate Reforged/Khans of Tarkir Limited, which brings us to the first huge difference I saw between the Pro Tour BITD and the present: Spreadsheets.
The hangout was a mind-blowing experience because of Justin Cohen and Sam Black. To say they were methodical was an understatement. Sam and Justin produced a spreadsheet on which they'd ranked all of the cards in each color, color coded by how color combinations might affect their ranking and value, with accompanying notes where necessary.
I'd tested with some of the greatest PT teams ever formed, with multiple Hall of Famers for multiple years, and I'd never seen organization on this level. International teams in my experience were a collection of talent that communicated through sprawling email chains full of decklists, with informal comments attached. Discussing Limited strategy at any length was a foreign concept, usually saved for in-person chats in the 36 hours before the PT, and even then only occurring in between far more serious Constructed testing of 60th cards and sideboards.
This was far from the only spreadsheet. I don't want to get too into the details (perhaps a tournament report from Justin is in order?), but Modern was well covered. Thoroughly. Extensively. To mind-blowing lengths. As much as we'd always focused on Constructed, the organization and expressed comprehension of the metagame was multiple standard deviations ahead of anything I'd seen with my relative caveman-eyes. What I'm telling you here is that Justin Cohen owned this PT because he knew everything. I told he and Sam Black how impressed I was before the tournament started, but Sam deferred the credit. I'm obviously even more impressed now.
So yeah. Spreadsheets.
My Place in the Game
I arrived at the Gaylord Resort National Convention Centre at around 3:30 PM Thursday, checked in, dropped off some things in my room, and headed down to registration. Walking towards Hall B, my stomach was flipping a bit…a combination of a nine-year absence, a sense of my impending doom at the tables, and a total lack of comprehension of what my place here would be. Would anyone besides old friends and competitors remember me? Did I really want them to?
I didn't leave Magic on the best terms. You've probably heard a story or two about a pretty bad Shock I once played, and I took a lot of heat for that. There were other incidences near the end where I hadn't played well and hadn't behaved well, with the result being me not exactly being proud of who I was BITD. When I joined Work and was invited to join the team Facebook channel, I'd thanked the team for giving me the chance to shake off the rust. The first response I got was a stranger throwing the Shock story in my face. There was a flash in there of my remembering a lot of the reasons I hadn't come back; I didn't want to face more of it here.
Fortunately, I didn't. The reception I got from people I didn't know was mostly nonchalant, which I was pretty happy with. Sure, there were a couple of momentary ego-pangs, but over the years, as I've met and watched a lot of famous, notorious people have to deal with the price of fame, I've come to understand I didn't deal with my small, small piece of it in the Magic community very well. I'm happier for leaving it behind. That said, those who did know my name were friendly. I really appreciated that.
I passed a cloud of 30 or so players and didn't recognize one, an incredibly strange sensation for me. I walked in and went unrecognized by the tournament staff until Scott Larabee spotted me and stopped for a few minutes to talk. Then Randy Buehler did the same, and Dave Humphries…all old school guys with whom I'd shared some cool experiences in a past life. The conversations were different this time; work and children instead of metagame and mana screws. There was no looking for chinks in the armor of potential opponents or constantly monitoring everything I said on a Thursday night (traditionally the last chaotic throes of testing, and BITD, the moments where deck tech could get spilled to the wrong guy); instead, these were legitimate, deeper conversations with intelligent people with whom I had a shared history, which was awesome. I spoke with a few other old friends, took a quick look around the tournament area, and headed out. The only person I'd never met who recognized me Thursday night was Orrin Beasley, a teammate whose company I really ended up enjoying. I mentioned I needed dinner and we grabbed some, with Orrin understandably wanting to talk Magic, but eventually telling me about chemistry and pharmaceuticals, which all sounded pretty cool to me.
The rest of the weekend played out in much the same way. A few people recognized the name on my tag and knew it. There were no interviews, or autographs or any of the other aspects of being a famous player. Instead of being a known entity like BITD, I felt like just another gamer. That's more a change for me than for Magic, but seemed worth including.
I'm not going to bore you with the details of my tournament other than to say I appreciate the help that Cape Fear Games, Orrin, David Heineman, Andrew Oyen, and Graham McKinnon provided in helping me play the deck I wanted to. I went 1-2 in Limited in three competitive matches, then got destroyed in Modern playing G/W Hexproof. The logic was that it's easy to pilot, unexpected, and I wouldn't have to play mirror matches that I was sure to lose due to lack of experience. Good logic, right? I didn't win a Modern game before dropping from the tournament at 1-5 ("On the plus side, despite a decade away from the Pro Tour, you tied with Kai on points..." - Matt Vienneau, another BITD type).
Far more interesting to me than the playing were the conversations in between, some with famous players of today who I knew before they'd reached their heights. One that stood out was with Pat Chapin and Brian Kibler, focusing (between Kibler repeatedly being asked for autographs) on the changes in the financial realities for pros who understood how to market themselves.
As I mostly listened, my jaw slacked a little at the opportunities these guys were creating. Broke, late-twenties Gary was equal parts enraged and jealous; 41-year old Gary was impressed. It's done with foresight and precision and goes beyond anything I'd dreamed of back before time began. Players like Pat and Brian who have worked hard on that aspect of their careers combine charisma and discipline and professionalism in ways we didn't.
We had opportunities; the Masters Series (for those who don't know, a tournament series featuring 32 pros run at Pro Tours BITD where a first-round loss still netted you $2,000 with purses more or less doubling with every win) could provide a huge boost to your income, but it was tough to stay on with so much competition; you had to test for a format no one else was interested in testing for, and it took away from your PT testing when everyone else could focus solely on that. There was a lot of turnover there.
Writing gigs were a good way to augment your income, but the opportunities and fees were fewer and further back then. Some players made their financial bones by trading, playing one market against the other as they travelled the globe, but that was exhausting. Sponsorships? Pro Players Club? Appearance fees? Platinum, Gold, Silver? We could have used those. Certainly makes professional Magic seem a lot more viable.
Later in the weekend, I had the pleasure of being introduced to Shahar Shenhar and was then blown away to hear he'd won consecutive World Championships. It's a monumental feat that deserves any and all attention it gets. I was more blown away by the autograph request that lead to my taking this picture:
That's a Kibler playmat Shahar is signing. Needless to say, the old days didn't see much of that either.
Saturday was a pretty slow day for me, so while I was catching up again with Scott Larabee, I asked if I could get a tour of the production area. This was a professional curiosity for me after years of watching multiple major production companies plying their trade at the World Series of Poker (in coordination with ESPN) and World Poker Tour. What I saw was…impressive.
I'm going to be careful here in that I don't know what Scott intended to have shared, but the production areas I knew from my time participating in event coverage have evolved and grown exponentially. A lot of people, a lot of tech, all of it quality, contributing to the myriad coverage forms PT fans enjoy now. Streaming technology wasn't part of this world BITD, and it's pretty easy to see that it's a huge aspect now. I didn't get to watch the stream, but I think it's pretty clear it's made following the Pro Tour a completely different pastime.
Outside the production studio, things were different also. While most of the changes I saw this weekend were for the good, I can't help but lament the death of the money draft. Once upon a time, top players were so happy to play against people who weren't afraid of playing them that we'd stay up until 4 AM drafting in teams of 3-4 for $20 a head. A $20 reward for a three-hour draft was below minimum wage, so it wasn't about that so much as having a peer group, self-confidence, and a shared desire for Magic-related life experience. Now, the tournament hall closes; it never did before. Losing that aspect, which Brian Hacker once referred to as The New Pool Halls in a seminal article, strips the culture of a little bit of character. Of course, I know I sound like an old man longing for the "better" times of his youth, tying an onion to my belt, which was the style in those days.
What do pro players do instead of money drafting? Apparently, foodie-ism is the rage, and sleeping at a reasonable time actually happens. I mentioned Ben Stark earlier; Ben likes to remind me of a conversation I once had with him where I spoke about the importance of taking a tournament seriously; no drinking, no staying up until ungodly hours. Clean living contributing to clear thinking and the important role that plays in potential Pro Tour success. I think there are two reasons for the death of the money draft (granting that's a little hyperbolic; it's not dead, but it doesn't happen nearly as much) and one of them is connected at the hip with what seems to be a far more professional attitude being practiced by top players. Simply, the Pro Tour is older.
When Magic and the PT were young, there were as many or more pros in their teens than adulthood and those numbers dictated the lifestyle. Staying up and money drafting was fun, and even the adults did it at the risk of missing out on the good times that only came four or five weekends a year. When I met Huey Jensen, he was 15. Jon Finkel was probably 16. Jamie Parke was 14. These guys were literally kids and a) weren't disciplined and b) didn't need to be because they had the hyperdrive to go 48 hours straight. Now, they're in their thirties and a nice meal and a little relaxation with friends probably sounds a lot easier than gaming until 3 AM and then waking up at 8 for the PT. The PT got old.
Old pros sticking around makes it a lot harder for the new guys to break through. Yes, you'll have your Shahars, LSVs, and Reid Dukes, but there are guys out there with 15 years of PT experience who know all the tricks. As long as they stay serious, they're taking a lot of the points new players want. Change is as inevitable as time, but those old faces keep the game connected to its past. They also dictate the culture the same way veteran team sport athletes do; that means the new guys conform when it used to be the opposite.
The other factor contributing to the death of moneydrafting as far as I can figure is Magic Online. Even I'm not deaf to the fact people have issues with MTGO, but it's given everyone the opportunity to play whenever they want to, with plenty on the line. Tournaments used to have value to us in that they weren't available every day, and like I mentioned earlier, here was an opportunity to play someone who'd actually put up money against you when your locals would have laughed you out of the room at the idea. Pros don't need that anymore, so money drafting's gone away.
I grant I'm pretty naive to the way things work in Magic now, but I know gaming communities. I don't think I'm wrong.
PT Fate Reforged was a wakeup call for me. The changes--from both personal and objective viewpoint--are profound and speak well for the continued health of the game as it continues to grow. Coming back to the Pro Tour was a chance to see how Magic and my former place in it have moved on and how humbling it can be to try to get back in. I took a lot of things for granted BITD and don't think I can anymore. That's as profound a change as any.
WOTC gave old-time HOFers a great gift when they increased the appearance fee to $1,500, and for that I need to say thank you. It's a great opportunity that finally got me to come back and I'm glad I did. I might even show up again, and sooner than 2024. Thanks also to StarCityGames for providing a platform for this article, and to you for reading my first Magic writing in nine years. It was fun to write. Here's hoping the game has taught you as much as it has taught me, and that your changes, like those in Magic, are for the better.