Happy New Year! Welcome back to a brand-new year and a new Black Sheep Meets. While New Year’s resolutions have fallen out of style recently, I am a major proponent of setting goals. I attribute a lot of my happiness in life to having set goals and then going after them. Even if the result isn’t exactly as intended, having those targets to aim at has helped me move forward in life.
This week I spoke to someone who has accomplished great things in his Magic career. He’s one of the top players in the world. He has played in 36 pro tours, getting into the top eight at two. He’s been in 13 GP top 8s and he won GP Louisville in 2016. He also was a member of the winning U.S. national team in 2001. Say “Hello” to renowned player, deck builder, and innovator, Samuel Black!
Sean: Sam, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. Some of our readers are very excited to hear from you, having asking to have you featured. You debuted on the pro tour in 2006, and have been to nearly 40 pro tours since that time. That’s an incredible journey. How did your journey begin? When did you start playing Magic and what about the game led to you playing on the professional level?
Sam: I started playing Magic around May of 1994. I’ve always loved games and took to Magic immediately. I’ve basically always tried to play as much as possible and as well as possible. From there it was just a matter of finding a good network of players, access to cards and tournaments, and time. My budget and transportation was pretty limited in high school, and I went to college in the middle of nowhere and never really left campus, so I didn’t really play in enough tournaments to have a chance until I graduated.
Sean: You play Magic in person, and you also play online under the MTGO username Vicalis. I am curious, where does that username come from? Also, how does MTGO fit into the life of a professional magic player?
Sam: As I mentioned, resources were limited in high school, so I played online in a league organized on AOL message boards where I used the screen name Vicalis (I think it might have been originally made up as the name of a Diablo character or something). I heard about Magic Online when someone from those boards messaged me and told me I should try it. I figured I should use the same name in case anyone else recognized me from those boards.
Magic Online is an important testing tool for GPs. For PTs it’s harder to test on Magic Online, so people prioritize getting together in person, but for GPs, most pros just play online and then discuss their results and conclusions with each other.
Sean: When your fans were asking me to interview you, they described you as “possibly the best deck builder of all time.” They were quick to reminisce on such successful brews as Black-Red-White Aristocrats and the Blazing Shoal Infect deck that got a card banned in modern. What do you believe has led you to be such a prolific innovator for the game?
Sam: I started play Magic before “netdecking” was even possible, and I started at the same time as my friends, so there was no one else I could copy from. Deckbuilding has always been a huge part of Magic for me, so it’s something I had a lot of practice with before playing in a lot of tournaments. Playing with my own decks has always been more fun, and I’ve probably been slightly more successful with my own decks, but it’s important now to have a good mix. Sometimes the known decks are just the best, and it’s important to be willing to play them.
Sean: This is a Commander/EDH centric website, so I wouldn’t want to skip out on our favorite format here at GDC. You’ve written at least two articles about EDH (My take on EDH and Breaking Azami). They are engaging reads that give a good insight into building in the format, and they demonstrate that you have perfect grasp on the social contract. Do you actively play EDH? If so, what are your current favorite decks, and why?
Sam: Unfortunately, not these days. I used to maintain a cube and EDH deck, but since my roommate, Justin Cohen, started playing in events regularly, we’ve been so focused on tournament prep that there just isn’t time for casual Magic. Throughout high school and college I played more multiplayer games in person than one-on-one games, and unlike many players, I actually really like Magic as a diplomatic/political game; we always played that any deals players make can’t be broken as long as they don’t break the rules, which made games extremely diplomatic.
I’m also personally a little turned off by the Commander products. I like multiplayer Magic as an exercise in doing weird things using unintended cards, and using cards that were specifically designed for it just takes away some of the fun for me.
Sean: In the Azami article you touch on something important about understanding EDH as a format. You mention the two-relevant metrics when examining a deck, competitiveness and interactivity. While most people understand that competitiveness is how effective a deck is at winning, interactivity may be cloudier. When you are talking about interactivity in a casual format, what does that mean to you and why is it so important for casual play?
Sam: I talk about Magic as a game of competing narratives. Each deck is designed to tell a certain story. When they compete, they form one narrative, and players are fighting to control that narrative. Interactive cards prevent your opponent from telling their story. (This answer is only a rough approximation of a more complicated truth.)
Sean: You were recently featured in an interview on Wisconsin Life. This is a wonderful interview, and I recommend that all our readers watch. In the final portion of the interview, you speak briefly on generosity in the Magic community and how doing good things and being nice can be personally valuable. Would you mind going a little further into your thoughts how being friendly and generous can be beneficial to the community and to yourself?
Sam: I’m not sure what there is to add here—it’s all pretty simple—Magic is an iterated game. From a game theory perspective, this pushes it strongly toward encouraging cooperative strategies. The world of competitive Magic just isn’t that big, and when you interact with anyone, it often won’t be the last time you see them. You have no idea whether you’ll see them again or not. Also, people are connected and people talk. How people see you has a big impact on options available to you.
As an aside, this is actually why I’m pro-collusion. I get that it has to be discouraged for viewers, but I actually think collusion is healthy for the community, as it puts are really fine point on the above.
Sean: From what I understand, you have been living as a professional Magic player with Magic as your sole source of income for nearly a decade. Do you have any advice for players who dream of making Magic their career?
Sam: As with anything, it’s important to live within your means. Figure out what you can afford and how to do that. Learning not to be extremely frugal has been a challenge for me as I get used to earning a good amount of money, but when you’re starting out, it can be important to know how to save.
Look for opportunities to make money. Few if any people live entirely off tournament winnings, but there are a lot of side projects (writing, streaming, podcasts, etc) that are an important part of making money as a Magic player. Remember that the purpose of tournaments is to build credibility, but it’s what you create that you should expect to really pay the bills.
Sean: Thank you again for taking the time to do this interview. If any of our readers want to hear more from you or follow how you are doing in tournaments, how do you recommend they find you?
Sam: The most detailed option for Magic is to read my column on StarCityGames.com. @Samuelhblack on Twitter is easiest. I don’t maintain a public figure Facebook page, but my personal page can be followed, and for those who are interested in some things I’ve written about my life, sex, gender, and a variety of topics people don’t often discuss publicly, you can ask to join the Storytime with Sam Black Facebook group.