From the base of a mountain its peak can be seen. This pinnacle represents the conclusion of a journey. If one can endure the hardships of the climb, one will be rewarded with a sense of completeness and accomplishment, a challenge endured met with a goal achieved.
Magic doesn't function this way.
I'm 24 years old in my very first Pro Tour. I can now finally call myself a Pro Tour competitor. I rush to the pairing boards to find myself immersed in a sea of players. From the crowd I get a pat on the shoulder and a “good luck." The players slowly dissipate and I get closer to discovering my fate for Round 1. In the distance I hear the loudspeakers begin to rattle off names for the feature match area. As I near the front of the line I hear a pair of all-too-familiar names. My heart sinks.
The lights are so hot. Much brighter than I thought they would be. A rope separates me from an audience, but no barrier can keep me from noticing the crowds of people begin to form, too big for me to count. Voices I've heard from my computer screen are now whispers all around me.
Across from me sits “the” guy. More myth than man to this point, he is the one player I've most looked up to for many years. That guy who I've watched at all hours of the night live the dreams I've dreamed. Do I really have to play against Luis Scott-Vargas in my very first Pro Tour match?
What was that? I look down to see my carelessness in shuffling has left a card in my deck unplayable. The corner of one of them is completely bent, leaving it worthless.
“Can I go replace this?”
Can this really be happening? I'm in my first match at the Pro Tour and I just ruined one of my cards. Is that a game loss? This has never happened before! I sit in complete vulnerability waiting for someone to give me direction.
“I've got one of those.”
I look back to find one of those familiar voices pulling out a card from his shirt pocket. We exchange cards and I continue to shuffle.
I go on to lose the match and memory. This was the base of the mountain my foundation was to be built upon. It was the first step I would take on my journey to reach the highest peaks of competitive Magic. It may have been a rocky start, but a beginning nonetheless. I was a kid from North Dakota who turned a hobby into a journey of self-discovery. Now, I did not know this at the time, but it's always difficult to see the forest from the trees.
My early years were kind to me. Thanks to the praise of a friend I met on my limited journey thus far, coverage shined a light on my introductory events. I could have been a flash in the pan like so many others before me, but a few good finishes in that many attempts gave me the velocity needed to become a talking point for the game's loudest voices. I was an overnight, Cinderella-story sensation.
My first year on the Pro Tour introduced me to the world, but my second cemented me as a household name in our community. Not only did I win Player of the Year in my second attempt, but I did it in a style never before seen. Tied with another competitor, I played in a one-on-one playoff for the illustrious title. A weekend of Magic centered around me and my journey for singularity.
Catapulted by early success, my ego inflated alongside my win percentage. My previous flaw of underestimating myself was flipped on its head once I started believing all the words spoken about my formidable prowess. I was a god amongst mere mortals and my wrath was just beginning.
Up to this point my career was built on a flimsy foundation. With a shallow mental game and a contemptuous mindset, I quickly began to unravel. My results plummeted far below mediocrity and the silent naysayers from days past now had legitimate fodder for their hostility. Not only were my performances lackluster, but I began living in my own shadow. My potentially lavish career was soon resembling that of a one-hit wonder. From qualified with benefits, I soon found myself without invitations to more than one Pro Tour at a time. Grasping at golden straws, I began racking my brain for ways to stay relevant in the community without need of individualized tournament results I believed I may not be capable of.
No longer confident or prideful in my talents as a player, I began pivoting away from competing and towards other avenues for potential stability. I moved to Roanoke to be a part of the newly cemented Versus Series and to get to play more events without the expensive price tag they had traveling from the Midwest. I also started streaming at a more casual level and commentating events on the SCG Tour®. My game may not have been keeping me relevant, but my personality was an untapped resource.
I once again underestimated myself, but now knew what rock bottom felt like. I started focusing harder on the design of unique decks to not only attack the metagame to alleviate my technical game's relevancy, but also to excite my viewership with strategies that were off the beaten path. With sporadic success in this department, I was officially rebranded as a deck brewer, culminating with a deck I called “Act 2."
This was a deck designed for a specific metagame I was targeting for a specific event. It got a decent amount of attention, but I didn't think much of it. I wasn't surprised by the high level of attention this deck received, since it was unique and powerful, but what shocked me was how powerful and resilient the strategy ended up being. The deck went on to win multiple WMCQs and qualified a number of players for the upcoming Pro Tour.
I was extremely proud of myself. A deck I designed ended up taking over a format, which gave my content a level of relevancy I had thought tapered off some time ago. I could once again feel confident in my work, and for the time being I no longer feared becoming irrelevant in the Magic community.
There are moments in one's life that feel insignificant while they occur, but without knowing it they plant a seed that will forever change them as a person. One won't even know these seeds began germinating until they've blossomed into an entirely new perspective on a subject. Only tracing back will one truly find the origin of this newly cemented idea. My most pivotal moment as a Magic personality can be traced back to the night before Pro Tour Theros.
I was outside of an electronic store, waiting for my buddy Jacob Van Lunen to buy batteries. As I stood on the sidewalk outside the store, a stranger strolled by. His initial glance my way was met by an immediate double-take followed by an abrupt stop. In awe he stared at me as if I was a figment of his imagination. Breaking the ice, I send a pleasantry his way. At this point I noticed his eyes begin to well up.
He cleared his throat.
He then told me that he was there only thanks to me and my Act 2 deck. He had played Magic for multiple years without ever qualifying for the Pro Tour, which had been his dream for as long as he could remember, but thanks to me it finally was a reality. At this point streams of tears rolled down his face and we eventually shared a truly meaningful hug.
This really meant something to him.
Weeks later I still couldn't shake this experience. It was so real, raw, and moving. For years I'd been producing content, well aware that it had an impact on my viewers, but that never meant I wasn't just doing it for self-preservation. I loved making great content, but I never truly felt empathy for my readers if the decklists ended up mediocre or if I phoned in a piece here or there. I always just told myself it was stress-free work, given that no one would die if I promoted a bad list.
It wasn't until I met this mystery man that I truly saw the positive impact my work can have on others as long as I pride myself, day in and day out, on providing the best information I can. My work might not hurt the quality of other's lives, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't try my best to elevate it.
This really meant something to me.
From that moment forward, I prided myself on being the best version of myself I could possibly be. It didn't change the fact that I still viewed myself as an off-brand pro at this point, but I would no longer accept anything less than maximum effort. If I was to be struck out of competitive Magic, I would do so swinging. I did away with promotional streaming to better prioritize getting better at Magic and once again became a student of the game. The journey may be long, but I was ready to endure it once again.
Over the next couple seasons I strived for greatness, but more often than not fell short of it. The only difference was that this time I was committed to the journey and knew that external gratification was a finite resource that would not sustain my long-term urges. I needed to look inward to constantly find the drive necessary to be successful at the one thing I've leaned on for validation.
Results no longer defined me. I played the game for a new reason.
I played to master the game, knowing full well it would be impossible to do so. What initially began as a race for success had now become the striving for excellence, something never to be achieved but always attempted. There would be no peak to look down from. No satisfaction from completion of the journey. Just a path in front of me and trails behind to pull experience from.
While on this path, I received a Twitter mention from Brian David-Marshall, who against all odds was still in possession of a long-lost relic from my first Pro Tour match: that damaged Magic card. Amazed that it still existed, I asked to have it back.
Many can say they have a piece of memorabilia from their first Pro Tour, but who can say they have one from their first Pro Tour experience? At the time the card was worthless to me, but years later it deserved a frame to physically protect a precious memory I now hold dear. It may have only been five years since it had happened, but five years in the Magic world is damn near close to a lifetime.
“You can have it back when you Top 8 another Pro Tour.”
Stunned by his response, I let him know that may very well never happen again, and I stressed once more the relevancy this card had to me. Again he defined the stipulation he had for its safe return to my possession. I was now responsible for once again reaching the Sunday stage if I wanted my precious memory returned to me. No ifs, ands, or buts. I needed to once again win.
A year went by and the goal was yet to be met. I brought it up to him a couple more times, but always met with a stern no for renegotiations. I'd like to say I wasn't agitated by this, but as time went on, my yearning grew deeper and deeper. What was once a piece of memorabilia with minimal nostalgic value had evolved into a trophy more valuable than any I'd competed for thus far. What was once wanted became needed. I had to achieve this goal for more reasons than one, and all those reasons became encapsulated in the Exotic Orchard. The card became the embodiment of everything I've always wanted to achieve in my second life as a Magic professional.
The day would finally come where I was in reach of this goal. After a boisterous thirteen rounds of Pro Tour Magic, I found myself one win away from the necessary points for Top 8. Under the hot lights I sat across from “the” guy. No longer a myth, I shuffled up in preparation for my match against the man. In two swift games I defeated Luis Scott-Vargas and solidified my spot on the Sunday stage.
This past weekend, Brian held up to his word and presented me my Exotic Orchard.
What was once so insignificant had become so much more than I could have ever imagined. Standing a mere three-and-a-half inches tall, this card would now dwarf all my other trophies in relevancy.
Brian David-Marshall (@Top8Games) August 6, 2016
The story of the Exotic Orchard could be told in so many different ways, but what struck a chord in me was how this card's relevancy shifted with my perspective over the years. In my earlier days, I cared more about obtaining accomplishments than appreciating the bigger picture because I didn't know of one. The only substance I gave to this world was used for fueling my ego and capitalizing on self-preservation. It wasn't until I truly learned that everyone is the protagonist of their own story that I could then find relevancy in so much more than my own accomplishments.
Magic doesn't have a peak to look down from. No pinnacle of greatness that one can rest upon. The journey travelled thus far does not come with a trackable percentage towards completion, but is instead a well of insight to pull from. The longer the road, the more knowledge one will have for future use.
Throughout your time in this game, goals will change. They will evolve into things you never knew existed from behind the trees, but I can assure you that, with the right mindset, they will be far more rewarding than dreams of holding a trophy for the sake of success. In a tournament setting, only one person will become the winner. It would be a hollowing experience if that was the only thing that mattered.
I would know. I've lived the dreams some dream.