Chapter 26-Good Afternoon Sports Fans!


Good Afternoon Sports Fans!  

 “WELCOME COMPETITORS!” SAYS the sign above the door. This must be the place.  

It’s 5pm on the dot on Thursday evening. The 1964 San Diego Concourse, a refreshingly patinaed concrete complex in the heart of the downtown, opens its doors for business. As soon as its two slightly baffled security guards unlock the entrance, the 388 players invited to Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze begin to pour in, all eager to register for the start of competition the following day. They have schlepped to San Diego from every corner of the world. From as far afield as Armenia, Brazil, New Zealand and Taiwan, all have come with backpacks full of cards and dreams. As they begin to arrive, in small gaggles – with their countrymen, with impromptu testing teams, with girlfriends or new acquaintances encountered at their hotels – the excitement in the Concourse’s faded lobby builds. Instead of nerves, there is release. After a tense build up, kicking heels in an unfamiliar city, finally, the Pro Tour is a reality.  

Two official card dealers flog their wares to the growing crowd and are quickly swamped. Not only by those desperate to make last-minute additions to their decks for the weekend’s Constructed rounds, but also by those hoping to get a read on the metagame, by seeing which cards laid out in the flat glass cabinets are spiking in price or out of stock. Any clue could just give someone the edge – but they must beware of subterfuge. Experienced players and teams often disguise what they are buying when it gets to the wire, padding their orders with decoys in front of prying competitors.  

The electricity in the air fizzes and pops as the game’s big names roll in, in their star-studded teams, and join the queue to register. Suddenly, players at their first ever Pro Tour (the vast majority of the crowd) are rubbing shoulders with legends like Jon. Finkel and Kai Budde and the aspiration that has fuelled their desire to play the game finds itself fulfilled. The game’s celebrities for their part are most at ease with their team-mates. They do not go unnoticed and plenty of fans will want to meet them over the course of the weekend. Plenty will want to beat them, too, which only adds to the quiet aloofness of some of the pros: they are being eyed up at once as heroes, but also as the subject of future pub anecdotes, future gaming Goliaths taken down by plucky Davids. They are here to win, to play and promote the game they love – but also, unwittingly, to feed the dreams of newbies as high-profile whipping boys.  

The team sponsored by are the first stellar constellation to arrive. Featuring Jon Finkel and fellow Neutral Ground graduate Zvi Mowshowitz, as well as players like Patrick Chapin and Bob Maher, the team is a Harlem Globetrotters of Magic, packed with players who for the most part made names for themselves in the Pro Tour’s early years. As such, there is an ever-so-slight nerd edge to them, the faintest trace of a different gaming generation. One a little more unreconstructed in its otherness to the mainstream. A little more unkempt. A little less fashionable. A little more accustomed to being the odd one out.  

It is barely perceptible – but thrown into relief as Team Channel Fireball saunter in, in good humour, at ease and well scrubbed up. Gone are the shorts and flips-flops. LSV has even donned a button-down shirt for the outing. They might not have settled on what deck to play, but they look comfortable in themselves. As if they could be in the queue for any activity in mainstream San Diego – a cinema to watch something other than the new Star Trek film, a thronging bar in the Gaslamp Quarter, SeaWorld, the Zoo or a gallery in Balboa Park. They are a generation of pro players not only keen to ensure that Magic is compatible with their day-to-day lives, but also a generation who have benefited from Magic’s role in a more visible gaming overground. The internet’s unique ability to unite fragmented sub-cultures and gift them the weight of numbers to be visible to the mainstream has helped normalise previously marginal pursuits and the young players in Team Channel Fireball are the beneficiaries: post-internet Magic players (post-Magic Magic players, even) who have grown up in a society where their hobby is not seen as an entrée to Satanism, where geeks are billionaires and where hobby gamers are no longer viewed as oddballs, loafers or weirdoes. “It’s been very gratifying to see how the player base has evolved,” says the game’s creator Richard Garfield. “At the very beginning, I told people to look out for that. That our champion, our player, was going to look less and less like a backwards nerd and more and more like an intellectual athlete. If you’re smart enough to be good at games, you can be smart enough to be good at other areas of your life, too.” Kibler for example – sponsored by but tellingly more at home testing with Channel Fireball – is buff enough to make the most conventional woman swoon. Cool as a cucumber, he wanders over to one of the card traders who has put aside an order for him, collects it discreetly without having to reveal its contents and foils anyone’s attempt to guess what he plans to play.  

AFTER THE THRONG of huge tournaments like Grand Prix and even Bazaar of Moxen, the most remarkable thing about the Pro Tour is just how small it is. In years past, Pro Tours were open to the public, who could spectate and play in side events run concurrently with the main tournament. But, in expanding the number of open Grand Prix tournaments, Wizards decided to make the Pro Tours private, with less distraction for the participants. “All things considered, it was the right decision,” says organised play boss Helene Bergeot. What it does mean, though, is that apart from the lucky few attending as guests of players, the vast majority of Magic fans will have to find another way to follow the drama as it unfolds in the San Diego Concourse’s Golden Hall, a windowless ballroom decked out in black, burgundy and gold.  

Where once Wizards were buying up time on ESPN2 to showcase their game, the proliferation of high-speed broadband means that coverage of premier Magic tournaments has taken on a whole new dimension. Today, Wizards can side-step sceptical television audiences to reach fans more efficiently and effectively than ever before — on their laptops, on their phones and on their tablets. After two decades, Magic is closer than ever to being the ‘intellectual sport’ its creator Richard Garfield had hoped for – and. it is, to boot, a passionately followed spectator sport.  

While even footage of the very first Pro Tour in New York in 1996 was made available for download by forward-thinking Wizards, online Magic coverage has really come into its own over the past decade. First, former pro and Wizards R&D member Randy Buehler took the helm as an affable host and excitable commentator. Today, an increasingly slick and professional broadcast team run the show. The turning point came in 2006, when a British Magic fan by the name of Richard Hagon began offering his skills to the coverage of European Grand Prix. Hagon had at the time been producing a Magic podcast, but his colourful past had seemingly pre-destined him for a role in the Magic world’s limelight. On stage since he could toddle, Hagon has sung, danced, acted and joked his way through life, taking in about every facet of the entertainment industry in the process. And while he might never have landed a BAFTA or Oscar in his time, the loquacious 41-year-old did hone one very valuable skill: how to tell a good story.  

 “Magic is such a technical, scientific game, that there aren’t many entertainers in terms of their background in there,” says Hagon. What the professional game was crying out for — like all the best sports — was a narrative. Viewers needed to understand not just who was winning or losing a particular match, but why it mattered – in the battle for Pro Tour victory, or a landmark record, or in the race for the coveted Pro Player of the Year title. With a love of American sports — and the heavily statistic-oriented analysis it prompts – to match his love of gaming, Hagon embarked on a quest to bring professional storytelling to Magic coverage. Spurred. on by the untimely death of his father in 2005 – six weeks after Hagon had himself played in the Pro Tour for the first time – the lifelong entertainer began podcasting and then working on official coverage of the European Grand Prix circuit. It was not long before he came to the attention of Wizards’ newly appointed global coverage boss Greg Collins. “What is your vision for coverage?” Collins asked Hagon – and Hagon identified exactly the structures put in place by Rick Arons, Skaff Elias and Seth Matlins a decade previously. “Magic has so many parallels with tennis,” Hagon told him. “There is so much structurally that is the same: the one-on- one, the choosing of a path through that season’s tournaments, the rating points, the invitation-only ‘slam’ events, the different surfaces — like different formats…” It was a story that Magic was failing to tell as well as it might. And, as a former producer at ESPN, it was exactly what Collins wanted to hear. Seven years on from that conversation, Hagon has become the ‘voice of the Pro Tour’ – its dapper, ginger-curled, teddy-bear-like host. He also directs and produces coverage of all the European Grand Prix. While his very jovial, very British delivery is sometimes at odds with a global audience’s expectations, they perhaps take for granted the level of professionalism and broadcasting know-how Hagon has brought with him in his tenure in front of – and significantly, behind – the cameras. It is, says Hagon, “The best job in the world.” And with his generosity of spirit and showbiz chutzpah, Hagon is doing it very well indeed.  

 “EVEN MY MUM watches the coverage,” says Josh Utter-Leyton. The Team Channel Fireball star has taught his mother the game’s basics, so that she can follow the action should her son make it to the Pro Tour’s feature match area – where four matches taking place simultaneously can be filmed depending on how exciting they are or how quickly they progress. Given his impressive string of performances during this season, it is likely he will make it there at some stage during the weekend. But the first Channel Fireball member under the spotlight is none other than Luis Scott-Vargas. The first three rounds of day one will be Return to Ravnica block Draft – where each player in an eight-man ‘pod’ opens three successive Booster Packs, takes a card, then passes it on, until all the cards in the pod are drafted. Each player then constructs a 40-card deck from the pool they have drafted to face off against opponents within his or her pod.  

Drafting is one of Magic’s most fascinating and perfectible skills – and at the heart of each pod lies a tension: between picking what you most need for your deck and picking off key spells that could benefit an opponent. At its highest level, drafting is not only about choosing powerful cards in a vacuum, but also signalling and influencing others in the pod. If you choose the only red card ina pack and pass it on, the player next to you should realise that red is a bad option for his or her deck, because the pair of you will be competing for cards. Thus ‘hate-drafting’ a card which may benefit an opponent can come back and bite the drafter if it sends the wrong signal, and a card which could otherwise make it into his deck is interpreted as available and cut by another player. It is a process laden with pitfalls and compelling in its complexity. And, as the producer of numerous videos on how to draft better — as well as a player with a penchant for some unusual picks – LSV is the pro that fans watching at home most want to see. Accordingly, acamera hovers over his shoulder and sneaks a glance at every card he selects. A judge sets a metronomic rhythm from the Tannoy. 388 players set their minds on winning Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. “Open pack one,” says the judge. “You have 40 seconds.” The clock ticks down. “Draft,” says the judge. “Pass the cards to the left. There should be 14 of them.” The time allotted decreases with each pass, as the number of cards left to select from also decreases. “You have 35 seconds.” The players focus, concentrating on the strategies they have developed in testing, scouring each pack for hidden strengths or cards they might successfully ‘wheel’ around the table in case they must pick something more valuable to their deck this time round. Trying to juggle colours, archetypes, mana costs and ratio of spells to creatures on the fly, they force themselves to remain calm even as the adrenaline surges in their systems. “Draft,” says the judge, like a mantra. “Pass the cards to your left…”  

AS LSV prafTs his deck, each pick is analysed by experts in the commentary booth for the eager viewers at home. Their numbers will climb as time zones around the world align and Magic fans race to a screen to watch the latest developments. Crucially, Hagon has driven up production values and made sure there is no dead air between rounds to spoil their enjoyment. Instead, alongside former Neutral Ground boss Brian David-Marshall, he will tell the story of the tournament – how each match has impacted the standings, which new players are giving the veterans a run for their money, how the chase for vital Pro Points is progressing and so on and so on. It is music to the ears of Pro Tour fans – and it is no wonder then, that the audience is growing with every broadcast. Although Wizards will not give out specific numbers, Twitch, the website Wizards use to co-host coverage of the Pro Tour alongside their official site, shows the scale of Magic viewership: the official Magic channel was viewed 17,308,404 times in its first 18 months.  

Hagon’s reference point is the UK subscription channel Sky Atlantic, which broadcasts HBO’s hugely popular series like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. “Although I am not allowed to give out specific numbers, I can say that Sky Atlantic is immeasurably dwarfed by the viewing numbers we get for Grand Prix and Pro Tours – by a distant order of magnitude,” he says. On. a good night, Sky Atlantic attracts tens of thousands of viewers, which gives some indication of just how popular watching Magic has become. This is despite it lacking the action of a traditional sport – or the frenzied pace of something like League of Legends, one of the foremost video games streamed online for its own legion of fans to watch. Instead, Magic’s strength is its connection with its audience. “The game might not be visually arresting,” says Hagon, “but it is very thought-provoking.” Every player watching at home has an idea of how to play and can empathise with the pros as they play out their games, with the very same cards they have at home. Sometimes, that can lead to screaming at the screen in desperation, when a player is about to make a misplay that will cost him the match. Other times, it involves sitting back in awe at just how brilliantly a pro is able to play a complex control deck or marvel at how a big-name star can extract improbable victories with a mediocre Draft deck. It is a learning experience for a hugely invested viewership. Ultimately, says Hagon, the goal of the coverage is simple, “We want people to be better at Magic. Because when you get better at Magic, you want to play more of it.”  

BACK IN 2009, Luis Scott-Vargas teamed up with friends to launch the website Picking up on a model made successful by websites like, it would be at once a card shop and content provider, offering its users strategic advice from the very best. Scott-Vargas’ task as editor-in-chief was to provide plenty of content himself – both written and in video form – as well as to recruit the original writing roster. Most of those players can now be seen wearing the site’s distinctive logo on their shirts at the Pro Tour and other big tournaments. The website is something Scott-Vargas is proud of. It gave him ownership of a project having previously only contributed to other websites. It was also a role that allowed him to play Magic for a whopping 20 to 30 hours a week, the kind of practice that can only bring impressive results.  

In early 2012, though, Scott-Vargas took on a new challenge, moving to Denver to work as a full-time game designer. He handed over’s editorial reins, but still remained the face of the website, part owner and one of its principal contributors. With a regular job to juggle though, the amount of time he could spend practising Magic per week plummeted to around 5 to 10 hours. To the uninitiated, indeed to most casual players, that might sound a lot. But the effect on Scott-Vargas’ performances was huge. As Grand Prix after Grand Prix piled up — with all the attendant travelling – he went to tournaments under-prepared and could not replicate his earlier successes. The negative spiral of results had a knock-on effect on his Pro Tour play, too. For four in a row, he finished outside the money (which extends down to 75th place) and found himself increasingly jaded. His enthusiasm was on the wane. And the cheerful demeanour and self-assuredness he normally displayed at tournaments was cracking under the strain. He would a need a huge finish – a place in the Top 16 – at the final Pro Tour of the season, if he wanted to continue as a Platinum-level pro the following year: the highest professional status and one which would qualify him for all Pro Tours, reimburse his travel and accommodation costs and earn him a $3,000 appearance fee for each of the marquee events. “Platinum is where it goes from a hobby you pay for to a hobby that pays you,” says Scott-Vargas. “It’s what truly distinguishes you as professional player.”  

But in San Diego, at the season’s crunch event, things do not start well. Despite drafting a solid-looking ‘RUG’ (red-blue-green) deck in front of the cameras, LSV ends the first three rounds a disappointing 1-2 (with one win and two losses). If he is to finish in the Top 16, he can afford a record no worse than 12-4, meaning with 13 rounds still to play, he is already under immense pressure. Lose more than two further matches and his future in the elite of professional Magic will be thrown into question. The lifestyle, the profile, the earnings, financial assistance, the authority as a pundit, his social life… quite simply, Scott-Vargas’ ability to pursue his passion at all.  

The constructed rounds cannot start soon enough. Scott-Vargas, along with the majority of Team Channel Fireball, has chosen to play the team’s ‘Esper’ deck (a nickname derived from an earlier set for blue-black-white decks), one they have fine-tuned. throughout the week in San Diego. A controlling deck – which traditionally leverages the pilot’s play skill – it also packs objectively the most powerful cards in the format and should have a decent match-up against the rest of the metagame. Traditionally, Scott- Vargas has fared better in the Constructed portions of Pro Tours. He is also a skilled control player. And, he can tell himself, the team did not cut corners with their playtesting, working late into the night for the past 10 days. With a deep breath, he steels himself and heads back to the playing area for round four.  

The match, against fellow American Paul Ewenstein playing a green-white midrange deck, does not even go to three games. Drawing badly in both games, Scott-Vargas can do nothing to stop the steady flow of creatures from across the table and crashes out, losing the match in helpless, horrendous fashion. Both players sign the results slip, Scott-Vargas as swiftly as possible, before excusing himself and getting the hell out of the playing area. On tilt, emotional and suddenly full of questions and self-doubt, he cannot help thinking, “that round of Constructed felt like it summed up my entire year.” If things continue this way, he might be out of the reckoning before he has even had a chance to make a play for Platinum status. I bump into him as he exits the hall. When lask how he is getting on, he tells me his record (‘1-3’) politely, but is clearly in no mood to talk to a stranger. Instead, he needs fresh air and his team-mates around him.  

The Californian sunlight can bea good tonic. And more importantly, the friends that Scott-Vargas has around him in his close- knit team – the very reason he fell in love with professional Magic in the first place – are good to him. The sporty Ben Stark has helped him not only with his drafting skills but his fitness, too – hauling him to the gym at regular intervals during testing. Eric Froehlich, with discipline and focus honed at Vegas’ poker tables, is a confidant and mental coach to his friend. Even the enigmatic Shuhei Nakamura offers words of advice in his second language. Just as Scott-Vargas had hoped, the team he has assembled cheer each other on – and commiserate with each other when things don’t go well.  

Starting with the following round, Scott-Vargas starts to play. His opponent is a wildcard entry to the tournament, famous video game streamer Sean Plott, better known by his Starcraft and Twitter handle Day9tv. While Plott is one of the weaker players in the room, he is one of its most engaging personalities. Invited by Wizards in the hope some of his legion of fans would tune into the Pro Tour, he is also just the opponent Scott-Vargas needs. Their games are close, played out in a friendly spirit and most importantly fun. The Team Channel Fireball chief finds himself enjoying the tournament again – and crucially, emerges victorious. Buoyed by success and the kind of social encounter he has always loved at these events, LSV is back.  

The next three rounds are a blur, as he topples one opponent after the next — including team-mate Shahar Shenhar – to recover something of his swagger. By the end of day one, after much soul-searching and a huge mental effort, Scott-Vargas has battled back to a healthier 5-3 and, along with everyone else in the team, made the cut for day two. Although some have only scraped in with disappointing 4-4 records, other members are building momentum nicely, including Josh Utter-Leyton, who is 6-2 after day one, having crushed all-comers with his aggressive red-white deck. It is a focused performance from a player who shut out distractions during drafting with a pair of expensive-looking headphones and souped himself up for the day’s play with the largest frappuccino I have ever seen. Clearly, it is a recipe for success.  

THERE IS AN old German saying that goes, “Im Bett ist alles wett” – “Bed makes up for everything.” A good night’s sleep, cocooned away from the world and its woes, can work wonders. And, after a curative kip back at the Hotel Solamar, Scott-Vargas emerges refreshed and confident ahead of what will almost certainly be a dramatic, season-defining Saturday for him. Starting the day in 132nd place, he settles down to draft again – this time away from the cameras — and proceeds to assemble a tightly focused black- white deck, as the cards he needs seem to reveal themselves perfectly on cue in each pack he is passed. Built on the back of some of the same powerful cards Scott-Vargas is also playing in his Constructed deck (notably the controlling black-white creatures Sin Collector and Blood Baron of Vizkopa), the expertly compiled deck stands him in good stead for day two’s Draft rounds. As a fan of Scott-Vargas’ regular Draft videos once observed, “LSV could win a horse race on a pig.” Thankfully, this is a thoroughbred of a deck – and Scott-Vargas canters to three vital wins in a row to put the previous day’s harrowing Draft behind him. His record stands at 8-3. He has moved up to 42nd in the standings. And it’s not even lunchtime yet. No wonder this guy has 40,000 Twitter followers…  

A number of those followers gather round to watch his clash in the first Constructed round of the day, the tournament’s 12th in total. It turns out to be one defined by the powerful and very hard-to-remove creature Aetherling, deployed on both sides of the table. As the match goes long, more and more players, having finished their matches, gather behind the railing nearest Scott- Vargas’ table to see if he can scrape the victory. But in front of the growing throng – including a number of his team-mates – he once again comes off second best, against form, against expectation, against hope. The final loss he could afford has come – and with it, huge pressure to win the four concluding rounds of Swiss play (before the cut to the tournament’s Top 8), if he is to seal Platinum.  

In the following round, the improbable dream looks already to be shattered. After both players snatch an easy win each in the opening games, an epic game three evolves to a precipitous point for Scott-Vargas. His opponent Jérémy Dezani, on 14 life, has an army of 1/1 tokens ready to deal lethal damage on the next turn. He also has an uncounterable counterspell in hand – called Counterflux – meaning that whatever Scott-Vargas tries to play to save himself (he is on one lonely life point and has a single Aetherling in play), can be countered without response. Knowing all this, knowing that his opponent will kill him next turn and effectively end his season right there and then, he draws dejectedly from the top of his deck and sees the one card that under normal circumstances could save him. Jace, Architect of Thought is a blue planeswalker card which can give opposing creatures -1/-0, enough to prevent the damage from Dezani’s 1/1 tokens. If only he did not have Counterflux in hand!  

Going through the motions, Scott-Vargas half-heartedly taps his mana and throws out his Jace, waiting for the inevitable counter and already calculating all the ways – big and small – that losing Platinum status will impact his life.  

 “OK,” says Dezani.  And with those two syllables, the match turns on a sixpence. It is a horrific mistake from the French player, who is so focused on sandbagging his Counterflux for the answers Scott-Vargas could draw once Jace is in play, that he misses the fact that he must counter Jace itself in order to kill his opponent when the turn passes to him. Once he has verbally agreed that the card comes into play, though, the rules enforcement at this level of play means there is no going back. The one card that could save Scott-Vargas if he could somehow get it into play lands on the table with far more weight than a thin piece of cardstock has any right to. In the blink of an eye, it reignites Scott-Vargas’ entire season. From being ‘dead on board’ (staring down a lethal, losing position), an error, a miscalculation (the kind of mistake that is completely normal after playing a draining and demanding game all weekend, but which highlights precisely the level of concentration required to be a professional Magic player) hands Scott-Vargas the breathing space he needs to win an unwinnable game. He does just that — sealing victory in the most intense and emotional match he will play all weekend. It is an incredible turnaround – and after a demoralising year, a sign that whatever pig Scott-Vargas’ fortune is saddled to is changing course and heading once again towards the head of the pack.  

From there, from being dead and buried, it is all now a comparative breeze for Scott-Vargas. Peaceful, contemplative, Zen, as anyone who has just sidestepped disaster must be, he squares the shoulders beneath his black Channel Fireball shirt and simply does what he does best. As the 388 individual stories of Pro TourDragon’s Maze reach their crescendos around him, as ever-more fevered coverage is broadcast by Rich Hagon, Brian David-Marshall and co, and as the other members of Team Channel Fireball alternatively surge forward and fall by the wayside, LSV strides on. One by one, his remaining opponents fall, until he faces Ari Lax up on stage in a match both must win to make Platinum next season. It is an ‘Esper’ control deck mirror match, which should take an age. Instead, it is over in a dozen or so turns, as LSV serenely stomps his opponent in two one-sided, rapid-fire games. And just like that, a goal which all season had seemed so distant, which all weekend has teetered on the edge of the abyss, is captured. in a whirlwind game of cards. LSV bounds off stage – having sealed an 11th place finish — to embrace his team-mates. $5,000, Platinum, relief, excitement, happiness, he writes later in his tournament report. More than that, though, a rekindled love for the game. A reminder that skills seemingly blunted over the course of a discouraging season are still there, stored in one of Magic’s finest brains. And, that with practice, support and encouragement, one of the most-admired members of the game’s community will still be with us, at the top of his game, whatever he chooses to do with his ‘real’ life.  

Team Channel Fireball also have another phenomenal achievement to celebrate. By reaching the Top 8, Josh Utter-Leyton has Hoovered up enough Pro Points at the end of a season of mind-blowing consistency to come from behind and win the hotly contested Player of the Year race. Although he is finally eliminated during the semi-finals on Sunday (as Luis Scott-Vargas watches on as an expert summariser from the commentary booth), his acceptance speech sums up exactly what makes Team Channel Fireball so remarkable and yet so utterly familiar to players around the world, at every level, watching online. “We are a group of friends who also love playing Magic,” says Utter-Leyton. “And that’s awesome.”