Behind the Curve

Posted in Feature on December 15, 2008

By Jeremy Blair

The Stillmoon Cavalier rears up on his dark horse as he mounts his attack from the playmat placed haphazardly under an assortment of cardboard piles strewn about my dining room table. The mp3 player in the corner randomly constructs a soundtrack and provides a rhythm for my work. The phone rings. I don't pick up. There are groupings of cards by color and some assembled by theme. Tribes gather on one side of the table while artifacts and interesting enchantments flank multicolored piles of common and uncommon puzzle pieces. The empty cans of Red Bull and Diet Coke are casualties of my struggle, and no spare shred of scrap paper or ink pen will escape being drafted in my war against time.

My task is at the same time simple and Herculean. I am a brand-new player to this game, and there is a fifteen-year gap that must be filled. There are game mechanics, keywords, and cards upon cards upon cards filled with a seemingly eternal amount of novel text and unfamiliar names that must be memorized, comprehended, and eventually mastered. If a pyromaniac is obsessed with fire, then there should be a commensurate title for gamers in love with cardboard. I want to see it dance. I want to watch the shuffling, the card-flipping, and eventually the disappointed look on my opponent's face when I steal away their last hopes of victory. I don't want to see the world burn; I just want to see it eclipsed, sixty cards at a time.

Most players and collectors know the history. Magic: The Gathering sprouted up in 1993 and marched as a juggernaut through the gaming world over the last 15 years. It has been unstoppable, setting the benchmark for collectable card games. However, I showed up a little late to the party. My personal story might be of little consequence, but my journey and some of the problems that I have had to solve may elicit feelings of nostalgia in a veteran card-flipper or serve as a quick start guide to any number of aspiring planeswalkers.

Fall 2008: My 1993

Most of my professional card-playing buddies began their card playing careers with Magic: The Gathering. My "professional" cardboard-slinging days began with a different game, and I spent a good deal of my time completely lost in conversations that required a substantial knowledge of Magic to comprehend the comparisons made with this other game and a particular card, deck, or popular strategies born in the world of Magic. People would just laugh, as I was barely able to nod my head and listen along. I had no idea what a Lightning Bolt did or what players meant when they talked about a Nevinyrral's Disk or Wrath of God.

After playing that other game for a while, I moved on to a second competitive card game and found some success at the national and international level. Over time I learned about the various types of strategies employed during card games. Some decks assumed a very aggressive posture, while others worked the control angle. There were tempo-based decks and decks that flourished around a key synergy or aimed to explode in a game-clinching combination. On a deeper level, the other games provided exposure to foundational card playing concepts like card advantage, deck construction, and inevitability. However, I had never made the spiritual pilgrimage to the card world's Mecca. I had never played a game of Magic.

In the summer, a new brick-and-mortar opened up in my home town of Tampa, and players from all over Florida started popping up to play any number of games. I trekked over to Anthem Games a couple times a week and noticed that there were 20 or 30 Magic players that consistently showed up for Constructed events or throw down in multiple draft pods. The games that I played were entertaining, but had a bit of an attendance problem. While we struggled to muster enough folks for a sanctioned event, the Magic crowd piled on the support. I really wanted to be a part of that kind of card-playing community.

During any given tournament, you might find faces in the crowd that could be conceptualized as super-casual or ultra-competitive. Some of the guys and gals at the local card hub had played in Grand Prix events, attended the World Championships, or even played on the Pro Tour. While most folks just showed up for Friday Night Magic, there were a number of card flippers aiming to build their ranking and chase the dream. Play the game, see the world. After watching my game flounder and Magic flourish, I made the move.

Closing the Gap

Entering a new game brings with it a sort of excitement that can only be matched by an equal amount of humility. While I have played other games at the pro level and know a lot about a lot of things, I am 15 years behind the curve. This game is filled with players who have been slinging five colors since the early '90s and even more folks who have been studying the best decks, collecting cards, and playing in regular tournaments since before I even learned about card games.

When making the transition into this game, I outlined a plan of attack to close the knowledge gap that I have in game content, mechanics and rules and play skill.

I know, it seems just shy of genius. However, this gave me a good starting point for entry into the game. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I attempted to stand on the shoulders of giants. While entering into a new game with the level of complexity of Magic, the modern age of information sharing and the Internet are there to ease your burden. I spent my early days reading this site and other related Magic: The Gathering sites. I purchased memberships where applicable and perused articles during my spare time.

I would look over deck ideas and jotted down interesting lists. After reading articles, I searched for videos on Magic. I watched the pros play at the Pro Tours and skimmed home brewed videos capturing games, documenting events, or presenting interviews with interesting personalities. Once my notebooks were filled and my eyes were seared with computer screen imprints, I ventured into the game store and purchased actual cards and sleeves.

In my first few events, I found myself losing and learning from my losses. Chameleon Colossus taught me all about the keyword protection, Reveillark decks taught me about the stack and lots of recursion tricks, including the interaction with keywords like Mulldrifter's evoke, and red and white decks taught me about the application of burn and weenie rush. Eventually, I was able to gain a rudimentary understanding of many popular keywords and how the phases and progression of a game worked. It took me a number of losses, but it was not frustrating. I found that there was a great lesson to be learned in each failure.

How Formats Served as Doormats

When I first wanted to jump into the game, I thought I might be looking at purchasing my essential set of the Power 9 and nearly 15 years' worth of important rare cards. Formats were a little confusing, but a huge relief. Once I understood concepts like Block and Standard, the game seemed less imposing. My initial investment in the cards started with the Block format circa 2008. I snatched up a bunch of Faeries, Kithkin, and red spells and started my collection and pursuit at FNM, and soon ventured to a PTQ.

This fall of 2008 seemed like a time in gaming history in which the stars aligned to make my particular entry into the world of Magic ideal. The PTQ season focused on the Block format. This was outstanding. Instead of learning the names, text, keywords, and relative importance of 10,000 cards, I was responsible for covering the content of a couple of sets. Not only was this a relief, it turned out to be a necessity. I love reading over the cards, looking for interactions and building decks, but there was also the issue of play time. I needed time to practice and wanted to develop a feel for the application of general card-game concepts in Magic. The Block and new Standard Formats offered a new player a very warm welcome to the game. It might have been more difficult for me to jump into the game during a different season or with a much larger card pool.

I tried to spend my time evenly in study and practice. There are so many great writers, articles, and videos available for this game that the information barrier that might have existed for a player 10 years ago has been replaced by an information invitation that lures players to the game.

My most important reads have been rules articles, articles on that outline the various levels of play, player programs, and upcoming or past events, and article by other players that describe popular deck strategies and the hottest tech. I have been a huge fan of articles by Mike Flores and Patrick Chapin and have watched a number of videos interviews or episodes that show popular strategies and how to best play certain cards. New players and seasoned players alike can really stay on top of the game with the myriad of resources available.

Looking at 2009

As we are counting down the final days in December, I have been working on a game plan for 2009. There are a number of accomplishments that I aim to achieve in the next couple of years. As I hone my Magic skills, learn the rules, and build up a respectable collection of Tier I decks, the next steps forward include goals setting.

Play skill development and success seem to walk hand-in-hand with exposure to other great players and large tournament experiences, and increasing the number of opportunities to make solid plays and tragic mistakes. Finding success at large events offers a chance to gain confidence in your decision making and provides motivation to play in more large events, while mistakes provide learning opportunities. If you remain humble and self-evaluative, then you are typically able to translate your play errors into lessons that lead to rules or guidelines in similar situations in the future. Aside from scouting very large metagames, big tournament play gives you a chance to watch other players, learn tricks and tips, and land some sweet tech to take back to the local tournament or kitchen table. I can remember the first time I watched a skilled player pilot Five-Color Control. They made interesting choices, held back and played up card advantage, and crushed their opponent using a relatively solid game plan. By watching a number of matches at a PTQ, I was able to learn vicariously and piloted the deck to victory in the following weeks.

In 2009, I want to make moves and plan ahead in a way that will give me the best chance of earning my first pro point. My major goal is to qualify for a Pro Tour. Along the way I aim to build my Constructed and Limited rating and look to enter the level system. My initial goal to hit as many tournaments as possible ties-in with my qualification plan. More tournaments will result in a higher level of skill development and opportunities for learning, but will also provide increased opportunities to win a PTQ, make the cut at a Grand Prix, or make strides in the rating department.

As I think about 2009, I will be thinking about hitting weekly local tournaments, every Prerelease event, and all major events that happen in my region. Hopefully, I will have the chance to hit a couple of Grand Prix events in the United States and I aim to travel to every Pro Tour Qualifier event within driving distance.

As a newcomer in the Magic world, I face an uphill battle. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of talented players, worthy planeswalkers looking to smash face, and skilled technicians operating at every level. It would be amazing to reach the Pro Tour, but it also seems pretty great to take the journey. Like any road trip, half of the fun is getting there.

If any of you guys have tips of hints for a new player or want to pass out some sage advice, hit me up in the forums.

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