The Story Of Us

So, a naked walks into a bar, with Squee under one arm and a three-foot in the other. She sets the Staff down on the bar, and the bartender says… I’m sure there’s a punchline there somewhere, but I’m just not coming up with it. If you can think of one, email me and I’ll…

So, a naked Serra Angel walks into a bar, with Squee under one arm and a three-foot Chimeric Staff in the other. She sets the Staff down on the bar, and the bartender says…

I’m sure there’s a punchline there somewhere, but I’m just not coming up with it. If you can think of one, email me and I’ll share the best ones.

There’s a group of us here on Star City who regularly correspond, and on a whim, inspired by intense boredom caused by recovery from illness ascertained from some disease-infested coworker (that’ll teach me to work for Kathie Lee), I typed up my Magic history, celebrating the path that brought me to where I am today: Mike Mason, Fairly Good Player ™.

I enjoyed typing it, amazed once again at the way that my participation and interest in Magic has ebbed and flowed, and it inspired some other stories to be shared. Where do we all come from? No, I’m not speaking philosophically, dammit; I’m speaking in terms of our backgrounds. Some people have played Magic from the beginning ("…And on the Eighth Day, WotC restricted Black Vise"), and some have picked it up like a cheap trollop, planning to discard it at their leisure, only to find out they can’t resist its allure and keep coming back for more – and it’s more expensive each time. Star City, in many ways, is about those stories, about the commonalities that bind together those that enjoy the game not just for the sake of winning, but also for (original concept here) the pure enjoyment of the game.

As Rizzo put it so eloquently, "StarCity celebrates the original innocence or stuff like that."

How can you argue with a guy who refers to himself in the third person? (By referring to yourself in the second person – We Ferrett)

Please, no emailing me with answers to that question. (Too late – We Ferrett)

Everything starts in innocence, including my Magic "career." What else do you call it? "Hobby" doesn’t seem to do it justice, after all, and as a person who participates in tournaments regularly, and who trains for it like it’s a freakin’ Olympic trial at times, it goes well beyond a common pastime. It’s a career, dammit, just one that has much more outgo than income.

My roots are the prototypical ones – played Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu religiously (what an odd turn of phrase THAT is; no wonder fundamentalists worry), love sci-fi and fantasy, and love cards. I love to be entertained.

::clapping hands for harem of dancers::

Ah, much better. Back to the article.

In August of 1993 I was entering my junior year of college. My friend and GM, Scott Forster, was working at a local comic store that had received a new game called – of course – Magic: The Gathering. He told me about it, and it seemed right up my alley. Cards? With swords and sorcery and stuff? Awesome. He sent me a starter deck and a pair of Beta boosters, and I opened them quickly and said, "Yep – it looks cool." However, my college friends weren’t interested in playing, and the cards sat on my desk, unused, ne’er to be looked at again.

Well, you know what that means – I missed collecting Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited. By the time I became involved in Magic on a regular basis, Arabian Nights was out, and I quickly discovered I loved the game. I remember losing bitterly to Scott’s 75+ card deck of "Lightning Bolts, Shivans, and mountains" before there was the Rule of 4. Despite the fact that he dominated, it was a fun game. Maybe I’m a masochist.

Thank you, sir, may I have another? *Spank.*

Despite my enjoyment of it (the game, the game!), and my purchasing of several Arabian and Antiquities packs, it was still merely a game. My playgroup became a bunch of people who lived near me; one guy, Todd, had an amazing comprehension of fundamental strategy. I didn’t see Scott too much, but played with Todd and constantly lost to his green/red/blue monstrosity, full of – I’m sure I can name the deck by heart – Scryb Sprites, Flying Men, Giant Growth, Unstable Mutation, Kird Ape, Lightning Bolt, Berserk, Fork, Mishra’s Factories, and Psionic Blasts. It was a beating. Ironically, precisely because he kept kicking the hell out of me with his decks, I turned toward the one color that offered me survival: White.

My love affair with white was born from desperation and the need to simply survive enough in order to avoid the four-turn goldfish. I learned the value of Healing Salve, of Savannah Lions, of Blessing and Plowshares. I played white almost exclusively, and began my pattern of control decks. I remember when I realized that I could put Old Man of the Sea in and REALLY mess with his world, when every attempt to kill me was stifled. No, I didn’t really grasp the power of counterspells yet – I had blue/white board control, but everything he cast got through. Counterspell? That’s freakin’ stupid. Why would you want to waste one of your spells stopping one of his when you could drop a Serra Angel?

Sigh. We all learn. Despite this, I was good at defensiveness (just ask my former girlfriends), and Todd quickly grew to hate white and to despise every card of that color as being unbalanced – a view I’m sure he still holds. (Even when you played Balance? – The Ferrett)

When Legends came out, I didn’t have the resources to purchase many cards. Our group grew to five people, and we played multiplayer. One guy managed to swindle me out of several at-the-time valuable cards, because I wasn’t kosher to the collectibility aspect of it. He’d beat us over the head with his Nicol Bolas in multiplayer games regularly. ::chuckle:: But I did have some savvy, and all I insisted on trading for was multicolored lands. I wanted a full set of them (which, by the way, I have – yay!). He can have the Acid Rain, dammit – I have Tropical Islands. Legends was full of incredible spells.

"Summon Dakkon Blackblade."
::collective scoop::

Of course, we chuckle at that now. But at the time, those Legends? A lot of them were pretty damn cool. I discovered the joys of recursion with Adun Oakenshield. Halfdane was great. I played Johan beatdown, Nebuchadnezzar discard. My boys Kei Takahashi and Tor Wauki defied attempts to threaten me with creatures.

And Underworld Dreams, sigh. Oh yes, Underworld Dreams/Howling Mine: my first "combo."

::moment of silence::

Fast forward to the next release: The Dark, which was advertised along the lines of "spooky, twisted Magic." Well, yes, it was spooky and twisted, because it sucked. Please don’t hold up a few cards as defense for the set. Ball Lightning does not an incredible expansion make. (But… but the Dark is when *I* started! – The Ferrett, having that same bizarre feeling he gets when trying to explain to his daughter that not only DID he like, but on some level still really digs, Def Leppard) Some cards I adored, like Preacher and Witch Hunter. But overall? The mechanics were unwieldy and beginning to be complex, as Magic started to try a little too hard. What came next? Fallen Empires. Gak.

Then, Ice Age. Gak again.

The speed, the joy, and the interactions of the game… they were gone. Things slowed to a drudging (sacrifice target expansion to draw one disgruntled audience) halt, and I realized I wasn’t going to waste any more money on these cards. Now, I had a rudimentary grasp of strategy and game theory, but of course was still a relative amateur. The cards seemed worthless and silly to me.

I’d entered a couple of tournaments before that – small ones, both at colleges a few hours away. My first tournament, I ran a white weenie "unbeatable" deck (the evolution of the aforementioned Lions/Blessing deck. Thunder Spirit with Blessing? That’s game, baby. Plus it quotes Watership Down, how cool is that?), called "White Lightning." Guess what? I was beaten. Fairly severely, too.

Thank you, sir, may I have another? *Spank again*

Scott and Todd and I drove to Rolla, Mo. for a tournament. This is the same tourney Will Rieffer was at, though we didn’t know each other then. It was quite a hotspot at the time for Magic. I don’t remember what I played; I don’t remember how I did. What I remember (aside from the late-at-night hilarity of "tap to regenerate a breadstick" – ok, had to be there) was that we drove home and Todd realized he had left his cards at Pizza Hut. Not just his deck, but also a huge box of cards that he’d brought with him, virtually his entire collection.

He called Pizza Hut first thing the next morning, and no cards were to be found. This was tragic, because he was so demoralized that he stopped playing. When he found out that he wasn’t going to be able to play with some of his favorite cards, now banned, restricted, or out of print, he figured it wasn’t worth trying to replenish (I didn’t really type that word, did I? ::shudder::) his collection.

We all stopped playing; Scott and I didn’t live close enough to play frequently, and without Todd to throw Spirits at, my play became very sporadic. .

We’d play the occasional multiplayer; as a break between roleplaying games (hey now) and Sega hockey on weekends. My multiplayer rule was to play burn, and not to do anything, and simply to punish anyone who dared offend me by focusing the brunt of my assault on him. It worked. I also played with another group of people, one of whom was a pastor at a local church. However, I didn’t follow the tournament scene, and Magic was severely in the realm of "game."

Not a career, not yet. For some reason, we decided to go to the Visions prerelease. We even dragged Todd along with us, who had somewhat managed to restore his collection by buying a collection of cards for $75 that included a Mox, a couple of Chaos Orbs, and a whole slew of beta/unlimited cards that make it quite the bargain purchase now. He restored his Scryb Sprite beatdown deck and started to play again with it in the comfort of my living room.

Visions prerelease, however, was fascinating. It was the first "large" tournament that I’d been to, that wasn’t held in low lighting in the back room of someone’s outhouse. I didn’t do too well – nor did Todd, and that effectively ended his playing days for good. Visions rekindled my interest in Magic. I had missed out on a lot of the "revival" of Magic with Alliances and Mirage, but the environment was fun again, fast again, and clever again. Yet I still didn’t really get into it until around the time of Tempest and Stronghold.

For some reason, that’s around the time interest started kicking in for good. Stronghold, Exodus, I enjoyed. When Saga came out, everything was full-fledged, and Scott and I nurtured each other’s addiction as better-paying jobs and more free time combined into some hideous monstrosity.

I was horrible – winning was as foreign to me as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But the competition was fun, and because I had a knack for rogue decks, I’d go 2-4 but have a good time seeing people’s reactions to my goofy decks. I wish I had some of the decklists, still, for I’d love to share them, but they are unfortunately lost to the winds. I fell in love with certain control decks like Stasis, rush decks like White Weenie (still – sigh – a warm spot in my heart). And, over the course of time, I’ve actually become a Fairly Good Player(tm).

Urza’s Saga is probably the set where things started to make sense. I’m not sure why; perhaps because I devoted enough energy to it, perhaps I have a slow learning curve. With Apprentice being available and with time to spare, I played and played and played, went to tournaments, and started actually developing.

I started seeing the game differently and understanding the interactions. The moment I saw Parallax Tide at the Nemesis pre-release, I went to a judge and asked them what would happen if Ankh of Mishra was in play. They had no idea and had to look it up and get back to me – and though Will has rightfully taken the Ankh-Tide moniker from me, it’s one of my favorite decks. I caused some chagrin soon thereafter while placing 4th at one of our local stores, The Gathering Ground, with my funky, not-really-heard of combo in conjunction with Flailing Soldiers and Stone Rains and Hoodwinks and Boomerangs. I’ve received a few "wow… neat deck" compliments, which really are the best that a rogue deck can receive. The 4th place finish was my first placing, and though I may never win the big prize, I can expect to perform well on any given day if I keep my head on straight.

The Internet has redefined deck building. Even the roguest of rogue deckbuilders often find that someone, somewhere, has come up with the same idea. I finished 3rd in the Masques Block PTQ with a roguish red/white Mageta/Kris Mage/Arc Mage/Squee deck, have made Top 4 twice more and Top 8 a handful more. A bridesmaid, yes, but a happy one, since the decks were of my own creation.

Really, the key to my Magic development was stretching out to include other colors in my decks – like red. I know, shock (no pun intended). And green. I can’t get the hang of black. I can as a supplemental color, but never really could play it that well. White, blue, and red are my favorites. and I absolutely love recursion, and love to subject opponents to the many ways to abuse a graveyard. I hate to use standard netdecks; the only ones I’ve ever really loved are certain Extended ones, like Survival (there’s that recursion), CounterSliver (just my kind of deck), Iron Phoenix, and Oath. I prefer the Standard environment, though, where I see the game evolve much more. I have many wonderful rogue ideas and many that fall completely flat on their face, but the joy is in the creation, and if some goofy-ass ™ idea works right just once or twice, it’s worth it. I like to take existing archetypes and present a new way of looking at things.

It reminds me of the time I lost to Scott while I had something on the order of 8,000,000 life, because I ran out of cards.

True story.

It’s all about stories, isn’t it? Even Magic has unfolded as a story – and regardless of your opinion of the characters of Magic, there are stories there worth enjoying, particularly as the Invasion unfolds. Most of all, we players have stories, many of them interesting, many of them not, but stories that unify us from the first booster pack we open to the thousandth, with all of the cursing in between.

And joy, too, can’t forget joy.

Anyway, if anyone read this far, thanks for being interested. If you have a story, share it with me. For those who don’t want any non-strategy, apologies, but shouldn’t you have stopped reading by now?

Strategy is a-comin’. Bear with me, and perhaps soon we’ll look at some cards in an entirely new light.


"It was full of fire and smoke and light and it drove between us and the Efrafans like a thousand thunderstorms with lightning." — Richard Adams, Watership Down