I spent this last week living in paradise. Every morning I would wake up to the waves of the ocean crashing all of 30 feet from our front door, underneath the bluest of skies and a proud sun. Oh yeah, and David Ochoa usually was seen perched somewhere on the porch observing it all. This was not just some vacation in some four-million-dollar home. It was testing with a group of the game’s best in some four-million-dollar home, or I guess what I have learned to call “work” (ha, yeah right!).
Gabe Walls had arranged for this house to be the setting for an awesome week of Magic and Luis had rallied the troops. The information learned and data gleaned about the format are inconsequential to this article though. There were much deeper implications involved. Instead of focusing on how card A interacted with card B, I want to focus on how character traits were pulled out from within me. While I can only speak for myself, I must say I learned a lot about myself as a Magic player.
The Dream Team
Just so I don’t forget to include everyone, the group that shared the experience was: LSV, Gabe Walls, Webb, Wrapter, Owen Turtenwald, Brian Kibler, Eric Froelich, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (it rhymes with Smad Smelson)*. The goal was to get together and learn how the new set influenced Standard enough so that one of us could break it. I will leave the conclusion of that tale up in the air until the Pro Tour, but I will talk about how testing with this group influenced me as a Magic player.
Over the last 6 months or so, I have become a much more humble player than I used to be. I was introduced into the winner’s circle so quickly that I had no reason to step back and acknowledge the greatness around me. I was the best and it was only a matter of time until everyone else found that out. Then something happened; I started losing. For regular readers of my column, I am sure this journey is nothing new to you as I have tried to be as honest and transparent as possible when it comes to my growth as a player and a person.
Testing for Japan was a nice experience as I got to surround myself with players who were as good as or better than me, which should propel anyone’s game forward some amount. There was something missing though. Efro and Dave Williams showed hints of it at times, but it was never blatantly in my face. I had watched replays of matches from years past, but that was just about the cards. A missing chunk of history needed to be filled for me personally. I needed to learn how those who had been in my position and made it out alive did just that.
Efro certainly had this information stored somewhere, but I never bothered asking the questions that would lead to the answers I sought. Kibler had lived it as well, but once again, I neglected to seek the information out. But then during the testing for this Pro Tour, I was put face-to-face with someone who didn’t need to be asked the question in order to give up the information. Gabe Walls was a catalyst it seemed, as once he began to demonstrate this mentor-like attitude, the stories and lessons came from everyone else naturally.
It turns out that while you may play Magic with friends all the time, you never really understand the gravity of it all from that position. People will tell you throughout your Magic-playing days that in order to get better at Magic, you need to play with players that are better than you. This is certainly true, but that resource is just as valuable in other areas as well.
When players with storied histories are surrounding you, critiquing plays, telling stories, and analyzing decks, you can’t help but feel a little smaller. It is much like when you enter a field on a cloudless night, with the city far away, and you gaze into the sky. Never will you feel as small and insignificant as you do in that moment. You feel blessed in some sense to even be amongst the system, as it is clearly more vast than you can fathom, but you realize you are but a speck in an endless mass.
Your Own Universe
When you are a local player, you are your own universe. You have climbed the local ranks and become the best that there is, but you have yet to look outside your own solar system and into the vast void of the universe. It is not only difficult to improve from here, but it is difficult to remain humble. As far as you are concerned, you are the best and it is difficult not to let that go to your head. I have been in that position, as most of us will be at some point. As you begin to move up the ranks though, you are in for a very rude awakening.
It is not as though people are unfamiliar with the concept of needing to grow as a person before growing as a Magic player, but we take it all for granted. We focus on the spells and the plays that will trick our opponents into some inferior position. We crunch numbers and battle playtest games. And don’t get me wrong, all of that is important and necessary to improve your technical play, but as I have stressed a million times, this game is more than just numbers.
The people, the personalities, and the experiences are what make the game what it is. It makes sense then that without these people, there is a bit of a ceiling in place that restricts your growth both as a player and a person. There was definitely a time in my Magic career where I brushed off others, as I am sure many others have experienced. I looked at others as more of a liability than a resource. They were only there to leak decklists or steal technology, and to be fair, some of them were there only for that. But once I began surrounding myself with players who were there for more than that, my game improved.
Surrounding yourself with good players and good friends opens up so many doors that are otherwise inaccessible. You are put in front of a mirror that talks back and ranges from picking you up in moments of weakness to being brutally honest and blunt at times when your head begins to soar. These people may disguise themselves as many things, but they are always your friends and their presence is always something to cherish.
Reality is a difficult thing to face alone at times, but anyone who has hung out with a group of Magic players before knows that they are not shy about sharing reality with you. You will be forced into the harsh world of it in fact and though it may be tough at times, it is essential to grow. That ceiling of technical play begins to rise as you are able to expand your knowledge of not the game, but yourself.
We are introduced to Magic at an age that tends to be a very volatile time in our lives. This makes the lessons and realities we must face that much more difficult, but it also means that you are able to incorporate an entirely unique life perspective into your daily living. Most people are never given the opportunities to experience the things that Magic enables us to. Yes there are some bad facets of course, but when applied in the right way, the overwhelming majority of what you will learn as you grow up in this underground society are positive behaviors, stories, and lessons, that can then be translated over into the rest of your world.
We focus so much on learning how to mulligan or do combat math that the simple things are lost. No one who has had any success at this game would claim to have done so on their own. Instead, it is the jury of our peers that help guide us and teach us so that we may grow. Often times these peers are at the same point in their lives that you are which can make things difficult at times, but this is where seeking out those that are further along in their journey is valuable.
We noted that playing with the best players will improve your technical play, but to improve as an individual you need to seek out those who have been where you are. Their experience and wisdom is the same as pronounced technical play from the other scenario and it will show just as, if not more, quickly.
I realize that this can end up seeming like I am talking in circles, and to a certain extent, I suppose that is true, but these are the things that go unmentioned in most circles or in articles, while in reality they are the most important lessons. I only harp on them so often because I am experiencing them right now in my Magic career. In a way I am simply the conduit here, but so long as they reach even one person, I am fine with that.
This game will harbor some of the most fun times you will ever have in your life, but it is also a wealth of life lessons and experiences that we should not let go to waste. Watching people grow up on the Pro Tour is actually quite fascinating in some regards and I only hope that I am a good example of this to those of you who will make this your reality some day.
Enjoy the times and the memories because they truly are some of the best. Now on the business side of things, it’s time to go win a Pro Tour. Au revoir from Paris and thanks for reading!
*I know people are going to read into this literally, so I am just making a note that there is actually no rule that Brad Nelson cannot be mentioned here.