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Far Wanderings: Asian Magic Communities

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My name is Daniel Pham. I’m a Canadian Magic player from Toronto, Ontario, and I have been playing Magic since Tempest block on and off. I have always been a regular face in my local community. I took my first step onto the Pro Tour scene this year with PT: Paris. I finished in the Top 16 of GP: Barcelona and Top 8 of GP Shanghai. I am an all-around player who plays every format, but I prefer Limited especially. I have moved to, and currently reside in, Western Japan for graduate school and work.

My objective in writing this article, and possibly other articles in the future, is to give a unique perspective on the Magic community and the scene here in Japan (or Asia) from the point of view of a Canadian. Since I can communicate in both Japanese and English, I aim to bridge the gap between Asian Magic and the rest of the world. What I would like to offer in my articles is the perspective of someone who understands the cultural nuances and hidden gems that are often lost in translation. As the title of this article suggests, the topic I would like to shed light on is the idea of Magic communities in and around East Asia.

Local Player Networks, Card Pools, Teams, and Clans

My sixth-round opponent of GP: Shanghai sat down in front of me at the start of the round, and I immediately noticed his tee-shirt. It wasn’t so much that it was a Magic-based shirt, but it had so many labels on it. On the front it had his team name, where they were from (Beijing), and his name. On the back, it showed the team name and the local store that they support. Normally, when comparing it to North American or even European Magic culture, this isn’t something that is too out of the ordinary. What with ChannelFireball, Star City Games, TCG Player, and so forth being relatively household names, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. What stood out to me the most was that his name was clearly printed on the front of his shirt. This isn’t something that is commonly seen for North American team shirts. I was thinking of the implications of and reasoning for printing a name or not printing a name on a team shirt.

The first thing that came to mind was the logistical issue of having to print shirts with individual labels rather than producing them en masse without name labels. Simply put, it’s more costly to do the former than the latter. Also, if you take the position of players on North American teams, for example, most team members are already widely recognized by the worldwide Magic community for their accomplishments, and some are even established celebrities in their own right. Given the nature of these celebrities, printed names are most likely unnecessary.

It almost seems as though some teams are gobbling up all these pros in order to form sort of all-star forces. This creates competition between rival teams as to who can amass the most dominant roster. What this implies is that being part of a team, in this sense, means a great deal more to an individual as it would represent a pseudo “step up” in the hierarchical ladder within the Magic community.

I had to inquire about my opponent’s team and their level of fame. He told me that they were relatively unknown but travel together from one tournament to another. After conferring with one of my judge friends, Edwin Zhang, who is a Level 3 judge for both China and Canada, I was made aware that China had a large number of local teams. Apparently, there are a dozen or so such teams in the Beijing area alone. With the abundance of so many teams, the meaning of being part of one team versus another changes with respect to the significance it has on the player who joins. Although sense of inclusivity and community remains relatively the same, the status, along with the sense of accomplishment attributed to the “step up,” is relatively nonexistent.

While shuffling up for my match, I asked why he decided to join his team, or why he was recruited. He told me that he was relatively new to Magic in general and had only been playing for a few months. As such, he didn’t have a large collection of cards. Since there were many teams in his area, he just inquired and was let in. Normally, he told me, people were admitted through referrals from friends already on the team. Being part of this team, he explained, allowed him to be part of a much larger card pool and have access to cards he wouldn’t normally, unless he was willing to spend a small fortune. This is in the same line of thinking as the idea of local card pools among friends, which are more common in North America. Through this sort of camaraderie, players not only develop larger card pools, but bonds that will take them further within the game, and possibly outside of it as well. I look back to my local card pool and realize that everyone that is, or was, part of it were great friends of mine and still are to this day.

My opponent also mentioned that he was able to learn from players who were much better than he was. This allowed him to accelerate his learning of the game, and within a few months he was hitting up PTQs and GPs with the utmost confidence. He even pointed to the player sitting to my right, who was among the higher-ranked members of his teams and was thought of as one of the better players in their area. This brings up two points: the notion of more experienced players teaching newer players within a team, and the idea of having an internal ranking system.

Going back to the North American all-star teams such as ChannelFireball and SCG, it is clear that the members of those teams are very experienced and do not require the aid of their teammates in order to learn the game. However, they assemble these powerhouse teams for the sole purpose of benefiting the team as a whole. These teams bring the greatest minds in the game together in order to crunch the numbers, grind out the kinks, iron out all the wrinkles, and work at the game in order to achieve perfection. The learning process is still there, although different. The difference here is that there is a clear relationship between a teacher and student. In North America, it becomes a team effort to bring together everyone as a whole. A teacher–student relationship is more personal and focused. In the case of a true beginner, for example, working out finer mechanics and improving his play is the first and probably largest hurdle for them to get over. However, in this development process, it is made very obvious what the roles for both individuals are. In Japan as well, this sort of coaching system is prevalent, although teams of this sort are much less common—that is to say, nearly nonexistent. You will see groups of Japanese pros gather together in preparation for large tournaments and hammer out deck ideas and practice together. However, some lesser players sometimes approach these pros in order to seek their help and advice. The Japanese Magic community, at least as far as my experiences go, is very welcoming and helpful. With reference to Japanese culture in general, it is typical for school clubs and teams to develop an internal hierarchical system based around seniors and juniors, or sempai and kohai, respectively. These sempais take the role of a teacher or mentor figure similar to the Chinese example above and aim to teach their kohais everything there is to know about what they are involved in. Within a Magic team, the ideology is the same. I have even heard of local universities forming their own MTG clubs for those interested.

In fact, during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, I was part of the local Magic club there, and it blossomed into a large enough community to offer sanctioned events and local FNM tournaments. In Japan, I remember going to my local store here a few years ago not knowing anyone, and throwing down at FNM with my new G/B Elves deck. I was utterly crushed by Masahiro Kuroda, who after the match asked to take a look at my deck. He then went over some weak points and ways for me to improve it for the next time I played. I remember feeling completely enthralled that such a high-profile player wanted to help me out even though I hadn’t said a word. Shuhei Nakamura and Tomoharu Saito are among the first two who come to my mind as the ambassadors of helpful advice in Japan. Nakamura is just a fountain of knowledge, with so many years’ experience, and Saito is known simply as “Mr. Happy Magic.” These two impacted my level of play in the game from a fundamental and psychological level, and I will always be indebted to them. The point I am driving at here is that we do not necessarily need to formulate these teacher–student relationships with respect to Magic; however, having some of the faces of the North American Magic community being mentorlike figures could go a long way toward blossoming the overall talent and quality of Magic players there.

Looking at some of the other players at the same GP, I remember Bin Xu, who was part of the Top 8, also from Beijing, wearing his team shirt. What was most memorable about it was that it said “Team Captain” alongside his name very clearly on the back. The ranking in this case was made very obvious. To most North Americans, this idea of ranking members within a team or organization might seem rather foreign. However, in Asia, this has been a large part of their culture growing up. Children in grade school all the way up to university are ranked based on performance and grades. This is a motivating factor for poor-performing students to try harder in school. On the other hand, being at the top lets the others know who to come to for help, advice, and mentorship. This creates an internal teaching system that makes the jobs of the instructors much easier. Also, of course, being at the top of the list has other benefits, such as scholarships or other merit-based rewards. So, having an internal ranking system even within local teams comes very naturally to Asian Magic players. The hard part comes with how to rank team members. Do you make the person with the most experience within the game the captain? Or maybe whoever has had the most success in the game? Or maybe just the initial founder of the team? Does it become a meritocratic system, or an autocratic one? Can the captain or leader of a group be displaced? These are questions that are a little more sensitive and difficult to answer, and I believe answers differ from one team to another.

For example, let’s take a look at Team ChannelFireball for the sake of this analysis. If we were to place someone as the figurehead of the team, most would not argue that Luis Scott-Vargas is the most likely choice, being the editor-in-chief of the website, one of the founders, and one of the players with the most success on the team. But Shuhei Nakamura, Martin Juza, and Yuuya Watanabe could just as easily displace LSV as the team captain. Shuhei Nakamura will most likely be their first Hall of Famer on the team as of this year. Martin Juza has arguably had a great deal more success than LSV in the last few years, and Yuuya Watanabe has been on an absolute tear for the most part of this season, previously winning both Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year, neither of which LSV has accomplished.

Although the situation is not as applicable in this case, the example can be used to compare this sort of system and how it works in Asia. I believe the concept of the system is good, but within each team and group, the reasoning and method employed to establish who ranks where has to be hammered out and firmly established, or else it can become very chaotic. I have heard stories as well where teams have disbanded due to disorganization and internal disputes.

Teams in this case can be very much likened to the Magic Online clans:

  • Most of these clans are comprised of players who often know each other, get together online, and pool their resources together to benefit the greater good.
  • They are comprised of new and old players, most of whom help each other out in order to strengthen the overall quality of their clan.
  • The clan has a founder who calls the shots regarding who is allowed to be in the group or not, often looking for active or inactive players.
  • This founder is often looked at as the team captain.

Within Magic Online as well, there is an internal ranking of clans with respect to the members who compose them and where they are placed within the online community. For example, DRAGONQUEST, Diplomats, and Cephalid Sea Food Restaurant are just a few of the top clans online that are made up of almost exclusively high-profile players in real life. So this aspect of the Magic community more or less carries over to the online world as well.

What can be drawn from all of this analysis of Asian Magic communities?

  • Identity and creating a sense of belonging rather than just the “step up” (inclusivity rather than exclusivity)
  • Pooling resources together in order to help one another (Magic is still an expensive game to play)
  • Creating bonds and enforcing camaraderie within groups of players
  • Encouraging and teaching others to pick up the game and strengthen your entire local community as a whole
  • An internal ranking system can create a sense of purpose and motivation for team members

At the end of the day, as a fellow Magic player who loves the game so much, I only want to see the game flourish and the worldwide community grow into something wonderful. Everything that is added to or taken from the game should leave it in a positive light rather than a negative one. Whether you are a big-time pro or a struggling newbie, the message is the same: “Help grow your Magic community.” The game can only get better from here if we all help and make it fun for everyone.

That’s it for now! Until next time, bringing you a Canadian perspective from the East,

Daniel Pham

Follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/phamdaniel

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/daniel__pham

P.S. Any and all feedback would be appreciated!

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