I am releasing previews from the upcoming Humans of Magic book, leading up to its release. Here is my full interview with Bob Huang.
Who is Bob Huang?
- 2015 Legacy Champion
- Popularized Blue-Red Delver with Treasure Cruise in Legacy
- Popularized Grishoalbrand in Modern
- 3 Star City Games Open Top 8’s, including 1 win
- Channel Fireball contributor
This interview was recorded in October 2016.
James: Bob. How’s it going, man?
Bob: It’s going great. How are you doing, James?
James: I am good. Thank you so much for making the time to do this today.
Bob: Yeah, no problem. I’ve been looking forward to it.
James: So what’s been going on with you recently, man? I know you just got back from a big trip. Other than that, how’s life been?
Bob: Pretty great. I was backpacking in Southeast Asia for about two and a half months. That was June through early September. And I just got back—kind of getting back into the swing of things. I’ve been working on getting back into that, which has been a little bit of a transition. But overall, things have been good.
James: I saw that you recently wrote an article on Channel Fireball again. Is that something that you’re looking to do more regularly, from this point on?
Bob: Yeah, I took a big hiatus. I don’t even know how long it’s been since I wrote an article. But it’s been a while. I always felt if I had something interesting to write about, and could really deliver or teach my readers something, then I would go for it. I always felt that there are some writers out there who…it’s not really their fault that they have to write every week. But if you do have to write every week, sometimes you need to stretch it and find things that might not be as interesting. I like that I get the freedom to write when I want, and I also think the Legacy community has been lacking in good content for a little bit. I know that Carsten Kotter and Caleb Durward—they used to write awesome articles every week. I would really look forward to those, and neither of them do that anymore. So I’m going to try to take up the mantle a little bit and shoot for an article a month. An article a month I could probably manage, and I have a bunch of different topics I want to cover. So we’ll see how that goes.
James: You mentioned that it used to be better in terms of Legacy writing. Legacy is supposed to be more popular now, or at least hasn’t gone down in popularity. There’s more content out there. But it also feels to me that the quality of the content isn’t as good as in the past. Why do you think that is?
Bob: A couple of different things you touched on. One big thing is that I don’t think Legacy is necessarily less popular. Maybe it’s slightly less popular than…I would say the peak might have been Grand Prix New Jersey, where there were over 4,000 people and it was still the featured second format on the Star City circuit. I think in many parts of the world—Europe most prominently, and also Japan now—Legacy is super popular and as popular as it ever was. But I do think the coverage has shifted. Most notably, SCG has shifted to Modern. Modern is definitely, in my view at least, the most popular format. I would say it’s even more popular than Standard. People I talk to are always super excited about Modern, so I think Modern has usurped Legacy’s throne in terms of the most popular constructed format.
James: Yeah. I know you definitely play Modern and Legacy, but you play just about all the formats. Is that the case?
Bob: There was a period in my life where I was like, “Alright, let’s go deep. Let’s play all the formats. Let’s get on the Pro Tour circuit and see how I can do.” But I’ve since scaled back and now I’m only playing Legacy. I haven’t touched Modern in maybe five months.
James: But having said that, two and a half of those months you were travelling. So it’s kind of hard to play Magic during that time.
Bob: Yeah, and actually that was on purpose. I needed a little bit of a break from Magic. I wasn’t playing that much before I left, but even then, I was still thinking about it a lot. I just wanted a little bit of a break.
James: Maybe we can backtrack a bit. We’ll get back to the trip you took because I think that’s super fascinating. But let’s start from the beginning. First of all, I’m in awe of talking to you because I am a Legacy player—albeit a very casual one. I have read and enjoyed your “work” over the years in terms of tournament results and your connection to some of the players in Legacy whom I have a lot of respect for. And I also remember that you had recorded some podcasts in the past for Everyday Eternal with my friend Matt Pavlic. But I didn’t have a chance to talk to you directly until now. This is the part where I say, “It’s an honor to talk to you.” And just for our listeners, I would love just to go into your past. Tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up, and how you started playing Magic.
Bob: Yeah, definitely. I’d love to talk about that. I was born in China, but I moved to the United States at a young age. I’ve always been heavily influenced by my family. My grandparents lived with me when I was little. We moved around a lot, but since age eight I’ve been living in the Boston area. And that is where my Magic beginnings happened. It was elementary school in fifth grade. I had a best friend at the time. We got to know each other—I don’t even remember, but somehow we talked about the video game Myst. I don’t know if you’ve ever played that.
James: Oh yeah, Myst was awesome.
Bob: Yeah. It was an interesting puzzle game and we were both super into it as fifth graders. And then my friend is like, “Oh, I play like this other game that’s really interesting. It’s called Magic.” And so my friend Clint taught me how to play and it was just a super fun game. I loved buying booster packs and I was always really competitive, even at a young age. I would say even in elementary school and junior high I started going online, reading forums, and reading deck lists. All my friends would come with these casual decks and I would look up decks. “Looks like this Goblin deck is really good. I’ll just build it.” I would build it, but without the money rares. I would just destroy my friends. Ever since I was young, I’ve always been a person to do research to try to get an edge.
James: Why do you think that is? Did it have to do with sibling rivalry, or something in the family? Why do you think you were so competitive at such a young age?
Bob: I guess that’s just part of who I was. I had a younger sister, but she definitely doesn’t play Magic. I don’t know. It’s just some part of me that really enjoys competing, and that’s actually one reason I got into the competitive scene as well. All through my life, I was the classic type-A Asian student. Studied really hard, got good grades. And then once I hit a certain point where I…I don’t know, I needed more beyond just doing well in school. So I wanted to do well in Magic, and competing was the next logical extension for me.
James: Talk a little bit about what it was like growing up in Boston. I know this is going into a non-Magic topic, but it’s a big part of your life. What was it like growing up with your friends in that area?
Bob: I grew up in a town called Acton, a suburb of Boston. I would say it was the prototypical New England suburb. It was very sheltered. I grew up very privileged. And from that there is a lot of good and bad. Acton has actually been in the news lately due to some suicides. In many ways, it is a high-pressure environment where success is seen as getting in a Ivy League college. In many ways, it taught you how to work hard, which I really value. But then it also put some undue pressure on a lot of people living in that community. With my type-A Asian upbringing, my dad was also really hard on me. It definitely shaped who I am as a person. I don’t know if it necessarily shaped who I am as a Magic player.
James: Did you have that pressure, growing up, to get into a good college and all that stuff?
Bob: Yeah, and I did do all that. I went to Dartmouth, which is a wonderful school. I attended the same school as Jarvis Yu, actually. So I did do all that, but now that I’m “more free”, I’ve come more to terms with myself. I realized that what I need isn’t necessarily that, and I’ve been really happy in the past year or two of my life. I saw through some of the pitfalls that I used to fall into.
James: Right. When did you first move into competitive play and actually playing in tournaments?
Bob: I first got my DCI number when I was studying abroad in Paris. I was doing a study abroad in Paris, but I was with other Dartmouth students. I didn’t get to meet that many locals, and I really wanted to do so. When I first got my DCI number in Paris, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had read some articles before and built some decks, but I never actually went to tournaments to compete. When I first started out, I had no expectations of trying to win. I was like, “I’m going to get a DCI number, meet some French people, and play this thing I really used to enjoy.” But then it just snowballs from there. It gets addictive. The more you get into it, the more you want to get good at it. And I was doing decently. Not great results by any stretch, but it just really made me want to play more. At that time, I was playing a little bit of Standard, but I also played Legacy. I got to play my sweet Affinity deck, which is a deck I grew up playing against my friends with back in junior high. It was kind of cool just being able to use those cards again in Legacy. Someone had just won an Open with it, so I built that deck and then I went out and played it, and I was doing decently with it. As you win, the feeling of winning is just so addictive that it snowballs and I got into it more and more.
James: What year was this that you got your DCI number and started playing in tournaments?
Bob: It was 2011.
James: Wow. So it wasn’t really that long ago. I had assumed that you’ve been playing Magic for over fifteen years. Maybe you had been, but not competitively, right?
Bob: Right. My first booster pack was back in elementary school. I think it was Odyssey. But then it wasn’t until Mirrodin Besieged that I got my DCI number. I did actually play semi-competitively before 2011. There was an online league, actually. It was super cool. It was called Magic League, and I know a lot of good players from there. I think Jarvis used to play there. I know PV used to play there as well. And I used to play against them when I was a little kid and they were probably just teenagers. It’s kind of crazy.
James: No DCI number required. Just playing online.
James: So you start playing tournaments in Paris. You get to know some of the locals and then you head back to the United States. Can you tell me about the American scene that you became regularly part of, back home? Who you met and all that stuff?
Bob: Paris was my sophomore year of college. When I went back to the States, I basically put Magic on hold. I did pick it up again in my senior year when I graduated early. But for the most part, I put it down because I didn’t have that many friends at school who played. At the time, I also saw it as a nerdy thing to do. I wouldn’t go out of my way to hide it from people, but I wasn’t trying to—
James: Not going out of your way to tell people you played.
Bob: Yeah, exactly. So I mostly put it down and then it wasn’t until I graduated from Dartmouth that I moved to Northern Virginia. And I knew Dan Signorini lived there, so I reached out to him on The Source. He was like, “Yeah, we play at this store called Curio Cavern.” And that’s where it really got started for me.
James: Is that when you really got into Legacy? Dan’s a pretty hardcore Legacy player.
Bob: Yeah, so, before that, I mean I did have some decent results when I was playing in Paris. I studied abroad there and then I interned in London. I was playing a little bit of Magic there and had some pretty good results. And that was in Legacy and I decided I wanted to focus on Legacy just because it was the coolest format. It had the older cards. And so, getting to meet Dan, going to Curio that first time, I think there were thirty-seven people. I was like, “Wow! This is awesome!” It was so many cool people, and it’s a big crowd, and it’s highly competitive. I love all of that.
James: At that time, you’ve already graduated. I assume you moved there for a job?
Bob: Yeah, that’s right.
James: Thirty-seven people. That’s amazing, by the way, for any Legacy local community. [Laughs]
James: And then what happens there? Did you get to meet more people and kind of get more exposed to the scene—
Bob: Yeah—I got to know…I think you got Damon on as well, and they talked about how the Nova crowd is just so unbelievably welcoming. Everybody goes way out of their way to help friends in need, whether it’s for rides or needing a deck. The community was just so incredible and I got to know all the competitive players within that community because I was competitive and I just learned so much from them. And it was watching them win and learning from them, especially Dan in particular. He played so much Delver. I picked it up myself, and then that’s been the deck I’ve been known for since.
James: Were there specific generalizable lessons that learned, about how to play Magic? I assume that the lessons are not just for Legacy, but Magic as a whole. Do you remember what were some of the key things you learned that made you level up to where you are now?
Bob: That’s a tough question. I feel like everybody improves at Magic in their own way. I don’t think it’s necessarily a linear path. So, for me, it was really just…I think I understood the concepts well enough. I think mostly it was just getting the practice through repetition and then talking to other good players, talking about card choices, deck ideas. The discussions really helped me.
James: Discussions and the grind, as it were. Just playing games and watching others.
Bob: Yeah, exactly. It’s so hard to put my finger on “when I got good”, if such a thing exists. I still think I have a lot to learn, even in terms of playing Delver well. So, I think it’s just a slow and gradual path. There wasn’t really one secret, by any means.
James: Were there people that really helped you improve your game, and how you look at the game, and things like that? Maybe mentor figures?
Bob: Yeah. I already mentioned Dan. It’s weird. Maybe my answer for this isn’t what you would expect, but it’s…learning to get better at Magic, it’s just from so many different sources. It’s from reading articles, practicing, just getting lots and lots of games in. So I don’t think I necessarily had a mentor who taught me what was good. And I honestly figured a lot out by myself through playing with other people. But I wouldn’t really single anybody out. I would say the big thing I learned from that crowd was really just how to treat people. I talked a little bit about how welcoming everybody was, but…so you’ve heard about Dan. You’ve heard about Damon. A lot of people who compete are really strong, but there are so many players in that community that I deeply respect. For example, Jeff Mcaleer is a name that you probably haven’t heard, but he is the community dad—the host. He hosts weekly cube drafts, Legacy play testing, and he just goes way out of his way. One time…have you heard of David Gearhart?
Bob: So Gearhart used to be an old-time Legacy player. He is in our friend circle and he got seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Jeff was like, “Hey, it’s not really convenient for you right now, so why don’t you just live with me and my wife for a few months?” I don’t remember how long it was, but it was just way above and beyond the call of friendship. And they took care of him. Just seeing things like that moved me way more than playing some cards well ever could.
James: Okay. It sounds like people like Jeff were extremely generous on a personal level, right? Not even just—
Bob: Yeah, exactly. And it wasn’t…I think Jeff definitely stands out, but it wasn’t just Jeff. There were a lot of other people like that.
James: That sounds really cool. I would imagine that a lot of Magic players, myself included, are not part of scenes where people are mature and actually hang out. It feels like these are people that you could have a beer with. It’s not just a “I play Magic with them” kind of thing.
Bob: Yeah, and that’s what was appealing to me about Legacy in general. I think, in general, you find more of this type of people who are more relaxed. And for the most part, Legacy can be competitive, but still…you’re not playing for the money. You’re playing for the good times, for the friendships, for the competition. So yeah.
James: You had mentioned that Magic is not a binary thing. It’s not like, “Okay, I’m bad, bad, bad. Now I’m good.” You just keep getting better as a player as you play more. But if you could look back a few years ago, can you think of a turning point, or a particular tournament where you felt like you “got on the map”? You know what I mean?
James: Was there some particular finish that got you on the map? I ask this because the first time I heard about you was through one of your first articles for Channel Fireball. You wrote about BUG Delver.
James: I’m wondering how you made that ascent into a Magic grinder and writer?
Bob: I can tell you the story of four key tournaments as milestones in my Magic career. The first one was Star City Games Baltimore. I don’t even remember what year it was. It must have been 2013. And there I got to the very last round and I was paired against BBD [Brian Braun-Duin]. We thought we were playing for ninth place, but it actually turned out that we were playing for Top 8. So we played it out. He was on Storm. I was on Blue-White-Red Delver. And this was one of my first tournaments playing Delver. Before that I had played Affinity and Show and Tell. And in my mind there was this mental block of, “Oh, Delver is for the good players who can do everything well. You should just play Show and Tell.” But then Dan kept winning with it and I was thinking, “You know what? I’ll try Delver this time and see how it goes.” So I picked up Delver and I got so close to making the Top 8. BBD and I drew—I was going to beat him in the next turn of extra turns. But he wanted the points and we thought we were playing for ninth, so we just drew. He didn’t concede to me. Then afterwards we both found out that had he conceded to me, I would have been in the Top 8. It was weird because it was so upsetting. I was really happy, though, at the same time. I was upset that I didn’t get into Top 8, but in my head I was also like, “Well, I basically got there.” So, that just hit me as, “Alright, I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.” That was one key experience.
James: That’s pretty good perspective. I think most people would be extremely pissed to be so close to the Top 8, especially with a concession. Maybe you were, too, but it sounds like you got over that.
Bob: And especially now, I never get too upset at any given tournament. I feel like I’ve gotten my fair share of good luck. I think luck is even in the long run. There’s no such thing as someone who is always luckier than someone else. The ultimate thing that matters in the end is play skill. So it’s really just about focusing on what you can and can’t control.
James: Yeah. So what was the second tournament milestone for you?
Bob: The next tournament would have to be the one you mentioned, where I finished in the Top 16 out of 1,600 or 1,700 people—at Grand Prix DC. And that got me a gig writing for Channel Fireball. So that was the next phase. I think I did well with that deck at several other tournaments as well.
James: Which deck? BUG Delver?
Bob: That was BUG Delver with Hymn to Tourach. Still to this day, it might be my favorite deck that I have played in Legacy.
James: Nice. Top 16 is pretty darn impressive. How did you feel in GP DC as you were playing in it? Had you played the BUG Delver deck a lot, and did it feel familiar to you?
Bob: Yeah, I did practice extensively for it and prepared well. And I think it was one of the best decks at the time that nobody else was really playing. In particular, it had a great matchup against Blue-White-Red Delver due to Hymn to Tourach and Liliana of the Veil. You just out-carded them. They’re playing True-Name Nemesis, but you had Golgari Charm and Liliana. So it was a next level deck. And I’m happy to do really well with it. Another key point in the tournament—I beat a well-known pro, Eric Froehlich. And I don’t know how much you’ve heard about Eric, but he’s known as a pretty salty player. He was pretty salty when he lost to me. But I felt great because I was like, “Oh yeah, I beat this pro who was really way better than I am at this game.” I also thought, “I’m better than him at Legacy.” That may or may not be true. But I felt that at the time.
James: Yeah, the badge of honor. You’ve bested him. Okay.
Bob: Right, exactly. So, that happened. That was super exciting and it catapulted me to the level where I started writing articles. I became a little bit more well-known. People started adding me on Facebook and asked me questions like, “Tell me how you sideboard with BUG Delver,” that kind of deal. That was cool. And then the next tournament after that was so amazing. It was the Star City Games New Jersey Open—
James: Ah, yeah yeah. We have got to talk about that—
Bob: —with Blue-Red Delver.
James: This has got to be the thing that you’re best known for, right?
Bob: I would put my next tournament above this, but this one was the absolute best just in terms of…my friends and I, we built and designed this completely new strategy out of the blue. And not only was it awesome, it was literally the best deck in the format for several months until it got banned. So that was just crazy that we built this new deck and it was so good.
James: You’ve got to talk about this, because I don’t know the full story. Wait—I might have read about this somewhere. I don’t know if this is true or not. I read that you were just playing online and then you played somebody who had the idea for what later became this deck. But you developed it into something that was fully fleshed out.
Bob: So that’s exactly right. I actually play a lot on Cockatrice. Not as much anymore, but I did use to play on it a lot. I would just take random decks. At first, Carsten Kotter wrote an article about playing four Treasure Cruise in Delver. I was like, “That’s kind of interesting.” I started messing around with it myself and then I was playing on Cockatrice. This is when the spoiler was released but the cards hadn’t come out yet. And then I ended up playing against a guy who was on Blue-Red Delver, and he had the idea. He had four Treasure Cruise and four Monastery Swiftspear. When I first saw Swiftspear, I was like, “That’s pretty funny—I thought we were playing the good cards in the new set.” And my opponent was like, “No, this card is insane.” I was like, “Okay…” I don’t remember who won, but it ended up being really impressive either way. So I asked him for his list and he gave it to me. And then we started messaging back and forth about the deck and I started playing it. The main deck, from when I played it and when he showed it to me, didn’t change too much. Maybe four cards at most. And then the sideboard I helped to refine with the help of the Hatfields, and my other friends at Curio Cavern.
James: So it was one of these things…the moment you started playing with it, you knew it was the real deal?
Bob: Yes and no. I felt it was super strong, but at the time, there were so many people who were telling me Treasure Cruise is not playable in Legacy. “It’s not a good card.” It’s kind of laughable to think about it now, but I had some very strong players who were my friends tell me, “That card is not good.” And I thought, “Well, I think it’s pretty good.” But I didn’t have enough faith in myself, and my testing results, to say: “No, you’re dead wrong. I’m going to be laughing at you.”
James: You didn’t want to be the guy who said this would break the format. Just like Temporal Mastery would break the format, right? [Laughs]
Bob: Yeah well, I don’t know if it was that. But I was just really unsure and I was like, “Well, I think it’s good. I’m just going to play it and see what happens.” And I ended up winning the tournament, which was a combination of having a great deck, but also some good luck. Especially in the Finals, where my opponent had a Griselbrand out. This is how good the deck is—that my opponent had a Griselbrand, but because I had Treasure Cruise in my deck, I was able to draw six cards and keep pace with him.
James: Oh, geez. [Laughs]
Bob: Yeah, it was just a crazy tournament. And part of the reason why the deck took off so much was it was so damn cheap. There were no Wastelands. You only had four blue dual lands, so it was really cheap compared to the other decks. Then everybody started playing it. So that’s how it just got so big.
James: You have to talk about SCG New Jersey, which you won. That was right before Grand Prix New Jersey, right?
Bob: Yeah, so that was SCG New Jersey, and I won that tournament with Blue-Red Delver. It was crazy how quickly the deck just took off and really became one of the absolute forces in the metagame. And then, following up from that, Grand Prix New Jersey happened. By then, Blue-Red Delver was the most played deck in the room. To combat that, we found a deck that was really, really good against it. I believe I played against Blue-Red Delver six times in the tournament. I beat Seth Manfield, Ari Lax, just these awesome pros who were on Blue-Red Delver. And I was playing Blue-Red-White Delver. It was pretty cool to see…I built something great, and then I really understood it and was able to find a way to beat it as well. And that led me to another Top 16 finish at Grand Prix New Jersey. Once I had these subsequent notches on my belt, I felt more and more comfortable with my play testing and deck building skills. So, yeah, I think it was slow increments of building confidence and improving.
James: It must have been a huge validation for you…maybe not a validation, but just helping your confidence as a deck builder. You basically built a deck that was one of the best Legacy decks ever, other than maybe Hulk Flash. And then you found a way to counter that. I remember playing in GP New Jersey and thinking to myself that I absolutely made a mistake that day by not playing Blue-Red Delver. Literally everyone was playing Blue-Red Delver. But you found a way with your spicy brew. Did you have Counterbalance in the sideboard? I can’t remember what it was.
Bob: Yeah, there were two key cards. There was Stoneforge Mystic and Counterbalance, and both of those things were insane against Blue-Red Delver. Another thing I want to emphasize is that I’ve been super lucky not only in terms of my tournament performances and getting lucky in the games, but also in terms of my personal network. With Blue-Red Delver, I didn’t come up with the idea of playing four Swiftspear and four Treasure Cruise. That was someone else. But then I happened to play against them on Cockatrice and took their idea and made some improvements on it. And this Grand Prix New Jersey idea of running Stoneforge and Counterbalance was from my friend James Pogue. He said, “Why don’t we play the old trump to Delver mirrors—Counterbalance in the board?” And then we tested it and it was super good. So I wasn’t the first one to come up with these brilliant ideas. I just happened to be lucky enough to win with them.
James: Yeah, you had people who helped you to refine ideas.
Bob: Exactly. That’s one thing that’s so important, is having a good MTG network to bounce ideas off of—and learn things like this.
James: Yeah, that’s amazing. So, did you have another tournament that you said was instrumental—
Bob: I guess I should have counted GP New Jersey because it did qualify me for the Pro Tour. But the key tournament I had in mind was when I won Eternal Weekend. That made me happy for months and still makes me happy just thinking about it—that I’m a Legacy Champion.
James: Yeah, that’s an official title. [Laughs] That’s pretty good. Tell me how that tournament went down for you?
Bob: That tournament was totally different because I didn’t prepare for it. [Laughs] I just got really lucky in other ways…I guess we can go back a little bit for some context. I don’t know how involved with the greater Magic community you are, outside of Legacy. I had actually been taking a hiatus. I boycotted Magic for a few months because Wizards of the Coast banned one of my good friends. To go back one step further, with Dan and those guys, we were up in Northern Virginia. For work, I was relocated down to Richmond, Virginia, which is more in the south.
Bob: So I moved there, and there I befriended Zach Jesse. And he had just been banned from playing. Not for cheating or anything like that, but because a story came out. Back in college, he sexually assaulted somebody and the story came out. I think Wizards of the Coast didn’t want the bad publicity. Zach was an insanely talented Magic player—one of the best in the world. He top-eighted two GP’s in a row and had already been to so many Pro Tours. But Wizards didn’t want him to have a breakout finish. The headline would be something like, “Former rapist wins Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour.” I think they were basically doing a little bit of PR control and they banned him for life. Not for any Magic reason, but because he had this past as a violent offender. And I was just so upset. To me, Zach was just an amazing friend, and I truly believe that in society we need to give people the chance to change. There’s a certain word for that—recidivism. A lot of criminals, once they’re released out into the world, you know what happens? They become criminals again. They end up back in jail. And we need to find a path for these people to be able to be integrated into society and give them a chance. And this was just such—I’m sorry—such fucking bullshit, that they banned him without giving him a chance. And it was just so upsetting to me that I quit Magic for a few months.
James: I’m going to guess that he owned up to his actions. But the fact is, it’s also got nothing to do with Magic. It has nothing to do with his Magic career or his skill. It’s just something else entirely—
Bob: Yeah. Part of it was also in the communication. They didn’t say anything. They had some very general statement: “Community members felt threatened and so we chose to take action.” Something like that. They didn’t lay out a policy such as, “We’re going to ban all sex offenders.” That may or may not be a good policy position, but at least it’s a fucking policy position. Instead, it was just this ambiguous thing: “If you have some sort of criminal history, watch out. Don’t get too good as a player. Otherwise, if people ratted you out and it came out into the open, we just might ban you.” It was a huge shit show.
James: I wasn’t very close to the issue. I remember reading about it at the time. But there are two things that come to mind. One is the lack of transparency. There’s no formal reasoning why he was not playing. And the other issue I have with this—it’s a slippery slope. If someone can get muzzled or blacklisted from playing Magic for non-Magic reasons, what’s to stop someone else in the future from getting the same ambiguous treatment?
Bob: Yeah. Again, if they come out with a policy like—sex offenders will not be allowed to play because other players feel unsafe—I think that’s defensible. I might still take issue with it, but it would be a policy. “Okay, I disagree but I respect your opinion.” But what they did was totally horrible. And just to add to that, Zach was one of the friendliest people I knew. I often think of myself as someone who doesn’t actually love the game of Magic. I often play it just to compete—just to win. And it gets tiring. It’s a grind sometimes. Zach was the total opposite. He loved playing Magic. Every Pro Tour he would bring an EDH deck and just find random people to play with. And he was just so friendly and good to the Richmond community that everybody really saw him as an awesome leader. I really think he learned a lot from his past experiences and became a better person. And the fact he was completely shut out from that—it was very upsetting.
James: I see. So you decided to boycott Magic.
Bob: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s what I called it. I was so upset in the heat of the moment that I took a break from Magic for a few months. And then, little by little…I did play again. Eternal Weekend was my first tournament in months. I did play again after it was clear that Wizards wasn’t going to do anything to amend the situation. I still had so many friends who played, so I kind of gave in.
James: You made a choice, which is rational. You have to decide—do you enjoy the game enough, and the community enough, to keep playing? Because nothing in life is black and white. It sounds like you made a decision to continue despite some of your reservations.
Bob: Yeah. I’m not super happy with Wizards of the Coast right now. I scaled back my Magic playing, too. So yeah, really switching gears now. [Laughs] The tournament was funny. I hit up one of my friends, Dylan Donegan. I was like, “I saw you top-eighted with this Grixis Delver deck. How good is it?” He says, “Bob, you should definitely play it. It’s super good. Just literally play my list.” And I took his list, which I never do. I always think in my head that I want to make a list better and change all these things. But now I literally just took his list. I changed exactly one card. In round one, I played against Grixis Delver or Grixis Control, I can’t recall. The game goes super long and I think, “I don’t think I’m going to win it. Oh well, I’m just here for fun, I guess.” It was turn four or five of extra turns. I drew the card that I changed from Dylan’s list. Dylan had Sulfuric Vortex in the fifteenth slot of his sideboard, and I replaced it with Izzet Staticaster. I drew the Staticaster while my opponent had a board full of Elemental tokens for blocking. I play the Staticaster, kill all his tokens and then attack for the win on turn four of extra turns. And that was the first match—the turning point. The rest of the tournament was smooth sailing from there. And it was just so crazy that I won the tournament. I was so happy because I went there with some of my best friends, and it was just a surreal experience. You just don’t expect to win a tournament so big and so important. Also, the first prize was incredible. It was a painting of a Tundra. I was just so floored. It was just an incredible experience.
James: You seemed really excited, by the photos I saw. You had a very large smile on your face as they were taking photos of you.
Bob: Yeah, definitely one of the best days of my life.
James: And you’re looking to defend your title this year, right?
Bob: Yeah, I want to make the trip out to Columbus this time and we’ll see how that goes.
James: You’ve just recounted four or five tournaments and they’re all Legacy related. At this point, would you say that Legacy is the format you’re most skilled in?
Bob: Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. I consciously made the choice recently to, in many ways, give up on competitive Magic. I’ve decided to only focus on Legacy because I know I have my strengths there, and I know the format really well. The reason I’m giving up on competitive Magic is because there are other parts of my life that I find lacking, that I want to work on. I was just so addicted to Magic for two whole years. I did so many of the things that you wrote about. And that’s why I was so excited about this interview. I just need Magic in my life. I love it. I love competing, but it needs to not be the only thing in my life. So I’m trying to find more of a balance. And I’ve come to the realization I only have a finite amount of time. When I go to play in a tournament, I’m not there to mess around. I want to win. So I think this is the best path for me—to have that life balance while also being able to compete. I’ve given up on Modern and Standard. And I honestly don’t think I’m talented at all. I think I do decently in some of these formats because I put in the work. But I no longer want to put in the work, so I’ve come to terms with that. I don’t expect to do nearly as well as I have done in the past, and I’m just taking it as it is.
James: Let’s talk about this for a second. First of all, I think you’re being very humble when you say that you’re not that good of a player. Clearly the results show that you are. Maybe you put in a lot of practice and a lot of hard work, and that’s why you are successful. But the fact is there are a lot of scrubs, like myself, who put in the work and still didn’t get there. So I think you’re underselling yourself. Secondly, how much time did you put into Magic? Was it basically your life? Did you feel like other parts of your life—personal and professional—were suffering as a result of focusing on Magic?
Bob: Yeah, in many ways. Definitely. I can’t deny that at all. In terms of my professional life, I would put it this way. I always grew up being told things like, “You need to work hard. You need to work hard to get into a good college. Once you’re in college, work hard to get a good job. Go to Wall Street and make a ton of money.” But at some point I just thought to myself, “When does the rat race end?” And so I sort of kind of gave up on that life. I just let my work life be as it is. I didn’t really try hard. I worked in investment banking and the hours…let me tell you, just getting out of the office and it’s daylight of the next day. I just couldn’t handle it. So I had given up on that aspect of my life. But because I was such a competitive person, I looked for another outlet. Magic ended up being my outlet. And I had tournament success and I did well with it, so it just kept snowballing. I almost used it as a form of validation for myself. I mean, it is what it is. It can be good or it can be bad. I’m trying to move to the next level. Still don’t quite have it figured out yet, but we’ll see.
James: Was that the reason why you took your two-and-a-half month trip?
Bob: Exactly. Getting a break from Magic wasn’t the only reason, but it was a big reason. And then the other big reason was—I just love travelling. I love meeting new people. Understanding them and their stories. Much like you, I guess. And so for me, that was just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don’t know in the future if I’ll have this chance again. When I saw the chance, I went for it.
James: What was it like? Can you describe to people what it’s like to actually do a two-and-a-half-month backpacking trip, in a part of the world that you’re not normally in? What was it like, and what did it help you learn?
Bob: I learned so much. I had so many takeaways. I think the biggest takeaway was that everyone is on their own journey—on their own spiritual path. There are so many different ways that you can live this life. I was always so locked into the “Type A” lifestyle that I didn’t see that there was so much more out there. I met so many people who were farmers, and they were really happy with where they were. For me, just understanding that you don’t necessarily need to be “successful”, or seen as such by society, to really feel that gratitude. You don’t need to be seen that way to feel happy and live a good life. That was my main takeaway. And it was just so interesting to have new experiences. I learned how to scuba dive, which was extremely challenging a first. But then I absolutely loved it because it’s like being in nature with the animals. It’s way cooler than being in a zoo. I did a lot of mountain climbing. I climbed an active volcano. I just met so many amazing travelers and learned their stories. It really made me think about how I’m living my life. I just see that there are so many more possibilities out there. I can do whatever I want. I just need to figure out exactly what it is that I want. [Laughs] I’m still working on that phase.
James: Were there specific moments or conversations you had with people, that made you feel a sense of gratitude?
Bob: You know, it’s a curious thing—gratitude. Some people might say, “Happy people are grateful.” But in many ways, it can be the other way around. Or at least it is for me. Once I realized how absurdly lucky I was… my parents grew up in a small rural village in China. If they hadn’t studied hard and made it to the United States, I would probably be a poor villager in China with very limited options as to what I can do for my future. But instead I came to the US. I went to an Ivy League school. I have the brains to pretty much do whatever I want, so I just feel so grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been afforded. And that has really made me want to seize the day—carpe diem. To not be afraid and go for what I want in my life. If I’m looking for something—just fucking go for it, you know?
James: That’s a great observation. On the flipside of it—did you encounter people who were “less fortunate” than us, but were still feel grateful and happy?
Bob: Yeah, yeah! Okay, so, I mean almost all the people, all the locals, that I met would be very jealous of being able to live in the US, so, I mean, that was definitely really touching. But just learning a lot of their stories, too, it gives such a good sense of perspective on where you are in the world that I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Like, I’m already making musings about my next big trip, so, yeah, I really hope to keep it as part of my life going forward.
James: I see. And are you naturally an adventurous person? You had mentioned scuba diving and climbing an active volcano. These are things that are not easily done by a lot of people. Is that just something in your personality, or did you confront yourself to do that?
Bob: Interesting question. Now, you wouldn’t guess it because for the most part, it’s weird. It’s almost like there’s a couple of different sides of myself. That’s true for everybody, I guess. There’s a certain aspect of myself that really longs for that adventure—to do something exciting, special, and out of the ordinary. Then there’s another aspect of myself who is happy living the day-to-day and just being comfortable. I enjoy both.
James: Do you feel a noticeably different “before” and “after” Bob Huang, when it comes to taking this trip?
Bob: I do. I don’t think it’s in any way that I can necessarily put my finger on. “I was like this before, and now I’m not.” But life is a journey. Life is like improving as a Magic player; it comes in small increments. I think going on this trip pushed certain realizations harder. I might have advanced towards them a little bit quicker, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m a completely different person. I have a wider sense of gratitude and perspective. And so I try to bring that to my Magic game, and other aspects of my life.
James: After you came back, did your family and friends notice anything different about you? Sometimes it’s hard to see yourself, but do you think that other people see you differently now?
Bob: Well, I don’t know. I’ve only been back for a month.
Bob: So I don’t know if I can really answer that yet. I don’t feel like things are too different. Maybe I did surprise some people going on that trip, but maybe not. I’m not sure.
James: That’s fair. Now that you’ve come back to North America, when do you think you’re going to be doing another trip? Or is it a few years from now?
Bob: It will probably have to be a couple of more years. I talked about how I wasn’t career focused. Now I am somewhat career focused. I found a new role that I’m really engaged in, so my next two-year goal is to do well in my job and get promoted. And that will hopefully afford me the freedom if I decide to move on. Hopefully I will be able to find a job more easily. So yeah, I don’t know. I’m focusing on my professional development for the next year or so.
Bob: I don’t know what my next big trip is going to be. I just know that I want to take one. [Laughs]
James: Maybe it’s not this trip specifically, but you had touched on it in our previous talks…does it change your interactions, or relationships with people, now that you’ve had this experience? Possessing gratitude or certain learnings about yourself—does it also change the way you interact with your family and friends? I’m just wondering if you feel any difference there as well.
Bob: Yeah, definitely. I would say the biggest one is my relationship with my dad. I talked briefly about how he was very hard on me as a kid. But now I’ve seen past that. Obviously, I know that he wants the best for me. But for him, happiness is leading a successful life and making a lot of money. And for him that’s what matters. And for me, I just realized it’s not what matters to me. I have other goals that I want to focus on. Just seeing how so many different people chose a different path than the straight path to success has given me more freedom. Now I’m definitely going to go my own way.
James: Right. Your dad…do you think he’s understood that a little bit more over the years?
Bob: No. I think he’s still really struggling with it because he grew up in a small rural village and this is what he knows. And everybody is in their own prison, inside their own head, in so many ways. You just don’t realize what’s possible. You put constraints on yourself. You have these ideas for “how society should be,” and “how things should work,” and “how life should be lived.” These ways of thinking can really just narrow you down. And he’s disappointed in me that I don’t seem to be as focused on material wealth or success as he is. But I don’t think that I can really change that about him. So I kind of just need to go my own way, and hopefully one day he will accept it.
James: Right. So what does it mean to you to be successful, or fulfilled? Everyone has a different definition. I’m really curious.
Bob: That’s the thing. Everybody has their own definition. And for some people, being successful doesn’t even matter, which is also totally fine. You just need to really come to terms with yourself and what you want in life—and then just not make any bullshit excuses for yourself and really go after that. That’s one approach I have for Magic as well—is that I never make excuses. At least, I try not to make excuses, because no matter what…one big lesson I learned from Magic is no matter how well you can do something, there’s always something you can do better and improve upon. So many pros have said this—that they don’t feel like they’re good players at all. They feel like they make a lot of mistakes. And honestly, it’s just straight truth. Even the best players in the world make mistakes, but theirs is just on a magnitude lower than the rest of us. So tying back to the original question, there’s always something people can do better. And that’s one philosophy I have for myself, is just not to make excuses for myself. Going back to your question, which is “how do I define success?”—I’m still figuring it out. I don’t know the answer. For me, I think the next big step in my life is…I haven’t been in a serious relationship in a long time, and that was because I was mildly depressed after my last one. That’s one thing I’m focused on. Hopefully, knock on wood, it works out. I’m definitely interested in meeting someone and having that serious relationship. There are a couple of different aspects to my life. In those two years where I was super addicted to Magic, I wasn’t really going out that much and my life was kind of one-dimensional. Now it’s much better. I have a lot of friends outside of the Magic community and we do other fun stuff. We go hiking, rafting. We go out to bars. I just went to my first music festival earlier this year and loved it, and I plan on going to a festival every year. But really it’s just broadening other aspects of my life.
James: Just experiences, it sounds like.
Bob: Yeah, exactly. Just life experiences. So that’s what matters to me.
James: I see.
Bob: Success to me is understanding my limitations, trying to overcome some of them, and trying to set small goals for myself. And experience as many interesting, unique, fun things as I want to go for.
James: Yeah. You touched on something—and I’m not sure if you feel comfortable talking about it—but you said that you were mildly depressed at a certain point in time. What happened there, and how did you get out of that mental state?
Bob: Actually, this was in Paris in 2011. Maybe I didn’t know it at the time…and I guess maybe I didn’t really go into Magic as a reason to take my thoughts off things…but it is what I ended up doing. I just got out of a messy relationship and was not feeling good. I wasn’t really enjoying anything out of my day, despite the fact that I was in Paris of all cities, which is one of the most amazing cities in the world. So then I thought, I used to play Magic. Oh, I guess there were a bunch of stores. You know what? I’ll go out and play. I traded my mild depression in some ways for this Magic addiction. So yeah, I don’t know. Thinking back…I think that’s probably what happened.
James: Do you think about forks in the road, and how you could have done things differently? Maybe one small choice could have changed your life in big ways.
Bob: Yeah, definitely. There’s a word for that. It doesn’t necessarily encompass that specifically, but the word is ‘ruminate.’ It’s when you endlessly think about things in the past that you maybe could have done better. Or things that you regret. I definitely used to have that sort of habit. I’d think, “Why did I say this and this—I lost a friend because of that.” I don’t know how, but I don’t do that as much anymore. I just accept things as they are and I’m way more at peace with myself. I’m just happier. I don’t even know how I got there, because it’s not something you can try to do or not do. It’s just who you are if you happen to ruminate a lot. I used to, and I don’t anymore. And that still ties back to being grateful for where I am right now—having that wider perspective on how other people in the world are living. So that’s good.
James: Just from talking to you in this little bit of time we have, I get the sense that you’ve matured a lot. You’ve grown a lot and have a level of self-awareness, which not everyone has. I am wondering if there are specific people you hung out with, or conversations you’ve had, that unlocked all of this? I’m trying to understand how you made these conscious decisions to re-examine your life. I played over ten years of Magic without even thinking about this kind of stuff, and you’re way ahead of the curve. [Laughs] How did you manage to do that?
Bob: Yeah, I don’t know. Winning at Magic was super satisfying, but then—
James: Because you’re winning at Magic. You’re taking more time away from Magic…but if I were in your position, I would keep playing more Magic because I’m winning. So why stop? [Laughs]
Bob: Right. I was doing well in Magic, but I still wasn’t fulfilling those other aspects of my life. And I think moving to Richmond was really great because I live with two roommates outside of the Magic community. They are just the most outgoing—in many ways, just wild and crazy—people that I never would have met otherwise. We just happened to be roommates together. For the first six months or so, I was still in my little shell. I didn’t hang out with the masses much. But then I thought about taking a hiatus from Magic. That was the timing. I started hanging out with these two roommates more and going out more. They really opened my eyes. There are other things in life other than this card game. So, that definitely helped. Just having conversations…in my travels, having conversations with other people on how they lived their lives and how they saw through things. How they went through their own sorts of family troubles or heartbreaks. Learning all these stories, really. I’ve been really fortunate to learn so many of these stories from so many different people. That has given me the chance to break out of my pattern of just doing Magic-Magic-Magic.
James: That’s great, man. I wish you the best. I feel like you’ve got a bright future ahead of you. You’ve got a lot of great perspective. And the thing I loved about this conversation is that we’re talking about Magic, but we weren’t really talking about Magic, if you know what I mean. That’s the ideal outcome. I had a great time talking to you. I hope you enjoyed it as well.
Bob: Yeah. It was definitely my pleasure, James. And best of luck to you as well.
James: Thanks man. And hopefully talk to you soon.
Bob: Sounds good.
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