Part I – Epilogue
Drinking a Coke to stay awake during the redeye flight back from Seattle, I flip through the TV channels and see a college basketball game with a couple minutes left in overtime. I much prefer the NBA to college, but overtime games are exciting in any league, so I decide to watch it for a few minutes.
The game lasts about two more hours. It was a rerun of the 2009 Big East Tournament game between Syracuse and UConn, one of the longest games in college basketball history. Every minute of the game, players are running themselves ragged trying to make a play, but fatigue has obviously affected both sides. It’s not just the individual players who are exhausted, either—because players foul out in college after five fouls, walk-on1 players on both teams that hadn’t seen more than a couple of garbage-time minutes the entire season. Jonny Flynn, then the star point guard for Syracuse, totals sixty-seven minutes for the game.2 As his team gradually pulls away in the sixth overtime, the announcers praise his “mental toughness.” I had always assumed that “mental toughness” was one of those empty phrases that sports announcers use to describe something lucky happening in a player’s favor—or else that he’s a good player the announcer likes. Now I’m not so sure.
Maybe “mental toughness” is what I lack completely.
Part II – Sealed Format Best-Case Survival Guide
Step 1: Register the Sealed pool you open. Try not to be distracted by the people doing descending whistles or exclaiming about how good their pools are; you certainly won’t have to worry about the distraction of the high quality of your pool (because it doesn’t exist) (the pool is bad). Two rare dual lands should pay for a small chunk of the entrance fee for its intended recipient, but they won’t do much to win games.
Step 2: Try to puzzle through how you would build a deck from this pool. This is an important exercise—it will keep your brain active for a few minutes.
Step 3: After those few minutes, remind yourself that you don’t actually have to build a deck from this, and think about the side events you’d play instead.
Step 4: Receive your pool and begin checking to make sure that every good rare in two colors wasn’t just marked down by accident. When you see those physical cards, keep your head down. There’s no need to have everyone around you be jealous just yet.
Step 5: Make your deck. Be conservative. Play a splash third color if you need to, but it should do something sensible, like kill creatures, not just play more amazing spells (you have those already).3
Step 6: As a player whose only shot of doing well at a large tournament is being incredibly lucky, you have misbuilt your deck. Hope it wasn’t severe enough that you’ll lose every Game 1, but ask some players better than you for input.4
Step 7: Run over people with your far superior individual card power.
Step 8: You still have to sideboard, lest you lose the second and third games to usually-deemed-unplayable cards deftly used against you by people with a much better grasp of the format and its interactions. Your pool is incredibly deep, so use that for an advantage other than bragging.5
Step 9: Know all those articles about the “mental game” of Magic, filled with legendary stories of how tricky bluffs swung games in the opposite direction? Ignore them completely. If you have a trick, your opponent can probably tell, so only attack into his bigger guy when you actually want to play it.
Step 10: Stay awake. Don’t screw up too terribly. This is much more difficult than it sounds.
Part III – A Short Scene Before the Tournament
[SCENE OPENS: Waiting in line to register for GP: SeaTac]
BLOWHARD LINE-WAITER: We drafted the Tinsman set last Tuesday; it was not one of his best. It lacked a holistic structure—one got the feeling he wasn’t exactly sure what experience he wanted players to have. Of course, I’ve always felt he was a more . . . development-oriented designer. Granted, Time Spiral was a great set, great in its use of complexity more than anything else, but even that relied heavily on the selection of previously printed cards . . .
JESSE: [rolls eyes] Listening to this guy, I’m going to have a stroke.
NICK: Well, stop listening then.
BHLW: . . . Scourge, Champions, I found it incredibly . . . over-the-top. Tinsman really is one of the most over-the-top designers. It’s like . . . Ken Nagle. I admire the ambition, but his designs don’t progress the game forward in a meaningful way. It’s like the block designs aren’t as powerful a force. Mark Rosewater has written—
JESSE: [mouths] Mark Rosewater!
BHLW: —some blocks just have more . . . er . . . holistic intent behind them, and it leads to a better play experience as well as higher artistic merit—
JESSE: What I wouldn’t give for a huge binder of Break Opens. [To audience:] What do you do when you get stuck in a registration line with a guy like this behind you?
BHLW: Wait a minute—why can’t I give my opinion?
JESSE: Well, do you have to give it so loud? And . . . Mark Rosewater, you don’t know anything about Mark Rosewater.
BHLW: Oh, reeaaally? I happen to moderate the card design forum at MTGSalvation, and I’m the head designer of the latest user-designed block, so I think that my insights into Mr. Rosewater, well, have a great deal of validity.
JESSE: Oh, do you? Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. Rosewater right here, so . . . let me . . . [walks away to pull MARK ROSEWATER out from behind OVERSIZED PORTRAIT OF LILIANA, then motions to BHLW] come over here for a second. [To MARO:] Tell him.
MARO: I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work! How you got to design anything is totally amazing!
JESSE: Boy, if life were only like this.
Part IV – The Part Where I Talk about Myself (More Than Usual)
Gavin Verhey, before he left StarCityGames for the greener pastures of the people who make the game, wrote 29 mini-articles/ideas for articles that he never wrote. I vowed to complete this list for a few reasons: Gavin is a great writer and friend, mini-articles are cool, it gives me something long-term to work on when I run out of normal ideas, and one part (#26) was about me. I love writing about me! This section is that article.6
I started playing the same way a lot of people did: I was in fourth grade, and the cards seemed totally cowabunga—or whatever (I don’t remember how we described things we liked then). I had friends, and I played Magic with those friends. One aspect of this would stay fairly constant through the years.
One reason I’ve never found anything in common with so-called kitchen table players is that I can’t remember ever playing at a kitchen table. We were kids. We played on the floor. We weren’t playing bad cards because we wanted to make the games fun for the other person; we played the cards that we genuinely thought would win us the game.
Or maybe I did want to have fun then, and I’m just biased in how I look at the past. Once a group of us was playing against each other, each set release was an arms race: friends scrambling to build a new deck (or buy a new preconstructed deck) that could beat the decks everyone else assembled.7 This is the most recent playgroup I’ve been a part of outside card shops.
People move on. People get N64s and socialization becomes going over to someone’s house to play Super Smash Bros. People keep their Magic decks but stop caring as much.
One of the final games of Magic I remember playing in this era was against my friend whose room I had slept over in countless times. We’re on the floor, obviously. He’s playing a Shivan Zombie or something, I counter it, he’s looking around the room at the old box of Legos and all the Star Wars merchandise everywhere, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do on my next turn, and he just does not care. It’s moments like this that encapsulate a change that took place over a much larger amount of time.
We drifted apart. We would have anyway, probably, but I was also pulled from school for health reasons and tutored at home. Not as many people hang out with the sick kid who doesn’t go to school. Even when my days consisted of seeing the tutor, shooting at the regulation-height basket in the driveway, and playing computer games, Magic was important to me. Magic wasn’t something I had to share with other people, anyway; Magic was mine. I could make my own decks and play them once a week at the card shop. I could proxy up every recent Pro Tour deck and play my own decks against them on the floor of my bedroom.8
When people talk about how they play Magic because it’s a fun thing to do with friends, or that they know everyone they’re closest to through Magic, I have difficulty relating.
Part V – Interlude
Well, that was just a huge, fucking bummer, wasn’t it?
I feel bad for misleading multiple camps of people with this article already. On the one hand, it’s something I’ve written, and I had this whole storyline planned, and it was going to be incredible (you wouldn’t believe how bad the character I was writing for myself was going to look!), but then I did well at the tournament. This is an issue that tournament reports have in their narrative, by the way: Because we’re such a results-oriented community when it comes to writing, we have to put the finish in the title or the introduction so that people will read it. So. I was going to write a great tournament report, but I got fifty-third. That’s not terrible, so I have to discuss Magic when I write about Magic—or else it’ll just look weird. Here’s the issue, though:
Imaginary Part II – Round 1: Nate
I don’t really remember what happened, but I took 8 damage the whole game. I had Mayor . . . I think.
Sweet Lord, is that uninteresting. Here’s what I remember relating to Round 1: Hours later, previously referenced opponent, Nate, comes up to me and asks how I’m doing. I tell him, but the blatantly confused look on my face shows that I haven’t the faintest idea who he is, so he reminds me that he was my Round 1 opponent. I laugh and apologize and still don’t recognize him.
1 Meaning they weren’t offered any sort of scholarship to play for the team; they just showed up, tried out, and made the cut to fill out the roster rather than provide any real production.
2 Regulation college basketball games only last forty minutes. This is also the career average of minutes per game for Lebron James.
"GP: SeaTac Sealed Deck"
- Creatures (13)
- 1 Abbey Griffin
- 1 Angel of Flight Alabaster
- 1 Briarpack Alpha
- 1 Cloistered Youth
- 1 Fiend Hunter
- 1 Grizzled Outcasts
- 1 Hollowhenge Spirit
- 1 Lambholt Elder
- 1 Markov Warlord
- 1 Mayor of Avabruck
- 1 Orchard Spirit
- 1 Somberwald Dryad
- 1 Thraben Doomsayer
- Spells (10)
- 1 Burning Oil
- 1 Geistflame
- 1 Wild Hunger
- 1 Gather the Townsfolk
- 1 Increasing Savagery
- 2 Travel Preparations
- 1 Bonds of Faith
- 1 Burden of Guilt
- 1 Butcher's Cleaver
- Relevant Sideboard Cards (17)
- 1 Moment of Heroism
- 2 Ray of Revelation
- 1 Spare from Evil
- 1 Village Bell-Ringer
- 1 Rally the Peasants
- 1 Hunger of the Howlpack
- 1 Ranger's Guile
- 1 Naturalize
- 1 Grave Bramble
- 1 Make a Wish
- 1 Kessig Recluse
- 1 Somberwald Spider
- 1 Feed the Pack
- 1 Grim Flowering
- 1 Tragic Slip
- 1 Skirsdag Flayer
4 Of my few Magic-related skills, my best one is the ability to ask others what they think and listen honestly, rather than combatively, and take the advice of many people into consideration for the future (including the rest of the tournament). I showed Sam Black the above deck (not because I think he’s an especially big fan of mine, but because I know he’s one of the smartest people who plays Magic and will give honest input), and when he saw Feed the Pack in my sideboard, he made a facial expression like he was in a Tex Avery cartoon seeing an attractive woman for the first time. He told me that it was absurd and that I shouldn’t be playing the 2/2 flyers for 4; while other people disagreed on how good Hollowhenge Spirit is, everything else he said I followed fairly exactly.
5 This is one thing I did consistently well. I was shocked by how many people just shuffled up the same forty and presented; instead, I was putting in reach creatures against decks with flying, Ranger's Guile against decks with boatloads of removal, Rally the Peasants when I thought the games would end up as races, Village Bell-Ringer when I needed to block 3/X or X/1 creatures, and Feed the Pack every single game.
6 Portions of this are cannibalized from my semi-improvised fiction podcast that I started. Since no one listened to it, probably that many people would have noticed, but I’m disclosing it anyway.
7 I went into the Charlottesville game store to get a copy of the mono-black Mercenary preconstructed deck (because a) my previous deck had been mono-black and did really well, b) Mercenaries are sweet), but they were sold out, so I sighingly bought the Rebels one (a white deck? Ugh, lifegain is boring). Contained in that cardboard-in-cardboard package was the tactical nuclear strike of ten year-old Magical strategy. I didn’t understand “card advantage,” but I sure understood that my guys tapping to get other guys from my deck was completely rad and that everyone else would need like infinity kills to get rid of them all (no one has that many kills!!!). I also understood that my one copy of Lin-Sivvi (sold separately, since the Rebels deck was Masques) made that 70+ cards practically unbeatable. I didn’t even need to draw it! The deck’s one downfall was a friend’s modification of a UR precon from Stronghold, which has to be one of the most bizarre things ever sold to new players. It featured practically no creatures (and most of the ones included couldn’t really attack) and Fanning the Flames as the primary win condition, backed up with counters. Picture a million small Magical heads exploding at once trying to understand that strategic development.
8 The deck that got me hooked on combo was Tight Sight. I wrote the entire deck onto index cards and goldfished it over and over.