For those looking for purely strategical content, I must apologize, though this article will provide a different and unique look within the inner circles of the professional Magic community. This past weekend I was helped with coming to some realizations about everything that is required in order to be a top level magician. There are definitely some blockades into entering the murky waters of the top levels of Magic competition, but it is all worthwhile.
My dream when growing up was to become a professional Magic player, and I don't believe that I was the only teenager to ever have the dream. It is certainly not a common dream, which an average person can relate to, but it is hard to see a reason to be a professional Magic player if not for the love of the game. The journey starts with passion for the game, and motivation to be good at it. Of course there are systems put in place so that players at various skill levels can compete in events that fit them the best. For me, and most players, in order to get to the Grand Prix and Pro Tour level you must start at tournaments like Friday Night Magic.
After simply playing with friends or at home there are tournaments available, and Friday Night Magic is a great tournament that is also a convenient weekly occurrence. Winning there is a good sign for those that also want to play in higher level events. It is always important to have goals when playing Magic; not for individual tournaments, because in any given tournament there is a ton of luck involved, but to have a big picture idea about how well you are capable of performing. If a player doesn't believe they are capable of winning a big tournament it makes it that much more unlikely to happen. The tournament series that has traditionally been the most straightforward way to get onto the Pro Tour has been the Pro Tour Qualifiers (now the RPTQ system).
Personally I preferred the regular Pro Tour Qualifiers but understand the need to implement the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier system. Let me first say that winning a Pro Tour Qualifier is very, very difficult. No matter how good of a player, it is a huge achievement to win a Pro Tour Qualifier. I have been there, and know that it is a huge grind. It is not an easy one, and it is certainly time consuming. Sometimes though a player will get their shot: a chance to actually become a professional Magic player.
Any Magic player should know that managing the amount of time you are able to allot to playing is not an easy task. For almost all Magic players, playing the game is a hobby, not a means of making a living. The first Pro Tour I played in was when I was only seventeen years old. While I was able to play in that Pro Tour, this to me didn't mean I was a professional Magic player. School was my number one priority, and that would be the case until I graduated from college. While I knew that I had a lot of talent for the game, that didn't mean that I could drop everything to play professionally. After graduating from school is when I decided to take some time off and see what I could do on the Grand Prix scene.
This is when the big break came. This was my win at Grand Prix Kansas City in 2013. This meant that I was qualified for the first Pro Tour of the year, and I felt that it would be possible to string finishes together in order to be qualified for following Pro Tours. I was able to do well, but part of this was being able to actually physically attend a lot of tournaments. This means traveling all over the country and sometimes overseas in order to compete. Whenever looking at who the theoretical best players in the game are at a given moment, it will be obvious how important it is to actually go to a lot of tournaments. This often doesn't leave a lot of time for an additional full time job. In many cases it is possible for a player who only plays in Friday Night Magic to have more talent for the game than someone who is a professional player, the difference is that the Friday Night Magic player only has time to play on Friday nights.
Remember that not only is it important to go to events, but preparation is also a key component of doing well. One of the more recent additions to the Pro Tour scene is the idea of forming a team or group of players who all test together for an event. This often requires dropping everything going on for a week or two, and only playing Magic during that time. The Pro Tours have become so important that any small edges that can be gained can add up. In order to do this, of course, Magic needs to be a top priority in your life. Playing on the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour isn't the only way to become a professional Magic player though.
Defining a Pro Magic Player
First of all, there is no single way of defining how to be a pro Magic player, though there definitely are various factors which are involved. In many cases I believe it is up to the individual, whether he or she considers themselves a professional player. There are multiple tournament circuits now where it is possible to find success, and find high levels of competition. While this article primarily discusses the Pro Tour Circuit there is of course the SCG tournament series as well as the TCGplayer tournament series. For each tournament series there is an event which it is necessary to qualify for. These top level events not only have the highest prize pools, but this is where it is possible to become a well-known figure in the Magic community.
The monetary value of doing well in a tournament is nice in the immediate sense, but the notoriety is much more valuable in the long term. There are many costs when traveling to tournaments, whether it is airfare, hotel accommodations, expensive meals, or simply acquiring cards. Oftentimes, even for top players, winning money in a tournament simply offsets the expenses for entering, and you still aren't netting much from the prize money. In order to be a professional Magic player it is often necessary to explore supplemental forms of income. Typically this means having a sponsorship deal, writing on a Magic website, or both.
I have personally been very happy ever since I started writing for TCGplayer and, in my mind, that was the point where I became a professional Magic player. Once you are traveling and writing, it can become difficult to find time for much else and it can feel like a full time job, though admittedly not a typical one. For different players though there are different ways of supplementing income from tournaments. In some cases this could be buying and selling cards, or even just being a constant grinder on Magic Online. There are also those that just write about Magic, and rarely attend tournaments. While technically this isn't being a professional Magic "player," there are of course many, many ways of forming Magic into a career that don't involve finding success at the tournament level. (He's right, you know! - Frank)
This is perhaps the single most difficult thing about playing a game for a living. What if you don't do well at the tournaments? What then? Many times, weeks and weeks of traveling can yield little to no tangible results. Magic is an easy game to enjoy when winning, but how about when losing? Losing is simply a part of the game, and while some players do lose more than others there is much of the game that is outside of your control in a given game or tournament. The expectations professional players should be setting involve doing well over the course of a series of tournaments, but sometimes even then it just doesn't work out.
There are not only the expectations that you as a player put on yourself, but there are the expectations the community has as well. Personally I have been fortunate enough to do well at the right times, which has landed me the number one ranking up until about five days ago, according to the Top 25 player rankings set by Wizards of the Coast. This is not something I expected, and I can't claim to actually be the best in the world simply based off these rankings, however one thing that I have been trying to get used to is the perception that I am one of the best players in the world.
This past weekend I decided to play Atarka Red at Grand Prix Indianapolis, though I was sad to play it over Red/Green Landfall which is what I played at the Pro Tour. My reason for playing Atarka Red is that I managed to get it to a spot where it feels favored against the current version of Jeskai Black, and has a great matchup versus the ramp decks, which have been surging in popularity. Many of my opponents made comments like, "how come you played Atarka Red?" My interpretation of this question is "why would one of the best players in the world want to play Atarka Red?" If I was playing a deck that is perceived to be very difficult to play, like Esper Control of Jeskai Black, I don't believe this question would have been asked of me.
First of all, Atarka Red is not easy to play despite that common belief. Secondly, I played it because I believe it to be a legitimately good deck, and was pretty close to making Top 8 with it, though I ended up scooping to a friend in round fourteen. This is the list I played:
This list is a bit different from normal as there are only twelve actual creatures in the main, plus the six token generators. Lightning Berserker was just very unimpressive so not playing it just makes sense even though you are lowering the creature count. There are of course other option like playing Den Protector, but the spells are just so great. The sideboard has a ton of removal, as the plan against a deck like Jeskai Black is to kill all their creatures, which makes it super tough for them to win.
Anyway there is something to be said for just playing a deck that ends the game very quickly. I simply didn't want to play a long and drawn out game of Magic. Hopefully this helps illustrate that when choosing a deck for a tournament, there is no shame in picking up a deck that you like, even if it is Red Aggro. There is some stigma towards Red Aggro as there are some pros that will simply never play it, whether they think it is good or not. I can respect that people have different play styles and such, but my advice in Standard right now is if you like playing aggressive decks, go ahead play Red Aggro.
Recently, I have come to the realization that I may not be the "typical image of what a top Magic player" should be, but I think that this image is different for everyone. Given my recent success, my aim is to embrace the newfound status and realize that there are changes that come with being recognized in the Magic world. I would love to be thought of alongside the other great players in the game, as it has been a long time coming. There are many different variables that go into playing Magic professionally which wouldn't have even occurred to me until actually living out my dream. I may be one of the best in the world and I want to personify that quality in my play, actions, and appearance to the community at large.
Right now I have of course been on a hot streak, though that doesn't mean I am perfect. I still make mistakes, as does every Magic player. Part of playing Magic is realizing that it is a game full of mistakes, and the best thing you can do after making one is to pick yourself right back up and continue playing. This is easier said than done, but hey, everyone has some aspect of their game, or even their approach to playing in a Magic tournament, that can be improved upon.
Thanks for reading,