Getting Back in the Game

Last week Friday I played my first sanctioned constructed match of Magic in over a decade.

Ten years? Seriously? Yep, it’s ben ten years since I put together a deck on my own and had a go with some really expensive pieces of cardboard. So, after ten years of being away, I obviously got along just fine without it. Why come back now?

In some sense this is a WotC success story. After a long time, they lured me back. How? Well, that’s a longer story that requires a little bit of history. I played competitive Magic for what seemed like a long time but was really not that long, just a little over a year. But it was a pretty intense year, because I played with some pretty intense people. (Warning: I’m about to do a lot of name-dropping. Not because it says anything about my ability, which is meager, but because it says something about my environment. Nonetheless, if you dislike name dropping skip ahead a bit.)

Really, the person who taught me what little I managed to retain about Magic was Aaron Forsythe. Yes, that Aaron Forsythe, former PT player and current head of R&D for Wizards of the Coast. I believe I was the first person to buy Aaron a celebratory drink on the night he first qualified for the Pro Tour. In that PTQ he beat Andrew Cuneo in the finals. Obviously, I was living in Pittsburgh at the time, working as a postdoc at CMU. I started out in Aaron’s Arena league (those don’t exist anymore), but things got a lot more serious fairly quickly. I made the Top 8 at my first-ever sanctioned tournament, an Extended PTQ in December 1997. This was not too long after Randy Buehler won PT-Chicago. Eventually Aaron and a couple of the more serious guys from our Arena League would play with Team CMU. Erik Lauer—yes, that Erik Lauer—patiently spent probably about two hours with me one night showing me how to better play the CounterHammer deck I took to regionals that year. I learned most of what I know about how to draft from Mike Turian, yes, that Mike Turian. I loaned Randy Buehler either a Memory Jar or a Tolarian Academy he took with him to, I believe, PT-Rome, because Team CMU didn’t have enough. Team CMU also drew some notable visitors, too. One of the first drafts I ever did (all Tempest) I started out by passing to none other than Jon Finkel. (I just have to tell a side story about that: I opened my pack, looked it over, took a card—it was either a Mogg Fanatic or a Shock—I don’t remember for sure which, we’ll just say it was a Mogg Fanatic, and handed it to Jon. He looked at the pack for about ten seconds and then announced: “You took a Mogg Fanatic from this pack. That was the right pick.” He knew this because he had memorized the cut sheets. Not too intense or anything.)

There were a lot of great players around. I’m 1-1 in sanctioned matches against current WotC R&D employee and former Team CMU’er Nate Heiss. I once beat future pro Jess Means in a PTQ “feature match,” only to get crushed two rounds later by Mark Globus (now also of Wizards R&D) and his main deck Rune of Protection: Artifacts. You’d end up across from current or future pros at random local tourneys; I’m 2-0-1 against pro Nick Eisel in local tournaments. In one of those I got wrecked by Randy Buehler in the quarterfinals of the same (unsanctioned) tournament and stayed to watch the epic battle between Randy and Eric Taylor.

I mention all this not because it shows anything about how good I am—I am not remotely in the same league as all those people I played with in Pittsburgh (and I have the rating to prove it)—but because it provides some insight into the local intensity level. So competitive magic, was, for most of the people around me, pretty serious. And yet I got out of the game pretty completely. This was due, I think, mainly to three factors: (1) I moved and took a new, very demanding, job, and not long thereafter became a father, (2) I really wasn’t all that competitive with my peer group, and my ability to devote the necessary time was getting worse, not better, and (3) WotC made it really easy to want to leave. I left in the midst of the Urza’s block. The DCI was banning new cards it seemed like every week, because a lot of pretty broken cards had been printed. The scene was almost entirely dominated by combo decks, like the aforementioned Tolarian Academy/Memory Jar nonsense to High Tide to I don’t even remember the next combo. Magic games consisted mostly of ignoring the other player (with the exception of permission, which was of course everywhere) and setting up your combo, hopefully before the other player did. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but not a huge one. It wasn’t fun. The Mirage and Tempest blocks were fun; there were combo decks and weenie decks and fattie decks and discard decks and burn decks… there was everything. When it was Urza, it was so dominated by combo decks that it was really easy to just let reasons (1) and (2) take over—I didn’t fight it at all. I just stopped playing, cold turkey, and it didn’t bother me at all.

There were moments of temptation, sure. There was a Pro Tour stop in Houston in I think 2002, and I got to see Aaron and Randy again, as they were working for WotC at the time. I showed up at the site, played in a sealed side event, and took Aaron and Randy out for dinner so they could escape the site for a while. I thought maybe playing would get me into it again, but it didn’t really. “Morph” just didn’t do it for me. I went to the Legions pre-release and remembered all the things I disliked about Magic tournaments and just didn’t have enough fun to overcome that.

I thought of or heard from someone that triggered me looking at things again around Mirrodin, and that was almost enough. Super-aggro artifact decks had some appeal, but ultimately it just wasn’t enough.

Then the Zendikar pre-release rolled around. I had recently re-connected with Aaron and was following him on Twitter. He mentioned that he was being sent to Houston to gunsling at the Zendikar pre-release and so I thought it would be great to get together. Let me point out that at the time I was much more interested in seeing Aaron than I was in the set. Aaron is just a really great guy, irrespective of Magic. Also, the pre-release was being held at the airport hotel, so Aaron wouldn’t get to leave the airport complex if I didn’t go out there, and nobody deserves that. So, I picked Aaron up, we had an outstanding dinner, and then Aaron asked if I had time to hang out and play for a while. I kind of expected that, and I had even brought my box of old decks that I still have together. A PT Jank variant, Steel Necro, old-school 5C green, a couple Rath Cycle block decks (CounterPhoenix), stuff like that.

Well, we never touched the old stuff. Aaron broke out two of the Zendikar theme decks, the Vampires deck and the “Unstable Terrain” UG deck. Aaron played Vampires and I played the other deck… and I really liked it—a lot better than Onslaught. We cracked open the boosters, pooled them, and tried to make our decks better. (Incidentally, the UG deck won a slight majority of the games, not because of my play skill, but because while Vampires got a consistently faster start, it just didn’t have the staying power. And of course Jwar Sphinx is just better than anything in the Vampire deck.) I liked landfall as a mechanic. The cards seemed balanced. And, of course, playing Aaron over a couple of beers is just awesome any day of the week.

But then it got even better. Aaron broke out his “gunslinger” decks, one of which was posted on the Daily MTG site. The posted deck is a green-black-blue Allies deck, and playing against I learned to hate Bala Ged Thief almost immediately. The other deck, not posted, was a W/R deck; basically white weenie with angels (both Emeria and Baneslayer) splashing red for some burn. That’s pretty much my favorite kind of deck; my first ever tournament constructed deck was basically the same idea, a fast white/red small creatures and bolts kind of package. It was just awesome to play a shiny new version. A format where you can play Savannah Lions and Lightning Bolts! (Yeah, Savannah Lions are called Elite Vanguard now, but it’s still 2/1 for W and it’ll always be a Savannah Lion to me.) In fact, our very first two turns with these decks involved Aaron playing a Bird of Paradise and me bolting it. BoP, bolt… how classic is that? Zendikar is fun, and not just because of the nostalgia. Landfall, super-slivers, kickers… good stuff all around.

So, while I wasn’t able to play in the actual pre-release, the damage was done. I wanted to play again. And it’s so much easier now, too. There’s a great card shop, Montag’s Games, about two miles from my house. The weekend days are devoted to the kids, but Friday night is usually open for me after the kids’ soccer practice. FNM for the month of October was Zendikar drafts so I got to learn the set without having to jump into constructed right away. And it gave me time to start working on getting the cards I’d need to build Aaron’s deck, or something close to it… This time, it was enough. I’m back. Yeah, I’m 40 years old and I still don’t have time to be serious about it, but that’s OK. It’s fun, and that’s what counts.

That’ll be my next MtG post; a FNM tournament report! Been a long time…