1. Pikula’s Curse

Most of us know the story of my friend Chris Pikula. Chris was one of the stars of the early Magic Pro Tour, racking up three Pro Tour Top 8s (one was actually Worlds, but in those days that was very similar), four Grand Prix Top 8s (when Grand Prix were much less common) and one Invitational victory (for which he designed arguably the most interesting invitational card). Most of this occurred between 1996 and 2001.

When I met Chris just a few years ago, I was meeting one of my heroes. For anyone following or playing competitive Magic in those early days, Chris was both a star and a community leader.

Charming, likable fellow that he is, Chris reduced his attention to Magic to pursue career and family, and fell off the Pro Tour. He is now married with children and a significant career. He was nearly elected to the Pro Tour Hall of Fame more than once.

Chris still loves Magic, is part of the Vintage Super League, and competes at Grand Prix whenever he can fit it into his schedule. I saw him last weekend in Cleveland. I told him I had lost playing for day two and he shook his head, congratulated me on winning an online PTQ for Brussels, and asked, “Do you ever win a game outside a PTQ? I’m serious.”

Chris Pikula is jealous of my Pro Tour Qualification status. He’s jealous that I qualify for, at best, every other Pro Tour. Chris was on the train for years! Chris played in more than half of the Invitationals! Chris has been a hair’s breadth from the Hall of Fame — the ultimate train. That proximity, of course, is part of why he wants so badly to get back.

Qualifying is hard, though. Chris would likely make it into the Hall if he could make top eight of one more Pro Tour, but he can’t set aside the time to properly prepare for a PTQ, much less a Pro Tour.

Pikula was briefly obsessed with this question: “Has a father ever won a Pro Tour?”

I suspect that one has, but I don’t know who — and it certainly is not the norm.

2. GCB’s Secret

As for myself, I have neither children nor wife. I do have a day job which is very taxing, but also very flexible and satisfying. Yesterday I was practicing Magic after work and I had to stop: I was just too worn out to think about Magic cards after a full day.

Last weekend in Cleveland, before I spoke to Chris, I had been 6-2 and up a game in round nine. My opponent had stumbled on mana, and I was way ahead but flooding a bit. He clearly had Rakshasha’s Secret in his hand, so I was holding back a pair of lands to protect my Kill Shot.

The game was basically over as I cast one of my bombs and put a (useless) land into play. The next turn, he drew a land, cast Rakshasha’s Secret (I had to discard my Kill Shot because of the useless land play), followed with a Murderous Cut, and dug himself out. He won the game.

Game three was closer, and I was again protecting a Kill Shot with extra lands while on the offensive. Again, as I thought the game was ending in my favor, I mindlessly deployed a land, lost my Kill Shot to his Secret, and lost the game because of it.

That. Is. Embarrassing. It’s also a pattern for me at Grand Prix: by round nine of day one, after a full week of work, a rush to the airport, a flight, and getting to bed a little later than I’d like, I just don’t have the mental energy to play my best.

I have wanted to make the train since 2001, when I first played on the Pro Tour. Over the last few years, I’ve run extremely well at qualifiers, and given myself a lot of chances to build up Pro Points and chain finishes. So far, I’ve fallen short, and I haven’t cashed a Grand Prix in almost two years. I may be past the point in my life where I can put in enough work to get on the increasingly hard-to-board Pro Tour train.

3. Jackson’s Run

Pro Tour M15 in Portland Oregon featured an unlikely sight: a former Pro Tour personality, and one of Magic’s greatest storytellers, was in attendance. Jeff Cunningham had been gone from the Pro Tour for many years, making the occasional appearance at a Grand Prix but generally exhibiting the signs of permanent retirement. He was not playing on the Pro Tour last summer, though. Rather, he was there supporting his younger brother, Jackson, who had spiked a PTQ after years of drafting with Ffej and friends in Vancouver while exhibiting only a passing interest in sanctioned play.

Jackson was charmingly unfamiliar with the Pro Tour scene. He didn’t seem to know enough about the Tour to be star-struck by any “famous” opponents. He just played his game, and shortly found himself in the feature match area playing for top eight, which he made.

Then, Jackson marched his way into the finals before eventually falling to Ivan Floch. Through it all, his brother paced intently back and forth across the venue, nerves visible from the other side of the hall. It was, frankly, adorable.

I had the pleasure of working with Jackson for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, where he started well but had a bad day two, finishing 164th. Fortunately, this wouldn’t be Jackson’s last chance to follow up his stunning debut.

Or would it? Here are the Pro Tour Fate Reforged final standings. Not a Cunningham in site. Jackson actually played a PTQ for this tournament and finished second, taking home a few packs of cards and, I’m sure, some excellent steak knives. He had qualified for Honolulu off his Top 25 finish. He had just enough Pro Points for one “Silver Invite”, but he is saving it for his hometown Pro Tour in Vancouver for Magic Origins. If things go poorly for him in Vancouver? He’s back to square one.

Is this the dream you imagine? A Magic player on their first Pro Tour finishes in second place, and they get only two chances to build on their finish?


Every season, the train is harder to catch. Every year, the Hall is more crowded. Every election, the standards are harder to reach. Magic has never been healthier, but that also means there are more competitors than ever for those precious tickets to the tour, to the train, and to the hall.

The basic physical prerequisites for playing most professional sports are incredibly exclusive: nonetheless, the most successful athletes always have more than athleticism. They also have incredible passion for their game and find time to obsessively practice their craft. Talent isn’t enough. Time isn’t enough. Passion isn’t enough. To make the NFL, the NBA, the Premier League… it takes all three.

When there are enough aspiring Pro Magic Players, it will be the same for us. Perhaps it already is.

Gabe Carleton-Barnes has been playing Magic for over 20 years, mostly as a PTQ grinder and intermittently as a Pro Tour competitor. Currently based in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Open Source web developer by day, Gabe lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for three years. While there, he failed to make a documentary about competitive Magic but succeeded in deepening his obsession with the game. Gabe is now a ringleader and community-builder for the competitive Magic scene in Portland, wielding old-timey slang and tired cliches to motivate kids half his age to drive with him to tournaments.

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