Many of you may have expected me to write about further exploration of Bant Heroic or my reaction to the results of last weekend's tournaments. However, for the first time in quite a while, I spent a week almost completely removed from tournament Magic. Since I am incredibly lucky, that week was spent in Honolulu, HI watching two close friends marry each other amidst sipping guava daiquiris and eating dangerous amounts of malasadas. (If you don't know what those are, google them right now. I'll wait. And you're welcome.)
Now don't get me wrong, this wasn't a Magic-related decision at all. When two close friends are getting married in Hawaii and many other friends are attending, it behooves you to go. A well-lived life is one filled with great experiences and memories, and certainly this trip promised both and lived up to its promise. I would have skipped nearly any tournament to go, with the possible exception of a Pro Tour that had significant ramifications for my standing in that circuit.
Still, this trip offered me some much-needed time to reflect on my role in Magic and Magic's role in my life, and I would like to offer some of those reflections to you.
It is oft-parroted advice that taking a break and removing oneself from the game is an important tool for preventing burnout. It is also a piece of advice that I have never felt the need to follow. I love playing Magic, and as the game has become more popular in recent years and the calendar of events has filled, so too has my tournament schedule. I was not really looking forward to Hawaii as a break from Magic, and I would have gladly attended Grand Prix Toronto otherwise. If anything, that break was one of few downsides to the trip.
For those grinders that also work a regular job, I can definitely see burnout being an issue. But for those of us who are crazy (read: stupid) enough to go it alone, there is more than ample time between tournaments to reset, refocus, and prepare properly. I don't always achieve those things, but that is a fault of mine, not the structure of my life.
So if it wasn't the stress of the grind that I spent time pondering, what was it?
My end game.
For many years, I played Magic because I did not want to do anything else. I had no particular goals other than to win as much as I could and hopefully qualify for the Pro Tour. My middling success was more a hindrance than anything else, a hindrance to moving on and achieving something better than Magic could provide.
In 2012, my Magic life changed when I started playing on the Open Series. For aspiring competitive players like myself, the Open Series was the perfect opportunity. First, it offered a frequency of high-level tournaments that was before unavailable, so the consistency with which you could earn reasonable prize money was greatly increased.
Second, the increase in high-level tournaments has allowed up-and-coming players to hone their skills in tournament play. Sure, I could have just played a lot online as many have done, but there is something to be said for getting reps in a tournament environment with high pressure. I have always been happy to play on camera, even when I was just starting to put up results, but over the last few years, I have met countless people that are incredibly nervous on camera or relieved to not be on it. You have to be comfortable playing with pressure to succeed in any competitive endeavor, and I am sure many players have gained that comfort on the Open Series.
Lastly, it has come to offer an amount of exposure that my middling success at Grand Prix and Pro Tours could not. It is no secret that the Open Series has the best coverage around, and as a result, there are plenty of great players who have been able to make a name for themselves that otherwise would not have been given that chance. For some, this recognition may be viewed as unwarranted because the Open Series is viewed as a lesser competition.
Well that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what coverage does. It is not there to highlight the best competitors, although it nearly always does as a byproduct. Coverage exists to entertain. Specifically, to entertain the audience. Cedric Phillips and Patrick Sullivan entertain better than anyone else, and I have to be grateful to them for creating the platform on which I have largely built my Magic career. I like to think that I do my part to make matches entertaining, but ultimately, when I am under camera I am there for myself. Cedric and Patrick are there for you guys.
Three years later and I find myself nearing a legitimate career as a Magic player and writer. It is much more than I could have imagined then and more than I possibly could have imagined when I stepped into my first FNM in 2002. But where do I go from here? What is my end game?
I could say something true but vague, like I want to be the best I can be, but that is too obvious. But as a player, what I want is still obvious: I want to be a regular player on the Pro Tour and to support myself through Magic. That's not new. It is something I have wanted ever since I started playing PTQs over ten years ago. It is also entirely personal and selfish.
What reflecting on the Open Series has made me see more clearly is how much room there is for competitive Magic to grow as a sport. As players we are often more concerned with extracting as much value as we can from the game in the short term, but I want to look further into the distance. To make Magic a viable option long term, the game would have to grow enormously, even considering the huge strides it has made in the last few years. But such growth is not impossible. And that is what I want to see.
One evening in Hawaii, my friends and I went out on a boat as part of a larger group of about forty. Among the passengers was another group of people around our age that knew each other from medical school. Now, in my circle of friends we have several imminent PhDs, a software engineer, and a few other impossibly intelligent individuals. It's an impressive group. Somehow amidst them and a sea of doctors, I had the most exciting profession. I am constantly in awe at how interested people are to hear about my life as a grinder. Don't they know that they shouldn't stroke my ego any further?
In all seriousness, it is humbling to get that kind of support from strangers, as it is when I get support from my fans inside the community. It was not too long ago that I avoided such conversations about my "profession" because I didn't view it that way. Honestly, I saw it as a bit of a joke, probably deservedly so to some extent. As Magic has grown, so has my pride in my place in the community and in Magic's place in the world.
Still, there are plenty of players who are seemingly ashamed of their involvement and enjoyment in this game. This is unacceptable. How can we expect to garner respect from the outside if we cannot do it from within?
Up until now I have viewed my stature in the community as a self-serving edifice. I did my part to represent the community well, but past that, it was about what the community could do for me. Now I am on the other side of John F. Kennedy's great challenge: What can I do for the community?
Even if I do not get to directly reap the benefits, I want Magic to be what we all know it can be. Can we have Pro Tours with viewership over one hundred thousand? Over a million? What about Opens? With greater viewership will come bigger sponsors and more money for prizes and production budgets. The increases could be staggering. Larger than we have ever seen in Magic's history.
In my opinion, to generate the necessary increase in viewership, Magic needs to generate personalities. Rivalries. We need more compelling narratives than who is doing well this weekend or what new card is seeing play. There are many players that tune in solely for the cards and not for the people, but those are not the people that will become dedicated fans. They are not the people that will buy t-shirts and bobblehead dolls. The deepest fan investment always comes on the human level.
What I want to see is a little kid watching the finals of an Open and telling his parents he wants to be just like Brian Braun-Duin when he grows up, although hopefully the kid will actually win an Open…and use fewer horrible puns. Okay, maybe not BBD, but someone! (I love you, Brian!)
Does all of this seem impossible to you? It absolutely doesn't to me. It's all attainable with the right effort and a few lucky breaks. I don't really know exactly what the right effort means right now, but I know I can do more, and I want to do more. I don't know exactly how big Magic can be, but I know I have to be actively working towards building it for the game we love to reach its full potential. Magic has given me so much, and I should give back. Magic is bigger than me. Much bigger. It's bigger than all of us, and we should start treating it that way.
Maybe one of the most important weeks of my Magic career will be one in which I did not play any Magic. I certainly hope so.