Last year, I spent 23 weekends away from home to provide coverage of various Magic events. These days I mostly enjoy my time-out in my own little corner of the world, which means I have plenty opportunity to reflect on what I’ve done.
The following is a collection of stories from 11 years on the road, on planes, trains, and on foot. Nothing of strategic value will be learned, but I hope some of it will be entertaining.
Coverage Stories, Travel Edition
Different Freaks, Different Streaks
When traveling abroad, it’s best to withhold judgment. Say you notice that all the toilet bowls in a big and otherwise modern convention center somewhere in Western Europe lack seats. Not as if someone had stolen them, or forgot to install them, but these bowls don’t even have anything where you could affix seats. One bathroom stall does away with the bowl entirely, offering instead, for your convenience, a white ceramic hole in the ground.
If you’re German and happen to ask a local what’s up with that, chances are they’ll say: “Oh, if you don’t like it around here, then why did you guys invade in the first place?”
While that’s hardly fair, it seems more fair regardless to badmouth one’s own country. Take German trains, which are forever held up as an example all around the world for their punctuality. Much like wearing lederhosen, most Germans laugh at this idea. “You mean Dutch trains?” we might say in disbelief. “Danish trains maybe?”
Don’t expect the on-board WiFi to work, either. When equipping German trains with this brand-new technology (about two years ago) it appears they put a five-year-old in charge, who noticed that all places with free WiFi display a cool sticker advertising the fact. Unfortunately, this person must have mixed up cause and effect and didn’t realize that it is not the sticker itself that connects people to the internet. Now we have lots of trains with cool stickers but no WiFi. Though I don’t want to be too hard on a five-year-old.
The lesson here is: Don’t believe what people tell you, neither about the positive nor with regard to “****hole” countries.
New Places, Familiar Faces
At last year’s Pro Tour Dominaria, I was on text coverage duty with Adam Styborski. I had interacted with Stybs in some coverage chat or email chain, but I didn’t think I ever met in person. So when I ran into him at the team meeting on Thursday, I was ready with something along the lines of: “So great to finally meet you…”
But Adam went first, and said, “Hey Tobi, great to see you again!”
I was taken aback for a second, but rallied quickly and replied in kind. Internally, I thanked the heavens that I didn’t make a complete fool of myself. Although, when I think back to that moment now, I believe the nearby Mike Rosenberg, who scheduled all text coverage assignments at the time, may have noticed my hesitation.
The question continued to gnaw at the back of my mind: where and when had I met Stybs before? It wasn’t until Sunday, when Adam mentioned never having done a show in Europe that I allowed myself to ask the question out loud. It was Mike who gave us the definitive answer: we had in fact never been in the same room before Thursday.
To get mistaken for an old friend is of course preferable to the much more common alternative of being forgotten. I’ve been there, and I’ve also done that myself. I sometimes tell people I’m bad with faces or names, but that isn’t true. It used to be part of my job to identify famous Magic players on sight, and I was pretty good at it. It’s just that the list of people with notable finishes doesn’t leave a lot of space in this monkey’s brain for others.
“Hey Tobi, how are you? How is coverage? Everything going well?”
I stare at the vaguely familiar, friendly face across from me, thinking: Do I know you? Out loud I say, “Oh, we had some internet trouble earlier, but now the stream is up and running, so business as usual.”
Then I recall that social convention requires something more from me, and add: “How about you? Doing well in the tournament?”
This turns out to be a mistake, because the guy pounces on the opportunity and says, “Actually, no. In fact, I’d like to drop. But I forgot to check the box on the result entry slip, and now the judges want to see some form of identification to make sure I’m not a random psycho who drops someone else out of spite. Unfortunately, I left all of my stuff in the car. You think you could come with me and tell them I really am who I say I am?”
Uh-oh. Can I?
I decide not to be overly paranoid and that I probably can. I walk with him over to the main stage and tell the judge in charge of drops that this guy really is who he says he is. The dropout thanks me, we say goodbye, and I return to the coverage area. I still don’t know the guy’s name, but I don’t think anyone noticed, so I’m feeling quite proud of how I handled the situation. The socially awkward penguin transformed into the success kid.
Of course, then the drop judge comes by. “What was this guy’s name again?”
The lesson here is: When traveling, you get to know so many new people, so many times.
The actual lesson is: Don’t be afraid to interact with strangers. It’s unlikely you’re going to win any awkwardness award (appropriately “the, um, awk… ward” for short).
It’s been a long day. The Grand Prix is done and the hall is deserted. Where hours earlier there were hundreds of people, now only a few of us remain in the building: the coverage crew, Jason Howlett, and Jurgen Baert, the staff member waiting to turn off the last lights and lock up the doors.
Outside this convention center in the middle of nowhere, where not long ago taxis crowded to drive droves of players back to civilization, now there are none. Darkness has fallen a while ago and the echoes of our voices mix with the sound of crickets and nocturnal birds. It seems almost impossible to get another taxi to make the trek out here at this time of night, but eventually Jurgen manages to summon one from the deepest pits of hell.
There’s something a little off about the driver’s behavior, but it’s hard to tell in this light and without speaking any common language. Anyway, the bigger issue is that his car isn’t big enough to fit all of us. We don’t have any complaints when Olle Råde creates an extra spot by getting into the trunk, and neither does the car’s owner. He doesn’t even seem to notice, which may be a warning sign. Responsible taxi drivers typically don’t allow that.
Some unreasonable number of us squeeze into the backseat. Still it doesn’t work. We’re too many bodies and too much total body at that. Jurgen says he’s going to call another cab and stays behind.
This is beginning to look like a smart move as soon as we hit the highway. I look out of the window and flinch at the reflector post going by at high speed, way closer than it should be. Lines and lanes, other vehicles, and the shoulder of the road all mean nothing to our driver. For a while, we joke about the headline on DailyMTG should the entire European coverage team be taken out in a car crash. Then we don’t.
We make it off the highway. We’re not safe yet, as we blithely breeze past at least one red light, but now the hotel isn’t far. We even know the way from previous trips. Our driver doesn’t know the way and takes us to the same intersection multiple times. He also doesn’t want to take a hint. In the passenger seat next to him, Rich Hagon is furiously pointing left to make him understand we should take a left turn. He drives on unperturbed. Only when Rich waves a pointing finger in front of his eyes does he even take notice. “Ah, sinistro,” he says and finally sets the turn signal.
I’ve never known Rich to be rude to service personnel. Disappointed, distraught maybe, like when the locals have a different idea about what a pepperoni pizza is. (Most languages sort pepperoni into the plant rather than the animal kingdom.) But by the time we arrive at the hotel, the only thing stopping Rich from being rude is the language barrier. I have no clue how to drive a car myself, so I always assume that the people with licenses know what they’re doing. Rich clearly thinks this person doesn’t, and I’m inclined to trust him on that.
Rich counts out the money for the massively inflated fare. Our driver doesn’t take it, so Rich just leaves it on the dashboard and moves to get out of the car. The driver stops him and points at the meter. Rich shoots him a look and points at the money. The driver ignores this and points at the meter again. Rich picks up the money and waves it in front of the man’s face before putting it back down, with a little more emphasis this time. The rest of us get out, retrieve our bags and our Olle from the trunk, and enter the hotel.
Moments later Rich storms into the lobby, followed in hot pursuit by our driver. There appears to be an argument going on—one half in agitated Italian, both halves in increasingly frustrated gesticulation—but it isn’t clear what it is, or why. The hotel staff intervene and translate. Rich goes back outside with the man and returns alone, having settled the issue.
“So, as it turns out,” Rich answers our unspoken question, “this man is legally blind. His words, not mine. He just didn’t see the money.”
The lesson here is: Traveling will leave you with great stories to share. In fact, afterward we still sat together in the hotel lounge for a couple of hours, comparing notes and feeling happy to be alive. Someone pointed out that we’d have to tell Jurgen what he missed. His journey from the venue to our hotel must have been much shorter but also so much less eventful.
At almost the exact moment, the lobby doors slid open and in walked Jurgen, chased by the same taxi driver that had taken us earlier. Once again, Jurgen, I’m sorry for laughing so hard.
Let’s Get Physical
Another city, another late Sunday night. This Grand Prix took place on well-maintained fair grounds, shiny and pretty and clean. Turn the corner, however, and motorcycle gangs roamed the streets, you had to be careful not to step on needles, and two blocks away people were living in huts made from cardboard and corrugated iron. I’ve seen the city of lights and the lights came from burn barrels.
Just in case you’re wondering, this was not a ChannelFireball event. Indeed I later heard rumors that this choice of location figured into Wizards’ decision to move away from local TOs running European GPs. While I can’t be sure of that, I am sure everyone involved did their best with limited resources.
After the Grand Prix was done, Frank Karsten, Simon Görtzen, Riley Knight, Neil Rigby, and I went to walk from the venue to the hotel. Only at this time, the huge gate we had barely noticed on previous trips was closed and locked, and secured with massive chains. No guard in sight, no bell to ring. We were faced with the uncertain prospect of trying to find someone to let us out, or we could climb.
Riley was at it first, scaling the eight feet like a koala on acute eucalyptus withdrawal and acing the landing with all the nonchalance of a kangaroo. His slim fit suit barely showed a wrinkle. Next came Neil, who’s deceptively gray-haired for someone so fit. He too made it to the other side and made it look easy. He also said as much. The actual word he called us stragglers I cannot share, although the British accent made it sound charming.
Many Magic players aren’t in the best shape, and I’m no exception. “You have an amazing body,” said no one to me ever. Though I have been complimented on my head. Since I spend so much time barely lifting a finger—from my keyboard, that is—I don’t inhabit my body the way I imagine athletes do. When confronted with a physical challenge, I try to work out how feasible and safe the act should be in theory. But I can’t draw on experience to use as a frame of reference. Can I do this, or will I embarrass myself by failing or dying? Well, who knows. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.
So I was on the fence, first figuratively, then literally. What I had not anticipated was that getting up there was the easy part. The hard part was getting down, or more specifically the upcoming pavement. Jumping seemed out of the question. I briefly considered staying on top of this gate, living the rest of my life as a gargoyle. After all, I was petrified already. But then I started wobbling and the gate started wobbling and I had to make a move. You opened this can of worms, now lie in it.
My descent involved some scrabbling for purchase, some falling and rolling, and some help. It was an undignified affair all around, although great fun for Riley and Neil. I was just happy that there was another pair of pants waiting for me back at the hotel. I didn’t feel an uncomfortable warmth at least, rather an unexpected chill, as I had split the bottom of this pair.
Only then did I notice that the two doctors of mathematics, Frank and Simon, were still behind bars. They remained on the other side of the gate and told us to go ahead without them. They’d find another way. I tried to argue that if even I was able to make it, they could do it too, but I guess I didn’t have a strong case.
The lesson here is: If you allow yourself to be peer-pressured, proper peer review is a must.
I’m lucky to have someone in my life who always wants to know how my day went when we’re not together. This proves problematic on travel days because there isn’t much to say about flying. It’s literally planeswalking. You walk onto a plane and then you materialize in some other place hours later.
In lieu of actual experiences worth reporting, I started to offer reviews of the movies I watched. For example:
“While it does have its moments, overall ‘The Post’ is nothing to write home about. At its core, it’s the heart-rending story of how Meryl Streep manages to overcome even her character’s extreme socio-economic privilege to stand up to The Man.”
“You do realize this is literally what you’re doing now, though? Writing home about it, I mean.”
This is the story of my domestic life in a nutshell. I come up with something I consider incredibly clever, only to be outdone by a snappy one-liner. Of course I get my revenge later, because then I go and steal all of the best bits for myself.
The lesson here is: The best part about traveling is the return trip.