SCG Daily – 10 Years of Magic, Part 1: Promising Beginnings

So it’s time to finally get my stint on the weekly series of articles known as SCG Daily. Yes that’s right, for one week I get to hijack the entire StarCityGames.com website and turn it into a shrine to my favorite subject… namely, me. And you can’t escape! Bwahahahahaha!

In which we delve back into the deep dark origins of our hero and learn how contact with an enchanted pack of cards turned him into the star he is today. Within this epic piece of history we first encounter the terrifying unstoppable force known only as ‘The Juggernaut.’ Intrigued? Then read on…

So it’s time to finally get my stint on the weekly series of articles known as SCG Daily. Yes that’s right, for one week I get to hijack the entire StarCityGames.com website and turn it into a shrine to my favorite subject… namely, me. And you can’t escape! Bwahahahahaha!


That’s not how it works?

What do you mean, I only get to write 1500 words a day in a little subsection?


Okay, so when editor Craig approached me (I prefer the term “begged,” but I suspect he might edit this out) to do a SCG Daily, I was a bit stumped for subject matter. I did have a vague plan to write some kind of summary about my Pro Tour exploits, mainly to give heart to those of you out there that got battered on your first Tours, but was worried it might come across as a bit egotistical. It was only while going through my own ratings history as research did I realise the significance of this year.

Just over ten years ago on the 1st September I played my first ever sanctioned tournament (okay, so it would have made more sense if this was going out on that anniversary, but it takes me a while to get rolling on these things). Ten years is a long time to be playing Magic, so I thought it might be interesting to jot down my experiences of the game over those ten years.

That first tournament was in Shrewsbury. I can’t remember exactly what I played… I think it was a good stuff Black/White deck with pump knights, Serra Angels, and Sengir Vampires. The tournament was so long ago I actually got to play Maze of Ith in a Standard (then Type II) tournament. Standard was a little woollier than it is now – we actually had the choice of playing cards from either The Dark or the new set, Ice Age. So I obviously chose the outgoing set, The Dark, because Maze of Ith was so much more powerful than… err… Necro or Stormbind.

This wasn’t when I first started playing Magic. That was about a year earlier. The story of how I got into the game is the same as for most people around the time. I was part of a small roleplaying group that would meet up every weekend to play RPGs, roll dice, and drink beer. In fact it was mainly drink beer, as we could never get everyone to turn up on time. Then someone introduced this quirky little card game we could play while we were waiting for everyone to turn up. And you can guess what happened next as pretty soon we were playing Magic instead of the RPGs (It wasn’t a hard choice after the dice rolling tedium that was Rifts).

My brother and I were already playing the Games Workshop games (several tedious hours to set up, followed by a couple of tedious hours of dice rolling — apart from Blood Bowl. That game rocked), so it didn’t take long to get him into Magic and the obligatory arms race that follows when you absolutely have to keep your little brother firmly in place. Then he got a couple of his friends interested and so on…

Congratulations to Richard Garfield, creator of the world’s first cardboard virus.

Actually, I nearly didn’t get into the game at all. The first starter I opened contained a rare another player desperately wanted for his deck (Kormus Bell. He wanted to feed excess swamps to his Lord of the Pit). Unfortunately the guy could be a bit of a jerk if he didn’t get his way, and basically nagged me all night until I finally gave in and traded it for a crappy Legends common. I wasn’t sure I wanted to play a game where I’d get pestered constantly every time I opened a new booster, but kind of got round it by making it very clear I probably wasn’t going to trade anything else until I figured out what things were worth.

Back then, fatties were king, and the recurring theme for most of my early decks was to see how big I could grow a Rock Hydra (mainly because I misread it and thought effects that destroyed it just took a head off).

I played a little at Bristol University (mainly outside of the university itself, as the official gaming society was too cliquey and had weird house rules such as you couldn’t Terror walls as “a wall can’t run away”), and quite a lot in Shrewsbury. Around that time Mark Kennet used to run a regular monthly tournament in Shrewsbury. There also used to be a regular tour across the country every month. First weekend would be Doncaster, second Shrewsbury, third Swindon, and fourth Birmingham (or Reading). During that time I started to make a bit of a reputation for myself as an okay player, but couldn’t make much ground at PTQs or Nationals.

PTQs were much less frequent then than they are in the UK today. Generally you had one shot, and it was usually taken by one of the strong players from the South or raided by a strong Scottish contingent.

I think my first tournament win came with a Black/Red land destruction deck. There was a brief window when Swords to Ploughshares wasn’t around, and I’d worked out Army Ants from Visions was a virtual lock once you got an opponent down to one land. I also had too much fondness for busting out undercosted fatties, like Orgg and Aku Djinn, with Mana Vault. Turn 1 Mana Vault, turn 2 Orgg was often a nightmare for “real” Red/Green decks that worried about proper concepts such as mana curve and card advantage. At first I thought that kind of strategy talk was dirty (I had played chess at university and tired of it very quickly when it became obvious I was playing against books rather than real players). Card advantage? What did card advantage matter against a turn 2 6/6 trampler?

Oh dear. A nationals where I went 0-7 (with the same deck that won a tournament the week before!) was a bit of an eye opener. Of course I was a little naive at the time, and hadn’t heard about the tricks that were being pulled with Ice Age cards (the backs are clearly distinguishable from every other set).

Around that time I took a very unconventional approach to deck construction. I either won tournaments or scrubbed out horribly. The first Grand Prix I went to (London 1997) was one of the notable scrub-outs. Hardly surprising when I was running a bad Green deck that revolved around turning their monsters into artefacts so I could kill them with Uktabi Orangutan. Two of the top British players of the time were Ollie Schneider and Graham Thompson, but in a trend that became depressingly familiar both were dumped out in the semis by Frenchmen running the Sandsipoise deck. (Sands of Time did odd things with the Mirage phasing mechanic. When it went off the deck phased out all your land, which never came back, and battered you to death with a 7/7 Taniwha.)

That year the Northern tournament organisers had put on a sort of Northern Grand Prix. Competing in their tournaments would earn points, and at the end of the year those players with a certain amount of points would compete in an allegedly big prize tournament. I say “allegedly,” as I won the event and received… wait for it… a beer voucher. Okay, so it was supposedly for a year’s supply at a micro-brewery. I say “supposedly,” as the only answer I ever got when I rang up was that “they were too pissed to come to the phone.” Scam much?

Oh well. The deck I played was a mono-Black discard deck with Cursed Scrolls that had filtered up from a highly talented London deck designer called Tony Dobson. I didn’t have the faintest idea who he was at the time, but I knew all the good players were overly fond of counterspells and this deck beat the snot out of them.

So now we move forward to the release of Exodus, and the tournament that got me some recognition on the international stage. Like just about everybody else, I’d spotted the interaction between Survival of the Fittest and Recurring Nightmare, and had my mediocre version of the deck. Grand Prix: Birmingham was coming up, and I really wanted to translate my good performances in the English tournaments into a cash finish. One of our friends had picked up 100 pounds for finishing in the top 32 a year before, and I was thinking there was no reason why I couldn’t do the same.

But before the GP there were some PTQs for Pro Tour: Rome. At one of them I ran into Dave Sutcliffe, one of the top deck builders in the north of England, running a mono-Red deck. In the second game I drew what I thought was a perfect hand against him. I had everything — Wall of Blossoms, Spike Feeder, everything. And yet he still burnt straight through me. I couldn’t have asked for a better hand, and I’d still been beaten. So I did the sensible thing and asked him for a deck list.

Playtesting the deck before Birmingham revealed the deck was fast and very consistent. It very much adhered to the principles of modern Red decks now. It started with Jackal Pup and Mogg Fanatic, had Mogg Flunkies for some undercosted beef, and Fireslinger for utility. It played a healthy amount of burn, including Sonic Burst, and at the top end had Rathi Dragon and the highly unpleasant Spellshock. I had my deck for the Grand Prix!

Grand Prix: Birmingham is a relic of the bad old days of tournament organisation. Whenever you think about moaning because a tournament is starting half an hour late, you should think yourself lucky. Day 1 of GP: Birmingham was only six rounds, and it didn’t even finish on Day 1! Because of a mix-up with the NEC (the venue), everyone had to be out at a certain time. This meant the last round of Day 1 had to be played on the morning of Day 2. This was incredibly frustrating for players with a 4-1 record, as if they came back and lost that round they wouldn’t make the cut and would have wasted a day for nothing. A friend of mine didn’t bother getting out of bed on the Sunday for that reason. After two byes I’d managed to win my next three rounds and was in regardless.

It was a fairly special weekend. I lost the first round of Day 2 (or last round of Day 1, depending on how you looked at it), but then only lost one more round before the final round of the swiss. One of my best memories of the swiss section was playing against Dave Kearney of Ireland. He was playing Survival of the Fittest and Recurring Nightmare, and managed to put an early Verdant Force into play. Normally this should be game against a Red player, but somehow I managed to muster enough burn to kill the Force and all of the saprolings (this was crucial, as he still had the Recurring Nightmare and could simply reanimated the Force). Kearney didn’t draw another creature he could cast, and I gained new healthy appreciation for Red decks as I went onto win the match.

The last round I was given a feature match against Dan Paskins. I hadn’t really paid any attention to the standings. I’d just assumed that two losses meant I wasn’t in contention for Top 8, and this was just a match for a bit of extra cash. On reflection my ignorance was actually quite beneficial. Bubble matches are a lot less stressful when you don’t actually realise they’re bubble matches.

Before the match I was a little intimidated. Dan Paskins hung around with “the London crowd” and looked very serious. Around that time, Ollie Schneider was infamous for travelling to tournaments and being rude to people. My rules knowledge wasn’t the most precise, I was more interested in… you know… actually playing the game, and I was terrified I’d do something wrong that would result in me getting a game loss, disqualification, or even summarily executed.

So I sat down opposite one of the infamous London crowd anticipating a nasty grudge match, and instead had one of the most enjoyable games of Magic ever. As everyone is by now aware, Dan Paskins is a very funny guy who plays the game in the spirit in which it was intended. The matchup should have been very good for him, as he was running a Grave Pact deck that featured Corpse Dance and Bottle Gnomes. But as we all know, having a good matchup against the Red deck and actually beating the Red deck are two different things. (And Dan, traumatized by his defeat, retired to a secret mountain lair to become lord and master of all things goblinny).

Then the Top 8 was announced, and I was surprised to find my name was in it. After dragging us off for a brief photo shoot, it was time to play the quarter-finals in front of a crowd of…

Well, actually there weren’t any crowds. The tournament had overrun, and they had to move us out of the main hall and upstairs. I didn’t think I’d get much further than the quarters, as I was a paired against the guy who beat me in Round 9 (Arho Toikka). That match turned out to have been an aberration, as the Red horde swept him in three fairly brutal games.

I then had to sit around for hours while the other matches finished. Scouting Top 8 matches wasn’t allowed, so I basically had to sit outside the room with a judge on guard duty.

The quarter-finals overrun by so much they had to move us to a nearby hotel. I just drank beer while I waited for the final match between Neil Rigby and Warren Marsh to finish. I was scheduled to play the winner. While waiting I also chatted with the other two semi-finalists. Both had played on the Pro Tour before. One was Darwin Kastle, a top U.S. player at the time (you may have heard of him — he went on to enter the inaugural Hall of Fame). The other was a young German player. Both were bemoaning the fact they were scheduled to meet in the semis, as they both reckoned they should be the final rather than any of these random northern English muppets that had somehow lucked their way in.

Neil Rigby made it through past Warren Marsh. This was great, as he was the playtest partner of Dave “Sutty” Sutcliffe. Sutty had already qualified for Rome, and now both Neil and I were going also. Neil wasn’t best pleased about the matchup, as Sutty had hidden a nice tech card in the form of Apocalypse in the board just for Neil’s kind of Horsecraft deck.

Me, being the true pro that I am, decided to down a pint of beer before the semi-final started. A certain ethos had to be followed. This rather foolishly gave Riggers the second game as I panicked when I saw Recurring Nightmare enter play and Sonic Bursted a Wall. This was all rather silly, as Neil had been wondering at the time how the hell he was going to get a creature in the graveyard in order to get his Earthcraft deck to “go off”. It wasn’t the brightest of plays on my part, but I rallied and removed all his permanents from the game in the following two games.

Then there was another long wait while the German kid managed to overcome Darwin “master of RecSur” Kastle. He was playing a Tradewind Rider / Awakening deck that aimed to return all a player’s permanents to their hand. Unfortunately he hadn’t anticipated any Red decks, and hadn’t even bothered to put Chill in his board. In short, it was a bloodbath.

I did lose one game, and had the comedy situation of having to ask if I could concede in one of the games when I was locked under the Tradewind Rider (you had to ask a judge if you could concede back then — odd times). But other than that, the Red deck was fairly unstoppable. It probably made it worse that I really wasn’t treating the game with the gravity it deserved.

Me, laying Fanatic on turn 1: “A Goblin.”

Me, laying Flunkies on turn 2: “His bigger brother.”

Me, laying Jackal Pup: “Their pet dog.”

At around three in the morning I finally shot away his last point of damage. I’d won. I’d wanted to post a good performance and maybe win some cash, and instead I’d picked up a nice piece of glass (or rather plastic) and a big cheque. Magic really was cool.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of the details on GP: Birmingham 98 have been lost from the records. You won’t find it on the list of past events on MagictheGathering.com, but it did happen. I still have the trophy somewhere to prove it.

And the young German player…

He went on to become very good. You might have heard of him. His name is Kai Budde.

Until tomorrow,