The Phone Call
It’s probably because of this uncertainty that I get so down when things aren’t moving forward for me in the areas that I enjoy and pursue. When the murmurs start to come that I should maybe just cut my losses and get a job as a clerk or mopping the floor at a peep show, it’s tough on me.
One such time for me was mid-August of 2003. I’d roll out of bed (listlessly, always listlessly) each day and wonder what in the blazes I should do in order to contribute something, anything, to the planet earth. Each sunrise and sunset were hyphenated by a meaningless period of inactivity. I knew that as a 23 year-old man with many years ahead of him, it would probably benefit me to do something. I just didn’t know what. Or where. The sickly hot days seemed endless. Bottomless, even. My poor mood seemed, at times, to be just as bottomless.
With no direction or purpose, no great fight to fight or cause to champion, things were pretty miserable. I was writing, sure – but the work was lacking something. It seems to me now, as I look back on that hot Canadian August, that perhaps I had lost faith in myself. I had started to believe that maybe writing would never take me anywhere. Like an old buggy struggling to get up a steep hill, my favorite pastime and prospective career had finally wheezed out, and just before the apex.
“Sorry old boy,” said the pen from my pocket.”I can’t go anymore. Now, considering the fact that you have no manual or trade skills of any kind and you didn’t graduate from high school, I figure you might want to try someplace with a deep fryer. I hear you can find nickels in them while you’re cleaning!”
Scary thought. I didn’t want to McWork preparing McFries (like many urban slackers, I’d sooner be punched in the McFace). And yet…finances were tight. My writing was stagnating like a bayou toilet. The time seemed right to either buckle under and find a bloodbank with extremely lenient donation restrictions, or wear the white hat and make”the donutses.”
Nightmares. Giant vats of donut batter chasing me through a shadowy labyrinth. A ghostly voice echoing through the eldritch hall.
“JOIN OUR TEAM, SIR! YOU’VE ALWAYS GOT TIME FOR TIM HORTONS!”
Had that happened – had my faith in the written word fallen far enough to drive me back into the cellular sales force or onto the rear end of a refuse wagon – I don’t know what I would have done. Gaming and writing have always been the alpha and omega of my life, the two glimmering stars in the distance that would serve to guide me through the darkest and most confusing times. Anything else is just filler, a second-rate experience endured for the sole purpose of putting a few soiled and tattered dollars in my pocket. That’s no way to live.
I knew all these things, but I still couldn’t bring myself out of the rut I was in. On one particularly unhappy day, I decided that I’d let the debts pile up long enough, and it was time to call it quits and head back out into the world to make my fortune. A tough pill to swallow, true – but to make money from Magic, I have to shaft newbies on the secondary market. Product is a beautiful thing, friends – but what happens when you want to take a ladyfriend out for frosty chocolate milkshakes? You can’t pay in Exalted Angels at the Dairy Queen.
Heck, sometimes grabbing packs/credit/boxes and turning it into actual cash is more legwork than the writing/playing itself. Lawyers, have you ever had to claim your pay by picking up a fat envelope filled with singles at Kwik-Stop, then heading downtown to sell them to preteen elf enthusiasts? It’s a long haul with an uncertain and possibly very disappointing expectation, especially since the fat envelope, stuffed with foils and chase rares, sometimes arrives C.O.D.
I think my writing work is good, and I could make a good bit of money by trading and selling and playing in high-expectation events (there are a few here locally) but it just wasn’t enough. In the end, the bottom line speaks loudest.
I decided to mail Pete and The Ferrett and tell them that I had to give up writing again and squirm my square peg back into a working man’s round hole (and keep your smart remarks to yourself). It was depressing to have to do it, but I didn’t want to just disappear into nothingness – after all they had done for me, I figured they at least deserved a goodbye. Heck, maybe they’d ask me to reconsider! That’d be good for the ol’ ego.
Like I said though, I didn’t know much of anything. Was it even the right decision? Maybe I should just try to restructure my expenses around Magic – no more fast food, no more movie rentals where I keep six DVDs two weeks overdue (Blockbuster loves it when people do that, and they show their appreciation by sending me a nice fat bill), no more trips to Studio Eleven and asking strippers”How much farther do you go?” after a private dance.
Okay, okay. I don’t actually do that. (I have friends that do, however. With some success.) The point I’m trying to get across is the uncertainty. My life seemed to demand action…but what sort of action? Was this the right action? Was quitting my true work really the answer I was looking for?
I had no idea. The letter to Pete and Ferrett got steadily more and more melodramatic as I fought with myself in real time. Eventually, the finished product was an overblown sort of deal where I asked if they thought I could ever make money writing and gaming.
I instantly regretted sending the mail. I could barely restrain myself from physically driving a fist into my monitor in an attempt to remove it from my outbox. Alas, I wasn’t fast enough – the deed was done. I was filled with dread, sure that the ill-conceived question, sent at 4:00 a.m. on a sleepless night, was to be an ego-shattering end of my writing career. My feverish imagination, disobeying the wishes of my brain (which was screaming to the last remaining threads of my consciousness that the best course of action was to not think about it) went about the business of fabricating for me the response that might come.
“Sorry,” they’d say (and in the feverishly working recesses of my mind, it was tinged with well-intentioned but still stinging condescension),“but you’re not going to get anywhere with this – your work just isn’t that important.”
Then I’d know just small a dog I was in the massive yard that is Magic. No more illusions about making even a minimum of living expenses. Only the cold realization that it was time to put on that white hat. Time to make the donutses. Eat enough in between shifts, and I could graduate from the doughroom into what may be the holy grail of life stations – “Lardo On Workman’s Comp.”
This was my future – in that one dark second, I was sure of it. Then, a couple of things happened.
First, my beloved StarCityGames had a rash of server difficulties that pretty much sent the site and most of the associated email addresses back into the Pleistocine epoch, a time when Cro-Magnon men were gathering in caves, trying to decide which parts of the mammoth were the juiciest. As a result, they never received the mail. To this day, Pete and The Ferrett are blissfully ignorant of the entire hubbub, and for that, I’m glad. Things have changed.
The second thing that happened was that I received an email out of the blue from Gary Wise, Pro Magic player, Sideboard.com writer, and all-around good Canadian boy. It was simple and to the point:
“What is your phone number? I have some things I need to discuss with you.
I was enchanted with the possibilities, to say the least. Gary Wise wanted to talk to me? Next thing you know, they’d be running Sunday toboggan races down in Hell. I responded to the mail so fast that my fingers, unlike Superman, could have outrun The Flash.
I could have cheerfully spent the next three hours refreshing my Inbox every ten seconds – but instead, I went out to draft at Future Pastimes because they needed a sixth man to team draft. It was during the Legions pack that I received a phone call, and the phone was brought to me at the table so I could answer without slowing things down. It turned out that it was just a message from home – Gary had called and left a phone number for me to call. I decided to wow my fellow drafters by invoking the name of Wise!
(cue ominous music)
Once and future Magic players and writers, get ready to learn from the master. If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s namedropping to make myself feel like a big man.
“Oh, GARY WISE called?” I said loudly into the handset, while proceeding through the Legions picks with my free arm.”Well, tell GARY WISE that I’ll return his call when I’m done drafting – I’m a bit busy and don’t really have the time to get back to him immediately.”
I turned to the other players, who were staring at me incredulously. I shrugged.
“GARY WISE left a message for me,” I said, with suitable emphasis placed on the name.”I’ll get back to him…if I have the time.”
I drafted a very good deck that night.
Of course, my priorities were quite a bit different in reality. I was very excited when I heard Gary’s message on my phone, and called him as soon as I returned, using the number he provided. Sure enough, a familiar voice answered with:
“This had better be Geordie Tait.”
It was Gary, all right. We talked about a quite a few things, but the essential gist of the call was this:
“I’m going to Pittsburgh for a week to stay with Eugene Harvey and Mike Turian, my team for Pro Tour: Boston. Would you like to come along? It might make a good article.”
Any guesses as to how I responded to this selfless and generous offer?
“Sorry, Gary, I’ll be too busy training for my new job as a road obstacle.”
“Let me think about it for a minute, Gary – I’ll get back to you.”
“YAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUSSSSSSSSSS…. Oops, I mean sure! That’d be a delightful treat.”
If you were leaning toward the third choice, constant reader, you’re quick on the uptake. Fast, like sex n’ chex n’ special effex. There’s more, too – I actually talked with Gary one more time before the trip was to start, and even more elaborate plans started to form. In the beginning, it was supposed to be just Gary and myself taking a one-week trip to Pittsburgh, right? Well, when the dust settled, we had a monster road trip on our hands.
The road trippers in question? Gary Wise, Geordie Tait, and Canadian National Champion Josh Rider, a welcome addition to any excursion, be it cross-county or simply to the malt shoppe. In fact, I have it on good authority that had Josh”OMC” Bennett been the fourth man in the car (the seat was offered to him), the number of Simpsons references per minute would have topped seventy-five.
Another leg was also added to our journey – the original plan of Toronto to Pittsburgh and back to Toronto was replaced with the following utterly broken route:
Toronto to Pittsburgh
(stay one week and test at Turian’s house)
Pittsburgh to New Jersey
(stay one week and test with TOGIT)
New Jersey to Boston
(play in the Pro Tour!)
Boston back home to Toronto
Good times, am I right? The trip was obviously going to be a tremendous journalistic opportunity if nothing else, and so it seemed like a good idea to bring a camera. Cameras are great things, because sometimes a pictures is worth a thousand words. For example, instead of describing lunch, I can just show you this:
Driving is hungry work! Josh and Gary prepare to recharge.
Mmm… Subs. They’re everywhere you want to be!
So yes – a handy little tool when you’re out to tell a tale. Over the course of this article series, which is written in a day-by-day”Diary” format, you’ll have the opportunity to view over forty color photos of our road trip adventures. I’m no professional photographer (I actually got to work with one at Pro Tour: Boston, and the size of his mighty camera made me feel quite inadequate!), but I think they tell a good story. I’m glad of that, because the last thing I wanted to do was screw this up.
Treating this lightly would have been a minor tragedy, I think, but luckily everything worked out quite well. I’d been given an opportunity that few have had before, and if I was to have my way, this precious chance would not go to waste. I had a camera, I had a laptop, and it was PT Boston or bust. Along the way, the story of the gamers involved seemed going to grow like a snowball rolling slowly and implacably downhill.
Before we get started, I have to make sure that all you readers understand exactly what it is you’re going to be seeing as we make our way through the tale of my two-week trip. I don’t want any misunderstandings.
This is not a strategy article. There is a very small amount of strategy-related content, but most of it is irrelevant now, with OLS Team Rochester being a dead format. I like strategy articles as much as the next guy, but this isn’t one.
This is not a tournament report. In fact, during the entirety of the two-week trip, I played in a grand total of zero sanctioned events. You will not find within these borders any match by match synopses or cheerfully written summaries of Swiss rounds. I will leave such fare to the people who actually did the playing.
This is not an up-to-the-minute, as-it-happens tickertape of information. The events that you’re going to be reading about occurred approximately one month before this project finally went to press. Parts of the narrative were written up as they occurred, others were written well afterward in the privacy of my basement, with the memory of the trip as a whole offering additional perspective for my pen. In my opinion, this does not diminish the tale in any way, but there is no accounting for the tastes of others.
Got that? Good.
Time to get started. And even if I have to”make the donutses” after this all concludes, getting this gaming odyssey on paper is going to be my last great act of defiance before I disappear into whatever suburban nightmare swallows me up. Buckle up. Grab a beer. Settle in. For you, the first leg of this trip is only as far away as the next page.
Day 1 – Sunday, August 31st.
Travelling to Pittsburgh. The Hobart House. Thoughts on Eugene.
I’ve never been much of a traveler. Even now, as I sit in the passenger seat of Gary Wise semi-weathered but trusty Nissan Maxima, I have a hard time believing that a trip of this sort could be organized on such short notice. It’s amazing what a phone call can do. Alexander Graham Bell’s greatest invention, right? The first time the phone worked, it was an accident – Bell spilled some ink on his papers and himself, and yelled for his assistant, who heard him not through conventional means but because he was standing around the other end of the line. Similarly, this trip is an accident of sorts, though a welcome one. It was to be one week and two locations, and now we’re out half a month and headed to Pro Tour: Boston!
The travel itself should not be an inconvenience, as the company is good. The long hours on the road, traffic snarled, directions muddled, air stinking of exhaust and skunks blown up on the highway, I can handle those. Each destination will hold good times enough to offset any amount of time spent packed into the smoldering leather seats of Gary Wise four-door. Travel didn’t used to be like this for humanity. The world has moved on.
Back in days of yore, when men were men and the peaceful indigenous peoples of the Americas had yet to be obliterated by rats, disease, and white men from across the sea, travel was the activity. This was probably because exploration was still possible in those fairer times. In my era, we have mapped every square kilometer of this planet, leaving precious little out there to discover, unless you count mosquito bites and new, exotic foot ailments.
This trip will still be a trip of discovery, though – don’t get me wrong. Instead of discovering a new island or a mountain or a valley, I’ll try to discover something else. Something about myself. Something about other people. Something about life. Maybe all three.
As I write this, I’m in a car with Josh Rider and one other man. Josh you may know as the reigning Canadian National champ. He’s a saber-witted lad of twenty years, as his close companions well know, but for those of you unfamiliar with Josh Rider, the Drunken Master of Hold’em, the Kung-Fu Jew, the only man to successfully combine the strength of B.A. Baracus with the style of Run DMC, let me assure you that your lack of exposure to one of Canada’s rising stars will shortly be remedied – he is one of the protagonists of this travelogue.
The second occupant is also the driver, and though he needs no introduction if you follow the game of Magic or read about it, I should give him one anyway. Any guesses? Time’s up. It’s none other than Gary Wise, still sporting a larger-than-life personality thrown haphazardly over sizable shoulders.
We’re travelling at about 80 m.p.h., and right now Gary has one hand on the wheel and the other on an enormous bag of teriyaki-flavored beef jerky – a longtime Wise road-trip favorite, from what I can gather. It’s been about half a day since my bus, a venerable Greyhound with a thousand trips under its fan belt, left Sarnia for Toronto. It took us a little while to get oriented correctly towards Pittsburgh (during which time we made more U-turns than U.S. foreign policy) but after a suitable delay, the trip was on. The stories and banter started to flow. A bull session really does make the time fly.
Gary has started in on another story about the Pro Tour. He has a hundred of them. I think I’ll pack this laptop back into the case now – why clatter the keys at all, when I’d be better served by listening?
Welcome to Hobart House!
We’ve arrived in Pittsburgh, a city built by planners who wanted a challenge. Rather than find an easy place to put a city, some group of eccentrics banded together to find the rockiest, steepest inclined terrain possible, and they started putting up houses there. Sometimes when we’d turn up a street, I’d have Marble Madness flashbacks.
Right now I’m lying on a textured beige couch, clad in a loose fitting pair of shorts and a simple T-Shirt. The other members of this raucous household are, for the time being, making a long-overdue trip to Wendy’s (that pigtailed purveyor of taste treats, a storied peddler of fast and fine meals both north and south of the border) and with that mass exodus to the world of gastrointestinal delights, a welcome silence has fallen over the joint. It is the silence of a well-used and well-loved home taking a much needed break. I only wish it were cooler. Even this late in the summer, the Steel City is muggy and hot, and that means the living room here is tolerable like high noon on Mercury.
Though the Hobart House has the problems typical of comparably priced housing the world over, this isn’t just any lodging. If I peer overtop of the liquid crystal display screen that promises to dominate my September evenings, there are unorthodox ornaments to be found. For example – to my left is a statue of the venerable Master Yoda. The diminutive Dagobah native looks very regal reproduced here in plastic and plaster, but his aura of Jedi majesty is somewhat diminished by the”Pro Tour Top 8″ cap that sits jauntily, reversed, upon his wrinkled brow.
To my right, there is a worn wooden mantle. It is bare except for two lonely items – a long-abandoned beverage container, and a Pro Tour Championship trophy. No, this is not the conventional abode, but a gaming haven. Home of the miser.
Every pore of the building, a tight three-story affair, seems to ooze with the secretions of the hobbyist. The floors are littered with cards, poker chips, magazines and confection remnants. The shelves are stacked high with board games of every conceivable description. Risk. Scrabble. Even a zesty little salsa number called”Bean Trader,” should you grow tired of Parker Brothers and find yourself in the mood for something a little more loco. The living room floor, a gritty hardwood, breaks up the monotony of discarded food wrappers and magazines by adding a duet of psychedelically colored”Dance Dance Revolution” pads to the mix. Should a Hobart habitant feel the need to jungle boogie, the PS2 is nearby to facilitate the required rumpshaking. The house is a Frankenstein monster of electric delights. Fiber-optic and audiovisual cables are arterial here.
The Hobart Living Room
If you venture up a short flight of stairs, you come to a set of two utilitarian rooms that could only be home to a duo of gamers. Two computers constantly running online poker, MODO, or Warcraft III are flanked by unmade beds and nooks filled with cardboard amusements. Where shelves fail to contain the multitudinous avalanche of hobbyist paraphernalia, ring binders take up the slack. A quick check of each reveals a tremendous bounty – a page-flipping adventure in foil and chase cards. Permanent markers are strewn about, on standby should they be needed to turn a second-string spell from pipsqueak to proxy. Stacks of commons abound. There are boxes of product by the front door, plentiful draft sets waiting to spring forth upon the unsuspecting world.
I have a laptop perched unsteadily on my midsection. It’s a dusty old Toshiba (perhaps not long for this world) and my fingers, used to the mouse and monitor layout of my home PC, are still fumbling around the interface as I struggle to put my thoughts into words. It occurs to me that there will probably never be sufficient time for me to relate all that has happened. To describe my gleeful expectations of things to come seems a daunting task. Still, even in the face of this massive sensory overflow (too much to tell, too much to describe!) I step to the keyboard with the expectation of something great and good. I may not totally catch this story, grab it all by the tail, gentle reader, but by the grace of god and these two typing hands, you can be sure that I will try my hardest.
Ruminations – Eugene Harvey
There’s actually a floor above the second here at Hobart House – it’s the top level where another computer and bed are stashed, along with a mini-fridge stocked with Coca-Cola. Coke is the favorite drink of Eugene Harvey.
Eugene looking devious.
My first impressions of former U.S. National Champion Eugene Harvey were, like with the other house dwellers, positive ones. Harvey, an orange-haired and blue-eyed young man with skin that looks to sunburn in mere seconds, is not unlike myself in temperament, beverage preference, and gaming preoccupation. I think that because of those similarities, I found myself less apprehensive and nervous than I might otherwise be when confronted with a very successful Magic player. Like Paul Sottosanti and Mike Turian, the other two permanent residents of the Hobart, he made me feel right at home.
Perhaps the most appreciated gesture was his assertion that I was free to drink Coca-Cola from his mini-fridge. When you’re in a foreign land, with many sights and sounds unfamiliar, nothing can kill the burgeoning homesickness faster than a frosty glass of a favorite carbonated concoction!
Out of all the people I met on this trip, I think my memories of Eugene are the clearest, probably because he was the one that I spent the most time with. It still wasn’t a lot, but I stayed at his house not only in Pittsburgh but also in New Jersey (as you will read about later) and during the early mornings and late evenings, right after breakfast and before bed, the pre and post-testing periods, I got the sense of the person that is Eugene Harvey, and was (relieved? surprised? interested? Maybe all three?) when I discovered, little by little, that he is not some higher form of Pro Tour life but a very down-to-earth guy with whom I could draw many personal parallels. I think that comforted me a little. I started to define Eugene (and also the other Magic pros I had met on the trip) in other terms besides lifetime earnings and Pro Tour victories. Turian, Harvey, and the rest were quickly becoming, in my mind, fully-fledged people with all the baggage involved.
It was a step forward for me, though in truth I was only discovering something that I should have known in the first place. Full people are always more interesting, in the long run, than the alternative. I think I did know that. When you get close to those Pros, though, it can be easy to forget.
Every Magic player is more than just a Magic player.
With time, I also got the feeling that while Eugene may carry with him the appearance of timidity, he has no problem with stepping forward if the situation warrants it. I saw this firsthand on the rare occasions when he would chime in to deal with the sometimes-difficult group dynamics of the CMU-TOGIT testing team. Eugene, while lighthearted enough during the normal run of things, considers some parts of Magic to be serious business.
It is a business in which he possesses considerable talent. While Rochester drafting with Eugene, I was very impressed and learned a lot. Eugene was able to quickly identify what the color matchup was going to be in his seat, and then draft the best cards for it without fail. After each draft, I was able to leave the table a better player for having watched him – though in fairness I can say the same about drafting with Wise and Turian, from whom I also learned a lot.
As you continue through this narrative, you’ll learn more about Eugene’s part in this tale, about his team”Zabuton Nemonaut,” and what they did at PT Boston. I’ll let those remembrances speak for themselves when they are published. For now, just know that as far as I am concerned, Eugene is a good man.
Day 2: Monday, September 1st.
Morning comes. Lots of gaming. The Turian family barbecue. Paul Sottosanti.
I’m typing this while sitting on Mike Turian bed. Josh Rider is sprawled against a pillow on the north wall, interrupting his lethargy frequently to talk Texas Hold’em strategy with Mike’s girlfriend, the lovely and talented Rachel Reynolds. I should say, as a quick aside, that it’s nice to know that attractive female gamers exist, if only because I yearn to one day capture one for myself.
I don’t say”capture” metaphorically. I am bringing a big net, and I’ll use it if she doesn’t come willingly. Until such time as I find myself a promising spellslinging chickadee, though, I’ll have to keep going with plan B: Hanging around outside the women’s prison.
Rachel is crouched on the floor, head in hands, peering at the screen of yet another laptop. While she decides whether or not to check or raise, Mike himself is at his familiar post – running Warcraft III against two more anonymous victims. This time he is teamed with Andrew Cuneo. I wonder if the enemy players (and I’m betting their names are something like”OwnZOR_U_N00b” and”Ura_Qw33r”) have any idea that they’re up against a pair of seriously sharp gaming minds?
Mike plays some Warcraft III. Zug zug!
(The Italian flag was clandestinely placed in his hair by his girlfriend Rachel, who then asked that I take this picture.)
Speaking of Andrew Cuneo, who didn’t attend Pro Tour: Boston (much to the chagrin of the currently-teamless Josh Rider) we’ve just finished watching the video of Pro Tour New York 2000. It’s funny to watch Andrew laugh when Mike Turian, floating mana before a main phase Gush and searching for action, finds it in…Gulf Squid.
Mike (without looking up from his Warcraft game):”Gulf Squid is a fine card.”
Gary:“To this day, you still won’t admit that your deck was sh*t.”
It’s fascinating for me to listen to these guys banter back and forth. People who read my work will know that I consider Wise’s tournament report”The Long Road Up” (which describes Potato Nation’s win at PTNY 2000) to be the finest of its kind. Now, I get to actually spend time a little time with Gary and Mike, and it’s almost surreal. I mean, you can learn a lot from reading match coverage and articles about the players you admire, but no article could prepare me for Gary’s bombastic personality or Mike’s dry, zany sense of humor. Mike Turian lives in a world where absurd remarks are an art form, and occasionally he lets us visit and laugh along with him.
Interesting footnote – if Scott Johns were here, we could reunite Potato Nation in this very house! Unfortunately he isn’t. Maybe if I say”It is so time to be the man” before I pour milk on my Raisin Bran in the morning (slow rolling the milk, of course) I can get halfway there.
A fun and full day.
We spent some time in the morning playing one of the many board games in the house – this time a semi-complicated number called”Citadels,” where you”draft” a series of jobs and then use them in an effort to play out cards worth variable numbers of points. Gary, Josh and I were first-time players, and as is the case in every game he plays where you have the opportunity to stick it to someone, poor Mr. Wise was on the receiving end of a lot of hostile play. I’m not so sure why this phenomenon occurs. It’s certainly not because we don’t like Gary. I think it’s because Gary is the metaphorical legendary gunslinger – every punk with a shooting iron wants to take him down and make a name for himself. Maybe.
Maybe it’s just fun to put the boots to the loudest scalawag of the lot.
The weather in Pittsburgh apparently isn’t too eager to please. Today followed almost cheerfully in the overcast and humid footsteps of Monday. Those ever-present late summer thunderheads were glaring at the city from above, too – waiting to rain on us and derail any prospective outdoor activities. Nate”Charging Slateback” Heiss and Mike Turian spent the morning unmorphing savage Warcraft III beatings on several hapless Battlenet foes, killing time before the centerpiece of the day, the Labor Day Barbecue.
Eating is always fun, especially when you’re squeezing it in between board games. Today also featured a rousing contest of”Ra” featuring Gary, Eugene, Josh,”Smilin'” Paul Sottosanti, and myself. I forget who won, but on Hobart Street the gamers aren’t overly concerned with such things. We play to pass hours and maybe put a notch in an ego or two. Or to grab a story for later that night.
As the midmorning slipped away and early afternoon started to creep up on us like cheap underwear, stomachs were starting to rumble. The weather had been trending downward and a seemingly innocuous trip to Subway was transformed into a dash through driving rain. Only Eugene Harvey had the foresight to bring an umbrella. The former U.S. National Champ managed to have lunch and make it home bone-dry, but a very soaked Gary Wise spoiled everything by hugging him and sharing the moisture. Boorish, you say? No, just Gary.
At about 5:00, our party left the house on Hobart Street and made our way over to the Turian family home on the other side of Pittsburgh. I was a little bit out of my element to say the least, for as soon as my feet crossed the threshold into their lovely home I found myself surrounded by friendly Jewish people. The only things I know about Judaism I learned from watching television, since Sarnia is comprised of something like 150% Italian Catholics – more, if you count pets. I’m happy to report that despite my unfortunate gentile status, I was accepted with open arms and took advantage of that acceptance by launching into a spirited conversation with the first gentleman I saw – who happened to be Nate Heiss‘ dad.
He was an eloquent speaker and a very kind man. Unfortunately, he untapped and dropped a Stasis.
The conversation lasted two and a half hours, during which I learned everything there is to know about the Jewish religion. It would have gone longer had the incomparable Ian Heiss not had to make his way home. Following that experience, Nate made his way over to me and said,”You were in ‘the lock’.”
I also got to play some poker with Gary, Eugene, Rachel, and a mixed bag of Heiss/Turians, some of whom were real sharks. Despite the miniscule stakes, I was out of the”dealer’s choice” game quickly, graduating from 7-Card Stud to Chicago to High-Low to”Twos, Jacks, Kings with the Axe, pair of natural sevens beats all” and all the way to Nate Heiss‘ personal variant, “JUGGERNAUT” (always capitalized) with increasing levels of ineptitude.
The evening culminated with dessert, followed by”The Game of Life,” which was won by”The Heiss,” who risked it all on a 1 in 10 chance and came out on top despite the fact that he was dead last up to that point. His”life” up until that unlikely lottery win was a real mess, too. He had something like six kids and was nearly broke. Obviously.
I guess Nate Heiss, son of the incomparable Ian, is just lucky at Life.
Ruminations – Paul Sottosanti
Paul, as always – with cards in hand and a smile on his face.
Meeting Paul Sottosanti on this trip was an unexpected pleasure, and one for which I feel extremely lucky. For those of you unfamiliar with Paul, he plays Magic and has written articles not only for StarCityGames but for the Magic Online website as well. If you look at his feature writer photo from this site, you’ll see a dreary photo of him doing his impression of Lurch, the butler from the Adams family. Probably because of that picture alone, I expected Paul to be a big, humorless lump. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that nothing could be further from the truth.
Paul, simply put, always has a smile on his face. Even when he’s trying to be serious, you can see the corners of his mouth trying to disobey and turn his frown upside down. He compounds this positive trait by also being extremely nice to visiting players and any internet writer barnacles they may be carrying. Paul always made me feel right at home at Hobart House, and for that, I can’t thank him enough. When I arrived at the front door, I was out of my element and more than a little apprehensive. Those feelings were gone very quickly.
Besides being a good man, Paul holds the distinction of being the finest Dance Dance Revolution player in the household. This is probably because he uses the game to get exercise, a fact that comes as little surprise. It would be just like Paul, who probably plays Magic in his sleep (“Zzzzz…attack for….zzzzzz….two…..”) to offset the inactivity of one game with the boisterous heart-pounding action of another. Eventually, Sotto will find a game that requires you to eat and sleep while playing, and then he can finally spend all 24 hours of his day doing what he loves best.
I have to admit I was more than a little jealous that he was going to be on Josh Rider’s LCQ team while I wasn’t. Envy can inspire some negative feelings, but when the subject of that envy happens to be very likeable, you’re cooked – the smile comes to your face before your jealousy and grab it and rein it in. That was the case with me and Paul. Within minutes, I found myself liking him too much to be even the tiniest bit angry. Before long, I was chiding myself for being disappointed in the first place. I think I came to grips with the fact I that I wasn’t good enough to play with Rider much more easily because Paul was so darn likeable.
l hope he writes at least one more article for StarCityGames before Wizards snatches him up – then he’d have an excuse to get rid of that god-awful author photo. That photo isn’t Paul, it’s a cadaver made up to look like Paul. The Paul I know wouldn’t be caught without a smile.
Day 3: Tuesday, September 2nd.
Waking up is hard to do. A trip to CMU. Gary Wise…destructible? The tale of Tom Hankuatilius.
What’s to tell about Tuesday?
Well, this morning was rough, and I wasn’t feeling too well as I stumbled my way off of the living room couch and into the accursed light of the day’s events. I should consider myself lucky, though, that I wasn’t feeling as bad as Gary Wise.
For the first time on our trip, I could see real misery on his face as he trundled out of bed. Suffering from back pain and a sore throat, Gary even went as far as to ask Mike if there were any hotels in the area that might be suitable for him, such was his inability to get sleep in the gamer-friendly but humid and messy Hobart house. Exhaustion and physical malaise is, as you might suspect, not conducive to productive testing.
I think that sight, the image of Gary standing in the hallway, bleary-eyed and feeling awful, made me realize for the first time the essential humanity of Gary Wise.
I’ll be honest – I look up to Gary. I’m not afraid to admit to that, though in certain circles Gary Wise is not the most popular of Magic players. I think I look up to him because he is a natural mentor for me, though that arrangement has never been acknowledged in so many words by either of us. Gary is a human being who has been alive longer, he is a Magic player who has played longer and won more, he is a writer who has written longer. Those things just scream”teacher” to me, though again, we have never passed any words to that effect.
Back when Gary was as deep into the game of baseball as he is into Magic now (and winning baseball pools hand over fist), his friends and acquaintances assumed that he would eventually get a job in some non-playing capacity – general manager, director of a farm system, something like that. They were onto something. He’s a natural teacher, though not the smiling and cajoling type you’ll find in grade schools. The correct word for it is”coach.” If there were such a job as”Magic coach,” that’d be Gary.
I suppose he’ll have to serve in an unofficial capacity until the game grows by about 10,000%…. But I digress. The point I’m trying to drive home is that I look up to Gary, and when he has something to say about Magic, gaming, or whatever, I take the position of attentive student and try to learn something. The fact that I am an introvert while he is an extrovert makes this position seem all the more natural. Sure, I’ll be ignoring any advice he gives on how to be polite, but I figure everything else is fair game.
Until this morning, Gary had always seemed indestructible to me. Always with the situation in hand, never at a loss for words, never rattled. As he was standing there in the hallway, leaning on the doorframe, swathed in rumpled sleep-clothes and the headachy pains of morning, I saw him for probably the first time as just another guy. Someone with obstacles and troubles just like me, difficulties that might take some effort to conquer. A man with problems that might stop him short of his goals, should he not get them in hand.
My illusions were shattered. In the long run, of course, this is good – friendships need to be more two-dimensional than just one guy and his disciple – but it’s nonetheless a strange feeling. I think I know the feeling, too – it’s the one you get when you’re learning something about life.
I guess I should tell you about the rest of the day before I turn in! It’s interesting to watch the Hobart habitants go about their daily business, because more than any group of people I have ever met, they are adept at sneaking in small bouts of gaming fun between more important itinerary items. Today, with a gathering of some import mere moments away, Turian’s bedroom was still packed with people playing online poker and DC-10.
There’s always time for a puzzle.
We’re like smokers, in a way. They have smoke breaks, we have game breaks. The compulsion to immerse oneself in some system of rules and requirements, with an outcome dictated by the strategy applied to a number of gaming pieces and set values, that’s a compulsion that will haunt us our entire lives.
I can think of worse ways to live.
The main feature on Tuesday was the trip to Carnegie-Mellon University, the most famous institution of learning in the history of Magic. According to the locals, every Tuesday night at”The ‘O'” (a CMU eatery specializing in giant fry platters) gamers gather to draft and play other forms of Magic. My wandering eye seemed to register the area around”The O” as pretty straightforward university campus facility – a recreation area with arcade games and tables in close proximity to both the restaurant proper and also the mammoth swimming facility. It was a bustling, lively place, and the time I didn’t spend watching spells hit the table, I was bending my neck to ogle the co-eds.
Our evening excursion was my first trip to any university campus, so I was a little apprehensive. Gary took the initiative and snagged a mammoth plate of fries for the Canadian group, and as I was eating alongside he and JoshR, we not only got to meet and greet a guy that I had clubbed on MODO that morning (a big hello to”wrathofmoocow” – how lucky, am I right?) We also talked to a guy from #mtgwacky named”fante7,” who apparently got his IP nuked for almost a week straight by JoshR’s friend Curtis. Like the old song goes, it’s a small world after all.
The first thing I did while waiting for a team draft to start was park myself behind Nick Eisel and watch him draft, hoping to go to school for a short while on the shoulders of a young man who was at one time the fastest-rising Limited player on the planet. As it turned out, Nick went U/W Soldiers and was immediately cut off midway through pack one, meaning the draft started off like a train wreck. I didn’t stick around to see if he could pull himself out of it, for other games were afoot.
Drafts? You bet. And plenty of ’em.
Before the evening had wound itself to a close, the Eugene/Gary/Mike team had run a couple of team drafts, the first practice drafts for the team since our arrival in Pittsburgh. I even got to play in one of them, where I notched the win with a Dragon Fanged Ancient Ooze! What a beating. More important than my Ooze assault, though, was the fact that Gary and his team mates had finally started to gear up for the white-hot bout of testing in the weeks leading up to Boston, and so had Sotto and JoshR.
Eugene and Rachel participate in a practice Rochester draft.
I learned a lot from watching these players go about their business, but one thing in particular fascinated me, and that was watching Turian’s approach to drafting G/x in the A seat.
“No one drafts green like Mike Turian drafts green,” was how Gary described what I was seeing. I’m pretty sure he was correct.
There are certain conversations that only tired road-trippers can have.
It’s tough to keep up appearances when you’re surrounded by a group of very smart, pop-culture versed friends. I try my best to remain entertaining despite a constantly dwindling supply of”A” material, but of course it isn’t always possible, and sometimes I have to lapse into confused silence, with nothing profound, witty, or amusing to say.
It’s because of my own decreasing ability to keep up with the conversational Joneses (and Bennetts) that I’m glad when things just get goofy. It doesn’t happen often amongst 20+ year olds, but when it does, it’s a rare joy, and conversations that would be inane at any other time or in any other place take on a hilarity that knows no equal. Gary, Josh, and I had one such session tonight. It all started with a guy named Anks.
I’ve talked before about my MODO clan, the Triple J’s, but I’ve never really listed off the membership. You’d recognize most of the names if I did. Only one member is important for the purposes of this story though, and that member is the mighty”Anks”…. First alphabetically in the clan chatroom.
“Why do they call him ‘Anks’?” I asked JoshR, honestly curious.
“His name is Shawn Anquitil,” JoshR was quick to reply,”Though Jurgen has said that his name is actually Shawn Anquitilius.”
That brought a burst of laughter from me. Former Canadian National Champion Jurgen Hahn is quite the character. JoshR went on to explain that according to Jurgen, Anks was not the only name-changer lurking about.”He’s also said that Tom Hanks’ real name is Tom Hankuitilius, and that he changed it for Hollywood.”
Now, both Gary and I were laughing. Why was it funny? I have no idea. But the conversation that followed for the next two or three minutes was a great stress reliever. It was filled with conjecture about the origins of the Hankuitilius clan, suggestions that we spend our time in New York going to see the New York Yankuitiliuses, building decks filled with jankuitilius, and eating tasty, mustard-covered frankuitiliuses.
Sensical? No. Good times? Oh yeah. In the end, we were all laughing, and stupid or not, anything that can bring me such a carefree and easy smile can’t be bad.
And you can take that to the bankuitilius.
Day 4: Wednesday, September 3rd.
Wise returns to form. OMC makes a guest appearance. Alphabet DC-10 Mental Magic. Harsh realizations, coming to grips.
It’s Wednesday, and it pleases me to note that Gary is over his bout of lethargy from yesterday, and ready to draft. Unfortunately, Josh Rider is suffering from the aches and pains that come with folding a six-foot body onto a five-and-a-half foot couch every night, and has taken his place on the disabled list. He doesn’t look comfortable, even now – the very nicks and cuts on his feet, souvenirs from his recent trek across Europe, seem red and angry. Is he asleep? I can’t tell. He could just be watching me type through half-lidded eyes.
A worn-out Josh Rider.
Let me tell you about Wednesday.
Morning was the usual fare (it was McDonalds to kick off the day this time, much to the chagrin of the late Dave Thomas) and the grease had barely started to saturate our stomachs before there was talk of a draft that would begin with the arrival of none other than self-proclaimed CMU lynchpin Nate Heiss. While waiting for him to make his way over to the house, word came down from Gary that StarCityGames might not be doing coverage of Pro Tour: Boston after all, due to server instabilities.
Server instabilities? That’s an onion in the ointment. I had the momentary mental image of Ferrett swearing at his tech support guy, but it was quickly banished from my mind in favor of fresh worry. I was supposed to be on the coverage team and part of the purpose of this very trip was to get me to Boston to fulfill that obligation! No coverage meant no money. No money meant no paying back the people I borrowed from to finance the trip. Not good. Suddenly I was without employment for Boston, and also without purpose – unless you count barning Josh Rider as a purpose. Which I do.
A quick hop on IRC, though, yielded an uplink to just the man I needed to see.
(GT) Any chance I can work for you in Boston?
(OMC) We’ll have something for you to do.
(GT) That sounds pretty vague.
(OMC) Better than nothing.
(GT) Will I be fetching coffee for BDM? Is that what you’ll have me doing?
(GT) …hmm…I wish I hadn’t asked. Is there any way we can return to ambiguity?
(GT) Tough but fair.
Sweet. And of course if you read the coverage of Pro Tour: Boston done on the Sideboard, you know that everything turned out hunky-dory. I think I did a good job. (You did – The Ferrett)
Well, I got to participate in a couple of Team Rochester drafts today, and with each draft I play I see more and more why many people call it the most skill-intensive format in existence. There are hundreds of things you have to keep in mind, not only about your own deck as is the case in any draft, but also about the decks of the opposing team. None of this is news to you, I’m sure, but it bears repeating simply because so many things can go wrong.
Case in point – our team lost an entire draft simply because we didn’t manage to counterdraft a Death’s-Head Buzzard from Eugene Harvey. My deck had four Goblin Turncoats, a Goblin Taskmaster, a Goblin Sledder, and a Goblin Grappler as well as other x/1 creatures like Smokespew Invoker – and despite the Buzzard being insane against me we somehow let it slip through, with disastrous results! With the match deadlocked at 1-1 and Eugene and I at 2-2 in our best of five, he unleashed the Buzzard on my board of Turncoat, Turncoat, Taskmaster and went on to win the game and the match.
An unfortunate loss, but not enough of a setback to prevent my stomach from rumbling. Others were similarly hungry, and we ordered in a pile of food.
Dinner has arrived!
Nate Heiss tries to find something with no carbs while JoshR enjoys a breadstick.
After all was said and done, everyone sat in Turian’s room trying to unwind. It was there that I was introduced to”Alphabet DC-10 Mental Magic” by Paul Sottosanti, who is such a gaming machine that he uses one card game to take a break from another. That’s probably why he’s getting an internship with Wizards and moving to Seattle. (Good luck, Paul!)
The game was played as follows:
Alphabet DC-10 Mental Magic
- Normal mental Magic rules apply, except that you start with no cards in hand and cannot lay any card as a”painless city of Brass.”
- You have infinite mana of any color.
- The game starts at”A” and you can only play cards that begin with the chosen letter. For example, an Uktabi Orangutan could be played on turn 1 as an Alpha Kavu.
- Once you play a spell with the letter in question, the next spell has to begin with the next letter (i.e.”B”) and so on.
- The last and most important point – any time a player has priority, he or she may”advance” the letter forward once by paying 1 life. So you could move”A” to”D” by paying three life if you really wanted to cast Dismiss instead of Argivian Restoration.
Paul and I quickly made a discovery – lifegain is broken in the format! Since a lot of the strategy involves shifting the current letter around by paying life, something as simple as Natural Spring (which I cast multiple times!) can grant you tremendous freedom. Despite my best efforts, though, Paul won all but two of our matches over the course of the week. It was either his massive intellect, or the fact that he had Turian, Rider, and Harvey helping him while I had exactly no one. Take your pick.
Eugene and Andrew Cuneo play a modified version of DC10.
Throughout the evening, Gary was drafting up a storm on MODO. Two or three times per night lately. He’s serious about shaking off all his”draft rust.” I wonder if he’ll be as sharp as he was at PT NY 2000 when we get to Boston?