SCG Daily – Blog Fanatic: Owning Neutral Ground

You demanded it and we made it happen. Blog Fanatic returns for a two-week stint on SCG Daily today, and Ben kicks things off right, reminiscing about the early day of Neutral Ground and one player who simply could not beat him, no matter how good the odds.

Long before I came to work for StarCityGames.com, I worked for a store in New York City called Neutral Ground. Many of you might already be familiar with Neutral Ground. For those who aren’t, Neutral Ground is located in the heart of New York City, on the 4th floor of 122 West 26th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues). It’s a store dedicated to gaming, and had a very instrumental role in pushing Magic in the tri-state/northeast area during the early years of the game.

I started going to Neutral Ground as a customer back in October of 1995, a few months after its grand opening. Back in those days, Neutral Ground was located right around the corner from its current location. Neutral Ground used to be on the 7th floor of 7th Avenue between 27th and 26th streets, but it was moved for a variety of reasons – one of which was the elevator of doom.

Sorry, let me say it properly.

The Elevator of Dooooooooooooooooom!(TM)”

I was genuinely scared of going into the elevator at the old building. It wasn’t quite because it didn’t work (it did – sort of). It wasn’t because it moved slowly – the elevator moved in variable speeds, depending on how it felt that day. I’d walk into the building and ask “so elevator, at what speed will you be moving today?” to which it would reply, “Taaaaaake the staaaaaairs if you vaaaaaalue your liiiiiiife!” Come to think of it, I did walk up and down fourteen flights of stairs quite often in that old building.

I don’t recall ever being stuck in the elevator on the days where I felt like pushing my luck, but I know several of our regulars had harrowing experiences with the ol’ metal box. I’m surprised they could fit into the elevator at all, since it was built to fit one maybe two anorexic basketball players. The ceilings were high, but the rest of the dimensions were quite compact. If someone else was waiting for the elevator, I’d just aim straight for the stairs and start making my trek up seven floors. I didn’t want to push the elevator over its weight limit of fifty grams. Usually I’d beat that person to the 7th floor. And by beat them, I mean that they’d still be waiting for the elevator by the time I came back down the stairs for my lunch break.

Neutral Ground was originally owned by four individuals. They are Brian David-Marshall (who everyone should recognize from his works on both this site and on MagicTheGathering.com), his wife Karla (who has since gone on to become a fitness guru), Glen Friedman (Glen still runs the Grey Matter tournament circuit in the Northeast), and Jim Pernicone (who I hope is doing well, but he’s fallen so far off the face of the Earth that the mole men are suing him for trespass). Today, Neutral Ground is owned by one of its original customers, Matt Blank.

Matt isn’t as well known in the Magic community as Brian or Glen, but he’s an equally great guy. I met him back in the day when I was also a customer of Neutral Ground. He was into Magic back then, but quickly lost interest in the game in favor of other games. If there’s one thing you should know about Matt, other than that he is a decent, respectful individual, is that he loves playing games of all kinds. Whether it’s a card games, board games, miniature games, Matt will give a game a shot and wring out maximum enjoyment. That is, whenever I’m not around – because if I had stayed in New York, it’s likely that Matt would have committed suicide long ago. A bold statement? Not when you consider that I have personally demonstrated for Matt that all laws of physics, odds, and chance can and will stop operating under the right circumstances. In other words:

I own Matt Blank.

There are always one or two people that you absolutely demolish every time you play them in a game of Magic. You know who these people are – no matter how favorable the matchup looks on paper, no matter how the odds are stacked up in their favor, no matter how many times in a row you’ve beaten them before, they will lose and you will win. This is just a fact. It’s the cosmic practical joke, and one that can drive the ownee absolutely insane. Everyone here has to know what I’m talking about, whether you’re the casualest of casual players or the most competitive Pro player on the tour. There’s always one player that you beat no matter what the circumstances, and there’s someone you always lose to, no matter the odds.

I have personally driven Matt from at least a dozen games that he previously enjoyed playing because of my ownership over him. I think it started with the old board game Bloodbowl. We used to have a Bloodbowl league at Neutral Ground – the game was a quick-playing miniatures game which loosely mixed football with the idea of being able to maim opponents for points – and Matt’s strategy centered on powering up one star player to the point of making them a virtual one-orc team. He was cruising along, staying at the top of the rankings in the league, until the first time we played. He worked me over pretty well for the first couple of quarters in the game, and then it happened.

It. What is it? If you believe in a higher power, it would be your deity of choice deciding that you’re cursed. Maybe it is the cosmic prankster deciding that he’s going to have a little fun with you. Maybe it is that old jinx that’s known as The Cooler. Regardless of personal beliefs, it certainly happened to Matt, as I proceeded to roll six one’s in a row to permanently kill his star player with the worst of my players. With my one in 46656 chance die roll, I had completely decimated Matt’s entire season. In Bloodbowl, you could knock a player out for the rest of the game, or maybe even put that player on the disabled list for a couple of skirmishes. Nope, I had clean killed his star player – tackled him into oblivion, made him eat his own intestines with a spork, and place-kicked his head straight through the goal posts.

Matt was not happy.

This trend continued from game to game. When we’d play Magic, I would always get the exact card I needed when I needed it, causing Matt to lose. Matt could be at twenty life to my one, I’d have no cards in hand, Matt would have complete board control, and somehow he would lose. He would just lose. There are no other words to describe it other than “he would just lose.” It was unnatural – and it was a trend that would follow him from game to game, when I was involved. It caused him to quit playing competitive Magic (Matt was well known for winning many a Grand Melee at Neutral Ground, a format I declined to play due to my dislike of thirty to forty person multi-player games).

I beat Matt at the old Decipher Star Wars game. I caused Matt to lose in Settlers of Catan. I’d beat him in Duke Nukem on the networked computers, I’d smash him in Shadowfist, and I’d cause him to cave in Overpower. There came a time when Matt literally refused to play a game that I wanted to play – not because he disliked me, but because I would beat him with a freakish, unnatural consistency. And I would beat him not always because of skill or tact, but through dumb, brute luck. Just like in that early Bloodbowl game, statistical abnormalities would line up and take numbers to see which would get the privilege of screwing around in the next Blank vs. Bleiweiss match.

I think Matt was secretly relieved when I finally moved out of New York and back to New Orleans during the summer of 1997. But for those two years I played and worked at Neutral Ground, I was the plague to his middle-aged Europe. Time has not diminished this trend, as Matt relented on his forbiddance for playing games against me when we sat down to play Spades at Neutral Ground on my last visit to the shop.

Matt had a regular spades partner, and they were apparently undefeated. I played with Bruce Johnson, the former tournament manager for Gray Matter and former store manager for Neutral Ground (now living in China, or at least he was when last I heard). I’ll admit, we were playing for money (small stakes, but just something to make it interesting), and the only reason Bruce agreed to play with me wasn’t because of my play skill (he knew that Matt and his partner were quite good at the game) or because Bruce himself was particularly good at Spades – it was because he knew how badly I owned Matt. Two quick games later, I had handed Matt his first two set losses in Spades – by margins of 500 to 200 and 500 to negative 125. NEGATIVE 125! For those who don’t know Spades, those Margins are unheard of in normal play. Bruce and I were getting hands like 11 Spades with four aces, and in a trick-based game, that’s just dominant. We weren’t getting these hands one a match – we were getting them three out of every four deals! By the time the games were over, Matt handed me my money, and stormed off screaming something along the lines of “why did I ever agree to play you in anything ever? I’m never playing Spades again!” except the uncensored version had more four letter words than are in this sentence.

In conclusion, Matt’s Gus has at least a couple hundred counters when it comes into play against me. And every time it comes into play, I have Spike Cannibal waiting.

Tommorrow: I might own Matt Blank, but I am in turn owned by Vinnie “the Pimp” Falcone.

Ben can be reached at [email protected].