HOW CAN I COMPETE? (the dangers of grinder brain)
part i: a prison of your own design
It’s amazing that the Pro Tour existed in the first place honestly. The idea of getting to play a fun game with colorful cards with cute pictures on them where you pretend to be a wizard and then win tens of thousands of dollars is inherently wild, especially by 1996’s standards. However, the absurdity only continues when you start to look at the ongoing implications that the Pro Tour creates. You have a continually running series of tournaments with prize pools that either slightly increase or stay the same that is, in reality, a marketing engine for your game that hopes to draw in more players to the series over time. It makes sense: the promise of “play the game, see the world” is especially alluring and was certainly ahead of its time. Who could resist? Players to this day flock to try and fight their way to the top of Wizards of the Coast’s organized play to live the dream of being a full-time player, but how realistic is becoming one of the few pros in the top percent of the top percent of an ever-growing hobby today compared to twenty years ago? What does WotC’s organized play, both past and future, actually offer to the Magic community that other outlets don’t?
The desire to reduce Magic to being a game about paying your rent is an insidious trap that I’ve written about at length before. Going from “wow, I’m pretty good at this game and I won some money by playing it” to “what if I gave up everything to play this game professionally” seems like a difficult jump in logic to make, but Magic’s surrounding Grinder culture makes it seem like the only way forward once you’re in deep, especially when you’re young and hopeful. It’s easy to dream of what could be when you’re on the outside looking in, on the verge of breaking through. However, there’s a lot of surrounding issues that complicate things in the long term. How many career paths can you transition into after only playing Magic for a few years? How do you explain the gap in your normal employment to most jobs in the future if you fall off the Pro Tour soon after? How many pros can even exist solely off of their income from Magic with no outside assistance? Magic is already a hobby that takes a lot of money in the first place, so what chance do people without rich parents, ill-gotten stock gains, or ties to a hedge fund even stand? There’s only XX amount of people who can reasonably be a pro due to the critical mass of prize pools, so I guess…. hope you get lucky? Clearly the game of Magic takes skill and dedication to play at the top level, but when the variance of one draw step can mean either staying on the PT/MPL or falling off and having to work your way back on to maybe have a chance of running good again, who is this dream for in the first place?
Magic is fundamentally a game about people, not rational thinking in pursuit of capital, despite what Ante cards would lead you to believe. It always has been. This isn’t even a pedantic point about how games require at least two people. Magic’s proximity to “nerd” culture (before it became as profitable as it is now) has made it a haven for outcasts, fuckups, and people who didn’t have anything better to do for the past few decades. If anything, my time with Magic has felt very similar to blossoming music scenes. The current “hyperpop” scene was born out of bored, terminally-online queers in their bedrooms who wanted to distort the type of music they’d grown tired of. You have a decentralized group of (mostly anonymous) people who all share a common passion for the same sound working together to try to push the boundaries of what feels possible in their genre. They experiment and create and innovate because they feel alienated by most music and inspired by the music of their friends. Eventually, some of these artists will blow up and the music they made will become popular and profitable where it will eventually get sanitized and watered down for mass consumption, but for the artists who helped form the scene from the beginning, that was never the end goal, just a byproduct of the lifestyle.
Long grinding asks you to crush yourself down until nothing is left but raw statistics and probability, until you see the game and yourself as pure numbers. Having an entire community of people working to frame themselves this way is dangerous. It’s exhausting, and winning is only a temporary relief of the pressure. It’s not just a question of “who wants it more” or “who is smarter,” because there’s a plethora of extraneous factors to take into account for pros. Socio-economic status, race, gender, geography, having a that job pays enough and is flexible enough to give you time off to fly to the tournaments that you need to become a pro in the first place are all huge barriers in the way of most people who are “better than you and your friends” becoming professionals. Meritocracy is a joke, and Magic is no exception. Being good at Magic does not make you a better person or special, at least in the way that people think it does.
People who dedicate themselves to Magic are special because of how much of themselves they give to a community. The game itself is fun, but once you become invested, there’s much more to Magic than expensive cardboard. The human connection and the thrill of sport are what made the Pro Tour so compelling, not just the idea of organized play itself. The actual game of Magic can often feel secondary to the stories being told, the drama, the passion. The idea that this would disappear at Wizards of the Coast’s discretion misplaces a lot of faith in others. While this one particular avenue for competition may be gone (or more accurately, changing for good), there are always others.
The Star City Games series, while mostly localized to the Midwest and East Coast of America, does a great job at getting viewers invested in burgeoning decks and players that they would otherwise have no way of knowing. SCG is able to translate what is so enthralling and exciting about the game being played to the viewer rather than assuming the viewer is already invested just because they play Magic. The stakes for each player, the amount of time put in, what each potential match win would mean. SCG takes local, small town nobodies and gives them center stage in a way that WotC’s production had been lacking in. They bridge the gap between local, national, and global scale communities to explain to outsiders what makes Magic special: individuals from small communities coming together to form a collective whole.
What people fear losing through the dissolution of the Pro Tour is this culture of diehards who are willing to spend long hours dedicating themselves to Magic. Tournaments, especially high profile ones like the Pro Tour, may have been the original means of showcasing the game with others in this way, but this love exists outside of the highest levels of competition. Streamers are a more accessible and convenient way for others to share a little bit of the connection and passion that pros cherish, even if they’re not playing themselves. Streamers, Youtubers, and other major community members dedicate themselves nearly as much as pros do (if not equally) to Magic, only in different ways. People don’t accidentally spend thousands of dollars on cubes and Commander decks. It’s not that Commander and Cube circles of Magic’s culture are lesser than the Professional scene, they just have entirely different aspirations. These circles emerged as a necessary outlet for players who love Magic just as much as pros but felt alienated by the hyper-competitive focus that Professional play focuses on.
People love Magic in spite of the way it can be destroyed by competitive drive. During Eldrazi Winter and Oko Fall, players kept showing up at smaller tournaments with “less optimal” decks because of their love of the game, despite how fucking miserable watching endless, repetitive mirror matches was at the time. We love Magic because we get to see John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats hit Mythic in constructed on Arena every month with janky brews that even the youngest version of my Magic-playing self wouldn’t play. We love Magic because we love to see people in terrible, matching jerseys fill the convention halls to take down an SCG open, proving that if one of them could do it, any of their friends could too.
part ii: a eulogy for eudemonia, or; having an unquantifiable amount of card names and card arts mapped to your brain in an irrevocable way
I started writing this article purely out of spite to respond to Zvi Moshowitz’s recent article, but as I started writing more, my knee-jerk contrarianism faded and I just kind of felt like an asshole. I still wholly disagree with the article (especially the streaming and speedrunning aspects of it) and have problems with its construction, but I can’t force myself to feel angry anymore. I understand where he’s coming from. A second home for a significant portion of his life is gone or more likely warped into something he doesn’t recognize. I can’t fault him for feeling sad about it.
I first fell in love with Magic at Eudemonia in Berkeley. I had been playing Magic for two months at this point at a friend’s house and a few small events at a different shop, but Eudo was my point of no return. I knew it was going to be a lifelong passion. I knew it was also going to be a problem. I’ve written before about my bad habits that Magic has enabled, my impulsiveness for gambling, my tendency to sink limitless time into an activity to avoid finally facing discomfort. I knew that Magic was just another game I could get lost in for a bit like I had in the past, but I did it anyway. I didn’t plan for it to turn out this way, but places like Eudo made it easy.
The back tables were filled with the usual grinders and shop rats. I was new and didn’t know anyone. I had a terrible Constellation brew that I had made with all my new Journey into Nyx cards. I got handily crushed by people playing Mono Blue Devotion and Azorius Control. During rounds, I couldn’t help but notice how friendly everyone at the shop was with each other. They knew each other, but their friendships went beyond the surface level of being mutually “good at magic.” This isn’t unique to Eudo, obviously, but it was new to me. I felt out of place and on the outside of everyone else who knew each other.
My round opponent talked to me after our match. We were already both 0–2 at the beginning of the match and out of prize contention, so it’s surprising he even stuck around to play me.
“Your deck has a sweet enchantment thing going on! You running Courser of Kruphix or Sylvan Caryatid in your list?” he asked.
I had never heard of these cards before. I would get extremely tired of seeing them in Standard over the next few years.
I would come to live inside Eudemonia for a large portion of the next few years. I ended up working there toward the tail end of my time in the Bay Area. I read all of Achewood over a series of weeks at one of the employee computers while I was spending the last few hours of each of my shifts waiting for the store to close. I gave a shop regular I knew a ride home at 1am after he stayed in the store all night because he didn’t have a way to get home. I had long internal dialogues with myself where I realized I was queer and trans in Eudo and at the Mexican place down the Ave (the only one with vegetarian carne asada fries!!) after events. I ate pizza and accidentally got drunk between rounds of a GPT a few blocks away that I went on to win.
I have hundreds of more stories like this that I could drop at a moment’s notice and that I am incapable of forgetting. I have a plethora of faces and names I went to tournaments with memorized that I’m sure wouldn’t recognize me today. I would not be the same person without Magic and Eudo. I am not special in this regard.
As of the end of last month, Eudemonia is permanently closed. My favorite Mexican place is closed too. I loved being a tour guide for out-of-towners, but now I would struggle to take people to any of my old stomping grounds. I haven’t been back for a while, but I would imagine most of Berkeley is foreign to me. Most of me is bitter about what rising rent prices and long-ongoing gentrification is doing to the city, but a small part of me hopes that others are forming their own nostalgia-soaked memories out there now.
For those with a habit of remembering everything, always, and too much, trips down memory lane like this can frustratingly appear out of nowhere. I have a problem where someone will say a phrase that reminds me of something I heard the other day that reminds me of something my mother used to say that reminds me of a funny story and now I’m gone and somewhere else entirely. This happens all the time, much to my detriment. I can’t help but remember things as What They Used To Mean. My memories will stumble on an image or phrase (like a card art and card name) and start rattling around my skull like a lightbulb’s burnt out filament until they dredge up another memory and place it at my feet like a cat would a dead bird. Every time I think about Sylvan Caryatid or Courser of Kruphix, I’m in the back room playing standard for the first time with eyes full of wonder. It happens with a lot of cards from Khans, or Theros block, or Supreme Verdict, or Chord of Calling, or Hornet Queen, or Kor Firewalker, or Fracturing Gust, or ____________. Twenty-something years old and aimless, there I am again. Now I’m thinking about Achewood and pizza and being drunk on University. And now I’m thinking about you.
My love of Magic then has metamorphosed into something that could have never coexisted with the love I held before, but I hold no ill will toward the past versions of myself. I was an idiot and didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted my love to burn brighter and consume even more of myself, no matter the cost, because I thought it would make me happier and stronger. I grinded harder than ever before. I took the job to work at Eudo just because I loved it so much. I burnt more and more of myself until there was nothing left and I had no choice but to move on, and now you’re gone.
Goodbye, Eudemonia, one of the best second homes I ever had. I should have never destroyed my love for you by making you about money. I promise to never visit whatever terrible host now fills your nurturing walls. I wish you could have stayed.