It's hard to believe that Gamers Helping Gamers has been around for almost a decade now. The first class scholarship recipients came in 2012, and Gamers Helping Gamers is still going strong.
If you're unfamiliar, the scholarship is exactly what it sounds like - a group led by Magic players helped to create the inaugural four-year scholarship, and the only requirement for applicants is a short essay related largely to gaming and Magic-centric topics. If you know anyone who might be interested, you can find more information here.
I'm fortunate enough to have the opportunity to introduce the last two years of scholarship recipients, so without further ado here are the winners of the 2019 and 2020 Gamers Helping Gamers scholarships!
2020 Winner Makena Waldron
Hometown: Orrville, Ohio
Destination: Cleveland State University
Magic is truly a generational game. It bridges divides in a way few things can, and as the game nears its third decade it's clear it's so much more than a game to many families. That includes Gamers Helping Gamers 2020 scholarship recipient Makena Waldron, for whom Magic will always hold a special place.
"I got into Magic when I was in middle school," she explained. "My stepdad introduced it to me before he passed. After he passed, I ended up living with my dad for the first time in years. He also had an interest in Magic, and it was a way for him to bond with me and my brothers. I really liked Magic because it was a way for me to feel in control. It gave me a way to connect to those around me when I thought I couldn't before."
Most people are familiar with the story of the young competitive player striving to stand out as the best in a competitive field, but Waldron's story is the perfect reminder that Magic is so much more than a competitive endeavor. She described herself as a casual player who primarily likes to play with friends and family (her favorite format is Commander).
Waldron's love of Magic was cemented long before she discovered the scholarship, but she was ecstatic when she found out that the game that had given so much to her family wasn't done quite yet.
"I was actually browsing for scholarships that were essay-related when I found the GHG scholarship," she recalled. "I wasn't aware that there was a scholarship that was based on an interest in Magic. Plus, the application process had questions I wanted to talk about; like least favorite card or mechanic, how Magic is important to me or used in my day-to-day life. I didn't find it too difficult - applications usually aren't when you enjoy what you need to write about."
"There was also a section about how I applied what I know/learned from Magic in my life, and Magic has many different types of problem-solving. A player will have to strategize how to win a game - it encourages you to think about how to play the cards in your hand, how to tap your mana, or how to attack or block. It goes beyond just knowing how to play your deck, you have to know how the other player is going to try to take you down, you have to know your weaknesses and how to fix them. I think the real world works in a very similar way."
Waldron is studying at Cleveland State University, and she's blown away that the card game that was such an important part of her past is also contributing to her future.
"I'm honored that I was chosen," she said. "My family doesn't really have a lot of extra money for me to fund my higher education. So, I view this scholarship as a way for me to pursue my goal of becoming a psychiatrist. Plus, it's cool that a hobby of mine is what will help me achieve my goal."
2020 Winner David Phan
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Destination: Carnegie Mellon University
People are drawn to Magic for many reasons, and while many are compelled to be the best or design the perfect deck, it was something else that caught David Phan's eye. A lifelong artist, he could not get enough of the incredible artwork featured across thousands of cards - and the fact that he liked the technical aspects didn't hurt, either.
"A brother of a friend invited me to play out of the blue," he recalled. "The first game was fun, and so was the next and the next after that; I guess it just stuck with me. I really like math, art and lore - and Magic has a lot of all three."
From that day on, Phan was hooked. He began to devour any Magic content he could find, and he's a huge fan of both the sketch group LoadingReadyRun and the North100 podcast. The latter is about a format (Canadian Highlander) he doesn't even play, but for someone who is also quite passionate about both his Magic and his art, Phan enjoys watching people who clearly love the content they are producing.
His joy in crafting unique creations doesn't stop with his artwork.
"In Magic, I definitely lean toward the more competitive side, but I won't play meta decks unless they feel good to play," he explained. "On the flip side, I'm not afraid to play jank - I occasionally try to homebrew decks, to limited success. I think the most fun I've had in Magic was during my Commander games."
Phan's favorite card was Spectral Procession, but as his Magic play has moved to Arena in the pandemic, there's a new contender.
"As for Spectral Procession, well, it's been so long since I've played that card, and now I know what Torrential Gearhulk feels like," he explained, "so maybe that part needs updating. My next big play session is probably going to be grinding Historic with a Sultai Control list featuring Torrential Gearhulk. I never got to play it when it originally came out and always thought it would be fun to play. And yes, it is. It really, really is. Even just drawing two cards feels good."
Phan was shocked to find out there was a scholarship dedicated to gamers, but he loved how straightforward the application was in a sea of college essays and entrance requirements. It's been a key part of his ability to pursue both his degree at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as his own growing art portfolio.
He's in good company. Carnegie Mellon University is a school with alums who earned an iconic place in Magic's competitive history, and with the help of his predecessors he's on his way to earning a degree in advanced statistics.
"Even with almost a full scholarship I'm still struggling to pay for school, so this is going to go to that."
2019 Winner Jake Maro
Hometown: Plainfield, Illinois
Destination: University of Illinois
Jake Maro has two passions in life, but he never expected them to come together the way they have.
Maro has been a Magic fan since he was introduced to the game in the seventh grade, and his passion for the game is matched only by his dedication to the Marching Illini at the University of Illinois, where he plays as part of the tenor saxophone section. He never thought that the two would meet, but after his passion for Magic earned him the 2019 Gamers Helping Gamers scholarship, he has found the freedom to devote time to his sax and his studies - and, of course, Magic.
"I have a strong passion for music, and band gives me the opportunity to share that passion with all of my peers," he explained. "And this scholarship means that I can continue to share the love of Magic with my friends in college instead of worrying as much about spending all of my money on classes and textbooks. After the first week of my first semester, I was really starting to worry - I spent $200 on materials for a single class, and I knew there would be more to come. After finding out about winning the scholarship, I felt the weight suddenly rise off of my shoulders."
Maro's Magic journey began when a friend taught him how to play and he bought the Magic 2013 intro deck Sole Domination, which featured plenty of creatures with the exalted mechanic.
"After playing a few games, it was very clear to me that this game was something special," he recalled. "Every card had so much effort and thought put into every little detail. One of the things that really stood out to me was the stellar quality of the artwork that every card featured, something that not many other games have to offer. My girlfriend's roommate actually told me about the scholarship, and I could not thank her enough for telling me about it. The application was really simple and fun: all you have to do is talk about Magic!"
That was easy to do for the dedicated Commander player (his favorite Youtube channel for the format is the Laboratory Maniacs), and in between games with his The Gitrog Monster deck he is studying computer science. He hopes to become a software engineer at a company whose goal is to "change the world for the better," and nothing sums up Maro better than the Magic comparison he made in his essay about his path to becoming a first-generation college student.
"My favorite card of all time is Pili-Pala. When it came to preparing for college, I had to do everything on my own. I was so lost, like a lonesome Pili-Pala, but that all changed when I reached out to my wonderful friends. With their help, I was on my way to getting into my dream school: the University of Illinois. Ray, the same guy who generously gave me Magic cards for one of my first decks, is a graduate from the school and was extremely helpful with all aspects of making college less stressful. In a way, he was like Grand Architect because he gave me the power to achieve my goals, just like how Grand Architect gives Pili-Pala the power to create an infinite (well, arbitrarily large) amount of mana. Like myself, Pili-Pala is capable of defying all odds, and its flavor text captures that so perfectly: 'It wasn't really expected to fly. Then again, it wasn't expected to move, either.'"
2019 Winner Roen Blanke
Hometown: Corona, California
Destination: Norco College
There's a picture that Roen Blanke sees every time he goes back home. Like most parents, Blanke's filled their space with big moments from their son's childhood, and it's hanging on the refrigerator next to the other mementoes his parents kept. But no trinket quite encapsulates Blanke's childhood quite like this picture from his teenage years.
It's a picture of him and Magic pro Brian Braun-Duin, taken at an SCG Open where Blanke was so excited to play against one of his favorite players that he made sure they snapped a picture to remember the moment.
A 2019 recipient of the Gamers Helping Gamers scholarship, Blanke was just 12 years old when the first scholarship recipients were selected in 2012 and was finding his own way into Magic, not suspecting that his newfound hobby would one day help pave the way for a scholarship to attend Norco College.
"I got into Magic when I was 10 because my friend Josh was into it, and I hated the game at first," Blanke recalled. "But when I was in the eighth grade I became obsessed with watching and re-watching the 2013 World Championship, especially the semi-finals between Shahar Shenhar and Ben Stark. At that point I started playing Magic. I have probably seen every second of Magic footage that included Brian Braun-Duin, Shahar Shenhar and Jacob Wilson up to 2016. I liked Shenhar and Wilson because they were young and successful."
In them, Blanke saw himself. And he dove into Magic with everything he had - made possible by a very supportive family and Magic community. His scholarship essay spoke of the generosity he received as a young player, and it was thanks to that community that a young Blanke could envision himself perhaps one day following in the footsteps of his favorite players.
"I want to thank my parents for driving me to FNM and tournaments growing up," he said. "I wrote about how much I appreciated the community I fell into as a young player. Someone always had a deck to loan out. There was always someone to carpool with. I was 10 years younger than most of them, but they treated me well."
As he focuses on his studies, most of Blanke's playtime comes on Arena, and just like that picture on his parent's fridge, it is still bringing his family together. And he's ready to give back to the community that has given him so much.
"I only play paper Magic occasionally, and most of my Magic time is spent with my uncle and dad on Arena!" he said. "This scholarship relieves most of the impending weight of student debt that I am sure many are all too familiar with. It means that instead of having to focus inwardly on taking care of my problems, I can look outwards to meet other people's needs."