1.5 Million Words: A Magic Life

After crossing a pretty big milestone and with Magic’s 20th anniversary coming up, Bennie reflects on how Magic has impacted his life as a gamer and a writer.

A couple months back, I crossed a pretty big milestone without even realizing it. By my best calculations, I’ve professionally written over 1.5 million words worth of articles and columns about Magic. To put it in perspective, 1.5 million words would be roughly three copies of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and slightly more words than Stephen King’s entire The Dark Tower saga. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series surpassed 1.5 million words halfway through the fifth book A Dance with Dragons.

In other words . . . that’s a lot of words! Considering this milestone roughly corresponds with Magic: The Gathering’s 20th anniversary, I figured now might be a good time to reflect back on how Magic has impacted my life as a gamer and a writer.

In The Beginning

I’ve been a gamer since I was able to roll some dice or hold cards in my hand. Early games I really enjoyed include Risk, Clue, Rummikub, and Monopoly. Then, back when I was on summer break from middle school, I spent a couple weeks with my cousin Thomas, who introduced me to a different kind of game: a role-playing game (RPG) that didn’t use a board or cards but instead required a bunch of reference books, paper, pencils, a ton of dice, and your imagination. It was called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I was immediately hooked, pleading with my parents to get me the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual so I could make up my own adventures and get other people to play.

The only problem was that none of my friends wanted to play something weird like D&D. So I made new friends, and D&D became a pretty big part of our lives through high school and beyond.

Once I went to college, I played a little less D&D but ran across a large group of students who played cards in the Student Commons. They played all sorts of card games but mostly Spades and Hearts, two games I really liked, and there was a small sub-group who played Bridge and taught some of us how to play too. The best part of this group was that it was about 40% women and showed me just how sexy and awesome gamer women are. I dated a few of them—and many years later married one of them. She’s the mother of my children.

So I had the co-ed group of student card players I hung out with, but I also hung out with my old D&D buddies. When we weren’t partying, we were gaming. We tried many other RPGs too, and I was always on the prowl for new games. There was a gaming magazine called White Wolf published by the guys who made the World of Darkness RPGs (Werewolf, Vampire, Mage), and while a lot of it was dedicated to supporting their games, they also provided decent coverage of other games. There was a product review section, and that’s where I first heard about Magic: The Gathering. It sounded like one of the coolest things I’d ever heard of! After reading the review, I immediately got into my car and went to my local hobby shop to try to find the game.

This was early 1994, probably January or February, and I picked up two copies of what was called a Starter Deck of the Unlimited Edition, basically a sealed deck with a random assortment of 60 cards. The guy who worked there said they were all out of an expansion set called Arabian Nights, but he expected to get another few boxes in a week or two.

So I had two sealed Starter Decks; now to find someone to play it with! I called my friend Scott who lived nearby, and he said he was willing to give it a try, so I rolled over there and we cracked open the cards.

We were mesmerized by the artwork, the game text on the cards, and their varying sizes. One of my three rares was a Force of Nature, which looked like a fantasy take on Swamp-Thing and was a gigantic 8/8! With trample too! Not sure what that meant, but it had to be badass! Scott was equally smitten with the game from his own card pool, and as we slowly figured out how to play the game—and got a lot of our RPG friends hooked as well—we first got into that now all-too familiar frenzy of buying booster packs and trading.

1994 was a helluva year to get into Magic. March brought Antiquities, April brought Revised, June brought Legends, August brought The Dark, and November brought Fallen Empires. It was crazy. All the product (up until Fallen Empires) had not been printed in enough volume to satisfy demand, so a lot of our decks would have just one copy of a particularly sweet rare because no one else had one they could trade you.

Nearly everyone I played Magic with back in the day were my RPG buddies, and we basically converted our table full of role players into a table full of card players, basically playing multiplayer from the get-go. In the beginning, ante was part of the game. At the beginning of each game, you’d flip over the top card of your deck as ante, and whoever won got to keep the card. As you can imagine, some multiplayer games could get intense if you had four, five, or more sweet cards in the ante for the winner!

Competition Creeps In

Despite the multiplayer gusto that my gaming group brought to Magic, the game was designed for one-on-one duels, and soon little tournaments began popping up. A lot of the people who got into the early tournament scene seemed to take the game extremely seriously (to the point of getting angry and upset when they lost), and some began refusing to play for ante. Most of my friends thought those guys and tournament Magic was not at all appealing.

Me . . . I was intrigued. I still loved the rollicking good time of our multiplayer games, but my competitive spirit was ignited by the idea of Magic tournaments. In 1995, I ran across a book called Deep Magic: Advanced Strategies for Experienced Players of Magic: The Gathering by George Baxter. The book blew my mind, introducing me to concepts like mana curve, threats and answers, and card redundancies. I spent a ton of time sketching out deck ideas based on his deckbuilding concepts, and eventually I had a deck I felt was tournament-ready. I was proud of this creation; it had a great mana curve and nice redundancies, and I thought it was something unique that people wouldn’t expect, which could give me an edge in the tournament.

The core of the deck was built around Psychic Venom. I’d enchant my opponent’s land with Psychic Venom, and after he tapped it ten times during the course of our game, he’d be dead. If he refused to tap the land, I’d force it with Icy Manipulator, Mole Worms, and Power Sink. I had Errant Minion to enchant any creatures he had to further press his lands or deal damage to him. The deck was brilliant!

Round 1 I sat down, shuffled my deck, and presented to my opponent. He wasn’t up for chatting and never made eye contact. He was one of those extremely serious players, and I couldn’t wait to ruin his day with my sweet deck! He won the die roll, and on his first turn he dropped a couple cards on the table, rolling out the game at super-speed. I only remember one of the cards he played that first turn because I had to read it to see what it did.

I looked at the Psychic Venom in my hand… and then at his Zuran Orb. Why in the world would someone randomly put some terrible artifact in their deck that just so happened to hose my entire strategy? It wasn’t until a few turns later when he cast Balance that it all started to become clear.

After that epic butt kicking, I went back to the drawing board. I heard that Magic players were networking on an Internet site called Usenet, where people could start threads in forums and carry on conversations about strategy. I jumped in, immediately loved connecting to all these other Magic minds from all over the country, and made friends with people like Adrian Sullivan and Jamie Wakefield. Jamie was particularly inspiring because he took communicating on Usenet to a whole new level—not just briefly talking strategy but writing stories about Magic that were as compelling as any fiction.

That really hit home for me. I’d always considered myself a writer—I’d been writing short stories and feeble attempts at novels for years—but it never occurred to me to turn the art of storycraft on something like writing about a game or hobby. So I started trying to step up my writing game while I was stepping up my Magic game. And it worked! As I started doing better at local tournaments, I had better stories to tell. At some point, something I wrote got scooped up and featured on The Magic Dojo. Eventually, I was getting stuff on The Dojo once or twice a month.

Then one day I got an email from a Virginia Magic player I knew from a few tournaments named Omeed Dariani asking if I’d like to write for a new website he was putting together for Star City Games. I’d heard of Star City Games, a comic shop in the hinterlands of Virginia that was running the occasional tournament, and they were interested in driving interest in their Magic singles sales by providing Magic content for Magic players. Omeed liked my writing and wanted me to join the team. Was I interested?

StarCityGames.com From The Ground Floor

Hell yeah! And so I joined quite a stable of Magic players who were also damn fine writers: Wakefield, The Ferrett, Anthony Alongi, Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, and a bunch more. It was an honor to be amongst such fine company, and keeping up with their obvious talents pressed me to improve myself as a writer. I was also playing more and more competitive Magic, culminating in a good run at the 1999 Virginia State Champs where I somehow defeated pro player Peter Lieher in the finals to win the title.

At the time the movie The Blair Witch Project was blowing up, and since it was about an elusive evil witch in the woods and my deck was mono-green (woods) with a singleton Vampiric Tutor (the witch) in the maindeck, I called it Blair Witch Green. Sadly, when the decklist made it on The Dojo, someone had changed it to Vampiric Green Control, which didn’t have quite the same ring to it. I ended up using "blairwitchgreen" as my online handle quite a few places over the years, including on Magic Online and Twitter.

What was great about working for Pete Hoefling and the gang at StarCityGames.com was how much it felt like joining a family. Pete runs a great company and sets a great tone for everyone who’s worked and written for him over the years. There are many reasons why SCG has grown into such a Magic powerhouse over the years, but feeling like you’re brothers and sisters with some great people is a big part of it and has been from the beginning.

Branching Out

Not long after I started writing for SCG, I got another email from Omeed Dariani wanting to know if I wanted to write for Scrye magazine. Wow, Scrye magazine! For those who are relatively new to Magic, you’ve got to understand that before the Internet exploded and Magic sites matured there were a handful of Magazines dedicated to Magic that provided all the information, decklists, and card prices that Magic players craved . . . once a month. Scrye was one of the biggies (along with the much more humorous InQuest). Plus, writing for a magazine was an accomplishment that seemed much more "legit" with my family than writing on the Internet.

I, of course, jumped at the chance to write for Scrye and to work for Omeed, who was also the editor for Magic content for Scrye. I did that for less than a year when Omeed stepped down from Magic editing altogether to pursue his full-time career and was blown away when he recommended me taking over as Magic editor for Scrye, which I did for nearly eight years until Scrye ceased publication in April 2009.

When Omeed stepped down, The Ferrett took over editing duties at SCG, and in 2002 he sent out an email to the writers that Wizards of the Coast was taking submissions from writers for a gig on their newly minted webpage writing a fill-in feature called Single Card Strategy. Anyone interested could submit a spec piece, each submission would have the author name removed, and the editors and Magic R&D guys would read through them and pick what they thought was the best one.

The picked me. I was floored but beyond thrilled about getting a chance to write for the mothership, and my very first feature went up on July 5th, 2002:  Single Card Strategy:  Forcemage Advocate. I did some fun ones here and there over the next couple years: Unspeakable Symbol, Fecundity, Dross Scorpion. Eventually, they shifted that column over to Adrian Sullivan, but then they tapped me to take over MagicTheGathering.combos from Aaron Forsythe, which was also a fun column to write.

In 2005, there was a bit of a shake-up in the authors of the regular weekly columns for the mothership. Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar moved over to Building on a Budget, leaving behind the "Magic Online" column called Into The Aether, and I was asked to fill in his shoes. Considering I had never tried Magic Online at the time, I was thrilled at the prospect of writing a weekly column but also scared to death because how could I write about Magic Online and not know anything about it? I was assured that the fact I was a newbie to Magic Online was exactly what they wanted—someone fresh to the interface to hopefully draw in others who hadn’t tried it before to go ahead and give it a try.

Lucky for me, the Magic Online community was by and large wonderfully supportive, teaching me the ropes and showing me all the different formats and fun you can have on Magic Online. I had a great run in the column – from my inaugural Johnny Come Lately to my guest appearance writing for Michael Flores’s Swimming With Sharks ("Cue the Jaws Theme Music") to the very last Into The Aether in August 2006. I wrote a couple ad hoc pieces for the mothership in the two years after that, but I pretty much settled back home writing regularly with StarCityGames.com ever since then.

The Home Stretch

It’s a bit mind-blowing to think I’ve been here at SCG for nearly 14 years! The first year of content was lost during a server upgrade, but my archives stretch back to January 6th, 2000: The Blossoming of Green Card Advantage. I’ve probably burned up too many words already to give a proper retrospective, but here are a few notable milestones:

"Charmed" – Where I write about the birth of my daughter, who’s now 12 1/2.

"Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bombs" – Where I learn to give in to my inner Spike.

 "How I Won Nationals *1st*" – A mind-bending account of how I won US Nationals in 2001 that caused a few weeks of uproar and controversy across multiple Magic websites.

"The Legend of Chuck" – A solid piece on multiplayer strategy written years before Chuck became my roommate.

"Judging Dredge: Top 8 at Virginia States" – Where I write about helping to create the very first competitive Dredge deck and surprise everyone with it at States.

"Pondering Elder Dragon Highlander" – my very first foray into writing about EDH (Commander). Needless to say, I fell for the format in a big way!

"The Amateur Spark" – Weighing in on the "pros vs. joes" controversies.

"Time, Love, Life" – Reflecting on life, love, and Magic after my mother-in-law passed away.

"VA Champs *2nd*" – Where I come this close to a repeat…thanks to a little inspiration from my future editor Cedric Phillips!

I’m curious…any of you long-time readers—or even newer readers—have any favorite columns you remember? Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks for indulging an old man a walk down memory lane. Magic has been such a huge part of my life—not just my gaming life but my writing life too. And so has StarCityGames.com. A big shout-out to Pete Hoefling for making this site feel like home and to all the great writers and editors I’ve had the pleasure of working with all these years. When I pass two million words about Magic, I hope it’ll be right here on this here site here!

This Weekend!

So it looks like I’ll be joining Team Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author] for Team Sealed here at the StarCityGames.com Open Series in Richmond this weekend…and finally getting to meet my new editor Cedric! It’s going to be a crazy fun time, no doubt, so if you’re here as well, hunt me down and say hello! I always enjoy hearing from my readers, and I also have a favor to ask. If you have any extra copies of Shadowborn Apostle handy and are going to be at the StarCityGames.com Open this Saturday, please pass them my way! I want to build a sweet Commander deck with them . . .

Take care,


Facebook = Bennie Smith, Writer
Twitter = @blairwitchgreen
Email = [email protected]
Twitch = http://www.twitch.tv/blairwitchgreen
Blog = My fantasy and horror fiction writing

New to Commander?
If you’re just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:

My current Commander decks (and links to decklists):

Previous Commander decks currently on hiatus: