If you were playing Donkey Kong Country for the SNES, congratulations. You just made it to the halfway barrel.
You're midway through. You have just completed exactly half of an experiment that, by definition, is designed to take a year.
What you expected to take away from this experiment still remains unclear. You have twenty-six weeks' worth of data, and not many tangibles to show for it. Three wins and a few Planeswalker Points, to be exact.
The part of this project that made it worth pursuing was its broad appeal; FNM is the most common denominator among Magic players. The advent of Friday Night Magic—specifically, the “Friday” part—is actually an effort by Wizards to challenge players' priorities.
Fridays night between 6:00 P.M. and midnight are, to Magic's demographic (middle-class twenty-somethings), prime pregaming1 time. FNM seeks to change this perception, saying instead, “Hey, Magic is a cool thing. All your friends think this is a cool thing, too, because that's what they're doing with their Friday night. Why don't you play Magic with your friends tonight?
The traditionally held concept that FNM is challenging is that Magic is not cool.
Since you were in your teens, Friday nights have been generally reserved for cool kids to do cool things—going to the movies, having bonfires, going to nightclubs or bars—and with FNM, Wizards is putting their product, their game, right up against these traditionally cool pursuits and challenging Magic players to decide for themselves what “cool” actually is.
Worth noting is how beneficial it would be for Magic to shed the stigma of being a nerdy card game for kids. If Magic, in and of itself, becomes more and more accepted as a cool thing to do—to rival hanging out with your friends elsewhere, be it at a movie theatre or in a bar—more people would to it, ultimately making it more profitable for everyone. That includes you! Yay!
So, you picked up the mantle, answered the call, and chose to play fifty-two consecutive FNMs. There's a multitude of observable things at every FNM to reflect on—atmosphere, topics of discussion, players' behaviors—and a multitude of things to compare them to, such as how these things change when they're no longer confined to FNM but analyzed at bigger tournaments. The goal here is to show how FNM is unique compared to any other Magic tournament—for better or worse.
The most readily unique-to-FNM quality to identify is that the tournament takes place on Friday night. This means that the atmosphere is generally a happy one; the work week is over, after all. Unfortunately, Magic has not totally shed its nerdy stigma. You remember this every time a group of teenage girls walks into the shop during an FNM, points and giggles at the group of you playing Magic, and leaves. You remember this every time a middle-aged woman comes in, asks what you're doing, and replies, “Oh, my nephew plays that. But he's twelve.” Magic's certainly speeding headlong toward mainstream, but it's not quite there yet. As a result, there's a subgroup of players—the ones with girlfriends—that are conspicuously underrepresented at FNM.
Your girlfriend wishes the Magic-players-with-girlfriends population at Cloud City, your local shop, was a teensy bit more underrepresented—at least for “one Friday a month for fuck's sake.”
You've played FNM at three different locations during this column: a handful at the crappy store in Syracuse, Altered States, one in South Jersey, at a place called The Comic Book Store, and, where you've done the bulk of your “research,” Cloud City. The three places have featured a moderately similar player-base: mostly teenagers, a few guys in their early-to-mid-twenties, and maybe an older player (late twenties and up) or two. All three populations were exclusively, if not overwhelmingly, skewed male.
Generally speaking, teenagers and guys in their early-to-mid-twenties who are single are usually not single by accident. That is to say, they're usually single simply because they're awkward around women. This is not a flaw in a person; it's just a fact. Girlfriends and wives, as well as boyfriends and husbands, traditionally enjoy going on dates on Friday nights. Because of this, FNMs are generally full of single people. This is relevant because the topics of conversation are generally different at FNM than any other Magic tournament. Not better or worse—just different.
At bigger events, especially those on weekend afternoons, you notice the age of the average participant has gone up from that of the average FNM participant.
People who are able to maintain a romantic relationship tend to be older, which is why that average age experiences a slight uptick. Another reason the age creeps up is that the stakes at FNM are relatively small.2
As you become older, you figure out that your time is indeed money, and even if you love Magic, as more people—spouses, kids, bosses, pimps—start to demand more and more of your time and attention, you have to start to assess whether FNM is worth it. Tragically, sometimes, it's not. The bigger events are more enticing to these people mostly because:
- They happen on a weekend, and you don’t have to work on those days.
- There’s more to be won, thus validating the time you spend.
This means that the attendees at bigger tournaments are generally older, which is not to say laid back (with the rising of stakes comes the importance of winning every match, which adds stress), but rather, less spastic and awkward, especially in the later rounds as the worse players are knocked out.3
The scene at FNM is one of youthfulness—if not physically, mentally—at least as far as Magic is concerned. They're usually not great at Magic. A few better players participate, to be sure, but the tangible rewards are slim. They're usually in it for the times shared.
Which brings you to Cloud City. You've played in and been part of a number of Magic scenes in the past, but what sets FNMs at Cloud City apart is the juxtaposition between the sense of youthfulness of the scene and the play skill they present. To be succinct, the players there who have been playing for a fraction of the time you have usually give you quite the run for your money. They're very good, but they're also quick and insatiable learners. For any Magic scene, these traits are invaluable.
Most of the time, when a person's been playing Magic for longer than he can remember, the initial excitement he had about the game wears off. Sometimes, this process is quick, which results in burnout, but the majority of the time, the fire smolders until you eventually come to a point at which the flame becomes so hungry that it eventually eats itself into nonexistence. However, when an older player is influenced by a newer one—one who's passionate about the game—the two can form a sort of symbiotic relationship and end up sustaining each other. This is the best way to describe Cloud City: a handful of older players who would otherwise be very jaded, simultaneously pushing and being pushed by new blood.
A scene that makes people excited to play Magic over a substantial period of time usually happens thanks to some good luck. It's totally dependent on the player base. This is actually irrelevant; Cloud City has correctly identified that they have a good scene going, and so the owners foster it. They do this with aggressively priced singles. They do this by giving customers good value on singles when trading. They do this by organizing rides and hotel room arrangements for PTQs and GPs. During the midnight prerelease of Dark Ascension, the mall Cloud City is located in was closed, so the owner, at his own expense, brought in soda and foodstuffs so people wouldn't starve. By stressing acceptance and making their customers feel valued, Cloud City has created a forward-driven scene that they can sustain by simply staying the course of being good people.
And that's the best way you can think to sum up where you play FNM. You got into this to analyze FNMs, but as it turns out, you don't really have anything to compare your own scene to. Oh, well.
Last Friday, you played the Naya Birthing Pod list that Top 8'ed Pro Tour: Dark Ascension.
"Naya Birthing Pod"
- Creatures (28)
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Fiend Hunter
- 1 Geist-Honored Monk
- 1 Inferno Titan
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Viridian Emissary
- 3 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Blade Splicer
- 4 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Wurmcoil Engine
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
- Lands (24)
- 1 Mountain
- 1 Plains
- 6 Forest
- 2 Rootbound Crag
- 3 Gavony Township
- 3 Sunpetal Grove
- 4 Copperline Gorge
- 4 Razorverge Thicket
Before FNM starts, you win this candy:
That candy is the shit. You win it when Aaron asks the store if anyone can name the two rarest Magic cards of all time. You know about Splendid Genesis, that card that was used as a marriage proposal, and 1996 World Champion. You raise your hand and say, “Splendid Genesis.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” you say.
“Is there only one copy of Splendid Genesis in the world?”
“Does anyone know the other two?”
At this point, someone chimes in with, “1997 World Champion?”
What an amateur. You pounce. “NONONONO. That's 1996 World Champion , thankyouverymuchgivemethatcandy.” Aaron reluctantly hands you the bag of candy. FNM's going pretty well so far.
Round 1 – Joe Greco
Joe is an older guy, probably in his thirties. You start chitchatting with him, and he mentions he's “a defect from that other store.” You look around and suggest that we're all defectors from that “other store.” He nods and tells you that he's a friend of Aaron's and that he'd been promising Aaron he'd come down and play some Magic for a while, and now he's fulfilling that promise.
He wins the die roll and starts on Diregraf Ghoul, and no matter how badly you want your eyebrows to stay exactly where they are, they fly upward upon seeing a first-turn Diregraf Ghoul hit the board anyway, because deep, deep down, you are an asshole. Joe follows the Zombie up with a Drowned Catacomb into two Gravecrawlers the next turn, and it suddenly occurs to you that you might be in for quite the ballgame.
The third Gravecrawler eventually hits the table, but Joe's all out of gas—just in time for you to play a third-turn Huntmaster of the Fells, neutralizing his entire team. Joe can't draw an answer to the Huntmaster of the Fells in time before it transforms and takes out his Diregraf Ghoul. You only attack with your Wolf token because you're an idiot and didn't realize that Gravecrawler can't block, but it doesn't matter anyway because Joe draws all blanks.
Grand Prix: Baltimore is this weekend. You're actually leaving tomorrow, and you've been agonizing over what deck you're gonna play. But you think you've cracked the puzzle, and the answer's been in front of your eyes for months.
The Wolf Run deck that the CFB crew played is the de facto best deck in the format. It has good matchups across the board and won't lose to any random nonsense. It's also very linear, and the format's not really set up to disrupt it at all because a couple of years ago, a bunch of oversensitive goddamn hippies decided that Stone Rain wasn't a fun card to play against, so there are no cards that function like it or even close to it. Jesus, even a fucking Demolish would be fine, but no, it's either Scorch the Fields or fuck off. This might be fine in a universe without Primeval Titan4 running alongside Kessig Wolf Run and Inkmoth Nexus, but as it stands, not having access to efficient land destruction fucking blows right now. We have to figure out another way to interact with Wolf Run.
Enter Spellskite. A card that's largely gone forgotten in the past few weeks, thanks to the dwindling presence of normally-ubiquitous cards such as Shrine of Burning Rage, Spellskite is a great way to shut off opponents' Kessig Wolf Run activations. Sure, he can always hit it with an Ancient Grudge, but a turn he doesn't spend developing his board gives you time to find a long-term answer he ultimately can't deal with—like a Curse of Death's Hold.
Or five Sun Titans.
3 Sun Titan
4 Merfolk Looter
4 Phantasmal Image
1 Wurmcoil Engine
2 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
4 Dream Twist
4 Forbidden Alchemy
3 Day of Judgment
4 Unburial Rites
3 Oblivion Ring
1 Nephalia Drownyard
1 Seachrome Coast
2 Isolated Chapel
3 Evolving Wilds
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Curse of Death's Hold
4 Mental Misstep
1 Day of Judgment
Honey Badger has been pretty effectively hated out at Cloud City, but Unburial Rites strategies as a whole are pretty under the radar—if the Top 8 decklists from Pro Tour: Dark Ascension are to be believed. Honey Badger is, eerily enough, the exact same speed as a Wolf Run deck, but the endgame is a lot stronger, thanks to the Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite that opponents'll never be able to stop from recurring, and it only becomes worse for them post-board when you get to bring in Curse of Death's Hold, Nevermore, and Negates; they don't have a whole lot of spells that interact with enchantments, and out of that subset, only one (Acidic Slime) is a creature, so the Negates are all-stars.
Your friends Kevin and Adam end up drawing in Round 1.
Round 2 – Aaron Garritillo
“I have a lot of friends; you'll have to be more specific,” Aaron says after you tell him you played his friend in Round 1.
“Ahh, I can't remember what he looks like,” you say. “Maybe he was wearing a Syracuse sweater? I don't know. I don't remember.”
“With a memory like that, you should write tournament reports for a living.”
Aaron is playing a stock W/U Delver deck. He's been playing Wolf Run for the bulk of the time it's been a deck; it requires minimal decisions to pilot, thus allowing him to better keep an eye on the store while he's playing. Since he knows that deck cold, he's running Delver tonight in order to have an idea of what the deck does and if it suits his play style.
After you lose the die roll, your nut draw rears its gorgeous, normal-shaped head in Game 1, as your curve is Llanowar Elves, then Strangleroot Geist plus Birds of Paradise, and then third-turn Acidic Slime, hitting the Sword of War and Peace Aaron tapped out for just so he could have some sort of board presence. The game ends up not being close.
Between games, Aaron remarks that you could've killed him a turn sooner with Mortarpod, which makes you feel very shitty because you hate it when your opponent has the win on the board and doesn’t pull the trigger.
Game 2 was just as non-interactive, only this time, you were able to Birthing Pod up for Huntmaster of the Fells on a turn when you didn't cast anything. It turns out that the following succession of plays:
- Sacrifice Blade Splicer to Birthing Pod
- Grab Huntmaster of the Fells, make a Wolf and gain 2
- Attack with two Strangleroot Geists because you can’t stop drawing them
- Say go
- Huntmaster of the Fells transforms, destroys his Insectile Aberration, and Shocks him
- Also during his upkeep, cast Autumn's Veil
- During his end step, cast Ancient Grudge, targeting his Sword of War and Peace
- Your Ravager of the Fells turns back into Huntmaster of the Fells during your upkeep, makes another Wolf, and gains you 2 more life
- Note the number of cards in your hand (five) and the number of cards in Aaron’s hand (two), say, “This matchup seems very good for me,” to no one in particular
- Win two turns later
Are very, very good.
This would not be the last time Aaron got unlucky against you that night. In the post-FNM Draft, Aaron will open an Increasing Confusion and force the mill-you archetype, only to be paired against you in Round 2 (again). Aaron will go down to the last card of his library while you sit at eight cards left in your library. That one card left in Aaron's will be the Increasing Confusion, and if that Increasing Confusion had been any other card, you would have lost that game. You will tell him, “Better lucky than good,” inadvertently stealing a catch phrase from SCG's second batch of sleeves with stupid catch phrases on them. The people who like those are the worst.
Round 3 – Ryan Nguyen
You haven't played against Ryan (who is still known storewide as “Steve Figeurelli,” eleven-year-old mob boss extraordinaire) in a while, but you've been able to determine that his in-game demeanor has improved by drastic leaps—he no longer says, “WHOA!” at every card played over the course of a game. He still has trouble not playing into board sweepers, but he is also eleven years old and has a lot of time left to learn.
Thanks to his youth, Steve has become “the small child whom no one ever wants to lose to ever.” Aaron jokingly tells you that if you lose this match, he's deleting your DCI number, and you're starting over. If you're playing Steve now, though, it means he's started off 2–0. You know he's playing mono-white Humans. Your mana guys will always stick, but you're not sure how this matchup looks.
Steve starts off with an Elite Vanguard, which seems innocuous enough until he plays Honor of the Pure on three successive turns. He's all out of gas after that, though, and your start is good enough to allow you to cast Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite at a comfortable 7 life. When you follow that up with a Huntmaster of the Fells and Oblivion Ring the next turn, Steve knows the jig is up and scoops.
Game 2 is kind of interesting; Steve keeps a one-lander, but it has two Champion of the Parish. You are thankful your hand has two Oblivion Rings to matc, and Steve never sees a second land in the entire game.
You haven't lost a game yet, but both guys who drew in Round 1 are 2–0–1.
Round 4 – Zach Murphy
Zach is playing an outdated mono-black infect list, which bums you out because you weren't anticipating this matchup, your decklist does not in any way anticipate this matchup, and it's a nightmare.
In the first game, you never draw Birthing Pod, and you just lose to a bunch of infect creatures.
Zach mulls to six in Game 2, remarking how tempting it was to keep the hand with three Inkmoth Nexuses, a hand that I'll admit is very good against my deck. But you don't tell him that. There is simply too much at stake.
You start off with a Birds of Paradise, a second-turn Sword of Feast and Famine, and a third-turn equip. Miraculously, your Birds of Paradise lives to tell the tale. You ride that shit to victory like a cowboy on a rocket ship.
Both players' draws from Game 3 are very slow. Zach eventually breaks it open with a surprise Lashwrithe, hitting you to put you to 7 poison, but you're able to simply Birthing Pod up to Acidic Slime the following turn. Zach lays down two Phyrexian Crusaders the very next turn, representing some real offense, and you pick up your hand. It consists of one solitary Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite.
The 6-mana creatures in your deck are Inferno Titan and Wurmcoil Engine. Wurmcoil Engine is in your graveyard, thanks to one of Zach's Despises, and Inferno Titan would be worse for you than the Acidic Slime you'd be sacrificing to find it.
This is all irrelevant because the Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is in your hand. So you can't chain up to your 7 anyway.
You need a land off the top, and it needs to come into play untapped.
So, you rip the Plains. Good for you! You're awesome!
Adam and Kevin have both won again, putting them at 3-0-1. Going into the final round, you know you have to play one of them. Kevin is playing the French reanimator deck with all the duals from Scars of Mirrodin. Adam is playing a stock U/B Control deck. Adam is an auto-win for you, while your matchup against Kevin is basically unwinnable.
Round 5 – Kevin Poncelet
You always knew it had to go down like this.
We both get our nut draws Game 1, and his trumps yours in a convincing fashion.
Rare to form, Kevin is punished for a misplay in Game 2, and he goes all-in on a third-turn Wurmcoil Engine that you promptly exile with an Oblivion Ring. Kevin is shocked, having not expected a Naya Birthing Pod deck to play Oblivion Ring at all. You avoid eye contact and nod absent-mindedly, acknowledging silently that this is the man who will ruin your miracle halfway-barrel run.
The game is still close; Kevin puts half of his deck in his graveyard but can't find a second Unburial Rites. You celebrate this openly. He beats you handily in Game 3, and Adam wins his match as well, putting the once-only undefeated player in the entire tournament—you—squarely in third place.
There's a stenographer pad you bought before the column even began. You wrote “52 Decks in 52 Weeks” on the cover with one of the markers you bought when you did those alters for Drew Sitte, back when the weather was nice and you were blissfully ignorant of the existence of Kevin Poncelet. That match with Kevin went on the last available sheet in that pad. It's all completely full of FNMs now.
4–1; halfway done.
1 Pregaming – Consuming alcohol in smaller amounts before a bigger drinking event with the intention of easing yourself into a night of crazy fun (definition from urbandictionary.com)
2 This is tangentially related to people who don’t go to FNM because they’re trying to “grind value”—or whatever the fuck they call it these days. The difference between these idiots and the ones I detail in the bullet points is that the people detailed in the bullet points have actual value for their time because they have actual responsibilities, whereas the value grinders are merely trying to make it appear as though their time is valuable. Those people are assholes. Whether or not your time is valuable is irrelevant here; if you’re trying to convince people that your time is valuable when all you do is sit around and jack off all day, you’re an asshole. The man whose time is valuable actually considers it a tragedy that he has to miss FNM.
3 This is something I don’t fully understand: People who are skilled at Magic, on average, aren’t usually nerds at all, but rather are people who are married, are in a long-term, committed relationship, or have at least the human understanding necessary to sustain either. The causes and ramifications of this phenomenon could sustain an article in and of themselves.