It started with Neil and Dave…
But today’s story is really about Electronics Boutique.
I don’t remember the details about my first couple of times playing, except that Neil and Dave were dueling on the fifth floor of Butler. They showed me how to play, and the next day I went downtown to pick up some cards.
Tulane University is located in uptown New Orleans, on the streetcar line. It’s not a trolley – trolleys are in San Francisco. New Orleans has a streetcar, and you can always spot a New Orleans tourist when they yell "hey, here comes the trolley." They’d yell this because streetcars had this habit of either coming three at a time, or every three hours. I’m serious. I’ve had times where, in the middle of the day, I’ve walked straight from Tulane campus to Poydras street downtown, without having a single streetcar pass me on the way down. I take that back – they’d be running in the direction opposite that I’d need to go, but somehow they never found their way back towards my eventual destination. Other times, I’d have a streetcar stop right at Tulane, with two more riding the first car like a caboose and… well, another caboose.
It took about thirty minutes each way, by streetcar, to get from Tulane to Canal street. From Canal street, it was a fifteen minute walk to the mall on Poydras street, adjacent to the Superdome. In this mall was Electronics Boutique, the only shop in all of Uptown and Downtown New Orleans which sold Magic cards. I remember that I bought a starter and three boosters on my first trip down there; I had budgeted myself $20, and that was as many packs as I could buy with that money. All the packs were Revised, and I remember I opened Northern Paladin, Swords to Plowshares and Wall of Swords, along with Wall of Wood, Craw Wurm, and Living Wall.
I wouldn’t have remembered the Northern Paladin except for Rick.
Rick, Neil and Dave were all ROTC members at Tulane. I believe they were all Air Force, but you’ll have to pardon me if I’m wrong in this detail. Dave was a really happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Neil was a really intense, hyper-depressive person. Rick was soft spoken, played "the Deck" before "the Deck" was a deck, and ripped off my Northern Paladin for one of each Circle of Protection. Yup, my first trade ever, and I got Circle of Protection: Black, Circle of Protection: Blue, Circle of Protection: Green, Circle of Protection: Red, and Circle of Protection: White for Northern Paladin. My rare for his five commons. Rick would later go on to buy three Mana Drains off of a fellow ROTC guy for $3 each, when they were selling for a solid $15-$25 each, by lying to the guy about the value.
The play group settled down to me, Rick and Dave, with many of my first year friends eventually being drawn into the fold – there was Brandon and Mike from Freshman year, along with a few newcomers including Steve, Big Jeff, Khalid, and Anthony DiNatale. We would have frequent games all over campus – at Bruff cafeteria, in Monroe Hall, in Butler Hall, in the University Center – it didn’t matter. If we could get people together, we would play. We played one on one. We played group games. We played with our land piles and our spell piles in separate piles, with your draw being from one of the piles of your choice. This led to many arguments; could you put Mishra’s Factory in the land pile, or would it have to go into the spell pile?
This topic isn’t discussed much, but the rules back in the old days of Magic were horrifically convoluted. Wizards had a couple of net reps and people answering rules questions in newsgroups, including Sparky, Tom Wylie, and Dave Delaney. Here’s how a rules question would go: you post the question, you wait a few hours, hopefully there will be replies. Usually these replies were from people who had no clues about the rules, but you’d appreciate them spamming your message to the forefront of the group – except if the rules reps thought the question had already been answered by another rep, since there were so many replies. It was mass hysteria. Cats and dogs were holding hands. There was fighting in the streets.
And there was fighting in our game group. I swear, not a single session went by where a verbal melee didn’t erupt due to some rules issue. How were interrupts played? Could you respond to them? How about last in, first out? When could you add to the stack? What happens to trample damage if a blocker is removed? All of these questions have easy answers nowadays, but imagine playing the game when there were no comprehensive rules, and you were attempting a twelve player grand melee. Things got heated awfully quickly. Neil would yell at me, I would argue with Anthony, big Jeff would argue with everyone, and pretty soon the games devolved into killing the people who were arguing the most.
I took many an early exit in those games. I couldn’t control that I was steadily getting better at the game as the weeks went on – other people’s skill was growing at a steady rate, while mine was growing at an exponential rate. I was trimming my deck down to sixty-card size, I was insisting on playing one-on-one games, and I had the most cards.
How did I have the most cards?
In a world where all cards come from one source, I had the market cornered. I don’t know if anyone else knew this, but I had struck a deal with the various clerks at Electronics Boutique to phone me the second any Magic product came in a shipment! They were only allocated a box or two a month, but they knew to call me before these packs went on sale to the public. I’d often get a call from them, and head straight down to Poydras street to buy out the box. Sure, it was full retail – but in a world where nobody had any good cards, and cards were hard to come by, the man who owned all the boxes was king.
If that man was king, then the man who went online to buy the power nine was emperor of the world.