Week in and week out, this column focuses on what the best players in this game are taking from the game—money, Pro Points, accolades, and the occasional trophy—but for the past couple of years I have had a chance to talk about a handful of gamers and what they are giving back to the game. Gamers Helping Gamers is a nonprofit organization founded by Grand Prix Montreal Top 8 competitor Tim McKenna and a group of veteran Magic players, including Pro Tour Hall of Famers Jon Finkel and Bob Maher, Grand Prix winners Matt Wang and Eric Berger, and three-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Chris Pikula. Their organization provides college scholarships to Magic players who submit to an application process that includes essays about their most- and least-favorite Magic cards. This year marks the third wave of students getting scholarships, with three recipients that I am able to announce here to you.
Photo courtesy of StarCityGames
Nathan Calvin, an 18-year-old student from South Pasadena, California, has been awarded a scholarship of $5,000 per year. Calvin has been playing the game for five years and started playing casually with a friend. There was some fuzziness about the rules, but his interest was piqued and he soon found himself playing in a Worldwake Prerelease.
"I was hooked," said Calvin of his 2–2 foray into tournament Magic. "I became serious about competitive Magic when I won the California State Championship in 2011 and made the Top 8 at a StarCityGames Legacy Open within the span of a few months."
While Calvin, who describes himself as "competitive through and through" loves playing the game, he also has a deep appreciation for the friendships he has been able to make through playing the game at a tournament level. He credits Magic with giving him a much wider worldview than he would have had through his normal high school experiences.
"Nearly all my friends from Magic have life experiences very different from mine," said Calvin. "Many of them are older and have full-time, responsible jobs. Through them I see the breadth of challenges and choices people face, and it makes me more thoughtful about planning what I want from my life in all areas, not just Magic."
As a competitive player, it is not surprising that Calvin looks up to two of the best to ever play the game.
"When I was first getting into competitive Magic I watched every single one of Luis Scott-Vargas's videos," he explained. "I still do, and at least for me the puns never get old. I remember someone talking about how Jon Finkel was donating his prize money from Pro Tour Dark Ascension to a Magic Scholarship program. I've always been sad that I wasn't playing Magic when the JSS was running, and when an opportunity came up to write about Magic to help pay for college, I wasn't going to pass it up!"
The application process is, on the face of it, very simple; hopeful gamers must write four essays that include a personal statement, their most and least favorite cards, and a choice between talking about diversity in Magic or about the intricacies of combat math and bluffing. Calvin ruminated on his answers for several weeks but did not commit them to a document until the deadline was upon him.
"I didn't actually sit down to write the essays—to move them from my head onto paper—until an eight-hour marathon crunch the night they were due," he recalled. "But it wasn't painful, as I tried to think about it as though I were talking to a friend about Magic—and that's something I rarely tire of."
"I also discussed bluffing, and the importance of telling a consistent 'story' with your plays," said the 18 year old. "If you bluff that you have a card and your opponent buys it, carrying through that falsehood at other points in the game can strengthen your position even more."
Calvin's mother thought he might have been even more excited about getting the GHG scholarship than he was about getting accepted into his first choice of college.
"It's not that it's more important, but this massive reduction in my student loans will enable me to have far more freedom in my postgraduate life than I thought I was going to have. The same drive that I have for problem-solving in competitive Magic feels present in my interest in policy questions and research. So while things may change, at this point I plan on a masters in behavioral economics or public policy. Now, with Gamers Helping Gamers, it feels like that is truly possible—i.e., that my undergraduate debt will not prohibit later courses of study if that turns out to be right for me."
Calvin was very grateful to the Magic community that has supported him through his young career and named road-trip companions Hunter Bolding, Cody Molina, Amir Salamat, and Joseph Hourani, as well as his local store owner, Kenny So of Core TCG.
"I have no doubt that there were countless other deserving applicants for the Gamers Helping Gamers scholarship. The fact that I was fortunate enough to be selected will help motivate me to do well as I pursue an education funded by this award—bottom line, I want everyone involved to say in the end that I was a good investment!" concluded Calvin, who will be slinging cards this weekend to celebrate. "I will be playing in the SCG open series in Las Vegas. You never know, maybe I can make it onto their front page, too, by the time the weekend is over."
Brandi Mason is an 18 year old from Sedro-Woolley, Washington, who will have $2,500 a year from Gamers Helping Gamers to propel her from high school into college. She got into playing Magic when her girlfriend brought home some cards and offered to teach her how to play.
"Once I got the hang of the game, I enjoyed pulling other people's creatures from the graveyard because it always made them angry," she recalled. "From there, I kept buying booster packs and organizing decks. Right now, I'm attracted to the game because of all the possibilities for different deck combinations."
Mason described herself as a casual enthusiast with a penchant for Standard multiplayer games. Her constant tinkering with new decks has also led her to become an avid trader. She does not really pay attention to competitive Magic and discovered the scholarship through non-Magic channels.
"I found it through an online scholarship engine while looking for money to put myself through college. I found the entire process very user-friendly and easy to navigate," said Mason, who extolled the virtues of plundering her opponent's graveyard for her favorite card. "I wrote about why my favorite card is Scavenging Ooze, specifically about the fact that you can simultaneously exile a creature, gain a life, and add a +1/+1 counter for a low mana cost and without tapping. Making it a triple threat."
Her essay about least favorite card covered cards that required leveling up "because they eat up all your mana and more times than not get destroyed before they become useful in any way."
Mason chose to write about the subject of diversity in Magic for her final essay and how she envisioned broadening the player base for the game to continue to grow and thrive.
"I talked about how advertising and educating can draw a more racially and sexually diverse crowd. It would especially help bring in more female players. This education and advertising would also help keep players invested in the game long term."
Mason was planning to buy a booster pack to celebrate the Magic community's support that will mean she can continue her education.
"It means a lot because this money means that I can go to college and get an education in something that I'm passionate about, mathematics," said the Magic trader, who may be shedding the casual title as she heads into her first year of college. "It also means that I'll be able to join more Magic communities on my campus and gives me the opportunity to explore different game-play types and possibly join some tournaments—looking forward to getting more into the local Friday Night Magic scene in my town over the summer."
Also tucking a $2,500-per-year scholarship into his back pocket is 18 year old Kenneth Siry, who hails from just outside of Philadelphia in Levittown. An Eagle Scout who also does a lot of volunteer work, Siry will be entering Muhlenberg College following a pre-med track.
Already an avid card gamer when he initially got exposed to Magic on a camping trip with his scouting troop, he was hesitant to get pulled into another game.
"Eventually, some of my friends managed to coerce me into playing a game, and I fell in love," said the once-reluctant player. "What really drew me to the game at first were the interactions between cards; I remember in one of my first games I discarded a Reckless Wurm to a Lightning Axe, leading me to pursue more and more unique interactions."
Those early forays into card interactions have led him down the road to being a combo player.
"I was also drawn to the intellectual side of the game, as it's fun being able to do something that requires intense thinking outside of school, as there's a significantly less amount of pressure to do well and therefore it's much more enjoyable," explained the pre-med student, who describes himself as casual-competitive. "I enjoy playing in tournaments, but I've had a tough time getting to tournaments the past year, with all of my schoolwork. When I do play, it's normally at my local shop for FNM. Most of the bigger tournaments I tend to play in are Constructed Legacy, as that's the only format I have a deck for—Elves. Otherwise, I have two Cubes that I love to draft with my friends when we all have time."
Siry initially heard about the scholarship while Jon Finkel was making the Top 8 of Pro Tour Dark Ascension and learned that the Hall of Famer had earmarked a large portion of his winnings to be set aside for his organization to award as scholarships.
"Naturally, I decided to read up on the scholarship and made sure I applied when I was eligible for it," he recalled. Not surprisingly, Finkel is on the short list of Magic players Siry most admires, which also includes Luis Scott-Vargas and Reid Duke. "They are some of the nicest guys to have graced the Magic world, and I always enjoy keeping track of them during Pro Tours and other tournaments. Not only are they amazing players, but they have such a great outlook when it comes to the game, with LSV being a friendly face and great player, Reid striving to constantly improve his play, and Finkel having such a strong understanding of the game, with all three of them giving back to the community. Along with those three, I look forward to any and all Legacy articles from Caleb Durward, Carsten Kotter, and Drew Levin. They all have some awesome ideas to share when it comes to the format, and aren't afraid to brew, discuss new strategies, or just have a good time with the format."
Siry enjoyed the application process but admitted that the essays were somewhat stressful to compose.
"I wanted to make sure I got to show how much Magic has meant to me over the years. It's not often you get to write about something you love that you've put so much time and energy into," said Siry. "In the end, the reason I love Magic so much is the community. It's not often that you get to connect with people all around the world, along with those in your local area. I've made some life-long friends through Magic. In fact, my best friend through high school introduced himself by asking me 'Are you a Planeswalker?'"
Siry could not choose one just card from the thousands upon thousands that have been printed over the years and chose instead to write about two with a common thread—Vengevine and Deathrite Shaman—that was more than just being powerful in his favorite Constructed format.
"Both cards make use of where all things go to die—the graveyard," said Siry. "I remember when I first started playing how few of my friends realized how useful the graveyard was, so it was fun being able to take advantage of the resources. Deathrite Shaman is an incredibly powerful card, serving as a win condition, a hate card, and a mana dork. It's not often a card so powerful and versatile is printed and its strength is what appeals to me. Vengevine, on the other hand, is just an incredibly fun card to play with. It's a big green dude with haste that's tough to kill, as well as serving as part of one of the most powerful Legacy decks in recent years. I remember reading coverage of GP Columbus where Caleb Durward introduced Survival to the format and took it all the way to the Top 8. After that tournament, I fell in love with the card."
The Legacy format was the backdrop for his least-favorite card, and this time he had no trouble narrowing the field down to a single target. Ironically, it was the rarely targeted True-Name Nemesis.
"The card is tough to interact with, pitches to Force of Will, and holds Equipment really well. It's eliminated several decks from Legacy," lamented Siry. "True-Name Nemesis eliminates one of my favorite things from Magic—interaction—for the low low price of 1UU."
Siry went out of his way to make sure he thanked all of the people involved with GHG and expected that he would be following in the footsteps of Finkel in the future.
"I've put so much time and energy into this game and love that it's giving back to me. I know in the future I'll be giving back to this scholarship. A big part of my life has been giving back to the world around me, through volunteer work and scouting, so I'm really proud of myself for receiving this scholarship."
What Magic is on the horizon for Siry?
"Currently, I'm hoping to have a Cube draft next week with some friends while everyone is in the area for college. Following that, I'm looking forward to Eternal Weekend and Grand Prix New Jersey in the fall."
Congratulations to all three recipients of the 2014 Gamers Helping Gamers scholarships and the best of luck to you in all your Magic and non-Magic endeavors. For more information about GHG, you can go to their website or read the about them from last year's New York Times article.