Time to Enter the Battlefield

Posted in Magic Lifestyle on April 25, 2016

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

"Enter the Battlefield isn't about us. It's about Reid, Melissa, Chris, Owen, Huey, Shahar, and Patrick."

Nate Holt and Shawn Kornhauser started making Magic films for fun. The part-reverent, part-parody beginning of their rise to community fame—"Magic the Gathering: A Professional Tournament"—was a labor of love that blossomed into Walking the Planes. While the quiet cameraman (Kornhauser) and over-the-top host (Holt) made Walking the Planes something that reflected their own brand of Magic, mayhem, and budding friendship with the game's elite, Enter the Battlefield is something entirely different.

"Greg Collins, executive producer of Enter the Battlefield, had an idea for a project of a larger scale than Walking the Planes," Kornhauser said. "It was originally meant to be the story of one Pro Tour season, but it just kind of kept growing. Before long we realized we wanted to do something more involved. We always try to tell personal stories on Walking the Planes, but it can be tough to do something too involved in such a short amount of time."

"Literally, it started as 'Shawn and Nate master project,'" Holt said. "Then it became 'Project Scorpion'—because there had been a Sedge Scorpion on my desk at the time—then it had about 25 different titles before we whittled it down to a couple, and then finally happily chose Enter the Battlefield."

In contrast to the short, one-weekend one-off approach to Walking the Planes, Holt and Kornhauser were tasked with making something bigger about Magic itself. With time on their side—over two years—they made it personal about unique professional players and their backgrounds. Some were local heroes to Kornhauser and Holt, and represented the rich history of Magic's 20 years of the Pro Tour, such as Chris Pikula.

"When we started brainstorming about which players to feature, Chris Pikula was the obvious first choice for me," Kornhauser said. "His story is so deep that we could've spent the entire movie talking about him. We filled out the rest of the featured players from there and we were off."

Melissa DeTora is another prolific, game-changing player who's one of the faces of Magic's modern era of competitive play.

"Nate and Shawn asked me to be in their documentary over two and a half years ago. I didn't really think much of it at the time; they always asked me to be in Walking the Planes, and I usually just said yes," DeTora said. "This time it was much different, though—they wanted to film me during Pro Tour Born of the Gods in Valencia. They wanted to film my Pro Tour testing process. They came to the hostel I was staying at with my testing team and interviewed me and a bunch of people on the team. Then they filmed me in some other spots in Valencia and at the Pro Tour itself. That's when I realized that this was much bigger than Walking the Planes.

"They told a great story about me throughout the filming," DeTora continued. "My experience playing on the Pro Tour that year, my goals, my going to work at Wizards—which I had no idea I'd be doing during the PT Valencia filming. What stood out to me was the stories. While I was talking to Nate and Shawn about their plans and who was in the movie, the choices of the players they wanted to follow and stories they wanted to tell were great, and I realized that this movie was for more than just Magic: The Gathering players."

Creating that feeling was exactly what Holt wanted to accomplish. "I want people to feel they got to know our characters, and feel something for them," he said. "They're real people, and their stories mean a lot to them. They mean something to me too, and I hope the audience can feel that. If some number of people derive that enjoyment, then the whole thing was worth it."

The lengthy production timeline was a challenge for everyone, but Kornhauser knew that the extra time would go a long way toward making Enter the Battlefield something special.

"Discussing the challenges of this project feels like an impossible task unto itself," Kornhauser said. "While I had been making films and videos for a decade or so, I had never attempted a project of this size. We struggled to not become overwhelmed by the scale of it. Shooting for two years as a two-man crew is not something I'd recommend to others. Once we completed production in early 2015, I was locked in the editing room for about a year. Combing through hundreds of hours of interviews and forming a story structure is a really stressful experience. Nate and I would meet in person and rearrange story elements on a table like puzzle pieces. We put more into this project than anything we've ever worked on, and I think it really shows. We became very attached to the characters we featured and it was very important to us that we tell their stories well."

Reid Duke, William “Huey” Jenson, and Owen Turtenwald
From left: Reid Duke, William "Huey" Jenson, and Owen Turtenwald

Despite the deep complexity, Holt and Kornhauser both knew they were treading near a well-worn path.

"There have been a few gaming documentaries similar to Enter the Battlefield in recent years. The concept is fairly straightforward: follow a group of players on their path to the World Championship," he said. "It's a commonly used model because it works really well as a storytelling device. While we put our movie on a similar path, we made sure to not follow it too closely. There are so many competitive Magic players with great stories that we didn't want to just stay glued to the highest level of competitive play. Our priority was to tell compelling human interest stories, not to just feature the best players. I think we managed to do both.

"Owen Turtenwald is the greatest Magic: The Gathering player in the world and is heavily featured, but Chris Pikula is struggling to even qualify to be on the Pro Tour," Kornhauser continued. "We felt having players on both ends of the spectrum made for a more compelling movie. It can be tough to get people to open up in the world of competitive Magic because, generally speaking, it is to one's advantage to keep your emotions under the surface when playing Magic. Fortunately, Nate and I have been following these players for almost five years and have developed some strong relationships with them. Building that level of trust allowed us to get beneath the surface."

The importance of that emotional connection—players as people even with their incredible skill at the game—isn't just what Holt and Kornhauser are looking for.

"The stories here are very relatable even if you have never heard of Magic. This movie will appeal to all audiences and it will make the game more mainstream," DeTora said. "It was always hard to explain Magic to family and friends. They just didn't get it. I remember telling coworkers why I was taking vacation time, because I was going to a Pro Tour or something, and I would literally get laughed at for playing a 'children's card game.' It got to the point where I would just not talk about it, or just say that I'm going away on vacation and not even mention Magic. Hopefully this movie can shed some light on the stereotypes that people have about Magic players or competitive gamers in general.

"I know that a lot of players, myself included, are looking forward to showing this movie to their families and non-Magic friends to help them understand what it is they do on weekends. I'm really looking forward to this movie accomplishing that!"

That blend of Magic passion and relatable, human stories is exactly what Holt and Kornhauser sought, too. It's why players and non-players alike should set aside the brisk hour the feature runs to see it.

"It should appeal to any Magic players who have any interest at all in the existence of the Pro Tour, or any curiosity about how we non–Pro Tour players relate to Pro Tour players," Holt said. "Non-Magic players who like documentaries should like it."

"Magic players should watch this movie because it will show them what it takes to be at the highest level of competitive Magic," Kornhauser said. "Whether that's something you want to achieve or not, seeing what it takes to get to that point is fascinating. For non-Magic players, we just managed to get some incredible stories from the players. We don't just talk about Magic, we learn about their lives and personal challenges."

From Jay Purdy's up-tempo woodwind introduction overlaid by the calls of Pro Tour commentators through Wil Wheaton's narration of the thrilling highs, desperate lows, and personal stories of professional Magic, Holt and Kornhauser sculpted something more than a documentary on the game: it makes Magic more human—more approachable—than anything to come before it.

As DeTora put it, "Pikula trying to get in the Hall of Fame, Shahar winning two World Championships. You don't have to be a Magic player to understand what's going on. People can relate to these players and their stories whether they play Magic or not."

Everyone should experience Enter the Battlefield.

Enter the Battlefield is streaming today (April 25) on twitch.tv/magic starting at noon PT/3 p.m. ET/7 p.m. UTC and will premiere on Netflix and YouTube tomorrow (April 26).

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