On Magic: Part 5 — Viva…New Jersey?

Update: The full book is published! More details here.

This is a story about a man and his decision to travel halfway across the world to play in a Magic: The Gathering card tournament. Going against conventional wisdom, he opts out of a sunny beach vacation with his girlfriend in order to book a trip to the Middle of Nowhere — also known as Edison, New Jersey, as the local denizens call it.

He is focused on the main prize: besting 4,000 other combatants in an epic war of mental willpower.

To fulfill his card-playing manifest destiny, our hero confines himself to an isolated convention center, deep in the Heart of the Middle of Nowhere. For three straight days, he conjures up spells and mythical beasts to duel his fellow Magicians. His passion for wizardry sustains him, with only the occasional hamburger needed as nourishment to maintain his corporeal state.

The man hails from the Far East; he has traveled afar to claim his prize. He has placed himself in spiritual isolation for the entirety of the journey. There is only the tournament, and the impending moment of victory, at hand.

What follows is a detailed, blow-by-blow account of our protagonist’s battle for pride, glory, and a shot at qualifying for the game’s competitive circuit.

It is a tale without a happy ending, ending as cruelly as it does uneventfully.

Ah, yes. Did I mention that all of this took place in motherfucking Edison, New Jersey?

Newark Liberty Airport
Wednesday, November 13

As I step off the plane after my direct flight, I realize one thing about Newark Liberty Airport and its surroundings.

It’s damn cold.

I am grateful for having brought my warm leather jacket with me. I slip the jacket on and trudge my way through the airport terminals.

I’m tired and jet-lagged, yet excited. On a whim, I had flown all the way to New Jersey to play in the biggest Magic event of the year. And now, after a terribly long flight, I was here.

The customs line is relatively uneventful, save for a bored customs official who asks me about why a Canadian citizen would ever bother living in China. And what’s a Chinese resident doing here in New Jersey, anyway?

“I’m, uh, working in China,” I slowly explain. “I’m here to play in a card tournament.”

At least, that’s what I think I said. In my state of half-sleep the words don’t quite come out right. But I’m intelligible enough. He hands me back my passport and waves me through.

“Have a good day.”

After a quick luggage pickup, I grab a rental car and start driving towards my hotel.

The New Jersey freeways are difficult to navigate on this particular night, in my condition. Lanes merge and diverge quickly, and the road signs are confusing to my weary eyes. I miss the intersection entrance about five times.

Somehow, I manage. A few U-turns later, I arrive at the hotel.

I will myself to remember the day of the week: Wednesday. The Magic tournament doesn’t start until Saturday; this gives me time to adjust.

After unpacking my things in the hotel room, I head downstairs to the hotel restaurant. There’s a basketball game on TV: the Miami Heat versus the Indiana Pacers. The two teams are hot messes this season, but on this night of nights watching the game feels like a very American thing to do. I order my food and keep my eyes glued to the television screen, even during commercials.

A taste of Americana, I think to myself. Hoops and pasta on a Wednesday night.

I was in a reflective mood that night. Life in Beijing was fast-paced and relentless; visiting cities like New Jersey gave me the opportunity to recharge, and to clear my head. Things slowed down a notch, and I welcomed the clear air entering my lungs. In this day and age, it’s good to have the mobility and freedom to move across cities and continents, especially after three years of living in China.

I typically visited West Coast cities like Seattle and Vancouver. The last time I visited the East Coast was in 2011, as part of my once-in-a-lifetime experience in Grand Prix Providence. I still lived in Vancouver then, and traveled to Providence with my buddies Matt and James.

We had a wonderful time at the Grand Prix and I yearned to re-create the “magic” of that earlier tournament. Reuniting with my buddies Matt and James here in New Jersey, for starters, would have been wonderful. We could work together as a team once again to playtest and discuss strategy. With more experience under our belts, we could make our home town of Vancouver proud, and have a lot of fun during the process.

The only problem? They weren’t here this time. Matt was busy with school, and James was on hiatus from Magic. My other good friend, Chad, had used up his annual traveling budget already. My friend from California, Spencer, was coming in, but I didn’t know him half as well as my Vancouver buddies. But I’d already booked my tickets a few months in advance, so here I was.

I’m committed. I told myself that simply playing competitive Magic in North America again was enough. I was here to show my love for the game, and to be part of history. The journey itself would be worth it.

I repeated these thoughts in my head a couple of more times, for good measure. I did this to counteract the other part of my brain that told me the rationalization was all bullshit. Could I really justify coming all the way here, just to play a card game? It felt silly to question it now, but my initial decision was decided on just that…an impulse.

Might as well make the most of it.

I knew that my logic for coming to New Jersey was flawed. About a week ago, I had tried, in vain, to explain to my coworkers why I was taking vacation time to travel to the Grand Prix.

“What’s Magic?” they asked. “Why are you flying to New Jersey to play it?”

“Couldn’t you just play Magic in China?”

“Is there a lot of prize money on the line, or something?”

I thought about explaining things to them through an analogy: equating the Grand Prix to the famous World Series of Poker. Every year, poker players from all over the world congregate in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, for a shot at fame, riches and glory. The winners truly win; it’s life-changing money, potentially hundreds of million dollars. The Grand Prix was similar: the biggest stage for Magic: The Gathering, and a huge event for those who play the game.

The crucial flaw in this analogy? The prize structure. While the World Series of Poker gave away life-changing “early retirement” money, Magic paled in comparison. Magic lacked the scale and sponsorship of the WSOP, and this meant winning a few thousand bucks at best. There’s always been stories of poker players who quit school to focus on poker. Few players quit their day jobs to play Magic. That’s why a lot of serious Magic players are young — they pursue it as a hobby and are intelligent enough to know that there is no long-term gravy train.

Furthermore, Magic players wanted to win big events for non-financial reasons. Many players wanted the ability to chase a temporary dream — a major Grand Prix win could lead to an invite on the prestigious Pro Tour. The Pro Tour, as the name suggests, is filled with Magic professionals who have achieved the highest levels of competitive glory.

Most poker players are content to take money from lesser opponents, and maximize their returns on investment. Magic players want a shot at becoming the next Michael Jordan. They want to play against the best, and to prove their worth against more seasoned opponents. The Pro Tour affords them that opportunity.

I made no pretense of the fact that I was not favored to win this Magic tournament, because I didn’t live, breathe and study the game 24/7. I made no pretense of breaking even on this trip and being able to pay for my flight home.

And even if I won invites to the Pro Tour, I certainly didn’t have enough banked vacation time to travel. Fortune favors the prepared, and I wasn’t the guy who skipped class to play Magic with friends. I wasn’t even the guy who was still young enough to have Magic dreams.

I was merely bold and irrationally confident. It seemed pretty easy a few weeks ago to book the flight and hotel. There was a certain romantic element to it.

James comes back to competitive Magic, flies to New Jersey, plays the best he’s ever played, is crowned champion. Has an awesome time.

Not bad for a trip report. But my coworkers wouldn’t understand. So I just smiled at them and told them I’d be back next week.

The other fatal flaw in my logic? Turning down vacation time with my girlfriend. She was free this week to go to Thailand — in what would have been a nice and relaxing getaway — and I told her I needed to go to New Jersey. Jersey felt like a quest that I had a pursue, at all costs.

The inner monologue comes back to me.

This is James’ elixir — the culmination of everything he’s done in Magic to that point. James makes sacrifices to get to the next level. He isolates himself from his girlfriend, and avoids Thailand, in search of his true calling.

True calling, thy name is…Magic?

Fuck it. I was here now, in the moment, and I needed to make the most of it.

A Facebook message comes in from my friend Julian. Julian has just flown in from Munich, Germany, with a bunch of his European friends. Just like me, he’s traveled a great distance to be here. Julian’s abilities as a Magic player, however, far exceed mine — and I’m rooting for him to have a stellar finish.

Julian’s not only a great Magic player, he’s friendly to a fault and an incredibly generous person. The first time I met Julian was just a few months ago, on a vacation in Eastern Germany. Julian showed my girlfriend and I some German hospitality and some awesome food in the process.

Julian and his friends are staying at the hotel right across the street. It’s late, but they’re playing a few games of Magic. He asks if I want to join them.

What’s a Magic player to do, on a Wednesday night, in the Middle of Nowhere, if not to play Magic with a friendly neighbor across the street? I finish the rest of my dinner in quick order, and make my way there.

On arrival, I see that Julian and his friends look as tired as I do. They’ve had a long trip as well. We say our hellos and start playing a few test games. I manage to win one game out of seven. Julian’s pretty good at this game.

An hour and a half later, the jet lag really sets in for both of us and we call it a night. I walk back to the hotel, lie down, and sleep.

Hilton Sheraton Hotel, New Jersey
Thursday, November 14

It’s 5 AM in the morning and I’m awake. Jet lag is a cruel mistress. I try, unsuccessfully, to close my eyes and fall back into sleep. A few tries later, I begin to surf the web. I read a few articles about Magic and check my work email.

After that, it’s off to the hotel’s gym for a quick jog and subsequent shower. I head downstairs for the hotel’s breakfast. As I chew on my morning food, I think about my goals for the day.

Well, I could find a place to play Magic. But I’d have plenty of opportunities to do that for the next three days. I’d already promised my girlfriend that I would bring back a few things for her. Might as well hit up the shopping mall and get that done early.

American suburbia is frighteningly uniform. The mall I drive to is non-descript and littered with the same familiar stores that I’ve visited in every other American city. The advantage of conformity, as far as I’m concerned, is how easy it allows me to find the things I’m looking for. Within an hour, my mission is accomplished.

The drive back to the hotel crawls to a halt due to rush hour. I’m usually annoyed at being stuck in traffic, but today I don’t mind. Since I don’t usually drive in China, it’s enough just to be out on the road. Besides, freeway traffic jams feel like a taste of Americana.

In the evening, my friend Spencer arrives at the hotel. Spencer hails from California; like me, he’s here just to play Magic. After we knew about each other’s plans to play in New Jersey, we decided in advance to share a hotel room together. I gave myself a head start in Jersey before meeting with Spencer, so that I could adjust to the long travel and jet lag.

Spencer, like myself, is a Legacy format specialist. We met while playing Magic in California. My first impression of Spencer, as I sat across the table to play against him, was that of ambivalence. He tended not to display emotion, crack a smile or make small talk. He complemented his iron demeanor with methodical and technically precise play. He also annoyed me that day, because of how slow and purposeful he played.

At first, I didn’t think much of him as a player. I thought he was a dick.

But my first impressions were wrong. Through subsequent tournaments and chatter, I learned that Spencer was, in fact, not a dick. He is simply a very focused Magic player — a trait that gives him a robotic and cold demeanor, and initially rubbed off on me the wrong way. Spencer is capable of long periods of concentration, which is an admirable skill. He plays fairly and honorably. Sometimes he feels slighted when he plays, when he thinks that his opponents used aggressive verbal tactics to swing the game. Nonetheless, Spencer has an approach that works for him, and he executes on it.

Spencer and I definitely possess different styles of play. Every Magic player’s competitive fire is manifested differently — Spencer tends to be more analytical in situations, whereas I prefer to act impulsively. Spencer would take losses better than I did; I would stew and let it affect me. Unlike Spencer, I would be prone to lose my focus and concentration when I played. My bouts of lost focus were a fuck you to the Magic gods — it was a self-defense mechanism I developed to tell myself that if I lost, it didn’t matter.

Since I never took game situations seriously enough, I could rationalize losses better. My heart wasn’t in it, anyway. In recent years, I had built up this bullshit persona for myself, to counteract the alternative — being fiercely competitive and caring too much. When I cared too much, the losing hurt more. It was a strange predicament to be in.

And that’s why I learn a lot from observing Spencer. He’s the alternative reality version of me — more focused, analytical and methodical in his play. Being part of a Magic team or posse is about diversity — it’s no good to associate oneself with similar players. The differences allowed for meaningful playtesting and discussion.

As I open the hotel room door for Spencer, we silently shake hands. I’m still on a work-related Skype call. The work call was important, and I had spent too long preparing for the meeting to miss it. While I was technically on vacation, I wanted to be on the call.

I place the call on mute to greet Spencer half-heartedly; through my headset, I continue listening to my coworkers discuss an issue in the conference call. “Great to see you Spencer,” I offer, somewhat dispassionately. My mind is still on the conference call.

“What up James!” Spencer replies, almost too enthusiastically.

“Hey, I’m on a conference call,” I respond. I point to my headset. “I should be done in a few minutes.”

Thirty-five long minutes later, the call ends. I tell Spencer that I’m super hungry and that we should head downstairs to eat. He agrees.

Hilton Sheraton Hotel, New Jersey
Friday, November 15

It’s T-minus one day to the big event. For me, this means digging my heels in and getting into the competitive mood. First order of business: finalize the deck to play in the Legacy Grand Prix.

In any Magic tournament, there’s an art in deciding what deck to play. There’s a world of Magic savants out there who leave their deck choices open until the last minute; they tend to “audible” to some crazy deck at the last minute, conquer all challengers and claim the dark horse victory despite zero preparation. I’m not a Magic savant. I prefer to plan out, well in advance, what deck I’ll be playing.

I’d grown quite fond of playing with a deck called “Death and Taxes.” The deck name implied inevitability — death and taxes, as they say, were the only certainties in life. Give the Death and Taxes deck enough time to operate, and it would slowly but surely suck the living life out of the opponent. It was a slow-starting, constrictive deck meant to deny the opponent out of their game plan, until the coup de grace finishing blow was landed. I loved the way it played out.

I’d been practicing with Death and Taxes for the past few months, and was getting comfortable with its strategy. It’s a strategy with a high learning curve, but could work wonders in the hands of a capable player. It also possessed a rogue element to it, in that it was less mainstream — the cards it played were less common and conceivably, fewer players would be prepared for it. The element of surprise can be a welcome presence on the Magic battlefield.

The only problem with the deck was its objective power level. It was not the Deck to Beat — the king of the hill that players gravitated to. That distinction belonged to a blazingly fast deck at the time, named “Blue-Red Delver.” “Blue-Red” represented the colors of manipulation and destruction in Magic, respectively “Delver” referred to the signature creature, Delver of Secrets, which was the most efficient creature in the format.

Blue-Red Delver’s game plan was to draw lots of good cards, stop opponents from playing their spells, and kill quickly. If Death and Taxes was a boa constrictor, Delver was Speedy Gonzales with a semi-automatic rifle. The deck enjoyed the powerful ability to relentlessly reload its arsenal, thanks to a new card that was printed called “Treasure Cruise.” Treasure Cruise was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and transformed it from a second-tier strategy to the Best Deck in the Format.

In testing, Death and Taxes held up admirably against Blue-Red Delver. But there would be plenty of matches where the Delver deck would be so fast that it didn’t quite matter what I did. Too many times, I was swimming with the fishes before I knew what had hit me. The Deck to Beat was fast, aggressive, and remarkably consistent.

For the past several weeks, I had mulled over my play options — would I continue to play Death and Taxes, or would I switch allegiances and join the Dark Side? Shuffling up Blue-Red Delver myself was feasible and above all, rational. When one needed to win a lot of matches, against thousands of players, consistency and raw power was king. Delver fit the bill, and was straightforward to play; Death and Taxes required the pilot to out-play and out-smart the opponent on a regular basis. Would I go for the elaborate asphyxiation, or the direct head shot?

In the end, I went with what I knew best, which was Death and Taxes. I felt more practiced with the deck. Plus, I didn’t want to fly all the way to Edison, New Jersey to play the “popular” deck. I wanted to play with my baby. Deep inside, I felt that I enjoyed an amount of “edge” over my opponents when I played Death and Taxes. While I hadn’t won a major tournament with it, I felt prepared for the dogfight.

Win or lose, I was going to do it on my own terms. My way.

Deck choice was much easier for Spencer; there was no doubt in his mind what he would play. For as long as I’ve known Spencer, he’s only played one deck archetype: “Miracles.” Miracles was a controlling deck like Death and Taxes, but slower-paced and more methodical in its approach. It was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Blue-Red Delver — judo-like in its ability to control the match and end things with one decisive fatal blow. It wasn’t my style of Magic, but Spencer knew the deck inside out and it certainly played to his strengths.

With the tournament fast approaching, Spencer and I stick to business, and that means Magic playtesting and strategy talk. While Spencer’s a nice guy, I just don’t know him half as well as my buddies back home. We talk about mundane things, mostly Magic-related in nature.

Spencer and I are both introverts, and interject excited moments of Magic talk with dead air. We’ve come for a common purpose, but we’re still trying to figure each other out. I am silently grateful for the good friends I’ve had in my life, who have supported me all this way.

Post-college adulthood makes it harder to develop deep friendships with new people. In the formative years of young adulthood, there’s less resistance and “real-world” stuff getting in the way. It wasn’t so long ago that I was playing Magic with my brother in our living room, attacking with my Sengir Vampire and casting Lightning Bolt on his Grizzly Bears. Or playing Magic with my friends Derek and Matthew on that fateful, post-cyber-gaming night, feeling the cards in my hand and getting sucked back into the hobby.

I used to play for the flavor and excitement of the game. Now I find myself in New Jersey, honing everything that I’ve learned into organized competition. Maybe it is still about the love of the game. Now, the love has been channeled into something far more intense, and I’m a long way from home.

Twenty years. Has it really been that long?

I shake off the nostalgia. Spencer and I share a common bond at this precise moment in time. We’re both in Edison, New Jersey, and we came to game. We are ready.

To be continued…in Part 6

Co-founder / CTO, CardBoard Live. Author. Podcaster.

Co-founder / CTO, CardBoard Live. Author. Podcaster.