A few years ago, you'd be forgiven if you thought Neal Oliver was just a flash in the pan. He spiked his third Grand Prix, which just happened to be the largest-ever at the time—Grand Prix Las Vegas—then had a finals appearance at Grand Prix Oakland a short time later.
But now, almost three years on, Neal Oliver has become a fixture in the Magic community, and an extremely positive one at that. He's worked with some of the biggest teams around; he writes Limited-focused articles for ChannelFireball.com aimed at helping people understand the Limited format; and he streams often on Twitch with a show that interacts with its audience in ways that strive to help everyone improve. Yeah he's Top 8'ed since those first two, but to Neal and to the community, that's secondary to the other value he adds.
A lot has changed for him in the last three years, and he's moved from a weekend-working SAT tutor who played non-online Magic when he could fit it in, to a man who's devoted his career to try having an outward impact on the community, while also growing himself. Oliver chuckled at this, "I was always a teacher; now I just teach Magic."
When we sat down twice between two different rounds to talk, the tournament wasn't going well for Oliver. "My deck is terrible. I mean, it might be the worse deck I've ever had at a tournament. Ever." But that meant almost nothing to him when we talked. "I really can't have a bad weekend," he said. Because for Oliver, the game is about so much more than his results at a given tournament. "I love tournaments, but honestly, having the community is the most important thing to me. Getting to go out to dinner afterwards is just as good."
Since his success in Las Vegas and Oakland, Oliver tried parlayed his newfound status into a his writing and streaming efforts focused on others. His writing changes with the Magic seasons. It's usually either a high-minded overview of all the Limited archetypes and key cards near the set's release, or later, a more granular look at specific archetypes based on his experience. Because his articles are focused on how to engage Limited in whatever way you want, rather than strictly focusing on Grand Prix success, they are not just applicable to the tournament die-hards, but to the more casual fans as well.
His stream tries to do the same. But unlike writing, it's not just one way. He interacts frequently with the chat, and talk about strategy big and small. "We'll discuss choices I made, and whether those choices were right. Sometimes [the stream] is right, and sometimes they're not. Then talk about why." In both media, the focus is on engaging the game is a positive way. "Some days we win a lot, and some days we don't. The most important thing is that everyone is having a good time."
However, all this new-age-y positivity is easy to spout, but it doesn't come easy, especially for a tournament Magician. "It takes an entire mental shift," he said. It's an evolution more than it is a coup. Oliver has been transforming to be more inclusive to all lovers of Magic, competitive and not, and with different life experiences affecting how they engage the product. "It's hard to be positive all the time on the stream. Sometimes I fail badly. But that challenge is a good challenge."
He saw this change in him reflected from the community as well. "We've all been becoming more inclusive and welcoming as a whole, especially in the last few years."
It's like because Oliver's patiently waiting before casting his spells, he transforming. He's moving away from the inward focus on his own results and engagement with the game, to the outward effects on the community. "I've always been outwardly focused, but Magic can be such a self-focused endeavor. Because you're playing to win this game [in front of you]. It's hard to break that."
"Part of the deal with the streaming and the writing is for everyone to improve." It's not easy, and sometimes he sounds like he's trying to truly convince himself. But that doesn't really matter, does it? What's important is that he's getting out and doing it.
Oliver said he always thought community was the focus, and now he's trying his best to live by that credo. "I think our community forges stronger bonds than many others, and on the whole kinder and more generous. Like, if I got a flat tire, I'd expect a Magic player to stop and help me." He laughed, but he was certainly serious. "I'm just a part of something much bigger and better than myself. That feels great."
It's that bent on positivity and faith in the community that allowed Oliver to take the leap to do all these Magic pursuits full time; put everything else aside to focus on Magic. "I'm making it work. I've been very fortune for the support systems I have—my family and friends. I can't thank them enough."
He always wanted to be a teacher. While SAT tutoring, he thought that was his next path. And for the moment, Oliver has morphed into a Magic teacher—engaging with his friends the only way he knows how.
What's the next transformation for Oliver? He thought for a second about the question, and said, "That's yet to be seen." It was clear that the next step wasn't clear, but that's OK. There is no final form to change into. There is only change you see as good at the time. "It's important to appreciate the here and now," he said succinctly.
Even though he was losing in the tournament on this particular weekend, his response to how it's going was quite assured: "It's great; it's just getting better and better."