Monday, October 18, 2010
My Fire

It is currently 12:50 AM. I am in St. Charles, Illinois, and I am in full-on card game mode.

Not that my current situation has anything to do with card games – I’m actually about to start the nationwide training for my new job. It’s just that for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been unable to sleep before tournaments because I’m so excited. So to force myself to sleep, I stay up for an entire night so I crash the night before the event. So excited that I can’t sleep? That’s card game mode.

I think it’s a testament to my sad state of affairs that I’m getting excited about training, but c’est la vie.

In any case, the reason I’m writing this article is because I read Pat’s article about obsession on Bandai, and it inspired me to write the one article I’ve been putting off forever. You know, the one where I reveal all my secrets at how to become amazing at children’s card games. The tell-all where I bare my soul and let you, my dear readers, into the deepest recesses of my mind. The one where I alienate half the Naruto community through brutal honesty and egomania.

No really, this is that article. I’m going to go ahead and warn you right now: this article really doesn’t have a point. It’s just me rambling on and writing about whatever comes to mind as I retell my long journey.


Like anything else, it all starts with obsession. There are many words for it… the desire to be great, drive, the Fire… whatever you want to call it, the point is that I once had it – and now I don’t. Is that something I regret? Not really. Do I wish I could turn it on again? Sometimes.
But the one thing you must know about obsession is: if you want to get better, you must embrace it. Nothing comes without hard work. It’s a fact of competition: there will always be someone better. And if you want to get better, never let anyone convince you otherwise. The moment you become complacent, someone with stronger desire is going to take your place.

When I first started playing this game seriously, there was one thing that drove me – I hated losing. For those of you who are familiar with me from playing in events, you’re well aware of the fact that very rarely is there ever not a smile on my face – even after a loss. I deeply enjoy playing card games and interacting with the community, and I still maintain that’s the only force that should be greater than your obsession – if it ever becomes not fun, then there’s no reason to continue to try to get better at a chore. But tangent aside, even though I still have a smile after losing – inwardly, I’m completely livid. That’s one thing that’s stayed with me throughout my entire career.

In one of the first few events I played in, I lost to John Forlanda, the man known to the world as darkpotato. And I was pissed – not just because I lost, but because I knew I was a better player than him. After that loss, I forced myself to choose – either I start taking this game seriously so I won’t ever have to lose to someone worse than me again, or I quit and go back to Magic.

Obviously, I chose the former. For a period of time, I went to every single event I could go to. Every weekend, I’d travel to two or three different tournaments just so I could get better and better. I didn’t really care about the prizes – for those months, it was all about improving. People online questioned the win-loss ratio that GRT showed – there was no way that could be real, they claimed. But I am here to tell you now – my record was very real. During that span of time, I did lose a few games – once to Vit Ratipat in the finals of the very first Genin in the area, one or two to Thomas Cao – but those were the losses that sustained and drove me for months on end to get better. And the first time I sat down across the table from John Forlanda and saw fear in his eyes – I knew that I had already won the game – and that I was making progress.


I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I’ll admit it freely – I didn’t play in the first Jonin at GenCon SoCal because I was afraid of losing. Even though I had regularly dominated events in my area for quite a while at this point, I knew I was still making mistakes and not playing perfectly. And being a longtime Magic player, I was well aware of the local hero syndrome – someone smashes through their locals on a consistent basis, then gets absolutely crushed in a large-scale event because they had only played against subpar competition. Somehow, I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t legitimately good at all.

I should have known better. The players at that first event were largely terrible. Doing the coverage for the event, I saw horrible play after horrible play. I might not have been perfect, but the players who ended up making the top cut were nowhere even close to my level. The lesson in this fiasco? Never let fear override your obsession. If you truly want to get better, you should never be afraid of losing, and never, ever be afraid of playing against people better than you.


A few months after that, the first local Jonin finally rolled around (Fanime). And this time, there was no way I was going to pussy out. I had learned my lesson from SoCal – there’s an infinite array of what-if scenarios you can use to scare yourself – but once you start playing, it’s just your skill versus your opponent’s skill.

And as fate would have it, my first opponent in the top cut was my old nemesis, the dark potato himself. To compound this destined battle, I was in a terrible mental state. The prior day, my backpack containing my entire collection had been stolen – the deck I was playing with had been constructed out of borrowed scraps from friends, and I had not gotten any sleep whatsoever. And John knew this.

But when I looked into his eyes, I didn’t see a shred of confidence. When he spoke, I heard nothing but excuses – “I’m happy with making top 8. I don’t care if I lose.” And right then, I knew I had won the match already.

The same thing happened in my top 4 match. And in the top 2, I finally found an opponent who could actually play on equal ground with me – Thomas Cao. I took game 1. He took game 2. And in game 3, after a mulligan to 4, I further solidified my legend of being able to pull completely lost games out of my ass.


That seems to be a gift I have – I call it playing to my outs, other people (notably one Mr. Andrew Kardis) call it sacking. But it happens consistently every event I play in – there’s always some match where it looks completely hopeless but I hang on and stick around and somehow scrape out a miraculous win.

Even when he was getting pounded into the ground, he never stopped planning his next move. He never lost his faith in his ability to win. Naruto knows instinctively that believing in yourself gives you the power to change your destiny.

One of my favorite fights of the actual Naruto series has always been Naruto vs Neji in the Chunin Exam Arc. And I think this quote is very representative of the philosophy I try to apply to my card game matches. It’s hard enough having your opponent trying to beat you – don’t make it two vs. one by going on tilt. Always have a plan in your mind of how to achieve victory, no matter how improbable that victory may seem. Don’t just give up because the situation looks bad.

One of the few times I can remember completely going on tilt was at the Anime Expo Jonin following my Fanime Jonin victory. While I finished respectably, going 5-2 and missing top cut on tiebreakers, I never was mentally in any of the games I played until I had already picked up two losses (after which I resolved not to embarrass myself further – and the difference was obvious when I wasn’t on tilt. Before, I was making the most retarded plays imaginable. After I pulled myself together, I was beating turn 1 Kakashi ES/Baki off of JI two games in a row).


I finished off that season with a decent finish, finishing 3rd at Sannins and proving myself an elite player – however, as you should very well know by now, a finish that I was nowhere near satisfied with. I didn’t want to just be an elite player – I wanted to be the best.
I figured I was on my way after the pre-GenCon tournament season I had 2008. I felt like my NVS variant I had played to 2nd and 1st place finishes at Fanime and AX was the best deck in the format – and not only that, I was incredibly comfortable with it. I had logged countless playtesting hour with the deck and was confident in it to win from any situation possible (as an added bonus, the deck prominently featured Unexpected Attack – the card representing the defining moment of the Naruto vs Neji fight).

Additionally, it wasn’t just in Naruto that I felt like I was the best player in the world. In Bleach, I had designed a deck that was broken beyond belief (the infamous Ban and Ho) and also had played over a hundred playtesting matches with it. The craziest thing about that? In all those playtesting matches, I had to yet to lose a single game (except versus the carbon copy mirror match).

And as if to further prove it was my year of destiny, I was heading to Indy without needing to pay a dime – my plane flight was paid by Bandai, my hotel was free because of numerous accumulated points, and my badge was a press badge courtesy of PlayTCG.

Around a month before GenCon, my parents told me that my mom’s colon cancer had relapsed – and not only that, it had metastasized to her liver. She was given less than six months to live.

The next day, I canceled my flight to Indianapolis.


Fanime 2009 rolled around, and for the first time in a long while, I was playing Naruto again. For the past year, I had focused as much as possible on spending time with my mom and making her happy. I had taken that fire that once burned within me for card games and applied to what we would term “real life.” And somehow, miraculously, mom was doing the impossible. She was beating the death sentence of metastasized cancer. Her endless optimism and will actually pushed the cancer back into remission by the time I stepped into the San Jose Convention Center that May.

But my journey through those doors – that was difficult. It was my junior year of college, and all the accounting majors were applying for internships. I was at the top of my class – nothing but As in all the accounting classes, and that doesn’t even begin to describe how far ahead I was. In classes where the average exam grades ranged around the mid 40s, and the second-highest score was somewhere in the 70s – I was getting 98s and 100s. I didn’t even have to work hard and I was at the top academically. An internship at one of the prestigious “Big 4” accounting firms was practically guaranteed with my accomplishments.

I didn’t get a single offer from any of the 13 accounting firms I interviewed with. From the Big 4 to the smallest of the local firms, I was rejected by every single one. This hurt worse than losing to random scrubs in card games. This was my future. My resume sucked. My interview skills were atrocious. I desperately applied to endless numbers of companies. Nothing but rejection followed. At some point, I lost count of how many times I had received the, “We’re sorry…” e-mail.

But in early May, I finally broke through. I got a corporate finance internship position I was immensely overqualified for – but it didn’t matter… I had a job, and mom was on the road to recovery.


Of course, with all that energy spent on real life, I hadn’t really bothered to invest much of myself into card gaming. And it reflected in my results – while I did put together some 3rd place finishes in the Fanime and AX Jonins, as well as 1st/2nd place finishes in Dragonball and crossover, at this point I was basically skating by on pure talent alone. I barely knew what most of my cards did, and I didn’t really care that much.

At Indy 2009, when I finished 5-1-2 and out of the top cut for the first time since over 2 years prior, I realized I wasn’t even that mad at myself. I was just happy to be there. I recognized that my window of opportunity for dominance of the game was probably over, but it didn’t matter that much to me. I had picked up another year of hanging out with the greatest group of friends in the world, as well as another seasons’ worth of ridiculous comeback stories.

But the obsession was gone, and with it, my proficiency at the game. I knew my skills were slowly degrading with each missed playtesting opportunity. Whereas previously I had sometimes played in 3 events per weekend, now I was playing in 3 events a year.


At the beginning of the school year, my mom’s cancer came back. This time, it had metastasized into the bloodstream and lungs. The results of the scan of her lungs was the most depressing, soul-crushing image I’ve seen in my entire life. All over the picture were tiny pinpricks of white – each another tiny tumor, growing with the speed that only cancer can grow at. And worse, now this cancer was resistant to chemotherapy – and no amount of surgery would be able to remove all of it.

Obviously, the prognosis was even worse this time around – 3 months, the doctor said – if you’re lucky.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

She was supposed to have grandchildren.

She was supposed to be there at my wedding.

She was supposed to see me go to work at my first real job.

She was supposed to watch my graduation.

I wanted, with all of my heart, for her to be proud of me.


I realized that I had very little margin for error. There was to be no more slacking off if I wanted to accomplish my goal. For the first time in my life, it wasn’t a question of how much effort, how much obsession was necessary. Instead, it was a question of whether my obsession would be enough.


“Tell me,” the interviewer asked. “What’s your strongest trait?”

“Well,” I answered, “whatever I do, I always apply my passion towards it… you could almost call it an obsession for constantly improving myself and getting better. In fact, let me tell you about one of my hobbies, this card game I play…”


That night, the partner who interviewed me called me.

“We were really impressed with your interview today, especially what you told us about your passion for what you do. That’s exactly what we look for in our candidates. We’d like to extend an offer…”


That fall, I finished the final class required for my accounting major. But the hunger to do even more still burned within me.

This June, I graduated summa cum laude with a triple major in accounting, finance, and information systems. As soon as the commencement ceremony finished, I dashed out to find my mom and give her a great big hug.


Three weeks before GenCon, my mother passed away. She had battled for four years against cancer, and outlived her initial prognosis by three.

Before she went, she told me she was so proud of me, especially of how mature I had become over the past two years.


Three days before GenCon, I left for the airport. It was the first time in my 10 years of playing competitive card games that my mom hadn’t been there to wish me luck as I left.


During GenCon, I “played to my outs” many, many times.

Thanks, mom.


Of course, I really wish I wasn’t such an idiot and actually read over my cards… but that’s always been my problem, hasn’t it? Brilliant plays one game, completely boneheaded errors the next. That’s just been my style for these four years.

And when, to-night,
I enter Christ's fair courts, and, lowly bowed,
Sweep with doffed casque the heavens' threshold blue,
One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch,
I bear away…
My panache.


It is currently 4:30 AM. I am in St. Charles, Illinois, and I have just finished writing about 4 years of card games.

Card games have everything to do with why I’m here. In four hours, I begin my training for Ernst and Young – perhaps the most prestigious out of the Big 4 accounting firms.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
At first I was -,-
then I was O,O
Then I went "BAAAAAAW"
Then I T^T
then I ;_;
then I =D

Most emotionally confusing article I've read as a reader goes. Reminds me of when I read Tuesdays with Morrie the first time. Congrats on the amazing job and for using your drive to reach your goals!

-Lord Cowman III

Blogger Tsu Kiyo Me said...
That was just plain beautiful. . . I'm speechless. I'm glad that I gave you the inspiration to write it. It washes away all the bad feelings I was having this morning as I felt deep down the "Obsession" article would just go as a low note in my career as a writer, something people despised and really didn't want to take anything from.

Thank you Josh for this.

I didn't know you've been having such a tough struggle these past few years. You're much stronger than I am.

Best of luck to you in your future endeavors.

Anonymous Megamarik said...
You had me hooked from the beginning.

Great article Josh. No, not great. Amazing. It takes a strong person to let all these things out into the open like you did. It turned out to be for the best, too.

And to top it all off, you made your mother proud and supported her during her last moments. You can't ask for more than that.

Anonymous VSA said...
As much as you and I disagree on a great many things, this article was great. I think this is one of the most, if not the most important article ever written for Naruto.

Congrats on the job, and best wishes for your future!

Anonymous Anonymous said...
MJM said... (lawl proxy)

Amazing Josh, just plain amazing. It took me on a roller coaster of emotions and it twisted and turned. I'm very sorry for your Mother. I don't know how you managed to continue to GenCon after that, you are very strong and I applaud that.

I'm sorry for all the tough struggles you've been through the past few years and congratulations on your job. Good luck in the future.

Anonymous Vachaox said...
That was a great article. I really appreciated the effort and energy that you poured into that, and also into card games and even just life in general. You are an outstanding role model and I can't congratulate you enough. It's kinda weird, since you don't really know who I am, but I thought I would tell you thanks.

It's tough for me, since I believe I'm at the end of my card game road. But I hope that you continue to do well and motivate and influence others. Best of luck.

Anonymous Matthew Low said...
Josh -

I didn't see this entry until now, and I can honestly say I feel ashamed. I wish that I was a better friend to you and been there for you in the midst of all of this.

Holding back tears seems impossible, so I won't. I'll shed a tear, or two, thanks to my oversensitive nature. Because your story, your life, warrants it.

It probably doesn't mean much coming from me, but I'm proud of you. It takes a man to do what you've done, live through what you've lived through, and still stay sane.

It put a smile to my face that you addressed our silly card games in your interview. I always want to do that too, but I could never do it like you can. Bravo. I may be older, but you're definitely the master, and there's no contest.

I think there's a parallel about card games for both of us. You're down to about three times a year, and I'd be hard pressed to say I play much more than that. Perhaps it is true that time does change our stance towards things after all. Life gets in the way. Just make sure not to let that obsession get the best of you... or you may turn out like me during the school year, and that's not a good thing.

And congrats on the job. I remember getting my first one, and all the butterflies that came with it. Even though I'm not at that school anymore, I can still look on it fondly and smile at the memories I had, even with the mistakes that happened. Ride the wave. Life will throw you curveballs. Just make sure to take the low, outside, and in the dirt ones so you can take the walk or have an opportunity hit the mistakes for extra bases. To me, it seems you've hit a few over the fence.

Oh, and never, should anyone, have ever faulted you for missing AnimeExpo this year. Me included. You made the right choice without a doubt.

~ Matthew Low

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