How to Play When Every Game is Mental Magic

Posted in GRAND PRIX LONDON 2016 on October 9, 2016

By Craig Jones

So what's going on with this draft table then? What's with that empty space on the end? Did someone oversleep?

And what is a draft table doing here instead of out in the main hall?

Somebody missing?

The answer to these questions is Richard Wheatley.

Wheatley is visually impaired. He described his sight classification as a "very low B2". As he explained to me, "It's enough sight to dodge big things, but that's about it, and I have no depth perception." Also: "I can't read print."

Not being able to read print seems a pretty big disadvantage when it comes to playing Magic. I talked with him between his first couple of matches in the day to find out more about him and how he came to play Magic despite being unable to see the cards.

First I asked if he'd been visually impaired from birth.

"No, when I was five I had a brain tumor."

Me: "Ouch."

Richard: "Oh, the brain tumor didn't hurt too much, but the staples coming out did."

Wheatley is 21 now and a Physics graduate from Lancaster University. He's been playing Magic for two years, since Khans of Tarkir came out. Currently he plays locally at Dark Sphere in London. Before then he played at the Juice Café up in Lancaster. He told me the communities had been extremely welcoming and gave special to mention to Imogen Tilley, one of the judges from Lancaster, who took his impairment in her stride and didn't treat it as anything weird while he was figuring out how he could play Limited Magic.

He has been playing trading card games for a while, ever since being taught by a friend at age 11 in school.

Now how do you play Magic, or any other card game, when you can't see the cards?

Wheatley has a system of brailled sleeves. These enable him to know what's in his hand. The board state has to be memorized and maintained in memory, with the occasional query to the opponent to determine what's in play.

Of course, for Standard, where the decks are constructed in advance, Wheatley can create brailled sleeves for each card and learn his deck and matchups. Still tough, but doable.

Limited presents a whole additional challenge. Aside from having to memorize nearly every card in the format, not knowing what deck he'll end up in advance means Wheatley needs a different braille system to identify the cards in his deck when drawn.

For Limited he has a batch of numbered sleeves. "14 ones, 8 twos, 5 threes..." all the way down to 27 singletons, as well as some random numbers for potential sideboard cards or "if the deck ends up being weird."

After constructing his Limited deck, he then places each card in the appropriately numbered sleeve and types out a table of the mappings. That means that when he draws a card, reads it as '1', he can cross-reference that against his table and know he's drawn a forest, for example. There are the occasional mistakes.

"Sometimes I'll announce and play a card and then my opponent will tell me I've shown them something else. One time I accidentally showed my bomb rare, which was embarrassing. It didn't matter as the game was lost and I was about to concede."

In the early rounds he told me he frequently checks against the list, but after nine rounds the mappings become largely automatic.

"After nine rounds 'Number 19' becomes Elegant Edgecrafters."

Which can become a problem when the deck changes and 19 is no longer Elegant Edgecrafters. I imagine Wheatley's system involves a lot of remapping between drafts and a fantastic amount of concentration.

It was fascinating the watch the deckbuilding process. With the help of ChannelFireball's Mashi Scanlan, Wheatley built his draft deck, selected the right sleeve for each card and then typed out the mappings on an old braille typewriter.

But what about the draft?

Wheatley has drafted before at home and in his local stores, but a 2,000+ Grand Prix is a different animal. At a Grand Prix it's important to make sure all players play on an equal footing. Also, given how large these events are, it's vitally important to reduce or remove any possible causes of delay between each round otherwise there's a danger the tournament will overrun for a very late finish. When Wheatley entered the tournament, it was with the knowledge it might be logistically impossible for him to be able to draft on Day 2 even if he managed the 6-3 record required to make the cut.

Wheatley did make that 6-3 record, which created a dilemma for the tournament organizers and Head Judge Frank Wareman. Fortunately, Wheatley had suggestions based on what had worked at his local FNM and judges Wareman and Kevin Desprez discussed with CFB's Jon Saso and Mashi Scanlan on the Saturday night for a way to make it work.

As Scanlan told me later on Sunday – "We had to make it work."

They found a way to make it work, cleared it with Director of Organized Play Hélène Bergeot and Wheatley was okayed to Draft on Day 2.

So how did they make it work?

The draft table was taken out of the main hall and setup in the area where we hide away the text coverage team (bright light is bad for us). The draft would then be run on its own clock independently of the main event. Wheatley did not sit at the table, instead standing in the corner a little way away. Saso would ferry Wheatley's cards over to Scanlan, Scanlan would whisper them to Wheatley, Wheatley would make his pick and then the remaining cards would be ferried back to the table for the next player to draft. Repeat until the draft was done.

The ferry

Making the pick

The draft in progress

Creating the mappings

CFB's Jon Saso and Mashi Scanlan with Richard Wheatley

It worked beautifully. Ironically, their draft finished before the main room.

Proving once again that Magic truly is a game for everyone.

Richard Wheatley vs. Jaron Jassi