SCG Talent Search – Finding the Fun

Thursday, November 11th – Looking back at my 16 years in the game, the memories that make me happiest aren’t just the victories. Many highlights were times when I didn’t win, but it didn’t matter, or the times when how I won meant more to me than victory.

I like winning. All other things being equal, winning is usually more fun than not winning. That’s why I build my decks as well as I can and tinker with them constantly; why I strive to improve my play skills and beat myself up over careless errors; and why, probably like the rest of you, I spend way too much time reading strategy articles and message boards online. That being said, winning is only a small part of having fun with Magic. Even the most competitive player would have to agree that they’ve had easy wins that felt hollow and epic losses at the end of titanic back-and-forth struggles which were so enjoyable that the sting of defeat went unnoticed.

Looking back at my sixteen years in the game, the Magic memories that make me happiest aren’t just the victories. Many of the highlights were times when I didn’t win, but it didn’t matter, or the times when

I won meant more to me than victory. What I want to look at today are some of the different ways that we can have fun with this game that we love, beyond simply winning. The aim of this article is to remind and encourage all of us (including me; I confess I’ve had issues with sportsmanship my whole life) to seek out more ways of squeezing joy from our Magic experiences.

I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

Like a proud parent, I find it great to see a deck go out into the world for the first time and stand on its own. Sometimes a crazy idea will coalesce perfectly into an unstoppable engine of doom the first time you unleash it on your friends – but more often than not, not. Still, any deckbuilder worth their salt can rejoice at a simple proof of concept.

For example, I know that the combo of Aggravated Assault and Bear Umbra is pretty standard fare these days, mainly for giving infinite attack steps to Uril EDH decks that don’t need them, but once upon a time, I figured out a similar combo with Aggravated Assault and the little-known Nature’s Will. The first time I brought out the deck, I laid down my two enchantments without anyone noticing the interaction and then crashed into Sean of the Infinite Merfolk with, I believe, an extremely Hungry Spriggan. When I untapped, explained the combo and killed him, I got a fist-bump of genuine respect from Sean, which was worth much more to me than the kill itself.

“Who’s next?” says I.

“Not I!” says Aaron, flashing a Moment’s Peace from his hand.

“Neither me!” says Brian, revealing his own copy of, would you believe it, Moment’s Peace!

Sigh. I was of course dead before my next turn, but there was no doubt that my deck had worked exactly as intended. I suppose I could’ve set my sights on world domination and accepted nothing less, but that’s neither realistic nor a recipe for a fun evening. Instead, I enjoyed getting to play with my toys before I died, and I remember that as a very fun game.

It’s also worth noting that you can get more of this kind of enjoyment if you bring extra decks to loan out. My personal best is having six out of seven decks in a Planechase EDH game at GP Yokohama in March this year. I’m kind of an EDH evangelist, and two of the pros in Yokohama were interested in the format but didn’t have decks, so they ended up piloting mine to first and second place (although graciously sharing the prizes with the rest of the table).

Actually, more on that later…

The Rubik’s Cube™

Sometimes solving a puzzle can be more rewarding than overcoming an opponent. After all, on any given night anyone can pretty much beat anyone else, but when you figure out how to do something that everyone has given up on, that’s a much more distinctive accomplishment.

One time I was taking control of a four-person EDH game with my

deck, with Nezumi Graverobber, recurring Necrotic Sliver and Archon of Justice. I’d ousted one guy already and had let myself get a bit cocky, when Erek, played his general, Karn, Silver Golem, and
an uncommon from Mirrodin

that I’d never seen before and announced that he was going infinite. Apparently he could tap Thran Dynamo for three mana, animate it with Karn, and then, because it was now a creature, untap it for just two mana with Voltaic Construct and repeat until broken. Infinite mana would allow him to
then draw and play his entire library, make everything


and crush my dreams. The Construct was already in play before I was paying attention, and with untapping the Dynamo on the stack, he still had two mana left.

My first thought was to pay 4B for Nighteyes the Desecrator, dig up Necrotic, and pay three to sac it to kill the Construct before the Dynamo untapped. However, if I put that on the stack he could pay his last two mana to untap Dynamo before the Sliver resolved, tap the Dynamo again, and go infinite. I had to do it twice, but that took sixteen mana, and I only had fourteen. I went deep into the tank, fiddled around with the cards, committed to one course of action, and then asked Erek if I could take it back (he said okay – he’s a nice guy for a combo player).

In the end, the only way to do it was to animate the Archon of Justice with Nighteyes (five mana), tap three to sacrifice it to Miren, the Moaning Well (‘cos it’s a land, essentially nine mana), then Corpse Dance the Archon without buying it back (twelve), and Diabolic Edict myself (using all fourteen mana). The second time the Archon went to the bin, he took the Construct with him, and Erek’s dire machinations were temporarily thwarted.

For me, solving this puzzle was more important than whether I eventually won the game, because it required doing a bunch of stuff that was totally counterintuitive. Firstly, I had to give up the cheaper Graverobber/Sliver combo for the more expensive and non-repeatable Archon/Miren combo (in order to get the Archon on the top of my graveyard). Secondly, I had to cast Corpse Dance without buying it back. I’ve been playing that card for years; it’s one of my favorites, and I love it, but I swear I automatically assume that it costs five to cast, rather than three. Oh yeah, and I had to Edict myself, which isn’t something that happens every day. I even had to check the wording to make sure it wasn’t “target opponent.” I doubt I’m the only one who develops blinders when it comes to favorite cards, and I urge you to be careful of this.

Remember: if someone else is playing combo, watch for engine pieces, and if you’re playing combo, turn the engine over a couple of times before announcing you’re going off. And no matter who is playing what type of deck, always look for solutions even when faced with a seemingly intractable problem. You never know when you’ll be able to figure out a creative answer that the others haven’t seen, and that’s a big part of what Magic is all about.

Incredulous Bystander

Pop quiz! You’re in a four-player game, it’s the third turn, and you’ve just accelerated into Sorin Markov. You decide to use the +2 ability to get rid of one of the weenies littering up the table. Each opponent controls a different creature, and for the sake of this exercise we’ll assume that none of them can pump their critters in response. Which one is the biggest threat? Who is most deserving of your wrath?!

A)   Tarmogoyf, still at 1/2

B)   Kargan Dragonlord on level zero

C)   Elvish Skysweeper

Well, if you play in Tokyo, then the answer is clearly C. Why the Ravnica common over the sexy rares? Because

plays the Skysweeper in Constructed except Peter, and his deck is chock full of ways to give creatures flying, so that the Skysweeper can kill them. It’s pretty obscene really. He’ll use stuff like Launch and Flying Carpet to give all of your creatures flying and then blow them out of the sky with all of green’s excuse-me-while-I-kick-the-sky stuff. The endgame usually involves beating down with a double-figures/double-figures Trophy Hunter.

The first time I saw that deck in action, I was gob smacked. Once Pete got going it was an ocean of carnage, and nobody could keep anything on the table unless he wanted it on the table. Graveyards and Trophy Hunters swelled to enormous sizes, Pete won handily, and we all had a great time getting blown away. Even worse, the last time I saw that deck I went after it with both barrels, and everyone was like “Why do you hate Peter so much? Every card he’s played is crap!” and attacked me for being a jerk. I protested that I was trying to save the whole table from a savage beating, but they couldn’t see how twisted and powerful those ‘crap’ cards could be.

That first shellacking with a really clever deck can be a lot more fun than a quick victory over it, whether it’s a casual homebrew or a rogue FNM deck. Even thinking about that deck now still makes me smile – the very definition of Magic fun – but if the only thing I cared about was beating him then, I would’ve missed out on that

The more creative you are with your deckbuilding and the more you encourage your friends to innovate, the more fun everyone is going to have with this aspect of the game. So don’t forget to compliment someone on a nice combo, or suggest new cards for their deck. Above all, trade. Organize a reject rare night, or arrange to bring in your old boxes of cards that are gathering dust. One person’s trash is another person’s inspiration!

I Don’t Think That Was Supposed to Happen!

Every once in a while, we see combos between our cards and someone else’s that can turn a perfectly innocent spell into something quite different. I remember the last game I played before I left New Zealand was something like an eighteen-player free-for-all with multiple turns and random global effects every few minutes. We had been grinding it out for ages when it finally got down to just me, with my 120-card reanimator pile, and Kelly with his mono-red Goblin deck, when the random effect kicked in: Armageddon.

We only had one weenie creature each after an earlier

or Balance or something, and were bashing back and forth, topdecking not-lands. Several dull turns later and another random effect kicked in: Living Plane.

He had one Mountain to my two Swamps, and I was pondering whether it was worth Dark Ritual-ing an Eradicate on his weenie when I noticed that Eradicate says “all

with the same name.” I asked the TO if that meant what I thought it did; he said yeah, so I Eradicated his now-living Mountain and stripped
every single land

from his library. A casual deck designed to do that would probably be unfun for your opponents, but the random confluence of events leading to that as the end of a marathon game was classic, and Kelly laughed almost as much as the rest of us.

Actually, Planechase has the potential to add quite a bit of this aspect to your games. In the game in Yokohama that I mentioned, I will never forget the effect of one particular Plane. See, I had invited a bunch of guys to play EDH, and talked up the differences that make multiplayer so much fun, and then proceeded to draw absolutely no lands for five to ten turns. I say five to ten, not because I forget how many turns, but because Alex the Pro, sitting to my right with my almost-broken Arcanis deck, proceeded to roll Chaos
five times

– in Otaria. So I missed five land drops during a time when my neighbor made ten land drops and completely dominated the table.

I had that sinking feeling that I may have wandered into a Klan rally in a Boy George outfit (sorry, Bill), when I finally hit my fifth land around turn 12 or so and was able to play one of the best black spells for multiplayer: Beacon of Unrest. I was looking for the one target that might possibly save my bacon when a friend reminded me to roll the Planar dice first. Okay, I roll, and we move to Glimmervoid Basin. What does that do?

Glimmervoid Basin, my friends, is the most awesome combination you’ll ever play with Beacon of Unrest. I got

– seven graveyards, several dozen creatures and artifacts, including all of the awesome stuff that I’d discarded during my ill-fated Manascrew. I couldn’t believe it – my life was precariously low, but look at all of these toys! Next turn I’ll show you all!! There may have been some maniacal laughter…

EOT, new friend Mat the Pro casts Swords to Plowshares. On everything. This is where I feel some kind of weeping emoticon would be appropriate. Still, I laughed almost as hard at that nicely timed reversal as I did at the Beacon itself. It was such a perfect little “No, I don’t think so” moment, and after all, I did gain almost sixty life from a single Swords, so I couldn’t really complain.

Enjoy the Ride!

What a lot of this boils down to is really the difference between process and outcome. In our daily life, we’re forced to focus most of our attention on outcomes at the expense of process; on reaching our destination as efficiently as possible without stopping to smell the flowers on the way. Students are pressured to get good grades, with much less attention paid to how much they understand or what new ways of thinking they developed during the course. Similarly, after graduation it becomes all about GPAs and jobs, even though personal growth is far and away the most important part of a university education. When you do get those jobs, your bosses will drive you to endlessly produce outcomes: meet that deadline, make that sale, pay off that senator.

So tell me why, in a fantasy game that many of us play to escape the daily grind, are we still so focused on winning
at the expense of the process of playing the game?

I know players who live by the creed, “A good game is a fast game; a fast game is a good game.” While I can see their point, sometimes games go long, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sure the outcome of the game is delayed, but the process – playing the greatest game in the world, hanging out with your friends, watching and learning and thinking – is still there for you to enjoy.
Playing the game

can be fun in a kaleidoscope of different ways, win lose or draw, and the second you lose sight of that, you lose so much of the richness of Magic that merely winning the next game won’t make up for it.