Interview With Misty Mountain Legionnaire
If you're anything like me you make checking StarCityGames.com a routine. Sometimes you can catch the next day's articles the night before depending on how much of a night owl you are. Other times I log on and read through the articles that catch my eye before I start my workday. But some people just don't have that kind of time.
Steve Port is one of the biggest tournament organizers in the game and the head of Legion Events and Legion Supplies as well as the owner of Misty Mountain Games and Legion Games. Over the years he's watched the rise of the Midwest Magicscene as Chapin Hron Maher Sullivan Kowal Severa and others captured Pro Tours and Grand Prix on their way to the occasional Hall of Fame ring. He saw the slow decline as players moved and teams broke up and he was there when Brad Nelson Owen Turtenwald and Matthias Hunt decided to shift the focus back to the North Dakota Wisconsin Minnesota and Illinois area.
It's not hard to see why he is one of those people who just can't wait for the home page to load. I asked him to describe a typical day. He decided to go ahead and share "one of the easy ones."
"I got up at 3:45 AM to make my flight back home from PAX East in Boston where I ran retail for WotC at their show booth. Got home around 11 AM Central time. Had something to eat watched this week's episode of Game of Thrones then Lindsey headed out to get our daughter from her folks who live in Sioux Falls and I went to work. [I] loaded my email up deleted all the stuff I had handled from the road already then [I] started collating numbers."
That's all in the first few moments of his day. Then of course he "responded to a few distributor questions regarding upcoming orders for Legion Supplies" before he "updated both LegionEvents.com and LegionSupplies.com pages with some info that needed changing."
Afterwards he "crunched some data from sales figures from the PAX weekend. Had a few emails back and forth with the various manufacturers of the goods I was selling at PAX." And "a few emails with the WotC North American territory manager."
He doesn't seem to get a lot of breaks but he was able to "eat supper and play with my daughter for a couple hours after they got home at 6 [until] she went to bed at 8." But then it's "back to the computer for some emails with Konami regarding a Yu-Gi-Oh! event I was running while also out at PAX." Even though he had someone to take his place at that event he still has to do all the paperwork.
He does try to make time "throughout the day" to read up on recent events or "check in on Facebook." And he was able to "watch the WotC panels from PAX for both D&D and Magic…while [he] was doing all those other things" since he hadn't been able to catch them live.
"Oh and I took a little nap for about 15 minutes when I hit a wall around 4 PM brought on by my less than four hours of sleep."
Of course the end result is that he still had to "talk to my insurance company about insurance for the Madison store…because my current company is not servicing Wisconsin anymore apparently."
No one starts out that busy of course. It has been a long road from playing Blood Bowl league games in Pewaukee WI.
When he first started in retail gaming "A few stores had come and gone." In particular "most recently" at the time "some friends bought a store called 'The Realm' from another couple of friends who had bought it from ANOTHER guy that originally started it."
Unfortunately "They didn't have much luck with it and it went under real quick once they took over. So a bunch of people started poking me that I should open a store mostly because the weekly Wednesday night Magic night had been a fixture in Madison since early 1994 [and] was currently meeting in the basement of the apartment building...the middle owner of 'The Realm'… lived in."
More and more players encouraged him to try and then Don Schamunn the apartment owner whose home was being invaded by mid-90s versions of Michael Cera mentioned the idea of Steve hanging his shingle.
As Steve says "He was one of the ones pushing hard for me to give it a go since I already knew everyone. I opened that first store on a shoestring…The Magic community kept us floating that first year til we started getting other crowds in."
A lot of players dream of having a job working in the Magic industry so of course I asked him how he managed to get so involved. As it happened "[he] was running events part time doing PTQs and Prereleases for a few years before [he] opened the store." But he also revealed that it involved: "Right time. Right place. Hard work. And a lot of luck."
He admitted that "when [he] opened the store [he] knew jack about retail. [He is] an electromechanical tech by trade [and he] had a job working on mail sorting machines at the time."
Instead he took advantage of the resources he had. As he told me "I have a lot of great staff who all do their jobs well." He "enable[s] them to do their jobs and [tries] to get out of the way." At least a part of the biggest accomplishments within his organization is "finding good [people] and keeping them engaged."
And he "certainly thinks Madison was a good boiler for what we ended up doing." With the competitive scene in place Steve was able to grow not only his business but his reputation. He is able to namedrop Bob Maher Brian Kowal Adrian Sullivan Mike Hron and a half a billion others with a nonchalance that speaks to the incredible number of stars to emerge from the Midwest Magic cauldron.
In fact he got into organizing tournaments because "someone was complaining about having to drive to Chicago for PTQs when we had so many good players up here." It only made sense that as Steve explained "We started trying to figure out how to get a PTQ up here."
Thanks to his experience "running events for a non-profit group we called 'SPAM' a weekly meeting for Magic out in Sun Prairie WI" that was "super casual" and "lots of fun" Steve helped grow the Madison scene into a home for innovation and tournament quality.
Steve does admit that "things are cyclical." To him "The focus has shifted a little farther north." As he tells it "Owen's killing it. Matthias Hunt came out of nowhere as far as most of the world is concerned. While it's a stretch to call Brad Nelson 'one of my guys' [since] he's really from well into North Dakota and hasn't played at too many of my events… It's a pretty sick brag to say this year's Player of the Year and last year's Player of the Year are from my neck of the woods and this year's Rookie of the Year is just slapped on that for the brag cherry on top."
Much like the game itself the competitive scene in the upper Midwest grew from a tabletop atmosphere to one of the centers for cutthroat technology deck design and development. The region has never lost its flair for the original flavor of the game though. Five-Color probably the first "big deck" casual format quickly spread through word of mouth and its irresistible fun factor.
Deck tech and innovation grew as deep as the corn and Legion Events grew with it.
I asked him what he saw as LGS' role in Magic. "It's huge. I've always thought so and always worked hard to foster relationships with stores. I've always preached the 'rising boat' theory of business. I don't want more of the pie… I want a bigger pie. Period. I try to live it not just preach it."
But of course business can create conflict just as his success with his stores fostered an extremely fertile ground for bringing up new Pro Tour champions by forging them in a crucible of top-flight competition. He admitted "I certainly haven't always been able to get along with everyone; sometimes you just can't. But I think I did a pretty good job of keeping myself available as a resource for the stores in my areas."
And his growth has made a lot of new things possible and even bridged some of the retail gaps. "One of the coolest things that's happened to me in a long time just happened out in Vegas for the GAMA Trade show. I was out there pimping the Legion Supplies stuff for the first time at a [show] and Jason Webster the owner of Monster Den and Dreamers in Minneapolis stopped by."
They "were chatting a bit and out of the blue he told me he wanted to say thanks for being good for the community." For Steve "It was pretty jaw dropping. Jason is a super nice guy and we've always gotten along despite me having a lock on PTQs and Prereleases for a while. He obviously wanted a chunk of that if he could get it but knew it wasn't his to have at the time and was just happy that I was running strong events educating players and sending them back out into the community."
The structure and success of Magic's tournament organization is impressive. For players who remember barely competent bring-your-own-judge Swiss slugfests in old YMCA racquetball courts the depth of Wizards' commitment to improvement is astonishing. Steve explained "I truly believe that organized play makes us all better."
But he did caution that everyone needs to be "working towards the same goal." If "you throw a bad apple in there" that only cares about "short term gain" the end result "can be brutal on a market." Unfortunately he said "I've seen it kill a lot of environments."
The state of the game is overall positive though. "Our players are awesome and our store owners are awesome." For Steve hearing Jason give him credit for the current level of the community was "touching and humbling. In his eyes "It's not just me." It is owners like Jason too. "And Angelo at Universe and the guys up at the Source and at Outpost and down in Madison it's Pegasus and Netherworld…and it's everyone getting along and trying to make the community better which has this unusual side effect of making us all more money."
As the money flows in and events continue to grow in size the logistics become more difficult to handle. "The events business has changed. Four years ago I was running six to eight Prereleases and nine to twelve PTQs a year plus a ton of events for other companies." But "now all that has shifted to store focus." The Events branch "doesn't run PTQs anymore; Misty Mountain and Legion Games do. It might seem like a non-distinction to some. But it's pretty huge."
There was a benefit when "Wizards changed from PTO-based to store-based and though I own the stores and could really just elect to do all that myself it turns out I don't really have the time. Between the Grand Prix the Supplies biz (which has just been phenomenal) and now the retail gig at the big Cons this year… I'm busier than ever."
That means that "kicking the PTQs to the store managers to run was a decision I had to make for the good of the event. I couldn't give them the time I used to and this is really the direction Wizards wants to go with them anyway."
He enjoys the idea of getting "the actual stores directly involved in this stuff and getting them pumped about running [events]."
"I said before we've always had it good. Most guys around here got that what I was doing for Wizards directly benefited them. But it's not like that in lots of places. So this is a way to directly and in the short term reward stores for pumping up OP."
Without the pressure of running store-level events Steve has time to worry about problems at his larger events. One of the worst side effects of the scope of most Grand Prix size tournaments is the issue of theft. I asked him what he thought about the recent outbreaks.
"Man most of that is education. Big events are so chaotic and exciting. It's so easy to lose track of your stuff." He is quick to point out "We have really low theft rates at my events. I hope some of that is education. I always encourage people to turn in things they find that went AWOL."
"I remind them to be diligent with their stuff and not to trust their friends because friends don't think about your bag when they get up and walk away from the table."
He has a few other pieces of advice. "Put your leg through a strap of your bag. Don't bring your whole collection. And just be aware. Be aware. And not just of you and your stuff. Just see. Your peers will appreciate it if you notice that their backpack has drifted a little behind them when they are playing and you tap them on the shoulder and say 'Is that your bag?'"
"As a community we are the best possible resource to stop the thieving that goes on at these events. It doesn't matter how many off duty cops I hire to walk a Grand Prix; if we don't watch our own stuff it won't matter at all."
Bigger tournaments more money and a real pro lifestyle mean that Steve and his burgeoning business aren't going anywhere. In ten years he hopes that "the stores Misty Mountain and Legion Games will still be selling games and serving the gamer community."
As for the events side it's a "tough question." He would like to "still be organizing larger events. I really enjoy it and it seems to be my calling. I didn't find out what I wanted to do for a living til I started doing it full time in 2001. So I'll do what it takes to keep doing it!"
In the end "Magic will still be here in 10 years." As for Steve he told me that there is "no reason to think I won't still be kicking around doing what I'm doing!"
Ben is glad that table judges aren't just contracted out from the NBA officials' pool. That would be terrible. Although dodging a game loss even after you punch your opponent in the face has potential. It's just bad potential. For more good things check out wherethemeatcomesfrom.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter. Or both. LeBron James wants you to do both and we all know how the whistle blows.