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Defending Jon Finkel: A Response to “My Brief OkCupid Affair With a World Champion Magic: The Gathering Player”

Photo from Digital Trends

Photo from Digital Trends

First off, let me start by laying out my biases: I love Magic: The Gathering and everything related to it.

So if you have an unusual hatred of this hobby, you might want to stop reading. Don’t blame me: I started you off with a disclaimer.

And so, let the rant begin.

I’ve forgotten what I was googling when I came upon this article: “My Brief OkCupid Affair with a World Champion Magic: The Gathering Player” by Alyssa Bereznak. Nevertheless, it happened. The title aptly sums the main premise of her article: she was on OkCupid after a drunken night, encountered countless creepy messages from illiterate men, found one normal-looking one, Jon Finkel, and after two dates, (one of which involved a one-man show based on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer), intensive googling and discovering Jon Finkel’s career, Alyssa decided to drop the romance and cautions her readers against “filtered” profiles, or the things people decide to leave out.

To give her credit, she does admit to the shallowness of the internet dating world.

She states:

“But there’s a larger point here: that judging people on shallow stuff is human nature; one person’s Magic is another person’s fingernail biting, or sports obsession, or verbal tic.

No online dating profile in the world is comprehensive enough to highlight every person’s peccadillo, or anticipate the inane biases that each of us lugs around.

There’s no snapshot in the world that can account for our snap judgments.”

But I don’t believe a single paragraph renouncing yourself of the responsibility that comes with snap judgements is enough to salvage the fact that her 3 “strikes” involved Jon Finkel continuing to play Magic, the rate at which he played, and  finding his best friends through Magic.

So first, let me tell you a little something about Jon Finkel.

According to the omniscient Wikipedia:

Jon Finkel (born May 18, 1978[4] in Brockport, New York) is an American Magic: The Gathering and poker player.[1] Finkel is one of the most decorated players in the history of professional Magic: The Gathering play and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all-time.[5][6] During his career he has won 3 Grand Prix events and made the Top 8 of a record 14 Pro Tour events, winning three of those. In the year 2000, he became the Magic: The Gathering World Champion, as well as playing for the United States National Team, which won the team portion of the competition.”

In fact, thanks to Alyssa’s intensive googling, I discovered that he has a playing card dedicated to him: the Shadowmage Infiltrator.

I’m going to admit that I don’t know much about Magic: The Gathering. My experience with it is, at the most, casual and, in all probability, of passing interest. But I have seen what dedicated players are like, and what they have to do to stay relevant in the game.

It takes a lot of passion and hard-work to become a professional Magic Player.

It takes intense knowledge of approximately 11,665 playing cards (and that was the estimate 2 years ago), ways in which to counter each one, and constantly keeping track of the new cards that do come out.

And that’s not the end of it.

You will then have to keep track of the decks other professional players play with. I said it before and I’ll say it again: With Magic: The Gathering, you are only as good as the people you play with.

This means in order for you to excel in the game, you are constantly forced to seek other opponents, discover what their strategies are, and then meticulously calculate how you can counter each one.

Magic: The Gathering isn’t just some mindless clicking that’s so prominent with so many modern video games, where losing doesn’t seem to have any real consequences because you can always just start on your last save point. PCgamer once came out with an article with the argument that Call of Duty has destroyed a generation of first-person shooters.

Tripwire president, John Gibson was quoted saying:

“I feel like Call of Duty has almost ruined a generation of FPS players. I know that’s a bold statement, but I won’t just throw stones without backing it up. When I was developing Action Mode [for RO2], I got a group of people that I know that are pretty hardcore Call of Duty players (…).

And really, watching some of these guys play… one of the things that Call of Duty does (…) is they compress the skill gap. And the way you compress the skill gap as a designer is you add a whole bunch of randomness. A whole bunch of weaponry that doesn’t require any skill to get kills. Random spawns, massive cone fire on your weapons. Lots of devices that can get kills with zero skill at all, and you know, it’s kind of smart to compress your skill gap to a degree. You don’t want the elite players to destroy the new players so bad that new players can never get into the game and enjoy it.”

And that’s one thing that Magic: The Gathering doesn’t have–randomness. That means every card is worth something. Every creature is synergetic with an enchantment, or artifact, and with every new card released, you will need to refer back to your old collection and understand what this new card can do to your old ones: which ones are now playable? Which ones have become irrelevant?

It takes diligent and deliberate practice to excel at something and Magic: The Gathering isn’t an exemption.

It takes skill, fast-thinking and a thorough understanding of your opponent (think facial expressions, hand gestures, movements they can’t control such as twitching of their head or restless shuffling of  cards in their hand to give you an idea of how good of a hand they have). All these cues are skills you will have to develop to get an advantage in the game. 

Alina Tugend, writer for the New York Times, quoted Professor Ericsson, when describing what it takes to be the best in your field. He states, “It involves spending hours a day in a highly structured activities to improve performance and overcome weakness.”

So to close my argument: Alyssa, Jon Finkel is probably one of the most passionate and dedicated person you would ever have the pleasure to meet.

He has perfected determination and commitment to the nth degree. He has managed to turn one of his hobbies into a prolific career. He has decided that this is what he enjoyed, and went against all odds to make a living  out of it.

And not only that — he became so good at his field that he has been immortalized in a playing card. He has become part of the game he dedicated his life to.

While you were sitting next to him during a one-man show about a serial killer, unbeknownst to you, you were enjoying the company of the hero who inspired an entire generation of Magic players to continue enjoying what they do and striving to be the best person they could be. And most of all, he took the time he could be spending preparing for his tournament to get to know you, despite the fact that you had no idea, nor interest, on how to play what is conceivably the most important thing in his life.

That, in itself, wouldn’t have been enough to strike out with me.

Edit: Looks like I wasn’t the only one offended by Alyssa’s article. See the backlash and Jon Finkel’s reaction here.


Things I Learned from Magic: The Gathering that Applies in Real Life

the gathering by harrybuddhapalm

the gathering by harrybuddhapalm

So I went to my first game store gathering last night — and, it went okay

At first, not gonna lie, it was a bit intimidating entering a poorly-lit, suspicious smelling basement full of men hunched over video games, only to occasionally glance around to spectate. You can pretty much be assured that for every game you play, somebody somewhere is closely watching and measuring your skills. Not to mention that being a girl, I knew everyone was on the mindset that I would suck terribly at every game I attempt at.

Which is to say, not far from the truth, but hey, I’m here to learn.

I did manage to win a few single-player MTG rounds (all casual play) and I won once on a multi-player round, but that was because I managed to build up my battlefield with 3x Balustrade Spy, 2x Duskhunter Bat, Void Maw, Gristle Grinner and for the triumphant cast: Army of the Damned (at this point I was all tapped out), and wiped out 3 opponents in 1 turn, so suffice to say, I got damn lucky.

But amidst that victory, I was also beaten relentlessly. While geting bashed by a–amongst all decks–freakin’ Tibalt deck, my opponent (also my friend of 10 years and counting) kept telling me what moves I was doing wrong. He kept doling out useful advice, which made sense as soon as he said it, but things like, me being trigger-happy and overly eager with attacking, left me defenceless and vulnerable.

Which got me thinking on my commute to work today: there are things I learned playing Magic The Gathering in four months, that I failed to realize on my 24 years of traversing this world.

The first of which is:

3. Don’t get too greedy.

The first hand I drew was so good that despite not having enough islands, I decided to stick with it. My opening hand consisted of Simic Manipulator, Cryptoplasm and Consuming Aberration. I had 3 swamps in my opening hand, but no islands, and still I decided to stick with the hand in the hopes that I’d pull an Island during my turn.

Painful mistake.

I ended up not pulling any more mana and fighting with a mono-red aggro, the round ended fairly quickly. When I conceded, my friend told me, “Never play with a hand where you can’t cast anything by the second turn. It’s not worth the risk.”

Life lesson:

Don’t be greedy. Learn to delay your gratification in hopes that your sacrifice today, will pay off tomorrow. It’s the same mindset when you go out and have a drink: should I spend $X amount of dollars and have a blearily remembered, black-out drunk fun tonight or save what I would be spending now and spend it on a home, a companion pet or dream vacation?

2. Always keep track of the things you’ve lost, and be prepared to unearth them at an optimal time.

With my friend playing a Tibalt deck, he constantly surprised me with the “unearth” ability. For example, that damn Hellspark Elemental, that has both haste, and 2 drop unearth, kept rising from the graveyard and kicking my ass. Though I knew that Hellspark Elemental was in his graveyard, just waiting to be unearthed, after a few turns, I’d forget — attack with all the creatures I have, leaving me vulnerable — only to have him unearth this monster on my ass.

He always casted him with a profoundly disappointed expression too:

old meme, I know

old meme, I know

Life lesson:

Never forget what you’ve lost, because you learn from all of them.

This is so true on so many levels. People spend most of their time trying to forget about their mistakes, or running away from them, that they miss its real value: to gain experience.

And the beautiful thing about mistakes, is that you’re the one who made them! Once you admit that to yourself, you can go about fixing it and making it better. And once you have fully accepted them, nobody can  use them against you.

1. You become the average of the 5 people you spend most of your time with. If you want to get better, seek better opponents.

And lastly, what I love the most about Magic, is that you are only as good as the people you play with. It doesn’t matter if you think you have the best aggro deck around, and if you beat everyone in your local game store — someone is always going to be better than you. And if you want to be better than that person, you will be forced to step outside of your comfortable circle and seek different players to beat so you can upgrade your skill.

Life lesson:

Don’t limit yourself to the people you associate with now. Expand your social circle and see what you can learn from others. You will be surprised at how many different types of people are out there.

I believe that we’re all planeswalkers, travelling from one world to the other (high school life to college life to adulthood). We start our lives with our own traits and personalities (mana) that we depend on to  build relationships (creatures), abilities (instants and sorceries) and lessons/encouragements we gather from our circle (enchantments/artifacts). But in order to become a better planeswalker, we need to keep customizing our deck, keep balancing out our advantages with our disadvantages, and keep seeking better opponents in order to gain experience.

Ah, wouldn’t life be so much easier if everything was measured by xp points?