Being good at Magic requires a great many traits. Being successfull at Magic (or, at least, high level tournament Magic) is an entirely different beast, and requires a few more. This week I’m going to try to shed some light on how to be successful at being successful. This article is going to have a lot of name drops, and a little history, so sit back, and enjoy the show.
And take notes. You know that you never get to watch a movie in class without taking notes. That’s just unheard of.
It came to my attention last week that I never did a proper introduction. I come from Alaska, the land of Eskimos, Polar Bears, and 5 round PTQs.
Yeah, it’s nice.
I grew up as a curler. You know, that ice sport on the Olympics with the cute girls and the crazy Norwegian pants? I’ve swept a lot of ice in my day, hence Matt Sperling’s ingenious column title for me. I would travel every year to Minnesota or Wisconsin and compete in Nationals. We won in 2002 and I got to go to Worlds.
"What about Magic?" you ask. "What does all this matter?" you ask.
First of all, curling is awesome. But more relevantly, I guess, it is how I learned to network.
I started playing Magic during the Tempest and 5th edition era. We would battle during lunch breaks at middle school, or talk about our awesome "white deck" or "dragon deck" between classes. We even played after church. My friend Jake and I started going to tournaments once we thought we were hot stuff, which basically means once we realized that blue was the best. We took our sweet "blue deck", with Arcane Laboratory, Capsize, Forbid, and "unreal Peregrine Drake" (it’s FREE!) to an extended tournament and got absolutely slaughtered. Prosperous Bloom combo decks, Winter Orb decks, Sligh decks, oh my. Our world was opening.
My poker friends have a saying. Actually, they have a lot of sayings, but this one is relevant here, so I will use it.
"It begins with one."
That tournament was the beginning for me. I was hooked. And for the next five years, I read articles, I built decks on my bed when my parents thought I was sleeping because I had finals the next morning, I thought about Magic on the bus, in class, and even in the shower. I started spending more and more time at tournaments, talking with people there, actively trying to get better. It took a long time, because I was still just a kid, but everyone who was better than me was helping.
Successful tournament tip number one: Work.
US Nationals 2004: I had made the finals of Regionals with the Mono-Red Skullclamp Goblins deck, and I was ecstatic. I spent the entire summer testing with my partner in crime at the time (check out that rhyme), Kit. We probably had over 250 man hours into that tournament. We came out of the tank with a deck that was 4 cards different than the deck that won it all. I had no connections, minimal skill, and yet I still Ball Lightning‘d it (went 6-1), but unfortunately didn’t know how to draft, and Wall of Reverence‘d that part. (lesson one point five: don’t ignore an entire format of a multi-format event)
Successful tournament tip number two: NETwork
This goes back to what I was talking about a bit ago, but the only way you can get better is to surround yourself with people who are better. I started by going to those first few tournaments, then I started winning them. Then I started going to tournaments elsewhere in the state. After a few years, I was consistently winning anything I touched in Alaska. But every time I left the state, I was back to getting slaughtered. I got frustrated because there weren’t a lot of opportunities and I wanted to make the most of them. I used MSN for my instant messaging service, but kept finding out that everyone in the continental US used AIM. After another failed Pro Tour, I finally decided to jump ship so that I could talk to all the Magic minds out there.
I feel like networking is the actual most important thing any tournament player can do in the long run, and it is one that so many people fail to put any effort into.
Some tips on networking:
1. Put yourself out there, they don’t bite: a lot of players are afraid to approach magic pros like they would be afraid to actively converse with, say, Kobe or Lebron about how they can improve their own basketball game. Magic players aren’t like that, and the ones that are? Well, they aren’t worth talking to in the first place, and you’ll find out real fast. I met LSV in the middle of his co-dominance with Neon Cheon, and the guy could not have been more social and welcoming. I met the Sliver Kids, Chris Lachmann and Jake Van Lunen, during the same time, and they took it one further. I played both of them during GP San Jose (which Luis coincidentally won, the master), and they invited me and my friends to come out drinking with them. I jumped at the chance, and at the time I thought it was just super generous and thoughtful of them, I have come to realize they are just awesome dudes who happen to be degenerates alcoholics. Just like all of us really.
2. Ask questions: These players are good for a reason. They know stuff. This is why you are trying to talk to them. Take what they give you and process it, because it will be useful.
3. But not stupid questions: Don’t treat them like celebrities, they don’t really like it. At least, most of them don’t. Even if they do, all that does is feed their ego, and they will never see you as an equal, because you are presenting yourself as inferior. Talk about lines of play instead of telling some bad beat story. Ask "why?" instead of "what?". Ask what is important in a matchup, or how it plays out, instead of asking "does it beat X, or Y?". By the same token, if you are looking for advice on your sweet new brew, and they ask you "how’s your Jund matchup?", don’t say "it’s sixty forty". Elaborate, explain why things play out the way they do, or cards that you feel are important tactically. These things are much more open to discussion than just stating numbers.
4. Be memorable, but genuine: This can be done in any number of ways, but it mostly comes down to bringing something to the table they haven’t seen before. Adam Yurchick once told me he thought I was the happiest guy he had ever seen, that I’m always having a great time, and I always have a giant smile on my face, even when things are going badly. To me, this is simply because Magic tournaments are incredibly fun places to be, and I love seeing all of my friends that I have met because of the game. The next time you see Cedric Phillips, ask him if he’s "got a guy on the inside, see?" in your best 1940′s mobster voice. That’s the kind of impression you should make on people. Don’t ask Owen Turtenwald though, he might hit you. I wouldn’t want that.
5. Contribute: Nobody likes a leech (except those crazy Jund players). Magic players are always looking for input. If you can provide some of that input, with ability to defend your stances, they will be a lot more likely to reciprocate in a positive fashion.
Successful tournament tip number three: Play a real deck
Way too many people forget this one. I have made this mistake personally at three of the Pro Tours (Gerry would say 4) I’ve attended. And I missed day 2 by one match each time. If I had played a real deck, I might have made it. I’ve played 5 Pro Tours, and finished 4-4 at each one.
In the first one, Pro Tour Honolulu (the first), I played the Orzhov Control deck played by many of the Americans. I decided audible at the last second because I was afraid of playing Heartbeat of Spring in a room full of Cranial Extraction. The list I had been developing was 3 cards different than the 75 that Max Bracht used to Top 8 the tournament. Play a real deck.
At Pro Tour Yokohama, I played the Wild Pair Sliver deck I had been working on, because I thought White Weenie would be everywhere, so I shelved my version of the RG big mana deck that had a stellar record against the Teachings decks that were actually everywhere. Two of those red-green decks made Top 8. Where did I finish? 4-4. Play. A real. Deck.
Brief Aside: While in line for registering at this tournament, I was chatting with a friend about how the PTQ I won was 14 players (yes really), and the guy in front of me, Davin Frankoski if I remember his name correctly, was understandably baffled. We got to talking, and he didn’t have a hotel, so we let him stay in our room, and ended up hanging out with him the whole rest of the week. End Aside.
At Pro Tour Honolulu, the second, I played All in Red. I didn’t have a clue what Dark Depths was coming into the tournament, but I stayed with Brad Nelson, Chris Lachmann, Steve Sadin (Steve Sadin is actually the reason my nickname is Alaska, because they couldn’t distinguish us verbally) and crew, so I learned about it quickly. But I played All-In Red. Play a REAL DECK.
I see this problem in legacy so often, but that’s an entire other article on its own. I’ll sum up, to all (read: most of) you legacy players out there: PLAY A REAL DECK FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. That is all.
My Magic journey has taken me many places, and made me so many friendships over the years. And yet, there is still nowhere to go but up. Join me for the flight, there’s plenty of room.
business_socks on MODO