I am releasing previews from the upcoming Humans of Magic book leading up to its release. Here is an interview with Jarvis Yu that I hope you will enjoy.
Who is Jarvis Yu?
- Gold Level Pro and Team MassdropEast member
- 11 Pro Tour Appearances
- Master of the Legacy Lands deck: 2 GP Top 8s with Lands (including 1st place @ GP Seattle) and 1 GP Top 16
- Streams at https://www.twitch.tv/jarvisyu
This interview was recorded in June 2016.
James: Today I have a guest who needs almost no introduction. He is one of the premier players in competitive Magic. He has more Pro Tour appearances than I will ever have in my lifetime. Most recently, he’s won the prestigious Legacy GP in Seattle in 2015. I’m super excited to introduce Jarvis Yu. Jarvis, how’s it going?
Jarvis: [Laughs] It’s going pretty well.
James: [Laughs] I don’t know if you were expecting that. I just kind of thought, “Oh, you know, that will be the best way to do it.” But, actually, I didn’t know how many Pro Tour appearances you’ve made. It seemed from our Facebook conversations that there were a lot. How many are there?
Jarvis: The last one I was at in Madrid was my eighth appearance, and I’m currently qualified for Honolulu in the fall, but not at Sydney, which is the last Pro Tour of this year. I’m qualified for Honolulu off of Silver Level Status currently. But I’m trying to get qualified for Sydney as well.
James: What’s the gap for you now between Silver and Gold status?
Jarvis: It’s only three Pro Points, except all of my Grand Prix slots are filled with finishes. I don’t know if you’re aware of how the system works?
James: No. You can fill me in, definitely.
Jarvis: You basically have your top six Grand Prix finishes count towards Pro Points for Pro Level status. I have an eight-pointer from the GP one, a four-pointer from Grand Prix Washington DC, where our team got eighth, a three-pointer from going 12-3 at New York City, and a bunch of two-pointers. So, in order for me to actually gain any Pro Points, I have to finish 12-2 or better. It’s kind of an awkward sort of First World Problem scenario. I’ve been to so many Grand Prix and done reasonably well, but not well enough to acquire Gold.
James: It sounds like a high-pressure situation, right? Because you want to hit Gold, but, I mean, it’s basically you do the calculation and you have to finish in the top, which is not easy for any large-scale event. Am I right?
Jarvis: Yeah, it is stressful, but I’ve also thought about this a lot. If I don’t get it this year, I’m just going to step back a bit and play a little bit less and focus on other things. I’m just going to ride it out and see what happens. I don’t believe in stressing out about this sort of thing. I think it leads to a very unhealthy sort of lifestyle.
James: Would you say that, for most of your playing career, you’ve had a very non-stressed mindset when you prepare for and play in events? Would you say it’s something you’ve developed over time?
Jarvis: I think it’s sort of an odd cultural thing that my parents sort of put into me. They were always like, “You should work hard.” But, even if you work hard and you do somewhat poor, you shouldn’t get upset about it as long as you tried your best, which is actually pretty contrary to most Asian-American families, I think. It’s kind of weird reflecting on that right now, I suppose.
James: Oh, no! I mean, I also have an Asian background and I can relate to that for sure.
Jarvis: Yeah, I think my parents were much more laid back than the average Asian-American family in the States. I mean, I did end up going to a pretty high-caliber college, so I guess they were okay with that and finishing grad school, but, after that, I don’t know. It’s just very different than what I know other Asian-Americans have experienced, so I try to take things a little bit easier. I mean, I do like to win. I do like to compete, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.
James: Excellent! So, maybe we can step back a little bit. This is a perfect segue way. I kind of want to get… because, I mean, you and I sort of knew each other online. This is also a great way for me to learn. I would like to go back in time. I know that you’re in Maryland right now, in the United States. Can you briefly talk about how you grew up and what it’s been like for you as a kid in the US? Basically go back in time a little bit and just talk about the earliest experiences you can remember and maybe when you first started playing Magic. From being a kid to playing your first game.
Jarvis: I was actually born in Columbia, South Carolina, and we didn’t actually stay there very long because my father was teaching at the University of South Carolina, but the problem was there weren’t really a lot of Chinese people in South Carolina. So my father took a job in Bethesda, Maryland, working at the National Institute of Health, which is a US agency for health research. There, once I got to middle school, other people were playing Magic in middle school. I’m sure you know what it’s like. And I looked at the cards and I’m like, “That seems pretty sweet.” So, my parents took me to a card store at some point and I think I bought either a Revised or a Fourth Edition Starter Deck. I looked through it and looked through the rulebook, kind of put it away for a while, but, at some point, I started playing with kids during lunch, and that’s how I got into the game.
James: I didn’t know that you started with Revised. You saw kids playing at school. Was there something about the game that drew you in? Was there a particular card, or just the way it was played?
Jarvis: By that point I had already been into games like chess, go, and Mahjong – basically all games that my dad taught me when I was younger. I also really liked reading fantasy fiction back then, so I guess it was those two things that sort of drew me in.
James: I’m going to guess you were, or maybe still am, a Lord of the Rings fan, based on your MTGO name, right? [“Samwise_GeeGee”]
Jarvis: There’s actually a funny story about that MTGO name. I used to be a much bigger Tolkien fan. It hasn’t aged well for me. It has dawned on me as I’ve gotten older that he was more of a linguist than actually a good fictional writer. There’s actually a story about that, that name. That account was…I didn’t originally create that account. A friend of mine created that account, and he was a huge Tolkien fan. But he basically quit Magic at some point, so I just sort of just assumed possession of the account.
James: Nice! So, you’ve been, I guess, crushing it after assuming his mantle.
Jarvis: [Laughs] Yeah! Funny how that works, right?
James: [Laughs] Yeah. So, you got your Revised deck. You got your parents to take you to the store. This sounds super familiar to me. I had a brother that I played Magic with, but I’m guessing that you are an only child?
Jarvis: No, I have a younger sister. She did not play Magic with me, nor was she ever interested, which is fine. I think it’s more of a guy thing, unfortunately. I mean, not that it’s entirely a guy thing. I think guys just tend to be more interested in it naturally.
James: Yeah, and when you see kids playing at school, it’s probably the guys, right? Or the boys.
James: So yeah, you got your decks and you started playing with the other kids. What happened after that?
Jarvis: Okay. So, at one point, I was in… Do you know the former bookstore chain Borders?
Jarvis: Yeah, they are mostly shut down now, but one of the Sundays I was in a Borders and I saw a deck building guide by…I don’t remember who it’s by, but basically it was Deck Building Guide to Competitive Type One Decks of that era. And for a kid who’s in middle school, reading that just sort of blew my mind – that you could build decks in a very focused sort of fashion. Of course, all of these decks had Lotus or all the Moxen, and they would try to do sort of things much faster than I was used to. But reading that had a huge effect on my Magic…I guess, development is the right word.
James: Was it something that you read, the passages or the decklist, and you thought, “I wanted to do that,” or, “I wanted to play with Power,” you know, pun intended. “I wanted to aspire.” What was going through your mind? Did you want to emulate those kind of decks? Is that what was happening?
Jarvis: Yeah, there was one deck in particular. It was called “The Deck”. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the history, but it was basically what we would call a three to five color control deck nowadays. It had Mind Twist, a bunch of counterspells, and ways to get ahead on cards. I think it taught me what it meant to play a deck that was just focused on nullifying whatever your opponent was doing and then winning the game very slowly.
James: Right! As I recall, the finisher for that deck was good old Serra Angel.
Jarvis: That is correct.
James: You literally just counter or kill everything. You neuter the opponent, like a true control deck, and then you just play the original Entreat the Angels, which was Serra Angel.
Jarvis: Yeah, that’s absolutely right! Just seeing that decklist, it basically blew my mind the first time I saw it.
James: Yeah, for sure. I remember also seeing some books around Magic at that time. For me, it was reading issues of The Duelist, you know, back when Mark Rosewater was writing puzzles for that magazine, and just hearing about the decks. And they had a little mini magazine in there called Sideboard.
James: And they were talking about how these players were playing these decks for the first time. And I think, as a kid—I hope you can relate to this—you know, when you see somebody play that, there’s just some part of us as competitive players that’s like, “I want to try that,” or, “I want to try that thing. I want to get to that level where I’m at the top and I’m winning more than I’m losing.” You know what I’m saying?
Jarvis: Right. Yeah, I definitely have had that experience, and I still have that experience occasionally.
James: So tell me how you got to your first competitive match, because you must have played with the kids at school, but, at some point, you saw the book in Borders. How did you go from that to sitting down in a tournament, in a gaming store, and doing that for the first time?
Jarvis: There’s actually a long stretch between that [reading that book] and then actually playing a sanctioned match of Magic. In fact, I would guess it was about ten years in between. I didn’t actually play a match of sanctioned Magic until I was in college. I think it was either my freshman or sophomore year. And I found people who were competitive in a way that sort of resonated with me. They were analytical Math or science-type of people who played Magic at Dartmouth. And just being able to talk to them and figuring out that, hey, I might actually want to do this competitively. It was sort of an enlightening experience.
James: So, you met them and they were already playing in tournaments?
Jarvis: Yeah. I think, technically, my first Booster Draft was during Onslaught, but I wasn’t very good, and I think I had a 60-card draft deck with Visara in it. And if you know anything about that format, well, first off, you should just minimize your deck size. You know, whatever. But, also, that’s magnified by the fact that I had a card like Visara, which is one of the best cards in the format. Period! So, you should just play a 40-card deck if you have that card.
James: Yeah. Actually, I wanted to ask—What did you study at school?
Jarvis: I actually started with Physics, changed my mind, went to Computer Science, change my mind and ended up studying Math.
Jarvis: But I sort of still dabbled in the first two, but I didn’t finish out the major in either of them. I just took some classes here and there.
James: Okay, so you ended up graduating with a Math degree.
Jarvis: Yeah, and my Masters is in, technically, Mathematical Statistics, but, you know, I can do a bit of everything involving statistics.
James: Excellent. So, your friends, I guess you must have met them through… Was it classes or was it like just social clubs or something like that, or just friends?
Jarvis: It was classes and I did fencing for a bit in college, and, actually, a lot of those guys played Magic. Well, not at fencing practice or whatever, or in class. One of the guys I met is Israel Marquez. He was originally from Roanoke, Virginia, and I don’t know if you know this, but that’s where Star City Games is located. And so he, after high school, every day would work there and so he had a relatively big collection and he was willing to help me get started and teach me stuff about sanctioned Magic. You know, it was really great. I think, without that, I probably wouldn’t have played very much constructed Magic because I just didn’t really have a collection by that point.
James: It seems that in all of the origin stories that I’ve heard, the players always had some Magic “drug dealer” or hook-up that got them into the game.
James: The gateway drug. And then they never leave after that.
Jarvis: Yeah, that’s sort of how it works. And then I actually did join a college fraternity in my junior/senior year, and a bunch of the people in that fraternity also played Magic and were willing to lend stuff and, you know, run, like, drafts every week. That was basically how, in college, I got into competitive Magic. And we would occasionally go to PTQ’s in our area, which is New England. We would just like drive around, like two to four hours to wherever and, you know, just play the constructed or limited PTQ. I didn’t do well in most of those until I actually graduated college, but, I mean, there’s always a learning curve, right?
James: Yeah. And I would assume that when you’re in areas like that, these are some of the tougher areas of Magic to compete in, right? I’m going to guess that there were probably a lot of players.
Jarvis: I remember PTQ’s that had like Melissa DeTora, Jackie Lee, Dan Jordan, just like a bunch of New England people who were reasonably good, and I basically had very little idea of what I was doing. I’m going to be frank. I didn’t have enough practice or enough experience to actually compete with them.
James: Was there a moment in time when you were playing in tournaments, or maybe as you got started or a little bit later, post-graduation, that you said to yourself, “I’m going to dedicated time to this game. I’m going to commit myself to high-level Magic”? Was there a particular point in time?
Jarvis: Yeah, I think it’s kind of weird. After I graduated from college, I sort of didn’t know that I wanted to go to grad school, or even what I wanted to do with my life yet. So I think I ended up playing a lot more Magic Online right after that, and, frankly, probably not the best for having a balanced life. But it did teach me a lot about Magic that I didn’t know before, just playing matches and thinking about them. I don’t know, for six to seven hours per day.
James: That’s awesome because if you want to get good at something, you have to put in the time, right?
Jarvis: Yeah, and my parents were not the most thrilled about this because, from their perspective, I should have tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Find a job or something. But that went on for a bit and I actually did end up finding a fellowship at NIH with the help of my parents and also tutoring kids in Math for high school. At some point I did get bored of just playing for hours upon end, and I didn’t feel like I was contributing anything essential to society.
James: I am kind of curious, if I may go back a step – you had been practicing or playing six to seven hours a day.
James: What was your system for practicing? Now, with the advent of articles, and literature, and pros writing about how they practice, there seems to be a really focused way, or an accepted way, of doing things. Did you just grind games or did you talk to your friends about certain strategies and lists? How did you go about playing six to seven hours a day?
Jarvis: So, back then—this might seem really weird—not all of the decklists were published from Magic Online. Like, the decklists that did well. So, you had to do a lot of research to figure out what was actually in a person’s deck, including just messaging them privately online, and seeing if they would be willing to do that. Other ways of getting the information was to actually just cast Cranial Extraction when you were on like a losing board state, so that you could see their deck. That actually happened a fair number of times to me and other people that I know. Just to get the decklists, people would cast Cranial Extraction under a losing board state and then write down whatever was in your deck.
James: Yeah, screenshotted or something.
Jarvis: Yeah. But I’ve always been of the opinion that, especially nowadays, that doing research and thinking about the game is a lot more helpful than just mindlessly grinding games. I think that’s a mistake people make a lot, that they assume that professionals are grinding to some optimal decklist, where they’re playing a lot of matches. This is generally not how it works. People are way more likely to just try to figure out what’s actually happening and then do something based on that, rather than playing for hours upon end. I mean, practice is definitely important. Don’t get me wrong. But I think there’s just this mistaken impression that you need to play for forty hours before a Grand Prix, or whatever, to do well. If you play test effectively, you could do it in half the time.
James: I mean, it’s one part preparation and one part just being in the moment and being able to react properly to the board and your opponent. Is that fair?
Jarvis: Yeah, that is a huge part of it. And it probably helps that I have put in a lot of reps in a lot of different sort of weird formats that I sort of naturally know what to do in most situations.
James: I think I can attest to this, because you won GP Seattle with Lands and that was not an easy deck to play. It’s not an easy deck for someone who doesn’t… I’m guessing you’re not somebody who plays Legacy 24/7.
Jarvis: I know. I’m…
James: Exactly! Right?
Jarvis: I have played a lot of Legacy in the past, but nowadays it’s really off and on. But it’s not like the format completely changes every time I go back to it. A lot of things still remain true. In fact, during Seattle, the week before I was at a standard GP and I was planning on going to the Limited GP the weekend after and a modern GP the weekend after. I actually did Atlanta as well, which was Sealed Deck and Draft. I went 11-4. So I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s better to practice smart than to practice a lot.
James: Right! And it definitely seems to me that you are a multi-format all-star if I can put it that way. I’ve seen some of your finishes, I mean, Standard, Modern, Draft, other formats. Legacy, obviously, you won the whole thing [the Seattle GP]. There’s no way that you can put forty hours of practice into every format every week. I would have to assume that there’s some aspect of having muscle memory, or habits from playing so many games in the past, that can carry over into any format, right?
Jarvis: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I actually have had this discussion with Bob Huang, who you know as well, that the reason the professionals are so good is not because they play all the time. It’s because they practice well. They know how to practice and they know how to synthesize information very well. I’ve seen Paulo pick up Miracles the week before a GP and still top-eight the GP without having played as many games as other people. And it’s not because he’s some sort of Miracles savant. It’s because he knows what needs to be done in most of the matchups just from his Magic intuition, from playing thousands of matches of Magic.
James: How much do you think that also has to do with the fact that these players, including yourself, have played with these Legacy cards when they were in Standard or Extended in the past? Do you think that factors into it? Like, I’ve used Sensei’s Divining Top a million times before. Or do you think that’s not really the main thing? It’s just that they have an innate understanding, or you have an understanding of matchup and how to play out situations?
Jarvis: I think that it is somewhat true. I did play with Top in Standard. I’m sure Paulo did as well. But the Miracles deck is pretty unique. But it’s not so different from the old Counterbalance-Top decks that used to exist, that you just have to forget everything. You just have to understand what your end goal is like in most of the matchups. And, yes, play testing helps there, but it’s also just a matter of focusing on what matters. If you’re playing Miracles versus Storm, it’s very clear that you want to get Top-Counterbalance as soon as possible. Just focusing on what matters and not worrying so much about doing every single thing right is also an advantage that I would say some of the professionals have.
James: I think that’s an excellent point, Jarvis. I often talk to people – and these are grinders or folks that are already good at Magic – and they have these mental limits that they impose on themselves. They beat themselves up over some small mistakes and they can’t get over it for the next three rounds. You raised an excellent point, which is to look at the big picture, be in the moment. You don’t need to play 100% technically well. Okay, don’t get me wrong! I’m sure you guys are nearly at 100%. That’s probably a prerequisite, but it’s a mindset thing as well, where you have to pick yourself back up or just know the matchups. You know what I mean?
Jarvis: Yeah, that’s 100% true. Like, even this past weekend I was playing a match versus Andrew Cuneo, who you might have heard of.
James: Oh yeah, I have.
Jarvis: One of the turns I just forgot to attack for two with my Sylvan Advocate, but I accepted that I made that mistake and moved on. Just trying to play as carefully as possible after that.
James: Right. And I think a lot of players make that mistake and it’s good that you’re able to see that dwelling on them is not a good way to win matches or tournaments.
Jarvis: It’s very good to go back and analyze things that you’ve done on camera before and notice how you can do them better after the tournament is over, but doing it within the tournament is often very perilous.
James: Right. So let me switch gears slightly. You said that you had studied Math. I’m going to guess that some of that helps with Magic. Do you see any intersection between your field of study and Magic, and do you think there might be some relationship there?
Jarvis: Yeah, I tend to think about things in more probabilistic sense than a lot of Magic players do. I think you’re familiar with this idea, but I try to envision what cards could be in the range, based on how the game has played out so far. I assign a likelihood to which cards would show up. I think this is a pretty big idea in poker, too—not reading someone, but just having a range of hands that your opponent could have.
James: Trying to figure out what your outs are, what your opponent’s outs are, and what he could possibly have. I think that’s definitely key.
Jarvis: Yeah, in some games there’s 0% for them to have something because they would have just played it out to beat you. It’s really important to realize that. Also, sometimes you just can’t play around a card, so I don’t bother playing around it. I’m just like, “If he has this card, I’m going to lose 100% of the time,” so you should just play as though they don’t have it. Just focusing on likelihoods, but also realizing when the likelihood doesn’t matter.
James: That’s interesting because, from articles that I’ve read, it seems like that’s always in a good player’s bag of tricks. Is that something you picked up quite early, even as you were playing Magic in college, or did it develop over time?
Jarvis: It took me a while to develop. It was definitely not in my early stages of development.
James: Okay. And you did fencing for a while, and you met some of your friends who played Magic through that. Fencing is a competitive thing. Magic is a competitive thing. Even Mahjong, or any game, can be competitive. But why Magic? Why this game that’s taken so many hours of your life investment, as opposed to other games and hobbies?
Jarvis: When I was in middle school and high school I did play competitive chess to some degree – just not with the greatest amount of success. I just realized that for a game that’s fully deterministic, you’re only going to become good at it if you’re studying it for hours on end. I decided at some point that a fully deterministic game wasn’t for me. So, Magic, being sort of halfway between chess and poker, is something that I decided I was interested in growing my skills on.
James: Did it have something to do with the fact that you recognized…I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like chess is a very skill-intensive game that requires a lot of study and practice to play well. And Magic could be in that category as well. So, you aspired to climb a mountain which is not easy for just anybody to climb. This is not checkers, right?
James: This is something that you have to put in the work. Was that attractive to you when it came to Magic?
Jarvis: At the beginning I didn’t think about it. It was only much later into the competitive arena that I realized that that was a thing that distinguished people, and then I started applying myself to it. I did basically start as what people would call a competitive casual player, as opposed to an ordinary casual player.
James: Can you explain what you mean by that – by competitive casual?
Jarvis: Going back to my friend Israel Marquez, there was actually a point where we were both studying overseas in Beijing at Beijing Normal University. I don’t know if you know where that is. You probably do.
James: Oh, I absolutely do.
Jarvis: Beishida I think is the Chinese name for it. So, Dartmouth had a program with them in the summers—and I believe they still do—for studying Chinese language and Chinese culture. But, on the flipside, there’s a lot of downtime. So Israel and I would play a lot of Magic. And he had two decks at the time. He had Shuhei Nakamura’s “Red Deck Wins,” which had four Rishadan Port, four Wasteland, eight red fetchlands, and eight mountains, and a bunch of red creatures, and Cursed Scrolls. And he would play “The Rock” – the version that has Vampiric Tutor, Ravenous Baloth, and Recurring Nightmare. My introduction to playing Magic with Israel was playing that matchup a lot. That is what I would consider a competitive matchup, but I was a casual player. So, that’s what I mean by competitive casual, if that makes sense.
James: It wasn’t in a sanctioned tournament, but you were playing with competitive-caliber decks. Is that right?
Jarvis: Yeah, Shuhei even top-eighted a Pro Tour in 2005 with that deck, I believe. And I think he lost to Pierre Canali in the finals, who was playing Affinity. So that’s how I learned to play, with Red Deck Wins.
James: It must have been a challenging matchup. Red Deck Wins versus The Rock. I’m assuming that it wasn’t a landslide in any deck’s favor. I’m sure that your friend was a pretty good player already, and you probably won some and lost some. Is that fair?
Jarvis: Yeah, we weren’t keeping track, but I definitely learned a fair amount from both sides. It’s also interesting. We played at one of the local shops in Beijing at some point, and trying to explain to your opponent how you’re activating Cursed Scroll and naming an English card when they don’t know English, is not the easiest experience. I eventually settled on writing the name of the card in English down because they could read, but they couldn’t really communicate in it, if that makes sense.
James: It absolutely makes sense. Their reading and writing is a lot stronger than verbalizing anything, and I think it’s just the way that they study the English language, where it’s just all written exams and nothing oral or verbal.
James: Yeah, that’s really cool! I did not know that you spent some time in Beijing. That’s awesome!
Jarvis: I actually spent…I would guess it was about eight weeks there, then I visited my father’s family in Hong Kong and also visited a shop down there, but most of the Hong Kongers do speak English because it was a British colony for so long.
James: It’s very different between Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Jarvis: Oh yes. I know very well.
James: I’m kind of preaching to the choir, but living in Beijing now, I still feel that.
Jarvis: How bad is the smog nowadays for you? I’m curious.
James: You know, we’ve been really fortunate so far this year. There haven’t been any “outbreaks”. I say “outbreaks” snidely because it’s all manufactured by them turning factories on and off.
James: But I mean, it’s fine. I’ve got my two air purifiers in my apartment and I have my masks in my backpack any time I need it.
James: One of my traditions is that, before going out anywhere in the morning, instead of checking for the temperature, I just look at the air quality index app on my phone. I don’t even care if it’s 8 degrees Fahrenheit, or 80 Fahrenheit, or whatever. I just care about the air quality. Priorities, right? But, to answer your question, it’s been really good. Fingers crossed, knock on wood.
James: Can you tell me what’s the best Magic-related memory that you’ve had? What’s a real high for you when it comes to Magic, over the years that you’ve played?
Jarvis: Well, as you know, I did win in Seattle, and I would consider that to be the best Magic-related memory that I’ve had in my life, mainly because I was actually pretty close to sort of dialing it back competitive-wise. I was sort of frustrated that a lot of my friends were qualified for whatever Pro Tour and I was not doing so well. And I basically said to myself during that four-week Grand Prix journey from Indy to Seattle, to Atlanta, to Pittsburg…I said that if I didn’t qualify then, I was going to just re-evaluate and maybe take some steps back. Fortunately, the deck I chose, I got very good matchups. I got lucky when I needed to and I won the event. It felt really surreal at the time that I had something that I’ve only read about other people doing, granted all my friends had done it, so I knew I could definitely do it. But still, I was by no means expecting that to happen.
James: How many people were in that GP? There were at least 1,500 people or something around that?
Jarvis: I believe, ironically, the number of people was 2,014 and not 2,015.
Jarvis: I believe there was just one short of being the same as the year.
James: That’s amazing! I mean, 2,014—that’s not a small number. Even if you had Byes. You just said it’s a combination of good matchups and you playing well, and dodging some bullets, right?
Jarvis: Right. I definitely had to dodge some bullets. I had a lot of turn-two 20/20’s in that tournament. You can’t really expect that to happen very often.
James: Yeah, it’s always great when a Prison Control deck can kill on the third turn or something like that, right?
Jarvis: I think that is actually pretty unique to this deck. I can’t think of any combo-prison decks in my life.
James: Can you tell me about the rush as you made your way to first place? Did you feel in Day Two that you were in the zone, or did you feel something different from what you felt before? Let’s start with that.
Jarvis: I didn’t really feel too differently until I made it to the elimination rounds. I’ve had a lot of close calls in different formats playing for essentially the Top 8 of Grand Prix events. There have been many times when I didn’t make the win-and-in happen. This time, it happened, obviously. It feels great. My win-and-in opponent was Martin Goldman-Kirst, who was playing Aluren. I’ve actually known him from other Pro Tours, and I did remember from SCG events that he always played Aluren in basically all of them. And people, especially in Legacy, have a tendency not to switch, especially if they love their deck. I knew he was one of those guys. So, I developed a game plan versus that deck on the fly because I haven’t actually tested the Aluren matchup. Basically, the game plan was keep them off four mana. That sounds really obvious, but it’s better to just lay it out in your head before actually playing the game. Just lay out the plan, try to execute it as well as possible. I executed pretty well in game one, given I had Manabond and a bunch of lands on turn one, with Loam already in the graveyard, because you just discard it to your Manabond. Game two is the game I made a mistake because I was supposed to Punishing Fire his Scavenging Ooze first instead of his Deathrite Shaman, and that game, basically, trying to play around the Ooze cost me too much mana on one turn, so he got the four mana and killed me. And then game three I just had a great start in that I had two Krosan Grips to fight off Aluren, but then I just peeled Dark Depths on turn three or four and he was stuck on one or two lands, and one of them was Volrath’s Stronghold, so I knew he couldn’t do very much to actually kill me. So, yeah, that’s how I made the win-and-in. After that it felt sort of surreal. Although, I’ve played a lot of PTQ Top 8s in my life and it didn’t really feel that different from a PTQ Top 8.
James: I see. And, just going back to the Aluren matchup, that sounds like a matchup where you didn’t…it goes back to what you said about having a game plan or being in the moment and excelling there. It’s not like you practiced against Aluren for forty hours a week, or even for one hour a week. You just had a game plan in your head and you told yourself, “That was the game plan. Keep him off four lands,” and you executed on that game plan. And that was your line, right?
James: So, it sounds like you had that focus, which I don’t think a lot of players have. Not everybody in that room in GP Seattle was thinking the same thing. This mindset that you had, which sounded very focused and clear for your win-and-in, is that something different from the previous situations where you didn’t quite make it? Was there any mental adjustment there, or am I just fishing for a difference? Did you feel different, or it was the same kind of systematic game plan that you had?
Jarvis: It didn’t really feel different to me in any of those matches that I played. I’ll give you some other examples of matchups I’ve played for basically pseudo win-and-ins. I played against Todd Anderson in Round 15 of GP Richmond. He was playing what people would call Temur Splinter Twin and I was playing Jund Midrange. And I knew my game plan versus him, which was just “kill all of his creatures”. It’s just that in game three the plan didn’t work out the way I expected it to. That can happen. I don’t think I made too many mistakes. I’m sure I made a few here and there, mainly because it’s really difficult to avoid playing an entire match without making mistakes. I think that’s true for almost everyone, unless your name is Jon Finkel. But, yeah, I think just accepting the fact that you’re going to make mistakes and not letting it bother you is the correct way to approach things. So, yes, that happened to me in Richmond. I also lost playing for a Top 8 Grand Prix in Atlantic City in 2013, which was Standard. I do know my mistake in that tournament, but, unfortunately, by that point in the tournament, I couldn’t correct it. It was a deck building mistake, which, by Round 13 in the tournament, you can’t change your deck, so I was committed to having that mistake be in my deck. But it was definitely a mistake. I had a 61-card main deck because I couldn’t figure out what to cut.
James: It happens to the best of us.
Jarvis: Yeah. I’m not too worried about it. I still did very well in that tournament. It’s just I would have liked to do one better and top-eight the tournament with 61 cards so that I could explain why you shouldn’t have 61 cards in my deck.
James: It sounds like you’ve been through similar situations, and this time it worked out for you in Seattle. So let’s go back to the Top 8. You said then it started to feel more surreal, right? As you were playing the rounds. What was that like? Because I saw the matches, but I didn’t know what was going through your mind.
Jarvis: So, the first match I played against Xin Sui. I think he’s also from Beijing, if I had to guess. Maybe it’s somewhere else in China. I can’t remember right now. He was playing Shardless Sultai. That’s a very good matchup for me, and I just demolished him in two games. It wasn’t really close and it didn’t take very long. Then I just felt like going through the motions. The second match was versus Brian DeMars. He was playing Jeskai Miracles, which is a much tougher matchup. They can, first off, kill your Marit Lage with Swords to Plowshares. Second off, Counterbalance can shut off your Loams. That’s why the matchup is, I would say, slightly unfavorable. And he had a bunch of Blood Moons in the sideboard, which, that card is also excellent against me as well. Fortunately, I think game one he mulliganed, kept his hand, and then just didn’t scry before the game started. And this is actually a legal action for him to take because if you don’t scry, it’s just assumed you left it on top. So, he just didn’t scry. I think he was probably jet lagged, as Ari Lax told me after the match. But I’m just giving a full description of what happened. So, he scrys, and I’m on the play. I go land, Exploration, play another land. He goes island, Top. My next turn is play Stage and Depths and just threaten the combo. And he tops on his upkeep and just doesn’t find a white source, so I make a 20/20 and kill him. That’s not very exciting, but that’s what happened.
James: Yeah, that’s how you got there.
Jarvis: Yeah, and that’s what I’m saying. Sometimes you get lucky and they just don’t draw a fetchland. A fetchland means that he would have had a Tundra that was basically invulnerable to being Rishadan Ported or Wastelanded on that particular turn. So, yeah, game two he has the misfortune of mulliganing to five, fails to scry again, and just plays a land, and says, “Go”. Like, okay. And then I just threaten the 20/20 on turn two again. He casts a bunch of cantrips. I think about it for a while. He has a land and a fetchland out at the end of his turn three. And so I just decided to go for it because he had mulliganed a bunch, and he shuffled with his Ponder. On my turn, he casts Brainstorm, looking to Miracle a Terminus. Doesn’t find anything, and he just shakes my hand. And that was one of the fastest matches of Magic I’ve played in a Top 8 of any event.
James: So, the deck that can dig for a million cards did not get there.
Jarvis: I’ve played a lot of matches versus Miracles. Especially when they mulligan a bunch like that, I think it’s way more correct to be aggressive. I have played the grind-out, get-a-million-Rishadan-Ports game versus them. It’s not really that pleasant to do. Basically, there are two ways you can approach the matchup. One, you can just find a million Rishadan Ports, port all their white sources, and then make the 20/20. The other thing you can do is to just go for it and try to Loam back your combo over and over. I tend to not aggressively make the 20/20 versus them. I just think in those games it was slightly higher equity for me to do so because he had mulliganed and didn’t scry. Also, in that second game, even if I had gotten Swords’d there, I still had a Gamble in my hand that could find Life from the Loam, so I could rebuild within two turns.
James: That sounds like a bit of your Math background, right? You’re able to see that this was the right move to make.
Jarvis: Yeah, I mean, sometimes it is correct for you to call, even when you’re unfavored, because what’s in the middle of the pot is so hot. You know about the so-called pot odds. I recall that you played poker for a while. So, when the pot odds are good enough for you, you should call, even though you’re probably unfavored.
Jarvis: But here I think I was favored and the pot odds were good.
James: And how much of the fact that you were already up a game calculate into your decision? Did it have any effect on your game two to just go for it?
Jarvis: Zero. I really hate making decisions based on that. I think it’s completely wrong to do so. You should treat every game independent of other games. I see this happen a lot to people. The winning card in game one that’s actually not very good in the matchup, they leave it in because it won them the game one. You should just treat every game independently.
James: I think that’s a really key lesson, and, unfortunately, a lot of players never learn that, right?
James: It sounded like you were on a heater. I mean, the Shardless match, you were favored, so 2-0 was not a surprise. But 2-0-ing Miracles and someone who is obviously a high-quality player like Brian is not easy, and he failed to scry both games due to jet lag or whatnot. Regardless of that, you’re on a heater. And then tell me what’s going through your mind at that point that you beat Brian.
Jarvis: I was pretty happy that it didn’t last ninety minutes, honestly. My biggest fear was that I would get tired after playing like ninety-minute match versus Miracles. Often, they can end up like that because of having to get Rishadan Ports, so it takes forever to actually finish the game. But just getting a freebie sort of like that was much nicer. And actually, I’ve known Calcano [Christian Calcano, his next opponent in the GP] for a long time. He and I, both of us first cashed the exact same GP, which was Grand Prix Philadelphia 2008. It was Extended, and Calcano actually beat me in that tournament. He was my only loss on day one of that tournament. He was playing Doran. I was playing Goblins. And I remember this very distinctively, games one and three he had Doran, the Siege Tower, Umezawa’s Jitte, and Shizo, Death’s Storehouse. I don’t know if you know what Shizo, Death’s Storehouse does.
James: That’s a blast from the past. I could look it up, but just tell the listeners what it is.
Jarvis: I’ll tell you very quickly. It is a black legendary land from Kamigawa. It taps for one black mana. It can also give target creature Fear until end of turn. So, the problem was Calcano could just Fear up his Doran every turn with Jitte on it and kill all my guys, even though I had Skirk Prospector in play, which lets me sac [sacrifice] a Goblin to add red to my pool. Without the Shizo, or the Doran, or the Jitte, I would have won both of these games easily. Instead, he beat me 2-1. So, I definitely remember that very distinctively.
James: Right. So he had the nuts, or really favorable draws, back in 2008.
Jarvis: Back then, I remember beating a lot of the Doran decks, too. Just play testing and knowing how the matchup went, but Calcano definitely beat me in that tournament and I think we both ended up 11-4 for $250 if I recall correctly. So now, I was just like, “Now I finally get to have revenge on Calcano after all these years.” The Grixis Delver matchup is very, very, very good for Lands as well.
James: [Laughs] I think that’s an understatement, right?
Jarvis: You can occasionally lose to them, but it usually involves something weird happening or you not being careful enough. That is my perception of the matchup.
James: They have to get the nuts. They have to have turn one Delver, turn two Delver, counter, Daze, and hit you for lethal in time. They need to have the nuts to beat you, right?
Jarvis: Yeah, and a lot of those draws are not good enough versus multiple Maze of Iths, which is what I had versus him. I had three Mazes, even though I didn’t have a second land. At some point, he Probed me on turn one to see that he should Daze my Loam immediately, because it would get me my third mana source. So he just Dazes me a few times while I built up Mazes in play. And then, at some point, he Wastelands my Stage, which was letting me cast Loam, so I just decided to Crop Rotate one of my Mazes away for a Tabernacle. And he only had one mana in place, so he lost a bunch of his creatures and decided to concede to save time. Because those games can get pretty mentally draining, and I think it’s okay for Calcano to concede there, even though it’s a little bit premature, just to save mental energy.
James: I think that’s something that you guys as high-level players do, that people don’t often think about, right? Because you’re talking about the final rounds, and a casual competitive player might be like, “I’m going to play it out. I’m going to play all these matches against Miracles, even if it’s three hours, because I have one out.” Right? Like, what’s to lose? But I think you guys understand that. Look at the big picture. You’re trying to win the war, not the battle.
Jarvis: Right. To be fair, I know Owen [Turtenwald] has the complete opposite view. He will play every single game to the bitter end because he knows he has the stamina to last that long. I think that’s just knowing yourself better than your opponent knowing you, rather than that being strictly correct. I think for Owen it is correct because the amount of exhaustion it would take for him to make a game-losing mistake is so much higher than the amount of Magic we’re actually likely to have to play.
Jarvis: So that sort of counterbalances your point because I know Owen just almost always doesn’t concede until full damage to him is on the stack.
James: Right. Owen is also superhuman, right?
Jarvis: It would not surprise me to find out he’s a cyborg in disguise.
James: He probably has a time machine. I don’t know him. Just from observing him, he seems to be from the future.
Jarvis: Right. [Laughs]
James: There’s another thing I want to comment on, which is in your matchup with Calcano. A lot of people were mentioning this. They mentioned that you were playing very methodically and that you were playing around something that you thought he might have had. [Instead of going for a Dark Depths combo kill, Jarvis kept recurring Wastelands in his graveyard to cut Calcano off of lands over several turns.] Can you walk through what was in your mind? Because a lot of the observers were saying, “Jarvis could have won, like, ten turns ago.” You managed to grind it out in your own way and still be successful in the end. Can you talk about your thought process?
Jarvis: Deep into the second game I noticed Calcano had two cards in hand for a while that he wasn’t using. And we had had access to decklists, so I know for sure he has Surgicals [Surgical Extractions] coming in and he has two of them here. He had already used one to take my Punishing Fire, and I was relatively sure the other card was Submerge, based on how the game played out. He just hadn’t used either of those cards for a while. I was less certain that he had Surgical, but, basically, the problem with making the 20/20 there is he can just Submerge the 20/20 and then Surgical Dark Depths. However, I think I made a giant mistake when he drew Wasteland and didn’t waste my Dark Depths. I should’ve figured out immediately that he didn’t have Surgical in his hand. Because he can just force the play then, right? He can just waste it on my Dark Depths, I make a 20/20, he Submerges it, and then Surgicals the Dark Depths. I’ve thought about this a lot since then and I basically made a promise to myself to try not to make that mistake again. At the time, I thought it was basically cutting off all his outs by killing all of his islands so he couldn’t cast Submerge. I mean, if he doesn’t have an island to cast the Submerge for free, he basically can’t cast them because his deck has no lands after that.
Jarvis: At the time, I really thought it was the correct thing, but it turns out it was wrong. I had this pointed out to me by some very good friends of mine after the tournament. Obviously, they’re not going to, you know… As I’m saying, you should re-analyze all of your games after the tournament is finished and just remember where you can improve. I think that’s just the best way to learn. Other people will see things that you don’t see.
James: And that’s the beauty of Magic, right? It’s a game of inches.
Jarvis: Yeah. I was fairly confident in my read on Submerge. I was less confident about my read on Surgical.
James: Now you’ve beaten Christian Calcano. You’ve gotten him back. I don’t want to say revenge because, you know, you guys are friends.
Jarvis: It’s not very polite to say.
James: It’s not polite to say, but you’re on top. You just won a freaking tournament with 2,014 people. Other than the fact that you felt kind of validated as a Magic competitive player, what was that moment for you like at that point in time? I want to know because I’ve never been there. What’s going through your mind when you know you’ve won the whole thing?
Jarvis: It just really felt like, “Someone pinch me! Make sure this isn’t a dream,” you know? It was just really surreal because I just didn’t expect it to happen, because it’s so unrealistic to expect that to happen. Basically, my viewpoint on tournaments is this—Even if you are the best player in the room, you’re probably no more than, say, six over N to win the tournament, where N is the number of players in the room. Maybe if you’re like a real Reid [Duke] or Owen level, you’re probably like 20 over N, which is much higher, but that’s still not a good probability to bet on.
James: That’s still 20 over N.
Jarvis: For that tournament, that would have been 1%, which is non-zero, but that’s not really a realistic expectation.
James: You felt surreal, right? To use your words.
James: Tell me what happened immediately after that. On Facebook it seemed like your friends were very congratulatory, as they should be, that you did it, right? Did you feel the love or the support of the players around you –and your friends?
Jarvis: Yeah, it was unreal. I’m really fortunate that a lot of my friends were at that tournament to actually congratulate me right afterwards. Knowing that so many people are supporting you in a tournament is a great feeling. I still get a lot of support for all of the GPs I go to nowadays. I’m still trying my hardest to get these last three Pro Points, as you know. But, at that tournament, it was great to just have people congratulate you and then have a nice dinner with them and talk about things that happened during the tournament. It was just great afterwards.
James: That sounds amazing! And you’re one of the very few select group of people that have climbed the mountain. I’m super happy for you, man! We didn’t know each other very well before this conversation, but this is what I love – it’s just getting into the minds of players, right? So, if I can be sort of a Debbie Downer for a moment, let’s talk about the lows, because that’s what I like.
Jarvis: Oh, man. [Laughs]
James: [Laughs] Yeah, what’s the worst Magic-related moment or experience that you’ve had?
Jarvis: I think there’s probably a few matches where I haven’t been the best possible person I could have been. I was just mad or, you know… I’m a human being, right? I can’t be perfect all the time. Maybe I just took it out too much on some person because I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted to. And there’ve been multiple periods of my life where I’ve done that. I’m not really proud of it because Magic is a game of luck. Sometimes you’re going to lose. You shouldn’t take it out on other people. I don’t have a very specific moment I want to point to, but I know I have done this in the past and I hope to never repeat it again and just try to stay as positive as possible. I know that’s maybe not as specific of an example as you’d like, but that’s what I can basically remember, just these points in my life where I was super salty for no reason and I just took it out on my opponent.
James: Hey man, I think we’ve all been there. I haven’t even played at the same high level as you have, and I get salty playing in locals, just the other week.
James: I mean, I’m fucking in my 30’s and I got salty because…you know. And I think I talked about that in my writing, too. Sometimes I feel like I deserve to win a match. That sounds really bad. It’s basically entitlement with a capital E. Sometimes I think, this guy doesn’t know anything about this matchup. He’s playing a terrible deck. I’m also playing a deck which is favored against him. And then I lose. I think with age, I’m better able to control how I externalize it, but internally I still feel that a little bit. You know what I mean? I’m not trying to say that that’s what you’re feeling, but I think a lot of players feel that at some point in time. And I think it’s also a gift and a curse, right? Because that’s the thing that makes you competitive in the first place.
James: So, it’s kind of… I don’t want to get on a soapbox. But it’s kind of how we denigrate certain people for doing something, when that thing was the thing that got them there in the first place. You know what I mean?
Jarvis: Right. I understand your point exactly and I agree that, to some degree, that’s what motivates people to try to win. That feeling of, “I think my deck is good. I want to win. I think my opponent is playing something that’s worse, and I think I’m favored, so I should win the match.” The thing I tell myself almost nearly every tournament nowadays is that, yes, I know I can win, but I still have to earn every match. I tell this to myself before the tournament starts. I try to keep it in my mind to prevent the, maybe, arrogance, or cockiness, or even saltiness that could result if you don’t tell yourself.
James: I think just the fact that—I know you didn’t go into specifics—but just the fact that you have that awareness about things that you could have done better or could have been less salty, I think that in itself is a proof that you have a degree of self-awareness, that you are looking to get better. And maybe part of getting better is just treating your opponents with more respect, as I’m trying to learn every day as well.
Jarvis: Yeah. A friend of mine, Steve Rubin, wrote an article saying that, “Your opponents are humans, too,” as the short tagline. And I think that article was very healthy for him to write, based on your description of how people can sort of denigrate other people and say, “Oh, man! Your deck was so bad. You don’t deserve to win,” or whatever. I mean, you don’t know their motivation for playing that deck or why they’re playing Magic. Maybe they’re having a terrible day and you’re just piling worse stuff on them. It’s just that you should try to treat your opponents with as much respect as possible, and, you know, at the end of the day, Magic is still a game. You shouldn’t ruin it for other people, even if you think you should win. Not to get too preachy or anything, but that’s how I feel about it nowadays. I 100% agree with Steve.
James: Do you think that you’ve mellowed out in some ways as you’ve gotten older, or gotten more experienced in playing Magic?
Jarvis: Yeah, I think so. I think in my early days I really just thought winning was everything. Even as a sophomore in college, I still thought winning was everything. And nowadays I’m like, yes, I would like to win. It would make me extremely happy to win than to lose, but losing also happens and you shouldn’t let it affect you. You can still win a tournament after losing once or twice. You shouldn’t let it drag you all the way down.
James: You know a lot of the top-level players. You’re friends with them and you guys have been in tournaments together. What you just said about wanting to win at all costs being something in your mindset when you’re younger, do you think that’s how all the good or great players got started? That they had to have that fire? Or could they have become this way through other means as well?
Jarvis: Yeah, I think having the fire and being respectful are not mutually exclusive things. It’s very rare that you’ll see someone who can embody both at the same time, if that makes any sense.
James: It does, because, at some point it’s a tradeoff. You have to go one or the other and it’s not easy.
Jarvis: I think there are people who do embody both. They tend to be pretty friendly, but when they’re in the match, they’ll look for a way to win within the game. They won’t try to play like crazy mind games or trash-talk their opponent. They will just try to look for a hole in the game that they can exploit. Maybe a slight weakness of play on your part, and try to take advantage of it, and still be very respectful and friendly during the match. Example of people like this are Reid Duke and Luis Scott-Vargas [LSV] in my mind. They are fierce competitors, but they are also some of the friendliest people that you can ever meet.
James: I’ve never played against them, but I can tell you that LSV is absolutely a class act when he’s not playing Magic.
Jarvis: No, he’s still class act when he’s playing Magic. He’s just looking for holes in, you know, whatever game to try to win.
Jarvis: He want to win, still. He’s just not going to trash-talk you down to nothing while doing it.
James: All of you guys have the fire, right? Whether it’s you, him, or Reid. You absolutely want it, but you want it in a way that is, like, maybe the word is “honorable.” You’re not angle shooting. You’re not trying to get some unfair edge or bully the other person. You’re just trying to enforce your will on the game. Is that fair?
Jarvis: That’s pretty accurate. I mean, on the flipside, I’m not going to hold my opponent’s hand while playing the game, if that makes sense. I’ll be respectful but firm. If I think they’ve messed something up, I’m not going to try to let them take it back, especially at a high-level tournament. I think that’s just an unrealistic expectation on their part.
James: I play basketball, and I’ll make an analogy here. If I’m playing against the other team, and the ref calls a foul against them, I’m not going to argue to the ref that it shouldn’t be foul. You know?
Jarvis: Right. In fact, at the last GP, I actually caught the end of the last…it was the Golden State Warriors versus the [Oklahoma City] Thunder. That game was extremely close. And yeah, there were fouls at the end. People took their foul shots. That game, at one point, I think the Thunder were up by eight, but then there were a bunch of three-pointers made that won Golden State the game. Actually, a lot of three-pointers now that I think about it.
James: To the Warriors, being down by ten points doesn’t really mean anything. All it takes is a few baskets and they’re back.
James: And they also forced Westbrook and Durant on the Thunder into a comedy of errors, but that’s…you know, I’m a hoops junkie. I could probably go for another hour just talking about basketball. [Laughs]
Jarvis: [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know that much about it. I just happened to be in a sports bar eating dinner with friends and I saw it.
James: I mean, don’t get me wrong. That was an excellent game. Anyone who just enjoys competition in general can feel the…
Jarvis: Yeah, I could see that. There was something going on. I obviously didn’t understand all of the intricacies of it, but I could see it.
James: Don’t let anybody like talk you down and say, “Oh, you don’t know basketball!” Anything can be enjoyed on a different level. It’s kind of like what you said about your opponent. He might have been playing the game for another reason rather than winning that day. You know, there’s so many angles to everything and there’s no real right and wrong as I’ve learned over the years.
James: Have you had experiences playing with opponents who were just incredible unpleasant and were angle shooting you, and trying to do things that were on the verge of that? Maybe they were illegal within the tournament rules? Have you had these types of experiences?
Jarvis: Fortunately not. There have been a non-zero number of incidents, which I think, basically… I mean, people are human, right? There is some very small percentage of human beings that are somewhat unpleasant to interact with, and I don’t think you can avoid it for the most part. So, yes, that has happened to me. It’s sort of unpleasant to play against them, but I found the best thing that works is to just be firm and not get angry when interacting with them. Because they’re looking to get that rise out of you, right? That typically is how they operate. If you just don’t give them what they want, in some sense you’re winning the moral victory. And a lot of the times you’re actually winning the actual victory because they tend to not be as good at Magic if they’re trying to play these mind games or whatever.
James: They may have optimized for that, as opposed to actually trying to be a better player or be in the moment.
James: That is a very classy answer. It’s great for me to reflect on as well. And do you have any specific lessons that you’ve learned about Magic, that you’ve applied to other parts of your life?
Jarvis: Yeah, actually. It’s more of a general thing. I just noticed that it’s a lot easier to get what you want if you’re nicer to someone, and I think I learned that mostly though Magic, honestly. Basically, no one succeeds in Magic without networking. To be cynical, sometimes you want to get something from someone in Magic, right? Talking to them, learning from them, because they’re better than you, so you have to treat them nicely. This is a very cynical way of looking at it, but that’s how the world operates. You can’t really get anywhere without networking, and you have to start somewhere. And, generally, that involves being nice to the person you want to network with. Very cynical, but that’s one of the major lessons I’ve learned in life.
James: I don’t think that’s too cynical at all. I think that’s just understanding how society operates, right?
James: And understanding human psychology.
James: So, I guess that’s one of the things. It’s outside of the battlefield or the match.
James: And do you have any daily or weekly rituals when it comes to Magic? Do you have something that you try to do on a regular basis, that you constantly go back to, whether it’s something physical or something mental?
Jarvis: It’s mostly something… I guess the right word is “academic”. I typically read a lot of articles, not for the information contained within them, but to see what information other people are getting.
James: Oh, interesting.
Jarvis: I want to see how my opponents are going to perceive the tournament scene for this week.
James: Okay. If I understand you correctly, you see some of the mainstream articles that are out there so you can see if people are following these strategies. It might be an opportunity for you, Just have that awareness, but maybe also be contrarian in some way that works to your advantage. Is that fair?
Jarvis: Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean. I found a lot of the times that it’s somewhat exploitable if someone read some article saying that this is how they perceive things. And then if you just do something that is good versus their strategy within the game, that is a way to exploit the informational advantage you have.
James: And I’m not talking about LSV or Reid specifically, but, in general, do you think pros also use that as an exploit themselves? Where they write something so that they know that everyone in the room will be prescribing to that and using it to their advantage?
Jarvis: I actually believe they do not, for the most part. The reason being it’s so hard to predict how large a percentage of the room is actually going to read that. I can sort of tell, based on my opponent, if they’ve read something or not. But I think it’s unrealistic for the professionals who write articles and produce videos every day to expect, A, that producing content like that is going to get them any edge and, B, it’s just bad business for them. They should try to just say what they actually think is true and build their brand better because that will be more likely to pay off for them.
James: The long game is just to be a good human being, right? And to teach people to learn how to fish instead of…
Jarvis: Cynically speaking, the people who write better get paid more.
James: No, that’s meritocratic. That’s not cynical.
Jarvis: Yeah, just producing better content is more likely to get you paid more, and the people who really care about the game will know that you are trying to help people and they’ll treat you better.
James: So, there’s a virtuous cycle.
Jarvis: Yeah, I really do not believe most of the people try to lie or exploit by saying they’re going to do something that they’re not. I really just do not believe that’s the case.
James: And I’m going to guess that, for you and many of them, it’s really to say how you feel or to help people get better, right? That’s hopefully the goal.
Jarvis: Yeah, I love Magic and I hope I can get other people to love Magic or play Magic at a higher level. Maybe at some point I can prove it by playing against them as well – sort of a positive feedback loop, to use an engineering term.
Jarvis: But yeah, I just think if everyone gets better, then the game gets better, and that’s great.
James: Now, going back to your answer, you said that one of your rituals is to read up on the information, absorb, and understand how people are perceiving the competitive landscape. That’s more about information gathering. That’s part of being prepared. What about going into a high-level event? Is there a preparation process that you have, or ways that you can maintain a certain level of confidence, heading into those?
Jarvis: I do a bunch of things. The first thing I almost always do is write down a list of decks that I think are either performing well or could be good versus what’s performing well. Then I’ll just basically pick one of those decks to try a bit, maybe not for hours on end, but just enough to get a sense if this deck is actually viable or not. And if it turns out that it is, then I will do a lot more research on the deck and see what other people say about it to see if I should change it. Then I’ll play a few more games and go a little bit back and forth and then talk to a bunch of people online and get their thoughts on it. I don’t actually spend that many hours playing any specific deck. I play enough to get an idea of how the deck should operate and what its conditions are. Then I’ll do a lot of research to see if it can be improved.
James: Got it. So it’s smart preparation.
Jarvis: Yeah. I’ve always been a fan of the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder.”
James: Amen to that! I think that applies to all facets of life. Do you have any mentors in your life, whether it’s in Magic or outside of Magic? Do you have somebody that’s helped you improve your outlook and maybe helped you make improvements in your game, or your personal side of things?
Jarvis: Yeah. First, my dad is also a statistician, so very early on in my life he taught me not to blame luck because random things happen all of the time. You should try to control what you can control, and you can’t control luck, unless you’re cheating and so you shouldn’t do that. That has had a pretty positive effect on my Magic playing. I tend not to blame luck if at all possible. Occasionally I will get unlucky and lose because of that, but you should always look to see what you can improve first. Then, if you truly conclude that you couldn’t have done anything, then it’s fine to briefly blame luck. Then just carry on with your life. I think that’s something that my dad taught me very early on. At some point, we had a thunderstorm crack our roof and he said, “Yeah, we couldn’t do anything about that. That’s just a statistical anomaly. It’s not going to happen very often. You shouldn’t get mad about it. You should just fix it, accept it, and get on with your life.”
James: That is so awesome.
Jarvis: Yeah, my father emphasized that very heavily to my sister and I, because he’s a statistician. In addition, one of my friends, you may have heard of him, Alex Majlaton—he is from this area as well—when I was starting competitive Magic in Maryland, he was one of the guys who had done reasonably well by that point. He already had a GP Top 8 or two, so I talked to him a bunch. To this day, I think I’ve learned a bunch from him. At the same time, I’ve helped him in some small ways as well. He’s still sort of salty that I have a GP win before him, but he does have seven GP top 8s, so it sort of evens out, right?
James: [Laughs] Yeah, absolutely. What did you learn from him? What were the things that you…
Jarvis: One of the first competitive decks I chose was Affinity in Standard, and he knew a lot about Affinity. In fact, he’s had the same Arcbound Ravagers since 2004. They have gotten him to multiple GP Top 8’s. He has the same ones. They’re like pieces of paper now if you shuffle them. All the cards in his deck are basically pieces of paper, including the new cards. He has to shuffle them so thoroughly, otherwise they’re marked. But, yeah, I learned how to play Affinity from him. I learned a bunch of things about competitive Magic from him. I think it’s finally at the point that we’re sort of similar in skill level that it’s more productive that we just figure things out together.
James: I guess my question is flawed, because mentors…as soon as there is some sort of hierarchical relationship, that this person is more experienced than you… Oftentimes I find that you can have a mentor and you can be a mentee, too. The mentee can also contribute things to help the mentor grow, so it’s a two-way relationship. It’s not just, “I’m helping you.” I think that’s usually the best type of mentorship relationship. So, what are some ways that you think you’ve helped him become a better player?
Jarvis: Yeah, it’s actually very interesting you bring up that point. I’ve noticed that reading biographies of certain famous scientists, almost universally, if they love teaching, they say, “Yeah, teaching kids, sometimes they ask a question in a very interesting way that you’ve never thought of before, they’ll lead to some research idea that’s completely unrelated to what they’re asking, but just the thought of this unique way of perceiving something is interesting.” And I think maybe I did that for Alex at some point, but nowadays I think we just have different ideas on how deck building or deck choices should be done and it’s just good to have a bunch of sources of information, I think.
James: Right. So Alex is still playing Magic today?
Jarvis: He and I are still on the same Pro Tour team – sort of. Neither of us are qualified for Sydney. It’s [Team] East-West Bowl. We have Seth Manfield. Ari [Lax] is joining our team for the next Pro Tour, and you just have a bunch of great people who are all very good at the game and everyone’s very polite. So, it’s pretty great.
James: This is something that I really want to ask about are these Magic teams. I know that, for me, I’ve never gone to that level in Magic. But I’ve joined teams for other types of activities. How do you guys go about creating these teams? Are there things that you guys look for as you’re assembling a team of players to practice, play test, and discuss Magic with?
Jarvis: Interestingly enough, the reason this team is called Team East-West Bowl is – a lot of the people live on the East Coast in the DC area, a lot of the people live on the West Coast in California. I don’t know if you know this, it’s also a Key & Peele skit called Team East-West Bowl.
James: Yeah, I know. I was going to ask about that.
Jarvis: It is a direct reference to that because Alex played that skit so many times, it has to be like… I’ve probably seen that skit close to seventy times because of him.
James: It’s burnt into your brain now, right?
Jarvis: It is. The guy with the jackhammer has its name, and, I don’t know, it’s pretty crazy. But, yeah, our team is basically born out of friendship, not out of picking people because they are… I mean, everyone has a minimum level of competency in Magic, but we didn’t pick people like that to begin with, if that makes sense. It was just a bunch of guys on the West Coast led by Mark Jacobson, and then a bunch of guys on the East Coast sort of led by Alex. And we just decided to join forces for that Pro Tour. And I think all of the pieces fell together because the Californians figured out how to build that Blue-Red Eldrazi Aggro deck in Modern. And three people top-eighted on our team. I don’t know. Expecting any team to have three people top-eight a Pro Tour on that team is unrealistic, especially for a newly formed team. That sort of set the expectations way too high, I guess, but it worked for that Pro Tour. And then Seth [Manfield] joined our team after that because the team he was on for that PT sort of fell apart. But he is also from Maryland. We’ve known Seth for a while. We’ve always known that he was really good, even when he was like 15 or 16 [years old] because that’s when he top-eighted his first GP. But it just made sense from a geographic standpoint for him to join us.
Jarvis: Basically, this team was born out of friendship. It wasn’t really born out of trying to optimize or break things. And I think that’s sort of counterintuitive to most people, but team chemistry is a very real thing. If you get someone who’s supposedly good at Magic, but is very disruptive, I don’t think it actually makes the team function better.
James: Basically, at the end of the day, is this somebody that you actually want to play Magic with? Or somebody that you want to actually want to have a conversation with, right?
Jarvis: Is it someone that you want to hang out and eat dinner, eat lunch, just talk with? You should really ask yourself that. And, right now, I’m perfectly happy to hang out with basically all those guys on that team, eat dinner, talk, hang out for a while. It’s just great. It’s great that I can feel comfortable with basically everyone on that team.
James: Right. That’s amazing. I think that’s kind of the intersection of “work,” which is Magic if you want to do well in a tournament, and life, which is, you want to hang out with a group of friends who have similar interests and are just cool to hang out with.
Jarvis: I agree 100%.
James: I can see that you have an incredible passion and joy for the game, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it. And you’re also incredibly self-aware and reflect on things. So, this question is maybe sort of overkill, but what are some of the big ways that Magic has enriched your life? Because I’m assuming it has. What are some ways that Magic has made you a better person or just made your happier, however you want to define it?
Jarvis: Yeah, it’s weird. When I was younger, I would argue I was not the best at socializing, but I think Magic, to a large degree, helped me figure out how to talk to people, how to meet people, and how to interact well in society. It wasn’t the easiest for me especially during high school and, to some degree, during college. But Magic definitely helped there, and, honestly, meeting all the great people I’ve met, it’s been sort of unbelievable.
James: And what are some ways that you think Magic has negatively impacted your life?
Jarvis: I think that period right after college where I was basically not doing anything but playing Magic online was probably… I could have done things better with my life back then, but at least I’ve gotten through that period and I realize that now. Basically, the long and short of it is it’s very clear to me now that I didn’t really do well at high-level Magic until I had sort of a balanced life going on, if that makes any sense. And that’s sort of counterintuitive. I think a lot of people think that the professionals are really good because they do nothing but play Magic. But I think the opposite is true. They know how to do things in an efficient manner and still have a real life.
James: I think that’s something that I call the paradox of Magic, which is, paradoxically, it’s when Magic isn’t everything in your life, when you have a balanced view on things, or mindset, that’s when you actually end up doing better at Magic. When it isn’t everything.
Jams: But, I mean, having said that, even though you did grind a lot of Magic Online during that time, it still shaped who you are, right?
James: That had to have helped you become a better player, or got you to this stage, right?
Jarvis: There is no doubt in my mind that if I hadn’t done that, I probably would not have qualified for as many Pro Tours, if any, or done as well in Seattle. I think there is a building block experience. It’s just that if I had known what I know now back then, I could have done things a lot better, A, with my life, and, B, with playing Magic better.
James: I see. So, maybe there were things, going back, if you could…if we all had a time machine, that we could be more efficient at something, right?
James: So let’s kind of switch gears again and talk about looking forward. Obviously, you want to try to level up in your status, but let’s go a little bit beyond that. Where do you see yourself with Magic in, let’s say, three to five years?
Jarvis: Well, I’m somewhat worried with how Wizards of the Coast is handling certain things. I would like the game to be around in three to five years. If it is, I hopefully will still be…maybe not playing every single Grand Prix that rolls around, maybe just the ones that are relatively close to me. But I would still like to be involved with some sort of high-level Magic. Maybe not going to every Grand Prix, but hopefully playing one or two Pro Tours a year. Still getting to talk to all of the great people that I know that are playing high-level Magic.
James: So for you, it would be around the qualification/participation goal of playing in a certain amount of GPs. Not getting too crazy and playing every GP because the policies now don’t encourage that – or incentivize that – right?
Jarvis: This past year, it’s not the wisest financial decision I’ve embarked upon. I’m going to say that. I’m fortunate that I’m in a position where I can do that for this year. But the amount of travelling I did, I think I’m close to not really wanting to do that again next year or in any other years in the future, really.
James: And it’s not just the financial aspect, right? Because I remember what we were talking on Facebook. It’s also just the grind aspect. You have to fly here for this weekend, and the next weekend. I imagine that it all takes a toll on you at some point.
Jarvis: It does. I’ve actually been fortunate. I basically did not get sick at all this year, but I can very easily imagine a scenario where I got sick every other week. I just got very, very fortunate to not get sick often.
James: That’s good. Knock on wood! [Laughs] And you had an interesting comment there about – if Magic still continues the way it does, or exists, do you have any predictions or feelings about how the game would potentially evolve? In terms of the game itself, and maybe in terms of the competitive structure around the games?
Jarvis: I’m not a huge fan with a lot of the Organized Play decisions that they’ve made in some of the years. To me, it shows a lack of understanding of what a professional Magic player actually needs, A, to live, and, B, support-wise. I guess those are sort of the same thing, but when they try to cut a bunch of the Platinum things at that Pro Tour that Steve Rubin won, there was a huge backlash and it mostly overshadowed Steve’s win. I think that’s terrible for him because he should get his spotlight. He won a Pro Tour. It shouldn’t be overshadowed by the fact that Wizards decided to announce this thing right there [reducing support for Platinum players], and it actually affects him negatively because he hit Platinum from winning that Pro Tour. I think that’s just ridiculous. But they did cycle back on that decision. I just think that the decision process that led to that decision in the first place hasn’t been changed. So stuff like this will just continue to happen. From an engineering standpoint, all they did was take the product of whatever black box and change that product. The black box is still there. It’s still going to produce awful things. That’s how I feel.
James: It’s a band-aid. It’s a band-aid that came about as a lot of hash-tagging and a lot of pleas. A lot of people like [Brian] Kibler and [Jon] Finkel writing, spending time to come out and write blog articles and putting the pressure on. And that’s just to fix a local problem – one specific incident. Not to get on my soapbox—and I’m not in this world, really—but it’s not a good look.
Jarvis: No, it’s not.
James: Knowing what you know and talking to friends that you have in this circle, do you have some kind of idea about how it will shift? Whether for good, or bad, or the same? You’ve got to have some feeling about how things will play out, right?
Jarvis: My current perception is, they don’t understand how the professionals want to do things and they don’t understand really what motivates them to actually come to tournaments. Because, by removing a bunch of those fees, they’re actually dis-incentivizing them to come to tournaments. So I don’t have a good feeling about the next few years, unless they come out and announce something that’s great.
James: How would you respond to this? And I’m just taking the devil’s advocate here. The devil’s advocate position is that they’re not doing a great job of marketing the pros in the first place. A lot of casual players may not know the names anyway, and it impacts a fairly small group of people. And the other devil’s advocate argument would be—no one can really make a living playing Magic, and this will allow them to funnel cash or prizes towards like being a more top-heavy payout. Is there any logic to that?
Jarvis: From a pure e-sport perspective, I understand what they’re trying to do because the first-place prizes in a lot of the big e-sport tournaments are much bigger and flashier. The thing is they don’t realize about those games is that those teams are sponsored by companies, the e-sport teams. I know, especially in South Korea, that it’s not uncommon to have a Samsung or an LG or whatever team, and just have them get paid by that company to live their life. That doesn’t happen in Magic, so I think it just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between Magic and StarCraft II.
James: Right. Magic players are not wearing a patch that says “Pokerstars.”
James: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I think people don’t really understand sometimes that comparisons are only valid when you’re comparing apples to apples.
James: And also the product itself. I think the e-sport – if you think of Magic as an e-sport…Wizards calls it an esport, which is in some sense laughable…
Jarvis: It’s not a very good e-sport, actually.
James: Right? To watch.
Jarvis: It was not designed to be an e-sport. That’s why.
James: It was created in the 90’s when you and I found Revised decks in a store that didn’t sell video games.
Jarvis: Right. Exactly.
James: This might be just speculation, but I’m wondering if you have any feelings about how the game itself will potentially evolve.
Jarvis: I have no idea about that. I know R&D basically is really… Management does not touch R&D [Research & Development], so I think the game itself will basically continue to be fine forever. It’s just the organized aspect of it may not line up where I would prefer them to be.
James: Okay. So, they’re kind of like two heads.
Jarvis: Yeah, I think R&D in general does a very good job developing and designing Magic cards. I know a few of those guys from before, when they were competitive players, and I think they’re doing a great job, and I really like most of them. And I don’t see any reason R&D needs to change. I think the Organized Play division is where I have my issues.
James: I see. Hopefully something can be done there, but just from my experience working in corporations, the changes always have to come from the top.
Jarvis: Yeah, I’m not the most optimistic, as I said, but I can still hope for the best. I just don’t expect it to happen that often.
James: Yeah, absolutely. So let’s conclude with one question. It’s going to be a little bit out of left field, but this is kind of an experiment. If someone was listening to this podcast right now and they are a new player who just wants to get into competition for the first time, what would you tell him or her?
Jarvis: Try to find someone who is friendly and who you think is better than you and is patient. The quickest way to improve is through the graciousness and patience of a person who is better than you.
James: Excellent advice! I wish I heard that when I got started instead of just scrubbing out and not talking to anybody in the card shop.
Jarvis: [Laughs] Right.
James: Jarvis, thank you so much for spending all this time to talk to me. I think there’s just so many things in our conversation that I found incredibly valuable. I think it will be incredibly valuable for our listeners as well. You’ve actually made me think about a lot of things outside of Magic as well, and I am super glad that you took time out of your schedule to do this. Thank you so much! And I hope to talk to you again in a future podcast.
Jarvis: Thanks a lot for having me, James.
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