Diary of a Former-but-Relapsing Competitive Player

A little-known fact about me: I am not much of a writer.  Growing up, everything came fairly easy to me in terms of school. A perfect storm of introversion and private schools during my elementary years made the remainder a bit of a cake walk once I moved to a rural public school. College taught me a few lessons about how to formulate thoughts and process what I can only declare as a circus that runs through my head when I go to type.

Fast forward a few years to a chance meeting with Kelly Reid, at that point an orchestrator of an idea and vision in the form of Quiet Speculation.  I found Kelly to be one of the more fascinating people I had met within the finance community.  After our first encounter, I touched base with him again, and the results can be found in the archives of both Quiet Speculation and Gathering Magic.  Before this point, I was more of a limited PTQ grinder who utilized Magic as a way to fund his hobby—and sometimes himself during rough times. Over the years, I have grown more distant from Kelly, but if he reads this, I just want to tip my hat in his direction for getting me motivated and in some way thank him for what I have now.

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I knew how the game worked, and though I am not savvy with technology in most senses, I was very good at being who I needed to be at that point, and an online presence was not that far of a stretch. I have rarely been the best at many things—I tend to excel in most areas of life but rarely master more than what is needed to be proficient. I don’t believe I will ever be a world champion or the leading role in anything, but I will be there competing. Even if I may not be the best in the room, I understand how to study situations and derive the best odds of success.

This idea that I will likely never be the top dog is a major part of what drove me from Magic competitively in the first place: the idea that I had finally gotten to the Pro Tour and fell short of anything but mediocrity. After a conversation and a weekend of bad beats, I brought things back around as I always seem to manage, and began expanding Magic finance to be more than just a hobby. I have found a sense of love for this game and this community I did not fully realize while I lived it all those years as a kid.

As a quick aside for anyone who does not visit card shops on a regular basis or takes issue with a kid hanging out there too often, I beg you to reassess the situation.  It is one thing if you do not have time, but if you believe you enjoy Magic enough to want to share that concept, I urge you to visit an LGS on a semi-regular basis. The first time I walked into a real game store, now long since closed, I remember taking it all in, everything from the Spawn action figures to the wall of comics.  Though I was entranced in the moment, it was not until much later I would realize just how much this place would mean to me. Though most of these people will fade from your life, it is amazing how many will remain. Even after Magic fades from the forefront, these friends will still be there.  It has been a number of years now since I have been a regular patron of any one store, but there were periods of my life that I spent more time in those stores than at home or work: it just begins to feel more comfortable.

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Given my clear enthusiasm for the group of people I now call friends, and for every other group out there just like us, that is what has kept me going all these years.  I still in many ways love the game. I just put a Commander deck together to start playing again and managed to make a PTQ this weekend. Which, as it happens, is what has brought me once again to this place: the keyboard beckons.

When I decided to quit, I stashed most of my reasoning away, it was easy to claim that I just found finance to be more profitable, and believe me, it is. The honest truth is that I did not think I had what it took to be at the top level of play at that point in my life. I still do not believe I will ever be the first rank or even the second, but these past five years of refocus have taught me a great deal about myself as a competitor. I do not want to turn this into a tournament report, but I think a few things clicked this weekend and the moments require some insight into what I have been doing as a competitive player.

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Anyone who reads my series on Gathering Magic already knows that I have been changing some of my focus from the world of finance back to the more competitive scene. This started as a bit of an experiment to liven up the series. No one needs basic lessons anymore, and for everything else I can teach, so few people would be able to utilize the information that it hardly demands a regular series. I figured if I started to play more Magic Online, I would be a little more in tune with the average player as far as Standard pricing was concerned.

Though my series has certainly helped me, and everyone else I hope, it has also given my competitive nature a taste of the game again and, as anticipated, it had a bit of cabin fever. The first outlet was to get a Standard deck built. I had not realized this before finding U/W Heroic, but I don’t know that I have ever played a Standard net deck that fit my play style until now.  Who would have thought I would be mimicking Craig Wescoe when I am such a diehard combo player? But this is something I can get behind.  I always used to be a strictly Limited player until Pro Tour Kyoto when I was forced to pick up Boat Brew having never played a game before getting on the plane. I borrowed the deck from a friend, as I was a broke college kid, and it went about as well as one could hope given how little experience I had.

I am not terrible at Constructed. In fact, I am likely better at Constructed than Limited if given the right deck. Any Legacy combo will keep me interested, and finding lines of play that do not seem plausible or calculating odds and mana is right up my alley.  Of course, it is rare we get a playable combo in Standard so when Jeskai Ascendency combo was revealed, I was instantly locked in. Then, between a few hundred games and some rough beats with the deck, I switched to U/W and up until this weekend, have just been running well online quietly.

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Then on Friday night, Ray Perez convinced me to go play in FNM. It was nice to be back in that shop atmosphere again. Over the past year, I have not had much access or time, so I was grateful for the opportunity, and I believe that lent itself well to my mood going into Saturday.

The early morning feeling of being half dead as you drag yourself to the car for the two-hour drive is one you will always hate in the moment but miss down the road. As I managed to fight the urge to sleep much more, we talked shop and got crazy in the car on our way to Fort Wayne. In these moments, I regret nothing. There may or may not have been some twisted version of karaoke, or whatever you want to call it.

On site, we got locked in and after walking the vendor line, it was clear I was solely here to play—no need to work this weekend.  I managed to dispatch my first opponent without much issue and my confidence finally hit a little bit of a spike. Up until that point, I have kind of looked at myself as this washed-up player who quit years ago: we are our own toughest critics, they say.

From this point, I remember getting rocked two rounds in a row. The first was by old-school Jeskai: [card]Mantis Rider[/card]s, Stormbreaths, and the ilk. I pulled out game one but lost two and three while having him near lethal both games. I always feel like I made a mistake if my opponent beats me while at one, but I have replayed this game in my head more than Nassif’s topdeck, and I cannot find it.

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The next round, I had to make a few mulligans and dropped two quick games to what I have decided is the toll of playing my list.  I found that I regularly drop a game out of every twenty or so to the fact that my land count is so low. This leads to excessive mulligans, and in this case, they sadly both managed to be in the same round.

This was the real breaking point for me. I was certainly out of top eight given how bad my breaks would be, but I realized I didn’t care. A few months ago, I played an event and quickly dropped after falling from contention in the first few rounds. Disappointed and ashamed, I went to work when I got home, testing like crazy. This event, however, I wanted to play. I felt like I made no play mistakes in either match and was not ready to call it there. From that point, I rallied and ended 5-2: enough for thirteenth place. Sure, it wasn’t the top eight I was hoping for, but if it was going to be my last run, it was at least respectable.

With each Ordeal played correctly and each bluffed counter, I felt myself gaining more confidence. Much like the power and toughness of the creatures I was voltroning, so too did my confidence grow. I announced every trigger (a skill these past few years of Magic Online has helped with), I managed every point of damage, and I saw lines I would have otherwise missed, given how little play time I normally have with a deck. By the end of the day, even with the disappointment the morning brought, I was the second best in the car on the way home. That thought inspired me to do better next time, but I did not let not being first-best consume me. We exchanged stories, enjoyed impromptu karaoke again, and found ourselves back home.

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The truth is the passion to play has never faded. Every time I hear the announcement for round one pairings, part of me mentally wanders to go check for my name. I always quickly snap to reality, but it never fails: for that split second, I remember the rush.

This weekend brought more than just that back. It also brought an understanding I lacked five years ago: sometimes showing up to compete is all that matters. Before, I did not just want to play—I had to win. That mentality was unhealthy and was a burden I put on myself.  Plain and simple, I quit enjoying the game. For the past five years, I have driven myself from situations in which that matters, taking up new hobbies I know I cannot be the best at and focusing on work.

But it has all come full circle now. I feel it may be time to give it another shot. I no longer need to work 70 hours a week or go to every event to work. I do not know that I have what it takes to compete again at the highest levels, but I know if I spend enough time dedicated to working on it, I can at the very least find out. For me, it is no longer about winning, it is about finding my passion for the game itself again—something I have been missing for a many years.

I do not know how I will move forward with this. Perhaps a new series or maybe a new podcast, but I know the only way I will dedicate myself to something is to write it down and get it done. As much as I am writing this to help readers, it is also something I’m doing to inspire myself. I do not intend to be the best in the world, and I am alright with that now. I just feel that I knew there would come a time and a place for me to start again—no one quits forever.

I have an understanding of competitive Magic outside of the percentages. No longer do I feel the need to win with my own brew. The drive to win is not there in the same capacity, but it is crawling out of the cellar, slowly. I do not know that I will move toward the PPTQ scene, as that is a bit rough on my schedule, but I will be looking to play in more Opens this coming year. It will take some time to knock the rust off, and I have wavered greatly this past year on if this is even what I wanted, but after this weekend, I don’t think I can sit back and play casual Magic any longer.

About the Author
@CryppleCommand     -     Email     -     Articles Ryan Bushard is a one-time grinder now turned financier who seems to have his finger on the pulse of Magic’s ever-changing financial landscape. Ryan, a weekly writer for GatheringMagic.com, can be found at a number of Midwest events throughout the year either behind the booth or trading on the floor. Known for some off-the-wall called shots, he tends to see avenues of value that most others would dismiss, such as his infamous Death’s Shadow call that netted him enough to buy a Jaguar. As with any obscure predictions, these will not always pan out and can many times at least be good for a laugh, such as this year’s Seance. Ryan can be found on Gathering Magic or can be reached on Twitter.

2 comments on Diary of a Former-but-Relapsing Competitive Player

  1. Daniel says:

    This article touched me a lot as I have been doing some magic soul searching of myself lately. I just went to a GP with expectations of me placing well. The games were not fun, as I was super intent on winning, and when I was knocked out of moving to the next day I felt terrible. Meanwhile my friends who had come to just have fun and not compete were having a great time playing magic games for fun on the side. I think you communicated your idea of how to be passionate with magic very well. Just showing up and playing games without a mentality that only winning is fun sounds like a better way to be playing magic. Realizing what it is about magic that makes you happy, such as meeting new people and a healthy amount of competition, is also something I agree with.

    I hope that whatever you do decide to write about in the future is something that you are interested in and something you try to be good at even if you are not the best at it.

  2. Joakim says:

    I think this ties well with marchal_LRs Don’t be result oriented. Look to your plays and the puzzles in each game and seek to improve those. Don’t strive for being no 1 (each time) … Magic has way too much variance for it to be sane convincing yourself that can be achieved.
    The article inspired me. I have been going to my lgs irregularly but never to play. I might pick that part up again (after a bit of online practice). Wish the best for your future gaming experiences.

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