Chatter of the Squirrel – The Pro Tour That Almost Never Was, or, The Apologia of Bill Stark

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Sure, the tournament went well, from a certain point of view. Covered my costs, picked up a decent amount of Pro Points, designed a great deck. That’s for another time. We’ll talk matchups and why it’s a great choice for the PTQ season, deal with all of that. Now, though, my mind’s on the Magic experience. Put the academia aside and indulge me, just for this column. “Playing the game” is only half of it. For right now, it’s time to see the world.

Valencia: All the women are beautiful, and all the roofs are red. I’m reeling from the jet lag, I’ve got a million things to do, and yet images of the city continue to flicker across my vision like marionettes. It seems that after every major event I write a recap that’s positively awash with Magic kissass, but to withhold my feelings would be to revel in dishonesty. I can’t help myself. Seated in a courtyard sipping Fanta with Marijn, Fried, and Bill, the City of Arts and Sciences looming in the background like some dystopian Leviathan, my mind spun: I’ve come here to play Magic? Time and time again it’s more and more unbelievable. Ervin ambushes me in the airport, we talk, wait around for Bill. Some of my best friends – and I only see them four, five, six times a year, across three continents over coffee and cards. If you had told me a year and a half ago I’d be spending a week on the Spanish coast with some Belgians, Croats, a Latvian, a Slovenian, and a good ol’ Iowa farmboy-cum-reporter thrown in for good measure, I’d tell you straight-up that you were foolish. Yet here we are, and yes it was.

Sure, the tournament went well, from a certain point of view. Covered my costs, picked up a decent amount of Pro Points, designed a great deck. That’s for another time. We’ll talk matchups and why it’s a great choice for the PTQ season, deal with all of that. Now, though, my mind’s on the Magic experience. Put the academia aside and indulge me, just for this column. “Playing the game” is only half of it. For right now, it’s time to see the world.

Tuesday night, the squad’s arrived. Ervin, Marijn, Fried, Bill, myself. A casserole of personalities, we ambush the city. Marijn’s got the experience, having stayed here for a few months studying architecture, and Bill’s got the language. The rest of us, well, we’re along for the ride. Amid the inevitable deck-anxiety that heralds every Constructed Pro Tour are the appropriate antics befitting a bunch of twentysomethings with nothing but time and a willingness to participate in anything. At one end of the spectrum is Bill, the consummate journalist, cataloguing every experience and meeting every individual who’s willing to talk to him. “Nah, I’m hitting the sack early, guys,” he says, and starts blogging. At the other end: Ervin Tormos, the Sherlock Holmes of social interaction, for whom partying all night long is no euphemism but rather an entirely literal expression of plans. In between are the three of us.

Phase one: a restaurant. Now, ordering food, eating it, and paying shouldn’t qualify as an “experience” in the proper sense – but this isn’t your everyday meal. I don’t mean just that it’s delicious, or that our three pitchers of Aqua de Valencia didn’t contribute to the breakdown of sensibility. The food, sure, was delicious – but the conversation, what the hell?

The five of us exhibit certain distinct trends relating to what we choose to talk about. Ervin, for example, was bound and determined to dissect the myriad varieties and styles of substance abuse. If it could be purchased illegally or distributed by a sketchy individual on a street corner, Ervin was chattering about it. Then there was me, who was “excited” about basically everything. “Look at this awesome old building!” I’d say, and would point. Marijn, of course, would then make fun of the fact that I was excited about basically everything. Fried would look on and shrug, like a jellyfish on the surface of a cresting wave, and would more or less conform to the persona suggested by the following picture: namely, that of an indie rock frontman.

Rock Pose

Now, ignore the sketchy Chatter in the picture for a second, and isolate Fried. The disinterested “gazing at the horizon” disaffected head-turn, the tussled hair, the open mouth prepared to utter a monosyllabic reply, the arms neutrally positioned at the waist in perfect ambiguity. Take this picture, insert a title in bold letters: maybe “The One Two Three Kick It,” or “Not Quite Less,” you get it. I’d buy the album, boost my cred.

Finally, Bill. I might as well devote an entire section to the guy, because at present I have no idea if it’s even possible to communicate how utterly tight it is to travel with this man. Put simply, I love Magic, but Bill loves Magic. The game, the travel experience, everything. Of course, it’s easy to enjoy traveling with Bill because he covers all of his bases. Knows where everything is, will take care of the hotel arrangements, speaks the language, sees the sights. Won’t get lost. I stayed with him in Prague for several days last year and had a blast, even though we were almost killed by a grocer who did not want anyone taking pictures of his stock and would have been detained by the subway police were it not for Bill’s ninja-like evasives. But – like any good writer – if you give him a second of spare time he’s scribbling away, snapping pictures, telling stories. There’s his photo blog, there’s the coverage he writes for Wizards, and sure, he wants to get to know the guys, to get involved. But even if you view the entire body of his material you’re only experiencing half of his passion. The man truly loves to get to know someone, to participate fully in the travel experience, to learn in the fullest sense of the word. I love to chat, obviously, but Bill will gladly sit back and bear witness to the full biography of anyone who passes his way. It’s a quality I admire. Moreover, he’s extremely reasonable; when it comes time to resolve a situation, he’s willing to listen to anything. I could talk to him about any subject under the sun and receive honest advice – and by contrast, if he asks you about something, he doesn’t have preconceived notions in mind to which he expects you to conform. We would be talking about Platinum Angels and Sundering Titans and five minutes later be on the subject of his brother and how the family dynamic impacts where he would choose to live.

Right, so phase one, we eat, talk constantly. Marijn is getting sick of Ervin’s and my senseless arguments about “nothing” (I love me an argument for argument’s sake, particularly when it gets at a much deeper subject than what’s being talked about on the surface; the argument serves as a vehicle through which some otherwise-uncomfortable topic can be discussed) and my tendency towards (I bet you can’t imagine this guffaw guffaw) excessive verbosity. He also threatens to hang me if I say “retarded” or “gas” or any combination thereof one more time. Ervin is jumping from girls to brain games to Sensei’s Divining Top, probably all across one sentence. Fried sheepishly grins, and Bill tries to play the voice of reason before breaking down and giggling like a little girl. We finish, pay, depart.

Marijn: “No, I am not the party type of person.”

What does that even mean?

Bill: “I’ve got to work.”

Sure, peace, ciao. I can’t partake in the full tourist experience without going to a series of sketchy tourist clubs, so the remaining three of us begin the hopping process. Rounds abound. I am happy; they make Bailey’s White Russians. Fried calls me out:

Me, pointing at a group of girls: “Dude dude dude, seriously, I’d run one of them.”

Fried: “Yeah? Which one?”

Me, suddenly witnessing an embarrassing panorama of Butterface and cramming my foot down my throat: “

Fried and I chat about everything under the sun while Ervin intermittently disappears to alternatively relieve himself, buy rounds, and hit on any organism with a pulse. The club closes, we move on. Ervin becomes enthralled at the degree to which he can “chat” with people exclusively through body language, and attaches himself to a mob of Italian girls as we wind through back roads on our way to the next venue. Fried and I follow like lampreys. “Piccadilly” looms, we enter. Discuss how awkward it is when you’re using a urinal and some duder decides to park himself immediately next to you. Drink some more, chatter, leave.

Well, Fried and I leave. It’s maybe 5am. The route home is comparatively simple assuming you can root out the obscure Euro street signs, and after a long series of chats we hit the hay at about six thirty, assuming Ervin’s following in hot pursuit.

At eleven forty the door to my hostel slams.

“I pissed in the same gas station five times:” Ervin, after no fewer than six hours of roaming.

That’s the way to spend a Tuesday.

Wednesday is more Magic, and Thursday comes, and the Flood.

Pay attention to that capital F. You know about the site itself: closed, evacuated, scrambled into shape in time for Saturday. But that’s nothing, really. The Flood was personal.

I’ll clear something up on the front end: I’m not complaining. We more or less got ourselves into this situation, and the process was so surreal it almost felt like it wasn’t happening. On the surface, it’s simple: our hostel was an hour’s walk away, the subway was closed, and the taxis weren’t running. Sometimes, you’ve got to bowse your way through.

We booked it on foot. The raindrops fell like dropped needles, heavy with blunt weight and omnipresent, tenacious. Our clothes dripped. Our shoes sloshed. The atmosphere felt like an ocean of physical pressure, and breathing was an exercise. Umbrellas sat idle in our suitcases back at the hostel – everyone’s suitcase but Cheeks’, who was toting all of his luggage along for the ride. The water crept. Slowly our heads were driven downward with deliberate force, and our steps became mechanical, independent of any conscious will. Several times I slipped on slick street tile, and I don’t exaggerate when I say I almost died. Our journey wound through streets we assumed correct, stopped at a diner whose ceiling collapsed under the rainwater’s weight. A chill set in, and we shivered. Setting off again, I quipped that we ought to be on the lookout for pairs of animals and a huge wooden boat. Nobody could even nod in reply. The seconds ticked like hours as the inches of water became feet. Towards the end our shoes were swallowed, and as we stumbled into our hostel finally you could track our progress by the puddles that collected in our wake. We didn’t sleep for hours afterward, and we barely said a word.

There are countless other spectacles: the dolphin show, the beaches, the lobby conversations with hostel travelers and the frantic airport scramble. Not to mention the tournament itself. I’m fresh off the airplane and most of it hasn’t hit me yet. Having just re-read the last four or so pages of text I’m well aware that a lot of it barely makes sense – and this is from someone who experienced these things in detail and ought to know where the thought process is heading. My point, though, ultimately, is that the Magic experience is something entirely unique unto itself. To view the game as just a game and the tournament itself as a simple sequence of matches is to miss the point. Each trip of mine – the ones I’ve written about, and the ones I haven’t – has changed me fundamentally as a person in ways I can only begin to fathom. I marvel everyday at how blessed, to misuse a word, I am to have these friends from all around the globe, these opportunities to live, if only moment by moment, like a carefree millionaire.

Stop, sit. Be thankful we’ve got this game. There’s nothing else like it.