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  • Sam

The Things You Do Not See

This is a short story about a quick trip to Canada and the idea of ’hidden information’ — a term that Magic players enjoy and Chess players do not — which will serve as an easy metaphor for my charming experience up north.

It began a few weeks back with a message that many folks would be thrilled to receive from James Turner:

Magic players have a tendency to reflect on their origin story and how they discovered the game. Often, a friend at summer camp, or a rainy day in the dorms, will lead the analytical, proverbial geeks to the most complex card game ever made. Ask anyone you know that plays, and I’m sure they’ve crafted a semi-romantic narrative around that fateful day when they opened their first pack of cards and learned how to tap mana.

Mine has been told a few times by now. Important to this anecdote, though, is that I discovered Magic in the fall of 2012. At that time, all the buzz was building around the return to the highly adored city of Ravnica and a revisiting of the ten factions that populate its districts. I gravitated towards the mad scientists of the bunch, called the Izzet, who carry their experiments to reckless extremes and express dangerous affinities for lightning. Soon thereafter, as with all my other hobbies, I took to the internet in search of community.

Magic YouTube in 2012 was largely a means to display binder collections and initiate trades outside of forums. Prof and Wedge had yet to build the foundation of viewership on the platform, which meant the only other type of video content came directly from the company’s channel. Crucial to my discovery were three programs that I kept on a constant loop as I took my swan dives into this niche world. The first was the Pro Tour, which taught me game mechanics and exposed me to an encyclopedia of old cards. The second was a show called Walking the Planes, which followed professional Magic through the lens of a time-warped Wizard struggling to find his bearings. And the third show, a sketch sitcom, was Friday Nights, presented by a Canadian comedy troupe called Loading Ready Run.

The series followed the goofy trials of a group of friends in their unsuccessful efforts to play the game together. The emphasis was placed on their archetypal personalities — the quick-witted red player, the scheming bookworm, the friend at the center of the group who kept the shenanigans grounded — and simply used Magic as an engine to drive the narrative forward. This is why I watched: not to learn anything about cards, but instead to admire the interplay between people who clearly loved to spend time together, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. Every few weeks, on Friday nights, a new episode would release, and I would be amongst the first to watch.

Much like keeping up with a favorite band, Friday Nights became a constant in my life. As I graduated from university and transitioned into the world of full-time employment, I developed a tie to these folks that, in a strange, cosmic way, felt like home. I’m not saying I obsessed like a young fan might do with their first celebrity crushes. Rather, with every release of Friday Nights, I knew I could count on ten or so minutes of comfort that usually comes from good tunes and home-cooked meals. Despite the turbulence surrounding my personal life, the episodes were always there to provide some laughs and remind me of the value of friendship.

Six years and over sixty episodes of the show later, I found myself on a skipper plane to Victoria with the intention of jamming new Magic cards with the folks I’ve admired since the beginning. The radical stars had aligned. How fitting that we would be playing with the new Ravnica set to boot.

After a long morning of flying, I found James and Jordynne — a fellow guest for the event — in the terminal, then headed to the office. Stepping foot onto “The Moonbase” was my first peek behind the curtain of production, and the precipice of my initial impressions of these suddenly three-dimensional human beings:

What became immediately clear after shaking everyone’s hands was that this was a place of employment, and not just a headquarters for entertainment. The Moonbase is home to a fully-functioning series of studios and sets, editing bays, prop and tech closets, and even a small kitchen, and throughout those venues buzz the worker bees of Loading Ready Run. This is the first thing you do not see from simply watching on YouTube: the work here never stops. Ever.

We shifted into deckbuilding almost immediately upon arrival. This was a ‘business trip’ after all, and our role as guests was to assure that the streaming event would hum along without too many hiccups. While panning through my packs for the first time, I felt that jovial excitement that accompanies every prerelease and the taking in of brand new cards. I wasn’t alone, either: Kathleen, Adam, and Cameron were nearby, sounding off the contents of their boosters alongside us.

Buzz buzz buzz. A couple staff members periodically emerged from the labs to ask editing questions and take coffee breaks while we counted basic lands and sleeved up our decks. Soon thereafter, Hallie, Jordynne and I shot our slow mo intros and snapped a couple of photos in front of the LRR wall. Then, a lunch break nearby, and back to the studio for deck techs.

Studio C is the location of the live stream and houses the wonderful backdrop full of geek memorabilia. This is the second thing you do not see from the outside looking in: rather than just a card table and some chairs, this space is far more a set geared for television than a fancy game room. Above the area hangs an intricate skeleton of lights and overhead cameras, whose wires weave their way through the ceiling tiles and into the central nervous system of the operation. This is Paul’s domain: with his left hand he mixes a multichannel soundboard, and with his right, he wields full control over cameras and preprogrammed video transitions. There are many of the former, and each are labeled with a giant white sticker and a sleek black number for quick reference on set.

“Hey Sam, look into Camera 7 when we’re not on the wide shot, then back at the center after the game is done.”

Microphones are another element the crew must juggle while filming. I buttoned mine to the lapel of my sweater and found the hot seat to record a deck tech. For folks who aren’t comfortable talking to cameras, the blinding lights and uncanny sensation of speaking to an audience who does not exist can already be a stress-inducing experience. Furthermore, you must imagine that this video will be streamed to a world of viewers with enormous expectations for entertainment who are ready to punish any mishaps in line delivery or inaccurate card evaluations. I kept thinking about Stanley’s game show sequences in Magnolia as I filmed my segments.

These anxieties are amplified tenfold for the main event. The following day, as we waited in the landing to go live, there was a tangible energy moving between the guests and I. For the seasoned vets, this was perhaps nonexistent, but the pressure to play well while being spontaneous and social is another element that viewers at home do not see. I’ve acted in play productions, I’ve directed summer camps, and I currently teach classrooms of undergraduates who hold similar expectations, yet I still felt a slight shake in my hands while pinning on the mic and shuffling up for my first game. It is an environment that, simply put, makes you feel self-conscious, which of course impacts play decisions and sequencing.

Luckily, Kathleen was our “table friend” for the first match, which really helped ground the games. I know it sounds exaggerated, but I couldn’t even concentrate enough to keep track of life totals on the iPad nearby, which is never a problem for me during a normal game. On top of this, we were playing with new cards for the very first time, so Hallie and I had no context for what a “correct” line looked like. This led to a play mistake on my part that brought Serge in for a judge call, an interaction that was later coined as a “LRRning” moment for all involved. This, of course, was the point of the pre-prerelease.

I went home later that night to rewatch the live stream and noticed the flurry of comments about misplays and bad attacks across the matches. I believe the majority of viewers understood the purpose of the event, but for the select few who repeatedly voiced their opinions, I hope you can reflect on the difference between pro Magic and lighthearted casual play. Our metaphor here isn’t even that: my hand was hidden information, so how could you say what was and wasn’t a correct line? I know I shouldn’t pay too much heed to unfair criticism, but I’d like to think that people can do better. What is stranger is that someone specifically went out of their way to email me telling me how bad at Magic I was. I can imagine that this kind of negativity can wear down grinders who have to deal with it on a regular basis.

What I really mean to say is: you’re not clever if you snark on in chat about someone playing Magic sub-optimally. You’re just arrogant. There is certainly a way to do this well, and I think discussion about strong plays is a fair way to interact with the game and learn about the cards alongside everyone else. Just try to resist undercutting the player in question as part of the process. “I like attacking with more creatures here” is much better than “Wow. He didn’t even see lethal. That’s a huge punt,” for example.

The good will always outweigh the rotten, though, which was proven by the end of the event. Tradition has it that the LRR team reads all the Twitch subscriptions that transpired across the eight hours of streaming, and the guests are invited to participate. This was a moment I will cherish forever. So many folks believe in what these people are doing. So many folks want to further their support to assure it continues.

To celebrate another successful PPR, the crew assembled for dinner at a local burger joint. I was seated at the end of the table along with Beej, Graham, and Ben. While we chomped away at the spoils (mine was a platter of mushrooms and truffle sauce on a tofu patty), we riffed about traveling, video production, and the importance of spending time away from work. Graham echoed a sentiment I’ve felt for a while about the difficulty of keeping up with all the goings-on:

“I think it’s mutually agreed, as content creators, that we respect and admire one another’s work without having the time to watch or read it all. We’re all so busy making our own!”

The next morning, us three guests were treated to an abridged version of the notorious Victoria craft coffee tour. Months ago, clips of Serge speaking about the subtle variations in bean washing and roasting appeared on Graham’s vlog, and I knew I would have a tiny window to fit in a similar visit during this trip. Luckily, he was available and willing to go again, and we got the run-down on a couple of his favorite local joints. The first spot had delicious breakfast bagels, and the second bar served us a pair of Ethiopian brews, one of which was light, fruity, and exactly what I imagined when I asked him for a tour.

In both locations, Serge greeted friends behind the register and amongst the patrons alike. It became clear to us that he is well-known in these circles, and it is no doubt due to his passion for the craft. He is also just a friendly and genuine person that looks for camaraderie everywhere he goes. Unsurprisingly, there is a drink named after him in a local restaurant: a Shirley Temple variant called ‘The Sergely Temple’. Jordynne and I learned this on the last night of our stay while out to dinner with Cam, Kathleen, and Matt.

Hours prior, the crew filmed four consecutive episodes of their improv game show called ‘The Panalysts’. This took place after a full day of recording podcasts, editing larger video projects, and finalizing the bonus content for the Pre-Prerelease. Like I said above, the work ethic of the whole crew at LRR is something akin to a Thundermaw Hellkite on five. What’s more is that these folks were managing a giant event that is usually reserved to the weekend while keeping up with the normal week’s duties, and furthermore hosting three guests they had never before met. Kathleen in particular had a relentless happiness about her. She is such a gem of a person.

Look, I’ll prove it. She brought donuts to the office on the day of the PPR and drew a legend in the box to help guide our decisions.

I suppose that’s at the heart of this post. These people are as warm and kind as they are tall, and the personas we see on screen are furthered by the content of their character away from the studio. I understand how difficult and inherently exhausting it is to act as a host even to well-known friends or family. To carve out time and energy from an already busy lifestyle is taxing, but the LRR crew had a sort of gentle ease about it that made our week so carefree and seamless.

My last morning on the trip, I went on a run through a nearby park. I saw some peacocks roaming atop a yellow knoll and caught the gentle breeze of the sea between breaths. Some local residents were walking their dogs and welcoming in the sun. I thought a lot about how fortunate I am to grow up in Magic. I used to get down on myself for investing so much of my time into a card game. Between this week and last year’s Grand Prix in Las Vegas, though, I’ve seen how great people can be to one another. It’s refreshing and inspiring and always propels me to keep doing my best. There is always good.

I think Hallie said it best:

Somehow, between all the comings and goings, I was able to say goodbye to everyone individually. The hugs were warm (with Adam and Beej’s being the most enveloping), and the three days I spent there felt something like a blink of an eye. I heard someone say recently that “to write is to understand”. For experiences such as this, writing a little reflective piece also helps me capture the essence of what it felt like to be at this moment in my life. Gratitude is the overwhelming sentiment.

On the way out, I bought this touristy mug from the tiny airport in Victoria. I like the keepsake. It was my first time in Canada, after all, so cheers to that.

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