Yesterday, I told you of my first forays into the Realms of Magic. Simple games played with my friend Sene, cards dealt on the living-room rug in front of a two-bar electric fire. Drinking Dr Pepper, laughing, and swinging with Vizzerdrix.
That was how I learnt to play Magic.
Today, I’ll tell you how I learnt to play Magic.
In Liverpool, I had a playgroup.
We met every Saturday, in the upstairs-room of the Swan pub. The Swan was a Biker’s gaff, brimming with bearded pot-bellied forty-somethings and black-clad underage emo-kid skater-punks. Sawdust on the floor, Faith No More on the jukebox, Newkie Brown by the gallon… it was brilliant.
Magic in Liverpool, however, was not.
Sure, it may have expanded since. In fact, it definitely has: today’s English metagame has a few Scouse faces on the PTQ scene. Back then, at the arse-end of the twentieth century, there were seven of us.
We played multiplayer. Sometimes we’d duel, but the Big Game was everything. We’d trade, and drink, and laugh, and attack, and then someone would cast Congregate and get punched in the face.
My tactic in Multiplayer was a simple one. I’d cast walls, and elves, and mana producers etc, ramping up to a game-winning Fireball. Which was countered each and every time I cast it. Usually, I’d finish second in any Multiplayer battle, as I’d be no threat to anyone and therefore I could be safely ignored until the final blow needed dealing.
Multiplayer, multiplayer, multiplayer. No internet, no tournaments, no net-decks, no worries.
And then, I moved to Leeds.
Leeds was fantastic. In fact, it still is fantastic. But when I first moved, for work reasons, I was a little overawed. I moved there on my own, with no friends or family for miles. So I threw myself into my work. Magic? No time.
Yes, I bought cards, by the bucket-load, but play?
I had no opponents.
Invasion made way for Planeshift. My cards gathered dust. My collection was swelling exponentially, as boredom and loneliness coupled with a vast increase in my disposable income meant Good Times for Card Shops. At one stage, I was buying ten boosters a day. If I’d known of the secondary card market, I most certainly would’ve exploded.
Eventually, endless buying and sorting of cards just wasn’t enough. I needed opponents.
I made enquiries into players at Travelling Man, the card shop that knew me by name (and rubbed their hands together whenever I walked through their doors). They helped.
An email, a reply, and an address.
I was good to go.
The Games Club in Headingley, the student area of Leeds, was rather odd. It ran every Thursday, occupying three rooms in a small Community Centre. In the room downstairs, chubby kids played Warhammer 40k with unpainted miniatures, each ritually massacred by the adult with endless colourful Eldar, his own polystyrene hills, spectacles and a bored expression. The first room upstairs housed serious looking men playing intricate board-games involving hexagons.
The second room upstairs, smallest of the three, housed the Magic players.
There were, I think, seven in total. Four adults, and three kids. The adults ranged from twenty-ish to thirty-something, and the kids all appeared to be twelve. I stood in the doorway while fourteen eyes appraised me with thinly-veiled contempt. They turned back to their games, adult versus adult, kid versus kid. I was ignored.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Which one of you is Geordie?” Geordie was my contact, the guy with the email.
The eldest stood to greet me. We shook hands, and exchanged pleasantries.
“We’re practicing for Regionals,” he said, indicating the other three adults. His tone was serious.
I nodded sagely. What the hell are Regionals?
“Pull up a chair,” Geordie continued, motioning toward the one kid without an opponent. “Have a few games against Timmy there.”
Ok, so he probably wasn’t called Timmy… but he should’ve been.
I had two decks that day. I pulled out the first, a mono-Green beatdown deck with Kavu Titans and Might of Oaks. It had one Thorn Elemental, and I was looking to trade for a second. The other deck in my arsenal was super-secret uber-tech, involving Deadapults and Dralnu’s Crusade and Lord of the Undead… but that could wait for bigger fish.
Timmy played a similar deck. We exchanged a few beats, sharing wins and losses in equal measure.
The adults were keeping to themselves, talking under their breath. They were talking about me, I knew it. Of course, they were probably talking about cards and matches and Regionals (whatever they may be), but I felt strangely abandoned. Back in Liverpool, my playgroup were all over twenty. Playing against kids was fun, but it wasn’t what I wanted. And Newkie Brown? Not a bottle in sight.
I felt ignored. I’d receive the odd glance now and then, but there was no friendliness in those eyes.
Sod this, I thought. Time to make an effort.
“Anyone got any trades?” I asked the room. “I’m after a Dralnu’s Crusade.”
Suddenly, it was all smiles.
However, these trades served a valuable purpose. They broke the ice, albeit at a high price to my collection. At the time, of course, I was happy with the trades, and we still joke about it today. Back then, I didn’t know a good card from a bloody Goblin Game.
I shared some banter with they guys: Geordie, Mike, Matt and Steve. Then I played my first ever match of Magic: the Gathering. It was against Matt Harper, who was practicing for Regionals the following weekend.
For this, I pulled out my Deadapult Deck. Time to shine, baby!
Matt was (is) a nice guy. At the time, he was a student physicist. Now he’s Dr. Matt Harper, doing something important with sonar. He had long hair and a cheeky smile.
Matt drew his card, thought for a moment, and passed the turn! No land! Surely this wouldn’t take long at all!
Of course, he needed to discard a card too. He discarded a card called Nether Spirit.
He drew thousands of cards, with something called Accumulated Knowledge.
He cast a spell called Fact or Fiction, which required me to choose cards for his hand!
It was not pretty. Not pretty at all.
At one stage, I cast my second copy of Dralnu’s Crusade. The first was in the graveyard.
It was a card, placed backward in a sleeve, with the word “Undermine” written on it in black felt-tip pen.
“What the hell’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a proxy,” he said, smiling benevolently. “Y’know, for when we haven’t got the card yet.”
This just wasn’t cricket.
I let it slide, but inside I was livid. Hell, I could win all the time if I used bloody “proxies,” I fumed, against all the available evidence.
The game was over quickly. My opponent was on nineteen life when I died, his one point of pain coming from his Underground River.
“Another?” I said, hoping he’d say no.
“Sure,” he replied. “Do you have a sideboard?”
This confused me.
Yeah, I thought. It’s in my bedroom. I keep my undies in it. By now, however, I knew I was in a foreign land.
“What’s a sideboard?” I asked.
So he told me.
He told me of tournament play, playing best two-out-of-three. He told me of PTQs, and the upcoming Regionals tournaments. He told me of English National Championships, were the best players in the country come together to sling spells. He told me of the mythical Pro Tour, where the greatest players in the World compete for thousands of dollars.
I was spellbound.
“No one from our playgroup has made the Pro Tour,” he said, with his trademark smile, “… yet.”
“Wow,” I said, my mind spinning. This stuff was huge.
“So, fancy another game? I won’t sideboard since you can’t.”
I played that second game on autopilot. My heart just wasn’t I any more. It was at a tournament, at a PTQ, at the Pro Tour…
Thousands of players, all dressed in tuxedos, playing Magic in splendid baroque halls to the backing of an orchestral symphony. All laughing, dining on fresh canapÃ©s served by flamingos, while gorgeous ladies in ball-gowns poured champagne into impossibly-thin glasses.
The Pro Tour…
Matt won the second game easily, by casting Bribery and beating me to death with my own Maggot Carrier. It was rather insulting, if the truth be known. Even back then, I knew Lord of the Undead was a better Bribery target.
I left the Games Club a changed man. I’d entered as a casual player, and left a tournament wannabe. I’d made friends, and learnt new things. The mauling I received by Matt (and the others soon after) taught me that although I could play the game, I was a long way from playing the game.
I’d also acquired the URLs for some Magic Webites (the excellent-yet-defunct Magic Campus, and a site by the name of Star City Games), and the promise of a lift to the following weekend’s Regionals tournament. I’d even picked up a decent decklist.
It was time to get busy…
The guys I met that day, in the small Community Centre in Headingley, became a large part of my life in Leeds. I even shared accommodation with two of them for a couple of years. We’re still playing as a group, although our surroundings (and personnel) have changed. As a collective, Team Leeds has now seen every member play on the Pro Tour (barring a couple of newcomers).
We’ve played many a match of Magic, together and separately, since the first time I walked through those doors. Magic introduced me to them all, and Magic is the fibre that binds us together.
But above all this, these guys are my friends.
We met through cards, but the cards aren’t important.
Reminiscing today, it’s clear that I needed something, back then in my lonely Leeds beginnings. Magic provided the fuel, but the people provided the fire. Without them, my life would be very different, and not nearly so much fun.
Of course, they’re reading this now and thinking “don’t be so soft, you daft bastard.”
So be it.
It’s been a blast.
Long may it continue.
P.S. Tomorrow, I attend my First Tournament. With no canapÃ©-serving flamingos in sight.