Enter The Battlefield
A nice brief one this week. This short-enough documentary popped up on Netflix in the last little while, and immediately caught my eye, as competitive table-top card gaming is something that I have had only slight exposure to. Magic: The Gathering is one of the world’s most popular games, that attracts legions of professional players to its Pro Tour circuit. Some seek money, some seek to make a lasting legacy, some are trying to break through barriers. But all of them are united around this fantastical game that has come to dominate their lives to varying extents.
Narrated by Will Wheaton, Enter The Battlefield is a fairly simple piece. It’s just over an hour long, and even that seems a bit too much: this is a film that is repeating itself constantly, as if the creators had a mind of TV, with ad breaks, instead of Netflix. But it’s still a fun, interesting look at a professional sport that remains largely locked in a niche in terms of wider understanding.
I have a fairly liberal definition of what I would consider a competitive sport, that essentially amounts to an expectation that the main resolution of the contest not be down primarily to blind luck. And while MTG covers itself in all of the trappings you’d expect of a competitive sport – the sponsorships, the TV coverage, the established structures and teams and commentary – you might still be forgiven for thinking that a game based on the drawing of cards still has more to do with blind luck than anything else.
I suppose it’s a somewhat arguable point, but Enter The Battlefield really does make it clear that MTG is an affair that requires a great deal of intelligence, timing, willpower and the ability to withstand pressure, over any need to defer to the whims of fortune. Indeed, the film showcases players whose entire lives have been badly affected by one ill-move, that had more to do with their own failures than a random throw of the dice. It’s more chess than poker, and has a complexity that makes it very hard to explain or grasp in a single hour, and in truth Enter The Battlefield doesn’t actually try all that hard to make the audience understand the ins and outs of the actual play (one section, when an expert outlines an important moment in a pivotal match of years ago, might as well have been explaining theoretical physics to a four-year-old).
But Enter The Battlefield, like all goods sports movies, is less about the actual sport on display than the personalities that take part in it, which the film jumps around on. There’s Patrick Chapin, the charismatic go-getter who spends his time writing raps in-between building decks, and seems like the most relaxed man on the planet otherwise; there’s Christopher Pikula, a one-time great fallen far, now desperately trying to string enough wins together to get into the MTG Hall of Fame; there’s Melissa DelTora, one of the only women competing at the highest level and getting used to being a female role-model; there’s Shahar Shenhar, the Israeli wunderkind dominating all before him; and there’s the “Peach Garden Oath” team, a trio of players of disparate backgrounds and mood, trying to prove that working together is a better avenue for success than going all lone wolf.
Most of this is interesting stuff, but the limited timeframe means that we can never really get in-depth with anyone. There are the interviews of spouses (a nice surprise to see the excellent Allie “Hyperbole And A Half” Brosh pop-up, Chapin’s girlfriend, who has somewhat vanished from the internet in the last couple of years) and family members, who express varying sentiments of pride and concern at the obsession with MTG, but things rarely get negative, and Enter The Battlefield doesn’t seem interested in showcasing any personality flaws or darker aspects. It is, by and large, a puff-piece, aiming to make the games top players look as positive as possible and doing the same thing for the sport generally. A few minutes on background, a few minutes on parental pride and expectations, a few minutes on a tragedy to tug at the heartstrings: this playbook should be familiar to just about anyone. That doesn’t make it bad, just forgettable.
It’s difficult to get super-engaged with that kind of approach, and I wonder if a limited scope, on just three or so players, over a slightly longer timeframe, would have made for a more engrossing narrative. As it is Enter The Battlefield bounces around so much in the course of its 64 minute running time that it never really gets settled, and can’t pick a narrative it wants to put front and centre. There’s just not enough driving Enter The Battlefield forward.
Amid everything, there are cool moments: Chaplin’s raps, Pikula’s work on cutting out cheating in the sport, DelTora’s incredible poker-face and the World Championships, the 2015 version of which forms the basis for Enter The Battlefield’s finale, as numerous players focused on in the course of the documentary head to Nice for a weekend of high-pressure gaming. It would have been expected that the people in charge of the sports organisation and promotion would be at pains to maximise the experience for cameras, trying way too hard to appear legitimate, but in truth the opposite is the case: these people are comfortable in their roles, be it playing or commentating, and just let their usual work speak for itself. I can appreciate that, and how there isn’t any real sense of desperate longing for mainstream acceptance.
Ultimately, Enter The Battlefield, at just over an hour long and unfolding the way that it does, is not a film that will stick in the mind for a very long time, and could have been executed a lot better. But if you’re someone with a mostly complete ignorance of MTG’s professional side, it’s a half-decent introduction to both the game, the sport and the people that play it. Some fine-tuning, and a really great documentary could have been produced here. Partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Hazbro Studios and Wizards Of The Coast).