Going Pro; an interview with one of Magic’s elite

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After Friday’s discussion on what it takes to be a competitive gamer, it got me thinking. Are we not all competitive to some point or another? I know I often check my peers’ GamerScore, making sure I am on track or seeing how large my digital phallus is. While I may not be into competitive console gaming (mostly because my gaming time  tends to involve long single player grinds in RPGs) I find myself becoming more and more competitive in Magic: the Gathering. I spend more money on cards than games now, researching decks and checking on rules for interesting card combinations. The thrill of coming in the top three on Friday night, with the reward of shiny cards and boosters, is rather addictive.

So how competitive is the local Magic scene – and can we South Africans compete on an international level?

We caught up with Adam Katz, a Capetonian Magic player who’s been playing for the last 13 years, and has had the honour of representing his country in the international arena. We asked Adam about the difficulties in making the jump from playing purely for fun, to playing competitively – and his own competitive drive was certainly a factor. “I am the guy who goes to a tournament and wins 8 out of 9 matches but for the next two weeks all I’ll be able to think about is that one match and why I lost it, had I played it differently could things have changed? Because of this super competitive mindset it was a natural progression for me to move from playing Magic casually to playing competitively, “ he told us.

So he came to Gauteng to test his mental muscle in a larger tournament in 2008. Unfortunately for Adam, he didn’t win that particular event – but his skills with the cards certainly caught people’s attention. “It caused a bit of a ripple when the JHB players noticed a new competent player from Cape Town,” Katz recalls. “Later that year I won the South African National Championships and from there I have always taken the competitive side of Magic quite seriously.” And when you take anything competitive seriously, it becomes something that you’ll pour hours in to – because just like an athlete, or one of Korea’s pro StarCraft 2 competitors, training comes with the territory.

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“In the past I used to train by playing online magic and bouncing ideas with friends with the odd local event to experiment.” With Katz’ foray in to large international events though, it’s just not enough to stay competitive, and it’s become necessary to ramp up his training time. “The past couple of months some friends and I have made a more formal group to practice for big events,” he says. It’s helped his game, and though he enjoys training with others, it does present significant downsides, Katz exclaims. “It has the disadvantage of them all knowing my deck so well!”

That training carries through to the art of deck building – making a selection of just the right cards from thousands for any given event. Katz let us in on his strategy. “For major events I usually give myself three weeks to prepare. I know it takes me about 10 days of practice with a deck to be able to play it well. So I spend the first 10 days of my preparation trying some ideas of my own and seeing if I can build something unique and powerful. If I have not felt that any of my ideas are up to scratch after this point then I choose the net deck ( A copy of someone else’s winning deck) I enjoy playing with the most and learn the ins and outs of that deck.” Though he’s used others’ decks before, he tends to fare better with decks he’s built himself. “In the past most of the events that I have done well in I have played with one of my own creations,” he affirms.

KatzIt’s a lot of work – and takes a significant amount of dedication and skill, but Adam’s managed to make a name for himself as an international Magic player. Reflecting on his international successes, Adam’s related some of his most memorable magic moments. “My most memorable match,” he recalls “was against Paul Cheon who at the time was the US national champion. We played Legacy at the world championships with many of my heroes (including Raphael Levy and Jon Finkel) watching us.” It’s something he’ll never forget – even though he acknowledges that he could have had a more competitive attitude towards it at the time. “My biggest regret is my mindset when I played in the World Championships. My goal was to have fun and I didn’t feel like i had a real chance to do well. I am a big believer in confidence and aiming for the clouds so I believe it was a wasted opportunity.”

A similar memorable event for Katz was when he was – to his surprise – announced as a quarterfinalist at this year’s thousand player Magic Grand Prix in Manchester. “There were four of us tied for 8th,“ he remembers “and everyone thought it was going to be the one British player who was going to slip into the lucky 8th spot. When they announced the words ‘In 8th spot, From South Africa, Adam Katz’ I quite literally fell to my knees.”

And though he’s already shown he has what it takes to be a professional player, Katz still wants to bring the gold home.” I would like to help South Africa win the first even world championships. So my next goal will be to qualify for the team at the end of June in Durban.”

“Wish me luck!” he added.

One unfortunate thing about Magic, like in every sphere is the occurrence of vultures, especially when it comes to trading things of fluctuating value. Couple that with the game’s expansive, confusing rules and it can be a little daunting for people who’d like to get in to Magic – but just don’t know where to start. Adam’s offered this advice to newcomers.

“Right now Magic now can be played on so many platforms,” Katz offers. “If I were to start playing Magic now I would first buy the new PC game, Duels of the Planeswalkers 13 and play around with that. It’s a great game that lets you play Magic in an arcade mode that will show you quickly if Magic is for you. If you like the game I would quickly move into paper Magic (using real-life cards). Once in paper magic my biggest piece of advice would be to always check the value of all your cards before trading them away.”

Last Updated: June 21, 2012

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