Black Magic – GenCon and Standard

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Tuesday, August 18th – Down the years, GenCon has been very good to Sam Black. He wins high-profile tournaments, and cash prizes, year on year. This year was no exception. Today, he shares his love for the convention, and a few tips to improving your Magic game without playing Magic at all. He rounds out with his thoughts on Standard, and Faeries in particular.

I spent this last weekend at GenCon. I have an extremely long history with GenCon. I first went attended in Milwaukee 1994. I was only there for one day, but I loved it. I was twelve, and I’d certainly never seen or heard of anything like it. Since then I’ve gone back every year except the first year it moved to Indianapolis. The convention has been extremely important to Magic’s history, as well as my own history with Magic and gaming in general, so I want to take some time to reminisce.

GenCon has changed a lot over the years. The things I remember from the first few years are wandering around the hallways where people were playing groups games and trading on the floors. As far as I knew, there were no tournaments, and there were all kinds of new games being demoed by individuals rather than large game companies. Magic was much less structured. For years, the plan at GenCon was to hang out in the skywalk between one part of the convention center and another and play random games of Magic. This skywalk was the unofficial Trading Card Game area, I guess, but really it was just Magic. Maybe there was another area, but I didn’t know about it, and there was more than enough there for me.

Going back a little further, at my first GenCon I had just learned to play Magic. I had never seen a card from a set other than Revised, and I definitely didn’t know what any of them did, if I was even aware that they existed. I saw a tournament being played, and the table was covered in all these cards I’d never seen before that looked like random gems. I didn’t know of gems being such an important theme in Magic, so I wasn’t even sure they were playing the same game. (In fairness, Magic with power is hardly the same game as Magic with revised only as played by a 12 year old, but everyone was pretty bad in those days.)

At my first GenCon, there was a 45 minute line to buy packs of Legends at retail from Wizards. It was limited to something like three-to-six per customer, and this was after Legends was extremely hard to find. I didn’t have much money, but I bought a pack of Legends. I think I traded it (open) for a Shivan Dragon, because I had read about how awesome that guy was in The Pocket Player’s Guide. I remember someone walking through the exhibit hall trying to sell packs of Arabian Nights for $20 a pack, but I had no idea what that was.

Early memories of GenCon involve my friends trying MegaChess, a huge 2×3 Chess game with a blitz clock that was being demoed there; demoing other CCGs (like Spellfire, which might be the worst CCG I’ve played) to get free starters; watching people play a Play-Doh based miniature game (I guess) where the guy running the game gave everyone a tube of Play-Doh and had them all make anything. He then used some rules based on how much Play-Doh was used in each feature of the monster or whatever to determine its stats, then had them fight using rules that involved throwing balls of Play-Doh at other sculptures to determine ranged combat. Crazy games like this were all over, back in the day.

My parents knew that GenCon was the one thing I really cared about doing every year, and they knew not to try to get me to do anything else the weekend of the convention, so they always checked with me about plans in August. My dad even drove me from Chicago to Milwaukee a few times so that I could attend the convention, since he knew how much it meant to me.

Through high school I focused more exclusively on Magic at GenCon, but I didn’t have a lot of money, and what I had I wanted to spend on cards. I would usually go without a badge, and just sneak in and spend my time just hanging out and playing and trading in the Magic area.

At some point after that, the focus shifted to tournaments. I didn’t really play in PTQs until around Masques Block. I think I made Top 8 at the second PTQ I played in, which was Masques Block Constructed in Normal, IL. A few weeks later I made Top 8 again at GenCon, but lost in the Top 4. The next year at GenCon I made Top 8 an Invasion Block PTQ. I was pretty proud of myself for making Top 8 at the PTQs at GenCon two years in a row, and people were starting to recognize me from my having given them suggestions on their decks from previous GenCons. I was very happy with how everything was going, and decided I was very good at GenCons.

Right after that GenCon I started college, and I played very little Magic in my first year (Odyssey Block is one of the worst Limited formats). I don’t remember what I did at that GenCon, or at most of the others while I was in college. It probably involved a reasonable amount of board gaming rather than just Magic, which I had only started to get into in my last year of high school.

After I graduated from college, I opened a game store in Madison – Netherworld Games – which is still open, but which I no longer own. Once I was running a store, it was a little more important to use GenCon to figure out what was going on the gaming world, and what kinds of games we should be getting for the store. That didn’t really stick, as I found out while working at the store that Wizards of the Coast was holding a $40,000 release tournament for a new game called Dreamblade, and I decided to see if I could win some money.

I won that tournament, and I won a PTQ the night before (I didn’t sleep between winning the PTQ at 6:00am and starting the Dreamblade Tournament at 9:00am). The next year Dreamblade had its $50,000 championships, the last tournament before the game was canceled, and I only won $500 in that. I felt this was a poor showing, because I’d focusing on Time Spiral Block Constructed. I won the Time Spiral Block Constructed Championships, which was good for four foil sets of the block, though I split. The next year, which was last year, I won the Lorwyn Block Constructed Championships and some random other tournaments. I really am very good at GenCon.

This year, I had to maintain my streak of winning over $1000 at GenCon. I don’t like Alara Block Constructed, so I had to play World of Warcraft Minis. I didn’t compete in the Block championships. The only Magic I played all weekend was the MTGO Live Series, in which I made the Top 8, but lost, so I won only $250. I did manage to win around $2000 playing WoW Minis.

I play a lot of games other than Magic. Some people asked if I still played Magic when they saw me playing WoW Minis. I said yes, of course; I don’t really play WoW Minis. I just like games. Magic happens to be the best, but I still like to play everything. I think the fact that I play so many other games is one of the biggest advantages I have in Magic. There are a lot of skills that carry between one game and another, and different games highlight different elements of games, all of which are present in other ways in other games, especially Magic, which is broad and deep enough to incorporate almost everything. I’m always appalled by how hard it is to convince Magic players that other games are good too, or how hard it is to get them to try other games.

WoW Minis is an interesting game. I’m not really going to get into talking about it here, but when I started learning it I was worried that it wouldn’t be deep enough to allow a good player to get enough of an edge. Fortunately, I was wrong. The most interestingly unique thing about the game is that I think it’s much more important to know how to play against what your opponent is playing (how to exploit their team’s weakness, and what your role in the matchup needs to be) than how to play your own team in a vacuum. The result was that I would usually lose against teams I had never seen before, but after playing against them once I would understand what was going on and stop losing to them. By the end of the weekend, this meant going undefeated in the second large tournament for the game. The game is just an awesome example of how important knowing your role in a matchup can be, and seeing how much your general plan can shift depending on what your opponent is doing (although, admittedly, a lot of this is because I was playing the most flexible team available; I am a Faeries player, after all).

This is different than a game like The Spoils. The Spoils also has a lesson, but that lesson is about development and the value of developing a board over developing a hand, which is particularly important in that game because you can always pay resources (mana) to draw cards. The game has some really interesting lessons about the relative values of tempo and card advantage, and how they can run together that can usefully translate to Magic.

Dreamblade was an awesomely deep and complex game, the most interesting and deep (which is surprisingly different than best) game I’ve ever played. In that, the primary lesson that carried over to Magic was about spawning efficiency and the value of not wasting any resources. Specifically, this meant avoiding something that I called “burning” in Dreamblade, which is essentially like having a land that you don’t end up tapping for mana on your turn or your opponent’s turn. If your opponent taps out to do something useful every turn and you don’t, they’re at a huge advantage. Firebreathing creatures in Jace versus Chandra also do a reasonable job of demonstrating this principle.

And so on and so on. The point is, if you feel like you’ve hit a plateau with Magic, you should probably try learning another game and see if you can learn anything useful from it. Games are all just different was to learn to think/practice thinking.

Anyway, all of this means I’ve still been away from Standard. From the little I’ve seen, it sounds like the format’s gotten pretty chaotic. People seem to have picked up enough decks that can beat Five-Color Control to throw the format into a state of upheaval. The modes of attack seem to come from Howling Mine decks (Sanity Grinding and Time Sieve) and really aggressive Red decks. I’ve heard about all manner of random decks making Top 8s in PTQs.

My reaction to this would be the same as my reaction to anything. I’d be inclined to play Faeries. In this case, I wouldn’t feel like I was being lazy and picking up the only deck I know. I’d feel like it was probably actually a reasonable metagame choice by now. I think that, in general, the less focused a metagame is, the better for Faeries. They prey on any deck that ignores them, which people inevitably do when there are too many decks in a format. Combo Elves, which is as powerful as it was in Japanese Nationals, but now further from the front of people’s minds, might be another good end-of-season surprise.

People have asked me what I think about Faeries with Red for Lightning Bolt and Firespout. The answer is still that I think it’s really bad. I play Faeries for efficiency, synergy, and consistency, and having good lands that let me cast all my spells and play 4 Mutavaults is extremely important to that. If you want to play a multicolor control deck, just play Five-Color Control. Also, people have been adding Time Warp to Faeries. I don’t get it. Do you really find yourself successfully resolving Mistbind Clique, untapping with it in play, and then think, “Okay, so now what can I do to win?” It’s the archetypal “win more” card. You lose with Faeries when you stumble, you fail to hit 4 mana, you flood, or you get run over, none of which Time Warp helps in the slightest. Please stop playing that card. I don’t care how nutty turn 2 Bitterblossm, turn 3 Sprite, turn 4 Mistbind, turn 5 Time Warp is… you already won the game on turn 4.

I still don’t feel comfortable telling people to play Faeries, for the record, so don’t assume that’s what I’m doing here. I’d just feel pretty comfortable playing it myself. If you haven’t been playing it already, you definitely shouldn’t pick it up now.

Sanity Grinding looks a lot better than before. Now there’s a deck that likes Time Warp. It likes it so much I’d seriously consider testing it with Savor the Moment. It’s hard for me to understand how you could not want to pay 3 mana to put a land into play with that deck, especially with Howling Mine or Jace in play. I don’t know if that deck is actually good, but it looks close enough to test if you don’t like something else these days.

That’s all I have for now. Next week I’ll be reporting from Asia.

Thanks for reading…

Sam Black