Into the Fold
I know that writing this article is going to be incredibly difficult for me. I’m an extremely emotional person, and I generally try not to hold anything back in my writing regardless of context or content. I put my heart on my sleeve, and that makes many of you uncomfortable, and for that I’m sorry. But as many of you know, I use this column as a means of self-expression as well as entertainment and education. If you come away feeling a little bit different about yourself, or at least questioning where you’re at in life or what your goals are, then I consider it a job well done. If you take away a piece of knowledge about a deck or format that you didn’t have before, same deal.
This week might be a little dicey, because a good friend of mine just moved to Seattle to start working for Wizards of the Coast, and I am a little distraught. Actually, make that a lot distraught. But let’s not get too deep into that just yet. He didn’t fall off the face of the Earth, but it is always tough to see a friend move away, even if moving means a better life or better job. In a way I am being selfish, because there is nothing I want more than for my friends to be happy, and this move was something I thought he needed, but that doesn’t make it any easier to see him go. So today’s article is going to be about him, and his impact on my Magic career… and my life.
The Artist and his Canvas
What does the name “Gerry Thompson” mean to you?
For many, Gerry was / is a great deckbuilder. There were times where he would continuously break the new best version of the best deck for months on end. His updates to Delver, Caw-Blade and many other archetypes across multiple formats were inspirational. Whenever the opposition would alter their strategy to beat last week’s version, he would make an update to completely crush them. A fine example of this was adding Mirran Crusader and Spectral Flight to the Delver deck to beat hyper-aggressive green and black decks. I used this version to Top 8 the Invitational in Atlanta last year, though the list wasn’t widely spread due to the Top 8 being Legacy, and the format mostly dying out after that.
He was an avid fan of fixing the problems a deck had rather than changing decks entirely, especially when the core of the deck was powerful. This trend is not something I was ever very good at, as I would just abandon ship if I thought last week’s version would get hated out. And since I generally need to test a lot before a big tournament in order to do well, his logic made a lot more sense to me.
But I was afraid. Of the competition, the opposition, the haters and the ballers. I was afraid that everyone else was going to have exactly what they needed at exactly the right time, and I was going to get punished for it because I was still using last week’s technology and everyone else was pushing ahead. In many ways, I was right. I was a week behind. I was using last week’s technology because I didn’t have the foresight necessary to predict how the metagame would shift, or how the better players in the room would adapt.
But Gerry was an artist.
Notebook in tow wherever we would go, pen furiously scribbling: between bites at dinner, mid-conversation, long car rides or short ones. He never stopped thinking. Never stopped brewing. Never stopped trying to improve upon designs, decks, ideas. It was breathtaking at times, and shined a spotlight on one of my major flaws in Magic.
I wasn’t nearly as smart as Gerry, but I was also lazy. I didn’t want to put in the time, and certainly didn’t have strong enough willpower to grind hundreds of games until I came up with the perfect configuration for next week’s tournament. With the format constantly evolving, you have to be one step ahead, and that is exactly the reason why Gerry was so good at winning. He had a perfect vision of what I couldn’t see, and was able to effectively use that logic to reduce the opposition to dust. He was a monster on the StarCityGames.com Open Series circuit because he was neck-deep. Every week a new destination, a new brew, a new idea. It was a constant reminder to him that he wasn’t perfect, but he could be closer than most people.
One of the main reasons why people like Gerry (and myself, to a lesser extent) are great at Grand Prix but don’t generally put up results at the Pro Tour is that he is good at working within the confines of a set structure. If you give him all the pieces to the puzzle, he’s going to solve it. The problem with the Pro Tour is that the format is uncharted territory. It always features the newest set, which generally involves an upheaval, and Gerry is much better at tinkering with something he knows is good. With other tournaments, the format has already been played a reasonable amount. The metagame has developed, and he can see the holes that he needs to plug or gets to exploit. And I have never seen someone do it better than him.
After meeting Gerry, I slowly began to develop better habits when it came to tournament preparation. While Gerry was notorious for being a theorist, Brad Nelson was grinding games to find the perfect iterations of a new brew. And I fell somewhere in the middle; I never had Gerry’s knack for figuring things out so quickly, nor Brad’s perseverance when it came to tournament preparation. For quite some time, I actually just rode their coattails, using their ideas for decks or cards and just building around them. In some respect, I was the middl man for the both of them, and in the end I think that system worked quite well. I think we made a great team, and many of our top finishes have been because we worked together.
I’ve known Gerry for quite a long time now, and we weren’t always the best of friends. In fact, I would even say that at times we were even fervent enemies. It is a wonder we even became friends at all, but we were two personalities that bonded over a common goal and a desire to strive within this game. This wonderful, horrible, time-consuming, awe-inspiring, debt-inducing, hilariously addictive game.
In the last few months leading up to Gerry’s departure from Roanoke for his new job at Wizards of the Coast, I think something had changed in his perspective of the game. He had come very close to Platinum Level, but barely missed due to illness at a Grand Prix here, skipping another Grand Prix there, and ultimately falling short at the last Pro Tour of the season. I could see part of that fire inside of him burn down. He wanted to take a break from doing videos, traveling to tournaments, and mostly just the grind of it all. After all these years, the look behind those eyes grew tired. I could see a hint of desperation behind that sheepish grin, and I knew that, at least for now, he was through with it all. It is impossible to describe exactly how it feels to watch your best friend’s spirit break, but I saw it crumbling before me, and I was helpless. He had put everything he had into Magic, and what did he have in return?
That feeling can be suffocating. A realization that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t as good as you really think you are. You feel it in your bones, that self-doubt. That nagging feeling that maybe you’ve wasted all of your time, money, and energy, and for what?
He really is a phenomenal player, but he, like most of us, has his flaws. I know that he’s going to read this, and he’s going to hate the fact that I’m giving him a compliment, because that’s just how he thinks. He knows he has some amount of talent, but he also knows he can be better. He can be a better player, a better person, a better friend, a better boyfriend. He expects the best out of everyone around him because he knows what we’re capable of.
At dinner on Sunday night, we had a pretty long conversation about life, people, friends, Magic, human nature and a host of other topics. But something was different. Something behind his eyes lit up again, and I could tell there was a fire in his belly. Not for grinding tournaments. Not for winning. He wanted to make people better. He wanted them to be better people, better human beings, because he knew they could be.
And maybe, hopefully, he’s going to travel out West and somehow, some way, make this crazy game better too. And maybe then he’ll be happy.
And I couldn’t ask for more.
New Friends in an Old Town
Shortly after moving to Roanoke so that Kali could work for StarCityGames, I was in a bad place in my life. I had picked up and moved away from all of my friends and family to start a new life with my wife, and it was a difficult transition. I didn’t really know many people, and I felt more alone than I ever have in my life.
After a few months of being an emotional wreck, I met Brian Braun-Duin. We began our friendship by gaming over at a guy’s house each week, drafting Innistrad into the early hours of the morning. He was definitely the best player out of that playgroup, and I think that competitive spirit in him is what drew us together so quickly. Just a few weeks after we met, we were traveling to tournaments together almost every weekend, continually putting up solid results. The car rides were long and full of conversations about anything and everything.
After a few months of this routine, Gerry was hired by SCG to do GerryTV as well as other potential videos (which eventually became the Vs. series). We had become acquainted through the game and developed a mutual respect for each other, though I wouldn’t exactly have called us friends. But something just… clicked. Brian, Gerry, and I traveled from Open to Grand Prix to Open, driving upwards of ten hours just to play in these tournaments.
I felt alive again, and I had found friends that shared my same competitive spirit.
I remember one night, driving home from Nashville, everyone else in the car was asleep except for Gerry and I. In the wee hours of the morning, driving through Virginia, there was a pause in the conversation. The calm was palpable, and in that instant I knew that Roanoke was a place I could call home. And in that same moment, I knew everything was going to be alright.
“I’m really glad you moved to Roanoke, Gerry. This is just…. these trips….”
“I know, man. Me too.”
The Waffle House Story
One night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I learned that Gerry, Drew Levin, and Alex Bertoncini were going to be visiting on their way to some SCG Open. It was a random Thursday night and it was pretty cold out. Somehow, I got talked into going to the card shop there (45 minutes away) for their weekly tournament and hang out afterwards with the local crew. After a few rounds I was getting a little bored, as I was promised a fun night out drinking.
After the tournament ended, we all headed out to one of the more popular bars in town. Luckily it was mostly deserted due to Christmas break, even though Christmas wasn’t for a few more weeks. We arrived around 10pm, promptly ordered some drinks and the festivities began. Some people wanted to play pool; others just wanted to sit around and talk. After an hour or two of festivities, Alex and I got into a friendly scrap where I got him into a convincing headlock, but he freed himself by twisting my thumb (jerk!). Gerry, as per usual, was sitting in a corner and playing some hand-held video game (probably a JRPG), though he perked up a bit when Alex and I started to get into it.
After another hour or so it was closing time and we were starving. At that hour the only place open was Waffle House, and I was actually quite a fan. I mean, where else can you get freshly-cooked scramble eggs and a waffle at three in the morning? My friend Blair, who had driven me in the first place, was the designated driver, and he took Alex, Gerry, and I along with him. On the ride there, Alex and Gerry were horsing around in the back seat, and at some point Alex decided it would be hilarious to pull on my seatbelt. After successfully choking me with my own seatbelt, I gagged and threw up all the beer I had been drinking over the last few hours. Luckily, I hadn’t eaten since noon-ish, so it wasn’t as gross as it sounds, but I was absolutely furious.
I told Alex that, when we got to Waffle House, one of us was going to jail and the other was going to the hospital. At that moment, I honestly don’t think I cared which of us went where. When we stepped out of the car, Alex put his dukes up, and I nearly charged him. Gerry, being the mediator, stepped between us. Obviously, he didn’t want us to do anything that stupid and get in trouble. He also knew that there was a bit of frustration between us, and opted for an alternate solution.
“If you’re going to hit someone, you might as well just hit me. You know you want to.”
I was furious. I felt my ears begin to boil, and my fingers clinched. And for a moment in time, everything froze. Black frost covering my eyes. Darkness.
The sound of my knuckles against his jaw was like ice breaking. He staggered backwards and his knees buckled. I still remember the look on his face. Disbelief. Confusion. Pain. He looked up at me as I held out my hand to help him up, and I knew he wasn’t all there. His eyes were glassy until finally he reached out and took my hand.
He darted to the bathroom, and I saw that his mouth was bleeding a little bit when he came back to sit down at a table. After a while we ordered some food, but the look on the waitress said it all. She had seen the scene outside, and asked if everything was alright. Gerry looked up, paper towel on his lip, and calmly replied:
A short time later, after we had gotten our food, the mood had completely changed. I was absolutely giddy at what had happened, and my anger towards Alex had been completely forgotten. One of my long-time rivals and (at the time) an internet bully had “gotten his just desserts.” I had taken the infamous GerryT down a peg, and it was every bit as satisfying as I thought it would be. But, little did we know, the festivities wouldn’t stop there.
Two men, dressed in black – one wearing a ski mask and another wearing a Spider-Man mask – shoved open the glass doors to the Waffle House.
“Nobody move! Give me all the money in the register!”
Awkwardly, we were not as sober as we thought. I froze in my seat, hands raised, mouth closed, and all the memories of what had happened just minutes before were erased from my mind. One of our friends had his back to the robbers and boldly asked, “Are you guys serious?”
The response was a bullet fired into the ceiling. The sound echoed off the glass windows wrapping around the building. The point was made clear, and not another word was said until the cash register was empty and the robbers were gone.
Once again the mood had changed, but this time the air was completely sucked out of the room. Things seemed to quickly revert back to normal after Gerry commented on the situation:
“Idiots didn’t even bother checking our wallets. I got like three hundred bucks, and they walked with, what, $80?”
And that’s just the kind of person he is. In a bad situation, he looks for the humor, regardless of how dark things can get. There was a very reasonable chance that someone was not going to leave that Waffle House alive that night, but Gerry was the first to break the tension and keep our heads clear. A few hours later, after some statements to the police, I headed home with a story that I haven’t stopped telling in four years.
I like to joke around with Gerry on occasion that I think that’s the night we actually became friends, but that might just actually be the truth.
This End is Just the Beginning
I know that Gerry isn’t gone forever. I know that I’m going to visit Seattle and he’s going to come visit Roanoke from time to time, but I also know that he is in a similar situation that I was in when I first moved to Roanoke. I just hope he finds what he’s looking for, and I couldn’t thank him more for the things he’s done for me. He was there for me when I needed it. He told me exactly what I needed to hear when I was out of control or stuck inside my own head.
And, most importantly, I want to thank him for being my friend, and let him know I’ll be coming to visit very soon.
See you then, buddy!
@strong_sad on Twitter
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P.S: I know you guys don’t know Kaitlin very well, but she is awesome too, and everything I said in this article goes double for her too. I’m going to miss you guys, but good luck out there!