Four days of Magic awesomeness have been and gone, and while GenCon in Indianapolis was a great experience, the saying has it that home is where the heart is, and wherever I travel with Magic, Great Britain Nationals will always be an important part of my Magic year. As I spent four days up close and personal with all the fun and laughter, the old friends and the new, and the winning and the losing, it struck me that Magic has something going for it that almost no other game I’ve ever encountered has.
Put simply, people Care about Magic. They ‘like’ Bridge. They ‘like the mental stimulation’ of Chess. They ‘enjoy’ Trivial Pursuit. They ‘have fun’ with Monopoly. Of course, there are fanatics for every game, and some people who would be close to spontaneous combustion over a game of tiddlywinks, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
To be clear, I don’t want to confuse Caring with Competition. Yes, the way that many players manifest their Caring about the game is in their will to win, but the last four days have shown me very clearly that Caring about Magic is about a lot more than the best of three. So, here’s the tale of four glorious days and nights, featuring a lot of people who Care.
Caring about Being Left Out
If memory serves, I’ve never played in a Last Chance Qualifier for anything, but I do have experience of wanting to play in Nationals, going to a bunch of regional qualifiers, and not making it in. It’s like being a homeless person on Christmas Day, your nose pressed against the glass like something out of Dickens, as you rub the condensation of your breath off the window in time to see the first Baneslayer of the round hit the battlefield. Miserable.
And so dozens and dozens of players wear their heart on their sleeve, and try to become one of ten people to reach the start line on Friday. Seventy of them won’t make it, and they’ll be disappointed. Some of them will be devastated. But they play anyway, because they Care.
Caring about Seizing the Opportunity
When 2005 Champion Richard Moore accepted a job offer to work in the Netherlands Antilles, he knew that Pro Tour Qualifiers would be hard to come by. As in: impossible. The Caribbean is a wonderful place to work, but it isn’t exactly a hotbed of Magic when it comes to the fabled Blue Envelopes that whisk people around the world to the Pro Tour. And so, when Moore found himself back in the UK for a short break from work, it wasn’t as if he could go to the next seven PTQs for Pro Tour One of 2011.
Instead, this was it. Thursday at GB Nats. So he won, in part because he Cared more than those for whom this was just the first of many PTQs.
Caring about the DCI
It’s easy to complain about the DCI, and specifically the public face of that body, the Judge Community. As players, we want to play a game unmolested by a guy or girl in a black shirt telling us what we can and can’t do. So, a few observations:
More than twenty judges gave up two days of their lives for no purpose other than to learn from better judges how to deliver a good service to players, and maintain the integrity of the game.
At a typical Grand Prix, a judge will work for something in the region of sixteen hours on each of the two days. They will get some souvenir foils, sure. And probably some product. Do they do it for the ‘money’? Only if you think McDonald’s represents a great wage.
Most players in my experience have holes in their understanding of the rules. Most players in my experience make mistakes every round of every tournament, and plenty make mistakes almost every turn of every game. When a judge makes a mistake, players tell their friends about it for years. Judging is a relentlessly unforgiving task.
So why judge? Because Magic is a phenomenal game, and a game that’s better when people don’t get to cheat. Judges judge because they Care.
Caring about the Translating Power of Babelfish
In the first of three Game Shows — yes, you read that right, there was a Game Show scheduled each of the three main nights — the most popular round was something a little bit different. All of these cards were translated from the original Japanese language Top 8 decklists from Grand Prix: Kitakyuushu:
Reliance the Millet Hatchet which Can be Put
Disgusting Last Moment
Groan House of Takutaku
Large Body Conversion
The Earth Centipede of the Sheet Metal Armor
Thing is, I knew this was going to be a winner, as this is just the sort of nonsense that people Care about. Which means that right now, some of you are genuinely trying to work out what card ‘Reliance the Millet Hatchet Which Can Be Put’ might be. Answers later.
Caring about Pick Orders
One of the smash hits of the weekend was the series of M11 Rotisserie drafts. Take eight players, every single card from M11, and watch them go. What I loved about this event was watching it evolve over the course of the weekend. It was being actively debated in every corner of the building. Where should Platinum Angel go? Was it good to keep your colors open as long as possible? Every first pick seemed to be Grave Titan, but how did that work out? Was there room for curve? How top-heavy is a format that by definition features every Mythic and every Rare?
Passions ran high throughout the four days, and there were times when a rotisserie draft had more spectators than the main event. Because, clearly, there’s nothing more important in life than working out whether Garruk Wildspeaker should go before or after Jace Beleren. Because we Care.
Caring about Mirrodin and IPA
Many events run Historic Sealed events. The organizer chooses a format, and players get to take a walk through the Old Days. Jason Howlett, the operator of The Games Club, host for the weekend, and T.O. extraordinaire, doesn’t do things by halves. On Friday, it was Mirrodin and Invasion Blocks. Saturday was all about Ravnica and Odyssey. Sunday, Time Spiral and Onslaught. Now that’s an incredible sweep of history. In fact, if Limited’s your thing, I venture to suggest that you could have an amazing time doing nothing other than these events. Judging by the earnest discussions about mana ratios in Ravnica, the power of the Time Shifted cards in Time Spiral, the thrill of Morph, or the abomination that is Skullclamp, it’s clear that, years on, people still Care about these historic formats.
Caring about Being Poor
There are some formats that I honestly assume nobody has ever played, ever. See, I believe that the number of British people who sent Saddam Hussein a Christmas card in 2009 is precisely zero. Not approximately, but actually, zero. I hold similar views for the number of people who have ever played Pauper. Only Commons and Uncommons? Please. Shows what I know. Dozens apparently Care about that, too.
Caring about The Best Land Ever
The middle game show of the event was based on ‘Family Fortunes’. Our host, Tim Willoughby, is a statistician and market researcher by trade, so ‘we asked a hundred Magic players’ was right up his street. Thing is, surveys are notoriously hard to get people to fill in, and I was frankly expecting the ‘60% said Lightning Bolt’ to be made up of three people.
Wrong again. Tim got almost two hundred replies to his survey, and most of those surveys went out to the Great and the Good of the Magic world. Nobody was getting paid for their time, there was no ego involved — the answers were all anonymous. Simply, those two hundred people thought there was something awesome about a Magic game show, and wanted to help. Oh, and because few Magic players can resist a question like, ‘Name a powerful land.’ For your information, aside from the clever answers like ‘America’, the number one land turned out to be Tolarian Academy. I share this, because I know you Care. You strange people.
Caring about the Pro Tour
When it was announced that four PTQs would be running across the four days, eyes lit up across the Channel. A Gallic crowd crossed the sea in pursuit of MTG glory, and did rather well. After three PTQs, they’d taken up twelve of the twenty-four top 8 berths, and taken two wins. Taking days off work, spending hundreds of Euros on flights, accommodation, food, entry fees… they deserved their success, because, beyond all doubt, they showed that they really Care.
Caring about Christopher Lambert
Fifteen Card Highlander Standard is a format only a true deckbuilder could love. I guess there must be lots of true deckbuilders then, as a devoted few attempted to work out whether any cards should be Banned. A panel of Wise Men ended up with Tome Scour, Hedron Crab, and Elixir Of Immortality on the not-wanted list, leaving such hits as Leyline of Sanctity and Leyline of the Void still on the books. Just as well, as decks were starting to emerge that had Howling Mine, Elixir of Immortality, Relic of Progenitus to gradually thin the fifteen card library, and Lightning Bolt as a kill mechanism. When every turn brings you five life, and dealing three damage, for as long as it takes, that’s a crazy format. People were going to spend half their Sunday playing this, because they Care.
Caring about The Top 8
While all this was going on, of course, there was the small matter of the Nationals themselves. When the announcement of the Top 8 came, it wasn’t hard to spot people who Cared:
Andy Morrison made it to his first Top 8. You’d have to be blind not to see how much this passionate Scot Cares about the game. You know when you’re so excited you can’t stand still? Morrison, once he’d sewn up a Top 8 berth.
Dan Gardner was the defending champion. He’d finished on 30 points, 10-4, knowing that one or two on that mark might make it in, and that many would not. Still young, Gardner spends a good deal of time affecting indifference, but the fist-pump as I announced him in seventh told you he Cared, and how.
James Cleak isn’t someone you probably know, and isn’t someone I do either. The roof was proverbially raised when his name was announced. Most of us will never make a Nationals Top 8. Plenty of us struggle to make Top 8 of FNM. To his many supporters, this was a chance to Care vicariously, and they’d lived and died with him every round. This was their victory as much as his. Great stuff.
Stuart Wright finished ninth. He simply shrugged. He’s been around enough tops of enough standings at enough tournaments to know the writing was on the wall. Two weeks earlier, though, I’d seen what it meant to him when he wasn’t ninth, but in the Top 8, of the World of Warcraft World Championship at GenCon. It isn’t always easy to see, but he Cares too.
Jonathan Randle, the 2008 National Champion, and one of my most sincere interviewees of all time. A few rounds before he made Top 8 in 2008, Randle talked about what it would mean to him to represent his country at Worlds. It wasn’t about personal glory or success, but being the flagbearer for a nation. Caring, with a global perspective.
And finally, Tom Reeve. This is one of the most grounded, civilized, urbane human beings you could wish to meet. He began 0-2, but recovered to sit on 30 points with one round to go. He got paired down, lost, and finished outside the Top 8, due to those early losses destroying his tiebreaks. Every year, someone pays The Price for Caring. This year, that man was Tom Reeve. He knows Magic isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. He knows that to play for Top 8 was quite the thrill ride. He knows that strange stuff happens when all the top players have already faced each other, and that someone has to get paired down. He knows that Iraq, and Afghanistan, and child poverty, all matter more than Magic. And yet, that last round loss was akin to bereavement. Caring, for all the world to see.
Caring about Sixteen Answers
The final game show of the week was ‘Scrubout,’ based on a little-watched Bob Monkhouse effort from the 1980s. The gist involves a single question, and a video wall of sixteen answers to that question. Eleven are correct, five are wrong. The first right answer got an M11 booster, the second was worth two, and so on. Get one to eleven right in sequence, you won almost two boxes of M11. Not bad for a Saturday night.
There’s a catch, of course. As soon as you get an answer wrong, all your boosters are lost. You have to guess once on your turn, but can then pass the turn, and hope to see your opponents hit all the wipeouts. A sample question for you, a round entitled Top of the Pops:
M10 — Angel’s Mercy
Zendikar — Armament Master
Rise of the Eldrazi — Affa Guard Hound
Shards of Alara — Akrasan Squire
Alara Reborn — Ardent Plea
Lorwyn — Arbiter of Knollridge
Morningtide — Ballyrush Banneret
Time Spiral — Amrou Seekers
Planar Chaos — Aven Riftwatcher
Ravnica — Auratouched Mage
Champions of Kamigawa — Blessed Breath
Betrayers of Kamigawa — Day of Destiny
Darksteel — Auriok Glaivemaster
Onslaught — Akroma’s Vengeance
Invasion — Alabaster Leech
Urza’s Saga — Absolute Grace
Eleven of these have a Collector Number of 1. Five do not. How many of the eleven can you spot? Answers later.
Caring about the Chat
Late Saturday night, I went to get a bite to eat, and found a local pizza shop packed with a squad of Magic players who were all staying together for the week. As we ate, we chatted about anything and everything Magical — the Invitational, Vintage, Banned and Restricted Lists, how they’d all been doing, plans for Sunday… This is the real Nationals experience, knowing months ahead of time that this is where you want to be, hoping that one of you might have had a good run in the main event, or the Legacy, or the Rotisserie. It was a great end to Saturday, and I think them for it.
Caring about Old Friends
It’s a sign of how long Magic has been around that one of the most-anticipated events of the weekend was an event with an age restriction. In the Veterans Championship, you had to be at least forty years old to take part. While most of them have been overtaken by the Magic Online generation — it’s hard to be world-class when you have a full-time job, a wife, and four kids — this battle-scarred collective sat down to tussle their way through multiple formats and showed, just like players half their age, when it comes to playing, they still Care.
Caring about Chiba
The final day of Nationals is a brutal affair. Win your quarter final, you go to Worlds. Lose, you get a bunch of M11 boosters. Scotland’s Joe Jackson was first man through, beating James Foster to keep alive the prospect of a Scottish title holder. Reigning Champion Dan Gardner booked his place by vanquishing the other Scot, Andy Morrison. 2008 Champion Jonathan Randle ground his way past James Cleak, and Richard Bland had a few close calls against Eduardo Sajgalik. With respect to all four losing quarter finalists, you could powerfully argue that the best four players had made it through. Smiles of relief, frowns of dismay, Caring about Chiba was on full display.
Caring about a Title
Joe Jackson faced Richard Bland in the final, a match that was surprisingly one-sided. It wasn’t just the Scots that went nuts when Jackson was announced as the winner. He made the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Brighton last year, and, at twenty nine, has plenty of experience of real life that gave him perspective when it was needed, when others might have derailed under the pressure. He’ll be a Great British champion, but it’s being a Scottish champion that makes this one so special.
Caring about the Team
In the last match of the whole main event, the previous two National Champions went toe-to-toe for the right to be the third member of the GB team at Worlds. Both will travel to Chiba, both will play, but only one could be on the Team. Did they Care? It was like two heavyweights, pounding each other to the brink of extinction, with the other just getting off the ropes in time. Clearly shattered, Gardner clung on by his fingernails to take Randle all the way, and stood teetering moments from death in the decider, before Jace, the Mind Sculptor dug him out of a hole for the final time. Even the last duel alone lasted 40 minutes, more than six hours after the Top 8 began. Great Magic.
Caring about Public Events
If you’ve ever wondered whether these major Magic events are worth going to if you aren’t part of the Main Event, I want you to do me a favor and click on this link to the complete list of Public Events put together by Jason Howlett at The Games Club.
Speaking to Jason earlier in the week was like listening to Santa the week before Christmas. He couldn’t wait for everyone to turn up and enjoy the party that he’d been planning for them for months on end. One day, I’ll probably go to a Nationals festival as a regular player, and if The Games Club are running it, I doubt I’ll try to qualify for the main event. I count at least twenty events I’d want to play in. Arguably the most incredible range of formats, styles, tastes, seriousness, and all round fun-ness, that the game has ever seen. Tournament Organizers of the world, the bar has been set…
Caring about Getting The Answers
Angel’s Mercy is number 2, Ajani Goldmane is number 1. Affa Guard Hound is number 14, All is Dust is number 1. (All the Eldrazi came first). Arbiter of Knollridge is number 2, Ajani Goldmane (again) is number 1. Amrou Seekers is number 2, Amrou Scout is number 1. Akroma’s Vengeance is number 2, Akroma’s Blessing is number 1.
Caring about Reading
Apparently, you do. And, as ever, I thank you for it. What a Game. What a week.