It is my great pleasure to introduce the recipients of this year's Gamers Helping Gamers scholarship awards. Gamers Helping Gamers -- or GHG as it is often called -- has given away nearly a quarter of a million dollars in college scholarship money to Magic players since it was founded in 2012 by some veteran Magic players who were looking to return something to the game that had provided so much for them when they were approaching college age.
"Playing Magic over the years, I saw lots of kids who were smart and motivated, but not motivated by school," explained GHG president Tim McKenna. "Many of these kids didn't have a lot of money and so they were losing out on college. I felt that maybe we could help get them to go by offering a scholarship, as many of them would be missed by more traditional academic or sports-oriented scholarships."
McKenna brainstormed with Hall of Famers Jon Finkel and Bob Maher, multiple time Pro Tour Top 8 competitors Chris Pikula and Dan O'Mahoney-Schwartz, and Grand Prix Champions Matt Wang and Eric Berger to hammer out the logistics of creating a non-profit organization to fulfill that mission. That group would form the Board of Directors and, initially seeded with only their own money, they began screening applicants to give away money for gamers to go to college.
Jon Finkel pledges money he wins on the Pro Tour to the organization and Brian Kibler recently announced that he and his teammates would be donating part of their winnings to GHG. There have been tournaments held to raise money, most recently at Kirwan's Game Store in Catskill, NY, and of course you can donate to help send a Magic player through college by clicking the donate button on their homepage.
If you want to read more about past winners of this award you can find all the links on the GHG webpage . But today we are looking forward at two young Magic players on the brink of their college experience who are each getting four-year awards totaling $20,000 to ease the way. Let's meet them.
Carter Newman is an 18-year-old, self-described Spike from Huntington, West Virginia. He is headed to West Virginia University this fall where he plans to study economics with the eventual goal of becoming a professor. Eagle-eyed viewers of the SCG Tour® will recognize him from his Top 8 appearance at the Modern Open in Columbus earlier this year.
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Eternal Witness
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 1 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Ramunap Excavator
- 4 Tireless Tracker
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
Despite his success with G/W Company in Modern -- he also placed in the Top 16 at SCG Indianapolis a few weeks later -- that is not his preferred Constructed format.
"I love Constructed formats," said Carter, when asked to describe himself as a Magic player. "I am most fond of Standard, with Legacy following closely behind. I recently started playing Vintage on Magic Online and am thoroughly enjoying it. I play Modern almost solely due to the sheer number of competitive events with the format."
Carter has been playing Magic since he was in the sixth grade and playing collectible card games two years before that. When one of the other kids in his gaming circle made the jump to playing Magic, Carter jumped with him and never looked back.
"I was attracted to the game by the sheer number of options presented in each and every game, from the ones in deckbuilding before a game begins to navigating the various matchups and then the individual, unique scenarios that can occur from game to game," said the recently graduated high school senior. "I am very competitive by nature and that translated to Magic very well."
Obviously, there can be some stigma attached to the Spike archetype, but Carter tries to model himself after one player in particular who manages to maintain the qualities of being a ferocious competitor while being a sterling ambassador for the game.
"I enjoy following Reid Duke not only his in-game qualities -- constant, clear communication, never conceding too early, and the confidence he brings to the table -- but for the kindness and civility he brings outside of the game, always being approachable and being an extremely positive figure to the community."
While the competitive aspects of Magic may have drawn him into the game, it was the community that kept him there. Carter describes himself as a man of many words and he has been able to find kindred souls all over the world always willing to discuss decks, plays, and general strategy about the game. Carter has played on one Pro Tour in his Magic career and it took him to Sydney, Australia for PT Eldritch Moon.
"There is not a more surreal experience than qualifying for a Pro Tour," reflected Carter on when he won an online RPTQ playing Shadows Over Innistrad Sealed Deck. "It had always been my dream to get there. I have watched every single Pro Tour diligently, and I wanted to play on that stage. Not even necessarily the feature match area -- I was a first timer -- but to be there and know that I made it."
One of the memories from that event that really stood out for Carter was playing against a player with no common spoken language between them. As someone who had never played on this stage before, that was something he had not anticipated and was momentarily nervous about. That quickly abated when both players were able to clearly communicate their way through the game largely on the basis of hand gestures. "We were still able to have a full blown 'conversation' through playing the game. That is a very unique thing to Magic."
While getting to the Pro Tour was amazing, Carter's favorite Magic memory is that Top 8 at the Modern Open in Columbus. After coming back from Australia, it seemed that Carter had lost his mojo. He had become accustomed to financing his SCG road trips with a reasonable number of cash finishes, but at the point where he had not cashed in almost a dozen events he was not sure he could continue to justify those weekend Magic excursions. And then, just like that, he was facing off against Kevin Jones in the Top 8 of the Open, the first such finish of his career.
"Words can't describe how much it meant. Sure, I had qualified for a Pro Tour, but I had never made the Top 8 of an event before. I was even the feature match for the quarterfinals. I had people from home -- who were not even Magic players -- tuning in to watch me play. The love you get for something like that is amazing."
With his Senior year of high school underway, Carter became aware of the Gamer's Helping Gamers program by watching sixteen-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Jon Finkel streaming the Holiday Cube on MTGO. Finkel was using the stream to drive donations and increase awareness of the program and Carter immediately threw himself into the application process.
"I enjoyed the application process as it gave me an opportunity to relive parts of my Magic career and also answer questions about the game that I had never thought of before, despite playing the game constantly for years," explained Carter. Subjects on the application range from least and most favorite mechanics to how players can apply lessons from Magic to real world situations. Carter's discussion of his love of cycling and his disdain for hexproof as well as his observations about the community's ability to solve problems through discourse impressed the selection committee and they gave him a four-year award.
"This is a unique, quantifiable merge between my academic and Magic lives," marveled Carter. Because I played Magic and created a career of sorts out of it, I was able to obtain a scholarship that will allow me to graduate debt free without obtaining a job, which therefore allows me to continue playing Magic -- when I am not entrenched in school work that is."
Community was a reoccuring theme while talking to Carter, and it came up again as he reflected on an older generation of Magic players and their generosity in the light of their success. Whether it was Gerry Thompson eBaying off his PT Amonkhet trophy for Planned Parenthood or Brian Kibler's announcement that he would be donating his -- and his teammates as well -- money to the ACLU and Gamers Helping Gamers.
"It is just amazing that (GHG) have created this opportunity where they can give back to Magic players. The game that provided for them at one point and now they are going to give back to it." It is incredible to see that from the Magic community."
With the stress of college tuition off his mind, Carter can now take the summer and enjoy himself which, of course, means playing Magic. He had a Vintage league all queued up to go on MTGO once we were done with our interview and plans to be at some permutation of SCG Indianapolis and Grand Prix Richmond. Make sure and say hello if you see him. He is always excited to talk about the game that has played such a big part in his life since the sixth grade and now on into college.
Clay Spicklemire is an eighteen-year old from Indianapolis who is among the youngest players to ever win an individual Grand Prix when he won GP Columbus at just sixteen years and two weeks old - playing Legacy, no less.
He's heading to the University of Alabama this fall where he plans to study engineering. He has a clear plan for the next four years and now has some financial maneuverability thanks to the award from Gamers Helping Gamers. But it was not too long ago that Clay's life was filled with day to day uncertainty and he had no idea what his future would hold.
"In October 2015, I got my first taste of Magic success when I top 8d my hometown Open in Indianapolis. I played poorly in my Top 8 match and lost, but that finish put "the fire" in me. Playing Magic against good opponents for thousands of dollars is exhilarating and addictive, and I was hooked," recalled Clay of one of the last good moments he could remember before his entire life was upheaved by a medical diagnosis. "Less than a month later, I was diagnosed with Stage III synovial sarcoma."
"Clay became ill very suddenly," said Tawn Parent Spicklemire, Clay's mom. Clay had not been feeling well and a trip to an urgent care center escalated to hospital to specialty hospital to a cancer diagnosis and being prepped for major surgery. "Overnight his whole world fell apart. The doctor said you are done with school for the year. When you are fifteen and school goes away in November for the entire year? Your life has no structure. He was in a number of extracurricular programs... and then suddenly everything was gone. And his whole life was cancer."
"The next seven months were riddled with fear, pain, and chaos. Virtually every aspect of my life was stripped away. I lost touch with many of my peers as they were clueless on how to react to my situation, not to mention the natural toll not attending school for six months has on relationships - friendships built on seeing each other in school every day," said Clay.
While many things changed for Clay, one thing remained a rock-solid anchor in his life -- Magic: The Gathering. Whether it was his local game store in Indianapolis, the constant outlet of Magic Online, or his new Magic playing friends he made in Chicago.
"The community was overwhelmingly supportive, with my local game store community of friends even teaming together to gift me a complete Modern Affinity deck, my favorite Modern deck at the time. They each signed one of the cards and gave it to me before I left to live in Chicago for a couple of months while receiving treatment at a specialized proton therapy radiation center. This was a touching act of kindness, and I'll never forget how selfless and meaningful it was."
"I came to be so so grateful for Magic. Before he got sick, I just saw it as some kind of a hobby, but I really started to see it as a community where people really cared about him where he was able to go and feel normal and welcomed," said his mother, who could not imagine what the battle would have been like without the lifeline of the game. "Magic Online was something he just kept doing throughout his entire illness. We would be in the hospital and as long as he felt up to it he was playing Magic. When everything else was gone from his life this was a way for him to feel smart, to be funny. To feel part of something and feel a shred of normalcy in the midst of this insane existence."
"In a time when I barely recognize myself in the mirror, Magic let me feel like I was still me. I'm not sure how I would've made it through without it," said Clay who began to avail himself of the LGS scene in Chicago when his immune system was strong enough to venture out. "In a world where most people saw a bald kid in a mask and looked away, acting as if I didn't exist, the Magic community did what so few others in my life did and treated me as a normal person. Playing in tournaments was one of the few things I could do to forget about everything happening to me and pretend everything was normal, to get lost in the game I love, if only for a moment."
With his extracurricular activities narrowed down to playing Magic Online in nearly every waking moment, Clay found that he was getting better and better at playing the game.
"My work paid off in June of 2016 when I won Grand Prix Columbus the week after my final cycle of chemotherapy. Winning in only my second Grand Prix the weekend after I finished chemo felt scripted, but words cannot describe how incredible and meaningful the experience was."
Clay's Grand Prix victory came just six years after he first learned how to play the game under the tutelage of his older brother. He took to the game immediately and was always attracted to the most competitive aspects of it. Clay started playing the game because it was fun but stayed with it because he liked to win. He enjoys pretty much every Magic format with the exception of Modern, but his absolute favorite is Team Sealed.
One of the key figures in Gamers Helping Gamers is also a player that Clay holds a lot of admiration for, largely because of the way he balances his life with playing the game.
"I really admire players like Jon Finkel who find success in Magic while also holding a full-time job. I don't see Magic in my future as a full-time job and plan to become an engineer, but the fact that the man widely accepted as the best to ever play our game is also a wildly successful hedge fund manager is truly inspiring."
Clay had filled out plenty of scholarship applications throughout his senior year of high school, but the Gamers Helping Gamers application was the only one that did not feel like a laborious homework assignment.
"I love talking, thinking, and writing about Magic, so answering open-ended questions about my favorite/least favorite aspects of Magic and what it means to me didn't feel like work at all. Writing these essays felt like talking to a friend about Magic on a road trip, not at all the dull, menial task applying for scholarships generally becomes."
Topics for the essays included discussing his favorite card, Cabal Therapy, how Magic illustrates the sunk-cost fallacy, and how cohesive teams are much more effective at solving problems than those people all working on their own. Much like fellow scholarship recipient Carter Newman, Clay had little time for the hexproof mechanic.
"It's a keyword that makes creatures all but impossible to interact with, and against decks trying to remove creatures it reduces the game to a simple spot-check of whether or not a player has one of the few answers to the creature or the game is generally over. Hexproof illustrates quite well one of my biggest complaints with Magic in general, which is when cards and mechanics don't lead to interactive games and instead just generate runaways in one direction or the other."
When the news came that Clay was one of this year's recipients Tawn -- who described herself as walking around with a ridiculous grin all day -- could not possibly have been prouder of her boy.
"It is like a football player winning a football scholarship," Tawn said with more than a quaver in her voice. "This is the thing that he loves most, more than any other school activity that he has done. For this to be the greatest joy and source of satisfaction -- and it really is an intellectual exercise for him -- it just felt very validating of all this work and time he had spent playing."
"This scholarship means that it isn't necessary for me to work as much as I had previously thought to afford the ever-increasing cost of college, and that extra time can be spent as a lab assistant, getting involved in extracurriculars -- or playing Magic!" grinned Clay. "I'm very thankful to have been chosen to be the beneficiary of this generous scholarship, and I hope I'll be able to contribute to Gamers Helping Gamers once I graduate to help make college affordable for another young Magic player."
Clay was already at orientation for school as we did this interview but was eager to spend some of his summer playing the game that has meant so much to him over these last few tumultuous years. Look for him at an SCG Tour® event somewhere soon. He will be the young man with the huge smile and the unruly mane of hair.
If you want to read about past winners of Gamers Helping Gamers scholarships you can find all the links here.