This interview was conducted by "Dennis," a close friend.
The Game State
Dennis: Cancer killer. Commander VS. Writer. Copy Editor. English major.
DWest: Yeah, yeah.
D: Why now? Why like this? What is the purpose for presenting our conversation to the public?
DW: When I started writing for CoolStuffInc, I tapped a few people I respect to ask what they most wanted me to write about or what they expect to read when they see me on a Magic website. Jadine Klomparens wanted to know "where I've been," and all the more creative angles I approached to this sort of thing were overwrought with issues. So I figured I'd just throw out my notes and expectations and have a conversation with somebody I trust and go from there.
D: Let's begin with the obvious and most important thing: How are you as far as your health?
DW: Well, as far as the spirit of the question and what people know of my experiences in 2015, that is to say, stage 4 salivary gland cancer, I'm in remission. I'm actually just a few days into my first recurrence "scare," though it's pretty low drama. I'm having some imaging done this week to confirm a pinched nerve, which I'm sure it is, but with my history they have to be super vigilant.
D: And other health matters?
DW: I'm obviously grateful to not be at sort of a medical gunpoint the way I was a few years ago, but the experiences are pretty horrifying. So that's been its own struggle or set of struggles. Lots of PTSD-type factors, and that messes with your HPA axis. And of course all of this was hidden because we were focused on nothing but keeping me alive through cancer. But yeah, lots of other consequences I'm still dealing with. Radiation shrinks tissues, and I had to spend a lot of time being zapped after a pretty intense surgery. I mean, I went through a lot. My brain wasn't prepared to process all that, so I'm still working through it as best I can. I'm at least more grateful to have survived all the scary learning I've had to do when it comes to mental health. That stuff is no joke.
Editor's Note: The following linked image is somewhat graphic, portraying Danny post-surgery and displaying sutured wounds. The image is hidden behind this link as a general courtesy to those who would rather not be exposed to such an image. However, Danny felt it might be important to share this image for the sake of this article, and I agree as his editor. So, without further or do: GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING.
D: You're familiar with my personal relationship to it.
DW: Yeah, of course. And without your experiences as a caretaker and a partner to someone, who knows what I might not know now? I'm sure I'm safer because of your experiences. I was interested in doing some sort of network within Magic streaming to coordinate brain health and Magic, and I don't know, I started working a few places, so it got shelved.
D: Do you feel you're on the right track? Have things improved on the mental side?
DW: Definitely, though it's easy for me to say that now. The short of it is that most of the medical professionals I interact with - and there are a few of them! - think I'm probably Bipolar 2, but it's still misery to get an insured psychiatry appointment in America, even in a market this big.
D: But you have the cycles?
DW: Yeah, sometimes. The short ones. I never understood much about Physics or the really advanced sciences, but I've been reading and internalizing some pretty radical stuff this week. Astrophysics, philosophy, consciousness, relativity, entropy, paradoxes, measurement problem debates, all of it. As much as four or five hours every day. I can't stop.
D: The heads side of the coin.
DW: It is, but only really because it's a.) better than being motionless in bed, in the dark for a week or more, hating yourself, and b.) it's incidentally pretty productive, which has its value. But illness is illness, so I try not to celebrate it too hard.
D: Does it change your experience of playing Magic?
DW: It changes your experience of everything. With that said, Magic is one of the few things that keeps some of its qualities. It's still an escape. It's still a joy most times.
D: You're an outspoken supporter of Arena. What is it that appeals to you over other, more traditional Magic?
DW: Well, the obvious is that it's convenient. I worked from home for a lot of years and still do a lot of work from home, so having Magic that's accessible without really being a slave that's attempting to capture every aspect of Magic is huge. That's always been the Magic Online problem. If it had been developed alongside Magic, maybe things would be different. But Magic was always harder than whatever resources the Magic Online projects over the years could keep up with. So you get a product that has high requirements for investment and failed to meet expectations. Arena is a lovely way to dodge all that. So that's the obvious bit.
The other thing is that paper Magic requires high investments other than money. I almost died. I am very covetous of my time now. So if you give me a choice between having my dogs in the next room with my wife while she reads a book or driving seven hours each way to a convention center? And that's not even talking about entry fees, the physical requirements as the day goes on, all that stuff. It's just not anything I'm interested in. I can be playing a game on Twitch in three minutes and have all my friends join me. It's just the best option for me.
D: You used to stream much more, typically not Magic content. Is Arena the reason for the shift back to Twitch?
DW: It's half of it. Some technicalities with my SCG deal was the other. I'll never know why it was so draconian, but there's a lot I don't know, so [laughing], it's hardly the crown jewel of that collection. Doing Magic on my own was a pain. Some people look over their shoulders over the most ridiculous stuff.
D: How do you think Arena fits in with the new models of pro Magic?
DW: Honestly, I have no idea what the models are now. I used to get paid to follow them and enable them, but it was a really miserable experience. As much as I believe in Magic, I haven't believed in the competitive culture as it's been laid out for years.
D: I guess there's a handful of people who define themselves on that? That are beholden to that structure?
DW: Totally, but it's like, not even real, you know? Like, they have a Hall of Fame, but none of them are famous. Ask anyone at a Grand Prix who won any of the Pro Tours in 2018. Is anyone going to know or remember without looking it up? What about the year before that? And then they catch a Yuuya [Watanabe] or whoever cheating, somebody they've pointed a camera at for years and now have to totally act like it never happened. It's just antiquated. The prize structure in a lot of events is obviously nothing now, so your entire motivation is based on a sort of price memory for validation to convince you and everyone else that you're some sort of "famous" Magic professional. When was the last time someone holding an SCG Tour trophy was recognizable past Monday morning to anyone but their friends? Magic is real, and it's such a wonderful game. But the lies people are still telling themselves about making a living solely by competing at it are so bizarre to me. There are better ways to do stay involved and use yourself. Of all the things to go wrong, Magic itself has never been one of them, and I don't think I've entered a Grand Prix in over a decade.
D: So what's the secret to Magic success then?
DW: I guess it's the same as other success. Just engage with it in a way that makes you happy. Define yourself. Don't let Hasbro marketing initiatives to do it for you. If you look at Jon Finkel or Brad Nelson or whoever and say, "I want to do that," you're already doomed. Allow yourself to be discovered. If you engage with the game positively in a way you want to, you dramatically increase the odds good things will happen. Gavin Varhey is the best example of the very underrated Magic road not taken. He engaged how he wanted, he was himself, and he's had an enviable career ever since.
D: He was at SCG Con last year, yes?
DW: He was. He brought me a hot dog from concessions. Dude is my absolute hero.
D: Did a lot of the writing staff express issues over where the game was going as far as it's professional efforts?
DW: Yeah, but it was never based in economic reality. They just seemed to believe that they deserved money for playing Magic because earlier in life someone gave them money to play Magic. Or that they were seeing non-Magic games get a bunch of budget support from bigger companies. It was a lot of being jealous of e-sports stuff, all of which seems really snake oily to me. It looks like a giant boom to rich, bored people and everyone they influence. I don't see the difference between hyping up smaller entities into buying in and just flat out traditional pyramid scheming. I'm sure people with money will make more of it, though. [laughs] So that's the important thing.
D:So what's the answer? What should "pro" Magic be now?
DW: Oh, I don't know. That's for someone who engages with Magic in a different way than I do. I stream Arena and sell cards for the companies I work with. That's what brings me joy. I still love to Cube. Like, there are so many ways to engage with this game that don't involve meritocracy myths the way the Pro Tour has for years. And look: I'm not invalidating those achievements. Winning an event that competitive is impossibly hard. Playing consistent Magic at that level is unreal difficult, and I followed a number of players throughout their Pro Tour careers just as a fan. But when you get enough of these guys in the same social hives and they can just legislate themselves in, like what's even the point? If you go through the results over the years, do you have any idea how many players finished really well and then never got invited back? BBD didn't even get to defend his World Championship win. And other players managed to hang around forever by finishing well at the right time relative to whatever the rules were to staying on the PT at the time. And how many more Yuuya Watanabes are stacking up all-time great numbers under completely nefarious circumstances? It's just too messy. The rules to qualify constantly changed, it was a completely different experience to people trying to qualify in different parts of the world, and like, Magic isn't tennis. It's not basketball. It's not a game where the better player just gets to win all the time. For all we know the best players of all-time were screwed out of a seminal PTQ Top 8 on tiebreakers.
D: But doesn't everyone understand that about Magic, excluding when someone's salty about losing? That the luck part is very real?
DW: Oh, absolutely. But it still runs completely counter to the idea that some players are that much more great than others. The gap is almost non-existent now between a huge group of people that have played at high levels for years all over the world. And that doesn't even consider that the only kinds of Magic skills that are being tested most of the time are Standard formats where you have mostly the same deck construction rules that someone sort of just made up 25 years ago. There are a lot of Magic-related skills and talents that have been tested zero times at a professional level. It's just a slapdash commercial. It's a music video, and that's fine when people know that. But there are people that validate themselves off of it, and worse, invalidate others. And that's a terrible look, and a misguided one, for a game this good.
D: I assume the writers that were on the PT didn't share this point of view.
DW: They didn't really know. I didn't talk about it. I felt it was a conflict of interest, but it wasn't an unethical one or anything. I wasn't hiding information that could hurt anyone. I was an advocate for the writing staff whenever I could be, so publicly shrugging at the Pro Tour would've gone counter to that. If I was asked for an opinion on related matters, I'd give a simple, honest answer. But that was it.
D: Can you talk about your experiences with the staff? Your relationships with the SCG writers you edited?
DW: Several were legitimately brilliant. The staff taken as a whole was the best part of the job on a frequent basis.
D: I remember you telling me that some of them worked for non-Magic card games during their tenure. Did that ever come up?
DW: Not really.
D: That's kind of funny. How does that work...?
DW: It doesn't. But it's what they do. There's different rules for everybody. The conflict of interest conversations I've had that were based on the most nothing no merit wastes of breath and energy, like actual single or double digit cash value implications, while I'm managing people that - you know what? Let's change the subject.
D: [laughs] Fair enough. How about other positive Magic relationships or friendships?
DW: Well beyond the ones that people won't really care much about because they don't know certain people, I'm a really big fan of Patrick Sullivan. He has this philosophy and aura of pragmatic realism that resonates with me. I see that he thinks really critically about shit, and I don't know - this is all just a longwinded way of saying I see myself in him, and therefore, he must be brilliant. [laughs] Gerry and I got along anytime there weren't other factors making us butt heads sort of against our will. He has an activist soul, and that's sort of part of who I am and the kind of place I came from. We both have protection from bullshit, for better or worse.
D: Emma has done great.
DW: If I never have another Magic achievement in this industry, I helped bring Emma Handy to the world, which means more to me than I can say. Some of my favorite work-related chats were with the incomparable Zac Hill, though he's far from Magic's orbit by now I suspect.
D: I remember you telling me that Jadine and Chas were top notch.
DW: Absolutely. Ari was always really enjoyable to work with too. He has a mind where he has access to all these really fascinating thoughts and insights, but he is so down to earth at the same time. He was such an excellent confidant for ideas and things. He was among my favorite sanity checks.
D: Sanity checks?
DW: Yeah, you know. When I knew that data was showing me something, but we went the other way for whatever reason, he'd be the guy I'd go to confirm that smart people knew what I was talking about. [laughing]
D: Anything else on that front?
DW: By and large I had a really pleasant time with everyone when I was Content Coordinator. It's very pleasurable to work with people who are super into the game, and most of them were. Shaheen Soorani gets a special shoutout as well for getting an article in on time the night his first child was born. I felt it invalidated every excuse anyone else ever had for being late or whatever. Tom Ross was a favorite of mine too. It was cool seeing him come back to the game after being really into his work before I took on Magic as a career.
D: He seems like a super chill and unique guy.
DW: Yeah, our first interaction was so ridiculous. I was being pressured to like alpha dog him over something, I don't remember, but then, predictably, he totally went pacifist and told me that he was uncomfortable with how I was talking to him and everything. Something that wouldn't have ever happened had I just been able to talk to him how I would've naturally.
D: Does he know that now?
DW: Probably not. There are a lot of things like that I wish I could tell some of them, but I'm sure most don't even care or remember at this point.
D: What would you say to them now?
DW: Like, as a group? The staff?
DW: I guess I'd just say that I was an advocate for all of them as best I could be. I come from an education background, so like, my style of supervising people is sort of in this "keep the pack together" classroom way. I wanted to be the guy that not only managed them but sort of went to bat for them. Anytime that didn't happen, it was out of my control, and I hope they know that. I never lied to them intentionally or anything like that. I wanted to make things happen for them as best I could. On a lot of days, that just meant I had to be the guy delivering the bad news.
D: About what?
DW: I don't know. Projects they were into or excited by or whatever. I don't want to go too deep on this, though.
DW: Not really. It's more just that it's no longer my problem.
D: You know, SCG Con is coming.
DW: [laughing] Oh, is it?
D: I guess this as good of a time as any to talk about your time with SCG, in general?
D: How long were you there?
DW: Almost eight years. They let me go at the end of January.
D: And I suppose you can't say much about that?
DW: What is there to say? I did a lot of work for them over the years. Now, I do work for other people.
D: Was it amicable?
DW: The departure?
End of Part 1.