“Magic: the Addiction” Excerpt #5: Release the Julian!

julian_and_I

Hey guys. I’ve got a book coming out this year called “Magic: the Addiction.” It’s about the two decades I’ve spent playing the Magic: The Gathering fantasy card game. It’s a deeply personal recollection of competitive gaming, and what I’ve learned from my experiences.

I’d like to share with you some excerpts from the upcoming book to pique your interest. To make sure you don’t miss any updates, please click the menu in the top right corner and subscribe to the blog for updates, or join the mailing list.

Descent into darkness

By the fall of 2014, I had un-blocked my losing streak by playing the Death and Taxes deck. I practiced with it regularly in Beijing tournaments. After an intense period of practice and self-reflection, I felt prepared to treat the game more seriously by facing progressively stronger competition. It wasn’t long after I placed myself in this mindset that I heard about Wizards’ announcement about the upcoming Legacy Grand Prix in New Jersey.

The announcement triggered a burning fire from within. My mind quickly raced with possibilities. This might just be what I was looking for – a chance at tournament redemption and an opportunity to face some of the format’s toughest players. Although the Grand Prix was still a few months away, I had made up my mind. To prevent myself from having second thoughts, I booked my flight to New Jersey within the week. I would have plenty of time to prepare if I started now.

New Jersey would ultimately become the biggest mental challenge for me as a Magic player. I built up expectations in my head about the significance of this tournament. Despite my recent re-entry into Legacy, I believed that I could re-achieve peak levels of performance with enough repetition and practice. Why else would I take time off work, and fly halfway around the world, if not to surpass the showing I had in Providence a few years ago? Now that I was back in the competitive saddle, I felt the need to prove myself.

I had built up a certain narrative in my head:

James travels halfway across the world to play in a Magic tournament. Going against the grain, he opts out of a sunny beach vacation with his girlfriend in order to book a trip to the Middle of Nowhere — otherwise known as Edison, New Jersey. 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 from afar to claim his prize. He has placed himself in spiritual isolation for the entirety of the journey. His friends aren’t there to cheer him on, but he doesn’t need the support. There is only the tournament, and the impending moment of victory, at hand.

Nothing was going to get in the way of a successful Grand Prix. I would practice lots, read up on theory, and prove to myself that I didn’t commit a grave mistake by re-entering the competitive arena. This was going to be my moment – if it wasn’t, then it might just be time to hang up the Magic gloves for good.

Captain’s log, stardate 2014.11.13

The jet lag chronicles – Magic edition

Newark Liberty Airport

Wednesday, November 13

jersey

As I step off the plane, I realize one thing about Newark Liberty Airport: it’s freezing cold. It’s cold enough to wake me temporarily from the state of sleep that I’m experiencing.

For the past eleven hours, I had been sitting on a plane, drifting in and out of sleep as I watched the tiny makeshift in-flight screen in front of me. Ten hours until destination. Eight hours until destination. Two hours…

I lost track of time between two hours and right fucking now. I don’t remember the landing, or walking out of the plane. The cold blasts my face, doing a great job of waking me up. I am grateful for having brought my warm leather jacket with me. I slip my jacket on and make my way into the terminal.

Passing through customs is something I’ve done hundreds of times. This time, the officer asks me about why I’m here. What’s a Canadian citizen, living in China, doing on United States soil?

I’m, uh, here to play in a card tournament, I explain. I live in China because I work there. This is a personal trip. My sentences don’t quite exit my mouth gracefully, as I have fatigue getting in the way of proper enunciation. After my failed first try, I try again. The second pass at an answer is intelligible enough for the customs officer, and he waves me through.

An hour later, I drive down the New Jersey freeways in my rental car. The only thing I’m thinking about is getting to my hotel as fast as possible. On this particular night, I’m feeling neither sharp nor alert – a great time to settle down on a comfortable bed. My lack of focus causes me to scrunch my eyes together to read the roads’ exit signs. I miss a few exits and double back. After a couple of unexpected detours, I arrive at my hotel.

I need to sleep, but I also need to eat. After dumping my things in the room and changing into a fresh set of clothes, I head downstairs to the hotel restaurant. A basketball game plays on TV – it’s the Miami Heat versus the Indiana Pacers. The two teams are hot messes this season, but I decide to watch the game in order to stay awake. I just need to stay awake to finish my meal.

A few minutes into the ball game, I come to my senses and realize that I need to avoid the current temptation to fall asleep. If I go to bed now, I’m really going to mess up my sleep patterns. Instead, I figure it’s better to sleep in a couple of hours to better adjust for the time zone difference. I order my food and keep my eyes glued to the television screen. Can’t fall asleep, can’t fall asleep…

The pasta in my stomach instantly makes me feel better. I’m in a good mood once again. I breathe a deep breath and think about where I am. Well, I’m in New Jersey – far away from work. Far away from China. Beijing life is fast-paced and relentless; visiting places like New Jersey feels like a good way to slow things down again. The non-crowded roads, the hospitable people – all of these things make me happy and give me an opportunity to recharge. I love being in China, but China can get crazy sometimes.

It has certainly been some time since I last visited the East Coast, more than three years ago. The last time was Grand Prix Providence – the adventure of a lifetime for Matt, James, and I. We had a wonderful time together that I’ll never forget. This trip, by comparison, feels like a re-awakening of the previous trip. I’m back on the East Coast. Perhaps it’s time to relive the fun experiences all over again.

But things are different now, and I didn’t have the same core of people. Matt was too busy studying for exams to come to Jersey; James was on self-imposed Magic hiatus. My other Magic-playing friends in Vancouver didn’t have the time or money to fly here. I did make plans to meet up with Spencer from California, whom I had known from playing in Bay Area tournaments. Spencer is a great guy, but I didn’t know him half as well as I knew the Vancouver guys.

I had booked this flight on a whim, without planning things in advance with my girlfriend. She wasn’t angry with me, but I had missed out on a true vacation opportunity. She was free to go to Thailand at this time, which would have been a nice and relaxing getaway for both of us. She only had this window of opportunity to take the vacation. But I told her that I needed to go to New Jersey, and that it meant the world to me. She didn’t quite understand what I meant. So…relaxing vacation be damned. I decide to make it up to her later.

No point dwelling on the past. I jump back to the present and continue watching the basketball game. The Magic tournament doesn’t start until Saturday, which is three days away. I’d have plenty of time to adjust to the awful feelings I have right now. I’m really hoping that these awful feelings are caused by my jet lag, and not straight-up regret.

Release the Kraken Julian

JulianProfil

As I stare absentmindedly at the hotel’s television, a Facebook message comes in from my friend Julian. Julian has flown in from Munich with a number of his European Magic-playing friends. They’ve traveled here to play in the Grand Prix, with plans to play in another major tournament next week. Julian and his crew are some of the best Legacy players around, and I’m rooting for them to have a strong finish.

Julian and his friends are staying at the hotel right across the street. It’s late, but they are playing a few games of Magic to pass the time. Julian asks if I want to join them, and I accept. It’s a chance to say hello, and to practice a few games of Magic with some of the game’s best. Besides, playing a few games at this hour allows me to stay awake, which is the goal. I quickly finish the rest of my dinner and walk over to where they’re staying.

I met Julian a few months ago when my girlfriend and I traveled to Germany for vacation. Through the power of the online Magic community, we arranged to meet with Julian while we passed through his hometown of Munich. Being the generous soul that he is, Julian agreed to show us around and act as our unofficial tour guide. My girlfriend and I were glad to have his company, as we didn’t know anyone else in Munich.

Once we met up with Julian, he introduced us to an amazing outdoors beer garden with fantastic food. After the fantastic meal, the three of us walked around Munich in the evening. During our walk, Julian pointed out some of the more interesting parts of the city. In one particularly memorable moment, we visited a city bridge where surfers congregated to ride the strong waves rushing beneath the bridge. The streets were nearly deserted, because the local Bayern Munich football team was playing that night – Julian explained that everyone was watching the game at home.

It turns out that Julian and I had many things in common. Despite his friendly and outgoing nature, Julian is an intense competitor. As a young man, Julian played soccer avidly until he hurt his knee. The injury forced him to cut down on physical exertion and find other outlets for competition. Some of those outlets included video games – Julian’s a huge video gamer, with a special affinity for the real-time strategy and fighting genres. He’s been playing Magic for a long time, but it was only in 2007 that he started playing in Legacy tournaments. The excursions into Magic were briefly interrupted by the addictive allure of poker. When poker started to have unhealthy impacts on his life, he quit and re-focused on Magic.

After saying farewell to poker, Julian began to crush tournament Magic with a newfound fury. Though he’s played Magic competitively for years, Julian’s first notable international tournament finish occurred in Grand Prix Amsterdam in 2011, where he finished 88th out of 1874 players. This finish gave him the validation and drive he needed to improve and get to the next level of competitive Magic. In 2013, he won a large Eternal format tournament called the Bazaar of Moxen with 695 players in attendance. Julian’s also enjoyed several Top 8 finishes in tournaments with more than 200 people.

Julian’s tournament record doesn’t even begin to take his online accomplishments into account. He’s become well known in the Magic community for his streams – Julian broadcasts his Magic games live with running commentary, so that other viewers can watch the action as it happens. What’s special about Julian’s streams is that they are both insightful and funny, which are the two key ingredients for captivating an audience. His influence has extended to several high-profile opportunities – Julian’s been selected by Wizards of the Coast to stream matches, and has published strategy articles on some of Magic’s biggest web sites. His bigger-than-life contributions to the Magic community have helped countless players improve their games.

elves_deck

When it comes to the Legacy format, Julian’s deck of choice is Elves. The deck looks ordinary to the untrained eye, and has all the hallmarks of an underpowered pile of cards. It’s just a bunch of crappy little elves! The deck’s little green men are weaklings compared to the biggest and strongest creatures of the format. But there is much more than meets the eye. As a team, the elves create a formidable living engine that ranks among the finest in the game. It is precisely this engine that has earned Julian some of his greatest tournament wins.

The key attribute of the Elves deck is its versatility. The deck employs a hybrid aggro-combo strategy that changes direction based on what the opponent plans to do. In one sense, the deck is aggro because it is capable of pure aggression – it uses elves to attack and push through damage. The deck, however, can also shift gears for a combo finish – those elves can just as easily band together and form the basis for an instant kill. This part-aggro, part-combo approach allows the deck to stay unpredictable.

With dedicated combo decks like Storm, the path to victory is generally the same in every game. There is a specific line of play that says I’m attacking you here. If you don’t have the answer for me, you lose. The Elves deck, by comparison, plays out differently based on the opponent’s tendencies. It says I’m attacking you here. If you have the answer for me, I’m going to pivot and kill you with my alternative strategy. The versatility of Elves can be a double-edged sword – it is flexible, but at the cost of considerable skill and judgment to play correctly. If the Elves pilot misevaluates the path to victory, the opponent gains a significant advantage.

In the hands of a skilled pilot like Julian, however, the Elves deck becomes nearly impossible to beat. The Elves pilot has ample opportunity to out-play the opponent based on putting the opponent to the test. The opponent is confronted with tough decisions – which elves do I kill, and what cards do I absolutely have to answer? The deck has the ability to make bluffing maneuvers and play mind games with the opponent – all of which play to Julian’s strengths as a poker player.

As the opponent holds back his answers for the combo, the little elves prod him with a hundred little spears. It is a delicate equation that requires the elves pilot to understand how much to push without overstepping his bounds. Set-up cards like Gaea’s Cradle, Heritage Druid and Deathrite Shaman allow the deck to generate massive amounts of mana resources. Engine cards like Glimpse of Nature and Elvish Visionary help the little elves draw into more gas. There are also ways to stall the board with nifty combat tricks involving Wirewood Symbiote and Quirion Ranger. The Elves player must take special care to deploy just the right amount of resources on the table to get ahead, without falling behind elsewhere.

Once the opponent shifts his attention on stopping the swarm of elves, the deck can work towards the combo kill – casting a Natural Order that summons a monstrous Craterhoof Behemoth to end the game. The key to success lies in evaluating the game state and knowing how far to push. If the Natural Order is stopped, the Elves deck must shift back to the aggro side of the equation, and set up to win some other way. This constant evaluation, and re-evaluation, of game state is what makes Elves a solid deck in the Legacy landscape.

I arrive at the hotel that Julian and his friends are staying in. Julian waves hello and we exchange pleasantries. Even from a distance, I can see that Julian and his friends are visibly tired. Like me, they’ve had to endure a long flight to get here. Julian tells me that some of his friends are still MIA with flight delays, and will arrive tomorrow. By now, his crew starts to disperse for the night – they’ve already played a small self-hosted tournament in the hotel lobby. Julian, to no one’s surprise, has won the makeshift tournament.

Since I’m the guest of honor, Julian stays behind to play cards with me. As I unpack my cards and shuffle up for our first game, I realize that it is the first time I am facing Julian in Magic competition. We didn’t play any games together back in Munich. Even though these are only practice games, I feel irrationally nervous at the prospect of beating Julian, a player whom I’ve heard so much about.

Playing a game of Magic with someone is like sharing a meal together with that person. It is an intimate activity that reveals something personal about the other party. The players sit closely together at a table. They shuffle each other’s decks and make light banter. Advice and jokes are freely exchanged. Idiosyncrasies are revealed – does a player like to arrange his deck to his left, or right? How does he place his creatures on the table? Often, it’s the small talk that gets players to open up and diffuse the tense moments. In the tangible process of playing a game together, the mechanics serve as an icebreaker.

That’s exactly what I do – tell jokes – as Julian repeatedly crushes me in competition for an hour and a half. Magic is game of matchups, and his Elves deck is easily a 70-30 favorite over my Death and Taxes deck – if not higher. Over the course of our seven games, I manage to win exactly one game. This speaks volumes to not only my natural disadvantage in the matchup, but Julian’s strong play. He plays the matchup like a practiced hunter stalking his prey. I feel like a deer in the headlights.

The practice session serves its purpose, though. It’s now approaching midnight, and I have managed to stay awake. By now, the jet lag has really started to set in for both of us. It’s time to call it a night, and we amicably part ways. I walk back to the hotel and lie down on my bed. Within seconds, I’m asleep.

To be continued…

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