When we reached the last stop on the MAX Yellow Line light rail, a large group of Magic: The Gathering pros loped off the train toward the Portland Expo Center right alongside me. Tall Paul Rietzl, with his square jaw and blonde crew cut … rail-thin David Ochoa, with his owlish glasses … handsome Brian Kibler, with his high cheekbones and headphones … for once, I was one of them. And I felt pretty cool.
It was August, and I had traveled to Oregon from Brooklyn for Pro Tour Magic 2015, one of four yearly tournaments devoted to the fantasy-based card game. I was 34 years old, recently married, gainfully employed, and about to compete for part of a $250,000 purse (top prize: $40K) playing the game of goblins, dragons, wizards, spells, and infrequently laid teenage boys (and girls!) everywhere.
Many of you might remember Magic from your high school lunchroom; I first played myself in 1994 in Little Rock, Ark., a year after it debuted. Invented by Ph.D. mathematician and game nut Richard Garfield (and rolled out by then-tiny publisher Wizards of the Coast), it lays claim to the pretty rare honor of spawning an entirely new genre: the collectible card game, or CCG. For a while there in the mid to late 1990s, CCGs were big business, with lots of publishers wielding lots of blue-chip intellectual properties: Star Wars and Star Trek were biggish ones that have since died out, whereas Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon (both traditionally played by younger kids, whereas the notably complex Magic skews older) are really the only other big ones left.
Surprisingly, Magic—now in its third decade of existence—is actually getting bigger. In 1999, Wizards of the Coast was acquired by Hasbro, which attributes its recent strong earnings in part to the game's massive growth. Tournament attendance records have been shattered—Las Vegas in June 2013 drew an all-time high of 4,492 players—with entry fees raised and attendance caps instituted.
Like most young '90s players, I put the game down after a year or two. But I came back to it in my mid-twenties, when I was casting about for something to do that didn't involve getting hammered at bars. Using Craigslist, I found a group of guys in New York who played, and met them once a week or so, playing at the grad-student apartment of an NYU mathematician or at a Midtown deli in the shadow of the Chrysler Building.
That was nearly nine years ago. Gradually, I became more competitive, and started playing in Pro Tour Qualifier (PTQ) and Grand Prix tournaments all over the Northeast and even, sometimes, North America, from Boston to Orlando, Las Vegas to Montreal. As the name implies, winning a Pro Tour Qualifier tournament nets you a plane ticket to the invite-only quarterly events.
So that's how I found myself this past August, striding with a pack of players across a vast and near-empty parking lot toward the Portland Expo Center, whose façade was emblazoned with promo banners featuring the purple-eyed visage of Garruk, Apex Predator, the "face" (and villain) of Magic 2015, the latest edition of what is called the "Core Set" of cards, traditionally how new players get introduced to the game. Inside the super-air-conditioned Expo Center, I was knocked out not only by all the (relatively) famous faces around me, but by the high-end tournament setup: tables with plenty of elbow room, professional signage and lighting, a massive "feature match" area, broadcast booths, event techs with headsets and walkie-talkies. This was my first Pro Tournament. This was the big time.
Although recently it's become more common to see women at open-entry Magic tournaments, the pro scene is still almost an exclusively college- to middle-aged male affair, save for a few high-profile exceptions. Accordingly, the Expo Center crowd, as we got seated at tables of eight for the first "draft" of the day, was almost entirely dudes, most carrying a backpack, or going commando with just a card box. T-shirts, hoodies, jeans, baseball caps, and sneakers were the sartorial order of the day, with a few sponsored teams dressed identically: The Day1MTG guys were all wearing yellow-logo tank tops and straw fishing hats, while the ChannelFireball teams had shirts featuring that website's iconic screaming fireball. (I was rocking gear from online card marketplace CastHaven, which sponsors Hipsters of the Coast, the Magic site I edit and write for.) There was nary a cape, Gandalf staff, or exposed butt crack in sight. Overall hygiene levels ranged from "fair" to "first-date-worthy."
Every major Magic tournament, Pro Tours included, works like this: You play a certain number of 50-minute, one-on-one matches (they used to be called "duels," but that language has fallen out of favor), each of which is composed of a best-of-three-games set. The winners get paired up in the following round against other players who also won, and in this way the winningest players rise to the top of the standings. Depending on the size of the tournament, after a day or two of this—and it can take forever, let me tell you—there is a cut to the "Top 8" players, who then play the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals in a single-elimination bracket.
Some players kibbitz with one another during matches—"So where are you from?" "Good luck, have fun!" and so forth—but matches are rarely as talkative (or combative) as you'll find at a poker table; this being a two-person affair, the action is always either to you or your opponent, so there's not much downtime. Nor is there an audience to pander to: When you're down in the tournament trenches—i.e., not in an on-camera feature match at a high-numbered table—there's usually no one watching the game but the two of you. Judges do circulate among the tables, and can be summoned with a raised hand and a shout of "Judge!", but by and large, players run their own games. The vast majority of players get along reasonably well, and poker-style intimidation or trash talk is typically met with a swift disqualification, and maybe even a ban by the DCI, Magic's tournament-sanctioning body.
But how do you actually play? One way I've described the game to skeptics is that it's a lot like chess, but without any spatial elements. More precisely, each player has a personal deck of cards, and he or she draws an opening hand of seven cards from that deck. You use those cards—a mix of spells and land, the latter of which is how you pay for spells—to try and reduce your opponent from 20 to zero life before he or she does the same to you. Like poker, Magic has an element of luck, or variance, in that you draw cards from a randomized (i.e., shuffled) deck.
Using the chess analogy also lets you downplay the fantasy aspects of the game. Similar to how in chess it doesn't matter that a bishop is a stylized representation of a priest—rather, it just matters how the bishop moves—it's (mostly) meaningless to Magic gameplay that a goblin is a goblin, or a Lightning Bolt a lightning bolt: What matters are the numbers on the card, how much damage a creature or spell deals, how much damage a creature can take before it dies (i.e., gets discarded), and so on.
Just like in poker, there are many different ways to play Magic, the main competitive ones being Limited, where you build a minimum-40-card deck from factory-sealed, 15-card "booster packs" of cards; and Constructed, where ahead of time, at home, you build a minimum-60-card deck from all the cards available to you, within certain guidelines. Constructed's most popular sub-format is Standard, which includes roughly the last two years' worth of Magic set releases—currently 1,067 cards in total. Other such sub-formats include Modern (8,688 possible cards), Legacy (14,271 cards), and Vintage (basically every card ever printed since 1993, or about 15,000 cards). Deck registration sheets, which are filled out and filed with the judging staff at the start of competitive events, prevent players from spiking their decks with powerful cards that didn't come from their sealed booster packs (in the case of Limited) or changing their decks between rounds in order to engineer a more favorable matchup (in the case of Constructed).
"Booster draft"—a popular Limited variant wherein eight players open a pack of cards, pick one, and pass the remaining cards to the next player, repeating the process until three packs' worth of cards have been exhausted—and Standard were the two formats on the menu in Portland. At any given time, there exist dominant Limited and Standard archetypes or decks, also known as the "metagame." These archetypes (essentially, combos of cards, both at a micro and macro level) are woven into the fabric of the game by its designers, who want to provide players with cool stuff to discover, and thereby encourage people to buy more booster packs. The players who, in Limited, can draft the strongest deck, or in Standard can "brew" or build a deck that is favored against the field, will have an advantage against their opponents.
Furthermore, the metagame is constantly evolving. If, say, "control" decks take down a couple of high-profile tournaments, deck-builders will respond by developing aggressive strategies that prey on and are faster than those decks. Then, if aggressive decks start to assert their dominance, "midrange" strategies often crop up to beat them back—and round and round it goes.
Again, though, as in poker, even the strongest players can "run bad" and lose to variance. You know how in televised poker they broadcast that, say, one player has a 3 percent chance to win, and then a one-out river card puts that player over the top? That happens in Magic, too. Still, even though it's possible that an unskilled player could win, say, a relatively informal three-round tournament at a local game store during Friday Night Magic, at high-level events, the skilled players almost always win out. There's a reason why the Top 8s of Pro Tours or Grand Prix are regularly populated by a familiar cast of characters.
What sets apart the great Magic players from the merely OK? Attributes that skilled chess or poker players have are common, such as the ability to make a long-range plan with the resources available to you; to manage those resources effectively; and to be able to shift your plan accordingly, and quickly, if the game state changes. You have to be patient, decent at math, able to hold a lot of complexity in your mind at any one time, and have a knack at discerning hidden information (meaning the cards in your opponent's hands or deck, which of course you can't see). The very good players make this look almost easy, but it only comes with—seriously—years of practice.
One of these experts is Patrick Chapin, 34, known as "The Innovator" for his brewing skills. A writer for StarCityGames.com—one of Magic's largest retailers and strategy sites—he has been playing since age 13 (1994 was his origin year, too). Like many top players, he doesn't put much stock in the game's goblins, dragons, and wizards. "I am not big into fantasy books or movies, but I do think that the 'flavor' helps make it more cohesive," he says. "A lot of people who play Magic say they don't care about the flavor at all, but it's fun when you have a metaphor for what's happening, when you can describe a verb of what you're doing, or a noun of what you're doing it to."
(Take, for example, the phrase "Bolt the Bird," which means to cast a Lightning Bolt kill spell at a Birds of Paradise card, a creature that allows a player to cast more powerful spells earlier than usual. Look, just roll with it.)
Chapin won his own $40,000 prize this May in Atlanta. "It was very surreal. Things were happening in fast-forward," he recalls now. "It was better than I ever imagined, and I had been dreaming about it for almost 20 years."
He's not kidding—Chapin has written two books about Magic strategy, and often makes it a point to wear a suit and tie to big events. "More than 20 million people are competing in this game," he explains. "Up at the highest levels of competition, I'd like to raise the bar in terms of showing that this is something significant. And, honestly, part of it is just that the natural thing in gamer culture is the path of least resistance, in terms of not putting very much effort into these things, and I think that the culture could be so much more."
Not that it's so bad to start with: Compared to other subcultures we could mention, Magic is a fairly cordial environment, in part because it mostly relies on face-to-face interactions (though Magic Online does exist), and thus everyone is kind of forced to get along and be respectful to one another. In general, at tournaments like this, it's like a less trash-talk-and-mirror-shades-based version of the poker scene, with even more players somewhere on the autism spectrum and fewer oozy "cool guys."
Chapin, for instance, seems more or less like a normal dude whose brain just happens to whir a little too fast for its casing. He was duly suited up for his victorious Pro Tour Top 8 performance in Atlanta, which was watched by upward of 20,000 viewers on Twitch, the video-game-streaming site. (Natively digital games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and a new, online-only CCG called Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft draw many times more viewers on a regular basis.) Until Portland, Twitch had been the only way for me to experience a Pro Tour—watching it on TV at home via my Xbox 360 while my wife made faces at the coverage, lamenting that it was even worse than watching football.
And she's right: One of the big barriers to entry in terms of watching Magic coverage is that a) the cards are very small, meaning you have to already know what they do to have much sense of what's going on, and b) you basically only ever see cards and players' hands on screen. It's even less kinetic than poker, if you can believe it. Still, commentators of varying skill levels narrate the action, and there has been a push of late to make Magic coverage more engaging, with, for instance, filmed NFL player–style intros ("Owen Turtenwald, United States, top Pro Points North America") preceding the matches of this week's elite 24-person World Championships, whose finals—with Chapin in the mix—take place this Sunday.
And yet, before TV poker became a thing, people thought it was preposterous that anyone would ever watch that. (Fun fact: ESPN2 used to show Magic tournaments on TV—late at night, of course—back in the late 1990s.) The two card games actually have a great deal in common, so much so that there's a popular saying in the Magic community: "Poker for money, Magic for fun."
Brock Parker, a 34-year-old Maryland native who lives in Las Vegas and has won more than $3.2 million in live poker tournaments, adheres to this philosophy. (Others include Eric Froelich, whose live winnings total more than $1.3 million, and David Williams, a Team PokerStars–sponsored pro who has racked up more than $7.9 million in prize money.) Parker got his start playing Magic in high school, around the same time Chapin did, with the set The Dark, which was one of the franchise's early forays into what is called "top-down" design (meaning that the game's developers start with the set's intended "flavor"—Gothic horror, a genre they'd revisit 17 years later with a set called Innistrad—and then design cards to fit that world).
"I always liked video games," Parker says. "I dabbled in D&D, but it didn't interest me too much." Parker played Magic a year or two around local Maryland game stores, and started to hear about PTQs, at that time a new type of tournament. Winning one (which was much easier back in the pre-Internet Wild West) meant you got to attend one of the then-nascent Pro Tours, and compete for "real" prizes.
Parker went to college around the time the Matt Damon poker movie Rounders was released, in 1998. He started playing poker online at school, and got "completely immersed or addicted, which wasn't so good for college." Poker also got big in the Magic community around this time, opening the door for a cross-pollination of poker slang, such as "tilt" (when you get emotionally disturbed, often unreasonably so, during a game), "angle-shooting" (when you make technically legal but generally scummy-seeming or rules-lawyering plays), "slow-rolling," "heater," and so on.
Still, it begs the question: Why are these guys spending their time playing a game whose top prize, paid out four times a year at Pro Tours held all over the world, from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo, is a relatively paltry $40,000?
"I like how Magic changes up a lot," Parker says. "Poker can get tedious. With Magic, there's always something new every couple of months." In order for Wizards of the Coast to keep the game fresh and keep selling $4 booster packs, they have to keep developing new Magic sets, which get released on a roughly quarterly basis. A whole research-and-development enterprise, based out of Renton, Wash., is behind these new sets; the company regularly takes on pro players who have proved their mettle and want to try their hand on the other side of the spell-slinging fence.
Thus far, it's proved to be a fantastically lucrative business model, and the game incredibly just keeps on growing: A month ago in New Jersey, StarCityGames hosted a Grand Prix tournament in the Legacy format that was attended by an incredible 4,003 players, the third-largest tournament ever despite the cost-prohibitive aspects of collecting the old, very rare cards that are the format's backbone.
In Portland, I was battling a much smaller and more elite crew of 358 players, including the aforementioned Chapin and Parker, as well as Hall of Famers like William "Huey" Jensen, Jon "Jonny Magic" Finkel, and Bob "Dark Confidant" Maher. (Yes, actual Hall of Famers: They're voted in on a yearly basis and get permanent invites to all Pro Tours, plus appearance fees.) I was a little fish in a little pond.
Still, I felt confident in Limited, my format of choice, and reasonably OK about Standard, which I'd only started playing about a month earlier. My main goal, this being my first Pro Tour, was to make Day Two, with a record of 4-4 or better.
This was no trivial matter. A friend of mine who'd previously made Day Two at Grand Prix Montreal told me that he'd had many more objectively important or significant moments in his life: getting married, selling his business for a good amount of money, witnessing the birth of his daughter, and so on. "But making Day Two was the most purely happy moment of my life," he insisted. "There was no fear or uncertainty; it was pure and total accomplishment."
I experienced how he felt after I crushed my first draft in Portland, going 3-0, and clinched Day Two with a pair of unexpected but welcome wins in Standard. I rode the train back downtown that night, exultant and ready to make a run on Saturday. Yet it wasn't to be. Despite going 2-1 in my first draft of Day Two, the wheels came off shortly thereafter, and I didn't win another match. I finished 7-9 overall, good for 172nd place and three Pro Points; during the latter rounds, I sat with the rest of the crowd watching (on TV monitors tuned to Twitch) the players in the feature-match area clinching their Top 8 spots. Periodic cheers went up from the viewing area as various fan-favorite players secured their seats at Sunday's "final table."
I didn't go back to the Expo Center on Sunday; I felt drained after the adrenaline of the past several months, and so instead I did some sightseeing in Portland, walking around a city I'd never been to while I listened to the finals via the Twitch app on my phone. I ended up at Bailey's Taproom just in time to see some of the pros who hadn't made Top 8, including Chapin, heading into a pool-hall bar up the road. "Wanna see if we can hang with the pros?" I asked a friend who had met up with me at Bailey's. "Sure thing," he said. We ended up taking part in what I learned was a Pro Tour tradition: singing terrible karaoke at a shitty bar. The icing on the cake was when Brian Kibler, he of the high cheekbones, sang "Ice, Ice Baby" while Chapin, still suited up, danced like a maniac.
Lead image by Sam Woolley; inside photos by the author.
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