Sports, Community, and some Dorky Cardboard Cards: My Love Affair with Magic: the Gathering

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So you may not know this about me, but I absolutely love sports. I can become obsessed with pretty much any kind of sport in a worryingly short amount of time. Especially if you throw a flag behind it (What’s that?! The US national badminton team is playing today?! Let me go get my hat and some shuttlecocks!!!!)

BADMINTON

Although it doesn’t even have to be my country. “What’s that?? The Norwegian curling team is defending their World Championship Title at 4am tomorrow?? That’s it! I’m calling in sick to work!!!”

World’s Strongest Man competition? In. GO ZYDRUNAS SAVICKAS!!!

Seriously. Anything. I mean you’ve got your standard Football, Basketball, etc. but I love various niche sports as well like Ice Hockey, Tennis, and Volleyball. It doesn’t stop there though. Another habit of mine over the years has been follow various faux sports. I’ve already written about my love of fantasy sports, but I also like to take another step and cover some of these faux sports (in particular I’m thinking of MTV’s The Challenge) in the same style as the national media covers real sports.

You see, what I really love about sports is that is an abstractly value-less endeavor which is given mountains of value by countless individuals world wide. Society makes it important in the abstract which leads to countless tangible benefits. For instance, a poor kid from Alabama who was living out of his car with his mother in High School [Eric Bledsoe of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns] can wind up a multimillionaire for playing a game. A game that in no way overtly benefits society. HOWEVER that does not mean there aren’t benefits.  This game invented to pass time among friends creates a multi-billion dollar industry which benefits the world at large ranging from the factory workers in China employed producing memorabilia, construction workers in America building stadiums and the shop / restaurant owners and small businessmen and women who open stores near the arenas to capitalize on game day foot traffic. SO not only do sports of a ‘spiritual’ sort of value for fans, but they have a tangible value as well. But the spiritual side is what I think is more important to me personally. Sports means a lot to wide ranges of people and is a spectacular means of community building. It bonds people together who otherwise would have nothing in common and wouldn’t know each other at all.

Moreover, you can do this with these fake sports as much as any “real” sport. For instance, you can take a fake, pixellated version of a real sport and build an imaginary narrative around it and create an overwhelming community around them (a la John Green, his Swindon Town Swoodilypoopers and his Wimbledon Wimbly Womblys).

You can find a group of friends to watch a bunch of MTV degenerates get drunk and compete in hilarious events a la MTV’s The Challenge. Or you can watch a couple dorks play a card game broadcast all over the internet. And all of these things will be just as fascinating and exciting to me as any “real” sport.

The reason for that is that what I actually love about sport is not the events themselves. Not the physical domination of one group or individual over another. But rather the narrative behind the events. That’s what truly draws me in. I love the community and conversation around sports. As such I find it incredibly exciting and refreshing to take the Sports Fan’s Lens and direct it toward traditional non-sports. I love to cover them in the clichéd or at any rate overdone, fashion of the mainstream sports media to elevate their status (admittedly probably only in my own mind and no one else’s) and sort-of canonize the experience of following them. I love to have those same conversations which are so interesting to me, but change the topic matter to other things I have an interest in. To redefine the varying definitions of “strength” and “skill” depending on what the topic of discussion is. No sports are truly real. No sports truly matter. The only value they hold is what we put into them. That’s why sports can mean so much to one person and absolutely nothing to another.

So naturally I’ve found it especially interesting to gravitate toward various faux sporting events. But it’s even more fun when the people producing the product play along. Let me tell you what I mean. My favorite of these events has been, for the last couple years, to follow the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour. My love of Magic is definitely one of the dorkier aspects of my assuredly nerdy lifestyle, but I don’t really care. I freaking love the game. I learned about the game and was given my first cards when I was 11 years old, but didn’t start playing in earnest until 8th grade or so when I was 13 or 14. However, you can rest assured that I quickly hopped on the bandwagon

Now, the thing that set’s Magic apart from a lot of these other faux sports is that it already has this ‘sports league’ type superstructure built around it. With Magic you’ve got all the components of your standard nation-wide sports league. Magic has a long and storied history of tournament play complete with regular season (Pro Tour Qualifiers and Grand Prixs) and postseason (World Championships and Pro Tours). And they even top the whole thing off with a Hall of Fame voted on by former players and greats of the game. Their tournaments have a coverage team, and even come complete with “sideline interviews.”

You’ve got the third party talking head shows breaking all the happenings of the game down between tournaments.

But the parallel isn’t 100% clean cut I suppose. Something that I think cool layer to following Magic is the interplay between who our actual “athlete” is. See obviously the first and best comparison is to look at the players themselves. But there’s also an interesting argument to consider the player in more of “coach” or “manager” role and the cards themselves as his team or players. Long story short the tactics of magic go so much further than any sport where actions are limited by physical capabilities. In magic is long as your brain can compute high level lines of play and interplay between cards, almost anything is possible. Moreover, you can pre-program your lines of play ahead of time when selecting which cards to play and constructing your deck. So that is why the game has received so many comparisons to high level tournament chess. It’s a mental game that just happens to be covered the same was as its more popular cousins, the physical sports.

But anyway, I think the Pièce de résistance of the game would be the now dual tournaments of the World Magic Cup and the Magic World Championship.

The second of those, the Magic World Championship, is kindof standard fare for something like this. The guys who created Magic over at Wizards of the Coast select the best players of the last year of Magic and play them all off against each other in a massive tournament to find the best of the best. Only the elite are invited. In order to qualify you need to be the Player of the Year (determined by accumulated the most Pro Points in a given year) have won one of the three Pro Tour tournaments that year, or just been generally stellar at competitive Magic that year. However, what I think is more interesting is Magic’s World Magic Cup.

The guys at Wizards took a page right out of FIFA’s book in an attempt to capitalize on a captivating format. Basically ever Magic playing country in the world is allowed to host preliminary qualifying tournaments, build their best 4 player team, and travel to some predetermined location for a splendid week long Magic marathon.  Moreover, they have even drawn directly from the World Cup format in that they have broken the initial stages of the event down into group play before entering the single elimination knock out rounds. During this years Magic World Cup Hall of Famer and Coverage man Randy Buehler even made repeated comparisons to Greece’s 2004 soccer World Cup run to the 2015 Greece Magic team’s own Cinderella run to the finals in the Magic World Cup.

But at the end of the day what I think I like the most about Magic: the Gathering is the community that surrounds it. I love discussing strategies and happenings with other players. I love watching the game evolve. I love playing, and I love watching the experts play one another to see just how far the limits of certain cards or archetypes can be pushed. In some ways I even enjoy watching Magic more than I enjoy watching normal professional sports. Theres just something fun and more inclusive about watching this game. Because at the end of the day I can buy and use the exact same cards, the exact same decklists, and the exact same strategies as any of those guys. Sure these professional players extract more value out of these cards and pilot their decks more expertly than I can, but it doesn’t make Magic feel any less accessible. It just makes me want to improve my own game, my own strategy, and my own analytical ability. To me there just isn’t the same isolation of the layman from the professional with Magic. Regardless of the distance in skill, it feels like we’re all playing the same game.

Moreover, the Pros often feel incredibly accessible. They’re not millionaire athletes so isolated that you’ll never have any contact with them. Rather, they just feel like guys you could hang out with and play this silly card game with on a Friday night, which is a great feeling. And a lot of them just seem like they really want to share their love of the game, and help it survive and thrive while broadening to overall Magic playing community.

Take a guy like Brazil’s Willy Edel.

image via wizards.com

image via wizards.com

Willy is one of the Magic Greats and before is all said and done he will end up in the Hall of Fame. But he’s near the end of his career now. He’s got a wife and a family, and Professional Magic doesn’t always fit in with those things. Moreover, Brazil’s other big player on the world stage (Paulo Vitor Damo de Rosa) has been slowing down his Magic playing somewhat as well. Both Willy and Paulo competed in the World Championship (proving that they’re both still at the top of the game) but only Willy was a part of Brazil’s World Magic Cup team this year. Now, both of them have had tremendous success during their storied careers, but Willy can be seen as a guy who collapsed under pressure and never fully met his potential. There was a time when he was in the conversation for best in the world, but his play in big moments didn’t always back that up. However, lately it hasn’t seemed like that was really his concern. All year long, at every individual event he has competed in he has been talking about how upset he was after Brazil missed Top 8 at last year’s World Magic Cup, and how badly he wants to do better this year. Moreover, he has also been talking about how much he likes his team of young up and comers and how much he wants to help them transition onto the big stage. When you watch his interview after Brazil made the top 8 of the World Magic Cup its hard not to feel for the guy and to root for his country too.

Brazil's 2014 World Magic Cup team from left to right Thiago Saporito, Willy Edel, Gabriel Fehr, and Matheus Rosseto de Oliveira (Image via Wizards.com)

Brazil’s 2014 World Magic Cup team from left to right Thiago Saporito, Willy Edel, Gabriel Fehr, and Matheus Rosseto de Oliveira (Image via Wizards.com)

Brazil missed out on Top 8 of the 2013 World Magic Cup in the last game of the last match of the last day last year, and it really devastated Willy. So it’s no surprise to see him in tears here as he is asked how it feels to have captained  his country to the precipice of ultimate victory. But Willy doesn’t necessarily care about the achievement itself. What he really cares about is that he was able to bring along 3 young nobody’s (who won’t be nobody’s for long, as one of them, Thiago Saporito, actually Top 8’d a Pro Tour just before the World Magic Cup and even made it to the semifinals in that event) with him.

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He competed in the World Championship, an individual event, but you can tell his passion was really with the team competition. He knows that he and Paulo won’t be around forever, and he wants the game he loves to remain live, well, and thriving in his nation after they’re gone. So over the last few years he has dedicated tons of time, money, and energy to bringing up young Brazilian Magic players through the ranks. I get the impression that Willy may know his real time to shine has passed, but he doesn’t really care. He cares about the game and he cares about helping others reach their dreams within the game.

He organizes events to help Brazilian Magic players raise money for airfare and travel expenses so they can travel to Tournaments throughout the world. As you may have guessed Brazil hosts hardly any major events, and its hard to develop an elite Magic player base if they can’t afford to travel to where the tournaments are. As such Willy’s efforts are vital to helping his country rise up into a potential Magic power on the world stage. In a sense Brazil’s position on the world Magic stage resembles her place on the world geopolitical and economic stage. They are a rising nation with world’s of potential, but not yet up to the vaunted heights of the Americas, Japans, or Germanys of the world. However, the building blocks are clearly there and have been for years. And for the world of Magic, having a guy like Willy Edel helping to build your community certainly can’t hurt.

Sports, to me, are all about building a community after all. Whether its watching a football game on Sundays or following a Magic livestream with strangers on the internet, there’s no reason for them exist if not to bring people together. To give people something to talk about. To give them something to experience together, whether actively (doing) or passively (viewing). I don’t run a 4.4 40, and my jump shot is about as awkward looking as a giraffe leaping off a cliff, but I can sure sit at a table with a deck of cards. Don’t get me wrong. I love my athletic sports as much as the next guy, but what really makes these things fun to watch and fun to experience is sharing your thoughts and experiences with others. And Magic might do that better for me than any sport, faux or otherwise. Whether its a good natured joke on a reddit post that goes viral, a South Park episode, or simply a Friday night booster drafting with friends, Magic has found a million ways to make me smile, laugh, and feel like I’m part of something. I’m incredibly thankful to have this stupid card game in my life (in spite of the torrents of money I spend on it) and look forward to watching it grow and thrive far into the future.

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