Today’s column is my pitch for playing in PTQs. If you’re already a PTQ regular, I encourage you to read it and share your thoughts about why you play in PTQs. I’d also encourage you to share the column with your friends who have not, for one reason or another, been interested in playing at a PTQ. If you’re new to the idea of going to a PTQ, then I hope this column sheds some light on why I love them.

Last week I attended a talk by Daniel Pink, where he spoke about his new book, Drive. Drive is about the things that really motivate us, and how businesses can use those motivations to increase productivity. He collects the results of years of behavioral research that tell us that when we get past the basic needs (e.g. food), what really drives us is not punishment and reward but autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I’ll let you read the book if you really want to know more, but the upshot is that we truly perform when we get to choose what we want to do, get to do better at it, and do it for some reason greater than “I’m going to get paid.”

I mention this because as we venture deeper into a PTQ season, we’re often awash in the assumption that each and every step is its own gold ring. We want to win a PTQ because we want to go to the Pro Tour, and we want to go to the Pro Tour because we want to win the Pro Tour.

But why?

Is it the money? Although winning the top prize at a Pro Tour and taking home whatever fraction of $40,000 you’re left with after taxes would certainly be welcome, I can assure you that there are better ways to spend your time than trying to make it onto the Tour and trying to win an event if you’re out to make $40,000. The expected value, as we are fond of saying, of entering a PTQ is a very, very small portion of that $40,000.

If each win is not an end in itself, then it’d be good if we could avoid having a blank look on our faces when a fellow Magic player asks us why they should consider going to a PTQ.

My pitch for PTQing is very simple.

PTQs are fun.

I say this because it’s true, but I also say it because I get the impression that Magic players who aren’t PTQ regulars think it’s nearly the exact opposite of fun. If all they’re ever told is that “you could get on the Pro Tour,” I think it’s reasonable that they’d never want to go.

So why do I think they’re fun?

Community is fun

PTQs plug you into your local and not-so-local “competitive” player community. If you’re able to make it to a PTQ in a reasonably large metropolitan area, you can expect to meet a hundred or more like-minded people who are all there at the same time for the exact same event. If you’re used to playing with your casual group or a local play club, or perhaps your favorite game store’s FNM, you may be interacting with maybe a couple dozen people at most. A PTQ is your opportunity to meet and enjoy the company of a lot of people you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

Our local PTQs are large enough that in a few years of attending them, I’ve rarely played the same person twice. As a consequence, I typically begin each match by asking the person their name (hint – do this to be friendly, and to make sure the person sitting across from you is the person you saw yourself paired with on the pairings sheet) and where they’re coming from.

You may be surprised at just how far people have come to attend the PTQ. We regularly see traffic between the Bay Area and Southern California for PTQs, which can mean trip of four or five hundred miles each way. People from California also make their way to Seattle and Las Vegas for PTQs. I’ve vicariously expanded my knowledge of California geography just by running into people who come from towns I hadn’t heard of before.

The other thing I started doing about a year ago is asking my opponent “what they do.” Given the demographics of Magic, I expected the default answer to be “I’m a student,” but the scope has been pleasingly wide on this one as well. I’ve met people who do car customizations, software developers at Yahoo, and a plumber from whom I learned that plumbing is a seasonal job (because in Spring people realize their pipes are leaking, and the tree in their back yard has broken their sprinklers).

When your match ends each round, you’ll notice that players are watching other matches, or just hanging around and talking. The break between each match and the next is an opportunity to share stories about your day so far, to scout the room, or to just settle down next to a particularly interesting match that’s still going. The corollary to this is that if you’re playing an interesting deck or if your match has simply gone long, you should expect to end up with an audience.

My chief advice here is to remember that you are at a competitive event, so don’t talk about the match where the players can hear you. Don’t give advice, don’t comment on the board state or someone’s draw. This may sound silly, but I’ve had it done to me and I’ve seen people do it while spectating. If you think you see an error that actually violates the game rules, you are allowed to ask the players to stop and call a judge. Otherwise, just watch, enjoy, and don’t cringe visibly when one of the players makes a horrible misplay that you never would have made. It happens.

So what about those “competitive” players? Won’t they make the day horribly unfun?

I won’t lie. There will be some annoying people at any large event, whether it’s a PTQ or a rock concert. However, “annoying” and “competitive” are not synonymous. At one of our PTQs last year, you might have been paired up with David, Josh, or Jeremy. They’re all competitive and they’re all perfectly nice people.

In fact, this segues into my next point

Technically strong play is fun

Let’s return for a moment to Daniel Pink’s book Drive. One of the elements he mentioned that motivates us is mastery. Mastery means, roughly, “getting better at stuff.” It’s fun to get better at stuff, and it’s fun to watch people who are skilled do their thing.

I’ve read a lot of discussion about competitive play by people who don’t spend a lot of time doing it. The most common complaint is that the competitive player doesn’t “just have fun.” The idea built into this assertion is that Magic is more fun when you allow takebacks, sloppy play, and maybe don’t play with some of the cards that you don’t like (e.g. counterspells). By this standard, a PTQ would necessarily be intrinsically unfun.

Naturally, I disagree.

The reason I love going to PTQs is because I know that my opponents will have brought their “A” game. Their game (and mine) may or may not be enough to win the tournament, but I like going to an event where I know that each person I play against will have brought the best deck they could bring and will be playing the best game they can play.

As a consequence, when you win a game, you get to know that you’ve done a genuinely good job. Similarly, when you lose, you’ll get a chance to see a well-built deck being played with actual skill. Then, in between rounds, no matter how you’re doing you can go watch the top tables and see the best players in your PTQ community facing each other down.

If you enjoy watching the Wizards live video coverage of Pro Tour top eights, or you’ve been keeping up with the work ggslive has done in the last year, imagine getting to do the same thing, in person – and as a participant! Although it may be initially disconcerting to take that step outside of your own pool of players and whatever house rules you’re used to, the fact that you can go to this big event and experience a hundred or more of your fellow players doing their best to play good Magic is an amazing thing.

Sure, you may lose to a Pact trigger or get ambushed by a takeback you’re no longer allowed to take. Trust me that these small travails are more than paid off by getting to experience the fun of technically strong play.

Creativity is fun

For some subset of the players at a PTQ, the event is a chance to showcase their latest creative effort. I’m definitely in this pool, and I often end up with an audience for my matches as a consequence.

Especially during an Extended season like this one, there’s a significant opportunity to see ideas that are either brand-new or that have simply been off the radar for a while. With roughly five thousand cards in the Extended card pool, even relatively small tweaks to existing archetypes can yield very different play experiences.

When I’m walking around the room after my match finishes each round, it’s only partially with an eye toward scouting potential opposition. Really, I’m on the lookout for what creative options, be they tweaks or entirely novel archetypes, people have brought to the PTQ.

Similarly, a PTQ is our opportunity to showcase your own creativity. If you’re new to PTQs, or new to Extended, you may not be especially excited about modifying a deck that you’ve just recently picked up for the event. That said, even small changes can throw your opposition off their game. Conley has offered a good discussion about the value of exercising creativity in deck choices. If you remember an excellent Mirrodin card from your EDH deck that you think would really work well in your Zoo sideboard, go for it. The existing deck lists are not so thoroughly proven as to obviate innovation.

I want to go, but

If I’ve fired you up about going to a PTQ, you still may have some doubts about getting involved in the current PTQ season. Here’s some quick advice on how to get up and running in what may feel like an expansive and intimidating format.

Getting set for Extended

Extended is a pretty big pool to dive into. With some five thousand cards to pull from it offers a host of viable archetypes. With that in mind, here’s my advice for a quick start.

First, you want to get an overview of what’s going on in Extended. Zaiem previews the current Extended season in this article, and reviews a whole bunch of significant Extended rules situations here. You’ll want to understand what decks are actually being played, which means you’ll need to go to my article

about building your Extended reference library.

Second, you need to step back, take a breath, and relax. Extended is a big, intimidating format, and the honest truth is that no one can keep all of that junk in their head. There is a non-zero chance that you will run into a deck you’ve never heard of before that does something you’ve never seen before. Before that happens, you’ll want to read my article about decision making during the game and Ben Stark’s excellent piece about knowing how your deck works.

Third, you need a deck. Extended is an expensive format, this is true. However, you may already own more of the cards you need than you realize. If you know a decent pool of casual players, you may also be able to borrow across your group to kit one or more of you out with most or all of a decent Extended deck. From there, you’ll just need a few key card purchases to make some viable decks for the PTQ. Now might be a good time to reread some Rishadawn Pawnshop to get a feel for just what deckbuilding options you have to suit your personal budget.

Finally, you’ll need to find a PTQ. There used to be a list of all PTQs for the season, and now there’s a search interface that I’m not especially fond of. Reprinted below are Tom LaPille’s directions on how to use that interface to find a PTQ to attend:

1. Go to this website:

http://www.wizards.com/Magic/TCG/Events.aspx?x=mtgcom/protour/sanjuan10-qualifiers

2. In the “Find a Qualifier Near You!” box, type “usa” or “” and click the little magnifying glass button.

3. Click on the link underneath “Enter your City and State/Province or Postal Code” that says “New! Search using event start and end dates.”

4. In the “Search From” field, put the Saturday of a weekend during the PTQ season when you might want to play a PTQ. In the “Through” field, put the Sunday of that same weekend.

5. Click on “Get Map” underneath all the search options.

6. Zoom out so you can see the entire United States, or whatever other area you are willing to travel to.

7. In the Results box underneath the map, the locations of all PTQs in the United States (or whatever other place you searched in) that will happen during that weekend will appear.

8. Repeat for each weekend you might want to play in a PTQ.

Despite the fact that I am nearly a shill for progress, I did prefer simply having a list.

Go!

I hope I’ve fired up some of you for the current PTQ San Juan season. I love PTQs, and as much as I may be proselytizing my way into ever-longer PTQs by talking more of you into coming, I want to see you all there.