Magic to Live By

Reid Duke ’11 earns big money on the pro circuit of the game Magic: The Gathering.

Reid Duke is on the ropes. It’s April 2018, and a Blood Moon has locked up his mana base—and his most powerful cards. Worse, his opponent has stolen his Tarmogoyf, a powerful scavenger of the grave. The stakes are high. With $10,000 in prize money on the line at Grand Prix Hartford and several thousand spectators watching closely at the convention center in Connecticut’s capital, Duke is facing elimination.

Duke, the world’s third-highest ranked player of Magic: The Gathering, makes a comfortable living playing the game. Onlookers knew he’d faced higher stakes with aplomb. In November 2011, as his classmates were starting new jobs, Duke, having graduated early, was in San Francisco, competing in the Magic Online World Championship. He won. “It was super intense,” he recalls. “I felt almost like a weight pressing in on me.” Compared with that, this Hartford match was nothing.

Duke, who stands atop an estimated 20 million Magic players around the world, travels the globe to uphold his ranking. From Toronto to Tokyo, he plays in tournaments with grand prizes of up to $50,000. In 2017 he spent 35 weekends on the road and logged 65,000 miles while hauling in prizes and appearance fees.

The day before his Connecticut card-playing crisis, Duke strolled into the Hartford convention center with his best friends, Magic pros known as “The Pantheon.” Magic is almost always a one-on-one duel, but these card-carrying all-stars give each other advice on strategy before matches. On that sunny Saturday morning they’re among 1,800 players, mostly young men in cargo pants and graphic Ts who sit in row after row of tables, shuffling, casting dice, and calling out to black-shirted officials with cries of “Judge!”

Known affectionately as “The Duke” to fans, he has gained a following for his calm, deliberate play, his kindness to beginners, and his distinctive hairstyle, middle-parted bangs straight out of a 1990s boy band. A gaggle of fans track him in Hartford, waiting to ask him for a photo, an autograph, or advice on card choices.

There are as many ways to play Magic as there are to play poker

“He’s an amazing teacher,” says autograph seeker John Johnson, a professor of astronomy at Harvard. Before friends dragged him to a Magic game shop, he thought it was a role-playing exercise where people “dressed up as knights or something.” Afterward, he was hooked. “It’s almost infinitely complex,” Johnson says. “But it exists in this finite space.”

In Magic, two card-wielding wizards face off to cast spells and summon creatures to defeat each other in an intricate battle of wits. The goal of each player in most cases is to reduce his opponent’s “life total” from 20 to zero. There are as many ways to play Magic as there are to play poker, but competitors at major tournaments usually bring their own hand-crafted decks, carefully assembled from the strongest cards in their personal collections.

In recent years more and more players have flocked to Magic and its video-game cousins. Newzoo, a leading company in online gaming market research, predicts that in a few years professional leagues for games such as Magic, World of Warcraft, Dota 2, and League of Legends will become a multi-billion-dollar global business. This “e-sports” industry is expected to reap nearly $1 billion in revenues in 2018.

Duke grew up in the hamlet of Sugar Loaf, New York, where he was introduced to the game at 5. (His brother, Ian, also picked up the game, and he now designs Magic cards.) In high school Duke cultivated a love of competition on his rowing and math teams and in mock trial events. Duke says he owes some of his Magic prowess to his major in economics, the science of choice.

“We were a bit surprised,” says his father, Don, recalling when their son told his parents he wanted to play Magic for a living. “But we supported his plan as long as he could make enough money to live on.”

A few months later Duke won the Online World Championship and a grand prize of $25,000. He spent the next few years working odd jobs and traveling to dozens of competitions and amassing “pro points” to help him climb the player rankings. His success and subsequent ranking give him an advantage: In Hartford Duke starts his first day with three byes. Duke steamrolls several hopeful amateurs, including 10-year-old Dylan Copple of Jupiter, Florida, whose father says Magic helped his son learn to read.

That night, having clinched a spot in the second day’s competition, The Pantheon adjourns to a nearby barbecue joint. They strategize over beers and brisket: What matchups should they be prepared for tomorrow? What would be the ideal move in a given game situation?

Day Two of the tournament has a different air. The few remaining players sit tense, shoulders hunched, heads down, focused on their cards, cordoned off from spectators so judges can rush to every call.

Duke opens with a loss. Now he has to win every match to get to the finals. Still, he looks tranquil as he shuffles up to play his Round 10 opponent, Sean Sabia, who soon steals Duke’s Tarmogoyf and stifles his game.

The match is close. One clever play or mistake could swing the momentum. In a decisive moment, Duke makes a bold move but is stymied. He shows rare signs of frustration, picks up his cards and snaps them, one by one, into the graveyard of played cards. Soon he extends his hand in concession. There will be only token prize money for Duke this time.

His friends gather afterward to swap stories, but Duke sits alone in the middle of the now-empty row, looking at his phone. “If it doesn’t sting a bit, that means you don’t care enough,” he says.

Yet even when a pro player is knocked out of contention, the grind isn’t over. To gather more “pro points” for tournament byes, appearance fees, and to uphold his world ranking, Duke needs to play more games.

Soon enough, the Duke of Magic finds his seat for the next round. He shakes his victim’s hand and starts shuffling.   

Rob Wolfe is a freelance writer. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.

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