One of the most common questions I hear is: “How do I make it as a professional Magic player?” It also happens to be one of the hardest questions to answer. There’s no Magic pill you can take to immediately be the next Jon Finkel. I checked BuzzFeed, and even they don’t have an article titled “10 Easy Steps to Become a Magic Pro.” And if BuzzFeed doesn’t have it, it must not exist.
The reason this question is so hard to answer is twofold. The first reason is that there are a lot of variables that go into being a pro that are hard to quantify. There are a lot of Magic players out there who are certainly more skilled and talented than I am who haven’t had nearly the same level of success that I’ve had. I’m sure you could analyze and break down exactly why that is, and it would boil down to some combination of luck, networking, frequency of attempts, key flaws in their game, and so forth, but it’s not immediately obvious why, and different reasons would apply for different people.
The second reason it’s hard to answer that question is because most people don’t like the answer. I don’t particularly enjoy telling people things they don’t want to hear, but most of the time when someone asks about being a professional Magic player, they are looking for the Magic pill approach, not the realistic approach. The realistic approach involves a lot of work and a lot of failure over a long period of time.
Rather than explain what it takes to become a Magic Pro, I’m going to sidestep the question slightly and instead talk about three attributes that I’ve noticed among professionals that are integral to being one.
One of the biggest things about Magic is that, no matter how good you are, you will always lose more than you win. That’s not to say that you’ll have a losing win percentage or anything, but rather that the amount of wins you need to put up a great finish is so high that not even the best players can pull it off week in and week out.
Consider the Grand Prix last weekend in Houston. There were approximately 1,850 players. 1,850 players isn’t even a particularly large Grand Prix these days, yet out of those 1,850 players, the tournament still cut to a single Top 8 to determine the winner. 8 out of 1,850 players is less than 0.5% of the tournament. One of our commonly used metrics to measure success in Magic is Top 8’ing events, yet less than half of a single percent of the tournament made Top 8.
Even if you broaden the spectrum a bit and consider that earning a prize is what constitutes a successful tournament, then you’re still looking at only the Top 64 players, which is roughly 3.5% of the event. I ended up finishing in the Top 64, and it was a failed tournament for me. I needed to finish with 1-2 more wins than I did to net anything out of it in terms of my Pro Points this year.
I’m not saying this to be depressing. I’m saying it to show that to be successful at Magic, it’s important to consider Magic in the long term and not the short term. It’s important to play a lot of events to maximize your chances of doing well in any one of them, not get discouraged by poor results, and not invest too much into any one event. For every successful event, there are going to be lots of failed events, but those failed events are all worth it those few times you do strike big.
One of the most important attributes of a professional Magic player is the ability to fail in an event, shake it off, and immediately start focusing on the next event. I went almost the entire year in 2014 without a single Top 8 in any event, big or small, playing almost every weekend. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t discouraging, but at the same time, I managed to hang in there and things eventually turned around. Success takes a lot of time and a lot of failure along the way.
#2) Work Ethic
When it comes to things like professional sports, people always talk about how athletic or gifted certain players are. While they aren’t wrong, focusing on that aspect really glosses over how hard those players work. Sure, they might be more athletic or more gifted than the average player, but they also work twice as hard as those players do. Professional athletes dedicate their entire life to being good at their sport.
It’s easy to look at players like Owen Turtenwald or Reid Duke and admire how skilled they are at Magic, but it’s also easy to overlook that they pour in countless hours on Magic Online testing decks for the upcoming events every week. I constantly see Reid playing in Daily Events testing out new decks, updating existing ones, or even just getting a better understanding of a particular archetype. To overstate his natural skill and understate how hard he works is a fundamental misunderstanding of why he’s at the top of the game.
A lot of people want to be professional Magic players but aren’t willing to invest the level of time and work into it that others do. Those people will be passed by the players who do put in the effort.
I spend, on average, 10 hours a day with Magic. I consider it a job and I treat it as such. Even if I don’t enjoy a format, I still test it. Even if I don’t enjoy a deck, I still test it. If you play Magic as a hobby, you can skip the bad parts. If you don’t like Eldrazi in Modern, you can skip playing Modern until Eldrazi gets banned. If you don’t want to buy Jace in Standard, you can play different decks until he rotates out, even if they are less powerful.
If you want to play Magic as a job and make it as a professional, you have to treat it as a job. You can’t half-ass it and expect to succeed. There are no shortcuts.
#3) Mental Fortitude
Bad things will happen. Being able to handle these bad things without letting them gnaw at you is an important key to being a Pro Player. Fortunately, these are things you can train yourself to get better at. It just takes time and discipline.
I used to get intimidated when I played better players. I used to let things like missing my 3rd land drop affect how I played the rest of the game. I would mentally check out, and make mistakes that would actually cost me the game, despite the fact that I could have still won despite the stumble. I used to brood excessively on big losses and let it cloud my thinking for future rounds.
I still do some of these things from time to time, but I’m getting better. Magic is a game with variance. Magic is a game where bad things will happen, and how you learn to deal with these things has a great effect on how successful you will be in the long run.
My favorite tournaments are the events where I start 0-2 but end up battling back to a good finish. Those are the hardest tournaments because they are the tournaments that test your resolve, your willpower, and your ability to succeed through adversity. Being able to handle these obstacles and succeed through them is what separates good players from great players.
Bonus Attribute: #4) Not Using a Playmat and Not Bringing Dice or Tokens to the Match
Preparing all week testing for an event, and then showing up to the match completely and utterly unprepared is something that’s key for Magic success. Having to ask your opponent to “borrow” a piece of paper and a pen to record life totals, knowing full well that you will never return that sheet of paper back to them, as well as never having the correct tokens or dice you need to represent the game state accurately are all integral parts of being a professional Magic player. Don’t ask me why. They just are. All the top pros do this.
I try not to do this, but then again I’m just a Silver level pro. I’m going to need to step things up if I want to reach Gold. I tried to hit Gold the last few years but…no dice.