Chapter 25-He Works Hard for the Money


He Works Hard for the Money  

YOU CAN’T FAULT mountains for their ambition. Towering limestone peaks, stretching for the sky, even as gravity aligns against them. “I must be more like those mountains,” I tell myself, one chill spring morning in 2013, on Lake Annecy’s shores on the French-Swiss border. The breathtaking Bauges Mountains encircle the region and, each May, provide the awe-inspiring setting for Europe’s most epic independent Magic event. Bazaar of Moxen is an annual gathering that brings together around a thousand players for four days of card-playing, most notably in two of the games most storied formats, Legacy and Vintage (formerly Type I). Between them, these two ‘Eternal’ formats allow players to build their decks with cards from the entire 20-plus years of the game’s history. Many are worth hundreds, even thousands, of Euros and, inside the utilitarian Salle Polyvalente housing ‘BOM’ (as the tournament weekend is nicknamed), the accumulation of decades-old cards on the tightly packed tables is as breathtaking to the game’s aficionados as the landscape outside. This is a truly special event.  

It is, though, my first BOM: a rare chance to play my favourite format, Vintage, surrounded by peers who also froth nostalgically at the sight of Moxen and Black Lotuses. It is also, I realise, a chance to build on the friendships with Magic players I left behind when I moved from London to Berlin in 2010. Since then, I have popped back for events like Grand Prix London in February 2013 (at 1,970 players then the biggest British Magic event ever) and been grateful to rekindle and recalibrate relationships with old opponents. Now, I am staying in the same hotel as the London contingent, a grand dive called the Hotel Riant Port. For the first time, I think, I feel completely comfortable with the idea that these are real friends — not simply friends of convenience with whom I share a limited, overlapping area of interest. Friends versus Magic friends. That uncomfortable dichotomy that exists quietly for many players in the community – perhaps players of a certain age, for whom Magic is not the only concern in life, and who wish it could be enjoyed in concert with those other concerns; broken out after a dinner party like a board game, for example; shared with colleagues and companions, with whom relationships already exist on another foundation.  

Ever since leaving university on a high, the community I found in Bristol and the sheer indulgence of intellectual specialism, I have been worried about being a dilettante; too insecure to belong to anything with abandon. I don’t know if that feeling pre- disposed me to journalism or if tumbling into the trade reinforced the trait. I do know that part of my motivation for writing about Magic was to allow myself to express how much I do care about something – and to share what it feels like to make a minority pursuit a badge of honour, worn proudly in the outside world. Going on holiday with fellow hobbyists is one way to do that — combining social incongruity with the normal conspicuousness of being a tourist. The trick is learning how to fold completely into a collective indifference to it all.  

Being distant from my former London Magic friends has also helped transform them into normal friends. Not only, per the cliché, does distance make the heart grow fonder, but also in these days of online friendships, there are opportunities to see more of someone with every single status update. Yes, we tend to present a caricature of ourselves on our social feeds, but they can still give a more general impression of someone outside the hours of regular gaming meetings. There, our identities were often confined to the boundaries of the shared interest we were meeting to indulge. Even the banalities of someone’s life become fascinating when you see them for the first time.  

Part of what makes BOM so enriching, though, is that the event’s picturesque destination and extended nature, lend it to actual holidaying. Numerous players bring their partners to Annecy. Before and after sessions testing decks or playing competitively in the main hall, they can explore the local area together. An onus is put on getting together to eat, drink and make merry after the day’s gaming. While talk does drift to Magic – what tweaks to make to a deck, what glorious plays or horrendous misplays one has made – there is also ample room for non-Magic conversation. That might sound like the most obvious thing in the world. But having been stuck on the periphery of most communities I have ever sidled up to, I have not always been able to recognise the unique individuals amongst them. I feared the only way to get to know them was to lose myself in their midst. Perhaps I am a particularly distrustful and cynical person, but it feels like a leap of faith to assume you might have more in common with someone than just the interest you most obviously share. Taking that leap and discovering the full breadth of common ground is a reward. Over raclette and Leffe, am not simply talking to Magic players — but making friends with a trumpet- playing musicologist who also plays Magic, a mining-engineer-turned-stand-up-comedian who also plays Magic, a screen-print artist and English teacher who also plays Magic, and so on. Hopefully, I am introducing them to an itinerant journalist who alongside Magic also quite likes football, prog rock and bicycles.  

For four days, we share everything. Not just breakfast, lunch and dinner — but every decision, every giddy triumph, every crushing defeat. We are the Magic community — and in the practice time we have each morning before our tournament rounds begin, we share exactly the kind of heated strategic debate that formed the basis of Magic’s culture. The idea is simple – cram in game after game against your friends, to fine-tune not only your deck and sideboard, but also your play against different styles of deck. Each game of Magic involves not only playing against the cards you can see, but a constant attempt to perceive and evaluate the plethora of decision trees open to you at any given moment. To understand in a given format, what strategies and specific cards your opponent may be playing, to anticipate not only what is in his or her hand waiting to be deployed or to answer your threats, but what may be added to that hand with each nerve-jangling draw. Similarly, you are not only reliant on the cards in your hand, but on the cards you will draw from your deck. And having built it, you should have an idea of the probability of what is coming next – and how that impacts the use of the resources currently at your disposal. It is a process that, round after round, makes you clench your jaw as the adrenalin pumps through your body, makes your palms sweat, the fingers holding your cards twitch nervously and your tired eyes strain to see everything laid out before you. Magic is not just a game, it is an ordeal. A test of concentration, calculation and decision-making. It leaves you elated when you overcome it, dejected when you stumble and always, always exhausted.  

By the end of BOM, I have played 21 50-minute rounds of Vintage across two trials for the main event on Sunday and finally, the main event itself – the largest Vintage tournament in Europe with just under 300 players taking part. That might sound like a small number compared to an event like a 2,000-person Grand Prix, but with most decks involved costing about as much as a small car, it is an impressive showing. Although I do not come anywhere near winning anything, I do emerge from the punishing few days with a respectable record of wins, draws and losses, plus a host of stories to trade during the boisterous and bleary-eyed final dinner we share. Gleefully, we cram fajitas into our maws, slosh them down with cold beer and restore ourselves after an intense but wholesome gaming getaway. Bazaar of Moxen proves to be the kind of shared experience, short in duration but rich in feeling, which cements friendships. I am sad to say goodbye in the dim and lugubrious lobby of the Hotel Riant Port and promise myself to see these people again soon. For Magic. And for the things beside Magic, that make life good. First though, I have a plane to catch.  

DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO is an urban centre undergoing a constant process of merciless manicure; somewhere so pristine, so glitteringly superficial, I want to claw at it in search of its blackened entrails. It is a city in a state of blissful insouciance, seemingly devoid of self-awareness, because there is so little untoward in the blinding Californian sunshine to prompt internal questioning. The only graffiti I see is one hastily sprayed tag as it is removed from the back door of a Starbucks. A woman hidden from the neck down in shrubbery leads her dog off to crap in private. When I do see one small concrete ledge scuffed by grinding skateboarders, lutter quiet words of gratitude for their enlightened gift to the citizens of these parts. Old Europe it ain’t. And little more than 24 hours on from Annecy, it is, in its overwhelming pleasantness, too much to take in.  

Thank god then for the sea, San Diego’s saving grace. Still alive, still unpredictable, still pungent, unalterable, evasive and wild. It is the morning of Tuesday, 14 May 2013 and I am up early, too early, as my body crashes into another time zone, disorientated and on skittering feet that threaten to slip out from under it at any time. Still, my early start has permitted me the chance to eat a bulging Californian apple and stare at the salty green water lapping at the yachts in the Embarcadero, suddenly alone again after an extended weekend of camaraderie, before I head off for my next appointment.  

A few streets away, on Sixth Avenue, an elite group of Magic players are at work in the conference room of the Hotel Solamar, a plush residence in the thronging and touristy Gaslamp Quarter. They are not playing for fun, but are preparing for the Magic season’s final professional event, Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, which begins just days later on Friday. They are the standard-bearers of today’s generation of professional players, a group revered for their performances at the biggest tournaments, as well as the stream. of ideas and opinions they provide via the website and online store that lends them their name. They are Team Channel Fireball and their head honcho is the much-loved Luis Scott-Vargas, a player who hails from Oakland where he grew up testing himself against the likes of Brian Weissman. More commonly, Scott-Vargas is known by his nickname LSV. It is a moniker that nearly everyone in Magic knows and uses, expressing something of the desire they share to call hima pal. To count him among their Magic gang. To hear the familiar, avuncular voice from his many instructional videos at their side, in their shop, at the Draft table ona Friday evening. In short, LSV is pure A-list Magic celebrity.  

This being Magic, though, he does not quite conform to the image of a normal A-list celebrity. He is self-effacing, modest, quiet even. Bespectacled and clad in flip-flops, he wears his hair in an unreconstructed side-parting that makes him look endearingly Rockwellian, as if, instead of dispensing Magic wisdom, he could be leaning over a diner counter dispensing milkshakes and wise cracks in some golden pastiche of inter-war America. He is Team Channel Fireball’s captain, not because of a domineering personality, but because of his sagacity – and the respect his peers have for his exceptional record in the game. Since dedicating himself fully to professional Magic in 2007 (after a handful of earlier Pro Tour appearances), LSV has accumulated five Pro Tour Top 8s, won Pro Tour Berlin in 2008, been crowned US national champion in 2007, triumphed at four different Grand Prix and established a blistering record with a 16-0 winning streak at a previous Pro Tour in San Diego in 2010.  

These are not achievements that have been stumbled upon through luck, intuition or skulduggery. Being a top Magic player, competing at the Pro Tour’s upper echelons, is work. Hard work. There is something appropriate, then, about the scene behind the black double doors of the Hotel Solamar’s Commodore Conference Room. The air-conditioned command centre is decked out in ochre and black, with a distinctly West Coast carpet, all maritime motifs and Hispanic influence. The room’s centrepiece is a boardroom table – oval, truncated at both ends, also black – around which high-powered businessmen usually do their thing. Here, though, are a rotating cast of the world’s best Magic players, no less serious about their work, no less determined in their pursuit of a slice of the pie – the $250,000 purse on offer at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. They might be wearing shorts and T-shirts instead of pinstripe. They might be using the black leather place mats as play mats. They might work strange hours (from a leisurely lunchtime start to the early hours of the morning), but they are no less sharp-witted, focused or cutthroat than this room’s normal. inhabitants.  

The core group of Channel Fireball testers represents a who’s who of Magic in 2013. Alongside LSV are Eric Froehlich – the old- school Magic pro who made a splash in professional poker, too; Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa ~a Brazilian star, who at the age of 25 has already been inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame and has nine Pro Tour Top 8s under his belt; Conley Woods – a vocal pundit, respected deck-builder and now professional game designer; Ben Stark — Pro Tour Paris 2011 champion and a Limited (Sealed Deck and Draft) mastermind; David Ochoa ~ a quietly brilliant young player and bon vivant; Martin Juza – a Czech pro and relentless traveller with four Grand Prix titles to his name; Shuhei Nakamura — a gnomic Japanese legend, Pro Player of the Year in 2008 and Hall of Famer; Shahar Shenhar – the team’s newest member and at 19, one of the game’s brightest young stars; Brian Kibler- A Hall of Famer and one of the game’s most authoritative voices; Matt Nass – an up-and-comer with a predilection for combo decks; and last but not least Josh Utter-Leyton – a diligent Pro best known by his online handle ‘Wrapter’, who has three Pro Tour Top 8s on his CV going into this latest tournament. Always alongside them is Honey — Eric Froehlich’s playful Pomeranian who, as her name suggests, matches the room’s ochre walls and adds a note of levity to proceedings with her undeniable cuteness.  

By the time I meet the team, I have been playing Magic solidly for four days and feel like my modest chops are the strongest they have ever been. In those four days I have, I believe, got a solid handle on the Vintage format – one that includes the bulk of the game’s 13,000 cards. In contrast, Team Channel Fireball assembled 10 days previously to spend a week testing at Eric Froehlich’s palatial Las Vegas pad. Since then, they have been testing for around 12 hours a day to prepare for the Pro Tour’s format, Return to Ravnica block, featuring both Draft and Constructed rounds using cards from the sets Return to Ravnica, Gatecrash and the newly released concluding set in the block, Dragon’s Maze. It is a format boasting a grand total of 679 possible cards. And still, Team Channel Fireball are not done yet. “In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says you need to do something for 10,000 hours to master it,” says Luis Scott-Vargas. “Everyone in that conference room has spent far more than 10,000 hours thinking about and playing Magic.”  

Scott-Vargas’ journey to mastering the game began when he was 11. He and a friend bought two Revised Edition Starter Decks and taught themselves the game, or at least something approximating the game. After losing interest for a while at high school, Scott-Vargas was lured back to Magic by its strategic complexities while an international relations student at UC Davis. By his third year he was starting to take the game more seriously and nurturing a competitive streak that had previously surfaced at inter-school Street Fighter meets. “I was looking for an outlet,” he says and he found it by attending the many Magic tournaments in the region. Soon, he was attending Pro Tour Qualifiers at the behest of friends determined to reach the game’s top tables. It was a distant dream that for Scott-Vargas initially held little appeal: at his second-ever PTQ, he reached the Top 8, but conceded. to an opponent who was desperate to travel to the following Pro Tour. Says Scott-Vargas, “I wasn’t interested in flying to a Magic tournament. It just sounded like an alien concept.”  

All that changed in 2004, with the announcement that that year’s Pro Tour would include a stop in San Diego. Suddenly, with an elite tournament within driving distance, the proposition seemed an attractive one. Scott-Vargas duly won a PTQ feeding the tournament and embarked on a life-changing trip to America’s self-styled ‘finest city’. The Pro-Tour debutant made the cut to reach day two — but wasn’t hooked simply by his success. Instead, he found himself surrounded by more like-minded individuals than he had ever met before, from all corners of the country and even further afield. The seeds of friendships were sown and Scott- Vargas felt motivated to raise his game. “The social aspect is really what kept me in the game,” he says. “Now, whenever anyone asks me what they need to do to get better, one of the first things I say is: find a group of friends who likes playing the game as much as you do. You can cheer for each other when you do well – and commiserate with each other when you do poorly.”  

Slowly but surely, Scott-Vargas found his friends cheering for him rather more than they were commiserating with him and his climb up the professional ranks gathered pace. Professional players earn Pro Points each season through high-place finishes at Grand Prix, Pro Tours and the World Championship. The more points you accrue, the more benefits – including Pro Tour qualification, travel costs, accommodation and appearance fees – you can earn. Although the exact brackets used to separate the professional echelons have changed over time, with enough time, skill and dedication a pro can eventually reach ‘the gravy train’, where he is qualified by ranking for all the Pro Tours in a year (currently four), rather than by having to win Pro Tour Qualifier tournaments. For Scott-Vargas, that achievement occurred in 2007 and he began to earn something like a living wage from the game. That said, Scott-Vargas was realistic about what joining the Magic Pro Tour meant: “The ‘Pro’ in ‘Pro Tour’ really should stand for ‘promotional’ rather than ‘professional’,” he says.  

TESTING CONTINUES APACE in the hotel conference room amid the fluttering sounds of frantic card-play: the riffle shuffles, the rapid switching of cards in hand like rosary beads (Kibler is renowned for this) and the satisfying slap cards make as they are laid on to a tabletop, the tension in the flexible stock causing them to hit the surface with a percussive note as the final corner is released from the fingers. At any one time, four or five games of paper Magic are going on, to test decks for the Constructed portion of the tournament. Paulo Vitor explains that there are, broadly speaking, three macro archetypes viable in the format: aggressive red or red-based decks, green-based mid-range decks (which, as the name suggests, aim to win in the mid-game) and blue-based control decks (the latest descendent of Brian Weissman’s Deck). That breaks down further into around 10 identifiably different decks, which must all be solidly tested for strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, Team Channel Fireball would turn up with a deck that beats all three of the main archetypes — but it is very rare for one deck to be able to achieve that, while also passing under the radar of the rest of the players. Instead, what the players are looking for is the deck they feel has the strongest match-up against the two archetypes they expect to dominate the metagame, while having a worse, but acceptable, chance against the final archetype. Each game throws up new lessons as to what cards and plays are key in a certain match-up — but the players also keep an eye on the emerging online metagame, too. Decklists outputted by the thousands of players also exploring the format following the release of the final set in the block, Dragon’s Maze, may just throw up a new approach to one of the decks being put through its paces by the pros.  

While half the team are testing for Constructed, the other half is practising drafting the format on Magic Online via any one of the three or four laptops open and glowing in the room. Draft strategies – what order to pick cards in, what bearing that has on the archetype you can expect to build and what signals that sends the other players in the draft — are the source of much heated debate, and several pairs of eyes scrutinise each pick in order to try and optimise the team’s plans for the Pro Tour.  

There is an intensity in the room. With the forthcoming Pro Tour the last of the season, there is much at stake beyond either glory or prize money for a number of the players gathered. This is the final chance to earn Pro Points at the conclusion of a gruelling season, meaning many will find their status in the Pro Player’s Club for the following season defined by their performance here. That, in effect, will go a long way to deciding how viable their existence as professional Magic players remains, following an extended period of tumult in the way Wizards’ organised play programme has been structured.  

While it is true that the Pro Tour cemented Magic’s status as a perennial game, rather than a collectible fad, it has not come cheap. In straitened economic times, with Wizards’ owner Hasbro embroiled in a costly restructuring process, growing the base of the Magic-playing (and -consuming) pyramid rather than its peak, has proved a more desirable goal. While Wizards would certainly agree with Luis Scott-Vargas that the Pro Tour is a vital promotional tool, it has been forced to juggle the competing needs of slimming down the Pro Tour, without destroying the livelihood of its stars, whose exploits have created massive investment in the game from adoring fans. From a high of six Pro Tours that included the World Championships in 2007, Premier Play was by the end of 2012 ina very different place. While the number of open Grand Prix had doubled to over 40, the Pro Tour had been forcibly slimmed down to three plus the heavily overhauled World Championship, featuring only 16 players.  

Living or dying by the flip of a card is not the basis for a sustainable career – and while players such as Scott-Vargas promised themselves never to go into a tournament needing to win money to pay the rent, they do need to know that the time and effort they pour into the game will at least be a break-even prospect. Under the system in place for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons, even this was starting to look a bleak proposition.  

The problem was, that in cutting the number of Pro Tours (where the highest number of Pro Points can be won), doubling the number of Grand Prix and compressing the Pro Players’ Club from nine to three levels, the job of getting on and, more importantly, staying on the Pro Tour became much harder. With less Pro Tours and less incremental thresholds available to get on the ‘train’, a huge amount of significance became focused on Grand Prix, with their fields of several thousand, rather than the exclusive 300- to 400-person fields of the Pro Tour. The result was a punishing travel schedule – often at a monetary loss – for some of the world’s biggest players, even as they tried to hold down Monday-to-Friday jobs.  

Along with Scott-Vargas, the most vocal pro in protesting the system was Brian Kibler. While he accepts the need for top players to have other revenue streams outside of Magic (“You need to be a pro/writer — or in fact, a writer/pro”), he found himself ona painful trek around the world in 2012, desperately trying to accumulate points to make his continued involvement at the top level worth it. Founder of the company behind the popular games Ascension and Sol Forge, Kibler works full-time during the week. Yet in 2012, he found himself on the road to play Magic for over 20 weekends of the year – catching a late flight from America’s West Coast on Friday nights and hauling himself out of bed at 4 or 5 o’clock the following Monday morning to make it home in time for work. His girlfriend began accompanying him to tournaments, simply to see him at the weekend. His performances began to slip as fatigue took hold. And, he says, both he and Scott-Vargas reached the point where they decided that the following season, they would simply give up on Grand Prix and radically scale back their involvement in the game. That would have been a PR disaster for Wizards and could have hit interest levels in their flagship game hard. Punters want to cheer on heroes like the genius- next-door LSV and chiselled charmer Kibler — not a rotating cast of faces who qualify for a Pro Tour once and then disappear again, unable to keep up with the demands of staying qualified. A huge re-think was necessary; one that tacitly acknowledges Magic’s maturity as a game that can be socially compatible with adult life and, after over 20 years, one with players old enough to want to lead that adult life, with its aspirations both professional and personal.  

Thankfully, although Hasbro has now reigned over Wizards of the Coast longer than Peter Adkison did, the customer-centric ethos that Adkison established lives on, facilitated greatly by the communication channels opened up by social media. Aaron Forsythe, director of Magic R&D, says he wants players to know he can see things from their perspective. The former Pro Tour player understood the issues facing today’s crowd. “I’m not some of kind of corporate shill,” he says. “I was out there spending time and money on Magic just like they are now.” Organised play boss Helene Bergeot, is also one of the company’s most outward-facing employees and was quick to take on board the message coming from the professional community. In the weeks leading up to Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, Wizards announced a host of changes in an attempt to stop its celebrity players burning out and walking away from the game’s most fanatically followed tables. As of the 2013-2014 season, a fourth Pro Tour would return to the calendar, whilst only a player’s top-five Grand Prix finishes would count towards his or her annual Pro Points tally. The relief in the Hotel Solamar’s conference room is palpable.    

“The first wave of pros simply had to walk away from the game at a given point,” says Scott-Vargas. And while a number of them have been able to return since 2005, thanks to earning lifetime invites via induction into the Hall of Fame, an all-or-nothing relationship to Magic is not what today’s players want. Proving themselves on the Pro Tour has opened doorways for them into the professions that have flourished in the game’s lifetime — be it in game design, in website production or Magic retail – and made the game an integral part of their lives. “For this generation like Brian, Paulo and myself, that have been playing for five or six years, we want to try and balance our day-to-day lives with being a Magic pro,” says Scott-Vargas. Only time will tell how successful they can be – but as the game endures, it is a conundrum that will not easily disappear. “I might slow down a little bit at some point,” he says. For now though, he has a Pro Tour to play…