Ask the Pro: January

Posted in Feature on January 1, 2007

By Wizards of the Coast

Wizards of the Coast welcomes Hall of Famer Raphaël Lévy as the featured player here at "Ask the Pro." A fixture on the Pro Tour for the last eight years, Raphaël is uniquely positioned to answer your questions about the life of a professional Magic player, give a historical perspective on the game and high-level tournament scene, share stories about travelling the world, and talk about the role Magic plays in his life.

Seventh on the lifetime Pro Points list, Raphaël began his Pro Tour career back at Pro Tour-Paris in 1997. He became a regular on the tour starting at the 1998 World Championships. Since then he hasn't missed a Pro Tour, an astounding streak of 49 consecutive events. He was recently honored as a member of the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame's 2006 class and was inducted at the 2006 World Championships in Paris. Send your question, along with your name and location, via this email form. Answers will be posted every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

January 30, 2007

Q: Hello, I am at the age were I need to focus on one profession (other then school) and I wanted to know if I could make a living off of Magic?

A: Hi Shane,

There are a couple of different ways you can make a living off Magic. The most common one is trading and selling cards, but I guess you want to know about making a living playing pro Magic.

When I talked about how you actually become a pro in my answer from October 19, I insisted on the fact that very few players in the world make it. For the ones who actually did make it, none of them rely only on Magic as their only income source. The prizes you win doing only “good” are just enough to make a decent living. So pros also have a regular job (quite rare, as they need a job that allows them to take a lot of days off to travel), a freelance job, they write about Magic for magazines or websites, or as they are talented and smart people, they find other sources of income. Unfortunately, there's not enough money available just in prizes to support everyone who wants to make a living playing the game (and only playing the game) -- because that's a lot of people!

January 27, 2007

Q: How much Magic do you play in an average week? Has this amount changed over your years as a pro player?
-Josh Liller

A: Hi Josh,

If an average week is a week without any event ahead, I would say that I don’t play more than a couple of drafts, so between three and six hours.

I can draft up to two or three times a day, or playtest for a Constructed event up to 30-40 hours on a preparation week.

When I think about it, even though I was doing different things, living in different countries over the years (except the half year I was living in Israel away from any Magic card), I always spent the same amount of time playing Magic. I always found time to play a draft or two a week in my university years, and always prepared more seriously before the big tournaments, even if it meant travelling a couple of hours away from home to find players

January 25, 2007

Q: How many Magic cards do you own? Do you play or have played other TCGs? Is Olivier Ruel coming back to the Pro Tour?
-Various readers

A: How many Magic cards do you own?
I own entire sets of the latest expensions as well as older ones. I don’t know how many cards it is in total, but it should be quite a lot. But the boxes of cards that take the most room are the boxes where I store the sealed and draft decks I have from GPs and PTs. I keep all the Limited decks from those events as souvenirs. Considering I have played more than 25 Limited Pro Tours and about 30 Limited GPs, that’s a LOT of cards. Maybe those decks will be worth something some day!

Do you play or have played other TCGs?
I have tried a couple but the only one I liked enough to play almost seriously (except for Magic) was Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, a trading card game using the gothic-punk world of the role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade. Originally a Wizards of the Coast game, Vampire: The Eternal Struggle is now in the hands of White Wolf. It’s not played in one-on-one games but in tables of four or five players in a free-for-all game. Not only do you have to play the cards right, but you also have to talk every other player into cooperating with you.

Is Olivier Ruel coming back to the Pro Tour?
Olivier, former answerman here, will be playing in Pro Tour–Geneva in a couple of weeks. He will also travel around to all the GPs this season. He said at first that it was time for him to quit and start doing something else, but we all knew he would never keep his words!

January 23, 2007

Q: As the record man in term of number of Pro Tours played, you have probably known most of the gravy trainers, some of them even becoming close friends. But other players didn't have your longevity, and finally quit Magic as pros. Do you still have the time or the will to see them? What do you think of this "renewal" of friends?
-George Abitbol

A: Hello George,

I have met quite a lot of pro players over the years. I haven’t known all of them personally, but I’ve made friends with a lot of them. When I started playing on the Pro Tour 10 years ago, my English wasn’t as good as it is now. You know how bad French people are at English? Well, thanks to the education system, mine wasn’t much better than everyone else’s (fortunately it improved a lot afterwards!). That greatly limited the number of people I could talk to on the Tour! So the first ones I turned to were the generation of young European players who emerged at the same time as I did. I could understand them much better, and we had a home continent in common. Among them, Denmark’s Svend Geertsen, Austria’s Benedikt Klauser, Holland’s Noah Boeken... and the list goes on. At that time, we used to team draft together, and I suppose they helped my English a lot. Soon enough I could talk to everyone on the Tour, but they were the ones that everything started with.

When I pass through Copenhagen, Svend is the one inviting me to stay over at his place. When I pass by Amsterdam, I sometimes ask Noah to go for a drink (he’s always too busy making up for the money he just lost playing poker...), and I’m always glad to see Ben coming back now and then on a tournament.

Interesting people come and go from the Pro Tour. The PTs would be boring if there were no new players!

January 20, 2007

Q: Do pros attend local tournaments such as prereleases? Are you attending any Planar Chaos prereleases this weekend?

A: Hi Alex,

Pros don't attend local tournaments too often. In general, local tournaments use formats pros are not interested in – often PTQ formats or Standard, which is rarely used in high-level tournaments except at Nationals and Worlds. As I explained in an issue some time ago, pros and amateurs have different goals. There's no real interest in a local tournament for a pro. Playing an irrelevant format for low stakes rarely give them kicks.

As for myself, I don't actually play "too much" Magic, and therefore not so many "local tournaments." I prepare when I have to prepare, I always keep myself informed of what's going on, but I don't often play "for fun." I do however play in some FNMs and in-store drafts to keep in shape between tournaments. Göteborg is a very active city Magic-wise, where you can draft two or three times a week with players of a good level.

I do love to play prereleases. I'm going to play both on Saturday and Sunday in Toulouse (as I'm back to France for some time), to discover the cards and (hopefully) win some product so I can prepare for Pro Tour–Geneva coming up in a couple of weeks!

January 18, 2007

Q: What's your favorite color? What's your favorite card you played in a tournament? What's your favorite first pick in a Time Spiral draft? What's your favorite card of all time?
-Quick questions from lots of people

A: Hello "lots of people!"

Let's answer those quick questions one after the other:

What's your favorite color?

I guess I will have to answer green here. Most of the Constructed decks I had success with in my career include Forests. It's not the aggressive/fattie side of the green that I like, it's its "tool" aspect. I defined my style in a previous answer, "combo or control-aggro," and green usually takes part in both archetypes with cards like Survival of the Fittest or Chord of Calling along with mana-acceleration creatures.

What's your favorite card you played in a tournament?

If I had a favorite card, I think it would be either Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves. Over the 12-plus years I've been playing Magic, those guys provided me with more mana than any basic Plains, Mountains, Islands, or Swamps ever had in Constructed!

What's your favorite first pick in a Time Spiral draft?

Vesuvan Shapeshifter. I like to have options in Limited. To me, this card offers more options than any other card in any Limited format. Copying any creature in play, even one of your opponent's, drawing two cards a turn along with a Fathom Seer, locking down your opponent forever with a Brine Elemental, this is what I call having options!

What's your favorite card of all time?

The only Magic cards you would find in my room in Toulouse, are a set of four Arabian Nights Erhnam Djinn and four Mishra's Factory (one of each season) on my wall. They may not be the best cards of all time, and big Ernie probably lost of his charisma over the years, but those cards will remain in my heart forever. No one forgets his first love(s).

January 16, 2007

Q: What do the Pros think of PTQs? Since most of the higher-level pros don't need to qualify thanks to their rating, finish at previous PTs/GPs, etc., do they tend to bother at all with PTQs for the experience and testing or to just try to get the free plane ticket? Do the pros take PTQ results into account when trying to figure out the metagame?

A: Hi Josh,

When you're qualified for an individual Pro Tour, you're not allowed to play in a PTQ for the Pro Tour you qualified for. Pros therefore can't play in PTQs.

Pros consider PTQs as big local tournaments. The winners are usually the best local players or the ones who used the best current technologies. What it means is that over all the PTQs played over the planet, a trend is going to appear, showing which decks are popular and which decks are the best. What comes out of the field is usually the result of a formidable machine, powered by already popular or reliable decks, online technologies designed by pros or local geniuses.

So why would a Pro be interested in PTQs?

1. A bigger tournament, using the same format, is to be played in the near future. Just like the PTQ played the day before the Extended portion of Worlds this year was a big hint of what the metagame would be, they (the PTQs) will draw a rough sketch of what will be played in the upcoming bigger tournaments. During a qualifier season, PTQs are played in the same format the Grand Prix would be. The current Extended PTQ season is very likely to define the field of the Dallas and Singapore Grand Prix events.

2. He's a Constructed freak and loves challenges. He's an article writer looking for credits and wants to throw one of his creations into the machine to see if it can succeed.

3. He has friends who want to qualify and is wishing to share his experience and knowledge in order to help them qualify.

PTQs are the most important tournaments after premier-level tournaments (Worlds, PTs, and GPs). With decklists available all over the Internet, it would be stupid not to take advantage of them to prepare for bigger tournaments!

January 13, 2007

Q: Would you like to become a member of R&D one day?
-Fabian Rockwell

A: I would envy players too much. When you enter R&D or work for Wizards from the inside, you have to give up your player status. That means no tournaments, no prereleases, no Pro Tours, no hanging out with all your friends prior to competitions.

I always feel frustrated when I'm watching games and when one of the players makes a mistake. I always want to shake him and tell him what to do. That usually happens when I arrive too late at a local tournament or when I hang out at tournaments I'm not allowed to play, in such as regionals or PTQs. Thinking that I could not hold the cards myself and be an in-game actor anymore would be too frustrating!

Furthermore, I don't think I would be a good R&D element. My creative skills are very limited, and I don't know if I could end up with good card and concept ideas.

I guess ending up working as a member of R&D could be a logical player's end-of-career solution. When you're done playing, you act behind the scenes so you don't give up the game entirely. But I'm a gamer, so I don't think I would turn to the dark side just yet!

January 11, 2007

Q: Is it worth trying to reduce the luck factor so that Magic could earn respect from Chess and Bridge players? Do you think, for example, some duplicated formats could be applicable to Magic? Bonne chance pour la saison prochaine!
-Fred B.

A: Hi again Fred,

I don't know if you have followed "The Great Designer Search", but one of the tasks asked to the contestants in the beginning was: Explain three positive ways "mana screw" affects Magic.

If there's one luck factor players could or would want to get rid of, it is "mana screw." I'm not going to answer the question myself, but what came out from the exercise was that it is an integral part of the game and that it makes the game balanced. I'll let you read the message boards for more detailed answers.

Magic is a card game, and you will always have a luck factor involved. Magic will probably never earn the respect it really deserves from Chess players because in Magic, you won't win every game just because you're the more skilled player.

I have been actively looking for ways to reduce the luck factor. Remember that, before Pro Tour–Paris, you could only send back a hand with 0 or 7 lands to draw a new hand of seven. The Paris Mulligan rule improved the game undeniably, which suggests that there is still room for improvement. For example, allowing each player to mulligan "for free" once every match would reduce the luck factor. It would probably shake Constructed too much, but would definitely help smooth out Limited matches (feel free to discuss it on the message boards!).

I'm not sure Wizards wants to add such a rule to the game, though. Such a decision to add a mulligan rule would need a lot of testing. But who knows, maybe one day you'll be taking a "Levy Mulligan" in a sanctioned tournament!

I do agree with you on that duplicate tournaments, like the one they had at the Invitational last year (same Limited card pool for each player), would be a great idea. With a pool of cards large enough so there are enough possibilities, every player would build a 40- or 60-card deck with a 10-15 card sideboard. That would be a skill-intensive format, but it still wouldn't spare you from mulligans and mana screws.

January 9, 2007

Q: I am sure you know that Chess judges have to be able to assess situations so that players with a winning situation are never spoiled (for example, when a pawn cannot be prevented from being promoted, leading to an obvious checkmate a few moves later and the opponent refuses to concede).

What Magic player has never been confronted with a stalling player and come out of the round with a draw in the additional turns against an opponent with no chance at all to save the situation? My personal feeling is that stalling players are not to blame, actually in this case it is just well played to use all the allowed time! Even being sanctioned by a warning might be worthy if it earns you one or two points. Don't you think there is a ruling issue?
-Fred B.

A: Hello Fred,

The situation you're mentioning happens all the time. One player has an obvious advantage on the board, his opponent buys a couple of turns by chump blocking before time is called and manages to pull a draw (or a win if it is Game 2) out of an unwinnable match.

An improvement has been made concerning this issue at Pro Tour–Kobe this year. When a player gets a warning for slow play and if the game has a good chance of seeing a winner, the judges can grant two additional extra turns to the match (seven extra turns total after time is called), in addition to any extra time a judge can give if asked for (if he had witnessed a player stalling or playing very slowly during the match for example). Note that in order to have extra time or turns, you will have to call the judge to check on your game. Don't be afraid to do so when you feel you're being stalled. A judge won't grant you anything if he hasn't seen your opponent playing slowly.

Game-play clocks such as those on Magic Online would be a fine solution to the time problem had they not been impossible to set up in real life. I don't really see how players can set their "priority stops" or hit the clock every time they yield priority. The only way you can avoid being stalled out is to hurry the pace when the game starts to lag, and call a judge when your opponent takes too much time thinking.

Playing Pro Tours and Worlds on Magic Online, like the Invitational, would be a possible solution in an abstract sense, but the practical nature of hauling that many computers to every event certainly would make it too expensive, and it would most likely ruin most of the fun of the CARD game. Except giving more time for each round (something that would depend on each tournament structure and organization), I don't really see any realistic way to actually fix it.

January 6, 2007

Q: I wanted to know how much you think Magic is skill-based and how much luck plays a role in it. My experience showed me that even players who are not that experienced or still make some crucial mistakes can win a bigger tournament (even a PTQ), and some players whom I totally respect for their skills end up with a 2-2 or even a 1-3 record at Friday Night Magic.
-Wesimo Al-Bacha

A: That's a question every Magic player asks himself hundreds of times. How much "luck" is involved in a Magic game?

To answer this question, we first have to define what "luck" is. For now, let's say that "luck" is composed of all the random factors you encounter. In a tournament, that means pairings and in-game parameters.

The pairings in Constructed tournaments are a major factor of one's success. There are always decks against which you don't want to play and whether you play against them or not is totally out of your control. Of course, the whole point of a Constructed tournament is to play with the statistics, and play a deck that will give you the best odds to beat your opponents (metagame choice).

In a game, "luck" includes the sequences of cards in both libraries. Players call it "luck," but "randomness" would probably be more accurate. "Luck" would define more how "randomness" gives advantage to one player. To try to find out how much "randomness" matters, let's take a few examples:

1. Two players, with exact same skill level (hypothetically), playing the same decks. The outcome of the match will depend 100 percent on how the cards are distributed.

2. Two players, playing the same decks, with different skill levels. The outcome of the match will depend on how big the difference is between the two players, and how the cards are distributed.

In the long run:

  • Between two high-class players, the better player will have between 56 percent and 63 percent chance to win the match.
  • Between a high-class player and a casual/"OK" player, the odds would be more 65-85 percent depending on how "bad" the latter is.
  • Where do I pull these stats? Where does 58-63 percent come from? Check the Hall of Famers' career statistics tab on their profile pages. All of them are among the best players in the world (just pretend I'm not in there, for the sake of this answer!). Jon Finkel, undeniably the best player of the 10, has won 63.3 percent his matches in premier tournaments (Nationals, Grand Prix, Pro Tours, Worlds). If you check the other profiles, you'll see that the "worst" stats don't go below 56 percent.

    Integrating ALL the random factors into one single equation is probably impossible (and wouldn't fit in my column anyway!). Let's just say that the in-game "luck factor" depends on the play-level difference between the two players – a worse player needs more help from random factors in order to win a match against a better player.

    January 4, 2007

    Q: During your amazing streak of attending Pro Tours, have you ever experienced being mis-judged? Unfortunately this just happened to me at Worlds. Luckily for me, other judges managed to prove I was innocent and talked to the head judge to change the call, which prevented me from being DQ'd. But it was still the worst moment I ever had in my life when I was "declared guilty" by the head judge while I knew I was innocent. As an experienced Pro Magic player, what would you do, or what do you think is the right thing to do in this kind of situation?
    - Wu Jia

    A: Hello Wu,

    I was once in your case. It was in Barcelona in 2001, semifinals of the Masters' Gateway. I was deck checked. I realised that I had forgotten to de-sideboard and I told the judge right away. I knew what kind of sanction I could expect (game loss for failure to present a legal deck). However, the way I reacted looked suspicious to the judges, and after an hour of debating my case, they decided to disqualify me. They were not sure it was intentional, but just in case.

    Of course, I felt it was unfair. I told the truth from the beginning. And that's what you're supposed to do. Hiding information or telling inaccurate facts is going to work against you in the end. I've seen many players being disqualified, not because they were guilty, but because they were not telling the truth. Events at Worlds this year and Grand Prix – Malmö (I'm not talking about Olivier here) come to mind.

    Try to defend your case as truthfully as you can. Try to see if there were witnesses. Try not to invoke the "why would I do something so stupid" argument, because it's usually not a valid one.

    You are basically bound to whatever the head judge decides. Just like in a courthouse, the verdict sometimes is unfair, but you should know that it's not a pleasant decision for a judge to disqualify a player either, especially when the player claims he is innocent.

    January 2, 2007

    Q: How much do popular decks affect your Constructed decisions? Do you have any colors you would rather play than others? How much does Magic Online affect your evaluation of the metagame for such events as Worlds?
    - Eugene

    A: When it comes to choosing your deck for a Constructed event, you have to take into accounts various factors:

  • The metagame: In other words, what is everyone else going to play or what do you expect to play against. Magic Online is the worldwide playing ground, and you can see there which decks are popular. Frank Karsten has been analysing the phenomenon in his column and has done some interesting statistics on the difference between the Standard metagame at Worlds and the Standard metagame on Magic Online. I invite you to take a look at it and see how much similar both fields were. I would say that the field on Magic Online is about 65 percent reliable, which means that 65 percent of the decks you're going to see at a given competition are the decks you see on Magic Online. So how much should you consider Magic Online in your preparation? 65 percent.
  • The playtesting: Playtesting is not about all about tuning the deck you're going to play, it's about integrating the field. You need to know what to expect when you play against a popular deck. You need to have played a couple of games with a given deck to see what its weaknesses are. That way during your games, you can put yourself in your opponent's shoes and figure what would be the most annoying play you could do. Some players manage to do it thanks to their intuition, others by playtesting all the decks.
  • Your style: This has been repeated by everyone a thousand times. You should play a deck you feel comfortable with, a deck you like, a deck you trust. The worst feeling after a tournament is when you tell yourself: "I shouldn't have played this deck." You can have many reasons for that – the deck could just have been too hard to play for you because it's not the kind of deck you usually run, or you didn't enjoy playing your deck and that made you lose focus and make mistakes. If you don't know what your "style" is, take all the decks you have been successful with and try to see what they have in common.
  • Just as an example: I like to play either combo decks (Mind's Desire, Replenish, Project X, 12 post), or control-aggro decks (Rock Aggro, LLL). I don't like to play straight aggro decks and straight control decks (I've never been a huge fan of countermagic). That's what would define my style.

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