What Is Winning?
What does it mean to win?
I have always struggled to answer this question for myself but never tackled it head on. "More important" questions would always take up the majority of my time.
I started thinking about this same question a couple of days ago when I was on a long car ride by myself. I was just listening to random songs on my iPod when “Chase This Light” by Jimmy Eat World started playing.
To most of you this wouldn't mean anything. It would just be another song. But I have a huge emotional attachment to this song. "Chase This Light" plays in the background on the episode of The Magic Show that featured US Nationals 2009. This was a very big tournament for me personally and also a very big moment in my professional Magic career.
I made my first professional Top 8 at US Nationals 2009 where I finished in fourth place. This finish qualified me for Worlds that year and since I was already qualified for the next Pro Tour I was practically a lock to get on the train and to play Magic on the professional stage for a whole year and a half.
At the time this was just a pure win. I took ninth place in my very first Pro Tour and followed it up with a fourth-place finish at Nationals. I had fourteen Pro Points under my belt and some much-needed cash. I was playing Magic and doing well.
It wasn't until I had dinner with Patrick Chapin right after the Top 8 of Nationals that anything else came to surface from this experience.
At the time I was just the new kid on the block that some pro players would whisper about. I think Chapin was a bit curious and wanted to get a chance to meet me so he tagged along with Brian Kowal and me for a bite to eat. We talked about Magic and broke the ice before returning to the site.
I remember this moment very vividly. We were taking an escalator back down to the ground floor when he stopped me instantly and asked me one of the most important questions I have ever been asked in my life.
“What do you think is going on here?”
I didn't put much thought into what he meant by this so I just answered with "We are playing in a Magic tournament?” He just kind of chuckled as any veteran would when a rookie makes a simple mistake. He then said: "It's much bigger than that.”
I had never really taken the time to see the big picture before this. I always just went day to day and tried to accomplish short-term goals along the way. I wanted to play Magic professionally so I just kept playing until I became good enough to start winning. How could there be a bigger thing going on? I was just winning games of Magic after all. Is there more to Magic than winning?
This was the first time this question ever truly took shape for me but I stopped thinking about it when I got back to the site and was greeted by endless congratulations from my friends. Chapin's conversation quickly became a forgotten part of my Nationals experience...
I was and still am an avid Magic Show fan. I've always loved Evan's tournament videos and would especially love this one since I did well at the event. That next Friday I saw Charles Gindy Adam Yurchick Todd Anderson and myself playing out the top 4 and walking to take pictures with “Chase This Light” playing in the background.
I instantly got goose bumps the first time I saw this video and I couldn't help but smile. I had struggled for so long to get on the Pro Tour and not only did I setup a great foundation for a couple years of playing but there was an amazing video of me doing it.
Winning gave me happiness economic stability networking a job and a new amazing lifestyle. Winning was amazing!
Winning is the life force that drives this game. It's the reason we do one more late-night draft even though we know we should go to sleep and it's what compels us to drive 300 miles at the break of dawn to play in that qualifier tournament.
The reason for this is that almost every person plays games for one reason. They want to win. It's very hard for me to understand why people say that a game is just a game. Every game has a winner and a loser and everything about winning is better than losing. There are very few games in the world that people would willingly play if they did not have a chance to win.
In my mind these newfound victories validated all of the hard work I had put in over the previous couple years when I was trying to break into the pro scene. All of my hard work finally amounted to something and I no longer felt like I was wasting time energy and money on Magic.
Validation is one of the most important things a Magic player has in their arsenal. It is a tool that we all use from time to time to stay sane—making sure that something good comes out of a weekend even if our predetermined goals are not accomplished. Validation helps when times get tough.
Competitive tournaments can be a very depressing place for many players. Players go into them with thoughts of winning or accomplishing certain goals but it's much harder to actually go and achieve them. This means that most players in an event will feel some sense of disappointment.
Feeling disappointment is not the reason why we started playing this game. We started playing to find fun laughter excitement and friends… not for results. To now have results dictate our overall happiness at a tournament can be one of the most tilting experiences of a person's life.
The most depressing tournaments of all are Pro Tour Qualifiers. 100-300 people show up to these events and spend 25 dollars or more; the majority of them only care about the first-place prize. This is a chance to go play on the Pro Tour but only one person leaves with an invitation.
This is a dream that has filled all of our heads at one point or another. There's nothing wrong with this because Pro Tours are amazing events and you don't even realize why they are so good until you've played in them. The sad thing is that not that many players will ever get the chance.
This is just how the game goes. I would never have dreamed of becoming a professional golfer when I was growing up even though I spent day and night at the golf course. I knew I did not have the raw talent to achieve these goals. However I knew I could play against the best of the best in Magic and that goal seemed more attainable to me.
Magic is obviously the best game we've ever played and it's our favorite—but it still does not make it that big in the grand scheme of things. Whether you're playing casually at Friday Night Magic competitively or professionally Magic connects us so closely that we all blend in to one group of players. It's a small tight-knit scene.
It's easy to imagine yourself playing on a Pro Tour and doing what you see Pros do. Did you know that two years ago I was one of LSV's biggest barns and fans?
I was one of these PTQ grinders for many years so I remember this part of my life very well. I was going to as many PTQs as I could but I never managed victory. At this point in my life winning meant getting to the Pro Tour and anything less was a major disappointment. After countless hours of testing nothing but a box a Top 8 pin and a long car ride home to show for it was just devastating.
I validated my continuing to grind because I thought I'd inevitably win a Qualifier. However I slowly began to feel doubt that I was good enough to make it to the Pro Tour—I needed to invest more time and energy to get there. I was sacrificing a lot of important things in my life to achieve these goals. Winning led me to develop a very unstable lifestyle.
I hear stories all the time that are very similar to mine.
This is what I always thought winning was but it is so much more.
After I actually made it and considered myself a Pro I was able to see things a bit more clearly and see the big picture that Chapin asked me about at Nationals. The funny thing is I didn't learn what he meant until the following year's National tournament.
This was last year's Nationals in Minneapolis—a very important tournament for me. It took place on local soil and I had made Top 8 of the Grand Prix held in Minneapolis the year before. It felt so good to do well with all of my local friends around so I wanted to do it again.
I did end up in Top 8—but the excitement was not there. I had just Top 8ed the last three major events and also won a Magic Online Championship Qualifier. It was as if it was old hat and as a consequence didn't mean that much to me.
This all changed when my brother Corey Baumeister ran over to me while I was filling out my Top 8 profile and shouted "I took tenth!" He was so excited that he placed well and even though he didn't qualify for Worlds and even though the Pro Points didn't matter to him at the point he was genuinely happy with his finish.
Corey finished two slots behind me in standings and missed Top 8 entirely yet he was ten times happier at that moment than I was.
Why was that?
Was our definition of winning different? Is winning relative? I understand that it is foolish of me to not have fully understood this earlier but that is just how I had lived my life. I had projected my own wants goals and needs on other people. I had assumed that the people around me shared my values.
This idea really hit home the next day. I lost to David Ochoa in the Top 8 and it was emotionally crippling. I really wanted to be on the National team that year. The previous year I was happy with fourth even though I missed making the team there as well—because I just wanted to qualify for Worlds.
David went on to lose two in a row as I did the year prior but Josh Utter-Leyton went on the win it all. I knew that David and I weren't happy with our finishes but Josh was also disappointed in the outcome of the event when I asked him how he felt about winning the tournament.
I didn't understand what the problem was. He won the whole event. Josh was our new National champion. That is a title only given out once a year to the winner of one of the toughest tournaments around. He told me one of the most amazing statements I have ever heard with regards to Magic.
“Your feelings toward an event are influenced mostly by how the last round finished.” This is so true and even though he won the event he had to watch David lose ten minutes later; he would not have one of his good friends as a teammate for Worlds. This made his victory a little less exciting.
How could my brother be happier with tenth place than I was with making Top 8?
How could I be happy with fourth place one year and then know for a fact that David Ochoa was disappointed with the same finish the very next year?
How could the winner of a tournament have any regrets?
These two Nationals experiences really made me think about the question of what is winning. Two different situations with the same results cause different emotional states and the same situation with different results caused the same emotional state. This was festering in my brain but I had no time to process it because Pro Tour Amsterdam was the very next week.
Now I have time to process this information and yet I am still at a loss. Tournaments are a very big part of my life which makes winning very important to me. Winning allows me to continue playing Magic professionally. It allows me to continue traveling to events and it allows me to pay my rent. This really scares me because it sets me up for disappointment when I'm not winning when I do poorly at Pro Tours when I'm not filling out Top 8 profiles.
This is not what winning actually is. But nonetheless these are the pressures I put on myself when I'm competing. Competitions have winners and losers and everything about winning is better than losing—so winning is the only option that makes sense. By thinking about things “logically” I end up putting pressure on myself in situations that would otherwise be pressure free.
I have always viewed winning as something that I obtain with success. This created a pressure I could never quite escape from. Every time I start to do poorly at events it's because I become overwhelmed by this self-inflicted pressure to win. Once I realize what's going on I take a step back—go back to my roots and just try to play as well as I can. I just play good Magic and see what happens. The overwhelming pressure to win goes away because it becomes something that I have control over.
This way of thinking has always produced the best results for me. I change the definition of 'winning' from winning the tournament to just playing great Magic and making sure that I have fun at every event. I work on the areas I can control and ignore the things I can't change. I try not to let variance take away from my experience in getting better at the game and being a part of this amazing journey.
I do this more subconsciously than anything. It is more of a defense mechanism when times are getting tough and stress builds up. It's great that my body can be so smart when I am not.
The best example of this was Grand Prix DC last year. I had just spent a few months working on my game but I did not want to fall into the same trap of expecting something from my hard work. Instead I decided to just try to play the best Magic I could. I went all out and even forgot how many rounds were left or even my record towards the end of Sunday. I was just looking to do my best and that attitude helped get me to a first-place finish. I did get a bit lucky to make Top 8 since I snuck in on breakers but I still was able to finish off 6-0 in the last six rounds of a very long event by taking it one round at a time.
Winning a tournament is not the only way to be winning. The sad thing is I knew this right when I started playing Magic but it got lost when I found out about competitive play. I'm jealous of casual players because they get to see the game as a fun way to relax and spend time with friends. It must be nice to not feel a constant pressure.
Magic is the biggest it has ever been. There are so many more players than ever before and businesses have created new tournament series to fill the demand. The StarCityGames.com Open Series is a prime example. This is a great tournament series that allows people to play Pro Tour–like events right in their backyards. They have many of the same elements as the Pro Tour such as points cash prizes and Pros—just like on the big stage. Next year there will probably be a big tournament every weekend of the year. This will give everyone access to play in major events consistently—more chances at the glory and fame that other great players have.
But don't let winning the event you're playing be the only thing you see. Playing great Magic is truly the most important thing when it comes to this game. I have watched the worst Magic I have ever seen in the finals of a Pro Tour and yet played the best Magic of my life in a foreign pub. It doesn't matter if it is at a tournament or a kitchen table winning is when you are playing your best. It took me far too long to realize this.
What do you think is going on here?