The Life of a Pro Player

A while ago, I made a Reddit post asking what kind of articles people would like to read. The replies were very surprising, because they touched a lot more on the personal aspect of being a player than on anything strategic. So, today I decided to take up one of the suggestions and write about the life of a Magic Pro.

How did you become a Pro?

Becoming a Magic Pro was a different process for me than it was for most other Pro players, for two main reasons: First, things happened a little bit earlier than normal for me. I was eight years old when I started playing, and by the time I was 19 I was already Platinum with multiple PT Top 8s. Second, I live in Brazil, which makes things both easier and harder, but mostly harder (more on that later).

When I started playing Magic, I had no professional aspirations. I wanted to be an astronaut. I played it because I liked it, and I wanted to be good because I enjoy being good at things that I like, not because I thought there was any money in it. It’s the same as when I started writing articles, really.

When I was 15 years old, I went to my first PT and made money. Not a lot of money, but a lot of money for me at the time. That was when I first realized it could be done. Then, I cashed the next eight Pro Tours in a row, including two Top 8 finishes, and finished that year as a Level 8 player—then the highest level in the Players Club. At the time, I had just turned 19.

Then, I didn’t see Magic as my job, because I didn’t need a job—I was so young, I wasn’t “supposed” to have a job. Eventually, there came a time where most people would be expected to have a job, but by then, I already had one. I never consciously stopped and thought, “what do I want to do for a living, play Magic?” For me, it just happened.

For most people, I suspect it’s different. Willy Edel, for example, had to quit his job to travel for Magic. He made a conscious decision between “playing Magic” and “working.” I never made this decision. I just kept doing whatever it was that I was doing because I happened to make money from it.

Is it financially viable to be a Pro Magic player?

Yes. I’m 27 years old, and I have never had a job that wasn’t playing Magic or writing about Magic, and I support myself fully.

Where does the money come from?

It depends on who you are and what you specialize in. When I first started playing, all my money came from tournaments. My career winnings are roughly $280,000, over a period of about 9 years, which is about $30,000 a year, minus taxes and traveling expenses. Some years I made way more and some years I made way less, but I don’t spend all the money I make in a year, so working with the average is better. Most of that money comes from Pro Tours and appearance fees. GPs are not a way to make money, they are a way to get points so that you can make money at PTs.

$30,000 is not a gigantic amount of money by any means, but it was definitely enough for me to live comfortably. It’s fair to say that dollars are worth more in Brazil than in the US, but I believe it is balanced by the fact that each plane ticket from here costs $1,500. Even when I went to the US, though, it never felt like I couldn’t afford to do the things I wanted once I started making money with Magic. So, basically, I’m not rich, but there are very few things I really want that I truly can’t afford (but my needs are very simple, all I need is a good internet connection and chocolate).

After my “breakout,” so to speak, I started writing articles more often and I became better at it, to a point where it started becoming a more reliable source of income than tournaments themselves. Then, ChannelFireball was formed, and we started getting some small sponsorship deals. Those things were great to me because they took away some of the pressure to perform. I know I am writing an article this week even if I go 0-5, so I know I’m going to have at least some money.

These past two years, I didn’t make enough money in tournaments to live comfortably, but I made most of my money from articles, so things were still OK. Even if I never won another match in my life, I could theoretically live off MTG, assuming I still had things to say.

There are people on both sides of the spectrum. William Jensen and Josh Utter-Leyton, for example, are almost exclusively players. They make enough money to live just by playing, and Josh even quit his “real” job to be a full-time Magic player.

Then you have people like Travis Woo and Mike Flores, who make most of their MTG money from articles and not from tournament prizes (though I have no idea if they have/had other jobs or how their finances are in any way).

Both are possible, but it is VERY hard to make a living exclusively out of one of those things. Most Magic players who don’t have any other job both do well in tournaments and produce content for a website or a magazine.

Is being a Pro Player different because you’re in Brazil?

Yes, very much so. Two things are easier: it’s less expensive (the dollar is worth more than the Brazilian currency) and there is less competition. Everything else is harder. I’m going to focus on Brazil here, but I imagine it’s similar for a lot of other countries.

I am a firm believer that the best way to get better at something is to compete, and in Brazil it’s much harder to find a good tournament to compete in. We went years without having a single GP. Hell, we went years without having cards, because customs blocked them from entering the country. Yes, this literally happened. We also have had multiple visa problems before, where PTQ winners couldn’t actually go to the PT because the government didn’t let them, and I myself skipped multiple PTs at the beginning of my career because plane tickets were just too expensive.

If someone from Brazil does win a PTQ, then that’s likely their only shot. If they do badly, they aren’t coming back, they have to make the most out of it. Many famous players start badly and bomb their first PTs, and, if those players had been Brazilians, you would likely have never heard of them. In the US, you get dozens of shots, depending on how far you’re willing to travel.

Another aspect that is almost never mentioned is that most Magic content is in English, and not everyone speaks English. I speak it, so I can write for American websites, I can give interviews to the official coverage, I can do Deck Techs, but what if I didn’t? Would you even know who I am? There are many Asian players who would have been a lot more famous if they could be part of those things, but they can’t. Magic content, these days, is done almost exclusively by English speakers for English speakers (with the exception of Japan which has its own coverage), and if you aren’t an English speaker then it’s going to be much harder to learn from those players or to make a name for yourself if you are trying to go Pro.

Once you’re already a Pro player, then you’ve crossed most of those barriers, but there’s still the fact that you spend a lot more money and time than anyone else traveling for PTs, and good luck traveling for GPs. A flight from Porto Alegre (where I live) to the US will cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500, depending on date and location. Add to that hotel expenses (from $30 to $100 a day usually, depending on how many people you share a room with and whether you stay at the event hotel or not. I like having a bed for myself, so I usually spend around $70 a day), transportation, registration and food expenses, and we’re looking at anywhere from $1,300 to $2,000 to play a GP—let’s say it averages around $1,800.

Right now, the prize for third place is $1,500. This means that for me to actually make money at a GP, I have to get 2nd, for $2,700.

But wait—there are taxes. Since I’m Brazilian and not American I can’t easily write things off. I automatically pay 30% of what I get before I even receive it. So, instead of $2,700, I make $1,890 if I get second, for a net gain of $90. That’s if I get 2nd place at a tournament of 2,000 people. If I were Platinum, I’d get a $250 appearance fee for GPs. That’s an insignificant number for someone who spends $1,500 just to get there.

Now, if I were American, it would be a lot easier. I would still pay taxes, but it wouldn’t be a full 30%. I would still pay for a flight, but it would be $200 instead of $1,500. In this case, the $250 appearance fee actually means something. If a Platinum player Top 32s the event, they get $400, plus $250—that’s $650, which likely at least covers what they spent and, if it doesn’t, it’s not very far off. if I Top 32, I’m down over a thousand dollars!

So, yes, it’s much harder to be a Pro in a place that is not the US or a big European country. It’s harder to get to that point, and it’s harder once you’re there

How do you balance Magic and School?

For most of my professional Magic years, I had to balance it with school. First physics, which I quit, and then international relations, which I finished. People always seem to wonder how I did it, especially considering it takes almost a day to travel anywhere, but the truth is that it was never a big problem. I always had understanding teachers who would let me take exams at different dates if I told them I was out for work, and I always had friends and classmates who would let me read their notes or explain anything that I missed. I also lucked out in the sense that international relations is a very easy major, and most of my studying could be done at home or while traveling. I never really had to go to class to learn.

If your problem is that you can’t skip class for your own sake, then I can’t really recommend much other than studying more, and making every minute you are in class actually count. If your problem is skipping class for their sake (mandatory attendance and whatnot), then my advice is to a) present yourself as a perfect student and b) talk to your teachers. When you combine both things, my experience is that teachers will often be understanding. If they have a student that they like, that participates in class, and that gets good grades, and that student politely comes to them and says, “hey I know I was supposed to take an exam on March 11 but I have to travel for work, can I take the exam at an earlier date? Can I do any sort of work to compensate for it?” they aren’t going to have many reasons to say no.

Work, of course, is a different matter. It is possible to be a full-time worker and a “full-time Magic player,” like Paul Rietzl, but then it really depends on your job/boss.

What are a Pro player’s career prospects for the future?

Magic as a job is very interesting, but where do you go from there? I see three possibilities:

1.) You can just keep playing games. I don’t think there’s an age limit for this kind of thing—card games are not League of Legends. I believe it’s possible to play Magic professionally until you’re very old. I’d point to some people currently on the PT but I don’t want to be rude *cough*Cuneo*cough*.

If this is your strategy, however, then you will run into a serious problem if you have bigger ambitions, because the ceiling in Magic is really low. Unless you’re the very best at something (writing or playing or promoting yourself) chances are that you will not make enough money to be rich.

This becomes clear once you look at the all-time-money-earners list. Take me—I’m 6th in there, with $287,000. During my peak (2006-2011 or something), I believe I made more money than anyone else playing the game. Of all the Magic players in the entire world, I was the single one who made the most money in that time frame.

And how much did I make? Around $250,000, or around $40,000 a year. Everyone else who played during that time made less than this. Again, it’s not a small amount, but it’s depressing to compare it to the top earners in other games. soccer, basketball, chess, poker, League of Legends, Starcraft, you name it—all the best people in those games made millions.

From a monetary standpoint alone, being a Magic Pro is not a good job. You can work many jobs and make $40,000 a year, and you don’t have to be the best in your neighborhood for that, let alone the best in the world.

There are, however, other reasons for playing Magic professionally—you are your own boss, you get to travel and know other places, you learn a lot about how to think, it’s fun, the people are awesome. All of those might make it worth it for you. They made it worth it for me. I mean, I’ve been to Hawaii four times—most people in Brazil don’t even know where Hawaii is. I write on a website where thousands of people are willing to read what I have to say. People stop me and ask to take a picture with me when I’m in tournaments. All of this is extremely rewarding, as is being my own boss and deciding what I want to do at every point. Just not monetarily.

Some people don’t want to be rich. They want to get by, and that’s OK. Some people want more, however, and it’s hard to get much more by just playing Magic. Look at someone like Owen: he wins a lot, but he is not rich. You can’t expect him to be much better than he is now, or to win much more than he currently does. You certainly can’t expect him to write much more than one article a week. Say Owen decides that, in a few years, he wants to have a lot more money—three times as much as he does now. What is he supposed to do? He is not going to win three Pro Tours per year, it’s not feasible. So, if he truly wants more, he probably has to move on.

2.) You can try to find a “normal job.” This is a brutal path because, while Magic actually gives you a lot of useful skills for life, it doesn’t leave you an expert in any job that isn’t playing Magic. I feel that, through Magic, I’ve learned a lot about analyzing a situation, about being creative, about game theory, strategy, English, and, most of all, I’ve learned how to think, which is the most important skill for a number of jobs. For many positions, I’d say I’m more qualified than most people applying, yet that is not immediately obvious because it doesn’t say so on my resumé.

This puts a lot of people, me included, in a somewhat frustrating situation. In my life, I’m already an adult. I already have a job in which I’m basically my own boss, I’m used to living my life with a certain degree of freedom, I’m used to having a decent amount of money, I’m used to being good and respected at something. For the working industry, however, I am not an adult yet—I’m someone who is just getting out of college. I’m expected to get an unpaid internship so I can learn, I’m expected to want to start very slowly. I’ve already done that, I don’t want to go through it again.

3.) You can get a job in an industry that will value your experience. A lot of people do this—Kibler, Chapin, and LSV are in the game design industry, for example. Let’s take LSV—by the time he joined his company, he had no real experience in game design per se, but he did not join as an intern. They knew that despite never being an actual game designer he had a lot of the knowledge a game designer would have, so he was hired for a higher position, just like someone who had already done many years of game design.

Another example: a couple of years ago, a lot of Magic players moved to Curaçao to work on sports betting. Those players had no experience with sports betting, but the people hiring them knew that due to their Magic experience and results, they likely had the right mindset for the job.

There are other options, of course. You could try to join R&D. Most of the guys there are former players. Or you could do commentary, like Randy Buehler and Jake Van-Lunen do. Or you could open your own Magic Store, like Willy did.

The bottom line is: I believe playing Magic gives you a lot of great skills that should be valued by companies. Some companies will value those skills, some will not. Once you’ve grown as much as you can with Magic, I think the best path is to find one that does, and then grow there.

What’s the day of a professional player like? How much time do you practice?

I believe that as far as time commitment, Magic is on the low end for games. I once read an interview with Bjergsen (a famous League of Legends player) where he said he played about 12 hours a day. From what I understand, this is not unusual for e-Sports in general. Bjergsen is the norm, not the outlier. If Bjergsen starts practicing 8 hours a day instead of 12, he will get significantly worse than his competition.

In Magic, it’s not like this. Some people play a lot of Magic—Huey, Owen, Reid, Brad—but I don’t think even they play 12 hours a day every day. More importantly, if they were to suddenly decide to play 8 hours instead, I don’t think it’ll affect them much.

I believe Magic requires you to have played a lot of it, but it doesn’t require you to play a lot of it every day after you’re already good. If you’ve played a lot before and you’re already good, I can’t imagine you’d need to play more than three or four hours a day to get to a tournament at your very best.

For most of my competitive life, I played much less than that. Nowadays I hardly play at all, which is part of the reason I’ve been doing worse. But even when I was at my peak I did not play Magic most days. Instead, I focused a lot in the days before a big tournament. Say, for example, that there is a PT in five weeks. I’d play zero Magic week 1, one hour a day week 2, two hours a day week 3, three hours a day week 4, and twelve hours a day week 5, and that was enough to have very good results and to be one of the best players in the world. Nowadays, my schedule looks more like 0, 0, 0, 1, 12, which is clearly not enough, but oh well.

One thing I will say, though—even if you don’t play a lot, you need to be aware of what is happening. Right now I’m as removed from competitive Magic as I’ve ever been, and I still at least skim through almost every article on every major website, I still follow what everyone is saying on Twitter, I still follow the spoilers, I still think about Magic. I just don’t play much, and that’s always been the case.

In the week before the tournament (the “12-hours-a-day” days), I meet with all of Team ChannelFireball in a house or a hotel conference room, and then we basically play all day, Constructed and Draft.

There isn’t much method to our testing, at least in the beginning. People will wake up at random hours, play random games with whatever decks they want to play, and at some time someone is going to shout “draft?” and if seven other people say “yes,” then a draft happens. We usually do 3-4 drafts a day in the beginning.

Once the tournament approaches, then we focus more on Constructed, and the testing becomes more organized. Things like “let’s test those two sideboard cards for this matchup,” and people are more vocal about what they like and why they like it. We try to have discussions about whatever we disagree on, and then most people chime in.

For the last two days, we do very little drafting, but we usually have a Limited discussion in which we evaluate the good commons and how they compare to the uncommons and rares (for example: “How good is this uncommon? Is it better than Triplicate Spirits? A better p1 than Lightning Strike?”). We usually do only P1p1, since most people are good enough that they can adapt to whatever they have, and the goal is to get people on the same level as far as what’s generally good and, more important, to give people input on a rare they might not have played with. If someone opens a pack at the PT and has no idea if their rare is great or not, then that’s awful and we want to avoid that as much as possible.

How do people react when you tell them you’re a professional Magic player?

Most people actually react super well—they are impressed that you’re “that good” at something that you can make money from it, and they’ll usually be impressed at how much you’ve traveled, even if they don’t quite understand how “good” is measured (for example they’ll ask “how good are you?” and I’ll say “pretty good” and the reply will be like “but are you top 100 in the country?” or something).

In my experience, if you don’t act ashamed about something, they won’t think you have a reason to be, and they will react well. With Magic, you really don’t have a reason to be, so they shouldn’t think you do. Just tell them “I play Magic professionally” (or explain whatever you want about it) in the same tone you’d say “I’m a lawyer,” not in the same tone you’d say “I’m an adult film star,” and no one will react badly.

How do you handle the traveling?

People often raise “traveling” when they talk about being a professional Magic player, and it’s both a good and a bad thing. I hate the physical act of traveling somewhere, since airplanes and airports are the worst and it takes a good 20 hours to get anywhere from where I live, but I love being in a different place, being exposed to different cultures and different people, enough that I will accept 20 hours of discomfort.

When I was younger, I traveled on a very tight budget. I didn’t even have an international credit card, so I was literally limited on the amount of money I could spend, because I didn’t have any way to get more if I needed it. I still managed to do it, and it didn’t take much other than sleeping at the occasional bad hotel and eating a lot of McDonalds and Panda Express.

Here are some tips for making traveling better:

  • Travel with someone. It’s so much better than traveling by yourself… try to find a friend who shares your enthusiasm for the game and go together. It’s not always possible, of course. In fact, most of the time I travel by myself.
  • Enroll in a flying miles program and stick with it. If you are an international traveler, it will make your life significantly easier and cheaper. To give you an idea, every time I go to Japan, I earn a free ticket to the United States with flying miles alone. You also get special security lines, faster check-in, premium seats on an airplane and access to VIP Lounges—nothing that you absolutely need, but definitely something that will make your trip better. The flying miles program I use is the American Airlines one and I believe that, of the US Airlines, it is by far the best deal (even if the planes themselves aren’t the best). If you see me at a random US GP that is not connected to a PT, I likely flew there with flying miles.
  • Try to chain multiple events, especially if you live far. The plane ticket is by far the most expensive part of the trip, so if you can go to two or three events with one ticket then you’re going to save a lot of money.
  • Travel Agencies are surprisingly bad at finding good flights. I’ve tried many and I generally do a much better job of finding the flight I want than they do, though it’s a very long and annoying process, since I do a general search (on kayak.com) and then try to manually mix and match multiple itineraries.
  • Never underestimate how bored you’re going to be, and prepare for it. The answer for me is books. I love books and I can’t sleep very well on planes, so I spend about 10 hours each way reading. My life would be very miserable if books didn’t exist. If you don’t like books, then try to take an iPad or a computer with a good battery with you, and fill it with movies or TV shows. You might think you “don’t need them,” but it’s better to be prepared than to be desperate without anything to do for the next eight hours.
  • Book your hotel before you get there. It can be very stressful to arrive without having a place to stay.
  • If you room with someone who snores and it bothers you, bring earplugs.
  • Hostels are cheap alternatives if you can’t afford a hotel, but I wouldn’t use them unless I really had to, as they’re very disruptive for a good night’s sleep.
  • Spend money on experiences, not on things. Given the choice between visiting a cool place or doing something local, I’d much rather do that than buy something—it’ll make you feel like the trip was worth it, that it was a prize in itself. That said, it’s possible to go sightseeing without spending a lot of money—almost every place will have something interesting and different to do and most of them cost the price of a bus ticket if you do some research. The most interesting thing I ever did on any trip was probably going to some sort of animal reserve in Malaysia where you could do things like ride elephants and feed bears, and it didn’t cost a lot of money, all we had to do was search for the place.

Is being a Magic Pro a “flamboyant lifestyle”?

When someone said “flamboyant lifestyle,” I imagined something like a rock band—the answer is no. People will go to parties and sing karaoke when the tournament is over, but that’s mostly it, there are no drugs or MTG groupies (or if there are I’ve never been invited). I never expected someone to think this about Magic players because we’re all nerds but I thought the question was funny so I included it.

I want to be a Pro. Where do I start?

Well, first you have to be good at Magic. There are some Pros who aren’t good, but they shall remain unnamed. Let’s say that, for the sake of this argument, the first requirement to be a Pro is to be a good player. The best way to be a good player is to play a lot, to try to compete in as many tournaments as you can, and reading articles and watching coverage helps too. You can try to go for “WotC Pro” and play PTQs/GPs/PTs, or you can try to go for “grinder” and play the SCG circuit. I think SCG is easier but less rewarding. You can also do both, of course, but you probably aren’t going to be able to commit strongly to both. I also can’t speak much to the life of an SCG Pro because I’ve never been one.

Then, you should probably try to find a team. You don’t need to be on a superstar team, but you should try to get a group of people who care as much about the event as you do, it’s very hard to succeed if you’re a single rider (though it’s possible).

Then, you need to be lucky. Many good people aren’t Pros because they weren’t lucky once or twice. No one wins a tournament without being lucky, it doesn’t matter how good they are. Sometimes, the only difference between a random guy and a world-class player is the order in which they win their matches. The random guy goes 10-6 in two PTs and no one knows who he is, the other one goes 7-9 in one and 13-3 in the other and suddenly he’s in the Top 8, he’s famous, he’s doing feature matches, he’s writing articles. In the end, they both went 20-12.

The only thing you can do to combat this other than improving as a player is simply not giving up and playing more matches, so that at some point you’ll be the 13-3 as well. When that does happen, you have to get everything out of it. If you Top 8 a PT, contact a website for a tournament report, go on podcasts, try to show up at GPs to get feature matches—make sure they don’t forget you. Hopefully you’ll win something else and then snowball it from there.

And… I guess that’s it! I tried answering most of the questions I got, but if you have any questions left unanswered, feel free to ask on the comments.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, see you next week!


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