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Recurring Nightmares – Brass Ring

I never used to care much about the Pro Tour. I don’t mean that in the sense that it wasn’t a goal of mine to be a professional Magic player – though it never has been anything more than a fleeting daydream, floating across the recesses of my subconscious as I stare off into the distance for hours a day, seated in a cube like so many sardines in a can. No, I mean that I never paid even the slightest bit of attention to the results, the formats, or even the players on the tour. They were as foreign to me as a rubble-strewn Martian landscape, or a Czech chess grandmaster. They played their game, I played mine. And for the most part, our paths weren’t meant to cross.

In 2004, fully ten years beyond the first day I picked up a pack of Magic: the Gathering cards and wondered “what the heck do I do with these?” I wandered into the side entrance of the PA Convention Center, and was exposed to a world previously unimagined, where the competition was greater (and the heights higher) than I had ever before experienced.

I came out of the weekend a changed player, if not particularly a changed man.

See, as a teen, I was the epitome of a kitchen table Magician – though I didn’t understand enough about high level play to understand that to be the case. I went to tournaments frequently on the weekends (this was well before the concept of Friday Night Magic was born, Fridays were for Heroes of Might and Magic III, Magic was for the weekend), and did reasonably well at those events by the time I set the game aside around the release of Exodus.

What I was unaware of, what I had no glimmer of understanding to relate to, was the presence of the Pro Tour in the midst of those events.

My first memory of tournament Magic was a match with Joe Weber, who was playing Necro, and beating him with double [card]Fireblast[/card] from my burn deck.

I grew up playing with the original lineup of Team Sped (google it), only to me they were just these guys that liked something I liked. I didn’t have the breadth of experience to understand why there was a difference between the game I played and the game they played.

When I returned to the game in college, I had much more exposure to the wide world of not-my-small-town existence, and to assist me in my new understanding of the world, and the information revolution associated with the internet boom led me to gain a new perspective on both the game and the people within it. It wasn’t until this point that I recognized the opportunities that may have been available to me had I been a bit more mature in my development (both as a player and as a person in general) in those formative years. You can’t miss an opportunity if you don’t recognize it as one, so it’s not such a heartbreaking tale as it may have been, but it does shape the way I’ve interacted with the Tour since those halcyon days.

With the introduction of Legacy Grand Prix events in 2004, I had a reason to care about Organized Play for the first time in my career with the game. Suddenly players who I’d competed with for years in Legacy Duel-for-Dual events were concerned with their DCI rating, looking to achieve byes at the upcoming Grand Prix. Players were positioning the event as the clash of the Legacy community with the Pro community, and wanted desperately to prove to the world (and to themselves, of course) that the Legacy community was up to the challenge.

In general terms, they really weren’t.

And neither was I. In fact, it was the first Legacy Grand Prix that actually allowed me to see just how small a pond I was swimming in, and how ridiculously small a fish I truly was.

And I balked at the sight. I retreated back into the pond of the Legacy community, and was happy there. I had a website that I was proud to be an integral part of, and had made a name for myself within a narrow subset of the overall Magic world. Legacy was a format that even Pros were enjoying, and things were great.

I made the mistake of leaving the pond again.

Really, I began to write articles for Star City, rather than the small insular community on mtgTheSource.com. The exposure from SCG forced me to acknowledge that there was a broader Magic population, and to be an ambassador from our community to the players at large.

The real turning point for me was the first time I travelled for a Grand Prix that was not Legacy. It wasn’t until I began to take other formats seriously that I truly broke out of the mold of “Legacy Player,” and became a Magic Player with a focus on a particular format. Despite my poor performance in that GP, which wasn’t all that surprising considering my limited limited abilities (see what I did there), I was left with a feeling that there was more to experience than what I had been part of up to that point.

Thus began my slow deviation from the course I set upon with the purchase of my first [card]Force of Will[/card], and onto the track on which I currently reside.

That was a very roundabout way to describe why I’m excited about the Pro Tour this weekend.

After experiencing the Pro Tour firsthand last year, my perspective on the weekend has once again changed. I never attended a PT while there were public events. My first honest-to-goodness exposure was as a player, and I think that was a fantastic way to get a first taste of the big show. I think if I had been onsite for a Pro Tour before having the chance to play in one, the excitement would have been significantly lessened, and it would have been super fun, but nowhere near as special.

For specifically that reason, I love the fact that the Pro Tour is now an invite-only event, and that the only exposure you get to it is though the coverage on the Wizards site. It’s a very different feel to be in the room, surrounded by the players who are competing in the event, and to feel the energy and tension that go along with it. You get caught up in it, and it carries you through your own emotional roller coaster – and encourages you to play your heart out in a way that nothing else does. Having to earn that feeling makes the whole experience seem more… sanctified, I suppose.

On one hand, the coverage team has improved leaps and bounds from the early days of the Pro Tour, as has the technology being utilized to cover the events. We’re fortunate that this is the case, because without the kind of coverage we get today, we could never have had successful closed set Pro Tours. I recommend you check out some of the older Pro Tour coverage on Youtube for examples of what I mean. In fact, spend the next few hours watching this set of videos, and learn what a master looks like anyway.

On the other hand, for the vast technological advances we’ve made and utilized for the purposes of covering the game we love, there is still a real lack of drama, of tension, and of excitement surrounding our game. Yes, it’s a game played between two largely silent people on a table with no real moving parts, but there’s hardly a match that goes by without a critical turn or play that defines the line between winning and losing. We aren’t seeing that highlighted in the way I know we could.

I’ve tried to dig into the discussion of camera angles with Brian David Marshall on twitter (@top8games), but he had little info that I could work with to resolve my issues. Check out the conversation below:


Click to Enlarge

For reference, here’s the link I sent him for the match with Brian Kibler at PT Austin. Pause when the link opens to see the camera angle in question.

I don’t really understand some of the specific choices made during gameplay at any covered event, but that’s the tip of the iceberg as far as I’m concerned. There’s much more to a Pro Tour than the three days of the event itself, and that’s also a compelling story, which often goes untold.

What the coverage can’t successfully convey to you, and what very little outside perhaps Walking the Planes has captured to date, is the experience of the weeks leading up to the Pro Tour, spending your time in constant preparation for a single purpose. Sitting around a table, or a number of tables, surrounded by your peers and teammates striving to determine the shape and flavor of a format. Playing a game-within-a-game to determine what the rest of the pack will think, and then to go beyond it another level and prepare yourself to be prepared for them being prepared for you being prepared for them. Eating the best and worst food you can find. Experiencing all the exotic (or in some cases decidedly mundane) location has to offer, and soaking in what culture you may. Cracking pack after pack to practice drafting, only to flip the draft leavings over to proxy up your next constructed brew. Distilling any information you can find in any way you can find it.

Being right.

Being wrong.

These are the things that make the Pro Tour magical. These are the things that make it the pinnacle of achievement for the players of this game. These are the things that drive us to slog it out in PTQ hell for years on end, grabbing desperately at the brass ring that taunts us from just outside of our reach.

I don’t mean for this to turn into a discussion of the validity of the Pro Tour gravy train, but it’s worth mentioning that the dream of the Pro lifestyle requires that there be a chance of grabbing that ring. If the transition from PTQ regular to Pro Tour mainstay is only achievable for a handful of players who run themselves ragged to meet their goals, the dream dies. It has to be a realistic, and yet lofty, goal in order to entice you to reach for it. If you stretch as far as you can, but end up with nothing but air and an ulcer to show for it, you can’t be expected to try again on the next rotation.

I think I’ve strained the metaphor about as far as it can go.

As a career path, I believe my ship on “Professional Magic: the Gathering Player” has sailed. Sometimes I feel like that isn’t necessarily the case, but considering the obstacles in the way for me (and I use the term “obstacles” in only the most general sense), I think the expense in both time and actual dollars and cents would be simply too great for me to consider it a reasonable investment. The incremental gains from being a full-time Magic pro, as compared to a part-time Magic aspiring pro are not enough to make me willing to devote that kind of time to it. And I think that’s an important determination to make as a soon-to-be 30 year old with a bit of a procrastination issue. I think there’s an ever-growing population of people just like me, and we’re the exact target for the coverage team. We want to get the experience of the Pro Tour without all the work. We want to feel like we’re there, and root for our friends, for our champions, and for our Magical heroes, without having to dedicate the time and energy and money – all of which are very real costs – associated with the effort of grinding out an invite for ourselves. There are far more people in those shoes than LSVs and Kiblers in the world.

Wizards, you’ve caught my attention. You’ve given me an opportunity to pull back the curtain and see what all the hype and fuss is about. You’re ever expanding the ways in which I can experience the game from the comfort of my office chair. Show me a little drama. Show me a little excitement. Pull me to the edge of my seat – because I’m here, I’m hooked, and I’m waiting for you to show me something special.

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