Mat Bimonte: Grinding for Fun and Profit

“Man, Mat, you really get to live the dream. Traveling all over to awesome places
and playing a game for a job.”

I’ve had this sentiment echoed to me many times. I love playing Magic, but it’s called “the grind” for very real reasons. We are constantly in hotels, airports and convention centers.

I see posts such as “How can I start getting into competitive Magic?” or “What’s it like being a grinder?” or “How do you offset costs of travel?” all over Reddit, so I felt inspired to outline a typical week leading up to an event. I’ll also give out a few tips on how to make it easier on you if you’re willing to embrace the grind.

Where to begin? Let’s pretend I’m coming home from an event that was on the East Coast somewhere, such as New York. I’ve been taking a lot of flights lately, and the most economic (cheapest) choice is to take a returning flight home around 6 a.m. on Monday, so let’s start there.

Sunday, 5 p.m.: After the event ends on Sunday, a group of us usually grab a bite to eat, discuss the weekend and then head our separate ways. I’m lucky enough to have a travel partner in Jeff Hoogland, and we typically grab 200ish bulk commons and uncommons from a booth on our way out of the hall. Why do we do this? Stay tuned.

Sunday, 10 p.m.: Arrive at the airport and hang out until we board in the morning.

Sunday, 11:59 p.m.: “Where is the McDonald’s in this airport again?” Time for 4th meal. Oh, and those bulk cards! We discuss the Top 32 decklists from the event, and pick 2-3 decks that are where we want to be. Then we take out the magical Sharpies to proxy up the decks and start getting to work.

Monday, 3 a.m.: “Should we play more or sleep for an hour?” “Eh, I’m gonna get started on my article.” Here we are, vomiting our thoughts into our netbooks and iPads.

Monday, 5:20 a.m.: *Now boarding all zones for flight xyz123* OK, time to board and either wrap up my article or try to sleep a couple hours. I typically choose the latter so I can be rested for our 2.5-hour drive from Chicago to Bloomington. Headphones in, wheels up.

Monday, 9 a.m.: “Jeff, do you have your lesson plan done yet?” My R-and-B music and a little mix of Jeff’s 13-year-old girl music are the soundtrack for our drive home as he prepares to teach his class in the afternoon.

Monday, noon: Drop Jeff off and head to work until 6 p.m. My job is awesome, as I live the full gambit of a Magic player’s dream. I work at Collectible Corner (my local game store) in Normal, Ill., and luckily for me my boss is very flexible about hours. I walk in a little early and we chat about the weekend and catch up on business.

Monday, 12:01 p.m. (not kidding): Facebook Message from Jeff Hoogland: “What do you think about (insert card name)?” My week has officially begun. Our three-man team (which also includes Ryan Hovis) is back at it trying to break whatever format we are playing the next weekend. Lots and lots of bad cards, but good discussions, which help build on the week.

Monday, 6 p.m.: By this point I’m about dead for the day. Running off of a few hours of sleep isn’t for everyone, but by now, I’ve built up quite a tolerance to at least make it through the day. Early bedtime for me.

Tuesday, 10 a.m.: I wake up to a myriad of messages from people regarding a previous article, last weekend’s performance, or decks they’ve been working on. This is one of my favorite parts of the week. I typically take Tuesdays off of work to catch up on errands, cut the grass, respond to messages — you name it.

Tuesday, 4 p.m.: I send out a group message to a bunch of local friends that like to jam games with us to gauge interest in getting a bunch of game in later in the evening.

Tuesday 6 p.m.: Am I firing up the grill or firing up XMage/MTGO? Well, a couple people are showing up, so it’s time to grill! Thankfully Star City has coverage uploaded from the previous week, so that plays in the background as I grill. We feast, and jam dozens of games in my living room. I’m very thankful for my play partners, as actually playing games is the most valuable experience to have. If we’re lucky, my fiancée Jamie is off of work, so everyone brings their significant others over to hang out and watch Grey’s Anatomy while the boys play.

Wednesday, 2 a.m.: Cleanup time as I wind the evening down. Some nights I’ll get sucked into a late night Counter Strike Global Offensive game; if not, I head to bed and watch some NCIS and doze off.

Wednesday, 10 a.m.: Same drill. I head to work a bit early to catch up on whatever I’ve missed throughout the week. When I get there I turn on the coverage back to whatever I’ve missed. I let that run in the background as I catch up on loose ends, catch up with online orders, and set up the store for the weekend.

Wednesday, 5:45 p.m.: I send the same message out, and again my awesome play group wants to come jam games at my place. We decide it’s a fast food night. Nothing better than a No. 10 from a Taco Bell with Fire sauce and a Baja Blast Mountain Dew to get me going for the evening. Luckily, (or unluckily as a Bulls fan) the NBA Playoffs are on to break up the monotony for the entire month. Russell Westbrook gets me jacked.

Thursday, 2 a.m.: Time to clean my house again. I usually like to decompress as I’ve probably played 30-plus hours of Magic for the week. I try and settle on a 75 for the weekend by now, but there’s not a chance it stays the same on Saturday. This time I will definitely go for that game of CS:GO. Afterwards I pack for the weekend. If we are traveling by car, I’m lucky enough to get a suitcase! Traveling by plane is backpack or bust; it’s pretty incredible everything I’m able to smash into a backpack for plane trips.

Friday, 10 a.m.: Travel Day. I go to work until around 3 p.m., deposit my paycheck and make sure our travel arrangements are set. I don’t know which way I prefer to travel, but I can tell you when we take a 6-plus hour journey we fly; anything closer is a drive. When we fly, it takes around 3 hours to safely get to O’Hare airport, and we have to travel light. If we drive we typically pile into my car and head out in hopes to arrive by midnight. The worst part of travel is that we lose an hour to most of our destinations due to time zones.

Friday, 6 p.m.: Heading out of town. I usually pack some DVDs to play in the car. Usually comedies like “Old School,” “Talladega Nights” or “Tommy Boy.” We stop halfway at either Burger King or White Castle to grab a quick bite to eat. Back in the car, we are talking about everyone’s deck choices, sideboard cards, sideboard plans, what we expect to see, the latest drama, anything that comes to mind.

Saturday, 12:30 a.m.: We arrive at the hotel. Everyone settles in and people fill out decklists, make final tweaks, and of course, play games.

Saturday, 1:30 a.m.: Bedtime. Everyone is usually passed out before me because I hate sleep and love the sound of everyone else’s snoring. I get either nervous or excited — not sure which one — but I usually am asleep by around 3:30 a.m.

Saturday, 7:30 a.m.: Game day! We all wake up at basically 15-minute intervals to shower and get prepared. I make sure I have my deck and accessories, portable phone charger and phone, iPod and headphones, wallet, and keys.

Saturday, 10 a.m.: Player meeting. My chance to get in the right frame of mind for the 9-round day. Everything else from there is easy, as the games run into each other, while during downtime I scramble to maybe find some food and chat with people about our day.

Rinse. Repeat.

That’s a pretty typical week for me. Most weeks blur together, but it’s an incredible time, and it can be rewarding if you or a teammate can break through. We are currently about midway through the year, but it’s never too late to start grinding!

I promised to offer you some pointers to make your transition from FNM All-Star to SCG Tour Grinder, and I don’t plan on disappointing you.

Step One: Marry a doctor.

OK, just kidding, but having a spouse (or soon-to-be-spouse) as willing to let me go places as mine is a huge deal. Jamie is supportive in many ways, whether it’s encouraging me to travel further, play more, playing against me with her Bogles deck, or talking me off a ledge when I have a bad weekend. It’s hard to overstate the benefits of a support system.

Step Two: Immerse yourself in the game.

In order to be successful in this game, you need to delve deep into it. I went from not owning a card to owning a Modern 5K win in less than a year. While my infatuation with this game is probably unhealthy, the only restriction on your as a player is you. Remember that always.

Step Three: Be prepared to lose…a lot.

In order to win, you have to be ready to lose. A LOT. Magic is a game with variance by design, and the better player doesn’t always win. While that is tough for some people to swallow, you’ll grow a lot more learning from your own mistakes, rather than blaming variance or how you drew for your losses. Winning a large tournament requires good play, good deck building, and a healthy amount of luck throughout the tournament. When you lose, get over it. Learn from it. Do anything other than say “my choices didn’t matter,” or “I got flooded and died,” as there’s much more introspection that needs to happen. Don’t surround yourself with people that use that logic, either. It doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help them either.

Step Four: Book Cheap!!

Listen, you don’t need to stay at a four-star hotel to accommodate your weekend. We stay at a good deal of 2.5-Star La Quintas and Holiday Inns and they’re safe and comfortable. We also book about 15 minutes away from the convention center. This will save you hundreds of dollars over the course of the year, and maybe even the course of a weekend.

Step Five: Find a reliable travel group

I alluded to 3-4 of us staying in a room together; this is a great way to cut costs. Splitting a $90 hotel 3-4 ways, and gas 3-4 ways cuts your costs significantly. Make sure to find reliable people, though; the last thing you want is someone not paying you on time, or backing out at the last minute.

Step Six: Sponsorships/Writing gigs

You want to join the dozens of us that write articles? Honestly, it’s a large undertaking. Coming up with article topics every week is difficult, but it’s an incredible experience once you’re comfortable with it. I’m lucky enough to be able to write for two large websites, and it all snowballed from writing tournament reports on Reddit. While I suggest having extremely thick skin if you want to delve into the cesspool that is Reddit, it’s a free platform to put your thoughts on, and anything is possible from there. It works the same for sponsorships. Drop your name in a hat, network, and contact owners of businesses. Do whatever it takes to get your pieces and most importantly yourself out there, even if it’s unpaid for a month trial.

While all of this might seem glamorous from the outside, it’s truly a grind. But what can I say? I love it. I love the people I meet, I love the pressure I put on myself, I love the camaraderie when people break through, I love the late nights, I love the failure, I love the success, I love all of it. It’s hard to say if it’s the life for you, but if you are willing to work, it is very rewarding in the end, and hopefully in time will be a more profitable career with more exposure.

If you have any questions regarding my article I’m always available. You can find me easily on Twitter and Facebook, or here. As always, feel free to come say Hi to me at events, too! I’m currently on vacation, but I will be attending Grand Prix: Charlotte and most SCG Tour events for the rest of the year.

Thanks for stopping by,

Mat Bimonte

Mat Bimonte first picked up the game during Theros block, but already has a Modern 5K championship under his belt, as well as a number of smaller Standard tournament wins. Based out of Bloomington, Ill., Mat is a regular on the SCG Tour, with future aspirations of qualifying for the Pro Tour.

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Mat Bimonte