Life at a Magic Tournament

(Note: if you actually want a tournament report and specifics about what I played, head over to my other blog)

Last weekend, my roommate Tom and I woke up early, hoped in a rickety white van, and drove across the bay to Oakland to participate in Grand Prix: Oakland, one of the competitive, open, official Magic: the Gathering tournaments. Allow me to provide some background on many important topics here.

Magic: the Gathering is a card game where you put together decks of creatures, sorceries, artifacts, and more to play against someone else’s deck in an effort to reduce them from 20 to 0 life. With over 10,000 unique cards and a couple hundred new ones printed each year, Magic is a potentially costly hobby that involves a lot of thought and strategy to be successful at. I myself have been playing on and off since high school and now play mostly with my drawmates in my dorm. Most recently, I had the opportunity to teach a student-initiated course on Magic here (for credit) where we actually applied real academic topics to Magic. Pretty nifty.

So Magic is just a game, but players take it very seriously. There are professional Magic players today, and Wizards of the Coast, the creators of Magic, run many tournaments, from weekly tournaments in stores with as few at 8 people to National and Worlds tournaments with 5 digit payouts. Needless to say, the community has invested a lot in this game, and it’s a big deal. This particular type of tournament, a Grand Prix, is an open event, meaning that you don’t need to win any tournaments to qualify to go, but also qualifies you for more exclusive tournaments. With only 20 a year, both local players and international players will attend, either to move up in ranking or just for chuckles.

Tom and I happen to fall in the latter group. In the wake of teaching the class and the convenience of Oakland, I figured this would be something we should do for the experience and convinced Tom to come along. Neither of us were willing to invest the time or money to play seriously, but we put some thought into the decks and headed out.

The event was held at the Oakland Mariott City Center, and we arrived arrived 8:30. After paying our registration fee, we headed over to the Burger King for their hearty food, then went back to the exhibit hall. On the way in, I noticed and laughed at a sign, “Open to the public.” I don’t imagine that a room full of people battling with cards is a very hospitable setting.

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more spectacle surrounding the event, but other than a few stores who had set up shop as sellers along one wall, there wasn’t much to look at. The room was filled with tables to play Magic games, which is probably where the most exciting things would happen. A stage at the front had a table set up for “feature matches” between well-known players, but other than that, you can imagine what a room of tables looks like.

The players meeting started just after 10, when everyone took a seat to listen to the necessary announcements. Blessed by my last name, I ended up sitting across from Raphael Levy, a French hall of fame Magic player, which I only confirmed by sneaking a look at his deck list. In fact, over the course of the day, I saw several other well-known Magic players, which just goes to show you what news I pay attention to.

I was pretty shocked that someone would come overseas for this tournament. I knew that players traveled for tournaments, but flights are very expensive just to play Magic. Even beyond the pro players, regular people came from far away just to play Magic. The people I ended up playing against came from LA, Utah, and Las Vegas, and I talked to a German man while I wrote up my decklist. Tom and I complained about the $30 in gas and other costs for parking and tolls, but in the end, we didn’t sacrifice much at all to be there.

I’m not sure how many of the 700 people there traveled to come, but they were certainly geared up to play. Instead of being ecstatic and joyous, people were generally pretty quiet and focused on doing well. A few clusters of people were chatting, but it was certainly not a lively party. Once the actual tournaments started, the biggest excitement was running to the places around the room where matchups were paired.

I played 3 rounds of the tournament before deciding to drop out of the main event. As fun as playing is, I figured I should take in more of the general experience of being at a big tournament and took a second look at the sellers and watched some of the other matches.

Although not my usual crowd, being a part of the Magic community kind of made me realize how far into it I’ve gotten. The community is just a small part of the nerd community, and of course it has its own jargon and common ground. Just walking around, I would hear snippets of conversations about how “getting thoughtseized turn 1 allows dark depths to wreck zoo” and such, and it reminded me that even if I wasn’t nearly as serious as many of the other players, I was very familiar with the game.

In psychology the week before, we discussed how expert knowledge can enhance working memory. For example, given a very short presentation of a real chess board, a chess expert can remember the positions of all the pieces, whereas a novice might only remember a few details. At the tournament, I realized I had developed the same knowledge for Magic as well. Looking at a game position for maybe 4 seconds, I could quickly absorb the entire situation: what decks both players were playing, about how far they were into the game, and, given life totals, who was more likely to win at that point.

Tom and I left just before 5 with the intention of not showing up to one of these events again. It was a good experience to actually see how the pro scene works to relate to students if we decide to teach the class again, and I did get to meet Gavin Verhey, a Magic writer who helped us design the class. Since we don’t play competitive, though, we’re not in it for the main event.

So it’s back to playing in the dorm room, also open to the public, though perhaps with slightly fewer cards to be swarmed by. But it’s okay. We make up for it in Tom’s diet soda and N64 Super Smash Bros.

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