The Last Word

Posted in Feature on December 1, 2006

By Gary Wise

I feel like I’m timeshifted. They brought back Psionic Blast, Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Goblin Snowman, and all those other purple goodies and threw me back into the mix with them. Cards get retired and occasionally recycled, but I thought as my spell-slinging went, I’d been relegated to the big cardboard box in the basement.

When Scott Johns came to me to see if I’d do one last Wise Words, it seemed like a fun idea. I accepted without much concern over what I’d write, but as the weeks since have passed, I’ve thought more about what one last Magic: The Gathering article means for me. This is closure, a feeling of completeness. I never got to say goodbye at the end of my run or thank the readers who supported Wise Words all those years. I’m glad I can now.

I want to explain why it is I left. Magic became more than just a game for me as I became more entrenched in the game’s culture. With my focus on Pro Tours, I found myself building my life around them, forsaking a lot of the little things we should all do to stay happy. It’s not wrong to love something the way I did Magic and the Pro Tour, but nothing is healthy when practiced in excess.

After moving to England, I found myself wanting to play Magic less and less. It had become my job, and years of intense competition had stripped it of its innocence. I was taking a lot of grief on Internet message boards and didn’t handle it well, succumbing to depression which affected my play and my personal relationships. That was the build-up to my match with Cole Swannack at Worlds 2002.

Cole was a tiny thirteen-year-old who was playing on what was more or less his home turf. We got paired and put in a feature match and thirty people watched us start going through the motions. As the match progressed, it was obvious that Cole hadn’t mastered all of the technical aspects of tournament play. More than once, sloppy moves had me thinking about calling the judge, but while in the past I would have, at that tournament I couldn’t bring myself to crush a kid’s dreams. I knew then I’d lost a good portion of the fire that had made me a pro in the first place.

I knew then I’d lost a good portion of the fire that had made me a pro in the first place.Still, I was relying on Magic to make a living. I didn’t have much in the way of a direction to move in, so I clung to this world. Each PT would see me care less about victory, treat people poorly, and get increasingly sloppy with my work. The only thing that was keeping me around was fear of the unknown, so I kept at it, using the name I’d built to cruise through the motions.

With my results and performance slipping, my money started to run out. Where I’d previously been able to support my costs through prize winnings, I now was spending good money on an endeavor that was proving costly and wasn’t doing enough writing to make up for it. The depression got worse as I got removed from England, took a beating from faceless gamers as a result of my infamous Shock (six days later. You do the math), got quarantined for SARS and so on. With the trauma built up, I finally realized I just wasn’t ever happy any more. I needed a change.

I retired after San Francisco 2004, more or less penniless, dispassionate, and lost. I worked with ‘the other company’ for a few months, but that was even worse. I felt like I’d reached a dead end. With the fun stripped from the game by my former approach and my no longer participating in a competitive environment, there wasn’t much point in continuing to play.

A friend of a friend approached me about starting my website. I dove into my work in the poker industry, making up for my twenties as a decade of avoiding work by putting in eighty-hour weeks. Paris has provided the first days off I’ve seen in 2006. The results have been phenomenal.

Ignoring professional success, building the website and the company it represents has given me purpose. I have a reason to get out of bed in the morning and to keep hacking at the keyboard late into the night. With the work and some professional assistance has come an emotional stability I’d lacked for a long time. I can literally feel the difference in way I approach the world.

I’m a different person now than I was in my Magic days. I still feel deeply about things, but I don’t react as instinctively. I’ve developed a lot of empathy for people I wouldn’t have had back then and take a more objective, less judgmental viewpoint. This change of perception has given me a new view of this world I used to live in as I sit here at the World Championships.

What a difference two years makes. I feel old, experienced, removed, appreciated, and respected, and a lot of warmth from a lot of people. The Hall of Fame ceremony was obviously an amazing thing to experience, the old footage and kind words giving me a pride I’ve never felt before. Seeing old friends – a little balder, a little rounder – has reminded me of the good things about this world I’d forgotten in a miserable time. Of course, being treated like royalty hasn’t hurt.

I’m staying at a hotel Napoleon commissioned. I’m in the heart of old Paris, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’ve been bought dinners, been handed the most ridiculous bling-ring you’ve ever seen, offered money to come back to this world and been welcomed with open arms not only by the people, but by the system after a lifetime of qualifications. I tried so hard for what felt like so long to qualify for my first few PT’s, and now I get the invites with no effort required. Amazing.

Things are more sophisticated now. The level of play has evened out; no more easy matches at Worlds, thanks mostly to Magic Online. The flip side of that coin is that the players are accustomed to the machine doing the work for them. These kids need to play some live Magic for a change, just to get used to watching their opponents’ hands and making sure nothing sketchy is going down. The judges still watch, though; the job Jaap Brouwer and his staff have done here of cleaning out the less-desirables has been outstanding.

The view from the hotel.

The meals are better and more sophisticated. The sets are more complex and thought-provoking. With the tenth anniversary, we’ve been reminded constantly of where we came from, and the Hall ensures the greatest players (and occasionally, the mouthiest writers) won’t be forgotten. It’s all created a sophistication that didn’t exist before, and with it a culture that doesn’t forget its past. I think I’d be outmoded now if I were still doing what I did when I did it.

Coming back has been a revelation. I won’t be able to play in many Pro Tours due to a remarkably hectic work schedule that will have me on the road for 28 of the next 52 weeks, but I’m a lot more likely to come back now than I was a week ago. The one message that’s been pounding in my head over and again is that it was all worth it, because I helped to build all of this. I say that with a lot of pride.

Magic and the Pro Tour gave me just about everything I have now. It taught me about writing and gamers and event coverage. It showed me the things that make players tick, information that I apply to my writing daily. It taught me how to cultivate a game’s history, something I’m working towards with poker, and it gave me the confidence to approach industry bigwigs like I actually know something. I wouldn’t if Magic hadn’t taught me.

It was all worth it, because I helped to build all of this. I say that with a lot of pride.I want to thank everyone for reading Wise Words and my limited columns way back when. It always gave me a sense of purpose, and while I may not have always shown it, whenever someone told me those articles had helped or altered their view of things, it gave me a welling of warmth on the inside. It gave me an outlet for a lot of energy that would have otherwise been misspent, and it’s because of the readers’ belief in the work that I didn’t use that energy in more destructive ways. I’m on the other side now, happy and healthy for the first time in a long time, and you guys helped sustain me through the trying times. A less fortunate man wouldn’t have had that support and might not have survived.

One last thing I want to say: Learn from my example. Magic is a great game, but you’ll only truly appreciate it by keeping it in perspective and putting some balance in your life. Keep the game and the other important things in perspective and you’ll get more out of both. Granted, my focus got me here, but that wouldn’t matter if I hadn’t found some inner peace through all of this. When you look after those other things, you’ll learn to appreciate the game and its people more: I know I did. Take care of yourselves, and thank you.

Gary Wise

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