Professionalism in Magic the Gathering: How to be a better Magic player for yourself and others by Graeme McIntyre
“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
I have written a number of times about how time consuming and difficult it is to make progress in Magic; generally speaking, the best bit of advice that you’ll ever get about magic is that if you want to get better or accomplish something, you should play more Magic. I currently play 2 or 3 five hour days a week unless there are no events coming up (slim chance of that in the new system – I only really get to skip playing if I have already won one), in addition to attending an event more than half of my weekends. I’m feeling the benefits of this to some extent, in that I have consistently had relative success since I moved to Nottingham 18 months ago…
…But I’ve not won anything, and that’s pretty frustrating. I was moaning to Joe Jackson about this and he made an off-hand remark on the lack of professionalism in testing groups, by which I (and I think we, although I have not spoken to Joe about it since I started writting) mean a general commitment to doing things properly.This has really stuck with me over the last while, and has been increasingly frustrating as I am now very much aware of it, both contemporary and historically, in my own experience and in the accounts of others.
This article is going to be long, and in places a touch on the ranting side, but should also have a lot of practical advice over its five sections. “Organization” pertains to the book-keeping stuff of events, “Testing” the actual practice of playing non tournament games, “Interpersonal Dynamics within the Group” functioning as a group and resolving difficulties, “Other People Outside of the Group” relates to the rest of the community and “Events” relates to actual tournaments.
Lack of punctuality is a constant issue, making the whole process less efficient. I have been guilty of this myself over the last 6 months, and it’s basically just unacceptable if it happens remotely often. Arrange a time you can meet, don’t say a time that you’re not going to be there for realistically, leave the house on time. Don’t make excuses, just fix it; being there is the most fundamental part of testing.
The amount of times I’ve asked people ahead of time about logistical issues for events (lifts, hotels) and I’ve basically been told “no idea, I’ve not looked into it, stop fretting over nothing” is pretty staggering. How is it that there is time to test 15-20 hours, and there isn’t time to Google “Travelodge” and “National Rail enquiries”? This will save money virtually every time, unless you’re sleeping on someone’s floor (problematic for a number of reasons) or know for sure you’ll get a lift every time. It’s really easy to sort this, so do it instead of watching the 25th video of a cat doing things or whatever other thing you’re wasting time doing on the internet.
Owning some cards is actually just useful, too, in a shocking turn of events! A number of times over the years I have been met with an attitude of “haha, all the cool kids just borrow things” in respect to card ownership. This likely became part of the culture of the games pseudo elite as a result of the actual elite’s patronage of the terms “barn” and “hulk” which described the way that causal players/rich players/everyone else attach themselves to better players in a similar way to the way in which barnacles cling to large ships. “Barns” then provide for their “hulk” the cards they need. This self-aggrandising swill is distasteful in pros and genuinely contemptable in the crude parodies most likely to use the term.
An extension of this is that gauntlets need updating on a weekly basis, which compounds the problem, but is certainly worth doing. Small changes in lists can be very important, as has been evidenced lately by the inclusion of Hangarback Walker in Abzan Aggro, changing that deck from an under performer to likely the deck to beat in the format. Similarly, Tom Law’s list of UB control is very different from the one that made top 8 in GP Prague the week after, and this will have a major impact on the mirror (it’s got Pearl Lake Ancient maindeck, for a start). If you’re not updating every week, you should be. Fewer cat videos.
Most professional environments feature some sort of structuring system to make sure that the work that’s being done is actually fit to purpose. Testing in magic is often a relatively aimless, meandering event in which players play games against other decks, record the scores and that’s it. Ideally you should be looking to accomplish something specific with your time. The 2 weeks before GP London I was trying to get a list of Abzan Aggro which I felt beat Blue Red Thopters consistently, but couldn’t seem to accomplish it. I think I played about 70 games of that match up with various configurations before I gave up and decided not to go – it’s just not performed or represented since. This was a pretty frustrating thing to do, but that was what I felt was important, and ultimately the sessions were useful in that they allowed me to make an informed choice about going to the event. Had I just played the list that Gerry Thompson was streaming for two weeks against various decks (having just shrugged off losing vs Thopters), I would likely have gone to the GP and been disappointed at the end.
It’s important not just to play the games, but to give your full attention to them in doing so. Mis-tapping mana or forgetting that they play a certain card because you hurried through your turn to get back to playing with your phone during your opponent’s turn is actually laughable. My social media platforms are awash with stressed out late twenties, early thirties gym goers, either posting about how their metabolism has given out and they feel great after having gone to the gym, or moaning about all the idiots posting selfies and taking up in-demand equipment. There is something to be said for not being the butt of everyone else’s joke. Put your phone away and think about your plays – if you don’t, you’re actually just in a room while other people test, and you mess around, and you’re harming your team mates.
Test the decks not the players. If one party makes a mistake, just fix it to try to keep the results as useful as possible. Also, don’t become invested in the deck you’re playing just because you’re playing it, or want to play it at the event, beyond what it is reasonable to do. If the deck keeps losing, then maybe it’s not that great. Maybe it just isn’t fit to purpose.
Don’t concede prematurely, or after looking at the top few cards (this is something that I thought I wouldn’t see again since I no longer play with 16 year olds, but things have a funny way of repeating themselves). There is a temptation to do this either to get through more games, or because a matchup seems particularly poor. The problem is once more to do with getting the most accurate results. Fully commit to the process and do everything you can to win every game you play and you’ll find you can win games you thought you would lose. This sort of slackness can encourage bad habits, and actually turns the time you’re spending playing cards against you.
Play decent sample sizes and try to avoid confirmation bias, as this can lead to misinformation as well as exacerbating and causing the issues above.
3. Interpersonal Dynamics within the Group
I’ve heard it said that fear is the mind killer, but in Magic I’m pretty sure it’s ego. Magic players, in my experience, can be a very arrogant lot, who take umbrage at being challenged or any other affront to their grandeur, resulting in many emotionally driven, pointless arguments and wastes of time. I expect part of the issue is that many of us are used to feeling that we are the smartest person in most situations we are in, and we find it difficult when this becomes more contentious. It’s possible that this is just my own conceit but regardless I am certain that ego causes a lot of difficulty. So it’s advisable to be aware of your own and others.
If you are aware, then you will be able to follow the next suggestion: call people on their bullsh*t. We all have flaws, and do things that make it more difficult than it needs to be, and the only way this will change is if we are aware. It follows then that we have a duty to each other not only to point out these flaws (in a constructive way) but also to follow through when this is – invariably – met with resistance.
Naturally other people ought to call you on your failings, too, and it is imperative that you do your best to avoid defensiveness. When people are defensive about their behaviour it serves only to provide a sort of intellectual caltrops designed to deter progress and it is all too often successful because it is a difficult thing to relentlessly press home a friend’s flaws, and even more so to do it with tact, resilience and patience. As a result, frequently we simply accept other people doing things which are annoying and unhelpful in exchange for them not bothering us about our own tiresome idiosyncrasies. This is in the best interests of nothing and no one, serving only a prevalence of mediocracy. You owe yourself and your friends better.
Don’t withdraw because the conversation becomes heated, as this will allow the loudest, angriest voices to prevail every time. If you have difficulty with the atmosphere of a situation, say so and encourage cordiality; this is not only reasonable, but useful. Conflict is a natural part of group dynamics and an important aspect of growth, so it is important to find a meaningful and functional way to interact in them.
Naturally, holding grudges is unhelpful, and leads to discontent. There will be times when this becomes unavoidable, and can poison the situation irreversibly. It is important to be aware that this might happen and try to avoid it, but ultimately be prepared to find new people to play cards with if it does happen.
4. Other People Outside of the Group
Don’t allow people to force you to do things you don’t want to do as a result of social pressure. I sometimes get asked about playing cards with other people, meaning either spending less time playing cards with the people I plan to, or pushing to close to 20 hours a week playing cards in order to help other people. I could probably manage the time, but the reality is that I really need to be making some changes in my life, and if the amount of time I play Magic is going to change, it is going to be a reduction, not an increase. Most people reading this will be playing a lot less, but the point remains. You need to choose how you spend your time, so will it be to help yourself, or to help others? Both are legitimate choices, but they will have different results.
When I help people, it tends to be by speaking to them about cards on my own terms (e.g. I’ll have the conversation while Kirsty is getting ready to go out, or when I’m on the bus), writing articles, or a bit of chat at events. Because of the nature of these interactions, I find myself saying the same thing to people a lot which isn’t a problem, but saying the same things to the same people over and over again is. Don’t be trapped into having massive circular conversations with people which don’t really reach a conclusion, and then get duped into a redo because they didn’t like the answer the first time. Inversely, don’t do this to people either.
I do my best to be reasonably self-sufficient in Magic because I realise that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and if you ask for people’s help you have an obligation both in moral and practical terms to reciprocate with help. This means that if you ask someone for lifts/cards/money that you owe them things you have – in my case time and knowledge. You could of course ask for help and refuse it in return, but the reality is that people stop feeding the hand that bites. This is partially a personal thing, as freedom to choose my actions is very dear to me, but there I a practical element to this in that flexibility allows you focus on your own goals.
One thing that is hardly ever said about Magic events is that it is perfectly OK not to go. I’ve skipped both UK GPs this year because I didn’t think I could meet a goal I would have been happy with (I’m playing events to qualify for the Pro Tour, meaning I’d need to top post X-2 or better, meaning I would need to be in great magical shape to have a chance). People’s reaction to this was curious, almost as if they thought I had an obligation to go, combined with the ever present element of ego twisting the issue into a slight on their choices – because, naturally, my going or not going was actually about them. I found this reasonably troubling, and worth mentioning. I didn’t go, and I’d advocate the same for people in the same situation.
Other people can be pretty irritating at events for a variety of reasons. Generally some form of poor social skills causing a bit of irritation. Ultimately, though, there is no good reason to let people bother you. So what if they said “good luck in the next round” after you ticked Drop? Who cares if they said “good games” when you drew 12 land out of 19 game 1, and mulled to 5 game 2? I tilt too, obviously, but nowhere near as much as I used to. Experience tells me what’s going to annoy me and I just take steps to avoid it. At times what this means is that I barely chat to my opponents beyond the superficial because I know that doing otherwise will negatively impact my event.
Sometimes events just go badly, and because you know this in advance, it is a good idea to consider early exit plans. I quite like getting the train to events, and will pay a little extra for an open return so that if I go 0-2, I can drop immediately and begin salvaging my day.
That said, sometimes this isn’t an option. I’ve found it useful to bring a book with me (currently The Highway Code, to help with that self-sufficiency point) and headphones. People will generally leave you alone if you have one or both of these things, but not always. For this reason, I normally try and find a slightly out of the way place to wait when I get destroyed at events.
Ultimately you’re not owed something for the time you put into cards, or the money, or just for really wanting to succeed. That’s just not how things work. All you can do is try to be a class act (or at least cordial) and to try to get the most out of the daily situations which comprise your life.
That’s it for this article. I’m hoping to write more regularly again, although I have said that a lot over the course of this year. I have some articles planned, though, so I’ll likely have something in the next week or two. Any suggestions are welcome, as always.
All the best,