Check out a photo gallery from Magic’s Pro Tour Atlanta..
The Pro Tour of Magic is the circuit where the most elite players show up to attempt to make their living playing the game. Pro Tour events occur four times a year, and each are something close to a college bowl game compared to the Super Bowl that is the Magic World Championship. The first Pro Tour of the season, Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, was held in Atlanta this year, and I traveled north into the nearly-suburbs to find out what it was like to go to this big, weird event.
Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch marked the 20th anniversary of the professional circuit of Magic: The Gathering. Professional players like Brian Kibler, Jon Finkel and a rarified few others who have been participating in the game since that first Pro Tour stood in front of an excited crowd. Clapping occurred. It was a special event, and like all special events it was celebrated with baked goods. Adorned with the iconography of Magic, the cupcakes were picked away one by one, food for the hungry competitor on the edge of shattering or pushing through to the highest brackets of head-to-head competition. There’s a lot of pain in losing a card game as personal as Magic. Cupcakes make a decent bandage in a pinch.
There’s a strong difference between going to a Pro Tour and watching from home on the official Twitch channel. The flair of the feature match player (the people who are commented on and talked about the most) is a far cry from the average player in the hundreds of people pressed into the corrals of tables at the event. It seems exciting. All of that gets drained out in the room itself, sublimated beneath the grinding competition of people at the top of their game.
What’s striking about the Pro Tour is the silence. Go to any large Magic event and you’ll know what I mean: they’re some of the loudest, sensorially strange things that you can attend. This table has a player ranting at maximal volume. That one has two players talking about something unrelated to the game. That other one has a guy who just cannot stop talking about Battlestar Galactica. It’s nerd cacophony. The Pro Tour competitors, the quiet people who sit through the wall of sound at the Grand Prix events and Pro Tour Qualifiers in order to scrape their way to the elite tables, are silent.
The player with flair who gets picked for the feature match might make a joke or an offhand remark. They might laugh or crack a pun about the game to enliven what could be a mechanical activity. The average player at the Pro Tour (and I watched quite a few games during my time on-site) communicates in single words and gestures. Part of this might be to more easily bridge the language gap between players from Japan, Argentina, Slovenia and many other countries. Part of it is that the mechanism of the game solves many problems for them. Tap lands. Play a card. Point at your card. Intimate knowledge of the cards solves 90% of problems; calling a judge to get the official text solves the remainder.
Watching games at the Pro Tour is watching mastery at work. You’re seeing people who have spent so many dozens of hours preparing for this three-day weekend alone, not to mention the hundreds or thousands of hours they spent learning the ins and outs of Magic across years of play. Most of them lack the flair. All of them have the skill.
The venue for Atlanta’s Pro Tour was at the end of a long hallway, and to get there involved walking through what I can only describe as a swarm of children who were all competing in a massive chess tournament. It’s very strange to me that neighboring halls feature these two similar, yet profoundly different, games.
I saw a few Wizards of the Coast employees teaching children how to play. A patient mother sat beside her ten year old while someone in an official collared shirt patiently walked through the steps of the game for the child. He looked interested sometimes, bored at others, and later I witness him and his mother attempting to follow a slow match over the shoulders of some professional players. The game state was totally opaque to me. I can’t imagine the kid was having any more luck figuring out the process than I was. The players touched cards, make gestures with their hands, and played quietly.
I asked Magic developer Ian Duke about the mechanism for getting kids from that other hall into the Pro Tour room. Rarified as that company might be, Wizards of the Coast must have some kind of internal plan for bringing the smart-yet-uninitiated into the fold and then, finally, into the inner circle. We see parts of it. New World Order design, which is the idea that cards increase in complexity as they increase in rarity, is part of this master plan. When Mark Rosewater mentions enfranchised versus unenfranchised players, he’s talking about a way of understanding a progression of the user base.
Duke didn’t mention anything like that, though. He suggested that a general acceptance of games as intellectual activity could fuel the transition from a game like chess into the complexity of Magic. Getting personal for a moment, he told me some of his own trajectory toward the game, starting with following the Pro Tour himself through outlets like Scrye. Streaming on Twitch affords the same kind of contact that those magazines did, although we now have a totalized package that was never available to the teens of the 1990s.
I spoke with Duke somewhere past the midpoint of Day 2 of the event, and if you have read or seen any coverage you know that the tournament was functionally broken in half by various forms of Eldrazi decks. If you’re not aware, the general idea is to play lands (resources) that allow you to accelerate your game. If the opponent’s deck isn’t equally fast, then they cannot win. Most decks in the format can’t even think of being that fast, let alone performing that way.
Many players have either called for or warned against a ban for the cards that enable this aggressive style of deck, but Duke didn’t seem worried. Magic Development was more than aware of what could happen, and their choice was to put things into the world and see what was returned to them. Duke seemed unshaken by the performance of the deck, and confident that players could solve the dilemma with new kinds of deckbuilding. There is also the fact that he’s seeing sets further down the design and development line; he knows eldritch secrets we can only dream about.
The Pro Tour is a kind of mobile shrine to Magic. It travels the world to instantiate itself, and only the most devoted adherents make it through the gates to sit at the tables with black tablecloths. They deal in signs and symbols too arcane for most, but watching that level of play is frankly inspiring. The scattered hundreds sitting in that cold room have sacrificed and practiced to reach this apex of play. Some of them have been doing it for three years; some have been masters of the game for twenty. The dedication and skill is astonishing, and it shocks me into a desire for practice.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.