Confessions Of A Dredge-Hater
I have made quite a reputation for myself as an outspoken individual who often criticizes different elements of competitive Magic, decks, and restricted/banned lists. For many of you the name Brian DeMars may immediately evoke an association to that guy who hates Dredge or that guy who wants lots of cards banned or restricted in Eternal—which is fair since I play in a ton of tournaments and have been outspoken about a wide number of topics.
Yet it seems possible to me that perhaps I have been quick to throw my hat into the ring about the things I don’t like but don’t often take the time to express my great appreciation of Magic: The Gathering and all of the things the game gets so right.
In today’s article I will be giving praise where praise is due and recounting some of my absolute favorite memories about the game. So thank you, Magic: The Gathering, for a lifetime of great memories, friends, and opportunities.
When I Was A Young Mage Experiencing Magic For The First Time
I became hooked on Magic from the very first time I laid eyes on my cousin’s small collection of cards. Twelve-year-old me saw Grizzly Bears, Hill Giant, and Craw Wurm and instantaneously knew "this is what I have been waiting for!"
"I would have collected these cards for the art and flavor text alone! The game was just a very pleasant bonus!"
As a youngster I was the kind of kid who was consumed with burning curiosity for all things science fiction and fantasy. Although I didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons, I routinely checked out the Monster Manuel from the local library just to look at the pictures and read the descriptions of the fantastic creatures.
I also loved to compete at all kinds of sports and games. Most of my summer vacations were spent shooting hoops or playing street hockey in the afternoon and gaming Street Fighter II Turbo or Hero Quest with my friends late into the night.
Magic satisfied many elements of my personality at once since it allowed me to indulge my imagination with a vivid fantasy world while also offering a competitive strategy game I could play against my friends. The real hook, line, and sinker was that the more cards I collected, the deeper I was immersed in the fantasy world and the more I wanted to play.
Keep in mind that back then the Internet wasn’t the omnipresent force that it is today and there were not thousands of strategy articles about the game available at the click of a mouse. If one wanted to find new cards to add to their deck, the only solution was to buy more booster packs!
What could a youngster like me do besides get hooked?
The first packs of Magic that my friends and I bought were from Unlimited. I only know this because I was eventually able to discern that some of my cards were darker than others and when I acquired my first copy of Scrye magazine I noticed that some of my cards (Sinkhole, Berserk, and Invisibility) were left out of Revised.
At first I mostly played with my cousin, my little brother, a few friends, and a couple of their dads. Those early days were crazy because nobody really knew anything about how to build a good deck and our grasp of the rules of the game was, to put it kindly, a little loose.
There was a lot of improvisation interjected into our understanding and implementation of the rules.
One weekend while on vacation up north my brother, cousin and I were involved in a large trade that saw a number of our favorite cards change hands. Two of the big deal-maker cards in the trade were my brother’s Royal Assassin going to my cousin and my cousin’s Wall of Swords going to my brother.
At the time none of us realized that Wall of Swords (as a wall) wasn’t able to attack, which made it much, much worse in reality than we thought it was. We also didn’t know that Royal Assassin was a valuable rare and Wall of Swords merely a junk uncommon. We didn’t even know that the cards had different rarities in those days.
Obviously, once we quickly figured out that Wall of Swords couldn’t attack, my brother was pretty justifiably upset. My cousin insisted that a trade is a trade and that the deal could not be undone; however, we decided to fix the trade after the fact by making an amendment to the rules of the game that my brother’s Wall of Swords could attack as though it was not a wall when he played against us.
Dancing Scimitar is a flying sword that can attack, so why shouldn’t Wall of Swords, a bunch of flying swords, also be able to attack?
Interestingly enough, I was playing Danger Room with my brother a while back, and he sent Wall of Swords into the red zone and said, "A trade’s a trade . . . "
"Reaping the dividends twenty years later."
After we had all been playing for a couple of months we learned that there was a comic shop that sold not only booster packs of Magic cards but also individual Magic singles. With all of my saved up allowance and lawn-cutting money tucked away in my Legend of Zelda wallet, my dad drove my brother and I 45 minutes across town so we could take a look.
Wait, they come in black border?
The first Magic singles that I ever bought:
"I used to choose the cards I played with based on how cool I thought the art was. Clearly, these two needed to be in my black deck!"
Two dollars each.
Not long after I bought my first piece of Power Nine, Mox Emerald, for 30 dollars to play in my R/G Beatdown deck featuring one of my favorite cards of all time:
"Your firearms are useless against them!"
My inner geek knew no bounds. When I was in Virginia Beach, there were a bunch of airbrush T-shirt shops that did custom shirts. I bought a light blue T-shirt and had the airbrush artist paint Killer Bees on it.
At my first-ever Magic tournament, the big hype was for the Scrye Prerelease insert cards for the upcoming Ice Age set, Scaled Wurm and Chub Toad, both of which were trading at $10 and were in extremely high demand.
I (obviously wearing my Killer Bees T-shirt and playing my R/G deck) won $20 in store credit and used it to upgrade all four of my Revised Taigas to Beta! My cousin won $30 store credit and bought four packs of Legends. Those were the days.
1995 Killer Bees by Brian DeMars
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Ruby
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Vault
4 Strip Mine
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Kird Ape
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Blood Lust
1 Blood Moon
4 Killer Bees
2 Shivan Dragon
4 Red Elemental Blast
4 Stone Rain
Yes, thirteen-year-old me played a Killer Bees deck wearing a Killer Bees T-shirt back in the day. Play the deck, wear the shirt, live the dream . . .
So that was my first tournament ever. Killing my opponents with Bees. Circle of Protection: Red? BZZZZZZ!
Another thing that I really appreciated about Magic cards that I believe really helped to shape the rest of my life was that the early edition cards featured a lot of flavor text from classical literature. I was already a pretty avid and advanced reader at a young age (I was reading Michael Crichton and Stephen King when I was nine years old), but I remember being really intrigued by the excerpts on my cards from authors like Longfellow, E.A. Poe, and S.T. Coleridge.
I started checking out the books that were being referenced on my Magic cards from my local library when I was in middle school and became very interested in many of those authors. That experience alone is probably the biggest reason why I decided to study literature in college and why classical literature remains a very strong passion for me to this day.
Thank you, Magic cards, for introducing me to many of the greats as a youngster!
I love the fact that in Magic everybody starts at the bottom of the barrel and has to work their way up in order to gain experience and get better at the game. If I ever get around to inventing a time machine or get a chance to use one, perhaps I’ll go back in time and watch young Luis Scott-Vargas cast Ironwood Treefolk or Fork a Fireball.
Everybody starts at the beginning, and in the beginning the game is all about having fun. Sometimes in the heat of competition of tournaments it is easy to forget that fact, but ultimately every single person playing in a 2000-player Grand Prix is there because somebody at some point in their life showed them how to have fun.
When It Was Called Type 1
Magic cards have introduced me to many of my lifelong friends and have taken me around the world, allowing me to meet hundreds of individuals and experience thousands of things that I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to.
I took a break for a couple of years when I was in high school because my schedule ended up becoming overwhelmingly busy between playing hockey, singing and playing guitar in a band, school, and trying to have a girlfriend.
I sold all of my cards to a friend during my senior year of high school (to get the cash to by a shiny new Fender Telecaster) and hadn’t really thought about Killer Bees, Mana Drains, or Moxen for a long time. (Ironically, I ended up selling the Telecaster to buy Magic cards nearly a decade later, the circle of Magic that many of us are pretty familiar with.)
Then an interesting thing happened to me during my first semester at U of M. I was taking a course in world history, and the professor brought up the Library of Alexandria . . .
I ended up writing a little song about it to play with my band at the time that made an analogy between the Romans fleeing the Empire and my then girlfriend moving away to college.
Things have slowed since the fall of Rome,
You went out east, I stayed back home.
You’re a Byzantine sell-out queen
I can hardly believe what I am seein’
I bet you think that you know it all
You with your Library of Alexandria.
You left me for bureaucracy,
In this land of savage barbarity
You turned your back, and walked away
There were more important documents to be saved.
That lecture, aside from inspiring this very sick jam with decidedly lame lyrics, eventually rekindled my curiosity to see what was going on in the world of Magic that I had left behind a few years ago. My brother and I each bought some starter decks and booster packs and started jamming them against each other—which quickly escalated to use playing Type 1 again.
One of the aspects I miss about being a more casual Magic player are the arms wars that take place in between battles at the kitchen table.
"You bought dual lands? Well, I’m going to buy Wastelands!"
"You bought four Swords to Plowshares? Check this card out; it’s called Morphling and GG."
My brother figured out Yawgmoth’s Will first. He went up to the card store without me one day, talked to the clerk about cards that he could play in his B/R Disruption deck, came home with Will, and promptly crushed me a million games in a row! After getting absolutely demolished by Yawgmoth’s Will for an entire evening, I have never been more anxious to go to a card store and spend money on singles in my entire life.
From there I got into tuning and building better Vintage decks. I won my very first official Vintage tournament that I ever played in at a small card shop in Wyondotte, Michigan. I was on a five-color Keeper deck (one of my favorite decks of all time), and the other seven decks in the Top 8 were all Gush-a-Tog!
All bad matchups? No problem.
That was also the first of many Moxen I would win in my lifetime as a Vintage ringer.
Odyssey had just been released.
2001 Keeper by Brian DeMars
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
2 Mana Leak
1 Merchant Scroll
1 Mystical Tutor
1 The Abyss
1 Gorilla Shaman
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Skeletal Scrying
3 Swords to Plowshares
1 Fact or Fiction
1 Mind Twist
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Yawgmoth’s Will
4 Mana Drain
4 Force of Will
2 Mishra’s Factory
1 Strip Mine
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Vault
3 Underground Sea
2 Volcanic Island
2 City of Brass
3 Red Elemental Blast
1 Dwarven Miner
1 Swords to Plowshares
2 Blue Elemental Blast
2 Diabolic Edict
2 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Skeletal Scrying
I won the last game of the finals against a guy who had been undefeated in games in the tournament; I caught him red-handed drawing an extra card on the first turn of the game, and he got disqualified. I also met my good friend Mark Biller for the first time ever at this tournament, but only in passing—we didn’t really start hanging out for another year or so after this tournament.
However, it is kind of funny that he remembered me winning the tournament because on my first turn of the game on the draw I suspiciously asked my opponent how many cards he had in his hand after he had played a land and passed.
"How many cards do you have in hand?"
That line still gets repeated from time to time. A strange way to win one’s first tournament indeed, but a win is a win. Count it.
Magic back in the day truly was the Wild West; all sorts of crazy stuff used to happen, much more so than nowadays. Things are certainly different and much better organized in the here and now, but sometimes I miss the strangeness.
There was this guy named Dan who used to play Vintage at a local card shop where my friends and I played Vintage every Monday night. Every week there would be the epic showdown between Dan and my friend, a local ringer named Josh Franklin. Dan had a temper, and I wouldn’t hesitate to describe him as an individual with "anger issues." Josh was a cocky and somewhat obnoxious to play against back then, and it didn’t help matters that Josh and his Psychatog deck were always victorious against Dan and his brews.
One night the stuff hit the fan. Dan thought he was going to win, and Josh came out of nowhere and narrowly escaped a Mishra’s Workshop soft lock that Dan had gotten rolling. A loud bellow erupted from Dan’s lungs, and a Mountain Dew bottle sailed within an inch of Josh’s head. It was the Dew bottle heard ’round the D.
Josh was training to be an ultimate fighter at the time, and Dan was a retired marine. I was worried that somebody was going to die right there in front of me on the game-store floor.
Josh’s response: "Looks like I win again, Dan." Then he picked up his cards and the match slip and walked away.
The Tog calmly and casually claimed another victim.
I never tire of the way the game creates a never-ending string of interesting stories and experiences that really do remain with us as individuals for our entire lifetimes. Not only that but playing the game and battling against people from all over our respective states and countries creates interesting rivalries and friendships.
Every single one of the people I have felt was a major rival of mine from playing Magic over the years has ultimately become a very good friend. Especially from Vintage back in the day where the scene was a little bit smaller and one really got to know the other players they were playing against tournament after tournament.
Back in the day I competed fiercely with players like Mark Biller, Steven Menendien, and Paul Mastriano to win tournaments and make Top 8s. I used to contemplate specifically what these specific players might be playing at the next tournament and compensate for them in the design and tuning of my decks!
There is a great quote that somebody said about Vintage back in the Waterbury days that I’m sure I will misquote here, but the gist of it is:
"Vintage is the only format where you can spend a whole week scheming to beat your hated archrivals and then go out to dinner with them and have a blast after the tournament is over."
The Vintage days truly were one of the biggest highlights of my time playing Magic cards, and I really am hoping that the advent of the release of Vintage Masters on Magic Online coupled with all of the good publicity Vintage got from last weekend’s Vintage Championship will kick start lots of Vintage action across the United States and abroad.
My hope is that there might once again be a Vintage circuit that players can travel around and play in. At the very least I look forward to being able to cast Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall on Magic Online against opponents from all over the world sometime in the near future.
It is completely mind-blowing to me how much Magic has grown over the years. It would have been completely unfathomable to me back as a beginner that the game would eventually have millions of players, be played online, and be able to not only sustain itself but flourish. It seems completely reasonable that the Magic brand will outlive all of us and that people will still be fascinated with Black Lotus and Jace, the Mind Sculptor a hundred years from now.
The Here & Now
I have been fortunate enough to have had some success on the tournament scene and have gotten to play in ten Pro Tours. Maybe someday a hundred years from now when PTQs have 10,000 players fighting for a spot on the PT that will seem like some gigantic accomplishment to one of my descendants.
Magic has given me the opportunity to travel all across the United States and even to Europe a few times to compete, and I am really grateful for those experiences. High-level play, especially Pro Tours, are a challenge that I have found completely different from anything else I have ever encountered during my time playing Magic.
They are really hard and really challenging.
The level of competition is extremely high, and the space for error is virtually nonexistent. I have always liked to challenge myself and have always enjoyed the opportunity to play against the best players in the world.
I won a Grand Prix on the back of Elixir of Immortality!
"I played the best Elixir of Immortality that has ever been played."
It is kind of cool to think that the way the stars aligned that Elixir of Immortality is the card that I had my best ever finish with. Magic is such a cool game that way; we as players play hundreds, maybe thousands of different decks and cards during our time in the game, but sometimes our biggest successes come from the most unexpected sources.
My biggest money finish of all time was tenth place at the first-ever Legacy Grand Prix in Philadelphia, where the fierce four of Kavu Predator helped me trample to many, many victories.
"Combo metagame? Whatever, playing Kavu."
After twenty-odd years of playing Magic, it was ultimately Elixir of Immortality and Kavu Predator that really came through for me. Magic truly is an unpredictable and exciting game!
Lately I have been exploring new territory when it comes to playing Magic. In twenty years I have been a bright-eyed twelve year old who didn’t know walls couldn’t attack and a Grand Prix Champion and basically everything in between. However, one thing that I am really enjoying about Magic these days is the ability to teach other players how to play and appreciate the game in the way that I have learned to over the years.
I run a playtesting and learn-to-play group at my local game store, RIW Hobbies, in Michigan on Wednesday nights where I help other players try to improve their individual games so that they can try to accomplish their own goals in Magic. It’s really fun for me to help other players improve their game and to actually get to see them improve and get better week after week.
I love Magic cards because it has been twenty years and I’m still not even close to bored of this game and the experiences that it provides me. The depth of the game is only enriched and the complexity heightened as time goes by and more cards are created.
Thank you, Magic, for a lifetime of memories, lucky topdecks, new friends, ridiculous ground stalls, broken combos, bad beats, crazy stories, exciting road trips, unplayable sealed pools that "got there," great stories, flavorful cards, and creating a fantasy world that has been well worth continuing to explore throughout the years.
I would love to hear some of your crazy stories or things about the game that have stuck with you over the years in the comments that are unique and unforgettable.
What a game.
Follow me on Twitter @briandemars1