This holiday season, my family hauled itself over to Cape Cod, isle of my youth and where my parents still reside. There are reasons why we do this every year that include both altruism (it’s a family tradition to head up a church dinner every Christmas) and in-trust self-interest (our kids get more and better presents this way). But this year, there was an additional reason: my high school friends are starting to get hooked on Magic.
Care for a flashback? Of course you would. Back in September, I was on the Cape for a friend’s wedding. Prior to my arrival, I get an email from another friend, Tom. Tom and I played together in the high school band. Tom now owns a high-tech company in Hyannis, and he and some of his employees had just gotten into the habit of Magic. Trolling around the Web for information on strategy, they mistakenly came upon my articles.
So his email to me was half inquiry, half trashtalk. You know the drill: Hey, you play this game too? How about you bring a deck or two and yada yada, that kind of thing.
Hoping that we would get a group game going, I packed two decks that worked well enough (one had Killer Bees, the other Thrashing Wumpus) and off we went. It turned out that the night Tom and I could play, there was virtually no one else in the office who could stay. So we played duels, and I crushed Tom since he’d only been playing for about four months and didn’t really have his phases straight. He had never seen Ensnaring Bridge before. He had never seen Killer Bees before. He had seen Thrashing Wumpus, but hadn’t had one slam him over the head before. A turn-two Avatar of Woe was new, too. It was very satisfying playing against Tom – not for the wins, but for seeing a guy pick up cards new to him and figure out what they did. We often forget how intricate and exciting the game can be.
But anyway, Tom lost almost every game that night. (I lost one, yes. That darn wumpus thrashes in all directions, which is occasionally inconvenient.)
Tom is a brilliant man. Tom is a proud man. Tom, I am certain, didn’t like losing to me, even though I’m sure he thinks highly of me and respects my experience in the game.
End flashback. I get another email from Tom in early December, this one very eager to know if I plan on bringing my Magic cards again. I’m no fool. I’m sure Tom is at least three months smarter. Heck, I gave the guy a bunch of websites to check out so he could improve his game. I have no doubt he’s been researching.
So I shifted gears in the decks I brought this time. I brought my deathly boring Stasis/Ensnare/Howling Mine slow-mill deck for the duel, and a red-green-white pre-Kibler Rith deck, as well as the latest iteration of Fade to Black (green/black recursion using fading and other expendable creatures). I expected the blue creatureless deck to create a lot of dead cards in opponents’ hands; and I expected the black/green to be good in a group of people who seemed overly Pacifism-happy. With the Rith deck, I was just looking to pound people.
We’ll find out if I was right in a moment. But first, a Curt Interlude.
BEGIN CURT INTERLUDE
Curt is another one of my best buds from high school; like Tom, he was in the band with me. We both played trombone, and I think it’s a universal rule that trombone players in marching bands are pretty silly people. (The fact that we were also both active in the drama club didn’t help, either.) That silliness formed a kind of silly-putty bond of friendship that lasts to this day. You throw enough paper airplanes around the orchestra rehearsal room, you have a buddy for life.
Curt, as of my arrival on the Cape in December, did not play Magic. He works for Tom and sees his colleagues playing all the time, and agreed with me (back when I asked in September) that he would probably like it. But he never joined in, just watched occasionally. I kept pestering him and telling him how great he’d be at it. And he would be.
Another flashback? I thought you’d never ask. Back in high school, the band took a trip down to Florida for some All-American Marching Band Competition. Of course, we’re all there for the sun and slides and Disneyworld.
Late one night, after some particularly inappropriate juvenile behavior involving girls’ rooms and water, a few of us were settling down for that coolest of all teenager games, chess. I was playing against someone else, the two of us are at the top of our class, la la aren’t we awesome. So Curt steps up and asks if I want to play against HIM. Until this point, I had no idea Curt played chess; we all knew Curt was a screw-off who had a problem with authority, and none of us had ever seen him do anything, er, strategic. Therefore, I welcomed the chance to whup him. Don’t bother getting angry at my arrogance; you can all see what’s coming. I said, "Sure, sit down, chump," and of course he beat me four games in a row in front of all of our friends – and this girl who played clarinet who I liked too. (I liked the girl, not the clarinet.) The fourth game, and my memory is quite clear on this, I was so flustered I lost to the common four-turn blitzkrieg, which pretty much settled me for the evening. Though the girl ended up blowing me off shortly after the Florida trip (I guess that blitzkrieg really, really emasculated me), Curt and I had more enjoyable chess matches over the years. He still won most of the time, and would probably still win today… neither of us have played for years. I really liked seeing the way his mind worked. Watching his thought process helped me become a better player myself. He gets patterns, permutations, the whole smear.
So you can imagine why I thought he would make a good Magic player. (End flashback, re-enter present time for Curt Interlude.)
Before I come out, I email Curt about his plans, how’s life, etc. And then I cut to the chase:
"So, you playing Magic yet?"
He emails me back, says no, maybe he should, then he goes on about what holiday parties we’ll be at, and so I drop it.
At a holiday party on the 23rd, I seek out Curt and his wife, find out how they’re doing, how’s the new house, is Tom a slave driver, etc. And then I let slip with:
"So, you playing Magic yet?"
He grins a big grin and says no, not yet; but he’s still thinking about it.
"Stop thinking and start playing," I said.
At the Christmas Eve party at Curt’s house, early on before most other guests arrive, he and I are watching our kids tumble on the floor. (We’ve agreed we will not allow them to marry.) I don’t bother asking about anything else, I just ask:
"So, you playing Magic yet?"
Now he’s laughing, and since his wife’s Andrea’s there and SHE’s interested in learning I suggest I’ll teach her first and then let HER nag him (not an idle threat…I didn’t get the chance this past week, but either Curt will teach her or I’ll catch her on the next visit), and then he finally breaks down and takes out the Sixth Edition starter kit that he bought a week or so ago. Turns out he knew I was going to break him down…
We play the preconstructed decks in there, I run him through the phases, how to attack, how to block, what lands do, and why he doesn’t keep that sorcery on the board after he plays it. That’s his first game. He says he likes it a lot, and he’s looking forward to playing the night Tom and I organize. Of course then he has to go back to hosting his party, so that’s that.
END CURT INTERLUDE
We set up a post-Christmas evening to play. Tom wanted to make sure there were more people there this time; and sure enough there were six of us: me, Tom, Curt, Steve, Jess, and Matt.
A few of us play some duels while we’re waiting for the others to show up. This is where I find out Tom has a fully functional Rebel deck, with only a few changes from the Pro-approved version. That’s okay, I’m facing him with my Stasis Monster, which bleeds away his will to live one draw step at a time. (Quick list of some of the other cards in there: Thwart, Daze, Force of Will, Rescue, and, of course, one Mind over Matter.) The other players take occasional breaks from their own games to find out how Tom’s doing. They usually lose to Tom, so they are enjoying this immensely.
"Still tapped out, Tom?"
I can see Tom seething and I apologize for playing such a mean deck against him. He insists on playing it out, and by the end of the game I’ve countered every enchantment removal spell he has, as well as his Lin-Sivvis (so he can’t put cards back in his library). My side of the board sports Pendrell Mists, two Propaganda, Stasis, Mind over Matter, and three Howling Mines. Did that game call for a Purify, or did it call for a Purify?
As the game finishes, an emergency work issue comes up for him and he takes a small "break." (This is at p.m.; he’s a dedicated entrepreneur.) I put away my blue deck for the night and pull out Rith to match up against Steve, a newer player. We play a couple of fun games and I confirm how much the group loves white creature enchantments like Pacifism, Cessation, and Shackles. Finally, Tom is back and we can start the multiplayer.
They had never played full chaos before (they’ve always done that "attack to the left" style) (Boo! – The Ferrett, a fan of attack to the front) and wanted to learn, so that’s what we ran. It didn’t take much instruction, of course; and off we went.
It occurred to me in the middle of the game that some of my readers who are newer to the game might benefit from hearing about the lessons these folks learned in their first chaos game with a more experienced player. (More experienced players may find the following lessons a bit mundane, but they’re quick so it won’t kill you to read ’em. The lessons are also worth remembering and stressing to newer players in YOUR group who don’t read this, though why you let people who don’t read Casual Fridays into your casual group, I have no idea.)
- Sackable Permanents Give You An Advantage In Group. Not even rookies target them – at least, not after the first time they try – and if you find the right ones the benefits are immense. Think Bottle Gnomes, Mogg Maniac, or in this case… Seals. And not just my Seals of Fire. Jess ran a few Seals of Removal that kept her alive during critical parts of the game.
- Most Newer Players Underestimate Haste In Group. I don’t have Fires of Yavimaya in this deck, but I do have four Skizziks and two Raging Kavus. They are intended as surprises to throw off the very complex math and guesswork that comes with attacking and defending against five different opponents. Players leave a certain set of defenses back, based on what’s on the board. If the creatures that will attack next turn aren’t on the board…
- Creature Enchantments: Just Not That Good. Really. No Really, Don’t Skip This Paragraph. Read It, Because You’re Still Using Creature Enchantments, Aren’t You. HEY! YOU! Yeah, I’m Talking To You. Put The Creature Enchantment Down! Every strategy article for newer players on the Internet teaches this lesson; and yet I can’t ignore it because it seems that every new player I run into is so fond of these cards. Rancor, Pariah, Endless Scream, Ancestral Mask, and on and on. The card advantage you are giving up, and the focus you are demanding on a single creature, is immense. Sure, maybe you’ll get lucky and no one will be playing black (or blue, or white) when you play Pariah on your Cho-Manno Revolutionary. Maybe that Rancor will resolve without its target fizzling. Maybe I won’t have enough threats to make your Shackles (pretty much as good as a creature enchantment gets in multiplayer, short of Sleeper’s Robe) useless.
- You’ve Got To Back Up Your Threats If You’re Going To Make Them. I fully expected to be the number one target at the table, given my relative experience. I suppose you could say my sheer force of talent, not to mention my personality, was a threat in and of itself. (You could also say I’m a drooling, low-grade moron; but since you’re not writing this column, you appear to be rather silent right now.) ( – The Ferrett) In any case, an early Seal of Fire and Noble Panther quickly diverted any attention that might come my way. Tom, on the other hand, simply played out as many rebels as quickly as he could… including Lin Sivvi.
- Use That End-Of-Turn Moment. Instants and instant abilities are among the hardest things for new players to understand fully. The fact that you should almost never search for rebels during your turn, that you should wait to Terror that creature until you see whom it will attack, that you don’t sack the Seal of Fire to kill a player until you absolutely have to, are all difficult to grasp right away. (Two of those three examples are only really applicable in multiplayer, too; so a rookie fed only a diet of duels is at a double disadvantage.)
The last game of the night, he almost beat Tom, after looking like he had absolutely no way out. There was a spectacular casual moment when, holding a CoP: Black (which was in there randomly, you’ll recall) with only four life and facing down Lin Sivvi and a Sky Marshall, he drew Ashes to Ashes (remove two creatures from game, take five damage). At first he seemed disappointed, but after hearing me gurgle with surprise, he looked harder at his options and figured it out.
At the end of that game, I looked through his deck and realized something else: Without prompting, he had gone from five-color to virtually two-color, borrowing the few plains and swamps he could and just running every black and white card he owned. Bang, basic color consistency/draft theory.
Five games under his belt.
I have no idea if Curt will play the game as seriously as many of us do. Massachusetts residents with Pro Tour aspirations should probably hope not. He and Tom will push each other horribly well. I’m certainly looking forward to playing the two of them (and ALL of their colleagues…thanks for a great evening, everyone!) again in a few months’ time; but as I said, I’m no fool. I will be bringing my very best decks to the Cape next time around.
And unlike that humiliating evening of chess fifteen years ago in Florida in front of that girl I liked, I won’t be surprised if I still lose.
COMING SOON: The deadline for Break this Card: Coalition Victory (with Sliver Queen and Shyft banned) is still MIDNIGHT, THURSDAY, JANUARY 18, 2001. That’s two short weeks away. I’ve experienced a short lull in submissions. I’m sure you were just all on vacation and forgot; but it’s time to set aside petty concerns like family and holiday and cheer and show me how freakish you can be. Creativity is definitely out there…a certain someone just sent me a MONO-COLOR Coalition deck (no, NOT blue, and no NOT with Prismatic Lace) that has just raised the bar! I want five winners, BUILD YOUR COALITION NOW!