Showbox at the Market sits inconspicuously a couple salmon tosses away from the world famous Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. Tourists and office workers alike, enjoying a stunning late summer day about which neither Eddie Vedder nor Kurt Cobain could complain, walk by the venue's closed black doors, oblivious to the proceedings inside the concert space. A poster on the blood red walls of the men's bathroom announces that The Summer Slaughter Tour, headlined by Between the Buried and Me, passed through the previous week. Bloc Party will play in late September. Everyone from Duke Ellington to Lady Gaga have strutted on that platform while patrons ordered drinks from one of two bars near the raised stage.
For the next three days, however, the Showbox has a very different purpose. The 73-year-old establishment plays host to the Magic the Gathering Players Championship, a late August event featuring the highest concentration of Magic talent ever assembled for one event. Jon Finkel, arguably the best player ever, is present. So is the charismatic Brian Kibler, 2011 World Champion Jun'ya Iyanaga, Luis Scott-Vargas – the man with the highest winning percentage on the Pro Tour – and pretty much anyone who is anyone in the game. Nine of the 16 men – they are all men – have Wikipedia pages dedicated to their MtG exploits. For more than eight hours a day over three days, they will battle for the title of 2012 World Player of the Year title and $40,000. In the growing world of Magic the Gathering, the Players Championship is Ellington, Gaga, and Pearl Jam all rolled into one.
You remember Magic the Gathering, right? It's the game you played a decade ago, except infinitely more complex. The basic framework remains the same as when inventor Richard Garfield and Wizards of the Coast debuted the game in 1993. Players have a deck of essentially two kinds of cards: "lands" that produce mana, and "spells" that use the mana. The loser is one whose life drops to zero or who runs out of cards — and each of these rules have various exceptions. The current version, however, barely resembles the game I stopped playing in 1997. A Wizards staff member in Seattle compared Magic to the Madden franchise. In the same way that each new Madden edition brings additional features (hit stick, hot routes, etc.), every new Magic expansion set — of which there are dozens — adds new powers, abilities, and rules. Each year, Wizards releases a flagship deck along with more cards at set points throughout the year. It's a never-ending process. The Magic world is already eagerly anticipating cards and kinks what the next set, "Return to Ravnica," will bring. One major component of being a great Magic player is complete comprehension of the rules. Yawgatog.com features a hyperlinked master list of the regulations, which is worth pursuing to understand the sheer scope of the game.
After struggling through the early 2000s, the Magic brand is stronger than ever. Nostalgia, high-quality expansion sets, and smart marketing fueled the current boom. "It's become a more consumer-facing product in the past few years," says Daniel Tack, who covers gaming for Forbes.com and other publications. "The biggest impediment to Magic is that people don't know how to play." To combat this flaw, Wizards released simplified decks that help potential new gamers learn the rules. The Duel of the Planeswalkers online game and app is popular with beginning players as well, since rules are built into the logic, so players cannot make a mistake. (There’s also Magic Online, which is for the more advanced players.)
"The biggest impediment to 'Magic' is that people don't know how to play."
The plans are working. Hasbro, which bought Wizards of the Coast for $325 million in 1999, claimed the volume of card sales doubled between 2008 and 2011 with the player base growing 80 percent to 12 million. The gamers — generally upwardly mobile men between the ages of 16 to 35 — are dedicated and well-financed. That's an excellent market to own, and Hasbro is capitalizing on the love of the game by giving players ever more ways to spend money. "The average tenure of the Magic consumer is over eight years. And the more engaged the Magic consumer becomes in brand the more value they are to us as a business, as we migrate them toward successively deeper levels of engagement with complementary analog and digital experiences," the company's chief marketing officer John Frascotti said in 2011. Translation: The more hooked players get, the more cash they will trade for cardboard or digital goods.
Part of this strategy revolves around the Pro Tour, which debuted in 1996, and includes events like the Players Championship.
Day 1: hurry up and wait
"It's the bright lights. The cameras. The tons of money at stake. It's crazy."
Ninety minutes before the beginning of the year's most important tournament, the world's best MtG players sit around sipping coffee or Coke products, fooling with their phones, and chatting easily but nervously. These veterans of the circuit — 15 of them played in the Boston-Worcester Grand Prix the previous weekend — know and respect each other. But there's also the issue of the big money and the big stage. They all want to win.
"It was pretty tense yesterday at the meet and greet. We tried to make small talk while trying to figure out what [type of deck] everyone was playing," Owen Turtenwald, the 2011 Player of the Year, says. "It's the bright lights. The cameras. The tons of money at stake. It's crazy." (A few days later, tournament director Scott Larabee tells me Day 1 was the most nervous he's ever seen the normally brash Turtenwald.)
The tournament at Showbox is both unusually intense and unusually laid back for a high-level Magic event. The pressure comes from the cash at hand and the extremely high quality of play, while the intimate feeling stems from the small group involved. Normal Pro Tour events — there are three every year — feature upwards of 400 players. The Grand Prix, tournaments that anyone can pay to enter, routinely draw more than 1,500 contestants and are played in massive convention spaces. "The laid back feel is nice. It's nice not to have to walk around a big event hall," David Ochoa says of the Players Championship, although he and others will admit they miss being recognized by adoring fans.
After a photo op of the entire group, the day kicks off with a Cube draft, one of the many formats of the game. Individual players are better at different variations of Magic, so the tournament features three varieties: Cube draft, booster draft, and Modern constructed. For our purposes here, the specific details of each format are not really important. Basic ones include which cards are allowed to be chosen and whether the decks are constructed before the tournament or drafted in a fantasy football-esque manner the day of the event.
After drafting, the players get 30 minutes to build their decks, then the action begins. Except it doesn't. There's a problem with the audio on the Internet stream. The Players Championship is a spectator experience, but it's an online spectator experience. Fans are welcome inside the Showbox, but there will only be a handful throughout the weekend. The event isn't promoted as an in-person experience. There’s little room because the space is dedicated to creating the Internet experience. Seven thousand viewers consistently watch the stream at all times, peaking just below 9,000 on the final day. The stage holds three tables, while five tables sit stage right for the other games. Equipment for the broadcast takes up the entire left side of the venue. Staff responsible for getting the tournament online outnumber the players nearly two to one. Two announcers at a time — over the course of three days, six men total will offer play-by-play and color — provide commentary throughout the tournament, focusing on the on-stage "feature match." A large boom camera on the floor and two other cameras offer the producers three different angles on the action, allowing commentators and the audience at home to see into the players' hands. But the game cannot start until the audio is ready. Brian Kibler suggests the group "hurry up and wait." An organizer responds, "That's what an event like this is about." Everyone laughs, then sits patiently at their tables while the techs scramble to fix the issue. Soon, they do. Game on.
The brightest, if not the best
If there are Magic the Gathering rock stars, the effusive Kibler is one. He has more than 13,000 Twitter followers and a happy, high-energy Southern California personality. The 31-year-old whose birthday is the week after the tournament quit playing Magic twice, once during his senior year in high school and again after college. He returned both times after getting "the fever." Kibler is a legend who, if anything, has been playing better since his second comeback in 2009. On Day 1, he wears the same blazer and Star City Games tee-shirt combination he sports in his pre-tournament photo. "I like to try to present a good image," he says. Kibler's very pretty girlfriend is one of the only spectators. She brings to mind Vesper in Casino Royale, but only if she traded a dress with a "plunging neckline" for an outfit that's more appropriate to the venue.
Kibler's close friend, Jon Finkel, is the other man with a superstar personality. He's likely the only MtG player to start a dating controversy and has won more than $300,000 during a career that's spanned over a decade and a half. The 34-year-old former World Player of the Year spent time playing blackjack and poker and doesn't play Magic professionally as much as he used to — he manages a hedge fund in New York — but he's still one of the greats and held in the highest regard. His laid-back attitude and New York hipster outfit contrasts nicely with Kibler's SoCal essence. Even in a room of 16 of the best players in the world, the cult of personality surrounding the pair is apparent. There may be better players in the game, but there are no larger stars than the two hall-of-famers.
How do you go pro?
A Brief Chat with Pro Tour Philadelphia Winner Samuele Estratti
The goofy 26-year-old Italian economics major, who first qualified for the world championship in 2008, spends the first day sipping Pellegrino and trying not to show the effects of the cold he's battling. At one point, he profusely apologies to opponent Tzu Ching Kuo for coughing on him during their match. Of all the guys in Seattle, Estratti, wearing a soccer shoes, a Euro satchel, and what can only be described as jean capri shorts, is the happiest to simply be part of the proceedings.
What makes someone good at Magic?
You have to always think of playing better. You can't rely on luck. You need to have a team who can help you, make suggestions, share tools. That's enough.
This is a relaxed group. Do you know a lot of people in the game?
I have many friends. Magic is good for making friends. I have made friends in Italy and outside Italy. When I go to their cities, we can party. I sleep in their houses. It's good.
How do you think you'll fare at the Players Championship?
I am surely an underdog because there are so many champions. It will be hard for me, but I can make it if something goes wrong for them. [Laughs]
How did you prepare for the tournament?
I'm Italian, so we don't test. We say "I will test tomorrow, tomorrow." I built my deck yesterday. I played an hour a day for the month before the tournament, probably less.
The short answer: by playing a lot and winning. The long answer is, like everything in the game, complicated. The Magic ecosystem has multiple levels, from the casual player to the 16 young men battling for $40,000 in Seattle. Each level of play has its own rules, regulations, and ways to get involved. The most informal, just above the people who play at home with friends, is Friday Night Magic (FNM). Held at local card stores, these tournaments are the entry point into competitive Magic. Players earn Planeswalker Points, which can help them gain free entree to the next two levels: Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQ) and Grand Prix (GP). Players can also pay upwards of $40 to play in a PTQ or GP.
There are dozens of PTQs before each of the season's three Pro Tour events, with the winner of each receiving an invitation to the next Pro Tour tournament. (The weekend of September 1, PTQs were held in Mexico City, Syracuse, and Singapore.) GPs arrive more infrequently, but there are still more than three dozen during the 2012-2013 season. Wizards' hope is that a player will progress from FNM to PTQs and Grand Prix, then, possibly Pro Tours, having fun and spending money along the way. The company altered the rules in late 2011 to encourage more players to try to reach the highest levels of the game.
Wizards says around 30 players earn enough between tournament winnings and sponsorships to support themselves solely from the game. "I've made a decent living the past few years. I wouldn't have to have another job, especially if I didn't live in Southern California," Kibler, who founded Gary Games, says with a laugh.
But even those who don't make a living by playing the game can derive financial benefit from improving their standing within the Magic universe. The cards are expensive and building a competitive deck can cost upwards of $500, significantly more for tournaments that allow cards from older sets. The constant release of new sets forces players to continually to spend money. Doing well at GPs and PTQs can mean free cards or a help with travel to the next event.
"I've been in an airport about one out of every seven days for the past year."
Once a player "makes it," however, it's not an easy life. The tournaments come frequently with few breaks in-between. "I calculated something like I've been in an airport about one out of every seven days for the past year," Alexander Hayne, one of the 16 players in Seattle, says. "Wizards pays for some of it but a lot of it comes from me, appearance fees, and my sponsors." Playing Magic for a living is an unusual job, but it is a job.
That anyone could make a living playing Magic is surprising; Finkel says he never expected to be playing events 16 years after his first one in 1996. Neither, it would seem, did anyone else. Few players, if any, plan to go pro. They simply enjoy the game, are skilled, and progress from that point. How long the run lasts is up to the individual. "Magic is definitely my favorite thing to do, and I'm glad that I can make enough money to keep doing it and support myself. But I was never like 'I'm going to go pro.' I just played as much as I could, and then it turned from a hobby into something I was making a little bit of cash at, so I kept going. We'll see how long I keep playing. As long as it's not crazy irresponsible, sure," 2011 World Champion Turtenwald, who is barely of legal drinking age, says with a smile.
Turn on the bright lights
More than 7,500 spectators see Wednesday's first feature match between Finkel and Shouta "Showtime" Yasooka. Seven of these people are present at the Showbox, the rest of them watching online. Wizards made the very intentional decision to focus on growing its presence on the Internet. "I think that's where any type of coverage for any type of game, maybe even sports, is going. The Internet is the new thing. That's how everyone wants to ingest their information. It's fast. It's accessible. Why shouldn't everything migrate there?" Rashad Miller, one of the half dozen talking heads who will appear on the broadcast, says.
He has a point. Not everyone can make it to downtown Seattle — in the middle of a work day, no less — but the entire world can watch the action unfold online. It's no different than office workers sneaking the NCAA Tournament on CBSSports.com. And ask yourself: Would you rather watch an NFL game on television or in person? Increasingly, the answer is the former. This shift is even more dramatic in the case of Magic, where high-level, intelligent play-by-play dramatically enhances the experience. This cannot be provided out-loud in-venue because the players need to concentrate. Having someone effusively deconstruct the last play doesn't work. Online, however, it thrives.
If fans of the game can't watch live, they can catch up and learn later with the archived feature matches, drafts, and Modern Deck techs, during which the players break down their decisions. All 20-plus hours of coverage available for your viewing enjoyment whenever you want.
"It's changing how people learn Magic. In the past, the path was you durdle around with your friends and make a bunch of mistakes. Then you maybe go to FNM and play some more. You learn from the better players. Then you decide you want to go to a PTQ and you get better there. There was this whole arc of learning how to play Magic well. You didn't have access to watch the best guys do it. Now you do," Sheldon Menery, another broadcaster and the "Godfather of Magic," says.
It's an impressive effort. There are fair complaints on the live chat about the stream, which lags at points throughout the tournament, but Wizards puts together a strong, mostly professional broadcast. The men calling the action are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The production adds value. During games, a large image of the card the commentators are discussing pops on-screen almost instantaneously next to the action. Between rounds, interviews with the players are informative and fun. It's easy to see how Magic players around the world would enjoy the stream and use it for motivation. It could be them in the feature match.
David Ochoa, a Mustachioed Magician
The quiet pro wears a fedora and a mustache in Seattle. They fit him well. Ochoa is a character, but he lets his play, his appearance, and his skill do his talking. (He also writes wonderful, witty prose about the game.) The combination works.
When did you get into Magic?
I started back in 1995, but I didn't start playing professionally until 2009. I played in a few tournaments before then, but I wasn't trying as hard
What changed? Did you decide to take it more seriously?
Yeah. I started traveling to Grand Prix. That was a major step. I didn't do that before, but you have to go to a lot of major tournaments to give yourself a chance to do well. I started to perform better and one thing led to another.
Are you surprised by how far it's taken you?
Oh yeah. When I first started playing, this wasn't exactly where I thought I would end up playing. It's been a bit of a rollercoaster.
Why are you so good?
People have said that I'm very calm and analytical. You could interpret from that that I stay focused and don't let my emotions cloud my judgement. I won't let the setting of the tournament fluster me. Some people might realize they are playing against Brian Kibler, for example, and do a play they wouldn't do if they were playing someone who they weren't intimidated by. That's not something that bothers me.
The mustache is a nice touch.
It's a few months old. I put a bit of work into it.
Are you going to keep it after the tournament?
I don't think so. I might, but I'm leaning towards not.
Why'd you do it?
It was something that I wanted to do for this. I thought it would be funny.
The stream also gives Wizards time to advertise products and tournaments. These range from understandable to ridiculous. There are calls to attend FNMs, specifically "Magic Celebration" on September 8 (free, while supplies last) or a bigger tournament near you. Need to protect your cards? Get Ultra*Pro game sleeves. If you really want to show your love of the game, there are always Magic-themed iPhone protectors or — and this is a stretch — Red Monkey leather bags decorated with Magic symbols.
If you stream it, they will come?
That said, occasional advertisements are a small price to pay for the quality of the coverage. And who knows, some people surely want Red Monkey's "unique leather goods in the spirit of rock and roll." The fact that in-person spectators inevitably find their way to an adjacent room where a television streams the coverage offers proof-of-concept for the broadcast’s success.
Still, future Players Championships might have more space for spectators. Tournament director Larabee hopes to find a balance. "It's tough. We can't really let spectators near where we are filming, but I hope in the future we'll have a little more room," he says. "Because of the names involved, I think wherever we end up holding it, there will be interest and people will want to come in and watch."
Regardless of future space considerations for live, in-person viewing, the online experience will continue. If you stream it, they will come? "They will," Larabee offers. "And they are."
Day 2: get that money
The mood inside Showbox on Thursday remains friendly, but it’s a little more tense than 24 hours prior. At the end of day two, 16 players will become four as the quartet with the best records advance to Friday's semifinal. The difference between first place and fifth place is $35,000, so there's a serious financial incentive to do well. But, at the end of the day, it's still dudes getting paid to play a game. The competitors understand both sides of this reality.
"There's definitely added pressure [because of the setting and the money], but you have to get into the mindset where you're not bothered by it. You're playing Magic. You're playing an awesome game. You don't have to worry about the money or the competition. I know how to play Magic," Hayne, who labels himself as an underdog but sits in second place after Day 1 with a 4-2 record, says.
Expert 'Magic' players have a chess savant's ability to visualize three and four moves ahead
It's quiet, almost silent as play begins. The only noise is the cards slapping down on the table, and the players nervously and continuously shuffling their hands. They rarely talk. They know the game. They know the cards. They know what their opponent is doing, sometimes before he does. In addition to knowing the rules and understanding how to apply them, expert Magic players have a chess savant's ability to visualize three and four moves ahead. They know what cards an opponent has in his deck, realize the situation on the board, and see the possibilities. When played well, it is, well, rather magical to observe.
The multiple nationalities — in addition to seven Americans, there are four Japanese contestants, and players from Brazil, Italy, Canada, Chinese Taipei, and the Czech Republic — lead to confusing situations. At one point, someone plays a card in a foreign language. There's a brief pause while his English-speaking opponent requests an English translation. One of the other players, watching since his match already ended, searches his deck and pulls out the card. Problem solved.
Fans, including a pair wearing matching Harry Potter-inspired Hufflepuff shirts, infrequently wander into Showbox, but this is about the players and the live stream. The final round of the day features six players battling for two spots in the semifinal. (Showtime Yasooka, boasting a nearly impossible 10-1 record over the first 11 rounds, and Finkel are already through.) The three matches onstage are all relevant to the final four, and the show's producers make sure the players understand the situation. "If you get to 1-1 [of the best of three matchup], tell us and stop playing," one of the broadcast managers tells the six men before the 12th round begins. "We'll probably put you on camera."
Kibler's match against Yuuya Watanabe goes to a third and final game. They stop playing, waiting for Finkel and Shuhei Nakamura to finish their game at the center table. Kibler uses the downtime to subtlety chug a Five-Hour Energy. Nakamura defeats Finkel, and the boom cam swings over to show the Californian battle his Japanese counterpart. A spot in the final four goes to the winner, but the drama is over quickly as nearly 8,000 watch Kibler succumb.
After a brief check of the standings, the announcer reads off the semifinalists. There is polite applause from the other players, the Wizards staff, and the half dozen fans for Yasooka and Watanabe, which grows louder for Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and peaks for Finkel. Four men fighting for $40,000. It has a nice ring.
Yes, you have to pay for those
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, the Brilliant Brazilian
Paulo, PVDDR or simply PV for short, starts out the Players Championship 0-3 but storms back to earn a spot in the final four. The 24-year-old, who's majoring in International Relations at university in his hometown of Porto Alegre, made his professional debut at the 2003 World Championship. He's the youngest player to reach 300 Pro Points. He's also kind of a big deal in his native country.
What makes someone good?
You have to have a certain mindset, which is similar to the mindset you use to be a good chess player, bridge player, or poker player. If you don't have what it takes, then there's a threshold you won't reach. But if you are somewhat talented, then practice means a lot. But not just playing. Reading, watching people play, and playing in competitive events.
What makes you specifically so good?
I look at the entire game as a whole pretty well. I can deviate from normal standards of play.
What is the scene like in Brazil?
Brazil doesn't have a lot of players. We have maybe three PTQs and maybe one GP a year. But there are a lot of Brazilians who play online, especially since they started Magic Online PTQs.
Are you well-known there?
Yeah, in the Magic scene. I got recognized at the bus once. It was great.
Magic, it would seem, is ripe for expansion online. It attracts the type of people who are comfortable spending endless hours tinkering in front of a computer. Plus, the Internet version doesn't require players to be in the same physical location to play each other. Wizards, which first released an online game in 2002, is trying to take advantage of the market. Magic Online is a growing revenue stream for the company. It features nearly everything the cardboard-based one does, including cards that need to be bought, often for high prices.
"I've been playing since I was five years old."
Online PTQs, though, have been huge: they level the playing field, giving people who can't get to a Tour Qualifier in person a chance to reach the Pro Tour. Reid Duke, the 2011 Magic Online champion, credits his success in the game almost entirely to these tournaments. "I've been playing since I was five years old, but I only made it to the Pro Tour in 2010," he says. "It was finally when Magic Online started to have PTQs that it became an actual possibility for me. Rather than having to take time off from school and travel just to play PTQs for the long-shot first place goal, I could just schedule things so I could play in every online PTQ. Once you have 16 chances for every Pro Tour, then your odds become real good."
Magic Online also reduces the intimidation factor — players can play in the comfort of their houses. While the game interface is far from perfect, it’s improving. Magic is still best when played in the flesh, but the Internet version is gaining popularity even among the oldest guard. Take it from Finkel: "Magic is much better to play with your friends. I'm lucky enough that I live in New York, and there are a lot of really good Magic players there... but playing online is fine. It's a good game, especially when it's a really good format like Innistrad block. If I have a couple hours, I'll get in a draft. I'll probably end up going to sleep and feeling like crap the next day."
Day 3: the final four and the future
By the time I arrive on Friday, Yasooka is already issuing a beatdown on Finkel. (The day's semifinals are played one at a time in order to maximize the livestream.) In the Showbox's Green Room bar — the ceiling is actually green — roughly 20 people, including a number of competitors who didn't make the final four, casually observe the action or just hang out. Some watch the television in the corner that streams the game on stage in the next room, while others chat with each other, only occasionally glancing towards the unfolding match. Luis Scott-Vargas is the focal point of the five or six fans who found their way into the space. Vitor Damo da Rosa paces, preparing for his upcoming match against Watanabe. Ochoa eats a sandwich.
In short order, Finkel arrives in the room after the sound defeat. He stays to watch the second match for a few minutes, before citing exhaustion and leaving for his hotel room. He's clearly mad at how quickly he lost, momentarily unable to take solace in his $10,000 winnings. In the main room — which now has fake trees, large toadstools, and other decorations for Saturday night's Return to Ravnica party stashed in various corners waiting to be deployed — Watanabe beats PVDDR 3-1, setting up a final showdown with Yasooka.
Although the watching world expects Yasooka, the 2006 World Player of the Year, to win easily as he's done all tournament, Watanabe (PoY in 2009) holds his own. He prevails in the first and third games, losing the second and fourth. Three days, more than 20 hours of Magic, and the $40,000 first-place check comes down to one final battle. This is, no matter what you think of Magic, a compelling and satisfying conclusion. As they've done all tournament, Zac Hill and Rich Hagon provide the call with skill. I don't understand many of the details, but it's fun to watch nonetheless. "This is the opening act of a little bit of ballet," Hagon offers when describing a move in the middle of game five.
"This is the opening act of a little bit of ballet."
Eventually, Watanabe gains the upper hand (though not by pirouetting), completes the upset, and walks away with first place. He grins and celebrates. Everyone claps. Presumably the nearly 9,000 people viewing the stream do as well. Some of them, undoubtedly, are already watching the replay, determining what they would have done differently if they were in the same situation. At some point in the near future they could be.
After the trophies are handed out, the photo ops are done, and the interviews are conducted, the Wizards staff nicely tells the three members of the press that it's time to go. The crew needs to pack out the A/V equipment before setting up for tomorrow night's party. The company is inviting true Magic fans to come, to talk about the game, and to hear teasers about the highly anticipated Ravnica. It's a celebration of Magic.
As I'm walking out of Showbox and into the cool Seattle night, I notice one of the Wizards employees approach a few of the pros milling aimlessly about. "Anybody drafting tonight?" he asks hopefully. "Anybody need another?" The game goes on. The game always goes on.