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Arcane Lab – Where Am I?


I’ve always been a science kid, ever since my dad first took me into Philadelphia to see the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute. The lights went down, the stars came out, and the narrator told me that I was part of something bigger and more intricate than I could ever imagine. I didn’t walk away from that show with a newfound appreciation for the grandeur of the universe. No, the thing that I took away from that trip was that our sun was running of out hydrogen, would eventually turn into a red giant, and then begin to burn out.

All Suns' Dawn – Glen Angus

When the lights came up and the educators started taking questions, I began to assail them with questions. What were scientists doing about it? Why weren’t they more concerned? Didn’t they understand that the sun was going to burn out in just six billion years? That’s practically tomorrow! I left that planetarium determined that, someday, I would fix the sun.

Nearly twenty years later, I haven’t managed to save the sun. I’m in graduate school for engineering, solving problems that are a little smaller in scope. This semester, one of my classes gave a fascinating term project: take a disease and model the human body’s response as a dynamic controlled system. In the interest of making my life as difficult as possible, I browsed the Internet for some obscure disease and stumbled onto something that spoke to how I was feeling.

Topographical disorientation—people with this condition are lost all the time. Even in the homes they grew up in, they have no idea where they are, much less how to make it to anyplace else. How does that happen? More interestingly, how does that not happen to the rest of us?

Star Compass – Ginato Giancola

Somehow, the human brain starts with a bunch of chemical and electrical signals and turns that into a mental representation of the space around it. It turns out that that process is kind of complicated—the kind of complicated you need multiple degrees in neuroscience to follow. The short answer is that the most important part of this system is the use of landmarks. We want to know what the relevant landmarks are and where these things are with respect to one another.

Think about driving to a new place. The first few trips, you’re locked into whatever directions you have. Left at the gas station. Straight through three traffic lights. That’s all you have to orient yourself by. When you don’t see a new landmark for a few miles, panic starts to set in. Did you miss it? Are you lost? Then, you see the bright colors and neon lights of the chain restaurant you were looking for and breathe a sigh of relief.

Once you become familiar with the route, though, options start opening up. You learn where to stop for food, how to avoid traffic, and how to shave a few minutes off your commute when you tried to squeeze in one too many games on Magic Online before you left. You find your favorite route instead of the one prescribed to you.

I remember when I first truly appreciated the depth of Magic as a game: Frank Karsten versus Akira Asahara, Worlds 2005. Gifts Ungiven versus Enduring Ideal. Watching Karsten play with Gifts Ungiven was like the Planetarium all over again.

The universe was suddenly way bigger than I ever thought. It was terrifying, but in an exhilarating way. More places to explore. More possibilities. More fun. Over time, I became more comfortable in this enormous space. I picked colors and strategies I liked and found my place in the community.

The problem is that, recently, I’ve let myself become stagnant in the way that I built my decks and approached the game, even in casual formats like Commander. Sun Titan. Nim Deathmantle. Some kind of convoluted value engine. Rinse. Repeat. It’s no wonder I wasn’t excited. At its core, Magic is a game about pushing boundaries, better plays and decks, and new friends and places. Things weren’t exciting anymore because Magic was continuing to change but I wasn’t.

I’d lost sight of what attracted me to the game in the first place. I don’t love Magic because it stagnates, so why should I? It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to just change the way you’ve looked at Magic for the last fourteen years. I felt lost and didn’t know where to turn to.

When you lose your way, you have to reorient: Find something familiar, and figure out where you’re going and what you’re doing. I needed to reset the way I approach Magic and start fresh. That means I needed landmarks to find my way.

So what’s the first landmark? That’s one of the first questions I’ve been able to answer in a good while:

Gifts Ungiven – D. Alexander Gregory

This card was what really sparked my interest in grown-up Magic. Gifts Ungiven was my point of no return when it came to really getting into Magic. I was watching masters like Frank Karsten, Shouta Yasooka, and Luis Scott-Vargas casually crushing people with better decks and better plays—slowly sculpting games so Gifts would be absolutely backbreaking. That’s the way I wanted to be able to play this game. That’s still the way that I aspire to be able to construct decks and play games. With that in mind, here’s the deck I think best exemplifies that mindset in Modern Magic:

The W/U variety of Tron isn’t going to break Modern anytime soon. That said, it’s a big-mana deck that plays plenty of my favorite cards. Most importantly, Gifts Ungiven is the crux of the deck, giving you both a proactive Unburial Rites plan as well as an indomitable late game of recycling Gifts, Emrakul, and Sphinx's Revelation until your 15/15 sticks. It’s power, flexibility, and resiliency powered by Gifts Ungiven. What more could an aspiring Gifts player ask for?

My second point of reference is Second Sunrise. This card represents the ability to build your deck in a convoluted manner to cheat ahead on resources and generate an appreciable advantage. Forget cards like Trading Post—when my deck kicks into gear, I want to bury people in cards all at once rather than grind them out one at a time. Sphinx's Revelation has spawned a number of decks in this style in recent Standard formats, but I wanted to see if this style of do-nothing control deck can be a thing in Commander, where more players increases the stress on your answers. Here’s what I’ll be putting together in the near future:

Ephara Control — Commander | Carlos Gutierrez

Who says control decks have to play fair? In sixty-card formats, control decks are most constricted by resources such as life. In Commander, you’re most restricted by mana, which is the resource this deck tries to pull ahead on.

The idea is that there will come a point in the midgame when you will have assembled a bunch of fetch lands. You can crack them all at once and either respond with Surveyor's Scope or dump them back into play with Faith's Reward and Second Sunrise. Alternatively, you can stock your graveyard with basics via Fact or Fiction and Thought Scour and Planar Birth them into play. Who needs to play green? It’s a stupid color anyway.

Once you have your mana online, it’s a pretty traditional control deck. You can grind away with Ephara, flash creatures, and Astral Slide. Speaking of Astral Slide, you haven’t lived until you’ve Flickered an Angel of Serenity a couple of times for the full-on Faceless Butcher shenanigans.

This deck probably won’t win very many games. After all, your win condition is amounts to beating down with 2/2s, milling your opponents out with Elixir of Immortality, or valuing everyone to death with a Tamiyo emblem.

Winning isn’t the point. This deck may not be good at closing, but it’s fantastic at playing an interactive game of Magic with a lot of interesting moving pieces and decisions to be made. That’s the kind of game I love to play.

The last and most important thing that has become a cornerstone of my Magical experience are the stories. This article is my story. My Magic. Other people look at the same games, cards, and people that I do and see things completely differently.

As I recommit to enjoying the game and to writing more, that’s what I’m most interested in focusing on. Cards rotate. Decks become bad. People and stories are the things that last. Magic is big, and it means a lot of things to a lot of people. I want to know what I can learn from others’ experiences, to see what can be gained when you shift your perspective.

So get in touch. Share your stories. I’m not hard to get a hold of. Pass along your decks, articles, and blog posts. If you have a story that shows something unique about your experience with the game, I want to hear about it. Let’s meet some new people, learn a few things, and find out just how big the Magic universe is.

This week’s question: What experience had the most effect on the way you looked at Magic, either as a game or as a community activity?

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