I was first introduced to Magic: The Gathering at 13. At the time, my closest friend was my cousin Jerry, and I still remember the day he called me up after school to say, “I got these new Magic: The Gathering cards yesterday. You should come over and check them out.” I begged my mom to drive me across town and had my first introduction to MTG.

Needless to say, we made a pit stop at the local comic shop on the way home where I traded my entire $10.00 allowance for a $7.99 Revised Starter and a $1.99 Revised Booster. Is there any smell as satisfying as a freshly cracked Revised Booster? I doubt it.

I’d dabbled with the gateway games: GW’s Hero Quest, Battle Masters, and NES classics like Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda, but Magic was the perfect storm of fantasy, gaming, and collectible that resonated with me.

How the time flies! Now, when I go to tournaments it’s not uncommon to play against an opponent who has been on the earth a shorter period of time than I’ve played MTG.

One powerful, but never to be underestimated, aspect of Magic’s appeal is its adaptability and capacity to cater to a wide, diverse audience of players and fans. The same game that was interesting to me as a teenager still continues to provide meaningful experiences into my 30s.

The Competitive Drive

Is there a difference between playing for fun and for real? It hinges on the level of competitiveness. To me, “competitive” implies emphasis on the importance of winning. For many, the larger goal of Magic is to unlock higher level tournament play and it’s obvious that winning matters a lot. Either you qualified or you didn’t. So, at a practical level results matter for achieving goals.

Another reason results matter is because we often see them as validation of the time and energy we’ve invested in learning, honing, and mastering a hobby. It’s not unique to Magic. I imagine if I were an ice sculptor that I’d want to have my work recognized by my peers as well, but maybe that’s just the gamer in me talking.

How many ice sculpting Pro Tours do you need to qualify for before you are considered a good sculptor?

The appeal of competitive Magic is as obvious as it is intuitive. If we want to become better players we should seek out stronger competition in order to learn and improve our game. In fact, I would say the primary reason I gravitated toward competitive Magic tournaments was simply because I wanted to be a part of what the best players in my area were doing.

When I started playing tournaments I was lucky there were many talented players in my area to learn from. Michael Jacobs and Patrick Chapin, in particular, were both extremely talented and much of what I bring to the table I learned from watching and playing against these guys. The fact that I got into playing on the GP circuit had a lot to do with wanting to be a part of the exciting adventures I saw them going on.

I bought into the slogan “Play the game. See the world,” hook, line, and sinker. And, because of competitive Magic I was able to travel most of the States and visit multiple continents. As a twenty-something, it was an amazing experience. I understand the power and appeal that message represents and why the Pro Tour dream has been so in influential in shaping how and why many play the game.

Bigger and More Exclusive

Back in the day, it was daunting to qualify for the PT. Even for talented players, it was hard to stand alone in a field of 75. Today, multiply that field by eight and triple the skill level of the average opponent. When I started writing Magic articles, there were about 40 regular columnists. Now there are hundreds to watch, read, and learn from. It’s not only a bigger field, but a more difficult one.

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the recent changes to the competitive circuit and to players’ reactions. I don’t think people actually hate Arena or BO1 as much as they say. Sure, people say it’s watered down. It’s an app game. It’s a silly time killer. Still, players never fought Battlebond, Unhinged, or Commander decks this hard.

In my estimation, the issue stems from the fact that people put a ton of time and energy into learning how to become better tournament players and work toward meeting specific goals of qualifying and playing on the Pro Tour. Now they feel like the rug has been pulled out from under their feet by not only making it harder to qualify but also making Arena BO1 a centerpiece of the experience.

I see the player backlash to Arena as a symptom of a different problem: the difficulty of reaching what were once basic rites of passage in tournament Magic, such as qualifying for a Pro Tour. When I look at Arena I see a platform that is easy to use and fun to play. But I’m beginning to understand that for a player trying to qualify, it might just look like another barrier.

It makes sense that people who have followed the plan, honed their BO3 skills, and worked toward a specific goal for years might be upset that the dream they were chasing has been replaced by an Arena dream.

That raises an interesting question about what it even means to be good at Magic. What does it mean if the structure changes and everybody else has to pivot? It suggests that what is valued at any given time is more subjective than we realize.

Well, it is and it isn’t. I view Arena BO1 as just another format to play. To me, BO1 is no different than the inherent difference between Sealed, Modern, and Vintage. Each format has its own nuances, skill set, and gameplay. There’s no doubt in my mind that the best players, who develop the best strategies and practice the best, are going to have the most success.

The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that perhaps the anxiety about these changes is directly related to a player’s anxiety that access to playing on the Pro Tour and meeting those long-term goals are slipping away.

I’ll admit that I’m not greatly affected by the changes since I haven’t been grinding for a while and I’ve been more focused on playing Magic for my own personal enjoyment and satisfaction.

#WASHED

One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed with Magic in my 30s is the realization that I now play differently than I played in my 20s.

Magic has always been a fixture in my life, but to what degree has been variable. In my 20s, for instance, I had the ability, means, and opportunity to make a run at playing tournament Magic. I was able to qualify for a bunch of Pro Tours, earned over 100 Pro Points, and somehow won several trophies. I was blessed for the chance to live the dream that is becoming more closed to the average player in 2019.

On the other hand, maybe it was always just insanely hard to do. When I was in my prime as a grinder I spent a ludicrous amount of time, energy, and travel on Magic. Is there really that big of a difference between traveling to an event every weekend and being one of the eight people who qualify for the Mythic Invitation by grinding Arena the hardest? The dream has always been a system that rewarded and required the deepest commitment.

I decided to settle down and get married last year. Priorities change. Gaming has always been a hobby and a passion, but the role it plays is different. In particular, the way I view competitive gaming is different. At a certain point, it’s just not feasible to go on a road trip every weekend.

Adjusting from a competitive-minded player into a recreational mage has been an interesting process. I’ve noticed that my enjoyment of the game has increased significantly now that I don’t have to stress over accumulating Pro Points. I used to get frustrated by unlucky draws that felt so backbreaking toward achieving those greater PT goals.

I’ve also noticed that I have a greater attention to detail. I played so much Magic that I often felt games were simply a matter of going through the motions, because I cared more about the result than the game. It’s a skill set I wish I had paid more attention to when I was a grinder because the irony is that it would have probably won me more games.

A few years ago, I rented a room from a local player also named Bryan. I’ve known Bryan for years and he’s always been a staple of the LGS scene. In fact, he’s played at RIW since before I started going there. He’s obviously a talented and experienced player but was never a hardcore grinder when it came to travel events.

Bryan is the kind of player who shows up to the store almost every week and mostly plays his own brews. He often plays new and untuned decks, but always plays them well. One of his brews was the first proto-version of Modular Affinity.

He brought the deck up to the store and played it. I thought the deck was sweet and powerful, and we worked on it a little bit together. I wrote an article about our findings. Shortly after, Caleb Durward read the article and played the deck on his stream and further innovated the list. People watched his stream and took it a step further. Now the deck has become a defining fixture of Modern.

All of that started with a guy who loves to play his brews at the LGS, for fun. Also, neat fact—Bryan qualified for his first Pro Tour at MagicFest Detroit.

I guess he’s finally good now! Welcome to the club, Bryan. The joke, of course, being that Bryan has been very good for a very long time.

The dream is not dead. It’s possible to play Magic at a high level and also play the game on your own terms. It’s something I respect, appreciate, and admire in other players. Looking back on the grind—it was an amazing experience. I traveled to exciting places, worked with intelligent people, made lifelong friends, and all while doing something I truly enjoyed.

No matter how exclusive or difficult it becomes to reach the largest stage isn’t the point, but I also understand that the journey and reaching that landmark is important to players.

The dream isn’t a trophy on a shelf or a dusty PT name badge that proves you were there. The dream ends up being the memories and experiences we make with our friends and teammates. It’s the late-night Drafts, the long road trips, and continuing to be surprised by a game that always changes. It’s something I wish I had a better perspective on when I was younger but don’t take for granted now as an older, wiser man.