“Do you believe in Miracles?
Sports commentator Al Michaels asked that question as the most memorable international hockey game ever came to a close. The “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 was a triumph of an underdog: the United States’ collegiate and amateur hockey players defeated the Soviet Machine, 4-3. Four-to-three is probably the most famous score in American sports history.
Of course, Magic is a very different game than hockey. Very rarely a team sport, and with little physical exertion, Magic is a different kind of competition. That doesn’t make it any less of a sport than hockey.
But some of us make it out to be.
The world of professional sports analysis is as big as the sports themselves. Talking heads spit out their opinions based on conjecture, emotion, experience, and sometimes a bit of good journalism. Most of it is meaningless or self-advertising, but one of its clichés does well. It gets tossed in to the conversation after a heavy favorite loses to an underdog: it’s why we play the game.
“If we played ‘em ten times, they might win nine games. But not this game. Not tonight. … Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.”
That quote, from USA coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) in the 2004 movie Miracle about that hockey game was meant to inspire and motivate his team before its start. It is the dramatic version of it’s why we play the game. The quote is one part sobering realization of skill level and nine parts “screw you, we want it more.” It makes the sports fan inside of me giddy.
I can remember two moments like The Miracle in Magic’s history. Craig Jones’ “Topdeck of the Century” and Gabriel Nassif’s “Called Shot.” While it might be hard to argue that Nassif is Magic’s biggest underdog, in those games, Jones and Nassif were the underdogs. Their backs against the wall, they played to their outs, and they got lucky.
I said it. They got lucky. “Luck” is a funny term in the Magic community. To some, it doesn’t exist; to others, it is a disagreed-upon percentage of the game. It makes our neck hairs bristle when a bad player got lucky, and Saturday’s Martyr of the Car-Ride is the one who got flooded both games in Round Who-the-Hell-Cares.
Team USA got lucky. Herb Brooks knew it going in. Maybe the Soviets kept a two-lander and didn’t get there. Maybe Team USA peeled their one-outer. Either way, they got lucky, and they won what Sports Illustrated called the “Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century.” Like it or not, one of the greatest games ever played was a bunch of kids from Minnesota and Boston getting lucky against a more practiced, experienced, and skilled Soviet Union squad. (The Soviets were 27-1-1 in the previous four Olympics. The United States team had one returning member from the 1976 Olympics).
That is the type of sports romanticism that sometimes gets lost in Magic. While we do have “The Called Shot” and “The Topdeck of the Century,” we also have even more of the rough beats story and the grind. The rough beats stories are as unromantic as they are annoying. In fact, they are a reverse-romanticism, a tragedy: Magic’s romantic stories are those of defeat, an annoying/mouth-breathing/durdle-the-turtle opponent couldn’t help himself except to beat us. Oh, the humanity.
The Grind is even worse. Referring to a state of living where you “grind” Magic game after Magic game to get better, the grind, for most, saps emotion out of the game faster than a Consume Strength. Ever seen a grinder? Those ones that when asked “did you win?” give you an expressionless “yeah.” These Mindless Automatons don’t show any emotion, except maybe when they lose (they are the tragic hero, after all) as they grind percentage points and tiebreakers. The saddest thing I’ve seen in Magic was a grinder who won a tournament and just nodded his head. I respect his skill and dedication, but this is a sport! Celebrate! We don’t have to drop confetti on the winners and promise to go to Disney World, but a sport without emotion isn’t a sport at all.
Magic seems to focus on the winners, but not the winning itself. We know about the LSVs and the Kiblers and the Finkels, but much less about their famous games. That is a problem for a sport so hungry for attention and wide-scale acceptance. Most Americans could tell you about the Miracle on Ice, but couldn’t name the players for Team USA. The instantaneous coverage of Magic events rarely calls out a great game, instead focusing on the skill of the players or the cards themselves. The game takes a back seat to its components.
It’s only because the cards are so dang cool that Magic attracts new players at all. Every kid imagines herself inside of the most tension-filled situation possible. She’s in the backyard, and her team is in a shoot-out for the World Cup, like last summer’s ever-memorable tournament. New Magic players have few examples to contextualize their dreams. Or perhaps, the examples are there but lay forgotten by all those except Pro Tour Historian Brian David-Marshall.
Earlier this year, I was at a Modern PTQ in Kentucky. Between one of the rounds, there was a shout and commotion coming from around table 16. A player was losing his mind, and rightfully so. In a Pyromancer mirror-match, his friend had sided in a Phage the Untouchable against a sideboarded Telemin Performance from his opponent. The friends’ opponent cast the Performance, and lost the game. The first player shouted out to everyone “That’s why we play the game, boys!”
I know the names of both the shouter and the friend in that story. But it’s not about them or me; it’s about a great game of Magic.
As Avacyn Restored is released, I am going to remember the spirit of the game- its swings, its thoughtful competitions, and yes, its luck. Maybe I’ll be the favorite, maybe I’ll be the underdog. Either way, I am going to play some Magic, and all I can hope is to be a part of a great game that I won’t soon forget.
You should join me. Who knows- there might be a Miracle. You do believe in Miracles, don’t you?
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