Skill vs Talent in Magic: the Gathering – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge, by Graeme McIntyre

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Skill vs Talent in Magic: the Gathering – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge

Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” – Lou Holtz

This weekend the best Magic players in the world were fighting it out at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. This is the high point of the game, with extensive coverage watched and anticipated by players of all stripes; kitchen table players, EDH occasionals, FNM regulars, the grinders and the casuals alike. In what I tend to think of as recent years – although it’s actually been the case for quite some time – the Pro Tour coverage has become an expensive, well-produced affair with extensive social media development, good commentators, and live updates.

The most obvious comparison might be with the World Poker Tour, with LSV filling in for Phil Ivy (“The Tiger of Woods of Poker”), Mike Matusow played by Pat Chapin (as a guy with active play experience counted in decades), although the interactive nature of poker allows for a greater amount of insight into the personalities involved. I think, though, that the way that The Pro Tour is culturally consumed is much more like the National Football League’s Super Bowl – as a national holiday, a culmination and an exhibition at the same time. Naturally, The Pro Tour is a smaller deal… still, many people get together to watch it with the highest interest. Mine is, well, not that high…


The feels, they are not there

…I don’t even watch the coverage. This isn’t because I’m some sort of wizard hipster. It’s not because I’m “Jelly”. It’s not because I think I’m too good for it. I just can’t get excited – at all – about other people playing Magic. I’d like the UK guys to do well because I know them, not because of some sense of national pride. I don’t know the pros, so I don’t really care who does well – beyond the fact that certain ones are a good bet for a deck I’ll want to play (e.g. Chapin, Nassif and Matignon are a good shout for a Control deck, Cox and Kibler for Beatdown, for instance).

It might be that image crafting and branding are a big part of this. I’m excited that Tony G is coming back to poker, I like watching Sam Grizzle wind up Phil Helmuth, I’m glad when Mike Matusow wins, and I enjoy watching Jennifer Harman play. I even care about the Cincinnati Bengals players – I was gutted when Andy Dalton got injured, as I knew AJ Mcarron wouldn’t get it done in the play offs, meaning the Bengals would be out in the quarters for the 5th year in a row.

The Magic Pro Tour just doesn’t feel the same way. Sure, a lot of the pros have podcasts and obviously write articles, but that’s just not the same as seeing Helmuth bowl up over nothing (most of which is also image crafting – he plays the part of a heel as well as any wrestler), or a close up of a player who fumbled the ball, or threw an interception at a key moment. This sort of image crafting is something that I would expect to see in the future, as in many ways this is what makes poker so watchable. It would enhance Magic similarly. I’m not sure how it would be implemented best, as it’s more difficult for obvious reasons: players sit outside of the game battlefield. But it will come.

A big part of it is that I know I could never do what American Football players do. I’m five foot five, and if I was a foot taller maintaining the same proportions… I’d be a tall fat man. The guys on the offensive line might look about the same as me, but they would be able to run at near supernatural speeds over short distances, and knock down other physically fit people like it was nothing – which I would not. Same for the way a wide receiver runs, or a quarterback throws. I can’t fly, and I can’t do that stuff. Poker vaguely resembles Magic, but it’s much more glamorous; the money they’re betting, and the risks they must have taken to become what they are, are both massive (I can’t say I approve of how cavalier they are at times about it, but whatever) and that’s something I couldn’t do either.


Skill vs Talent

Let’s discuss Kai Budde and Jon Finkel.

Kai Budde
Nicknames The German Juggernaut
Born October 28, 1979 (age 36)
Cologne, Germany
Residence Hamburg, Germany
Nationality German
Pro Tour debut 1997 Pro Tour New York (junior)
1997 Pro Tour Mainz (senior)
Winnings $375,220
Pro Tour wins (Top 8) 7 (10)
Grand Prix wins (Top 8) 7 (15)
Median Pro Tour finish 44
Lifetime Pro Points 541
Planeswalker Level 49 (Archmage)


Jon Finkel
Nicknames Jonny Magic
The Machine
Born May 18, 1978 (age 37)
Brockport, New York
Residence New York, USA
Nationality United States
Pro Tour debut 1996 Pro Tour New York (junior)
1996 Worlds–Seattle (senior)
Winnings $390,234
Pro Tour wins (Top 8) 3 (15)
Grand Prix wins (Top 8) 3 (9)
Median Pro Tour finish 61
Lifetime Pro Points 549
Planeswalker Level 48 (Archmage)


These two guys were considered to be the best two players in the world for a very long time. It might not be true anymore, but whatever; they’re the classic example of the point I’m about to make and they’re definitely still very, very good.

Kai was part of a team of players called Phoenix Foundation – back in the day, before people even really had the internet in their houses, and certainly access to written material on Magic: the Gathering was sparse, and of significantly lower quality than it is now. As you can see, he’s smashed Magic tournaments over and over for years, and it was mostly on the back of working hard. He’s a great player, but mostly because of the time has put in with an aim to becoming better. He wins because he has developed the skills to do so, not on the back of a natural aptitude for the game.

Finkel is a savant. He understands the game on a fundamental level and intuitively grasps the concepts and interactions involved. He wins games because of this ability, in much the same way that AJ Green runs; he has a natural gift for it. He wins games because he is talented.

I’m not saying Kai is talentless, or that Finkel (or AJ, for that matter) doesn’t work hard. Given what they have done with the game, they’ll have both of these things in spades. But this is the difference which is spoken about between the two, and it neatly splits the two concepts up.


Emulation Culture

Our relationship with Magic: the Gathering involves a strange duality. We’re both players and fans. We go from winning Friday Night Magic for the 4th week in a row to watching Chapin win the Pro Tour two days later, on Sunday. The next week, maybe we go to a GP and miss our win-and-in for Day Two, or – perhaps – for Top 8. As we step of the role of fan, and become a player, we expect of others the same support and rooting that we gave other people when we were the fan.

We watch other people who we think are better than us, and copy not only the technique, but the phrases and mannerisms of these players. We’re also trying to get better, and are in competition with others to do so. We want to become better at the game, while also having this acknowledged and legitimatised by our peers. When we win, then, we expect of others – in their role as fans – to accept that we have become better. Eventually, we want them to accept that the apprentice has become the master.

This is where something that would otherwise be healthy becomes toxic. It’s not especially different to a psychology of a pack. The leader, the alpha, knows he’s the biggest wolf, so he ignores the squabbling of the rest of the pack. Eventually, he is challenged by a younger wolf, at which point one wolf rips the other’s throat out, and everyone moves on. The definitive resolution present in nature is not present in gaming groups, of course, and this is where the problem is – instead of resolution, there is endless testosterone-driven passive-aggressive crap.

In terms of skill vs talent, I’m very much about skill. I was initially very bad, and got better over time, with great effort. Now I have a bank of experience and understanding which I can draw upon, making the whole thing much easier, as I do have something of a gift for developing/optimising things, rather than creating them.

warriors lesson

Two analogies spring to mind. First is the story of a tortoise and a hare, in which the hare was naturally suited to doing something, but got beaten by something which wasn’t but actually did the bloody running. A win, is a win, is a win – don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

The second is about two children who both want a toy. One gets a paper round and saves to buy it, the other’s parents are minted so just buy it. The first worked hard to acquire what he/she needed to achieve their goal, the other was fortunate in something he/she had no input into. I’m not a jealous person, but there is no doubt that I find a great deal of frustration in Magic – asking me not to be a dick about it is one thing, asking me to gush like a good fan is another. The bottom line is that I’m just being polite when I say “well done” and smile – I don’t care, as discussed above, because my achievement is not related to yours.

If the above reads like I’m bent out of shape, that’s because I am. Nearly 20 years of this nonsense and I still find myself getting yipped at by arrogant puppies who won their entry fee back at an event, or whatever, and want to scrap. If I had things my way, it would be a much more visceral world. It’s little wonder I spend virtually all my time with other alphas. No one who is any good bothers with trying to get others to accept they’re better than them; it’s not even for jokes, just punchlines.

The reason I’m stating this so harshly is because I think it is genuinely harmful in groups, but also to the community at large. It seems to me that this is a large part of why the UK Magic community is so divisive, and feeds into the lack of any real presence on the Pro Tour on a regular basis beyond‘s own writer Fabrizio Anteri. I’ve been meaning to ask a bunch of silver pros about various things that go on in their group dynamics, but I’ve just realized I don’t even know any anymore.

What’s the takeaway, then? Workout what you need to do, do it, and don’t worry about anyone else. That’s it for this week!

Community Question: Which do you think should be rewarded more and why: Skill or Talent?

Which do you think should be rewarded more and why: Skill or Talent?

Thanks for reading,

Graeme McIntyre

Skill vs Talent in Magic the Gathering - Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge, by Graeme McIntyre
This article presents a difference between a fan and a player in Magic and how mixing these two negatively affects the game, the community and the Pro Tour coverage.

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Graeme McIntyre
I've been playing magic since the end of Rath Block, and I've been a tournament regular since Invasion Block. I started studying for a PhD in Sociology at University of Leicester in 2017. I was born In Scotland, but moved to Nottingham three years ago, seeking new oppertunities both academic and magical. I play regularly with David Inglis, Alastair Rees and Neil Rigby. I've been on 5 Pro Tours the 2016 English World Cup Team, and Scottish 2003 European Championship Team, but what I really bring to the table is experience. I've played 136 Pro Tour Qualifiers, 18 Grand Prixs, 11 National Championships, 13 World Magic Cup Qualifers, 51 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and more little tournaments than I can remember. More than anything else, my articles are intended to convey the lessons of this lived experience. Likes - robust decks, be they control, midrange, beatdown or combo. Cryptic Commands, Kird Apes and Abzan Charms. Dislikes - decks that draw hot and cold. Urza's Tower, Life From the Loam and Taigam's Scheming.