“I like the idea of the documentary as a portrait. There’s not a chronological beginning, middle, and end structure. You build something in the editing room that’s shaped by getting to know the person and digging deeper, unpeeling the layers of them as you get to know them.”—Spike Jonze

“If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”—Simone de Beauvoir

The other night I pinned up some Stonehenge paper on my studio wall so I could work on some painting studies. Having just come from the amazing and powerful Philip Guston exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, I was feeling particularly inspired and planned on painting late into the night. First thing’s first though, I needed to eat some dinner. I’m in the habit of watching something on Netflix while I eat so I did. I’d only seen the opening credits for Enter the Battlefield and figured I should finish watching it so queued it up. As Enter the Battlefield‘s credits rolled I posted the following tweet:

Whatever inspiration I had going into dinner and Netflix was gone by the time Enter the Battlefield had concluded. I no longer wanted to paint. I wanted to go home and go to bed.

Chris Pikula responded to my tweet pretty quickly and we had a good talk about Enter the Battlefield. He asked me why it bummed me out. Talking about the film with Pikula and a further conversation this morning on Twitter with Dom Neitz, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on my thoughts about Enter the Battlefield and I feel the need to share them with you.

Above all else,  Enter the Battlefield is not a documentary. It is a long form advertisement for Magic: The Gathering. I would not have watched it if it was billed as a long form advertisement for Magic: The Gathering. It’s like Anheuser-Busch making a film about how great drinking beer is. Or Sony making a documentary about the history of Playstation.

A documentary about Magic: The Gathering would be better if it wasn’t associated with Wizards of the Coast. It would have journalistic integrity were it made independently.

Enter the Battlefield is professionally and technically well made. The camera work is nice. The sound is clear. Props to the filmmakers for this. I can imagine making a film is incredibly difficult and I’m not writing this to sour their attempts. They very obviously worked hard and from a place of love. I do have some constructive criticism to offer as a fellow storyteller and maker of visual things.

1. This film would have benefited from deeper investigation into the lives of fewer characters. Seven is a lot of people to try and weave into a narrative. All of the characters played a lot of Magic and wanted to be the best. That’s their connection. It doesn’t seem to be enough to justify including all seven of them in the film.

I see two other ways it could’ve been done. The first is a straight up bio pic about Owen Turtenwald. His life is fascinating. What I understood from the film is that Owen is a mega-genius when it comes to Magic: The Gathering, super competitive, a “good kid”, and has a supportive family who loves him deeply. He’s all in on Magic. I started wondering what his room looks like. I wonder what his life outside of Magic is like. Who’re his friends? What do the other members of his family do? I wanted more info from his sisters. I wanted to see what a full Grand Prix weekend is like for Owen. What does he eat? What do playtesting sessions look and sound like? Where does he playtest? In his apartment? On MTGO? In his kitchen? At Reid’s house? What other interests does Owen have? All of the Owen parts of the film had me wondering about Owen’s future in a kind of panicked way.

The most beautiful moment of Enter the Battlefield is when Owen talks about Reid Duke. He obviously looks up to Reid, who is a famously easy going and likeable human. Owen wants what Reid’s got, and who can blame him? I’d be lying if I didn’t tear up at hearing Owen talk about Reid. I thought back on people I know who’ve impacted me similarly and what that meant to me and how it helped me form who I am today. I would love to see a well crafted, thoughtful documentary on Owen Turtenwald’s life as there’s a lot of story there.

The second narrative that I think is worth exploring as a feature length documentary is the dynamic between the lives of Shahar Shenhar, a young two-time world champion, and Chris Pikula, an old school pro who nearly made it to the Hall of Fame and is presently juggling family life, a career, and getting back on the ballot. Two Magic players in very different points in their lives and careers. This is worth exploring in depth as it’s a tried and true narrative archetype that spans the life of the game itself. The comeback narrative. The old guard vs. new guard narrative. Past and future. Tried and true, I’m telling yuh.

2. This film would have benefited from not being a feature length documentary. It would be great as a 10 episode Netflix documentary series. Melissa DeTora’s narrative and the importance of her contribution and achievements in Magic get lost in the film. Pikula’s story just kinda pops up here and there. There isn’t much depth to any of the stories beyond a couple of glimpses into the personal lives of the players (Melissa’s boyfriend pops up, Owen’s mom and sisters are interviewed, and we find out Reid Duke is a part-time jeweler). Episodic profiles on players, teams, and important political topics that desperately deserve more attention (such as the roles of gender, race, and inclusivity), could be given focused episodes without the distraction and added confusion of trying to tie together superficially linked characters and stories. What’s it like when the Pantheon prepares for a Pro Tour? How do Melissa DeTora, Jackie Lee, and other women Magic players feel as they break through the traditional “boys club” of Magic? The possibilities for journalistic exploration are endless.

Patrick Chapin mentions that such and such tournament is his first tournament since coming back to the game but it’s never mentioned why he left. An episode about Chapin’s life and experiences as a Magic player and human being on this earth would be interesting.

It’s mentioned that Chris Pikula was a big whistle-blower on cheating in the early days of the Pro Tour. Why bring it up but not get into it? I’d like to know more. What were the early days of the Pro Tour like? I’d like to know more.

More than anything, what Enter the Battlefield was missing was what it felt like to enter a world of strategy and imagination. Where are the monsters, spells, and wizards? What does it feel like to play Magic? Maybe it’s like Reid Duke once wrote in a Starcity Games article, “I personally had never bought into the old roleplay of Magic players being planeswalkers battling one another for supremacy. That said, playing Vintage genuinely does give you the feeling of being a powerful wizard!” Maybe pros just think of it like any other game and that the fantasy and storytelling aspects of Magic are irrelevant to them. This, of course, would also make an excellent episode of Enter the Battlefield: The Series.

Matt Jones is a sorcerer archeologist born and raised in a forest near a field by a creek in Western New York. He is one of the founders of Hipsters of the Coast and Team Draft League. Though he hasn’t played Magic: The Gathering in almost a year he still drools over all the cards and lovingly talks shit about Wizards of the Coast. You can see Matt’s art at www.mattjonesrules.com.

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