MTG808Junior – Building Youth Magic Community

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by Sean Pottenger.

Hi. My name is Sean Pottenger and I am an L1 judge out here on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. While I’ve been playing Magic for over two-thirds of my roughly thirty years of being alive, for the past two and a half years I’ve been working on a project called MTG808Junior. We focus on creating and supporting opportunities for youth players (enrolled in a K-12 school) to engage with, enjoy, and become a part of the Magic community.

The Story:

To make a long story short, I fell in love with the game when I was very young, and moved all-in on playing competitively when I was about 13 and learned about the Junior Super Series (JSS). For those of you unfamiliar with the JSS, it is a long discontinued tournament series for youth players run by Wizards to qualify for JSS nationals which awarded scholarship prizes. I dedicated pretty much all my free time to playing competitive Magic with dreams of winning JSS Nationals. I ended up qualifying three years in a row and finished in fourth place my final year earning $5,000 in scholarship. I spent the next decade of my life prioritizing taking as many shots at qualifying for the Pro Tour as I could while living on the most isolated chain of islands in the world (thank you Magic Online!) and went on to qualify for and, sadly, scrub out of, seven Pro Tours.

I can honestly say that my journey of growing up in the local, national, and international competitive Magic community has incalculably enriched my life. It introduced me to and brought me closer with some of my best friends, served as the catalyst of many of my fondest memories, and in a somewhat roundabout way introduced me to my fiance. And it all started thanks to the JSS lighting a fire in me (or igniting a spark in me, if you will).

    After returning from my 7th Pro Tour I took a look at my life, did some soul searching, and made the tough decision to put competitive Magic on the back burner in order to refocus some of that energy on my career and relationship.

    The MTG808Junior project started shortly thereafter. Given my formative experiences with the JSS and my career in education, the project was a natural fit for me and served as a way for me to stay involved in the community without the need to commit myself to prepare for qualifiers on a weekly basis.

Thankfully I wasn’t starting from scratch and I wasn’t alone. I had a good relationship with most of the larger local game stores on the island and they were more than willing to donate cards to the project and host tournaments. There were already a few MTG/gaming clubs in schools around the island that I was able to network with. Once we started running and promoting youth tournaments, more clubs started to pop up.

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At first, I was using my FNM winnings to provide prize support for monthly youth tournaments. Two and a half years later we have roughly $300 in monthly funding from Patrons around the world, have run dozens of youth tournaments (roughly two a month during the school year), and have given away $2,250 in scholarship prizes over three scholarship tournaments! All of this has been possible by focusing on these pillars of the project: School Clubs, Local Game Stores, Community, and Standard Pauper.

Pillars of the Project – School Clubs

    I cannot overstate the importance of the school clubs and the advisers that make them possible. While a small percentage of the students who compete in our tournaments hear about our events through a parent that plays the game, the vast vast majority of them learn about the game and our tournaments from one of their teachers or friends at school. Having a safe place at school to learn and play the game is crucial for getting kids to get and stay involved, and therefore the club advisers are the lifeblood of the project – without them the rest of the project wouldn’t function.

    Finding adults willing to step into the role of club adviser is a constant struggle. The best club advisers already have a foot in both worlds of education and Magic and are willing to invest the time in running a club. This subsection of person that meet the first two criteria are rare, but not as rare as you’d think since Magic is becoming more and more mainstream. However, finding someone who meets all three criteria is like finding a needle in a haystack. Educators already have so many commitments on their free time, and running a school club is a big additional commitment!

Thankfully our most dedicated club advisors find ways to have their time spent at club funded through third-party organizations that run after-school programs (21st Century, After-School All-Stars, and PALS), so they do get compensated to a degree. However, taking the students to tournaments is almost always unpaid time, and without their advisor making the trip to tournaments only the most dedicated students will take the plunge and show up on a weekend. Despite this, some of the advisers consistently show up to tournaments, and their students’ involvement and success at the   adviser’s commitment.

Pillars of the Project – Local Game Stores

    Local game stores are the second pillar of the project. Similar to club advisers, they are integral to the project running. However, unlike club advisers, local game stores are much more willing and ready to play their part since running tournaments is what they already do. Many of the stores that we partner with donate extra promos or packs into the prize pool and the ones who bust large amounts of product donate their excess commons to the project and/or specific clubs.

    By holding the tournaments at the local game stores everyone wins. The stores to grow their player base and the students are exposed to the larger Magic/gaming community. Many of the students are wide-eyed when they first step foot in a store dedicated to card games and see all the different people who come here to play their favorite games. Ultimately we want the students to graduate past our tournaments into the larger Magic community with prereleases, drafts, commander, and occasionally even standard being natural next steps that kids have taken.

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Some of the most dedicated students have even started playing MTG: Arena! My hope is to start running league style tournaments through Arena, but running a computer program on school hardware is a barrier that requires school level solutions unique to each campus, and coordinating individual students to effectively communicate independently to play league matches from home is very hit or miss. A lot of the parents have also mentioned that they are eager to support their kids playing Magic because it gets them off their devices, so Arena may be a tougher sell.

Pillars of the Project – Standard Pauper

    The vast majority of the tournaments we’ve run have been standard pauper, with the occasional and headache filled draft thrown in during the slow season. We chose the standard pauper format for two reasons: card accessibility and format simplicity. The local game stores that support us almost always have excess commons that would otherwise get thrown away, so they are happy to donate them to the project and/or the school clubs directly. This keeps the cost of competing to a minimum, which is important since many of our school clubs are located in low-income neighborhoods. We also keep the cost of entry into the monthly tournaments at $1 for this reason.

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Having only commons legal in the format also means that all the cards are generally around the same power level. Therefore the format puts extra emphasis on the basics of solid deck building, card advantage, tempo, and combat math – the bread and butter of Magic. In practice, this means that youth players new to the game can go from learning with the 30-card starter decks to playing a competitive standard pauper deck in the span of an hour or two.

    The format isn’t perfect. Some of the students wish they could use their flashy powerful rares. Others feel as though the format is too simple. However, the format fits our needs nicely and serves as a great first step into the world of competitive Magic. The students who want more out of the game can find it by participating with other aspects of the Magic community.

    I’ve considered trying out a format where either uncommons are legal, or where a limited number of rares are allowed. This would reduce the format’s accessibility in favor of depth, but I don’t think that’s a trade I want to make right now since there are currently $4 uncommons legal in standard and the number of kids we’d gain with the added depth would probably be fewer than we’d lose with the added cost. On top of that, MTG: Arena running occasional standard pauper events so that other people in the broader community care about the format feels like enough inertia to stay with the tried and true.

Pillars of the Project – Community

    The final pillar of the project is the amazing MTG community, especially those who have supported the project via showing up at tournaments to help the students feel welcome, informal donations, or by subscribing to our Patreon page. When I started the project I was playing standard win-a-box FNM’s weekly and donating all my prizes to the project – probably upwards of 8 boxes by the end of it. I no longer have that amount of free time, so the monthly project budget provided by our wonderful Patrons is what is really keeping the project going. We also never would have been able to run our bi-annual scholarship tournaments without the support from our Patrons, so extra props to all of them for making that amazing opportunity possible for our students.

    The project has been an absolute joy to work on, and I dream that one day other communities will grow their own youth circuits to keep the spirit of the JSS alive for future generations of Magic players.

Contact Info:

Instagram: MTG808Junior_sean

Facebook: MTG808Junior

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