What is “Competitive Casual”, and how can an ageing Spike make sense of Magic: the Gathering?
I’m a competitive person
I always have been. So I’ve always been a competitive Magic player. And now, as I sit here typing this on my 31st birthday, it’s got me thinking back to my early days in Magic and contrasting them with how I experience this great game now.
When I first picked up the game, I’d spend days upon days in the local game store, battling my friends over and over. Back then, my ambitions went as far as winning the most games that day. Later, it was winning the small local tournaments. After that, I would sometimes travel to tournaments with friends and try to win there.
My first top 8 came in 2004 at a monthly tournament in Bath hosted by (then) StarCityGames writer Jim Grimmett. I was playing the broken but relatively new Elf and Nail deck, a ramp strategy powered by Skullclamp. I still remember a crowd gathered around as my gang of tiny elves were brick-walled by my opponent’s White Weenie strategy. Finally, as the tension mounted, I drew Kamahl, Fist of Krosa to go along with my Vernal Bloom and many Forests. In my memory, the crowd went wild. It felt great.
I was 17 years old
In those days, I didn’t really think the Pro Tour was a thing I could do. I thought of PTQs as fun trips to go on with my buddies, and though I went to a couple, it was clear I wasn’t good enough. Each time I went I’d be lucky to come away with a winning record. I learned for the first time that beating your friends didn’t mean you could hang with the best the country had to offer. I was slowly getting better, but then University came around, and I couldn’t really afford to keep playing Magic: the Gathering. Not if I wanted to spend my student loan on booze and women, anyway.
Flash forward to 2013
I start thinking I could do with a hobby, and I remember some of my old friends still played Magic, so I tagged along with them to the Gatecrash prerelease. A month or two later, I made the top 4 of a Grand Prix Trial thanks to a very strong Orzhov sealed deck. The competitive bug had got its teeth into me again.
But things were different now
Magic had changed, and not just with new rules and cards. Thanks to Magic’s continued growth and the proliferation of and easy access to content on the Internet, there are more, and better informed, players than ever before. The days of facing untuned homebrews at four round tournaments are over. Instead, I was facing tournaments where I would play nine rounds against tough opposition, get a respectable six or seven wins, and not be that close to the top of the standings.
I was determined to get those extra wins and truly compete on the national, maybe even international level. I started to dream of the Pro Tour. Now I was older and wiser, with a voracious desire to catch up on what I’d missed, to consume the plethora of new MTG content, to learn and improve.
But if Magic had changed, so had I. No longer a teenager with plenty of free time to spend brewing decks and practising my game, with a network of friends who were also keen to waste their youth indoors. Instead I was a man in his late 20s (and now early 30s!) with a career, a girlfriend and a mortgage. That lifestyle doesn’t reconcile easily with the realities of a modern-day Magic grinder. To quote pop-punk band The Wonder Years:
“My heart keeps saying stay young, my lower back seems to disagree”
Now we have the PPTQ system, which acts as an incentive for playing week-on-week. This is great for building up a scene in the country, and for people with the time and inclination to work together. The system has clearly produced results, with more and more UK MTG players seeing success all the way up to the Grand Prix and Pro Tour level.
But for me, it raised a question. Am I dedicated enough to do this? To spend hours playtesting, honing my deck and my skills. Spending every weekend travelling around the country just to qualify for a chance to reach the Pro Tour? Or do I want to go for a nice meal with my girlfriend? A fantastic summer holiday? Some free time doing stuff that isn’t Magic?
These competing priorities really caused conflict with my competitive tendencies. I want to win at Magic. I want to be the best in the country, the world. But deep down, I know I can’t be. Not if I want to keep up the lifestyle I currently enjoy.
So what do I do? Well, I’ve tried to re-invent how I play the game to a style that I call Competitive Casual.
What is Competitive Casual?
I think of it as a less hardcore way of being a competitive player. I’ve done some of the following things:
1. Set realistic goals
I think this is the big one. It’s all well and good wanting to win – and that desire has never diminished for me – but realistic goal-setting means not being disappointed when you don’t win all the time. The very best Magic players play, or have played, a lot of Magic to get so good. In fact, commonly-held wisdom suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in a skill.
So if you don’t have the time to dedicate yourself so wholly, instead you need to recognise that you probably won’t be the best. So instead of winning a Pro Tour, maybe you just want to top 8 a PPTQ. Instead of winning a Grand Prix, maybe you just want to make Day 2. If you set your expectations realistically, you’re more likely to enjoy your experience of Magic more. And if you’re enjoying yourself more, you might start doing better as a result.
Further, once you set those realistic goals, it’s freeing. You don’t have to play Magic: the Gathering all the time, grinding playtest sessions and weekly events. You don’t have to maintain a collection that encompasses all the top-tier decks for Standard and Modern. Instead, you’re a newly liberated ‘competitive casual’.
2. Build a cube
A cube is a repeatedly draftable collection of cards that can really be anything you want, often a combination of Magic‘s most powerful cards. Since I wanted to keep my costs down, I built a Peasant Cube, comprised entirely of commons and uncommons. Once you have a cube, whenever you have one or more friends, you can play Magic whenever you want. And if you have 6 or 8, you’ve got a team draft or a full draft pod going. Following an initial investment, it’s a great way to scratch that competitive itch.
3. Play Leagues on Magic Online
The League function on Magic Online is a godsend for a time-poor competitive player. Once you’re signed up to a league, you can play one match at a time on your own schedule, against a good standard of competition. You can even play leagues in the Pauper format, where a deck can be put together cheaply.
4. Combine larger tournaments with holidays
Personally, I’m a big fan of Grands Prix – particularly Limited format ones. I enjoy the feeling of a big tournament, battling against people from across the globe. And what I like to do the most is to schedule trips to Grands Prix in big cities which offer opportunities for sightseeing and good food. For example, last year I played in GP Barcelona, and this January in GP Prague. Both are amazing cities with some fantastic sights to see, things to do, and delicious food (I particularly recommend Sansho in Prague).
I usually try to book a few days after the event to really enjoy myself and unwind after the mentally taxing (but fun) days of a Grand Prix. And if you end up doing poorly, as I did in Barcelona, it’s no problem – you just bought yourself one more day to enjoy the city!
If the Grand Prix is in the UK, it can be even better, because that’s a great opportunity to visit with a group of friends and have fun, no matter the result.
5. Have fun
At the end of the day, this is what Magic: the Gathering is all about. If you aren’t enjoying yourself, then you can stop. Focus on the parts of Magic you like the best, and eliminate the rest of it. That’ll free up spare time and money to enjoy the other aspects of your life more too.
So that’s it from me for this week. You’ll have to forgive me for a self-indulgent ramble through memory lane ending in a bit of self-reflection and some imparting of my newly-found old man wisdom. But as a competitive person, I’d say that my old-man wisdom is the absolute best. Anyways, I hope to get back to some strategic content next time.
Thanks for reading,