Art by Eric Peterson
And it's in that spirit and with the utmost respect that I share my story today. I'm leaving Wizards of the Coast in little more than a week, on good terms and with a glad heart. My wife, Amber, and I are moving back home so we can start building our life there. It's where we want to be, so we're going, but not before I've had a chance to look back on where I've been. These last two-and-a-half years have been special to me (I certainly don't want to minimize the awesomeness of this experience), but a big part of that is just how significant Magic has been in my life. I care so much now, working this job and leaving it, because I've cared so much since Day One.
If you don't count the summer my brothers and I spent playing a Magic-like game with house rules extrapolated from cards and a far-from-clear rules insert in 1995, I've been playing Magic for just about ten years. I was window shopping at an Electronics Boutique when I saw Magic Online for the first time ever. I still had great memories about that first summer of exploration. I bought a copy and rushed home to try it out. Judgment was the most recent expansion. That puts us somewhere in the first half of summer 2002.
I dove into the Magic rabbit hole head first. Within days of signing up for my Magic Online account, I was reading all of the major strategy websites, devouring content, spewing out decklists, and inhaling 44 oz. Dr. Peppers. Writers were always talking about their local stores, their regional tournaments, and especially the glory of the Pro Tour. I was hooked. And I needed a deeper connection.
Soon, I found my first store, Pat's Games in Austin, TX. I played in my first PTQ that season. It was an Odyssey Block Constructed event. I had some friends at the store already, but no testing group to speak of. My Rites of Spring-Nantuko Cultivator threshold deck was cutely clever but it had no sense of perspective. I literally had no clue what I was getting into. But I was a quick study and eager. Plus, I liked hanging out and talking about Magic with my new friends.
I remember telling my parents and my ex-girlfriend that I planned to go pro.
I had just recently taken a break from college for the first time; within months I was living with my dad in Brooklyn, hoping the change of scenery would be invigorating. I didn't have much going on for the year I was there, but I did find The Stand, a neighborhood game store within walking distance of my dad's apartment. We take it for granted sometimes, but when you think about it, it's amazing that you could move to almost any city in the United States and so many others around the world and find a place to play Magic with welcoming strangers, especially on Friday nights. Anyway, I had entered Pat's a fresh-behind-the-ears apprentice of the arts. But at The Stand, I entered as a peer and an exotic one at that.
Day in and day out, we drafted and tested and theorized. And I gave all my cards to whomever tended to build decks for other people, one of the many Magic habits I've developed over time.
Shortly after Onslaught came out, I played an Astral Slide-Hunting Grounds deck at that year's Regionals. The cycling mechanic tied everything together as a low-cost method of card draw, graveyard filling, and defense. After setting up, one of my enchantments would toss Akroma into play and the other enchantment would slide her right back out of play to dodge sweepers like Wrath of God.
I felt so good about that deck and that tournament. I was crushing all of the major match-ups with sneaky advantages and interactions popping up all over the place. Before registration I saw Mike Flores outside of his author's photo for the first time ever. He was holding court about his version of mono-black control, raving about his addition of Laquatus's Champion. The whole time I was thinking about how easily I could beat everything he was talking about. Unfortunately, a powerful and impossible-for-me-to-beat Mirari's Wake deck showed up at the last minute and transformed the metagame out from under me. I lost to that twice that day, finishing something like 5–3.
When I moved back to Texas I was a grizzled veteran of the New York Magic scene. I'd been to venerable institutions like Neutral Ground. I Top 8ed my first PTQ the next time there was one in Austin. It was triple-Mirrodin draft. I lost to my friend in the quarterfinals. I won my next five Top 8s, four of them in the next year and a half.
My first Pro Tour was an extended tournament in Columbus, OH. My father, stepmother, and brother came to watch. The allure of Magic has always made sense to me; it's the quintessential intellectual sport. Thinking about the game can get you so far, but at the end you always run into your own limits well before you find the edges of the Multiverse and all its possibilities. But this trip was the first time my parents really got a sense of what was going on. My dad even called my mom in Texas to assuage her concerns about how invested I was in a game.
I've got two main memories from PT Columbus '04. First, I ended up befriending Nick West, Craig Jones, Stuart Wright, Stewart Shinkins, and the rest of the UK contingent that weekend. Nick would end up Top 8ing the PT with his Orim's Chant-Isochron Scepter deck, and I got to chip in on the Saturday evening testing of his quarterfinal match-up. Second, at some point on Saturday I picked up a loss that knocked me out of contention for a big finish. My dad rang the dinner bell and I dropped from the Pro Tour with one or two rounds left. I ended up finishing 93rd and had a great chance of finishing in the money if I hadn't dropped. C'est la vie.
I qualified for Pro Tour London, but wasn't able to make it. The Kamigawa Block PT at Philadelphia was up next. I finished in 93rd again, but this tournament was most notable to me as a giant spotlight on the first time I met my future wife. At a party the night before I left for the PT, we finally made a connection after weeks of peripheral engagement with piles of mutual friends between and around us. Lucky timing really. We met at the last possible party before our graduation-induced diaspora out of central Texas. As soon as I was done playing Magic, I got her phone number from my brother and called her. She was glad I called so soon because she needed my address because she'd already written me a letter. I was supposed to stay with my dad in NY for the rest of the summer. Within weeks I had to go see about a girl, as they say.
By the end of the summer of '05, Amber was moving up to New York while I was staying at school in Texas. I had two years left and we were committed to making it work. I was only a month into the new semester when I found out my financial aid had fallen through. I was free to move now but since I was traveling to Pro Tour Los Angeles 2005 soon, I decided to focus on my testing for the time being.
Pro Tour Los Angeles 2005
As soon as the original Ravnica was previewed, I was picking it apart and building decks fulltime. Pretty early on I found the interaction between Life from the Loam and cycling lands, and fetch lands, and Odyssey threshold lands, and a million other things. I started combining and recombining, feverishly digging for the perfect configuration. I shared my secret tech with Nick and my Austin teammates. They shared my excitement, and challenged me to refine the deck into its final shape. After it was all said and done, I ended up making the finals of that Pro Tour and announcing myself to the world.
That weekend in LA was so much more than a trophy and a big check to me, though. I moved from Austin to New York that weekend with a sweet layover at the Staples Center. That finish gave me a clean break from the tractionlessness of recent years. The big check meant I was free to imagine what I wanted the future to be and I hit the ground running.
Monthly, I was traveling for a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour. I left the country for the first time in my life, heading to Yokohama for Worlds 2005. At every stop, it was like I was taking a little vacation with some of my favorite people from the world. The distance between everyone's home cities is different when you're on the Pro Tour, but we all know what it's like to show up at our store after a busy week in the world, to see our friends from across the state a couple of times each PTQ season. In fact, getting back to my old stomping grounds, drafting and hanging out with so many of my oldest Magic friends, is one of the big draws of going back to Texas.
In May 2006, Amber accompanied me to Prague. This trip was my first chance to introduce her to my friends from outside the tri-state area. The first couple days were "work" days for me, but I found time to learn a little Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and even Japanese. While Amber was familiarizing herself with the city, prepping to be my tour guide in the week after the tournament, I learned how to propose to her in every language my Magic friends could teach me. I don't know if it's because we were all fairly young men preoccupied by a game or if there's weird cultural stuff going on, but some of the guys were trying to figure out the proposal like they'd never heard one in their lives.
Art by Howard Lyon
We'd only been together a year, from Saviors of Kamigawa to Dissension, but already I knew she'd always be my first pick. Schmaltz aside, though, I'm amazed at how well I remember the details of our early years because I can peg each story to a nearby Magic set or tournament. It may not seem like much to you, but I know me and it's a miracle.
As Time Spiral rolled by, I got my first game-design job, an opportunity presented to me by fellow Magic players. I've always liked games, and I've always been good at them—thoughtful too. But making them is challenging, slippery, and constantly evolving work (a lot like Magic). I wouldn't have spent the last three years working on the best game I've ever played if I didn't get to learn the ropes at To Be Continued, so thanks for everything.
After a few years of fading off the Pro Tour, Amber and I moved back to Texas so I could resume my college career! A string of dismal performances capped off by the Two-Headed Giant tournament in San Diego had me reevaluating my options. Despite my recent difficulties, my time in New York playing Magic at the highest level and getting paid to make games had successfully instilled me with a sense of purpose and focus. I re-enrolled at Texas State University in San Marcos, just south of Austin, and switched my major to Computer Science. Need to know how to program if I'm gonna make it in the game industry, I thought.
Three semesters from my degree, I got offered another game-design gig. Seemed like a no-brainer at the time, a real career-making chance versus three more semesters finishing up my philosophy minor. I took the job and drove to southern California. Due to some seismic activity in the company, I was laid off three months later. While I was in California for three months, Pro Tour Austin took place in my hometown. On the other end, I missed Pro Tour San Diego by months. I wasn't qualified for either of them, but there were people there I really would've liked to have seen. Not to be maudlin, but it seemed like the game was literally avoiding me.
The timing of my lay-off wasn't all bad, though. Wedged in between those two Pro Tours, on Thanksgiving 2009, was a wedding. (Aside: it's so much easier to remember the holiday than the date, and that gets me in trouble, because I know I can always look it up if I really need the exact date, but I almost never do. Only like 0.27% of the time.) If you're counting, we got engaged during Dissension and didn't get married until Zendikar. It's fun thinking about what set will be out when we eventually start our family. If that happens in the next couple of years, maybe we'll get to celebrate by drafting a set that I worked on.
When you start working on Magic, your sense of time is torn asunder like the time stream after Teferi phased out Jamuraa. On my first day at the office, I received a full set of New Phyrexia and printout of all the cards in Innistrad. To this day, that was the last time I was more focused on the sets in the world than the ones in our future.
Don't get me wrong, I still watch coverage on the weekends—I'm jealous of how much progressed since when I was playing. I got to watch live as Craig Wescoe won Pro Tour Dragon's Maze in San Diego this spring. I flew out to spend the Return to Ravnica Prerelease weekend at an awesome store in Calgary. As a team, we show up at sanctioned casual events when they're available (still working on our Planeswalker levels) and we pay attention to what people are saying in forums and articles and interviews and on Twitter. Just because we like Magic.
But you know that buzz you get during preview season, when you're looking for new cards for your favorite deck, when you're trying to dig for the secret treasures and über-tech as fast as you can so that you're ahead of the competition? I get that feeling a year and a half earlier.
Avacyn Restored was the first team I was on. At the time, I kept really accurate track of my contributions to the card file. Ten sets later the details have blurred, but one sticks out. Deadeye Navigator and Misthollow Griffin are my splashiest designs, but Thraben Valiant is the only feather I still wear in my cap. I call it a design, but the Valiant is about as obvious and straightforward as a Magic card can be. What tickled me about getting that never-before-seen combination of power and toughness and casting cost and rules text into the set was that it was the first time I can remember selling a Magic card to a skeptical room and having it see print.
At some point in the distant past, where time is marked only by the passage of design teams and development teams, I came up with Tavern Swindler for Return to Ravnica. For months I giggled about flipping all the flips and dreamed about all of the ways people would justify flipping or not flipping. Some lines of reasoning would be better than others, some worse, but on average they'd be pretty average. Waiting to trade Tavern Swindler stories was hard, but worth it. Here's mine.
During the employee Prerelease, my opponent played something bigger than a 2/2 so my Swindler couldn't attack. At the end of his turn, I paused with my hand over my Swindler long enough to give the impression that I was a responsible and mature person and that there was some chance I was not flipping this coin, or at least that I was carefully considering the merits of playing it safe, then I flipped like I was born to do. I lost that flip, drew a removal spell, and got back to attacking. Eventually, he overloaded a Blustersquall to tap my team and buy time. This time I didn't even bother with the charade—"Gotta make back what I lost last time!"—I won that second flip. I've never had so much fun spinning my tires.
And here time starts to unravel again.
On the one hand, I don't know exactly what the distant future holds for me; on the other hand, I do know I'll be playing Theros with my brother, who recently started the game again. I'll get to celebrate my third anniversary with the release of Commander 2013. This spring, my third set comes out and who knows what new milestone it will be marking? The past three years on the job will be shaping my future for years to come. Beyond that, it's comforting knowing that Magic and its community will be waiting with open arms.
I sometimes imagine being the Joe "Jellybean" Bryant to my future son or daughter's Kobe. That's how special this game we all play is—how many of you think about teaching it to your child or to your significant other so you can play together in some nebulously stretching future? This isn't Mass Effect or Dragon's Age (masters of their respective genres). You don't beat Magic, you breathe it.
And right now, for me, it's time for me to exhale.