Playing Magic is great. Traveling to some faraway place and experiencing a new city in the name of Magic is even better. As the unofficial Pro Tour slogan goes, "Play the game, see the world!"
A fair chunk of people who read Magic articles geared towards the more competitive side of the game have been to some sort of larger, non-local event in their day. Whether it was an Open on the SCG Tour®, a Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier, or a Grand Prix, it likely isn't too far off base to assume that most people reading article on this website have driven more than an hour to a tournament at some point.
As the game spreads and tournaments become more accessible to people, the desire to compete in the higher levels of the game escalates as well. Grinding events several weekends a month, "The Grind," is becoming an increasingly common goal for Magic players. I tend to be pretty open on social media and communicate with followers on both my Twitter and my Facebook page every single day. One of the conversations I tend to have with people the most starts simply: "How?"
Traveling every weekend isn't cheap. Tournament entries don't grow on trees. Magic cards aren't free. Traveling for upwards of fifteen or more hours a week is taxing. Balancing everything that goes into grinding Magic tournaments isn't easy, and figuring out the steps to take in order to make the dream a reality is crucial.
Everybody's mileage will vary and there are some aspects of the game in which I've been incredibly privileged. Taking all of that into perspective, this article is for people who want to know what steps they need to take to pursue grinding Magic in a more serious way.
The first step in making Magic possible seems like a given, but seriously, have access to Magic cards. This can mean several different things, but getting beyond a position above struggling to maintain a relevant Standard deck is a must. Magic tournaments shift format very rapidly, and being able to keep up with the ways that formats shift is an absolute must.
Looking at the SCG Tour®, having access to two to three Modern decks that can be piloted proficiently, one Legacy deck, and most of the relevant cards in Standard is more or less a required barrier to entry. It's possible to break through without going to each event that one can reach, but it's going to be much harder to be successful without taking as many shots as your competition.
Despite being the easiest way to guarantee access to cards, owning them isn't 100% necessary. Having access to them is the key. For many people, me included*, this means borrowing cards for the less accessible formats.
* Huge props to Richard Townley for helping me have access to whatever Legacy cards I'm ever in need of.
The biggest draw to ensuring access to Magic cards before beginning to travel is important is that there are so many different sources of expenses on the road. As I touched on before, there are tournament entries, travel costs, normal bills that one has to pay, and so on. Having a large number of Magic cards just effectively removes an expense that one has to deal with.
On top of their literal use in tournaments, Magic cards also serve another purpose on the road: emergency money. I've had three separate instances in my traveling that involved me being bailed out by the vendor booths at Magic tournaments. Having extra cards can help pay for something to replace a flat tire, an extra night at a hotel, or too-expensive hotel parking. These situations naturally aren't ideal, but having access to the option is better than the alternative.
Planning to Travel
Let's get something out of the way: if you haven't traveled to a Magic tournament before, you likely shouldn't be planning to shape your life around the hours of traveling that tournament Magic demands. All of the routine travel planning and packing should apply to Magic tournaments: extra clothes, toiletries, emergency contact information, and so on.
Traveling to Magic tournaments has its own set of intricacies that come to play. Very few people travel on their own dollar as frequently as Magic grinders. The (not-so-)secret? Traveling in packs. There are a half-dozen people or so that I've traveled with to Opens this year. It quarters the costs of traveling, and that is an enormous deal. Rather than a hotel costing hundreds of dollars for the weekend, it's $60 or so.
Speaking of hotels, don't be afraid to look at the cheaper side of things outside of town. Be willing to drive twenty or 30 minutes to the convention center for the sake of a $50 hotel room. That being said, be sure to read the reviews. Realistically, a random hotel in in the middle of nowhere isn't going to have a sparkling record, but making sure that a location is safe and clean is the primary concern.
For anything that's more than about three hours away, get to town the day before. The purpose of traveling to Magic tournaments is to succeed, and while operating for a single day on little sleep may be doable, doing it every weekend for weeks at a time isn't sustainable. Driving through the night and instantly playing nine or more rounds of Magic isn't going to work out.
On the flipside of things, leaving Sunday night is usually going to be okay. The Swiss portion of most two-day events will be over by about four in the afternoon, which means that, even factoring in an eight-hour drive, getting home by midnight is possible.
Single-day events that start on Sunday tend to go a few hours later. If getting in at three or four in the morning Sunday night isn't something you can do, planning to travel on Monday or flying out Sunday night is necessary. The biggest issue with Sunday night flights is that success in a tournament can end up complicating travel plans. Sure, finishing in the elimination rounds of an Open may pay for changes made to a plane ticket, but what about an event that doesn't pay out cash? To reiterate a previous point: the purpose of traveling to the event is to be successful. Make sure that travel plans accommodate the possibility that things can go right.
There's an enormous weight that should be placed on simply being able to show up to future tournaments. Cashing tournaments is going to be the easiest way to "freeroll" future trips, but finishing in the money of a tournament isn't possible without showing up. Traveling for the sake of traveling is absolutely fine! But if the goal is to grind as many Magic tournaments as possible, the fun aspects of traveling tend to take a back seat to the fiscal responsibilities of keeping the Magic dream alive. To draw from personal experience, Louisville is the city where I had my first Legacy Top 8, earned my first Pro Points, and had my first SCG Tour® team debut (all on different weekends), and I've yet to see downtown Louisville. It just hasn't been an important aspect of any trip I've taken to the city.
Some weekends are just going to be the inside of a convention center, and not all cities will be pretty. Keeping things affordable should be the priority. It's easy to get sucked into expensive dinners and credit card games you can't afford, but the goal should be to avoid overexerting oneself. When traveling, seeing the town is one of the more exciting aspects of the venture. Do what you can to keep costs low by doing things that don't cost money. Walking around and seeing the sights downtown is better for one's wallet than going to an aquarium or visiting a fancy restaurant.
In the same vein as cutting costs by avoiding expensive hotels and fancy eats, bring your own food. Convention centers and gas stations mark food up much higher than similar products online or in the grocery store. Want twenty-ounce bottles of Mountain Dew for the ride home? A six-pack from Walmart is going to run about four or five dollars, down from the two dollars per bottle at a gas station or four bucks in convention centers. Clif bars and meal supplements are incredibly efficient alternatives to spending ten dollars on a slice of lukewarm pizza at a convention center and can be purchased in bulk. Almonds and peanuts are fantastic sources of protein, can be bought in bulk, and keep for extended periods of time at different temperatures.
All of these points are to help chain multiple events after one another. The price of tournament entries isn't going to be something that can be acquired at a discount, but slashing the costs of lodging and food goes a long way to successfully attending enough tournaments to be successful.
The section is a bit vaguer, but understanding why you're traveling is important. It would absolutely be nice to be the next Tom Ross, or Brad Nelson, or Jadine Klomparens, or Cedric Phillips…but which one do you want to be? It's easy to set a goal and accomplish anything. Issues arise when one starts to stretch oneself too thin in an attempt to accomplish everything.
Some goals involve dropping from tournaments while still in contention for prizes. For example, imagine somebody at a Grand Prix tournament, we'll call them Alex. After losing their final round of Day 1, Alex has a record of 6-3. Signups for a Pro Tour Qualifier are still taking place and Alex isn't sure if it's better to stay in the Grand Prix tournament or drop and play in the PTQ. The answer depends entirely on what Alex wants out of the weekend.
- If what Alex wants out of the weekend is money, then they should stay in the Grand Prix. Pro Tour Qualifiers don't tend to pay out cash, and Alex should do what they can to give themselves the best shot at making money.
- If an invite to the Pro Tour is what Alex is chasing, it's better to drop and play in the Pro Tour Qualifier. A record of 13-2 is what snags a Pro Tour invite, so after their third loss, it's effectively impossible to qualify for the Pro Tour at a modern-day Grand Prix.
Things get muddied even further if Alex just needs a Pro Point or two in order to gain a qualification from reaching Silver Status in the Pro Players Club and can evoke a storm of complicated emotions. The first step to sorting through all of them is figuring out what the "destination" is.
If grinding tournaments is something you're serious about, know why you're doing it before you start, and figure out your exit strategy. Figure out what you want your "end-game" to be, not in the Magic way, but in the "Gavin Verhey's farewell article" kind of way. My end-game is to make it into the casting part of Magic coverage. As a result, I grind the tour that puts on the best Magic coverage in the world in an effort to learn more about how things work behind the scenes and get to know the people who make it all happen. Playing Magic and seeing the country is just something else that ends up being included in the package.
Figure out what it is that you want out of Magic and where you want it to take you. Wanting to be a recognized Pro Player is fine. Wanting to be a Pro Tour mainstay is fine. For most people, grinding Magic tournaments indefinitely isn't going to be a life goal. For now, the money isn't quite there. Even Jon Finkel has a day job. Seth Manfield still produces Magic content to supplement his income.
The overarching point of all of this is to have a plan. My perspective is clouded with survivorship bias, but I was able to make all but four of the stops on the SCG Tour® last year while working part time at a card shop during the week. A significant chunk of my success is due to meticulous and rigid budgeting throughout the year and infinite amounts of prep work surrounding the traveling aspect of the game.
Grinding Magic isn't always luxurious, but with some luck, an endless amount of planning, and a very specific skill set, it may just more possible than you ever realized.