When people ask me what I do for a living, I sometimes tell them that I’m a journalist. This isn’t entirely true, of course, but it beats trying to explain to the uninitiated that I spend some twenty-odd weekends a year as a reporter covering Magic events.
More accurate may be for me to say that I work in online marketing, and this beats all in that it doesn’t invite further questions. Everyone knows online marketing exists, no one knows what it is, and no one asks for fear of appearing old. Specifically, people never ask how a person makes a living off of that. When trying to rent an apartment, for instance, I’ve found that landlords will readily accept online marketing, whereas journalism gets me marked for quick elimination. This was especially true for my time in Berlin, a city increasingly gentrified on new-media money.
A Short History Lesson
When I started this job, my colleagues and I still referred to event coverage as online journalism, opposed to our work done for print. One of them, Hanno Terbuyken, eventually graduated from university with an actual degree in journalism, worked at an actual newspaper, and has long since graduated from Magic for a full-time position at a serious publication. It’s an internet-only venture, but the difference between journalism and online journalism had already become obsolete by the time he signed the contract.
Back in the day, coverage meant written coverage and live coverage meant sending in a new blog post every round. Feature match reports used to give the play-by-play, which is as tedious to write as it is to read. Nowadays, if written reports exist at all, they aim to focus on the big picture, the crucial turn of a game, or the overarching theme of the matchup.
When text coverage first shifted away from feature matches, which began even before the advent of wide-spread video coverage, there was a lot of grumbling among readers. Feature matches always got the worst numbers click-wise, yet people always clamored for more of them. A bit like fancy cuisine gone awry, which leaves you with a two-pronged albeit paradoxical disappointment à la: This was so bad—and there was so little of it!
My theory is that folks wanted more match reports to get published in order to increase the odds of seeing one that featured a player or a deck they were interested in. Then they would check out the single match and move on, happy to ignore all the others. Admittedly the discussion has become all but moot anyway, because video killed the radio star, so to say.
No, the forte of text always lay elsewhere. Not all the time, but most of the time you get way better quotes!
What most people speak is hardly ready for printing. I mean, they don’t structure their argument well, often anyway, their train of thought makes jumps, detours, or gets derailed, they go back and forth, they repeat themselves, mull things over, rephrase stuff, use words that are too simple and sentences that aren’t, and they keep repeating the same words over and over, like even if they’re actually really smart, maybe especially, they draw conclusions without stating what these conclusions are based on or they leave some conclusions unspoken because you know.
The truth is, you tend to get better quotes on text because, as a writer, you make it so. You pick parts that work well, you paraphrase where appropriate, you mix and match the points someone made with their corresponding conclusions, and you lead into quotes by giving context. For example, the easiest trick in the book: about that he said this.
In short, you edit. The goal is not to distort what someone said, but to make the original meaning more clear. And often it does get more clear. I’ve had people take a look at a finished article and declare, “Yes! That’s exactly what I said,” trying hard to keep a straight face, fully aware that this wasn’t exactly how they said it. Some regular interview partners just provide a few sound bites and tell me, “Now go and make me sound smart.”
There are notable exceptions. These are usually players who have put their thoughts in line for their own content creation and come prepared with a statement to fire off when asked. Brad Nelson, for instance, once gave me multiple chunks of five and six sentences each that were all eminently quotable, in order, and unedited.
On Spoken Versus Written Word
Video editing does exist too, of course. But it’s an incredibly time-consuming process, and unless you stoop to the level of jump cuts like so many YouTubers, your ability to edit source material is way more limited. As luck would have it, video doesn’t need as much editing. There are quotes that sound perfectly fine, but would read downright asinine. One part of this is that you expect a different degree of polished language depending on the medium you consume. The other part has to do with dogs.
I’ve heard that, when addressed by a human, dogs almost never react to the words. Instead, what carries the most meaning for them is the tone of voice. I don’t know about dogs, but I’ve noticed this accounts for a lot even in face-to-face human-to-human communication. People will swallow the most outrageous claims when stated with the confidence of superior authority and suffer astounding personal remarks delivered in a soothing voice. It’s like we’re pack animals or something!
When watching TV at home, we’ve begun playing this game: Listen to what people say, really focus on the words and try to discount everything else, and then find the most stupendously stupid quote.
Our current frontrunner for greatest non-sequitur hasn’t been challenged in a long time. It was lifted from a documentary in which a man reminisced about growing up in the countryside, a happy childhood long past. His eyes grew misty as he looked out over a pasture now empty and at an old farmhouse fallen into disrepair, and he said, in one sentence: “At home we were eight kids, my father loved horses.”
With the scene set like this, it was easy to accept the statement and to understand the intended meaning. It took a cynical bastard, ideally two, to crack up and wonder if this guy might secretly be a centaur. The filmmakers probably never imagined someone would be as mean as to write these words down, but there you go.
There’s real danger in this game. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. You’ll be hearing centaurs, or at least sheer unquotable quotes, all the time.
Asking the Right Question
New is good, brand new is good for your brand, and sometimes you get stuck covering a Grand Prix in a dead-by-Monday Limited format that wasn’t all that popular in the first place. How did this happen, you wonder, and how do you write about it? Furthermore, how do you coax others into saying something nice about the currently deceasing?
This is where journalistic integrity gives way to marketing efforts, as you ask: “What are you going to miss about the format?”
I thought this was quite clever. And the question led to some legitimately sweet answers too, because there are always plenty of sweets in any block. Of course, at a Magic tournament, you have to expect someone to try and outsmart you. Thus you get a jester who jokes that, oh, they are so going to miss the hated combination of random Aura and the common hexproof dork du jour.
Then journalistic integrity comes back in when you include their statement anyway, dutifully marked as bitter irony. But because you’re human you get back at them by quoting another player next who said, “I will miss all the people whining about [it]. I drafted the format more than most, and I don’t think it was bad.”
So yeah, sometimes you specifically want to avoid an open-ended question, but often that’s the best kind. One of my favorites: “What do you do with your time when you’re not busy winning at Magic?”
People will variously respond with their job, with other hobbies, or by telling you about their family life. Essentially, you learn what else they consider to be a core part of their identity and what they feel comfortable sharing. At the very least, you get a witty quip such as: “When I am not busy winning at Magic, I most likely lose at Magic.”
One of the perks of my job is that I get to work, on a regular basis, with folks who are way smarter than me. So some of the finest questions I ever had the pleasure of asking are ones I myself didn’t come up with at all. For example, Frank Karsten, doctor of mathematics, once suggested we should quiz competitors at a Team GP: “If each individual player in your team wins 60% of their matches, what is the probability that your team wins the round?”
Wenzel Krautmann responded with a variation of the old meme-before-memes-existed: “I’m a lawyer, not a mathematician!” Ondřej Stráský didn’t know where the question originated, but replied that he would go and ask Frank Karsten. Eduardo Sajgalik used pen and paper to work out the correct answer himself, while Reid Duke ran the full calculation (0.6 × 0.6 × 0.6 + 0.6 × 0.6 × 0.4 + 0.6 × 0.6 × 0.4 + 0.6 × 0.6 × 0.4 = 0.648) all in his head! Did I mention that I get to interview folks who are way smarter than me on a regular basis?
It isn’t all super mathy either. I often work together with Doctor Hans Joachim Höh, who has a background in psychology. To draw people out, he came up with the question of: “What is the best deck in Standard at the moment, and why aren’t you playing that?”
Quick Questions and Relaxed Replies
Some people aren’t very good at answering a question on the spot, but are very good when they have a little time to think about it and to formulate their response. This I learned once I sent some questions out ahead of an event and asked for replies via messenger.
A case in point would be Jonathan Anghelescu. He is one of the most successful Legacy players on the planet currently, although you may never know it because Anghelescu isn’t exactly loud about this fact, or about anything. In fact, he doesn’t talk much at all. But when I asked for opinions on the Modern unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, what he wrote had me do a literal spit-take and remains one of my favorite answers to this day.
Ultimately, he came to the correct conclusion that Modern would survive Jace, a point that the community still debated at the time. But he started off with the words: “At first I was afraid, I was petrified.”
Lost and Found in Translation
Germans are famous as an invasive species all across Europe. Native German-speakers will often account for a larger share of your typical Grand Prix attendance even than players from the host country. Add in a few others whose German is better than their English, and you can imagine that I do a lot of translating.
This can be a challenge but typically isn’t. Some idioms that exist in one language don’t exist in the other, but overall, English and German almost have too much in common. There’s no need to make an elephant out of a mosquito, though you’re probably better served to turn them into a mountain and a molehill, respectively. One doesn’t have to be the brightest candle on the cake to get this. There is even an equally ubiquitous equivalent in German for the ubiquitous English “There is…”
Plus, as a general rule, the harder something is to translate literally the more liberal a translation is warranted, which again is a wellspring of opportunity. The same way a resourceful editor can improve the source material so can an, aptly titled, interpreter.
A problem persists with folksy folks from certain parts of Bavaria, Austria, and Switzerland. Think of how the more sophisticated city-dwelling trolls in fiction often look down on their feral cousins up in the highlands and you may be able to appreciate the term “Mountain German.” It can refer to people but especially to their dialect.
At a Pro Tour a while back, I volunteered for an interview task because the interviewee spoke German, they said. It would be fun, they said. Big mistake, on everybody’s part, or possibly a setup. Two sentences in, I was already contemplating just how offensive it might be to ask the guy to switch to English. The most broken English—anything—would have been easier to understand. The writing of that particular article involved more guesswork than translation, and definitely more paraphrasing than quoting.
“Aspartame Swear Words”
German and English are similar in that both languages exhibit, when it comes to swearing, a fondness for body parts and their attendant functions, or their ex- or secretions. The Dutch, I hear, prefer serious illnesses, while lots of nationalities variously invoke their god, the mother of their god, or your mother.
Louis Deltour, perennial GP runner-up, once wondered what was up with Americans and their use of what he called “‘aspartame swear words like heck or frick.” He had no time for such “frustrated compromise,” although he could understand not wanting to swear at all.
This is just as well because players don’t get to curse in coverage, unless it’s an enchantment subtype. This is a family game after all. And Deltour is right. When quoting people, I’ve taken to replacing offensive words with almost comically inoffensive alternatives, and found that it really doesn’t take anything away from the original meaning. Sometimes the square brackets even add an extra punch.
For example: “In most Draft formats, you can give up one of your two colors when it dries up and retain the other. But if you’re on Merfolk and the Merfolk cards fail to materialize, you’re [in a pickle].”
The Show Runs On
Nowadays, I rarely work as a writer at GPs. Most of the time, I act in a role with the official designation “showrunner.” This means, among other things, that when someone has a story to tell or a deck to show off, it is my job to put them into contact with the writer or to have them called to the feature match area. So if you happen to have a story to tell or a deck to show off at Grand Prix Liverpool, come say hi.
Until then, I hope you enjoyed this little peak behind the scenes. I shall be back with more numbers and graphics next week.