Origins of a Magic: the Gathering Tournament Grinder (part 1)

I started writing this article close to a year ago, including the title.  I’ve been wanting to start writing about my experiences with Magic: the Gathering for awhile, but I’ve been holding off until I could complete an introductory article talking about how I got into the game.  Even though it’s been on my mind for a year, playing Magic keeps winning out over writing about it so this article has seen many delays.  But anticipation of the newest set release, Magic Origins, is in full swing with the full set spoiled this past week and pre-releases scheduled for next weekend.  The set’s narrative revolves around the origin stories of some of Magic’s most popular Planeswalkers.  With others in the community sharing their own MtG origin stories, I decided the time was here to finally get this published.

This is the story about how a curious youth with a passing familiarity of a trading card game called Magic: the Gathering became a working professional who spends 90% of his free time playing Magic and the other 10% of the time wishing he were.  Magic is a very compelling game, so this story is a common one in our community, but the following version is mine.

I’m creating this blog as an outlet to chronicle my experience as an amateur Magic player.  While the content will develop over time, I expect topics to include the traditional fare: tournament reports, deck techs, reviews of new cards or sets, metagame discussions and current events as appropriate.  But before I dive in, I wanted to kick off with this post about my history with the game.

The First Wave – The Collection Phase

Some people start playing Magic and never stop.  Others pick the game up on and off over the years.  The only certainty is that once you’ve learned the game, you don’t ever quit for good.

I was 10 years old when Magic was first released in 1993.  I remember a couple of kids showing off some of their cards on the bus, so that must have been where I was first introduced to the game.  I heard rumors of Shivan Dragons and another friend was showing off his Lord of the Pit, but I never saw anyone actually playing with the cards.  The art was cool and the hype was real.  I was intrigued enough to buy some of my own.  My bedroom was steeped in thousands of baseball cards so I was no stranger to collecting cards that didn’t have a functional purpose anyway.

The next time my mom and I went to the mall I headed straight for Waldenbooks.  At this point, Revised was in print.  I grew up in Rhode Island, so I guess it took roughly a year before the game spread from the West Coast to the East Coast and had caught my attention.  That day I got a starter deck and a copy of the Magic: The Gathering Pocket Players’ Guide.  Thinking about my early experience with Magic I can’t for the life of me remember playing a single game.  I only have two distinct memories and this was one of them.  For the rest of that trip to the mall, I sat on the floor of every department store we visited.  I started reading the Pocket Players’ Guide and I didn’t stop until I had read that entire thing cover to to cover.  I devoured it.  I wanted to know everything I could about every rule.  The game was so complex and I was excited and fascinated to read about how it all worked.  I wanted to know everything.  I don’t do anything half-assed – if I was going to play this game, I was going to know more about it than anyone else.

While others were fawning over their giant creatures, my favorite cards were easily the dual lands.  They were just so unique – a land that tapped for two types of mana?!  Sure, big creatures are nice, but you still have to pay mana for them and bigger creatures require more mana.  These lands were so cool and you can play them right away every time you draw them!  The concept of merging two basic land types into one combined entity was a really cool idea.  And the artwork and alternating rings of color in the text box were really cool too.  I was especially drawn to the fact that it was a cycle and I wanted to collect them all.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was always the design elements of the game that resonated so clearly with me from the very beginning.

I know a lot of parents had issues with Magic cards when they first came out.  They were new and different.  Some of them had gross art or weird names.  When I told my parents, they had a different reaction.  My mom decided to play the game with me.  The next time we went to the store, we both bought our own Starter Decks.  I taught her to play.  She let me explain the game to her.  We both had our own cards, our own decks.  Once she tried it she was not only OK with me playing it, but she was having fun too!

The second vivid memory I have of early Magic was that it was REALLY hard to get cards.  Every day I would come home from school and call Waldenbooks to see if they had gotten a shipment of new cards in stock.  They were selling out so fast that I wanted to know as soon as new cards were available so I could get a ride down to the mall to make a purchase.  This was a particularly big deal for me because I was a shy kid.  I was always nervous to talk to strangers and I was especially scared of talking on the phone.  This became such a thing that later on when I was in high school a friend of mine gave me a children’s electronic toy phone as a joke gift so that I could ‘practice’.  The promise of fresh cardboard was the only reward big enough to motivate me to place a phone call.

It felt like this went on for awhile, but when I look back at my early collection I had a total of a few hundred cards that fit into one small box.  My interest couldn’t have lasted through the Christmas season or I know my family would’ve given me quite a few more.  My family was always quite supportive and generous with all of my interests but I don’t remember getting any Magic cards as Christmas presents.  Today, I still have all of my original cards, stored neatly in their same small box with ‘MAGIC CARDS’ crudely written on top of it in capital letter Sharpie by 11-year-old me.

Other than organized sports, I didn’t spend a lot of time with other kids outside of school.  I brought my cards over to a friend’s house down the street to play at least once, but it wasn’t a regular thing.  Without friends to play with or a regular playgroup I lost interest and the box got put away on a shelf, at least for a while…

The Second Wave – The Deckbuilding Phase

About 10 years later, I was in my second year of college at the University of Rhode Island.  I was in the International Engineering Program, a 5-year dual degree program that included studying both Engineering and a foreign language.  Our program had its own student housing on campus – an old frat house that had been converted into home base for students and program administration alike.

Returning to my room after class one day, I passed a few other students gathered around a table in the hallway.  They were playing a game of Magic.  My first reaction was surprise.  My second reaction was to laugh at them for still playing a children’s game that I had long left in the past.  My third reaction was that they were pretty brave for playing that out in front of other people at their age.

I passed by them playing on other days, every now and then stopping to watch their game even though I didn’t know most of the cards or understand what was happening on the table.  I went home one weekend and found my old box of cards, bringing them back to school with me to go through them for old time’s sake.  It wasn’t long before that spark struck again and I was looking cards up on Gatherer to understand them better.  I was rediscovering Magic and I had a missed a lot in 10 years.

Based on my search results, I started identifying cool card interactions and putting together fun decklists.  This was my introduction into constructed Magic.  This wasn’t available to me 10 years ago when all I had to work with was the small pile of cards in my collection.  But now that I could look up all the cards ever printed my imagine started going wild with the possibilities.  Now that I had the power of seeing cool card interactions I was trying to do broken stuff.  I was building mostly combo decks or prison decks (or prison combo decks).  I really liked the idea of breaking the symmetry of the game play.  I knew the rules of the game and now I wanted to break them in my favor.  I was experimenting with effects like Winter Orb, Howling Mine – symmetric global effects that I could use to change the rules of the game and then build around to take advantage of.

The guys let me print out some proxies of decks that I designed and I played a few games with them.  The deck that I spent the most time building and playing was an infinite prison-combo deck built around Winter Orb and Intruder Alarm.  It was filled with mana dorks, Intruder Alarm and Centaur Glade as the combo pieces.  I experimented with a 1-of Killer Bees as an alternate win condition and mana sink.  I had some other ideas that fell flat, but this deck actually did some winning.  It probably wasn’t legal in any format, but I had no idea formats existed or that cards could be illegal.  We were just playing casual games.  I was just having a ton of fun brewing.  To me, actually playing Magic wasn’t the point of the game.  Brewing was the point of the game.  Playing the games out was just to prove that your deck did what it was supposed to.

I never got to the point of buying any cards.  I didn’t care about playing – I just wanted to create more decks.  Once I felt that I had sufficiently explored the design space available to me with the cards that were out at the time, I got bored again.  I wasn’t interested in getting better as a player, I was interested in building decks.

I had ignored Magic for 10 years and when I came back to it there were a seemingly infinite number of new cards to explore.  It was like consuming 10 years worth of Magic design as one big collective format.  I binged on the deckbuilding possibilities for a couple of months, but after awhile I had explored it as much as I wanted to.  I had built my Intruder Alarm deck, tuned it, played it and as far as I was concerned my job was complete – I could not build a better deck than this.

Once the deckbuilding was done I had no interest anymore.  I felt like playing the games were uninteresting.  They weren’t going to teach me anything new that would help me improve my deck.  Either my deck was going to combo off and I’d win, or my opponent would stop me and I’d lose.  That’s just how the games worked.  I had already done my job as a deckbuilder – I’ll let someone else spend their time playing the actual game.  And so my cards went back on the shelf, this time with a stack of printed out proxies joining them in the box marked ‘MAGIC CARDS’.

[Read the rest of the story here: Origins of a Magic: the Gathering Tournament Grinder (part 2)]