Heaping Helping of Gamers

Posted in The Week That Was on July 13, 2012

By Brian David-Marshall

If you have been following Jon Finkel's triumphant return to the Pro Tour scene (and if you haven't, shame on you; you are missing one of the all-time greats playing some amazing Magic) you have likely heard that he is donating a portion of all his winnings—a not-insubstantial amount of money after back-to-back Top 8s—to a charity called Gamers Helping Gamers. The charity, which he co-founded along with Chris Pikula, Bob Maher, Tim McKenna, and a handful of other successful NY-area gamers, offers need-based scholarships to Magic players.

Jayemdae Tome | Art by Donato Giancola

I am excited to announce the first two recipients of the scholarships in this column. I had a chance to talk to them as well as organization president Tim McKenna about what motivated the formation of gamershelpinggamers.org. McKenna described the profile of those who might get scholarships from their organization as players who reveal themselves to be intelligent through their game play, even if it might not be completely evident in their school transcripts.

"Magic players as a group weren't usually challenged in school—we may be projecting a little," laughed the organization's founder and president. "Often when we see grades or a resume, we may be looking at somebody who might not be doing as well because they weren't engaged in the material and may even be struggling in school somewhat. That certainly fits the profile of all of us."

The scholarships are need-based and the committee handing them out takes that into account along with some measure of academic performance; a healthy amount of Magic playing (although they stress that players can be casual or competitive); and a pretty unique qualifying essay that is made up mostly about questions regarding Magic: The Gathering, from their relationship to the game to the cards and mechanics they find the most and least interesting.

McKenna has been playing Magic since 1993, when Beta packs were still available, and has never really taken a break from the game.

"I went through a phase where I was the best or second best player in Maine but that was in 1994," joked the Grand Prix Top 8 competitor whose best PT finish was 17th at Pro Tour Los Angeles 2000. Now married and a dad with a full-time job—not to mention a charity to run—the bulk of his playing comes either online or with his local playgroup. "I have played in one GP Top 8 and lost playing for Top 8 two times. In my last GP I lost playing for Top 8 to Tim Aten in Grand Prix New Jersey. I still have dreams of qualifying for the Pro Tour again, somehow. It is still a possibility."

He explained the motivation for creating the organization came from his interactions with younger Magic players who were obviously not able to take the right steps to pursue higher education.

Civilized Scholar | Art by Michael C. Hayes

"From meeting a variety of people over the last decade, I know that they should be going to school based on talking to them about this game that is intellectually challenging and difficult, and doing analysis of things with them that are reasonably complicated and they are clearly good at it. And yet they were not going to college, or going part time, or were struggling along with it."

Knowing the pool of applicants was out there, combined with a collection of successful older gamers talking about the daunting issues of the world who also had the means to make a difference in people's lives, is what led them to do this.

"We have a group of donors who are these Magic players who are now older and have money and see the same thing. We think we have a good group of kids we can reach who are underserved by the other scholarship opportunities because their grades are not in line with their intellectual capabilities."

The scholarships are working out to be around $5,000 a year for the recipients and there are two this year. One is finishing his last year of undergraduate studies and the other is about to embark on his freshman year of college. Both of them will be fully funded to complete their educations thanks to this program.

"We always accept donations. The site can take donations from Paypal or Google Checkout. If a person wants to make a more substantial donation they should probably just email info@gamershelpinggamers.org," said McKenna, who also explained that the next wave of applicants would be able to start working on their submissions this fall.

"The big thing that stood out about both of our recipients were their essay responses. Our essay questions were 'a little unusual' in that they are Magic themed and you don't get asked about that for a scholarship application very often. The thing that was make or break for us were the questions about what cards and mechanics they liked/didn't like. We got a wide array of answers—some didn't like things because of their implications for the rules or some of them were pure design-themed responses. That part of the application was what made us most interested."

Let's meet the first two recipients of the scholarships.

Dylan Fay, Scholarship Recipient

Dylan Fay is a 21-year-old undergrad at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He is studying English and history and will start preparing for law school soon.

"I started playing Magic when Darksteel came out. I was in middle school and we had some fun rules when we started playing," recalled Fay, who thought Rampant Growth was essentially Demonic Tutor at the time. "We started going to tournaments about six months later and I got stomped by Affinity when Skullclamp was legal. The Junior Super Series really got us started and I have been pretty competitive ever since. Mostly PTQs and StarCityGames Opens. My saddest memory is finishing second in a PTQ that I punted badly."

His first taste of a big Magic event came at the Magic Weekends in Atlanta and Baltimore when he was still playing on the Scholarship Series. He was looking forward to a $5,000 tournament with his friends this weekend when we spoke.

"My favorite part of Magic is seeing people, and most of my best friends I have were made through Magic. The people I don't live near anymore in Orlando and Tampa—I only get to see them at big events. That means a lot when I get to travel and see them."

Jace, the Mind Sculptor | Art by Jason Chan

That sense of friendship was at the heart of his answer for the least favorite card in his essay question. He had to choose Jace, the Mind Sculptor for that dubious honor, despite getting his play set early based on the advocacy of one Patrick Chapin and being a consummate blue mage who loved playing with the card. The issue was that it made his friends not want to play Magic. There were availability issues with getting four copies of the card at a time when competitive players knew they were at a disadvantage if not playing Caw-Blade. With his friends not wanting to play, that meant no shared rides to tournaments.

"It meant not playing Magic for six or eight months and that was no fun at all, and made it my least favorite card," shrugged Fay. "For my favorite card I put down Cryptic Command. I hate doing things on my turn. My philosophy is that they always have it and if I am doing stuff on my turn I am giving them a chance to get me."

Fay found out about the organization when someone—he thinks it might have been Luis Scott-Vargas—retweeted something from the @GHG_Magic account.

"I knew that Jon Finkel was publicizing it and that he was donating a portion of his winnings to it. That made me look it up and although it said preference might be given to people just starting school they were looking for any undergraduates. I decided to submit an application and see how I would do—it worked out really well for me."

The community giving back to the community was very compelling for the young blue mage and he was looking forward to paying it forward once he was in a position to do so himself. He was especially impressed that players he grew up watching were doing it.

"It is really fantastic. The names are really interesting to me—I remember getting a Meddling Mage for Christmas one year. To see the guy behind Meddling Mage deciding that he has gotten something out of Magic and wanting to give something back is a really cool thing."

The scholarship could not have come at a better time for Fay than right when it did. He would normally work through the summer in order to stockpile cash for tuition and living expenses—and even then would always come down to the wire. This year, he had an opportunity to take an unpaid internship in Washington DC for Florida Senator Nelson. His savings were completely eroded by the time he was done with the internship and even had to take a loan to pay for the credits from his internship.

"Florida is having a little bit of a rough time educationally," Fay explained. "They have been cutting aid dramatically and raising costs substantially. UF has had a 15% tuition hike each year that I have been here. Aid keeps getting cut back each year as well. I remember one of my friends who plays Magic got a National Merit Scholarship to go to UF, a couple of years before I went, and his was $5,000 a semester and mine is $500. That is just one example of how things are cut back."

Douglas Johnson and Glissa

The second recipient is Douglas Johnson, a 17-year old recent high school graduate living in Watertown, NY. He is heading off to State University to study psychology. While he likes to win when he plays Magic, he does not have the opportunity to play in many larger events.

"I don't really have the resources to travel for Magic," Johnson said. "There are no StarCityGames Opens or Grand Prix near where I am. The closest one is going to be in Buffalo on the 28th and that is probably the only one I can go to for awhile. I usually just grind every FNM, every Prerelease and Launch Party. I have been playing for about four or five years now."

He started out pretty casually with friends, but when he moved to a larger city with a thriving game store he quickly found out that he needed to be more competitive if he wanted to win. Johnson is motivated by more than the functions of the cards, though, and is drawn by the italic text as much as the rest of the card.

"One of the other reasons I got into Magic was the story of it—the lore and the fantasy," said Douglas, who wrote extensively on his essay about his fondness for Glissa, the Traitor. "I bought all the novels and read the Mirrodin series front and back in a short amount of time and I really liked Glissa—and this is before Scars of Mirrodin came out. I actually own sixty copies of her now. Anytime someone opens one they will trade it to me."

Douglas became aware of the charity early on, while following Jon Finkel as he played at Pro Tour Dark Ascension and Pro Tour Avacyn Restored. He found the site before the application process even started and kept checking back until they posted it and eventually wrote an extremely long essay that took him about a month.

"I love the opportunity and cannot thank them enough for it. Without this, I would have had to take out a bunch of student loans and would not have been able to pay off my education for a while. This pretty much covers the whole four years at State University," said a grateful Douglas. "I can't wait to pay it back into the community years from now when I am done with school and trying to help other kids out."

The charity is called Gamers Helping Gamers, and it is already inspiring another generation to do the same down the line. I love it.

And you too can pitch in just by playing Magic. There is a charity tournament for the organization coming up during the weekend of September 14–16 at The Escapist Expo in Durham, North Carolina. Jon Finkel will be there and possibly some others. The big tournament is on Saturday but there will be Magic all weekend.

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