My Magical Life: My Humble Beginnings

In a break from high strategy, this week’s Moreno Monday chronicles Billy’s formative Magical years. He details his ascension from kitchen table player, to Pro Tour Qualifier attendee, to Pro Tour mainstay, in an evocative and honest style. While not loaded with top tech tips, this is a fine companion article that captures the beauty of our wonderful game.

I’m not sure how to start this column. The problem is I’m not really sure what I’m going to write about. I’ve got one idea, but I’m not sure how much space it’ll actually take up; and, as we all know, more than style, more than substance, word count is paramount. Anyway, there just isn’t much for me to write about; this weekly column is supposed to be about my life as a Magic professional, about my travels and travails, my preparations or lack thereof, but I just haven’t done anything having to do with Magic since I left Grand Prix: Phoenix. The thing that struck me about this lack of material that I’m able to write about professional Magic at all, much less every week. I mean, I’m in Texas taking a vacation from my Magic career. How great a problem is that to have?

From this perspective, especially since I’m in Texas, it seemed like a perfect time to talk about my early days in Magic. Not because I’m so consumed with my greatness as to think the world is hungry for my autobiography; it’s just there are a lot of people and communities to whom I’d like to show my appreciation.

Starting at the beginning:

I discovered Magic between eleven and twelve years ago; I was fourteen. My family was living in Houston, and one day while running errands, my mom picked up a few things for us. One of those purchases was a couple of Unlimited or Revised Starter Decks. I know I could pinpoint what kind of product it was, but I don’t want to waste my time with unimportant details. It would be fun though, if I could remember the name of the store. The only thing I know is that it was somewhere during errands my brothers and I harassed my mom into stopping by a comic book store so she could buy stuff, in the Katy area to the east of Houston.

Of course, I fell in love with the game hard. My youngest brother, Rush (ten then, twenty-one now), was always a little flighty and easily distracted, so even though he thought the game was interesting he couldn’t really plunge into it the way that I was willing to. Bob, who was eleven then, was a fairly interested game player. He was also grooming himself to be a tough, scrappy, brainy athlete… he had posters of Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal, but I think secretly he always wanted to be Eric Snow. He spent a lot of time dueling with me, especially on trips to our grandmother’s trailer house, at least until he found out the game wasn’t considered cool.

We moved to Austin, Texas before the end of that school year. Some of the kids on the block played Magic, which was fortunate, because I wasn’t ready to stop playing yet. Through them, I found Book Source (possibly Book Stop (and I know the addendum waters down the superficial sincerity of my name dropping, but I wanna make sure I cover my bases)), a used book and comic book store in the Lake Creek Shopping Center. I spent so much time at that store over the summer before high school. I got to know the owners. I learned their habits, their weaknesses. And I stole a few packs when their backs were turned. I don’t remember much about the actual game play back then; I know there was some really obnoxious older kid who played a lot of counterspells (I wonder if it’s that kind of childhood experience that makes a person fall in love with instant speed burn); I remember bashing my highly competitive and poorly tempered brother a few too many times (it’s possible if I let him win more, he would’ve stayed with it); and, I remember one of my first rap lyrics featuring the Throne of Bone.

Unfortunately, some time during my freshman year, the store closed down and Magic was lost to me forever… almost. It wasn’t until a few years later, when Rush needed money for a bunch of used CDs, that my original collection was lost to me forever.

Magic is like genital herpes. It sticks with you, even when the symptoms aren’t visibly apparent. As the years passed and I graduated high school and dropped out of college, I ran into Magic occasionally. There was the Microprose game, which I’d always look at in Electronic Boutique, though I’ve never actually played it. I’d run into packs in random places. At some point I purchased some Invasion and Prophecy packs, and from that limited knowledge of the card pool, I set about trying to break the format. Turbo Thresher Beast was the answer to all of my questions. It’s clear though, since the beginning I’ve been passionate about deckbuilding.

I went through a rocky period where I broke up with my girlfriend-at-the-time (I was talking about her tangentially last night and got in trouble because I didn’t call her my ex-girlfriend, even though I was talking about a time when she was actually with me… my mom though I was being unnecessarily insensitive to Amber), I lost my scholarship to the University of Texas, I dropped out of school, and I moved back home with my parents who had recently moved from Austin to Bad-ass-strop, a small town not to far from Austin with not a whole lot going on. I got a job at a sports bar and suddenly had more expendable income than ever before. Of course, I found Magic Online at this time. Man, I blew a lot of money on MTGO that summer. Maybe $1,000. That’s what mono-Green Rites of Spring costs to put together. I invested a whole G in putting together a sub-1500 record. Insane.

Somewhere in here, starving for Magical knowledge and power, I discovered StarCityGames.com. It was such a huge part of my early and pretty unimpressive development, because reading is no replacement for playing. Another writer – or maybe a forum poster – mentioned it the other day, and it really is true. I miss the pick order articles that used to be such a big part of Limited strategy.

After I finished perfecting Spring Fling, I decided it was time to take my baby out into the world. A short Google search later, and I was heading to Pat’s Beanie Babies and More (later changed to Pat’s Games) for my first ever Friday Night Magic. Oh, the warm embrace of a welcoming community filled with people who understand what you want from life. If there was ever any possibility that I was going to get away from the game, it was obliterated by an avalanche of formative experiences, fumbled OTJ drafts, overpriced pizza slices, nicknames earned and learned, rides home, "see you next weeks," and a cast of characters I’ve remained friends with ever since.

Pat was our patron saint in a time before we found Magical atheism (before we started putting together team drafts at somebodies house); she was a little loopy, but always friendly and generous… not exactly concerned with turning a buck. Pat had a strong maternal instinct (the store even had a lounging room just for her kids so they could spend time with her after school), and she’s always catered to the younger kids. This has caused some tension at times, which I’ll mention later, but I’d like to point out that her motherly attention has paid dividends; children from her store had an extremely strong showing at the JSS Championships this year, taking home at least one age group title.

At Pat’s I met Winston Lee, Jeffrey Meyerson, Tim Tschumy, Aaron Tobey and his little brother P-Tobey, Debbie Cohen, Jim Mason, and Austin Hambrick among others. Winston was just a little bit older than me, a Wisconsin native with all the accent and love of cheese and beer that implies. Since then he’s moved on to California where he’s going to grad school, and I haven’t talked to him much lately. The last time I did, he gave me an easy, delicious recipe for Chinese-style spare ribs.

Winston and Jeff really loved each other. It was touching. Jeff (twelve then, eighteen now), a.k.a. Harry Potter, was the store’s prodigy. Winston was his first role model, so, of course, he annoyed the hell out of him. Winston, as the parental figure, hit Jeff a lot. If they were online or on the phone, Winston would just keep track of how many hits he owed Jeff. Debts were always paid. Jeff just started school at UTSA and I haven’t seen him yet on this trip, but I will soon. It’s been a real pleasure watching Jeff and all the other kids grow up. Jeff’s maturation process has been a funny one though. He’s starting to lighten up now; at least, he’s put some distance between himself and competitive Magic, but for the six years I’ve known him he’s been tortured by losing. He was a cocky child; if you were a spitting image of the best-selling wizard in the world, wouldn’t you be? Always the sensitive-type, he was especially sensitive to losing to people he thought were worse than him. I’ve seen him lay into quite a few "scrubs" and then moan about how miserable Magic made him. Still, Jeff spent more time driving to PTQs with me than any other human. I don’t know how many times he went to sleep in the passenger seat after I asked him to try and help me stay awake after a long day. He was only a little mad at me when I skipped Pro Tour: London after beating him out for the slot, because he didn’t much enjoy his last two Pro Tour experiences. Still, even though I screwed him out of a slot, he’s agreed to be one of my groomsman when I end up getting married.

Aaron will be at Kobe. Tschumy showed a brief spurt of major re-interest in the game after he joined a clan on MTGO that put a lot of effort into breaking Standard. Austin is one of those players who quits playing a million times; currently, I think he’s concentrating on his movie career. Debbie showed up at Grand Prix: Phoenix last week sans her mentor, Jim Mason. Jim and Debbie were one of those odd couples that happen in Magic like nowhere else. Debbie’s seventeen now, so back then she wasn’t even a teenager. Jim took her to all the events, gave her rides home from FNM, generally facilitated her Magic career. And there was nothing unsavory about it all (except that Jim has really soft hands…), but we sure teased them a lot, whether they were around or not. Jim played at our hometown Pro Tour, the Extended event in Houston. He said it was the worst decision he ever made, because he could no longer grind out amateur prize at the PTQ level. Jim has an awesome collection, and I’d like to thank him now for being a major part of the network that let me play in any Constructed events ever. Oh yeah, and there was that time I beat him in the quarters of an Extended PTQ. We were playing the Red Deck Wins mirror, only he had an actual sideboard for the mirror and I didn’t. So while he was bringing in RDW mirror breakers like Fledgling Dragon, I made the conventional choice of bringing in my Ensnaring Bridges and Shattering Pulses so that we would be forced to play a Cursed Scroll endgame and I’d have the advantage there. It got so bad for him that he actually sideboarded in Pulverize for game 3.

I beat Kyle the Sahn-chez in the finals of that PTQ.

After getting my feet wet at Pat’s store, I moved to Brooklyn for a few months, and immediately after getting there I started looking for a store. I knew about Neutral, but I needed something local. I found The Stand. I didn’t have anything else to do then, so I built my schedule around the flow of traffic at the store. The kids got out of school around three or four, so I woke up at two, got some Chinese food and shuffled in. Christine, who owns the store with her boyfriend, Gary, took to me immediately, sitting me down on my second or third night there and interrogating me about my life history. She was a little worried about being too forward, but I answered everything and was grateful for the easy welcome. The older kids at the store, Tristan and Pat, were and still are some of Christine’s best friends. Before the day really started, the four of us would take shopping trips to a handful of dollar stores, to Toys ‘R Us, to the grocery store, whatever.

Christine’s son, Chris Knapp, was pretty much in the same boat I was… kinda directionless and trying to get some footing in our early adulthood. Even though he didn’t play much Magic, he was around the store all the time. Plus he lived a block away from me, so we hung out constantly. Despite not playing much Magic, Chris knew how important it was to me, and he spent weeks helping me tweak my first real deck, a Hunting Grounds/Astral Slide hybrid that I played for months that year (until it failed me at New York’s Regionals).

Then there were the kids. Steve, Roman, Corey, Rolie, Scott, Alex, Sarah (and her older brother, emo Ian), and Dylan. When I left New York, I told Steve he was in charge of the group, making sure no one did anything too stupid. He’s since been lost to World of Warcraft.

I know most of you aren’t from New York City, but it’s weird how differently kids grow up there. There’s something seedy and discomforting about it; I mean, all the posturing and the local vernacular can be funny, as long as you don’t pay too much attention. When you do, you start worrying about the future. Roman and Rolie are the kind of kids you only get from places like New York. I haven’t seen Rolie since I’ve been back to the city, but Roman’s got a lot of potential as long as he doesn’t get caught up in “being too cool” in New York City. Last I heard about Corey, he was fulfilling his lifelong dream of doing a lot of sit-ups and joining some military academy after high school. I’ve stayed the most in touch with Dylan, a.k.a. Bowling Bowl. On a visit to New York a few years ago, I saw him in a high school production of Arsenic and Old Lace. And he was one of the handful of people I called while I was romping through Pro Tour: LA.

Yong and Carmen weren’t around all the time when I was in New York years ago, but over my subsequent visits, and now that I’m living there again, we’ve become really good friends.

Eventually, I moved back to Texas, full of confidence in my developing abilities. Jeff was having none of it and bluntly let me know how awful my Hunting Grounds deck sounded. By this time, Jeff had met the older Austin Magic crowd, guys who were involved with the Austi-Knights, guys like Burt Jones. Burt’s house became the main location of our team drafts and general hanging out. Other members of this group were Jason Krysak, Steven Livingston, (eventually) the infamous Lan D. Ho, Chris Mabry, Andrew Grey, and Sean Reimund, and others. We drafted all the time. We went out to eat. We played basketball. We went to PTQs. Life was good. Burt’s dog was a menace. Through these guys, I made friends from around the state. They were friends with Aaron Rzepka and C.J. Wostal, two players that had been fixtures of the Austin scene forever, and who had gotten their starts at BookSource. To this day, it makes me wonder what would’ve happened if I had gotten involved in tournament Magic almost six years earlier than I did. I was in awe of Brian Hubble, who I knew played on the Tour, and who seemed to dominate any tournament he showed up at. My favorite Hubble memory comes from my first PTQ. He ended up winning that event with Battle of Wits. After he secured the slot, he immediately called his mom and said, "Hey, I’m quitting my job. I’m back on the Tour." It all seemed so thrilling.

Another Austin player I spent a lot of time with was Jeremy Jackson. I first met J-Jack at Pat’s, but I’m not sure when we really started hanging out. He was another significant part of my card network. There was one incident, where Jeff, who has had a pretty awkward relationship with Jeremy, asked if I could borrow some cards for him. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember feeling awful for trying to take advantage of a friend like that. Jeremy and I worked it out like men; we’ve always been pretty open with each other. Anyway, be good to your friends; it’s better for everybody involved. Jeremy was my main testing partner for PT: LA. It was his first pro event, but I’m hoping it won’t be his last. Jeremy likes to play big splashy, cool decks like Teen Titans and Domain, and then wonders if his odd deck choices affect his tournament results.

Jason Krysak is one of my two best Magic friends; he’s also gonna be one of my groomsmen soon. We talk a few times a month, and a lot of the times it’s not even about Magic. Jason is the main reason I’m writing this column. We were hanging out the other night, just catching up on friends, where we’re at, reminiscing about old times, and talking about the current scene in Austin. For whatever reasons, there’s a real lack of places to play competitive Magic in my hometown. I’m sure Pat’s is still having events and still nurturing the young players. I know there are still drafts to be had, although a sanctioned one is a bit harder to find. But, as far as I can tell from talking to my friends that are still here, there’s no hub. None of the stores that are essential to fostering a thriving scene, the kind of scene that produces players who can compete at the highest level.

I started thinking about how differently my life would have progressed if, six years ago when I decided I was going to pursue a professional Magic career, there was no way for me to do so. I could never be a casual player; Magic isn’t especially fun for me in that regard. Not un-fun, it just wouldn’t drive me. I’m not gonna pitch ideas about how to put together the kind of store that can build a community; I really don’t have a mature enough understanding of the business of selling cards and running tournaments. I do know that those kind of stores are critical to a healthy community, and that wherever there isn’t one, there needs to be. Also, if you have one of those stores, appreciate it for what it’s worth. It may just be a place where you game, but it can end up meaning a lot more to someone else some day.

Through writing this column, I’ve also come to appreciate something else. Without the communities I’ve been lucky to be a part of, there’s no way I’d have a professional Magic career, and that’s a tangible fact. Even more than that though, I’d be missing six years of friendships that would be irreplaceable. To Pat’s Games and Thor’s Hammer in Austin, to The Stand, King’s Games, and Neutral Grounds, thanks for some of the best years of my life.

Until next week,
Billy Moreno

Bonus Section (feel free to ignore):
I hope all of you strangers don’t mind, but there’ve been a lot of people that were part of My Magical Life and while they may not have fit into the narrative above, I have to show them my respects now (please excuse the list of a bunch of people you don’t know):

Roy Baran (Happy Birthday, sorry I didn’t make it out last night)
Mason Peatross
Fletcher Peatross
Michael Jordan
Brent Kaskel
David Solis
Eddie Solis
Carl Lobato
Paul Sanchez
Mark Hendrickson
Michael Ferry
Taylor Webb
Robert Chou
Andy Leach
Derek Steele
Nathan Zamora