The last year, for me, was not a great one.
Aside from a Top 4 finish at the StarCityGames.com® Season One Invitational, I only made the Top 8 of one other tournament. But honestly, that's mostly my own fault. I decided, early on, that I wouldn't travel as much this year. I'd take some time off in order to get my head together. And, over time, I found myself wanting to go to tournaments less and less. The appeal of my warm bed and a bunch of new video games coming out was a little too much to overcome.
And I've been happy.
But my work has suffered. It is pretty difficult to write a primer on a deck you've only watched being played. It is tough to talk about the ins-and-outs of a matchup you've only experienced a handful of times on Magic Online. And above all, I haven't felt confident because I wasn't always sure that my writing was worth reading. And that's a terrifying thing to contemplate as a content producer.
But over the holidays, my wife Kali and I did a lot of driving to visit family. The trip back home to 'Bama, nine hours each way, is pretty brutal, but it gives you a lot of time to think. And when you make the trip twice in less than a month, the time allows for the formulation of ideas on what kind of content I want to create. But aside from that, it also had me reflecting on why I started to play Magic in the first place.
So join me, if you will, on this trip down memory lane as I try to recapture what exactly made Magic: The Gathering so near and dear to my heart in the first place. Maybe, in the process, you'll remember something you've lost too. Let's start at the beginning...
Kitchen Table Magic
My first experience with Magic came at a young age. When I was around thirteen years old, my best friend invited me over to his house to hang out. This was nothing new, except I hadn't seen him for about a year. Throughout most of my childhood, my parents had custody battles over me, my brother, and my sister. When one parent would slip up, they'd file for custody, and we'd spend six or more months figuring out which parent we were going to end up living with. But it rarely lasted more than a year. So when I finally got to hang out with my best friend Trent again, I was ecstatic. And, to my surprise, he had learned to play a new game.
So there we were, sitting on his bedroom floor, and he taught me the rules. Creatures could attack, but not the turn they entered the battlefield. Draw one card per turn, play one land per turn, etc. But the artwork, the abilities, and concept of it all just blew me away. Why had I never heard of this game before? Oh, right, because I'd been living in a rural town in the south of Georgia on and off for the last few years. There weren't any comic book stores. The nearest GameStop-type store (Electronics Boutique, I think?) was 45 minutes away. Hell, the closest Wal-Mart was about the same.
But there was just something...oddly appealing about the whole affair. We were wizards casting spells in some ultimate battle. And after the battle was won, and everything was said and done, we could just shuffle up and do it all over again. We played for hours, Trent showing me all the different decks he'd created. Mono-Blue "Timmy," where all his creatures could ping you to death. Big Green Monsters. Red Burn Spells. White and black lifegain. I was stunned. This was unlike anything I'd ever played before.
The very next day, I asked my mother if we could go to Barnes & Noble to see if they had any Magic cards. All I could find were some Portal II starter decks, but they were good enough. I bought a couple and had enough cards to start throwing together some decks. Unfortunately, at the time, I was just visiting for Christmas, so I didn't get to play with Trent and his other Magic-playing friends very much before I set sail once again for Podunk, GA.
Once back home from the holiday, the only person I could interest in playing Magic with me was my older brother, but his interest didn't last very long. After all, you can only get so much enjoyment playing the same "all my green cards versus all my red cards" for so long. But instead of letting the game fall to the wayside, I opted to start playing games against myself.
Once school started back, I asked around to see if anyone else had heard of this wonderful game. In fact, two of the people in my grade owned Magic cards, and played every now and then. I was saved! But after getting thoroughly trounced, I decided that maybe the best approach wasn't to just shove all the cards I owned from one color into a deck. Some cards had to be better than others, and some of the cards I owned just didn't seem very good. And for the love of everything, I just couldn't seem to beat a Sibilant Spirit.
So I did some digging during computer class and found a website that actually sold Magic cards. Since I didn't own a credit card, I asked my (very skeptical) teacher if I could buy something with hers if I gave her some of my money. And, somehow, she agreed. It made my day. It made my year! Finally, I found the all-encompassing answer to Sibilant Spirit!
I had never seen that card before! It was wonderful! It solved all of my problems! What else could I find? While searching this website whose name is long-forgotten, I came across a dozen or so cards that I thought I could incorporate into some existing decks, and I might even be able to create a new deck if I moved some stuff around. My card pool, including my total number of basic land cards, was pretty limited. All-in-all, I ended up buying around $13 worth of cards, and happily paid my teacher back the next day.
And when my cards finally arrived, I was able to beat my friend's U/B Sibilant Spirit deck for the very first time.
During another transition period a year or so later, which would luckily be the last, I ended up moving back to Birmingham, AL with my mom. After doing some research, I found a few places around town that sold Magic cards. What can I say? I was hooked. I found a nice little comic-book store that sold singles and booster packs and was only a few miles away from my house, and asked my mom if she'd drive me there. Once I arrived, I talked to the owner of the store, and he was more than willing to help us out.
After showing me the latest set on display, Prophecy, and telling me about some of the card types in it, I was eager to get my hands on a few booster packs. I had bought a couple of Nemesis preconstructed decks from a GameStop-type store a few months before, and it was the first block of expansion packs I'd purchased after my Portal II starter packs. I just wanted more cards that worked with the cards I owned, and it seemed pretty logical. And to my surprise, I opened this monster:
For Christmas that year, all I asked for was a booster box of Invasion. I ended up getting two, and it was the best Christmas ever!
The next few years had me getting deeper into the game. I met a bunch of people around the comic book store and made some fast friends. Even though I was a good bit younger than most of the other patrons, they took me under their wings and were happy to help me. I started to build a reasonable collection as most of my extra money from chores or odd jobs went into buying more Magic cards. And I met more people.
When I first began my journey in Magic, all I wanted to do was beat my friends. I didn't even know about Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grand Prix, or the Pro Tour. I slowly learned about formats like Standard and Extended, but I was hesitant. After all, I'd invested my hard-earned money, so why shouldn't I be able to play whatever card I wanted? But once I learned how sweet the competition could be, it didn't take long for me to change my tune.
I began to build my own decks, do research, and eventually started going to tournaments. Of course, I was bad. Really bad. And it took years before I had any real success in Magic. Growing up with an older brother, we competed in virtually all aspects of life. We played the same sports, went to the same schools, and, since we were only a year and change apart, had mostly the same circles of friends. Everything was a game. Every day was a challenge to see who was better at one thing or another. Whether it was NFL Blitz or who could school the other in one-on-one basketball, every single day of my adolescent life was a battle. So it seemed only natural that I would pivot my competitive spirit into something I could really take control of.
So I started playing tournaments. I would figure out which weekends I was allowed to get away. I would set up rides with friends who were old enough to drive. I made sure all of them met my mom and she felt comfortable with me going along with them for the weekend. I made sure I worked during the week so that my weekends were free. But it took years for me to reach a point where I felt like I was actually good at the game. By the time I won my first PTQ, I had already graduated from high school.
- 4 Goblin Legionnaire
- 4 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Savannah Lions
- 4 Silver Knight
- 3 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
- 3 Kataki, War's Wage
But at that point, with a plane ticket to Hawaii in my pocket, I didn't really know what I was doing. Sure, my flight was paid for, but at 19 I wasn't exactly rolling in dough, and I also was pretty bad at planning ahead. When I stepped onto the plane heading for an island in the sea some 4,000 miles away...
I hadn't flown since I was four years old. I had no hotel room booked. I didn't know a single other person attending the tournament. I don't even know if I had a complete Standard deck at my disposal. I only had about $500 to my name, so I'd have to squeeze every dollar. All I knew was the name of the building where the tournament was going to be held, and that I was completely unprepared.
After stepping off the plane, I headed toward a help desk, asking them if there was any public transportation to the convention center. They directed me toward a bus, and I decided it would be easiest to look for a room near the site. Even though it would likely cost most of my $500, I wasn't going to sleep on the street. But still, it wasn't going to be cheap. I walked up to the bus stop and saw one or two other people sheepishly huddled around a bench. Oddly enough, I noticed that one guy was wearing a Pro Tour shirt, and I decided to step out of my comfort zone and strike up a conversation.
He seemed like an odd duck at first, with long dreadlocks and insanely baggy pants. I asked him if he was here for the Pro Tour (duh), and we talked about the format. Since he was alone, I decided to take a stab in the dark.
"Do you have a hotel room? And are you sharing it with anyone? And if not, would you want a roommate?"
He looked at my quizzically. I could tell he was considering his options and the questions I had asked. After a slight pause, he answered that he did have a room, didn't have a roommate, and wouldn't mind having someone to help split the cost. I suppose I didn't look like much of a threat. And honestly, he ended up being a pretty awesome guy. He seemed pretty smart, and like he'd been around the block before when it came to the Pro Tour, so I listened a lot more than I talked when we had conversations.
But we weren't really friends. He went off and did his own thing most of the time. But we regularly had breakfast together. We talked about what decks we were going to play in the tournament. And most of all, neither of us was alone anymore.
And almost a decade later, I met him in the finals of the 2015 Players' Championship.
Going for Gold
I ended up playing a few Pro Tours after that, but mostly I just told myself that I wasn't good enough and ultimately decided to move on. I got a girlfriend. I got a serious job. We fought. We loved each other madly. We lived our lives the only way we knew how. Everything was weird and messed up and crazy and we both couldn't get enough of each other.
So we threw parties. We drank heavily. And all the while, I continued to play Magic in the background. It wasn't a huge part of my life, but it was still there. On the weekends, on Magic Online, I would keep up the good fight, hoping that one day I'd make it back there again. And I did, from time to time, but it never stuck. I never made it on "the train."
But then something strange happened. I got a part-time gig writing for StarCityGames.com®. It was a paltry amount of compensation, but I was still getting to do something I loved about a game I loved. I had a voice. People listened to me. People read what I wrote and (hopefully) came away better for it. And then something miraculous happened.
I made the National Team! Then I got married! Then Kali won her first Standard Open! Then we flew to Rome for Worlds! We saw the Colosseum, ate delicious foods, and hung out with our friends. This felt nothing like when I went to my first Pro Tour. This felt right. This felt like home.
Then Charles Gindy, our team captain, got DQ'ed from the tournament, crushing the dreams of Team USA.
And so we came home, but nothing changed. We were still us. We still loved doing the same stuff. People talk about travel like it's some life-altering thing, but it's not. You are just yourself, but in a different place. If you break out of your box and go exploring, you get to see some wonderful things, but you're still you. Nothing changed, and I was happy about that. And I still wasn't on "the train."
At some point, Kali, my wife, decided that she wanted to become a judge. She enjoyed playing Magic, but she thought it was a better path for her. I fought it at first. After all, why would you mediate something instead of going to battle? She had just won an Open, after all. But who was I to stand in the way of something she wanted to do? I saw how much she enjoyed it, and I saw how many friends she made along the way. And we also felt some of the connections she made when she was offered a job by some people at StarCityGames.com®.
It was a big decision. Picking up and moving nine hours away from your hometown is definitely not something I'd recommend to the faint of heart. But I wanted her to follow her dream! She hated her current job, and I wasn't really attached to much of anything back in Birmingham. My family had moved away. I'd miss my friends, but the internet is a wonderful thing! I could still talk to them every day if I wanted!
So we packed up a U-Haul and made our way to scenic Roanoke, VA. I still had my part-time writing gig for SCG, but it wasn't enough to keep food on the table. I started looking for another job. I had waited tables at restaurants for years, so finding a job didn't take much time. But shortly after moving to Roanoke, I decided to take a leap and play in the TCGPlayer Invitational that year. The prize was enormous ($20,000 to first), and the structure seemed breakable. Nine rounds of Swiss, but you could have up to three byes if you earned enough points in their tournaments, and they even had grinder events the day before. I flew up early to do exactly that, and I earned enough points to secure three byes. And I won the whole damn thing.
With $20,000 in the bank, a lot of the financial pressure we were in after the move was lifted. My wife and I had an argument that I wrote about that ultimately got a lot of community backlash (and for good reason). Long story short, I was a jerk, but I was lashing out from a dark place. After the move, I had become lonely. I didn't really know anyone in our new town other than her, but she made fast friends with a lot of her coworkers, so I started to feel left out.
It wasn't a great time in my life, which felt strange because I had equated success in Magic to success in life for so long. I didn't really understand what was happening. But, being the angel that she is, she gave me a chance. I became a "professional Magic player" with the stipulation that if we ran out of money, I'd go back to working a regular job. I happily agreed, confident I would succeed.
Not long after this fight, the tension in our household began to ease. A lot. I was happier knowing that I had the freedom to pursue something I'd always wanted. I could go to more Grand Prix and make a real effort to get on "the train." Shortly after that, I met one Brian Braun-Duin at our weekly game night at a friend's house. He was very competitive, like me, and wanted to play more events. It almost felt like serendipity. We started going to every single tournament we could together. And within the next year, we had both qualified for a Pro Tour, and I won the Atlanta Invitational in 2012.
I started writing more. I started making videos. I started getting paid more to write because I was doing well in tournaments. I was really making a go of this professional Magic thing. But even with all the success on the SCG Tour®, I was still lagging behind at Pro Tours. Again, I would qualify here and there, but I couldn't get it to stick. But I was happy! I was getting to do what I loved and provide for my family, and it's been that way for the last six years!
So why is that fact eating me alive?
Here we are, winding down the end of 2017, and I have a lot to be happy about. I have a lot to be proud of. But I also have a lot to work toward. Writing this article was difficult for a number of reasons, but mostly I just kept seeing myself coming back to the same old theme. I never really accomplished my goal of becoming a Pro Tour mainstay. For as much success as I've had on the SCG Tour®, I was never able to prove myself against the best players in the world. And maybe I never will.
So I'll leave you with this final thought:
When will "enough" ever be enough? The human condition leaves us striving for things that are unattainable until we actually attain them. Then, like clockwork, we find something else to shoot for. To me, that's why happiness is just an idea and not something we can ever actually find. We can be happy in certain snapshots of time, and we can work toward making the lives of those around us a little bit easier, and a little bit better, but I don't know if I'll ever truly be "happy." I don't know if anyone ever was, or ever will be. But we're all trying. And maybe happiness is that unattainable thing, and when we finally find it, we won't have to keep searching for something else.