A little over a year ago I wrote my final article for Starcitygames with a clever (or so I thought) message embedded in it via the first letter of each paragraph: “So long and thanks for all the fish.” I have no such clever word game this time, just a statement that this will be my final article for ChannelFireball.com and I’m very sad about that fact.
And it’s not just this website that I’m quitting. This may very well be my last article for any strategy website; the end of a great run of “The Riki Rules.” I don’t quite believe it myself. And all of that is chump change compared to the biggest change of all in my life: I’m moving to Virginia.
2010 has been an amazing year for me. I ran in my first half marathon, lost 25 pounds, and landed my dream job. That’s a solid list of accomplishments. Maybe they don’t match up with what you want to do. I’m sure most of you probably have “qualify for the Pro Tour” somewhere high up on the list, and it may be hard to understand how I can relate these things to succeeding in Magic. From my perspective, one of the qualities that has helped me succeed, and that many players lack, is willpower. More on that later.
It’s that final accomplishment that now has me on the verge of relocating; come July I will be starting up as an Event Specialist for Starcitygames, helping to run their excellent Open Series of tournaments… for a living. And to think that I was really excited about finishing the half marathon. Suddenly, my entire life is about to get turned upside down. It will pretty much be new everythings. But that’s all in the future for me.
Two years ago, I read Tom LaPille’s excellent article “Wizards School” in which he chronicled how he went about achieving his own dream of landing a gig with Magic R&D. Zac Hill has also been known to write an introspective piece or two evaluating where he is and where he wants to go. These two men were important templates for me, both really smart, passionate guys who found a way to make it to the top of Nerd Mountain. While I couldn’t follow their exact blueprints for success–being a Pro Tour player was high up on their credentials for R&D gigs, and largely irrelevant in the judging field–I found myself studying the underlying lessons in their methodology and applying it to my own quest.
One important lesson is that sometimes desire isn’t enough. I see this all the time amongst the PTQ grinders. They grind and they grind, and ultimately they don’t get there. I’m not talking about winning a PTQ and making it to the show. I mean that they never get good enough at the game to be a constant threat to make Top 8, or they are never that feared opponent. Over the course of the last few years, maybe they’ve tasted a scant one or two PTQ Top 8s. That’s great and all, but the true warriors see that many Top 8s per season and walk away with the blue envelope if they are lucky.
I was that guy. I got my one PTQ Top 8. I made Day 2 of a GP. That was it, the height of my Magic career. Meanwhile, the people around me were winning GPs and National Championships. Yeah, it’s a little rough being in the same town as LSV and having Paul Cheon come to town to boot. Seeing what those two had to do to achieve what they did opened my eyes. They woke up and fired up MTGO. They money drafted. They cube drafted. They playtested whatever format was relevant to them next, including Vintage if there was a Power tournament on the horizon. They played more MTGO (and watched a lot of Law and Order) until it was time for bed.
I couldn’t keep up. What they did to stay at the top of their game, I could not replicate. And I wasn’t good enough at the game to keep up with them without the same amount of practice (or more). I loved playing Magic, but I didn’t love it that much. What I did love was judging.
Maybe you’re where I was. That’s a lot more likely than you being the next LSV. However, you’re probably still deluding yourself into thinking you can be the next LSV. Frankly, you’d be lucky to find yourself being the next Jon Loucks. That’s not a knock on Jon. He’s a good friend, and he’s achieved more as a player than I ever did, including qualifying for multiple Pro Tours and making a name for himself as a rogue designer extraordinaire. With the way he thinks about the game, I believe we will see him in R&D someday. But chances are that he will not win a GP or a PT during his career (although I would love for him to prove me wrong on that one). But again, all things considered, you the average reader would be lucky to have his career arc.
Post-playing, at least on a semi-competitive level, I’ve carved quite the career arc myself, culminating in landing this dream job. Is it more or less realistic for someone to expect to be able to follow in my footsteps rather than LSV’s or Jon’s? Maybe you can’t get all the way to doing this for a living. There are only so many jobs out there to grab whether your joy is making the game, making videos about the game, or running the events. However, making it to the Pro Tour, either as a player or a judge, is a reasonably attainable goal for most of you. It just takes some planning and perseverance.
One of the things I like most about success in judging is that it is largely independent of luck. It doesn’t take luck to become a Level 3 judge, at least not in the same way it does to win a PTQ. As a player, you’ve lost a game to luck. You’ve seen entire matches hinge on the lady. And we all remember that one tournament where the scrub somehow lucksacked his way to victory past many more deserving players. The constant presence of luck in the game and its seemingly whimsical twists of fate seem to cheapen our efforts. It can be tough to slave away all week in playtesting only to face three bad matchups in a row and be knocked out of the tournament “because of luck.”
This type of narrative doesn’t play out when I’m judging an event. I don’t curse my bad luck when I get a difficult call about a life total dispute. Actually, I do curse my bad luck, but never out loud. The resolution of the dispute–how well I judge–has nothing to do with luck. It’s all about applying my past experience, rules knowledge and problem-solving ability. There is a very linear correlation between those skills and success as a judge. As I’ve advanced, different skills have also been tested like leadership, mentoring, and booming announcement voice. I don’t think I had these skills when I started; largely I’ve developed them as I’ve needed them, sometimes taking one or two events to really understand and perfect them. Arguably I’m still working on some.
If you really want it, then go all out, whether you are a player or judge. I see people expect to qualify for the PT off of some pretty half-assed efforts. They don’t go to all the PTQs in their local area, let alone those in adjacent areas. Some of this depends on the specific geography of where you live. But take Zaiem Beg for axample. In addition to his local Seattle PTQs, he’s driven to the semi-regional Idaho, Vancouver and Portland ones. That’s probably a normal grinder’s schedule, but for the past year Zaiem has been on a mission and flown to Alaska and Denver for PTQs as well in addition to LCQing at the domestic PTs and making his fair share of GPs.
It’s the kind of schedule that you would expect a qualification out of, and the fact that he didn’t get there is exactly what I’m talking about in terms of effort-to-results in playing versus judging. Assuming he studied his rules and policy appropriately, Zaiem would have made L2 off of a work schedule like that (although I’ve had talks with Zaiem on this subject and he isn’t all that interested in judging).
Earlier I mentioned willpower. It takes a lot of it in order to complete a race as long as a half marathon. It’s going to take even more to run the full marathon I plan on running later this year (although I now have to find a new race out east). Losing weight is a constant battle of wills against time, the treadmill, and the temptations of all the good food around you. The past two or three years of judging has taken a similar amount of devotion. While tournaments are fun, the constant travel can wear on you, especially when you have to make a bunch of red eye flights in order to make it to all the events without using up all of your vacation time at work.
In all of these journeys, I’ve never had a moment of doubt. Sometimes I like to say that I am too dumb to fail. When you run a race, the only way to fail is to stop running. I’ve tried to do this judging thing the same way. There have always been vague finish lines out there, but until you actually turn the final corner and see it, it doesn’t much matter how far they are. You just keep running.
In closing, I want to thank Jon, Mashi, Luis and the rest of the ChannelFireball/ Superstars crew for giving me this outlet for the past year+. Like I said, this is probably it for “The Riki Rules.” It has become increasingly difficult to write these because so much of what I do at tournaments as an L3 has nothing to do with the players and is more administrative background work like certifying judges. My plan is to write more judge education type articles for www.dcifamily.org, our judge community website. I may also run a personal blog there for shorter event report content. I will also explore the possibility of writing a book (or an e-book, whatever the heck that is) on my journey with this new job. If you absolutely must have your Riki Hayashi fix, check out Judgecast, a podcast that I record with Sacramento L2 judge Sean Catanese. You can find it at Mananation and Mtgcast. We’re up to episode #11 now, and I will be handing over co-host duties to L1 Jose Boveda while I transition to the East Coast where I can hopefully Skype in as a guest on a regular basis.
It has been a real treat writing these articles for your education and entertainment. I hope that you will continue to read the judge-related works of some of my close friends like Eric’s “Tolarian Academy,” the various writers in “The Justice League,” and some of the other exciting projects that I’ve heard bandied about. Keep following me on Twitter for updates on whatever projects I pick up in the future. Thanks for reading. See you at an event soon.
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P.S. Alexei Gousev, L1 judge and my successor as the store judge in Davis, says “hi.”