Most people start playing Magic because the game looks fun and interesting. The fantasy lore, the vibrant artwork, the strategic challenge, the social gathering of planeswalkers, the collectibility of the cards, and the endless creative opportunities to explore within the multiverse make for quite an enticing lure.
For most, the game is either a short-lived fancy turned distant memory, or it becomes a favored hobby that plays a minor role in your life for years to come. For such players, the role Magic plays often fluctuates depending on the amount of time and other resources at your disposal at a given time. For a comparatively select few, however, Magic becomes much more than just a minor hobby or short-lived fancy. For some extended period of time, Magic plays a major part in your life and you invest a considerable amount of your resources, both time and otherwise, into the game.
Some such players become heavily invested in Magic for a time because of the social aspect of the game. They make friends with other players and Magic becomes the common interest that brings the circle of friends together. This was me in high school, hanging out at the local game store every day after school and becoming friends with the other local players who did the same. Even if the group of friends get together to do something other than play Magic, or if one or more of them stops playing the game, Magic is still seen as the nexus that holds the group together. This is common among competitors at local FNMs or in local Commander circles, and I'm sure it happens in several other similar ways that I'm less knowledgeable of.
For another kind of player, it's not just the social aspect that draws them in but also the strategic challenge. The player is not content with competing at the local level with friends. The player wants to see just how good they are at Magic and how good they can become. They study deck lists, read articles, watch streams and video content, and practice with an eye for improvement. They travel to larger events and work their way up the organized play ladder with an invitation to the Pro Tour as the prize on which they have their eyes fixed. This is what I call chasing the Magic dream and it is primarily for this group of players that this article is written.
I speak from experience as I spent most of my teenage years chasing the dream. I qualified for and competed in a handful of Pro Tours, but I failed to ever achieve my goal of becoming a regular Pro Tour player, at least as a teenager. When I started college, I gave up and instead invested my time into academia and other pursuits of interest to me, including ministry. Eventually I missed Magic and got back into it as a hobby. But it did not take long for the fires to reignite, and for the dream to come back to life. I won a PTQ, chained a couple of Pro Tours together on rating, and then had the breakout performance of my career by making the Top 8 of Pro Tour San Diego 2010. This result essentially qualified me for the next seven Pro Tours. More importantly, it provided me the realistic opportunity to go all-in on not only chasing after but living the Magic dream.
So I dropped out of the PhD program I was in, quit my teaching job at the university and became a full-time Magic player and content producer. This was the dream I had been chasing all throughout my teenage years and finally it became a reality!
I no longer had school or work outside of Magic to compete for my time, so for the first time in my life I could invest the necessary resources into seeing just how good at Magic I could be. I spent the next three years traveling the world competing in tournaments, with quite a bit of success, and then in May 2013 I won Pro Tour Dragon's Maze! During that three-year stretch, only a handful of players in the game had more success. I was now a Pro Tour champion and among the highest-ranked players in the world. I chased after the dream, I lived the dream, and I conquered the dream!
So now what was left to chase after?
I had never really made it a goal to get into the Hall of Fame, but given that I had chased down everything else I had been chasing after in Magic, that became the next most reasonable (and seemingly final) dream to chase after in Magic. So I spent the next five years continuing to pursue professional Magic in hopes of putting up that highly sought-after fourth Pro Tour Top 8 that often translates to induction. I managed to finish 10th at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir and 16th at Pro Tour Magic 2015 and amassed nearly a dozen Grand Prix Top 8s, but that fourth Pro Tour Top 8 has thus far proved ever elusive. And there is no guarantee that any amount of finishes will translate to an induction since votes are ultimately beyond any player's control, but given the resumes of previously inducted players, it has felt within reach.
That's the thing about chasing after a dream – it always feels within reach. Otherwise you wouldn't be chasing after it. I suppose everyone is different in their approach and mindset for pursuing a goal, but I tend to focus my attention and energy on that goal to the exclusion of anything that might distract me from that goal. What this meant for me and my life is that I refused to even let myself seriously consider what I wanted to do with my life after Magic or how long I would continue playing professionally. I would tell myself that these thoughts only serve to distract me from achieving my final goal and it would therefore be better to put them on hold until after achieving the goal.
One year became two years became three years became four years became five years, and the final stone has still yet to be turned over. And because of my one-pointedness of mind with respect to achieving that goal, my life outside of Magic has for the most part been put on hold for longer than I had originally anticipated. What started as a teenage hobby became an obsession with chasing after a dream of becoming a pro player. Then once that dream was attained, it gave rise to a new dream to continue chasing after. And now what started as a 15-year-old's dream became a 25-year-old's life, which has continued into this now 35-year-old's career path.
"Let's take a year or two away from academia to pursue Magic professionally" has somehow turned into nearly 10 consecutive years of full time professional Magic and over a million words of written content produced. Dreams are a funny thing. They are like a butterfly fluttering through a field. They float around just slow enough to make the chase enticing, but they prove just elusive enough to remain beyond reach, until finally you look up and find yourself in a place far away from where you started and not really sure where to go next, regardless of whether you succeed or fail in chasing down the dream.
That ended up being a rather lengthy depiction of my own experience of chasing the Magic dream, but given that I've chased it from beginning to end, a lot can be learned from my experience. So let's consider three of the most important takeaways for anyone chasing the Magic dream.
The first is that it is easy to get tunnel vision when pursuing a goal, especially when it's not just a goal but a dream you are chasing after. In the case of the Magic dream, tastes of success along the way make the attainment of the dream feel that much more realistic. Instead of only asking yourself "how attainable is this goal?" or "how best can I attain this goal?" you should also yourself, "what are the costs and perceived benefits of chasing after this goal and how invested am I in actually attaining it?" And don't just ask these questions in the beginning, but continue to ask them as you go. Be adaptable and willing to adjust your dreams and goals and pathways to attaining them. Sometimes the best path to a goal is to take an unexpected detour.
Some dreams die out. My Magic dream did when I started college, but then it came back to life a few years later. I let it die the first time because it made sense at the time to do so. Then later it made sense to let it come back to life and resume chasing it. The point here is that you want to periodically re-evaluate the pursuit of your goals. Sometimes a goal is worth pursuing in the beginning but then later becomes not worth continuing to pursue. Other times it continues to be worth pursuing but for different reasons. Whatever the case, it's important not to stray too far out into the meadow without looking up periodically to see how far out the butterfly has led you. Another way of putting it is to always remain in control of your dream because otherwise your dream will control you.
The next is to anchor yourself in something stable and completely independent of the dream you are chasing after. Some people are more or less-risk averse than others, but every dream requires an investment and every investment entails some amount of risk and uncertainty. Calculate the risks, embrace the costs, but don't leave yourself out at sea in pursuit of your dream without an anchor. This anchor can be anything that grounds you in a reality outside of the pursuit of your dream, such as: family, a partner, a career outside of Magic, a group of close-knit friends, or even another hobby or meaningful activity in your life. Volunteer work is a great anchor, as is exercise or yoga, especially in a group setting or where you are interacting with at least one other person. Solitary activities can be anchors too, but the best is anything involving low stress human interaction. Anchors can even change over time or be replaced by new anchors. The important part is to always maintain an anchor, or preferably a few anchors.
The purpose of the anchor is to give you someplace to turn in times of frustration when the attainment of the dream feels impossible or for whatever reason you are experiencing setbacks. When it comes to Magic, these setbacks and frustrations are very common and unavoidable. You will lose many matches in a row, fail to cash several tournaments in a row, make mistakes uncharacteristic of yourself, experience prolonged swings of variance, not know how to fix various problems, and you may even get kicked off your professional team or fall into an existential crisis known as imposter syndrome where you begin to doubt your own abilities and achievements. These things have all happened to me and they have nearly all happened to every other pro player at one point or another.
The anchor pulls you out of a dark and stormy place, at least temporarily, and gives you time to rejuvenate and regain your focus and composure. When you come back to the pursuit of our goals, you'll be able to see more clearly and make better decisions as far as how best to proceed. For me, my faith and ministry have been my primary anchors throughout my professional Magic career, but also friends and other important people and activities in my life.
Magic is a great game. It is attractive on so many levels. It is fun and interesting and challenging and provides opportunities for creative exploration and social engagement and competition, among many other wonderful qualities. The bottom line, however, is that Magic is still just a game and you want to be careful not to expect more from Magic than Magic has to offer. Magic is not a guarantor of happiness. Magic is not a guarantor of popularity. Magic is not a guarantor of financial success or really of anything else. And whatever your dreams are within Magic, they don't guarantee these things either.
Winning a tournament feels great for a few days or even weeks, but the feeling wears off. For a while you might feel super popular, signing autographs and being sought after by professional teams, but after a while popularity wanes. Fairly recently a judge recording a warning on a match slip asked, "Which one of you is Kai Budde?" For a while you might be making bank off Pro Tours and sponsorship deals and content creation gigs and whatnot, but very few players can sustain that level of financial success for very long in Magic. The point is that Magic may offer these things temporarily, but they are fleeting. So even if you succeed in attaining your dream, it may prove to be more like sand than you previously imagined it to be, sinking through your fingers.
While Magic cannot guarantee any of these things, it can facilitate them. You might never become Reid Duke, the highly successful world class Magician beloved by all, but why is that your goal? If it is validation you seek, why seek it on the biggest stage and not locally where its attainment is far more likely and more immediate? Speaking from my own experience, I've held the trophy on Magic's biggest stage and it was awesome, but that experience is not what gives my life meaning. My identity is not bound by that achievement, nor is it defined by my lack of being in the Hall of Fame. On some deeper level, your life has to be more than the pursuit of your dream. The pursuit of your dream should absolutely play an important role in your life, but it is not who you are and your worth does not fundamentally depend on it. This is an important point to keep coming back to as it is easy to lose sight of when caught up in the chase.
I'm not going to tell you it's all about the journey and not the destination, because really I believe that only captures half of the truth, but in the context of chasing a dream, it's important not to get too caught up in arriving at the destination that you miss out on the experience of pursuing the dream. Pursuing your dream can add purpose to your life. It can open doors for you that otherwise would not be opened. It can bring people into your life that you otherwise wouldn't meet. The awesome part is that all these things will happen along the way, regardless of when or if you ever achieve the dream you are chasing after. You don't need Magic for this, but this is at least something Magic has to offer. It offers you a dream to chase after, if you want to chase after it, but you're missing out if you don't fail with those who fail, succeed with those who succeed, and dream with those who dream. If the only people you look at are those who have already achieved the dream you have your eyes fixed on, then until you achieve your dream you will feel like a lone failure. But look again!
Look around instead of only at the goal. See the failures around you. See everyone falling beside you and getting back up. See people struggling like you are struggling and see them helping each other up. Help someone up. Let someone help you up. Find dreamers pursuing a dream similar to yours and dream alongside them. Sure, you want to learn from and associate with others who have already achieved what you dream to achieve, but look behind you and not just in front of you. Mentor the person dreaming of winning a PPTQ, teach someone the ropes that you've been taught. Befriend someone who lacks the connections you have. Offer a ride to someone who has never traveled to a tournament before. If no one is reaching out to help you, then reach behind you to help someone else. I assure you that if you do these things, you will get much more out of the pursuit of your Magic dream than if you treat the pursuit as merely a means to end or as a solitary effort. Some of my closest friends are people I helped along the way and who have in turn helped me.
Chase after the Magic dream, if you so desire, but remember to keep perspective, anchor yourself, and make the most of your experience along the way!