Gathering to Play, Part 1: Your Local Store and Your Playgroup

Over the past decade, Wizards of the Coast has spent an enormous amount of energy in creating, maintaining, and invigorating the FNM program, and it isn’t hard to see just how much of an impact their devotion has made.  The FNM initiative has turned local stores all over the world into hubs of activity every Friday night, creating something uncommon in the increasingly fleeting, transient digital world- a focus on community and the importance of local business. Every time you play in an FNM, you are doing much, much more than simply competing for prizes or playing for fun. You are supporting the card store that you play at with monetary sustenance. You are developing relationships with the group of people that you play with, and you are introducing a social dynamic into that playgroup that would not exist without you.  Why is it important to consider these qualities as a Magic : the Gathering player?

A Place to Play

People who purchase Magic cards on any sort of basis do so to play the game. There might be some select few out there who just collect, but I’d bet that they know how to play, and every once in a while, feel the need to break the locks on their binders, pull out the pristine cardboard, and sleeve up for some battles.  The point is: people who have the cards play with them, at some level.  Many do so at home, with their friends, once every month.  Many play in PTQs, Game Days, and Grand Prixs. A select few play on the Pro Tour. Most people who play Magic, however, do so in a local game store.  Some show up religiously, every Friday night, extraneous circumstances be damned. Some only play when a Prerelease is taking place.  Some people don’t know why you would ever want to play a deck with less than a hundred cards in it, and some know the exact likelihood of drawing a specific card at any given time, based on what is in their deck and what they’ve drawn.

Local stores provide a venue in which all these players can enjoy Magic, and in more ways than one. Each Friday night, barring blizzard or hurricane conditions, Battlegrounds Gaming is itself a storm of activity. On one table, people are pulling cards out of one another’s binders, squinting or mumbling to themselves as they price check this week’s hot cards on their phones and mentally tally the value they hope to glean from a trade.  They are brushing elbows with a pair of PTQ grinders running the fiftieth sideboarded match with the decks they are optimizing for tomorrow’s tournament.  One of them combos off, and looks around for some extra dice. One of the four Commander players across the room is happy to oblige.  A few new players, some of whom are here for their first draft, stare into the glass cases in the front of the store, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of rare cards resting just below their fingers.

The store holds an experience for everyone, something beyond what they can buy.  Some of the players that cross paths in the main event  will go on to become fast friends, perhaps  travel partners intent on grinding their way into some future Pro Tour.  For a few veterans, the memories of tournaments past come bubbling up, and they spend the evening laughing about the degenerate combo that they pulled off, or the no name rookie that bested them as he caught the wave of success that carried him into the Top Eight of a GP.   One group stops shuffling and forget their decks for a while. They carry on a friendly argument about the merits of an upcoming film, or worry about the economy, or complain about the massive amount of homework that one teacher gave them for Monday.

The local store is the nucleus of my play network, and the people that I experience the game with that act as a support system for my hobby.  They provide me with an impetus to play the game through competition, social interaction, or simply by facilitating common ground on which I can talk about a shared passion.  The game draws players from many different playgroups, economic backgrounds, and cultural histories, creating a diverse social group anchored by the desire to have fun.  This is why local stores are one of the keystones of the Magic: the Gathering experience, at least for a wide majority of the players. I don’t mean to say that stores are central to all Magic players. There are many networks, like those of the Pros, that extend from coast to coast, and there are many playgroups that are composed of members throughout an entire region. All of these have their beginnings in local stores, however, with the desire to experience the first level of competitive Magic.

 

 

( FNM->Game Day->GP->PT->Invitational)

Your Playgroup…

Anyone who plays Magic consistently with the same group of people can pick out characteristics of the previously described players and match a few to their friends.  If you took any two Magic players from any global location and put them together, they would have at least some similarities, even if they both shared only an abiding enjoyment of dragons.  People are drawn to those that share their passions.  Aside from being potential friends , the people who play with you on a daily, weekly, or bi-weekly basis are critical to your success in the game. It is common knowledge that you only get better by playing with those who are already better than you, as they provide informed perspective on game play and a challenge to strategic thought.  In addition to challenging you, playgroups also provide several other benefits.

… and Managing Magic

I’m sure you’ve noticed. Playing any constructed format is a significant investment of cash. Magic is a hobby that one can play at many different levels, but on a quite a few of them, it is expensive. Your playgroup can help alleviate the costs of your hobby, so that you have more time to dwell on what you want to, like strategy or collecting.

For example, most of the players that compose my playgroup maintain their own collections, and we are happy to share with one another.  Obviously you should make sure that a trusting relationship precedes the sharing of expensive cardboard, especially entire decks.  Once such relationships are built, it is no longer necessary to break your playset of Scalding Tarns for that last Primal Hunter- I can just borrow it from one of my friends, who understands that if any harm should befall the card, I’d gladly try to compensate him.

This is particularly relevant for the future of competitive constructed events. With the cost of competitive cards rising, and the weekly swing of metagame strategies warping card prices nightly, the shared resources of a group is, for the most part, going to provide you with a much more expansive card pool with which to build.

Playgroups are also essential to lowering the cost of tournament travel, and enabling mobility. I, for example, currently have limited access to a vehicle. As a college student with only a part time job,  car payments and maintenance bills are too much for me to foot. So I sometimes catch a ride with my friend, and I make sure to car pool to larger events.  It can’t be stated enough times:  always remember to discuss gas money, as well as hotel costs, beforehand, especially  if you’re journeying out of State.  This goes a long way toward preventing discomfort  stemming from money problems.

So they facilitate the acquisition of resources necessary to play the game, and help you get to where you can play the game. Playgroups also support you by offering focus and support at larger events. After every round of a recent PTQ, I caught up with the friends that I had arrived with, and asked each one about their matches. Whether they won or lost, we talked about how they could have played better, how lucky their opponent was, or the sick board state that occurred in the game next to them.  Talking about my friend’s games makes it much easier for me to play through a 9 hour tournament, because it provides necessary distraction from competitive pressure , while still keeping it somewhat focused on the game. Without a playgroup, this outlet would be much harder to find.

The advice that I’ve  read more about than any other is playtesting.  When you want to up your Magic game, grab the deck you think might have a role to play in the metagame and learn it inside and out. This can only be done by playing the deck, over and over, in order to zero in on its specific nuances and interactions.  The best way to do this is with a group of friends who are as focused as you are, whom you will probably be able to find among your Magic-playing peers.  Honing Game 1 and Game 2 strategies is vital to tournament success, and a playgroup provides the perfect environment in which to test.

 

Those are just some of the reasons to get to know the people who show up to you’re local store, or the regulars you see in line at the Pairings sheet every regional PTQ. In my next article, I’ll talk about how local stores are the basic unit of metagame, and how the Global Magic community is swiftly becoming the largest playgroup of all time. Thanks for reading, and as always, constructive feedback is much appreciated.

Christian Sauer