Removed From Game – On The Prerelease Front Line

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The Pre-Release is about cards. The Pre-Release is about players. But it’s about a lot more besides, and Rich Hagon brings you some unique perspectives on the celebration of Magic that sees us hurrying to our local tourney in search of fresh Magical produce. Xylophone, cacophony, and penicillin are just three of the words not appearing in this vibrant article.

Is your glass half full or half empty? Your expectations of the Morningtide Prerelease may give you a clue. To some, the unwrapping of a small set is cause for a gentle shrug, a weary sigh, and an acknowledgment that shortly it will be time to buy yet more cards. For others, it’s a glorious coming out party, with Morningtide’s relationship to Lorwyn as your birthday is to Christmas. You may not get dozens of presents, but the ones you get are going to be really cool.

You’ll know that when it came out, I regarded Lorwyn as a solid set, but not necessarily a spectacular one. In Draft, it’s proved to be tons of fun, with ways to win for almost any combination of colors and/or tribes. Crucially for fun lovers, there’s also been the capacity for any deck to do foolish things, whether it’s Kithkinning people to death, Drowning them in Secrets, Pilfering the Warrens, Summoning the Schools or just running 5 color Smokebraider decks. Now 150 new cards get added to the mix, and the first mini-block of the Magic year is complete. But the Prerelease is about a lot more than just cards. In this article, I’ll be talking to a bunch of different people who approach the Prerelease weekend with their own unique perspective, as we try to build up a snapshot of one of Magic’s big days.


My Mum is well into her 70s, so feels that she may not be the perfect demographic for starting a Magic career. So what does Morningtide mean to her? “What a beautiful word. It’s soft, and enticing, full of the mystery of new possibilities and new opportunities. And you’ll be writing about it for that nice starcity person, won’t you?”

His First Tournament

Rob went to his local game store a couple of months ago ready to learn a new game. He didn’t really mind what, as long as it was a game that plenty of local people played, preferably with some Organised Play. Browsing the magazine rack, he found himself next to a PTQ regular who, evangelical soul that he is, waxed lyrical about MTG. Fast forward to Sunday, and Rob, in his mid-teens, pops his head round the door and tentatively asks, ‘Is this the Magic room?’ Nowadays, with local stores running Friday Night Magic in abundance, there’s a nice gentle learning curve you can climb. A few years ago, Prereleases were absolutely the place to come for your first tournament. Thankfully, Rob is pretty well prepared, although the whole deck registration process is a little bit daunting. What do I do with foil basic land? Do I have to fill in my deck later? Are these the cards I get to play with? Someone’s clearly done their homework, as Rob builds a decent Sealed Deck that follows plenty of the rules laid down by Scott Wills, Noah Weil, Quentin Martin and Co. over on the mothership. He has to wait until round 4 for his first win, but manages another before the end. Has he had a good day? Apparently so. Will he be back? Definitely.

Father and Son

For George Thomas, the Prerelease is a day out, but importantly, it’s a day out with his son Matthew. It takes them the better part of 2 hours to get to the venue, but that isn’t a chore, it’s part of the whole Prerelease experience. Matthew, 11, started playing thanks to a friend at school. Dad, not instinctively a “gamer,” saw the opportunity to share an interest. On the train up to London they pore over the spoiler list, talking about what cards they want to open, and what cards from Lorwyn they still need to complete their respective collections. Yes, they have a collection each, and there’s clearly a friendly rivalry between the two for who can trade for those elusive missing rares. Personally, I think Dad’s at a bit of an advantage: “You give me your Garruk Wildspeaker, son… I’ll give you my Surge Of Thoughtweft and you can watch the football on Saturday night.” No fair. After they’ve both played in their Sealed flight (both 2 wins and 2 losses) Dad watches Son draft triple Morningtide. Then the journey home, and time to swap war stories, and enjoy the feel of all those new cards nestling comfortably in the palm of your hand. Sometimes Magic is about more than Magic, and in this case it’s about a family relationship and some special memories.


You never quite know what the intention is when a new set comes out. Is it meant to be packed to the rafters with Constructed-level Rare spells that are minimal use in Sealed, or is it meant to be non-stop Limited bombs? Of course, there’s always a mixture in every set, so that Timmy, Jonny, and Spike can all be satisfied. But Sealed is a Format that doesn’t always get a lot of love, since it’s often perceived as Draft’s illegitimate cousin. Take Ravnica, for example. At Grand Prix: Nottingham in the Autumn of 2005, almost 4 in 5 decks were running Forests, and most of the successful ones were GBx. This relatively stale and uninteresting format was the price of admission to the excellence of Ravnica Block Draft. 10th Edition Sealed was frankly hideous, but again, that’s not what 10th was designed to do. Time Spiral, on the other, hand was a good Sealed Format, and the Lorwyn PTQ Sealed season seemed both fair and dynamic, about all you can ask. So what of LorMor? Initial signs are good. There’s an inevitable tension about the interaction between race and class across the two sets, and that seems good, as it keeps the power level down to manageable levels. When a card like Oona’s Blackguard meets up with Marsh Flitter, very bad things start to happen to the opponent. When 6/5 flyer for 4 mana Stenchskipper comes into contact with Runed Stalactite, that little Goblin drawback in the textbox doesn’t seem so much of a problem. That it’s also now a 7/6 flyer for 4 mana seems a trifle incidental. The two sets seem to play nicely together, and for the first time in a while I’m seriously contemplating a Release event so that I can do some Sealed. Good job.


For Mike, a professional trader from the UK, it’s one of the busiest days of the year. Often, traders will tell you that a given tournament is a ‘buying’ day or a ‘selling’ day. It’s rarely both. Prereleases are the exception rather than the rule. Here, savvy tournament players are trying to get their hands on the chase cards before the prices spiral completely out of control. Four Murmuring Bosk and four Mutavault? Even on Saturday, that was going to set you back a bunch of cash. And how does Mike find those cards to sell? He buys them, from the many players who have enjoyed their first taste of the new set, and want to recoup some of their outlay on the day. Anytime you have a land like Mutavault that apparently fits into many different decks, you have a powerful trade icon. Mike said that it was the clear winner from the set on day one in terms of popularity, and he was paying top dollar to prise them from the hands of the lucky players who found one lurking in their Sealed pool. Looking ahead, one card Mike was interested in was Idyllic Tutor, the three mana White rare that allows you to search for Enchantments. Mike’s delicious theory? That maybe the Block that starts off in October 2008 and runs through 2009 will be like the Urza’s Block, but instead of being the Artifact Cycle, it will be the Enchantment Cycle. True or not, it’s a great thought, and the kind of outside the box thinking that can lead a trader to make a real killing as new format environments are unveiled. Of course, it can also lead to a trade folder chock-full of rares that nobody wants if you get it wrong (Delusions Of Mediocrity certainly left one trader of my acquaintance with egg on his face). When we talked at 8 o’clock in the evening, Mike had been buying individual cards, Sealed Pools, and even entire collections, whilst simultaneously dealing with requests for everything from sleeves to dice to 7th Edition uncommons to Un-land, for a whopping 12 hours. And still there were customers beating a path to his door. You need cards to be a trader, and you need a good business head to be a trader, and you need to have the nose for a deal to be a trader. It turns out, you need a hell of a lot of stamina too.


“Again? Again? There’s going to be new cards in my house AGAIN? What happened to the last lot you were supposed to be selling? Mm?”


This has got to be the kind of thing that makes R & D cringe. Like a five star restaurateur being asked for fries and a shake, this is the day when the gourmet seasoning of Morningtide gets served up as a triple helping of main course, and you end, unsurprisingly, with indigestion. Nobody in their right mind should go into a small set only Draft and expect good times. Good helpings of new cards, sure. Play experience? Nah. I guess if you approach it the right way you can enjoy seeing what nine of a particular common can do if they all end up in the same deck, and that has a certain comedy value. Once the triple Morningtide blessedly vanishes forever, we’re into the serious business of Lor-Lor-Mor. One of the interesting facets of all-Lorwyn Draft was that many decks were “made” during pack three. This was due to the fact that by that point in the Draft everyone had settled on their choices, and had no use for the heavily Tribal-specific cards that juiced up so many decks. Wizened Cenn is just one of a series of poster boys for this, along with, say, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, which also goes impossibly late in the last pack. With that third pack now replaced, it will be fascinating to see how many players are prepared to head for a dedicated strategy in the hope that the key cards in Morningtide turn up in the quantities they need. With just three weeks to go to the first Pro Tour of 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, and no Morningtide heading for Magic Online in time, the time is ripe for a dedicated group of Pros to test the Format to destruction away from prying eyes and come to Malaysia ready to turn the Limited world upside down.


With Kuala Lumpur coming up next month, and knowing the ferocity of criticism that’s likely to come my way if I screw up, Prerelease weekend is the first and best chance I’ll get to watch people play with the new cards, and for me to try and identify them from six feet away from 5% of the card being shuffled repeatedly by the player I’m meant to be covering. Yes, I know the upper left hand corner of every Lorwyn card. Possibly. Then it’s just a case of memorising 723 creature types, 150 casting costs, 96 activated abilities, 53 triggered abilities, likely Pro ratings for 150 cards in multiple archetypes, some of which are as yet undiscovered. you’re right, complainers… this is a job that any monkey could do effortlessly. Again, possibly.


Wayne England shakes his head and pauses before answering my question. He’s the artist behind almost one hundred Magic cards, most famously the Command cycle from Lorwyn. Eventually he says, “It’s incredible. You spend almost all your time holed up in a tiny studio, alone. You have to rely on your own judgment, knowing or hoping that you have the skills to pull off the card that you want. And then you come to one of these things, and you meet all these incredible people who you’ve never seen before, coming up to you and thanking you for such and such a card that they love, and it’s because of your illustration. That’s really incredible.” England is unique amongst the Magic artists I’ve spoken to in the past couple of years, as he is most definitely a gamer. Wargames, Fantasy Flight games with a billion pieces, card games, Games Workshop, Risk, even Monopoly, England plays them all. And of course, he plays Magic too. As such, he’s uniquely positioned to appreciate being given a Cycle like the Commands. “It’s a tremendous honor.” Rares don’t always guarantee player interest – there have been plenty of dud rares in the game’s history – but England knew that he was being gifted something special with the Commands. As a man who is always looking forward towards the next challenge and the next arty puzzle, he’s basically dissatisfied with almost all his past work. In fact, he can hardly believe that people like his stuff at all. But as a stream of customers come up asking him to sign their Cryptic Command he gives a gentle smile and acknowledges, “Well, yes, I do like that one.”


My 6 year old Elizabeth is progressing nicely towards becoming the Magic Terminator that I have decided will be her future career. Whilst some elements of my hothousing strategy remain under wraps (I can’t allow critical information to fall into enemy Fathers’ hands) I’m happy to reveal that ‘I hit you for three damage’ and ‘destroy your Surly Hound’ are now part of her daily vocabulary. While these phrases haven’t proved especially useful at school, her starter Hermione Granger deck now stands 4-0 lifetime against my Draco Malfoy starter. Yes, I’m weaning her on the Harry Potter TCG. “Daddy, your spells are really mean, but my creatures attack you every turn, and that’s why I win.” That’s my girl. When it comes to the Prerelease, she doesn’t yet know that her eighth birthday present will be to play in her first event. She may, of course, think that she wants a doll, or possibly a boyfriend. She will get neither. She will get a Starter and three boosters, and that’s the end of it. Right now, the Prerelease means more cards to sort, and, as you know, she likes nothing more of an evening than to sort out Magic cards. There was a point before she could play games and sort Magic cards that I seriously contemplated selling her into slavery. Not anymore.

Head Judge

Running a Grand Prix or Pro Tour can be a highly disconcerting experience for a Head Judge, but this day in London comes close in terms of the need for quick thinking, constant vigilance, and adaptability. So hats off to Level 2 Thomas Ralph, who effectively became the boss of a small business on Saturday, as he manoeuvred his substantial human resources around the umpteen tournaments he had to keep track of. Quite an achievement, and the kind of experience that makes you look at a 200 player PTQ and think, “No problem.”

R & D

I’m a bit of a control freak, which is why I consider myself very lucky to be self-employed. I may make mistakes, but at least they’re my mistakes and nobody else’s. When I’ve been working on a major project, like a unique tournament, or premiering one of my musicals, my desire to unveil things in the perfect way reaches ridiculous heights. I’m even like that over the order that my wife unwraps her Christmas presents. You may think this isn’t terribly important, but I can assure you that it is. After all, the socks should always be Removed From Game before the trousers. Anyhow, at Prerelease time, I spare a thought for my friends in R & D. We now get unprecedented access to the thinkings and workings inside the Brains Trust, but there’s a world of detail that we’ll probably never know. As we look at the 150 new babies so painstakingly nurtured by Wizards Towers, where have they pinned their hopes? Which Kithkin is the one that Erik Lauer thinks is just a bit too powerful, and might fractionally imbalance Draft? Does Design think Development have edged up the Treefolk to dangerous levels? Is Devin regretting that he didn’t quash one of the Artifacts when he had the chance? And which cards do they love, the ones that they personally fought to save, or to create and bring to the world? As I say, we’ll probably never know. But if you were at a Seattle Prerelease at the weekend, maybe you might have a clue. Because that slightly haggard-looking guy in the cap who wasn’t playing? He’s there, watching and waiting for the moment when he gets to see you cast Oblivion Ring on your opponent’s Nevermaker. He’ll watch as you stare bewildered at the fact that Nevermaker is now back in play and your Oblivion Ring is now on top of your library. And then he’ll have a beatific smile on his face, as he thinks, “I knew that was going to happen.”

Floor Judge

Rik Powell has travelled a fair way to get to this event. Well, a long way as far as England is concerned. Living in Bradford, he’s travelled 200 miles… but not to play, to judge. Currently Level 1, Rik is a really solid arbiter of rules knowledge, and is blessed with a highly entertaining sense of humor. Because we’re a relatively small country, if you have suitable dedication you can get to pretty much any event countrywide. As an ambitious judge who loves the experience, 200 miles seemed a small price to pay for 16 hours of judging entertainment. Prereleases hold different challenges for the Judges to other Sanctioned events. On the one hand, it’s a very easy-going affair, with players just enjoying the simple act of turning new cards sideways. However, there’s a lot of new interactions to find and rule on, and it’s easy to get a little bit riled when cards turn out to work slightly differently than you anticipated. Rik said the hardest aspect of the day is when you have to gently explain to someone that they’ve got themselves a Game Loss, or worse. To a new player, the whole concept of the DCI and the Judge presence at the event may be more than a little disconcerting. It soon becomes second nature to see the zebra stripes walking around, but, seriously, can you imagine playing Monopoly or Clue and finding a whole group of people whose sole purpose is to make sure the rules are followed correctly? Here at The Games Club in central London, there’s a bunch of opportunities to judge. Apart from the 32 man flights, featuring 4 rounds of Sealed Deck play, there are 8 man Drafts, Two-Headed Giant later in the afternoon, and even a 3-way Team Sealed as the evening kicks in. Each format presents its own challenges to the Judge staff, but with the emphasis on fun, they (mostly) manage to go about their business with a smile.

Set Reviewer

So I open an e-mail from Craig. Amazingly, he’s decided to decline my offer of 4 Tarmogoyfs in exchange for a night with his Missus. Perhaps if I throw in a Thoughtseize… yes, that should swing it. [I’m sorry Rich, but nothing you could offer would be booster fresh. You don’t even use sleeves. — Craig, amused.] Meanwhile, he’s asking for Victims, sorry, Volunteers for writing the Morningtide set reviews. My advice would be to offer as few opinions on cards as possible, or at least to stick as close to the facts as possible. Thing is, nobody remembers the 148 cards you analysed correctly, only the two that you got blindingly wrong. Certain members of R&D always seem to be discussing the Hideaway lands just as I’m passing. Funny that. So, don’t say anything you don’t need to. Here’s a good example:

Thoughtseize – When I first saw this card, I thought, ‘It’s called Thoughtseize.’ On further reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that this card is pretty unique, seeing as it isn’t a reprint. Costing one mana, it only costs one more mana than as cheap as it gets, and that makes it pretty cheap. You won’t be able to sink spare mana into it to avoid manaburn, but don’t let that dissuade you – if you’re playing Black you may be able to cast this spell. Best used on your own turn, Thoughtseize may be harder to get hold of than, say, Kithkin Greatheart, and you might want to trade for between 0 and 4 of them, probably erring towards the single digits. Thoughtseize can be good, bad, or somewhere in between depending on the game situation, and also on the format. Expect it to shine where one-mana targeted discard spells are most effective, but facing down an army of opposing monsters it’s unlikely to save you. Overall rating: some stars.

Or just go for the Pocket Set Review:

Thoughtseize – card.


How quickly can you put all 150 cards from Morningtide into a binder? You could wait until the set hits the shop shelves, and then go nuts. Buy a bunch of boxes until you reach critical mass. With 50 rares to find, three boxes should probably do it. Or, many traders now offer a specialist service to people like you, letting you buy exactly one of everything for a very reasonable price. But what if you’re one of those really competitive collectors, the ones who want to go to their local club the day after Prerelease weekend and proudly display the whole shebang in all its glory? Then it’s time to wheel in the heavy ammunition. Bring plenty of cash or plenty of tradeable old cards. You’re going to need them, because when speed is of the essence, putting sets together doesn’t come cheap. For the less serious collector, it’s amazing how the cards stack up. Do a Sealed Deck, win a couple of boosters as prizes, you’re at 5 rares. Do a Triple Morningtide Draft, get 4 rares there (somebody’s taking it very seriously and passing rares) and win another 3 for finishing second. Trade your fifth Chandra Nalaar for 2 unexciting Morningtide rares, and you’re up to 14 of the 50 on day one. Roll on Friday Night Magic.


For Rachel Gilbey, the call comes almost as soon as the Lorwyn Prerelease was done and dusted. Would she be prepared to put herself through yet another 16 hour marathon of scorekeeping? Brave soul that she is, she found herself once again dragging herself out of bed at silly o’clock, ready to confront the many challenges of the day ahead. And in London, those challenges really are many and varied. No massive Prerelease of X hundred players. Instead, a rolling system of 32 player flights means that for the first eight hours at least there’s a non-stop progression of results to get right, spread across six individual tournaments. Long before any of those have got through their four Swiss rounds, Rachel’s taking names and DCI numbers for the first triple Morningtide Draft. By 8 in the evening, more than 30 eight man tourneys will have fired. For those who don’t want to Draft, mid-afternoon sees one of Rachel’s largest challenges, the Two-Headed Giant Prerelease. This is massively popular in London, and, as we know, the DCI Reporter software is sometimes a little bit, er, temperamental when it comes to team events. With players dropping left, right, and center to sign up for yet more tournaments, it only takes a few minor technical issues to set things a long way back. Thankfully, Rachel and her colleagues know most of the shortcuts, and with hundreds pouring through the door, another successful Games Club Prerelease was in very good hands. Mad fool that she is, when Shadowmoor rolls around, she’ll be there, manning the barricades for another scorekeeping test of endurance.

I could go on. There was the guy running Judge tests all day. There were the guys earnestly discussing which Morningtide Rares might make it into their Cube. Then there were the hotel staff – I wonder what they made of more than 300 people playing cards all day. Plus the people poring over the artwork and trying to decide what the expansion symbol most resembled. And the couple in the corner trying to work out the storyline from the cards they’d got in their Sealed pools. There was even ringmaster extraordinaire Jason Howlett, who, despite running The Games Club forever, still has most of his own hair and a sense of humor.

There’s plenty of time over the coming weeks and months to go all Spike and analyse the set to death. But as we’ve seen, the Prerelease means many different things to the broad church that makes up Magic. One word links them all, from player to judge to commentator to reviewer to tournament organiser to parents, and that word, it may not surprise you to learn, is fun.

As ever, thanks for reading.