I’m going to be going a bit off topic today because I’ve had this burning desire to talk about Magic: the gathering.
I’ve been playing the game for a very long time and because there are so many experiences and stories tied to it, it has become a rather important hobby throughout my life. I’ve met friends playing the game and I feel that, strangely enough, it has made me better at playing strategic games in general. Evolving as a magic player has meant learning some critical higher level concepts such as evaluating threat levels, tempo, timing, card advantage, and understanding gains in board position. I certainly haven’t mastered all of these things mind you, but simply trying to understand them all has altered my brain for the better I think. This story though is going to be largely anecdotal but hopefully enjoyable all the same.
Where it all began
I started playing magic with some friends around or just before the revised base set came out while in 8th grade I believe. I had some cards from the unlimited set before that however we at school honestly didn’t know what was good and what was bad which has me kicking myself to this day! Innocently enough, like most other kids my age, it began with a “hey, what’s that game you are playing it looks like fun”. Oh if I had only knew what I was getting into then! I dabble in it a little bit at the time and made some very, very crude decks where the only goal was to make giant monsters and attack my opponent. I had no concept of mana ramp up or casting cost balance in my games. If I could plop Force of Nature down onto the table I was a happy camper. There was a great sense of wonder surrounding the game that drew me in much like multiplayer online games do. I had a small community to play with and we bonded over a new and thrilling hobby.
My closest friends had independently all been starting to play at their respective schools which turned out to be pretty awesome. Over the next few months, with The Dark and Fallen Empires already released, we started playing together. We all had completely different concepts of what a good deck meant and I found it fascinating. This card game that had one unified rule set could foster a myriad of play styles, decks, and card value systems and within each of those permutations you had infinite variations beyond that!
I gravitated towards blue/X control and made it my business to acquire the rarer cards such as Vesuvian Doppleganger, Wrath of God, Skull of Orm, Maze of Ith, Control Magic, Clone, and Dance of Many and put together a clone and control deck. Another friend gravitated towards the chaos that was Red/Blue and managed to get Shivan Dragons, Rock Hydras, Granite Gargoyles, Seasingers, and such. Our other group members went Black/Blue and Green/Black respectively. We had some of the most epic and political games of magic ever for kids that age…at least to us they were. It was always up in the air who would win and we enjoyed the randomness.
We continued to play throughout the next couple of years in high school picking up more and more cards as the sets rolled out (we bought the heck out of Ice Age, Alliances, Mirage, Visions etc). Each of us created new concoctions that expanded our areas of expertise. I made more aggressive decks, the aggressive players made some control decks, and we even had our fair share of combo and land destruction. None of our theory was ever right and sadly multiplayer doesn’t prepare you for a real duel. At the time I honestly didn’t even know there was anything more out there! Our Magic playing tailed off before my senior year and we ended up preferring less insular activities but I never forgot about it.
Day 1 freshman year of college during orientation changed EVERYTHING. I was sitting down in a circle with a bunch of other engineers in my group and I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me (who is now a good friend). Somehow we ended up talking about magic because he, a seasoned tournament goer, frequented a little place called Your Move Games. For those that aren’t aware YMG was a pretty big force in the magic community at the time and was frequented by some rather iconic players such as Darwin Kastle, Rob Dougherty, Chad Ellis, David Humphreys, Michelle Bush, Zvi Mowshewitz among many others. This card shop was also literally a stone’s throw from my university. Holy crap!
I was encouraged to take a trip down there and play some sealed deck in order to get back into things. Urza’s Block was the current thing and man was it completely different than I was used to. The power level felt higher (bear in mind I didn’t do old school tournaments which were no joke) and I was trying my best to put up a good fight. (This was also the first time I needed to get a DCI number which completely confused me. My friend’s number was only 4 digits long which shows just how long he had been in the scene.) After playing a few local tournaments and getting my butt handed to be by excellent players I started to learn quite a bit. I wasn’t making the same mistakes twice and my sealed deck building was improving albeit slowly.
One day my friend asked me to come help him playtest some decks for a tournament that he was interested in going to. I asked “what do you mean playtest?” Again…there are so many dangerous questions I asked back then that I had no idea the significance of! He explained to me that it was common for people to mock up decks, especially ones with expensive cards, in order to test them out against each other. Often times the match ups would be played over and over to understand win percentages and value of adding or subtracting cards. This seemed like a really fun idea to me as it meant I would play lots of games of magic with decks that I had never thought to, or could afford, to build.
That’s when he busted out Tolarian Academy.
and many other nasty blue cards to create a combo capable of going off on turn one. The problem was…it was the longest most cerebral turn ever. At one point I went and took a power nap on the couch in the dorm’s common area while he worked through it. Needless to say that I wasn’t having a ton of fun but the delivery we got tasted great.
I mostly did casual magic and limited through the next block (Mercadian Masques) which I didn’t find to be all that great but the people were good and I was learning more and more.
A big turning point for me was probably Invasion Block. The cards in this set really appealed to me and it sucked me in further than I thought I ever would be. The power level, color interaction, and themes present made for some of the most exciting limited play I had done to date. I liked being able to play 5 color green in limited, or bust out some rather deadly three color guild deck that had tricks up every sleeve. For some reason G/B/R or U/B/W appealed to me but I was certainly not limited to them.
Invasion/Masques standard was the first format I started playing constructed. I cobbled together a mediocre rebels deck while my friend played the dominant deck of the format Fires of Yavimaya. Fires was your iconic R/G beatdown deck that had three all-star cards in it: Blastoderm Blastoderm, Fires of Yavimaya, and Saproling Burst’.
Saproling Burst was particularly mean because on the turn it was played, with Fires present, represented 12 points of creature power with haste. The deck was about as straightforward as you can get but it was deadly.
A favorite moment of the Masques/Invasion tournaments was my friend playing Fires against a Mono-blue deck with creature counters, control, and bounce, and it killed by way of Ankh of Mishra and Parallax Tide. Fires won game one and he strung out game two to make sure that the blue player had no win condition other than Ankh and Tide but still lost. He knew with the sideboard present there wasn’t any way Fires was going to win this matchup against the rogue deck. So what does he do? He mulligans down to zero cards in hand, says go, and never drops a land. Not one. His opponent was livid and crying over to the judge. He couldn’t win and would certainly be decked eventually as he took a full hand to start. Game, set, and match.
One of the first times I experienced the rock paper scissors aspect of magic was playtesting with him at the tail end of this standard rotation. There was a rumbling through the circuit that people were playing a blue/white control deck using Blinding Angel and Mageta the Lion to create a lockdown control deck. I mocked up the deck, shuffled it and went at him in duels. I won every, single, game. It wasn’t even close. He was a better player than I was and I had NO familiarity with the deck what so ever. It was almost as if the deck played itself. Eerie as it was it just kept spitting up cards to counter everything he did and rarely did it break a sweat. We then modified his sideboard to deal with this deck because any match-up with an auto loss game 1 needed some attention and fast.
I continued to play casually while at college but I couldn’t go over to YMG as often as I’d like. The people there were still awesome and I continued to have a great time and got in quite a few memorable games. One of my worst limited losses ever was to one Darwin Kastle who proceeded to drop Sapphire Leech turn two and Sleeper’s Robe turn three. I never recovered from the card advantage despite throwing up a flier as he poured out a perfect creature curve. After Invasion, Odyssey block came and went for me with little fanfare. Classes were tough and time limited.
When Onslaught block came out I found myself back in the thick of it. We were playing a lot more and I was loving the flavor and of the set. I was so excited that I played in my first Regionals tournament.
A quick moment of clarification: On top of the tournaments that are held for players to gain access to the Pro Tour circuit and local games, there are public tournaments that are held to funnel players into their country’s world teams. These are Regionals, Nationals, and ultimately Worlds.
I had fallen in love with Astral Slide and Lightning Rift . These cards played on my familiarity with the old Urza Block cycling ability which I enjoyed. The deck was fairly straight forward and the decklist was basically a giant list of mostly 4 ofs…many that were affordable for me which was important. I’m pretty sure my list was something like:
4 Lay Waste
4 Wrath of God
4 Exalted Angel
3 Slice and Dice
4 Astral Slide
4 Renewed Faith
3 Teroh’s Faithful
4 Lightning Rift
4 Secluded Steppe
4 Forgotten Cave
The deck absolutely destroyed creatures. It killed em and it killed them good. The problem was that this deck was in a format with three other very strong control decks: Psychatog, Mirari’s Wake, and Mono Black Control. All of these posed a significant threat if their defenses get built up.
What I did, and I was proud of it at the time (though I discovered later I was far from the only one) was create a unique transitional sideboard that combatted those decks specifically. It was:
2 Boil 3 Earth Rift 4 Pillage 4 Stone Rain 2 Wild Fire
This gave me 19 land destruction spells when you add in the 4 main deck Lay Waste (cycle fodder) which brought control decks to their knees if they didn’t have a strong counter spell heavy opening hand. I piloted this deck through 11 grueling rounds (over 11 hours for reference) and ended up in the top 32 which made me quite happy. My friend who was running Black/Green oversold cemetery ended up making top 8 and Nationals.
As the Onslaught block unfolded and we gained access to Eternal Dragon and Decree of Justice the deck went from obscure to very popular in a fairly short period of time. I kept on playing it at local tournaments but when the next regionals rolled around with Mirrodin in the mix I opted for something different.
* Tooth and Nail *
I have a long standing love for this card for some odd reason. I liked the tool box nature of it and what it can do when resolved. For 9 mana though it should be pretty amazing though right? The deck was bounced around from pro to pro each taking their own spin on it when writing up articles. The core of the deck revolved around using land fetching spells that could get you anything you wanted Sylvan Scrying and Reap and Sow to put together the Urza Lands. Once you did this you would cast absurdly powerful spells such as Mindslaver, Oblivion Stone , and Fireball as well as the titular spell of the deck. I loved the simplicity of the deck though: Cast Tooth and Nail, place two Darksteel Colossus in play or one of your many toolbox creatures that live in your deck or sideboard, Profit! While I did rather well with the deck, and loved every minute of it, I never top 8’d anything. The biggest problem that existed at the time was Skull Clamp . A degenerate card that shaped the metagame and I was stubborn in not making a deck that used it while it was legal.
After Kamigawa was released I opted to play a rogue deck in the next regionals because at the time I didn’t want to just net deck. There were so many interesting deck options at the time so I felt like it was as good a time as any other to try. The deck I was obsessed at running was a variation on a theme originally created by Chad Ellis over at Your Move Games. We were talking about doing goofy and ultimately crazy things using Auriok Salvagers to generate a control deck. Now if you flash forward to today everyone knows how good that card is with Lion’s Eye Diamond and Black Lotus earning itself a spot in a handful of notable combo decks. At the time though it was less powerful but just as fun. Pairing him up with Trinket Mage
The Spellbombs Aether Necrogen Pyrite Sunbeam and Engineered Explosives . The fun kick in the pants combo that the deck could sneak in very easily was flipping Erayo . The deck basically worked on the backbone of Auriok Salvagers using countermagic, sensei’s divining top, hand destruction, and board sweeping to stay afloat. I came up shy of the top 8 but I ended up faring very well with it
While I have cited some of my more enjoyable tournament decks I was also frequenting FNM at YMG as well as the occasional PTQ and GP. I was trying to earn my chops or at least have fun trying. What I liked about FNM though was that I could pilot odd creations and rogue decks just for the ever loving heck of it!
My favorite rogue deck that I played was, and you’ll probably laugh, the Beacon of Immortality False Cure deck. The deck was one of the most basic things you’d ever imagine. It’s goal was to drop Wayfarer’s Bauble turn one in the hopes of ramping to Solemn Similacrum and Wrath of God or Akroma’s Vengeance if creatures were the problem, or Duress and Persecute if they weren’t. As soon as I hit 8 mana the two card combo would straight up kill them regardless of life total. Yes it was bad, and yes it was janky, but the sheer rogue-ishness of the deck allowed me to win the first FNM I played it at.
I dabbled in Mirrodin Block constructed playing both Affinity and Red/Green artifact hating stompy. Both of which were fun but I didn’t get enough experience with the format to excel.
I was around the Mirrodin block going into Kamigawa block that I really came into my own drafting (though I did draft Onslaught quite a bit). While I’m sure I’ve lost all my skill at it, I thoroughly enjoyed getting my hands dirty playing at Your Move Games. Yup I was still going there though the crowd had shifted somewhat. Rob, Chad, and Darwin still came by and I got to play test Darwin’s games a few times but my interactions were more with the other folks. There were a lot of people there that shaped my further game development, one of which is the now well-known Jackie Lee.
I was less interested in the main draft event. I much preferred the independent team drafts that started towards the tail end of the Thursday evening and went into the wee hours of the morning (1 to 4 AM). As you can probably gather I was between jobs and working odds and ends stuff at the time. The team drafts were usually 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 events where the strategy was obviously quite different. Everyone at the table was not your enemy and you had to be aware that the one opponent next to you that you have been feeding all the good cards to has to play every one of your teammates. The winning team took home all the cards so it was also, in some way, like gambling but much, much, more fun. I think I can safely say that I won games much more often than I lost them and my card collection benefited greatly.
This drafting went all the way through Kamigawa block and Ravnica block with the culmination of it, and most fun I’ve had, occurring in Ravnica. While I am sad that I don’t play with them (though I have been meaning to try to sneak over and draft with people in Cambridge sometime) I’ll always remember the times I had there and the wealth of knowledge present. Now people there at the time weren’t all well-known but I can at least say that I got my share of wins…and losses…against Jackie Lee and a few other major players who I’ve come to respect greatly. We were all just kids messing around back then though. A different time for sure.
Not long after that I started work at my current company and I have been with them since. Time constraints, and ultimately world of warcraft, prevented me from partaking in magic more since then. In fact I think I can safely say that raiding is what killed my time with Magic: the gathering. Without anything to keep me current I drifted farther and farther away from the game and almost lost touch with it entirely. Then something crazy happened.
My childhood friends all came back together and said that they missed playing Magic. We saw it as an opportunity to all spend time together just the guys and socialize all while playing a game that we love. In that sense it was one of the best things that ever happened. Sure I had traded in my competitive one on one edge for a more multiplayer one but it has provided us so much entertainment it was worth it. The hardest thing though was getting my multiplayer deck building chops back up. I started reading The Ferret’s Serious Fun articles on Magicthegathering.com and expanding my horizons. I’ll have more to come in my post about multiplayer and the decks I roll with in my next post!