“You know, as long as I’ve known him, everything works for him. There’s nothing he can’t handle. I can’t handle anything.”
-Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
As something of a connoisseur of the venerable institution that is Friday Night Magic, I get the rare privilege of watching lots of people that are new to Magic try and navigate not the games of Magic themselves, but the multiple games with the game—stuff like trading, barning, deckbuilding, which player clique to join, which frat to rush, etc. What impresses me the most about all new players is how consistently they think they’re breaking new ground, be it working up the nerve to try and run the cheats (and, once caught with their hand in the cookie jar, blaming it on “oh whoops, I didn’t get much sleep last night”), strolling up to people they recognize from articles or coverage (who are also human beings they have never met) at Grand Prix in an effort to “talk shop,”—even something as simple as witnessing the apoplectic rage a new player goes into when they discover that they have to play their win-and-in at this Grand Prix Trial while someone else got to double-draw into Top 8—these things are comforting.
This naiveté also extends to Magic writing. There are lots of well-trodden Bad Magic Article Tropes—How To Prepare For A Tournament, How To Avoid Tilt, Which M13 Planeswalker Are You?—But the one I enjoy unironically is the origin story. This is where the author takes it upon themselves to discuss how they got started playing Magic cards. They are generally unadvisable as a topic, unless you’re really accomplished in Magic. Even then, most of them remain dull reading. I was dumb enough to try writing one anyway. This mostly due to the fact that, like anyone that’s new at anything, I assumed that everything I was doing had never been tried before because I’m really smart and everyone else is dumb. I wrote this when I was in a contest to try and win (!) a permanent Magic writing gig.
Something that happens a lot at Magic tournaments these days is someone—we’ll call him Steve—will come up and watch me play some match, and witness me make a handful of atrocious misplays to lose said match. Then, after the match slip is filled out 2-0 in favor of my opponent, a friend of mine will come up and say something along the lines of, “ChannelFireball Columnist Jon Corpora, ladies and gentlemen!” and will start clapping. Steve will invariably ask,
“You write for Channel Fireball?”
At which point I have a bevy of go-to self-defense mechanisms at the ready.
“Not very well.”
“Against everyone’s will.”
“Only because I have serious dirt on LSV and am blackmailing him”
Then a light bulb goes off in Steve’s head—hey, if this guy can do it…
“How do I write for a Magic website?”
I reply, “Ask Ted Knutson to construct a contest in which contestants have to write articles in which they get eliminated one-by-one until someone wins a job as a Magic: the Gathering Columnist.”
“Is that what you did?”
“Yes and no.”
With that, both participants leave the conversation thoroughly confused and unfulfilled.
God, what the hell was I talking about?
Oh yeah—Magic card origin stories. This is what Celebrity Magic Article Judge Jennifer Lopez Patrick Chapin had to say about mine back when it dropped in 2011:
As for what the article actually did provide I guess I didn’t really get the takeaways. I appreciated the tone and stories but they didn’t entertain me enough to carry the article without any meat. Sharing your personal history can be great but what is the reader supposed to take away from it? Jon Finkel’s life story already has context for why we would care. If it is entertaining ENOUGH or teaches something presents some change that is interesting then anyone’s can be a success. I guess I would have just liked it spelled out for me a little more why any of this matters to me.
He’s right! Discussing my life story is pointless for lots of reasons, being 21 years old at the time of writing notwithstanding.
Still, Magic: the Gathering origin stories —that is, how someone went from starting the game as a beginner all the way up to a competitive player in tournaments—have always piqued my interest. They all seem to share an odd amount of similarities.
A common parallel of any Magic origin story is meeting that guy. That guy at your local shop that seems almost naturally talented. That guy you can’t beat.
For me, that dude was a kid in my high school (I guess junior high at this point) class, Kyle.
I knew about Kyle because in a graduating class of about 160 kids, it was impossible to not know who someone was, at least by their face. But Kyle also played SPORTS and hung out with GIRLS. I didn’t start hanging out with him until a mutual friend introduced us, because we both played Magic. I refused to believe Kyle played Magic at first.
“But Kyle,” I said, straining to understand, “you are a popular person and girls don’t just pretend you’re not there when you start quoting The Naked Gun for the billionth time. How on earth can you possibly play Magic?” At that point, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that Magic had anything more than nerd appeal.
We started playing some games. Kyle destroyed me, setting a precedent he’d continue well into high school. First he destroyed me with Dark Rituals and Hypnotic Specters. Over the years, they became Mana Leaks and Decree of Justice, then Skullclamps and Arcbound Ravagers. The cards are immaterial.
I discovered that he used to not only play in the same weekly local tournaments as me, but he used to win them. I didn’t think it was even within the realm of possibility that a kid my age (12) could go into Area 51 (our LGS), beat all the twenty-somethings there, and take first place in a tournament. I literally did not think it was possible. Like every Magical Origin Story, I met the kid who I saw as preternaturally talented, and he naturally elevated my game just by letting me play against him.
I learned a lot from summers spent hanging out at his house, and quickly came to know him as an idiot savant. Every thoughtful insight Kyle had was usually punctuated by him firing up KaZaA and turning on a Mariah Carey song, or freestyling about girls in our graduating class, or feces or something. I suppose his duality made him a lot easier to talk to; without the occasional loud outburst of incoherent noises or the endless Anchorman quotes, or the occasional insistences that we “go do something outside for a little bit,” he would’ve just been another nerd.
Our differences wound up defining our relationship. His laid-back attitude about everything drove me nuts, especially because it always felt like everything worked for him and nothing worked for me. I was also never ashamed of classmates knowing I played Magic, and wore my JSS backpack with the knowledge that they’d all figure it out in the long run, so I might as well display it, so that no one could “get me” by simply pointing out that I play Magic. Kyle, on the other hand, was a little more comfortable in the Conjurer’s Closet, which bothered me. In lieu of making a effort to understand my friend, I would instead wait until he was talking to an attractive girl and come over and slip him whatever sealed boosters packs I happened to have in my bag, with a “thanks for letting me borrow these, Kyle!” I never understood why the girl didn’t ever laugh.
His perspective was something I sorely needed as someone who spent more time frustrated by his own limitations than thankful for his opportunities. One conversation from outside a JSS qualifier in Rochester, during deck registration, strikes me looking back as something more perspective-shifting than I gave it credit for then. I asked him,
“Do you ever get nervous before these things? Man, I get so nervous.”
I mean, you have to picture it: We’re sitting in his dad’s minivan, having driven an hour and a half to The Hellscape That Is Rochester, NY to play Magic. We woke up early on a weekend, and upon seeing kid after kid pour in the building, self-doubt had started to creep in. It was an event outside my LGS, and there were more kids there than I could’ve imagined at that point.
Kyle chose his words carefully, which was rare, and finally turned to me and said,
“No, I don’t. Look at all these kids. They’re all nerds. Nerds aren’t good at Magic. Seriously, they just aren’t. Normal people, like me and you, we’re good at Magic.” I didn’t self-identify as normal, but just nodded, hoping that he’d just keep talking and we’d push right through the part where I was a normal person. “Look at this kid.” He pointed to an acne-ridden kid wearing a hat with bunny ears on it. “That kid could be the best Magic player that’ll ever live, but he’ll never win a tournament in his life, because he’s never competed for anything. The cards you draw matter, but not too much, as long as you just want to beat the person across from you. These nerdy kids, they forget it’s still a competition. So the pressure messes with their heads and they get rattled and they mess up a bunch and then they lose.”
“What?? It’s a competition! I’m not going to be mean to their faces or anything, but… we all paid the entry fee, and for the next few hours, my job is to take those nerds’ money.” Competitive Magic is a competition first. You can know all the matchups and theories in your sleep, but if you can’t sit across from a human being and want to beat them, you’re better off finding a pickup game of Commander. I see a lot of people struggle with this without even knowing it. I know I have a hard time with it from time to time. It’s important to remember that no matter how mercilessly someone gets beat in Magic, they will still be alive out in the world, and that if they want to take the game personally, that’s on them. Unless you acted like a jerk throughout the whole match, in which case, you’re still a jerk.
Kyle had a lot of maxims—If my opponent has a play mat, I am going to win. If my opponent has foiled out his deck, I am going to win. If he is keeping track of life totals on a spindown die, I’m going to win. If he announces “untap, upkeep, draw” aloud every damn turn, I’m going to win. These obviously weren’t correct in 2004 (even if they sure felt accurate back then), and really don’t hold up any more, given the rise in popularity of both foils and playmats, but their purpose was never to serve as strict rules to live by, or even as a way to belittle people—but as a way to maintain proper tournament frame. This guy cares about his deck more than the games at hand? Great! Keep your foils, I’ll be taking that match slip. Sure, when you subject these ideas to any sort of scrutiny, they obviously don’t hold an ounce of water. And, yes, encouraging your own outright disdain of your opponents because they do a couple things differently than you is certainly not the healthiest way to navigate a Magic tournament. But that’s not the point.
Tournaments are played. The winner isn’t predetermined. Owen Turtenwald confirmed this just a few weeks ago; the secret trick to winning Magic tournaments is… to play a lot of Magic tournaments. Your frame of mind is as important as the cards that fall, with the difference being that you’ve got control over where your mind’s at. I personally try to be confident, but at this point, I’ve realized that whenever a try to exude some sort of self-assuredness, I’m really just doing a bad impression of a friend.
Kyle ended up losing in the quarters of that Rochester Top 8. He would go on to qualify the very next weekend, at a JSS qualifier in Syracuse, while I was at play practice. I was the manager in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I got a Cortland Repertory Theater award for my performance! Would I trade that for a JSS invite?