Tournament Magic is awful. Let's just get that out on the table. In general, there are very few people (sometimes only one) who walk away from a tournament thinking "I had a great day, everything went wonderfully, and I wouldn't have changed my experience for anything." Usually these are the people who spent their day winning. When you're losing – or worse yet, hanging on by a thread – you end up experiencing a long and stressful day full of difficult decision-making, poor nutrition and hydration, and hours upon hours of focus that all lead to an exhaustion both physical and mental. Sometimes the second, third, or fourth loss (depending on the event) is a welcomed Respite from enduring hours more torture and you are extremely happy to move on to the real part of the event you came for – spending time with your friends.
If you ask any given pro Magic player what the best part about the Pro Tour is, you'll almost unanimously get "the community" as a response. It's not the tournaments you love; it's the people at the tournaments and the time you spend with them away from the tables. Of course it is, because the tournaments themselves – despite any number of frills and whistles that come along with them – are a slog.
Don't get me wrong. I really enjoy Magic, and I play it whenever I have the opportunity. I go out of my way to pay money to subject myself to the punishment I'm describing, because the game is truly great, and the community of players is worth it. I just wish there were a way to have all that cake without the mud pie crust of a weekend of tournament Magic.
About a year ago, I decided to get off my ass and do something with myself, physically. A decade of post-collegiate desk jockeying had me at my heaviest bodyweight ever, and I was doing little to turn things around, other than ostensibly going to the gym on occasion and telling myself this is the week I'll fix my diet. As I passed that "30" marker, I took a look at my family medical history and saw a very frightening prospect for my future health. It was time to change things up, and I needed a plan.
I reached out to a friend, Zach, who is a personal trainer. With a wall full of degrees and accreditations for training, I knew he had the base of knowledge to understand how to direct me to my goals. He's also a member of a local competitive Powerlifting squad and was a Division 1 thrower in college, so he has the real-world experience to know what works and what doesn't. He coaches a local high school track and field team, so he's familiar with working with inexperienced people. Not looking to be trained, I asked him to point me in the right direction. He happily obliged.
I made a very simple decision. I "gave up" on the idea of ever being skinny. I had been fighting a battle with my waistline for as long as I could remember, and nothing had come of it. I decided to say enough, and focus on getting strong instead. If, somewhere down the line, I decided to work on my waistline, being strong and experienced in the gym would be a great help in this regard. With a strong support system in place, and a very stripped-down and basic program to follow, I started picking things up.
Fast forward ten months. Zach has helped me to integrate myself into a crew of lifters at his gym, and I've begun to see a change in my confidence. I wouldn't consider myself "strong" – surrounded by lifters who are miles beyond me in terms of strength means I would be remiss in defining myself that way – but I'm certainly no longer weak. I began to get the competitive itch.
As competitive Magic players, most of you can understand what I mean by the itch. Regardless of the hobby or activity, our inner "Spike" begins to rear its ugly head and we feel a drive to match ourselves with others. We want to know how we line up and if we have what it takes to win. It's a feeling I have a hard time ignoring for long, especially when I see those around me in the grips of competition. The clincher for me was a powerlifting meet held at my gym, where I visited as a spectator and saw my friends compete, some for the first time. At once I knew I needed to scratch that itch, and I couldn't get it out of my head.
What luck for me then, when I found out about a local group of lifters from another area gym who were planning to host a Strongman competition! For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, this is most often associated with those enormous dudes who pick up the giant round stones and put them on platforms. There are multiple events around the country and world throughout the year and, much like any other competitive endeavor, at a variety of competition levels to inspire people's interest in the game or sport. Knowing very little about Strongman outside of what I'd seen on television, I began to train specifically for this event, and decided to test my mettle against my peers.
This past Saturday, coincidentally a year to the day from the time I first stepped out of my comfort zone and asked for help, I competed in a tournament of a whole different color: my first Strongman meet.
My results from the event were middling. I did well for my first competition, ending up fourth out of seven in my weight category. My goal coming into the meet was to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack and I hit that target exactly. I didn't injure myself (or anyone else), I didn't "zero" any events (meaning I successfully completed all events), and I even took second in two of the five lifts. I was very satisfied with my performance, and I'm excited to build on those results in the future. What is of more interest to me for the purposes of this discussion was not my personal results but the tournament and its structure, compared to the more familiar Magic event structure I'm more used to. While the two sports/games are vastly different in terms of the makeup of the day, I think there are very obvious parallels that can be made, and lessons we may be able to learn from Strongman that can be applied to Magic tournaments, perhaps to make them more bearable for the players.
A long time ago, Magic events used to be broken into age brackets, with Juniors for those under 18, and Open for any age. In fact, the first few Pro Tours had an under 18 division, where now-stars like Pat Chapin and Brian Kibler cut their teeth. Beyond the short-lived Junior PTs, we had Junior Super Series (JSS) events, where under 18 players battled for scholarship money. Ari Lax paid for a portion of his secondary education with JSS events. These events were dropped much to the chagrin of those who benefitted most from them, and we've seen success from the likes of Shahar Shenhar, Ondrej Strasky, and innumerable others who would otherwise have been qualified to compete in the Junior events. Is there a driving reason why we can't see events catered toward high-school aged players? Even when these events were available there were no constraints preventing players from competing in the Open category of tournament, though if memory serves this did forfeit their eligibility for Junior events. You were always able to "graduate early" if you felt the drive.
With the popularity of Magic booming, and the group of players who picked the game up in their teens rapidly aging into adulthood, perhaps it makes sense to stratify competitors once again. As the average age of competitors increases, the responsibilities each of the players undertake outside the context of Magic become greater on the average. It's wonderful that we're experiencing a renaissance of high-level Magicians who have children (both Seth Manfield and Mike Sigrist are new dads and competed at the absolute highest level at the World Championship last month), but these exceptions are rare, and the responsibilities of the full-time adult are heavy. Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl is often lauded by commentators for maintaining a full-time job and a professional career, but much of the work done to establish that HoF level career was done prior to his professional obligations taking hold.
What if there were a category of event that catered to the working man, where 40+ hour a week players were able to compete with others who have the same type of obligation – where they would be free from competing with players half their age with a fraction of the "real world" time constraints, who are able to dedicate all their weekends to travel and play? Again, you'd always have the option to compete in the Open division if you chose, but more options means closer comparisons in competition. In Strength Competitions, the Masters category is designed for the 40+ crowd, giving them a more level playing field with men and women (but of course not at the same time) who have similar age constraints. Again, anyone competing in Masters Division is welcome to compete in Open, but the alternative option is there.
What inspired this thought process, beyond the obvious attempt to level the playing field, was actually the enormity of the modern Grand Prix. With players topping in the thousands, some of these events have become downright unruly in size. Though some TOs have split the event into sections to attempt to curb this issue, this solution is not without its own disadvantages. Driving or flying hours to an event with a friend only to be split into separate sections of the tournament, unlikely to cross paths throughout the day is not an ideal situation but it's common in this size event. You're left with the miserable experience outlined above, without the redeeming qualities of the shared experience with friends. Breaking the event up into classes based on something outside a random number generator would help to alleviate this concern, and often you'd expect friends to be entering the same category anyway. You'd still be running multiple events concurrently, and though you would eliminate an ultimate victor, you would introduce categorical victors who are shooting for separate goals. As the most recent GP Las Vegas demonstrated, you can hold an event with more than one "winner" to little pushback from the tournament community, so there's no pressing concern on that front.
One of the first questions asked during the rules meeting at the strongman meet this weekend was "If I know I can lift a weight (in the last man standing event), can I skip it and jump in when I want?" The answer was "everyone takes every weight. No exceptions." The winner of the Men's Heavyweight Division log press lifted 360lbs over his head. He started his lifts at the same weight as the first man knocked out of the Men's Lightweight Division. No one got to skip, everyone lifted every weight. Is there a reason for byes in today's tournament environment? For every bye in a Grand Prix, a phantom player has to be added to the player total. This complicates the tournament process, wreaks havoc on the tiebreaker system, and affords a massive advantage to the players with byes (or put conversely, affords a massive disadvantage to those without byes). Why? Other than an antiquated system of awarding advantage and incentives to pros you want to show up, what benefit does it serve the system to warrant such a huge benefit at the cost of simplicity and a level field? Ask anyone who has entered a Grand Prix without byes what their goal is entering the event. A significant portion of the field will tell you that starting 3-0 is step one, because it's "equal" to entering with three byes. Equal, except your tiebreakers are awful compared to beating three undefeated opponents, you've been playing three hours longer than an opponent with byes, and you're stressed from the pressure of escaping the bye rounds without stumbling. The feel-bad of losing in rounds one through three, knowing there was a way to circumvent those rounds entirely, is miserable, and it's little more than payment for the ability to let pro players waltz into Day 2 at 3-3. I simply haven't heard an argument for this system that amounts to more than entitlement based on unimpeachable history. If you have a better reason, I'm all ears.
On the other side of the coin, I'm surprised to find a few things Magic does right. Especially given the complexities on the other side of the scorekeeper's laptop, it blows my mind at how smooth Magic events can run. First off, having dedicated software to run a Magic event (flaws though there may be) is a giant step in the right direction. I got to see first-hand what the scorekeeper was using to tabulate results at the Strongman event this weekend, as after a snafu with the excel spreadsheet where she was hand-entering results (...) I volunteered to fix all the problems and corrected all the results. A user-friendly scoring program should be available to anyone who is scoring an event that happens with frequency. For anything where scoring is done. It just should. If you're the governing body of an event series, whether it be Magic, Strongman, Bocce Ball or Checkers, you should make the job of your scorekeeper as easy as possible, and make that software available and free to anyone who wants it. Expecting someone to create a scoresheet on the fly is just asinine.
Magic players, judges, and tournament organizers have the system of defining who wins an event down to a literal science. At every tournament I go to, I know exactly where I am in the standings two rounds before the end of Swiss, a round before the end, and at the end of Swiss. I know what the possible outcomes will be when I win or lose my round, whether or not I can draw (and what the risks of drawing are), and who can jump me in the standings. This is because our software makes the requisite data available and prints it out; and our TOs and judges know this is important information that dictates how the final rounds play out. In this Strongman competition, the individual event results were available, but standings were a mystery. I knew I took third in this event and second in another, but what did that mean in terms of overall score? How far back was I in the race? What did I need to do to beat the players in front of me and secure enough points to place? As mentioned, I took fourth in my category. The competitor in third beat me by half a point. The Magic player in me knows that given the knowledge that our results were so close; I may have had more control over the results in the final rounds, and been able to overcome that deficit. Of course, many would say just go balls to the wall and let the results fall where they may, but you and I both know – gamers gonna game.
The last piece of the puzzle for me that really felt different between the two types of events was the takeaways from the Strongman meet. In Magic, we often know we messed up, or at least we can calculate what those errors were based on the results we had. What then, do we do with those results? Often it's difficult to replicate the kind of situations where you made that error, to know the way to handle it in the future, or to learn another way to play in order to avoid making the same mistake again. In Strongman, it seems the errors are much clearer, and the path to moving forward from those errors much better defined. I know for example, that I made an error in one event where my body mechanics were misaligned, and I dropped the weight. Even though I can be satisfied that I recovered well, I can also identify the specific problem that caused me to stumble, and work to correct that error. Alternatively, the vaguest category of problem is that sometimes you just aren't strong enough. Even that can be corrected, by hard work and focus in training. It's hard to quantify Magic skill, and "just get better" is more nebulous a goal. Sometimes even "just play more" isn't enough. Having clarity in my direction moving forward is a nice change, and unfortunately it isn't something I have a good solution to for translation to Magic.
Despite the tearing down of the tournament experience I feel like Magic events really gave me a good perspective on this meet. They let me see things from an outside perspective, though one familiar with tournament competition in general, and let me assess the event without Urza's Sunglasses. Magic events also gave me familiarity with the mental strain of a long day of competition, and though I was certainly more physically drained at the end of the meet than I ever have been from a Magic tournament, I was still sharp enough mentally to fix the scoring without batting an eye. It was really strange to be surrounded by people who were self-identifying as "bad at math," and have them all look to you to determine what the results were. I'm so used to dozens of players whipping out smartphones to take snapshots of standings so they can calculate their options for themselves and friends; this was a very different vibe. Of course, I rarely see anyone at a Magic tournament pick their own bodyweight up over their head, so you know, ymmv. In the future I can absolutely see the experience of playing competitive Magic being a great boon to my proficiency with Strongman meets, and I hope to bring what good I can from both worlds into the other where possible.
And of course, eventually win. Winning is the best way to have fun.
If you're interested in seeing some photos or videos from the event, you can check out the event sponsor Facebook page here. You can also see a Youtube playlist of my events here.