n.b. this post, alongside all the others titled ‘From the Vault’ were written by Ceri for the LilianaMarket blog. This one was originally posted 17 February 2019.

Team LilianaMarket recently returned from Axion Now’s Mega Weekend. In the light of uncertainty about what’s happening next for organised tabletop play, vice-Captain Ceri Taylor set out to discover what’s important about competitive paper Magic for the weekend’s players, TOs and judges.

I love paper Magic. Yes, I play on Arena, I play on Magic Online, but it was paper Magic that got me into the game.  It’s also the centre of my game – if I play online, it’s usually to prepare and practice for a in-person tournament. I recently wrote about GP Liverpool and how it helped me fall in love with Magic all over again.  Well, this Axion Mega Weekend was a similarly fantastic experience… As ever, the Axion event management was spot on, and a lot of fun was had.

Ross is the Monarch of Battlebox!

Exhausted after an early start and six rounds of team trios, I went to bed fairly early on the Saturday night, whilst the others played Ross’s ‘Battlebox’ in the Travelodge bar.  As I drifted off, I reflected upon what an important part of my life competitive Magic events, and the people I’ve met through them, have become. As much as I complained about the early starts to get a train to a PPTQ on a Sunday morning, I miss their regularity, and the chance to catch up with friends and friendly adversaries.  For the competitive player the Magic community is much more than just your local scene – as important as that is – it’s the national and regional competitive circuits too. I know many other players feel the same way, so I decided that on the Sunday I’d try and collect some thoughts about why they feel paper tournaments are important to them.

So, with voice recorder in hand, I asked fellow players, the TOs and judges how they felt.  The answers they gave me were insightful, and in some cases, extremely moving.

Lasting significant friendships

Most answers started with the importance of community and friendship.  As Colin, my round one opponent said, “the clue’s in the name, Magic the Gathering”.  For many of the people I spoke to, including my team-mates Ross Broxup and Ben Earley, major events were a great excuse to catch up with each other, despite living at opposite ends of the country.

“[these events] are just very social. I’ve met the majority of my friend circle through playing paper Magic.”

Ben Earley, Team LilianaMarket

Lots of the players there were making a weekend of it with friends, travelling and sharing hotels together, and that was clearly also a key part of the experience, as Sonny Irons said:

“It’s better than playing online because you actually get to interact with people. It’s nice to see everyone, and make a weekend of it.  Going to an event with all your friends and getting to play magic – that’s why it’s important to me.”

Sonny Irons, Team Mana Gaming

The friendships made through Magic ended up being incredibly important to the people I spoke to.  For example, long-time competitive player Danny Nuttall told me that the Best Man at his wedding was a friend he made through Magic, “we met at a PTQ in Edgware in 1997, I think it was – it’s just an incredible opportunity to meet like-minded people”.

It wasn’t only the players who valued the social side of Magic events, the judges had similar experiences too:

“I think paper magic events for me are always about coming together with other people.  You come out, you meet people, and you can actually make friendships that carry on outside of magic.  I have friends I’ve met through magic who I do other things with as well, and that’s a thing you don’t get online.”

Niklas Ek, Judge

“It’s that relational thing again, I mean, I have absolutely no shame in saying that the judge community is one of the things that got me through the break-down of my first marriage. Those people and those relationships are integral to the fact that I had still had space to be me, away from raising kids. It’s a precious space.  Yes, online is amazing, and it’s great to have that too, but it’s relationships, that’s what keeps me coming to all of it!”

Michael ‘Maverick’ Chamberlain, Judge

The idea of Magic ‘space’ as somewhere precious, somewhere to be yourself, is something I find incredibly moving.  To some extent, I wonder if the relative impenetrability of Magic is also something of an appeal in terms of finding a world away from the everyday?  My friends and family who don’t play Magic, don’t ‘get it’, which for me just increases the special experience of being with people who do.

Michael ‘Maverick’ Chamberlain, again: “Paper magic to me is about experience and story, it’s about being a part of something you share with other people…”.  The importance of a good story, was something George Channing also reflected upon:

“A lot of the good conversations and good stories you get from Magic events aren’t from playing, they’re from chatting with your friends, saying, ‘this happened, that happened’, or talking to your opponent, saying, ‘you did this, I did this, why did you do that?’, and you get good conversations out of it and that’s a lot of the enjoyment of it… so I think a lot of what’s important [in playing in person] is communication.”

George Channing, Team Axion

I’ve seen similar sentiments as those expressed above, from the pros on Twitter, as illustrated in the following screenshot from Eduardo Sajgalik’s twitter feed:

Eduardo talks about the “physicality” of paper Magic, and that’s another theme I came across in my mini-interviews with participants at the Axion event, which I’ll look at next…

The material and embodied experience of playing paper Magic

Whilst friendship and community were key, paper Magic is also special in terms of material and physical actions.  Henry Guille shared the following thoughts:

“…when you play paper magic, you say, ‘I want to do this…’, and then between you and your opponent – and sometimes with the help of judges – you figure out how the game changes as a result. Whereas in any computer form, you can only do things by clicking, and specifically by taking very narrow types of actions. I value a lot that paper Magic is very interpretative and that allows you to do things like loops for example… as judges, the new loop rules have solved a problem that’s huge on Magic Arena at the moment and they’re still trying to do something similar in Magic digital products. We have so much more freedom in terms of the actions we can let players take.  It’s not just you can only choose to move this object to this place.”

Henry Guille, Judge

In terms of the competitive aspects of actually playing Magic in paper rather than online, whilst players pointed out the advantages of online Magic in terms of convenience, lack of shuffling and the removal of opportunistic cheating, they also discussed how paper Magic can give some players an edge, by observing their opponent’s body language and looking for tells.

Growth and personal development

The final theme I identified in the comments I collected, was that of growth and personal development.  This often overlapped with the social aspects of paper Magic events.

“I know for a period of my life, being able to come to events like this was one of my biggest social outlets, so that’s pretty important. Also, the sense of community obviously creates an environment where teams can form, and that helps player development, and this just furthers everyone’s engagement with the game.”

Autumn Burchett, Team Axion

“For the parents of our children – and we have a big player base of children, something like 200 juniors – the key thing is that it’s a sociable activity to get people off their computers.  Also, I think it’s part of the human psyche to want to have sociable activities.”

Liz Barnetson, TO and Manager, Axion Now

Liz went on to tell me that one of the comments she gets from parents is how getting involved in Magic has helped shy children build their confidence, as they build their friendship circles.  

It was also clear that being part of the judge community and running events is an opportunity for personal growth too:  

“The judge community is referred to as a family for a good reason.  We get each other through a lot. A lot of what players don’t see is just how broken a judge team can be at the end of a long weekend, and you get by by laughing with your friends, bringing them along with you, by going, ‘what can we learn from this experience’.  It is really a lovely growth community, and that goes home with you, it doesn’t just end with the event. In the same way players have teams and they test together, judges have communities behind the scenes too…”

Michael ‘Maverick’ Chamberlain, Judge

A further aspect of personal development that a lot of people mentioned was the experience of travelling to events, and the new places they’d seen because of attending GPs and other Magic events.  

The future of paper competitive Magic events

We still don’t know exactly how organised competitive play will develop.  But whatever happens, I hope the examples above demonstrate just how important paper magic is, and particularly how important it is to maintain the middle ground for those players who are somewhere between FNM warriors and the MPL.  It’s easy to get downbeat, when we don’t know what’s coming next, or how important paper Magic is to Wizards in the context of the understandable attention being given to Arena. However, I’d like to finish on the positive note, as expressed by Francois Hauchard, TO and Manager of Axion Now, that paper Magic sells product and will continue to be important to Wizards – we might have to accept a small lull in attention to the paper competitive scene in the short-term, but hopefully it’s temporary, and as more people are drawn to the game, through whatever route, Magic will continue to grow and grow!

Thank you to everyone who took the time to talk to me. I hope to see you at the next Axion Mega event, or wherever Magic takes us!