I’m not a terribly competitive person. There’s a reason that I spend most of my weekends officiating roller derby instead of actually playing it. This is also why I prefer to play cooperative games like Dungeons & Dragons, Castle Panic, Forbidden Island, and Sentinels of the Multiverse. I also love me a good escape room. Gaming for me is for socialization and building friendships; I find that easiest when we all work towards a common goal. Then, why oh why did I sign up to compete in the main event at Magic Grand Prix Portland 2018? This was a professional level Magic: The Gathering tournament with a $50,000 grand prize and an invitation to the next Magic Pro Tour on the line, and regular old me just kinda said YOLO. Why would I do this to myself? That’s a spectacular question.
Love of the Game
Let’s be real here: I love playing Magic. I came back to the game after a years-long hiatus in 2016, and I’ve been obsessive about it ever since. Magic has been a part of my life in some way, shape, or form since I was a child playing with cards on the pavement at recess; it’s a piece of my soul. When I was young, I used to dream about playing on the Magic Pro Tour, a premiere series of tournaments showcasing the best Magic players in the world. Most of the all-time greats have just a handful of Pro Tour quarterfinals appearances and fewer than three Pro Tour wins. Their journeys mostly started where I sat last weekend: attending Grand Prix tournaments across the globe trying to make enough cash to pay the rent and hopefully win that invite to the Pro Tour.
I would be lying if I said that the fantasy of me taking down Grand Prix Portland didn’t cross my mind. The image on the left is a page that I ripped out of The Duelist magazine back in seventh grade; it remains the cover to my trade binder to this very day. I was obsessed with qualifying as a kid, and too scared to pursue it. Magic is an expensive hobby, and when you start playing at 11 (like I did) you rely on parents to drive you to tournaments and buy cards. We didn’t grow up poor, but we weren’t rich so it always felt irresponsible to ask my parents to bankroll my dream of playing pro Magic. I guess you can say that I’m making up for lost time, and seizing control of a dream nearly forgotten.
I can technically say that I’ve been playing Magic for over 20 years. Realistically, it’s more like 10 since my relationship with the game is on-again/off-again. I’m currently in the midst of an “on again” phase and really enjoying myself. However, I am under absolutely no illusions that I am an exceptional player, or even a great one. I’m good, but nothing special. For me, Magic is more about the social connections and interactions it yields rather than the results. Sure, I like to win, but as long as I enjoy playing the game it’s time well spent for me. I did not come to Grand Prix Portland realistically expecting to walk away with a trophy. The expectation was to have fun.
I work nights (which prevents me from attending game nights at local stores) and prefer to play in paper (I spend enough money purchasing cards to invest separately in MTGO), so I had precious little time to practice with my deck for the main event. However, these setbacks helped frame my state of mind for reasonable expectations. I went into the main event with one goal: win just one of my best-of-three rounds. There was no pressure to qualify for Sunday and no conjecture of how well I should perform. I went in and just did what I love to do: play Magic and meet new people.
I don’t get to play very often, so when I do I try my best to learn something new. What I learn isn’t particularly important to me, whether it’s about the deck I played, how to read my opponents, or what lines were optimal in each situation; I just want to learn something. And oh boy, did I learn a ton. As the day went on, I felt more in tune with the pilot that my deck needed me to be. I learned what risks to take, when to hold back, and what counter-strategies worked best against certain opponents. The more I played, the better equipped I felt to handle the games and play to my strengths.
Did I make more than my fair share of dumb mistakes? Yes. But did I make a lot of smart, well-thought out plays that resulted in pressure and wins? Also yes. I walked out of the convention center at the end of the day feeling like I grew as a player. Sure, I paid a hefty entrance fee, but after 8 matches comprising of 22 games I felt that it was money well spent for the amount that I learned. I am hungry to play more in a competitive setting. Do I want to be a tournament grinder? Not really. I just want to get better at a game that I enjoy playing.
My goal was to win any one of the eight matches that I was guaranteed to play in. A match at these large MTG tournaments pits two players of equal win-loss record against each other in a best-of-three games series. My goal was to get one match win; I walked out with three. My overall record for matches on the day was 3 wins and 5 losses. I was especially proud that each match I lost went to game 3, meaning that I was good enough to avoid losing any series in a two-game sweep.
Since each match can contain up to 3 individual games, I also tracked my win-loss record in individual games played. Among all 8 matches, I played 22 individual games of Magic, and walked out with 11 wins and 11 losses. A 50% win-rate. Not bad for my first crack at a professional level tournament; I was ecstatic. I played against higher skilled competition and managed to win some games. Nothing feels better as a player than to surpass your own expectations. Now I have a baseline to compare to for next time, and the desire to improve.
Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from the tournament was the feeling of community. We play Magic. Every last one of us is an awkward social being, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to connect with the person we play against. It’s quite strange to simultaneously try to beat the person you just met, but also develop a kinship with them. It’s like competitive speed dating. People I played on Saturday said hi to me when I returned Sunday as just a fan. We talked shop and shared stories about how the rest of our day went on Saturday. It felt nice to know that some people cared about how you did; instant camaraderie!
One moment that will stick with me for a while was my opponent in round 4. We had a grueling game 3, which he ultimately won. After the match, he shook my hand and told me that I made the match enjoyable above and beyond the gameplay experience. He said I was a good player and also a good person to play against. I thought I was just being a good neighbor. This opponent plays at this level most weekends, and has probably seen his fair share of sore losers or people who lock in on the game instead of the person across the table. I learned that one of my strengths as a player is my ability to engage and make a game enjoyable. I don’t even remember the guy’s name, but I’ll remember that moment for a long time.
My first high-level tournament was nowhere near glitzy or glamourous as my crazy fantasies imagined. However, having fun and learning made it worth the time and money. Will I do this again? I think so. I have no illusions of becoming a traveling pro Magic player. However, my extroverted nature got fed to its heart’s content. Playing Magic is a great way for me to just talk to and connect with people. Putting myself in a situation to connect with new people over a beloved hobby solidified my positive experience. I am not a terribly competitive person, but wanting to make connections with new people helped me accept the competition in a brand new light. I realized how much I miss going to a local game store and spellslinging for an afternoon or evening. This tournament reignited a piece of myself that’s been missing for a long time.
I’m not here to compete; I’m here to connect. If that means we match wits for 50 minutes, then I’ll bring my A-game and we’ll match wits. If it means that I reconnect with my crazy dream as a kid being on the Pro Tour, then I will ride that dream. At the end of the day, playing good games with good people, learning from my experience, and fulfilling lifelong ambitions is worth more than a winning record any day of the week.