Playing Magic to Play Magic


I learned there was more to playing than winning very early on.

I was lucky to have a brother who was just 18 months older than me. Fortunate to have someone so similar for company, but especially someone to play games with.

We played. Card games, boards games, electronic games, individual sports, team sports, competitions. We were often pitted against each other in duels, with me expending more effort losing than he expended defeating me.

I didn’t mind losing. It was the norm. It was to be expected. I was disadvantaged. I was smaller—smaller-bodied, smaller-brained. I was the “inferior” brother. But I didn’t mind, so long as I had a brother to play with.

But sometimes… I won. And that would be the end of the session. I would lose and ask to play again, lose, ask to play again, lose, ask to play again, and win. He would get up and leave. There was a pattern. Winning meant end of sequence. No more games.

Even worse, in the games and sports where I started to win consistently, I was left to play alone. I started to have negative associations with winning. I developed a guilt complex. I didn’t want to beat my brother.

So we started going to tournaments as a way to play together and be non-competitive. We would play games before, between, and after rounds. But we hated to be paired against each other in the rounds because it meant one of us had to lose, unless we could intentionally draw into the Top 8.

We were a team. We always rooted for each other. The goal wasn’t to be better, but to play together until the end. Tournaments were a way to do that. It worked. We both won and we qualified to go to Junior Nationals together. And our dad came of course.


I didn’t know what we were going to do when my brother was too old for Junior Nationals. It meant we would have to graduate to the Pro Tour, so we started going to the qualifiers together.

That almost worked, but I messed it up. My brother had made it all the way to the finals and I was sitting next to him in the semifinals up a game. If I won just one more game we would play in the finals. I was ready to play sacrificial pawn in the next round for my brother to go to the Pro Tour. It was unspoken. I still had Junior Nationals and I would join him after. But this time I lost. And then my brother lost. I felt like I had knocked my brother off the Pro Tour. I still do.

I’m not sure what happened after that, but we stopped going to tournaments together. Maybe we were growing apart, or maybe we had missed our chance. Maybe I had beaten him too many times.

I continued on my own, and ended up qualifying for a few. I went to them. Dad came, but something was missing. I almost felt guilty about it.

Years passed, and it seems like it will never happen, but things have a way of happening. It’s a holiday at our parents house, and I ask my brother if he wants to come on stream to play some Magic. He does. I ask him if he wants to travel to any events. He says Oakland. I say I’ll go.

Our first tournament together in years is a trip to California. There are 1,600 players and I’m just happy to be there playing with him. After making it through the first day together, we end up getting paired for a feature match late in Day 2. I think LSV was commentating. Unfortunately, I won, but fortunately, did not knock him out. It’s still hard to believe this happened, but there we are in the very last round, sitting side by side with 16 players left. Playing to keep playing. He wins, and I win. We win.

The dream comes true and it’s off to Spain for the Pro Tour. We get to Valencia two weeks early to “prepare” for the tournament, which means playing some non-competitive catch in the park with our friend Martin when he shows up, in between some games of Magic.

We prepare just well enough to make it to the second day together. Day 2 is not about the wins. After a close loss, my brother comes around and says he was eliminated as well and is dropping at 7-7. While we both still have a chance at a winning record, there won’t be another Pro Tour playing Magic after this one. I decide I would rather go with him.

I sign the match slip a loss and check the “drop” box.


Mike Plays Magic

The first time I heard of two decks being intentionally designed to play against each other was from my 1st Magic mentor Mike Thompson. Up to that point our decks were tuned to win. But here was Mike laboring over these two decks, actually making one of them WEAKER so the matchup would be better.

Mike was the best player in the area. He couldn’t be stopped by anyone in Seattle. Certainly not by either of us. He had played 30+ Pro Tours before the time I played in my first. Though he never had a big Pro Tour finish, I suspect it was because he was just happy to be there playing against opponents who would give him good games. He was willing to travel to the other side of the world just to play.

Later on, by chance, Mike and I qualified for the same Pro Tour Amsterdam. He was on the tail-end of his Pro career and I was in the middle of my comparatively much shorter stint. Again, by chance, this was my only real opportunity to team up with Team ChannelFireball but I decided to go with Mike instead. After so many years, I was happy just to be there with him.

He didn’t make the second day of the Pro Tour, but after playing all the rounds they offered him that day, he woke up early the next day to play in a Pro Tour Qualifier.

Between rounds of my middling Day 2, I wandered over to the “meat grinder” area and saw Mike Thompson pitted in a pivotal match against a Pro. This was late in the tournament and a loss meant elimination.

Here was the Pro tensed but winning, with Mike “encroaching” him with his weaker board position intentionally pushing up in onto the other side of the table. Mike is about to lose and is trying to physically march his cards to the far side of the table like pawns in chess. While the Pro is focused on winning, Mike is focused on playing.

This was certainly the only time I have seen someone restraining bursting laughter while being eliminated from an event.

Balanced Decks to Play Magic

All that is a digression from the Duel Decks. These things were designed to be played together forever, and the way to do it was to make it a fair match.

If you don’t want to ever play with someone again, you should use all available resources to crush them by the widest margin possible while displaying great malice. They won’t ask you to play ever again.

If your goal is to just keep playing, then anything is better than a blowout win. If you win, let them think they have a chance until the very end. Tell them you got lucky and it was still close. If you lose, give them a game, and ask to play again.

The best way to do this without intentionally throwing games is to have two intentionally matched decks. There can even be a good deck and a bad deck. But these decks are tuned to play well against each other and produce interesting games.

This has become a product that Wizards now offers, and it’s great. You can get two equally matched decks that have been specifically tuned to play against each other. They have a variety of cards and a variety of interesting effects for a variety of games. I got a chance to “work” on the Izzet vs. Golgari duel deck, by which I mean battle Dave Humphreys in the R&D pit. Here were people who played to play, and the results are decks that play well together. I recommend Duel Decks as one of the best value picks in terms of benefit/cost than almost any other way to acquire cards.

If there are more than 2 players, it requires complicated strategy to build something that plays well with the group. Say, if your playgroup consists of high school kids in the marine science room at lunch, you could bring a turn 2 storm combo deck, but for social reasons you’ll be better off bringing a turn 6 Zubera combo deck.

Matching decks for opponents is an opportunity to minimize and maximize competitiveness in a whole new way. It’s an opportunity to build crazy decks you otherwise would never be able to.
Decks that are specifically designed to play more Magic.

Why Do You Play Magic?

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you play Magic to win. There’s also a good chance you play Magic to play Magic.

I’d like to know more about you. Do you play Magic to win, or do you play Magic to play Magic? Answer in the poll, and share your story in the comments!

<3 Travis


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