The Year Of The Rat

In this week’s article, Todd does what he does best and puts his own unique twist on an end-of-the-year retrospective. Check it out and let him know what you think!

I sit outside as the fresh winter wind begins to blow. Softly at first, until huge gusts come along to push the leaves down the street. I watch them, imagining that they are people strolling by without a care in the world. The orange glow from the streetlight seems to reach out, stretching along the sidewalk to dance with the leaves and wind. They seem to know each other.

I sit there, cigarette in hand, as the short bursts of cold air make the ember glow deep. I drag down another breath of sweet, sweet death and wonder what I should write about as the minutes slowly creep by. This year . . .

This stupid f***ing year.

Does it ever get easier? Does life always have to get in the way? Can any of us ever actually be happy with where we are or is that just the way we’re built? Do we strive for something greater or are we just greedy? Some primordial force pushing us toward . . . what exactly?

I rock back and forth on my front porch, taking for granted the fact that I’m lucky enough to have a house, a wife, and a job. The only thing I can think about is what I’ve lost because I’m too stupid and too stubborn to see what I’ve gained.

I fiddle with the screen on my phone, imagining calling all of my old friends one by one and seeing how they’re doing. That notion passes. We cover up the wounds with dirt and leaves. No need to bring them out again. Not until we have to. Not until we’re ready.

I take one last look at the numbers staring back at me on the screen and think of broccoli soup, anything to warm these bones on this winter night. Too bad there is no soup to be had.

Too bad indeed.

Ah, yes. It’s that time of the year again. You know, the time when every person in the Magic community likes to sit back and wax majestic about how awesome their year was. You get to hear stories like:

“Then there was this one tournament where I won! And it was all because of the hard work I put into improving my game! Boy howdy, that Master of Waves is a good card!”

This is the time of year when depending on your view Magic content is either enlightening or incredibly boring. To be fair, the fault doesn’t necessarily lie on the shoulders of the voices. There is a huge lull in tournaments at the end of December, and there isn’t a whole lot to talk about. Except maybe how to fix everything or possibly just pointing out the flaws in various systems so that they work better for you.

But that would be in bad taste.

Standard is basically solved. Modern is still boring. And do you really want to read more about True-Name Nemesis in Legacy? So what is a writer to do?

But still, we must write to give you something to read. And let’s face it, you are going to come here and read these articles just like everyone else because your holiday season is just as boring as everyone else’s. You will probably visit your family and sit around in the living room for a few hours checking out Baby Huey’s newest Cube draft or watching Brad obliterate me with Skullclamp powered Ravager Affinity in our recent Versus video.

But me? This is generally the time of year where I dig through a cramped closet for an old video game that I used to love.

Super Mario RPG and Super Metroid.

Heroes of Might and Magic VIII.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas.

And I just play. I stay up all night, skirt my duties around the house, and just let go for a while. Envelop myself. Refresh. Reset. Recharge.

Sometimes it’s healthy to get away for a while from all the nonchalant nonsense of everyday life. When your life revolves around a game, sometimes all you need is a different game as a distraction. Sometimes those games actually help you look at things differently.

When I was younger, I was a regular at a comic book shop in Birmingham, Alabama. I knew it as Empire Comics, but eventually the name had to change to Legion Comics due to a dispute over the name. But for me that place was a second home. One of my best friends, Edward Cunningham, was the full-time comic jockey behind the register, and I would sit for hours on a disgusting old couch, strumming the pages of Preacher, Transmetropolitan, The Walking Dead, and countless others. Back then all I wanted to do was escape, and I found solace in so many outlandish stories and became overwhelmed by their grandeur.

The universes I picked through had so much left to be explored, and I wanted to search every freaking inch of it for Easter eggs, small bits of information that someone else had missed, just so I could say “did you catch that reference in Invincible?” The back stock of trade paperbacks made for hours and hours of entertainment all while Ed fed me his favorites and played awesome music over the store speakers.

It was a paradise of sorts. An oasis meant for me and people like me.

So I went there nearly every single day after school and most weekends. I would run into the other regulars who would come to the shop after work and tell stories about this one campaign they ran back in the day where their Level 15 Barbarian just so happened to roll back-to-back-to-back 20s and snap-kill a dragon. I told them all I needed to kill a dragon was a Terror, and they’d laugh.

And on occasion someone would introduce the group to a new game. My personal favorite was Magi Nation. I attribute a lot of Magic cards to Magi Nation cards I used to play with. For example:


Doesn’t that look a lot like Pithing Needle?

Not to mention that the core of the game centered on cards that were basically planeswalkers. Did I mention that this game came out over thirteen years ago? To say that I fell in love with the game would be an understatement. The mechanics, the interactions, and even the combo decks just felt like a different version of Magic but still kept its own unique style. I drowned myself in it, as did our entire playgroup. For a while Magic took a backseat. But it was always like that. A cycle of weeks or sometimes months where we would all take a break from Magic to try something new.

And then one day a few old-school Magic players would come up to the shop to play some casual games. Me with the newest iteration of some terrible brew I’d been working on, Cameron with his quasi-competitive black deck, Erwin with his U/G Deja Vu Tempo deck, and Blair with his “tournament” deck that everyone else hated. And Paul, the owner of the shop, with his untouched-since-1999 honed Portcullis and Avalanche Riders semi-combo monstrosity. How could I ever win?

Yet I kept coming back because there was something intangible in the air. Maybe it was the asbestos. Maybe it was that acrid mixture of sweat and mold. But I think it was just the feeling of being around other people who also didn’t have much place else to go. For a lot of us Empire was our living room around Christmas. But instead of just reading articles on our phones, we actually interacted with each other. We played games, talked about old-school decks, discussed the ramifications of comic books in movies with the release of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man. We acted like nothing else mattered because to us nothing else did.

Just that afternoon. That hour. That one moment where someone told a joke and you couldn’t help but giggle. I mean, how did ol’ Ricky Four-Fingers end up with only four fingers? To this day I still don’t know.

They say that in life you don’t get to choose your family but you do get to choose your friends. In all honesty, I think that your friends—your good friends—end up becoming closer to you than your family. But just like family, your friends grow up too. They move away. You move away. Life gets in the way, and you stop calling them just like you stopped calling your mom and dad and brother and sister and . . . everyone.

The phone works both ways! Or at least that’s always the excuse you use to stuff that guilty feeling back down for a few more weeks or months.

This year has been pretty difficult for me. For quite some time, I was at peace in Roanoke, Virginia. I had a nice little group of friends, a new house, a loving wife, and quite a few kitties that enjoyed puking on everything I own. Luckily, I still have most of these things. But just like every other time in my life, my friends started to move away, and suddenly everything changed.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I hate change. It seeps into my bones and just simmers. Just aches. So I dig my heels in deep and try to lose myself in the game again. Anything to give myself a few minutes of peace.

Lately I’ve been trying out this new thing where I try not to play so much Magic, but after a while I get roped back in. Like the tide, I never stay out for too long. And when I come rushing back in, boy you can bet the levies will runneth over.

Just today I played Magic Online for ten hours or so. Daily Events, eight-man queues, Cube drafts. I did it all and somehow managed to burn up all my event tickets.

Wom wom.

Is this interesting to you? This is my life. As boring as much of it may seem, I can assure you that the exciting parts are also very boring. But at least I’m doing what I love to do; in this life that counts for a lot.

Everyone else seems to be reminiscing about the year 2013, but I honestly don’t have too many fond memories. I would much rather share with you some of my experiences over the course of my life that mattered more to me and not focus on just one year where my performances were mediocre. I mean, we can’t all be Sam Black and Top 8 every single event we play.

But this is the Year of the Rat!

What started as an annoying Limited bomb has turned into a serious Standard contender, ultimately playing an important part in my most recent success. With the release of Theros into Standard, a lot of things changed. Mono-Black Control, which is a deck that people always try to build (and usually fail) somehow ended up on top of everything.

Ever since Pro Tour Theros, I knew that Mono-Black Devotion was an absurd deck, if not the best deck. Mono-Blue Devotion has a great argument, but when the two meet in the finals of a major tournament, Mono-Black almost always squeaks out the win. Whether it’s on the back of Pack Rat or Gary Merchant of Waffle House, it just gets the “W.”

Max Brown at the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas.

Owen Turtenwald at Grand Prix Albuquerque.

All three of these major tournaments ended in a Mono-Black victory, and two of them featured Mono-Blue in the finals with Mono Black coming out on top. To be fair, nearly all of the pilots playing Mono-Blue had to defeat Mono-Black multiple times to make it to the finals, but the same can be said from the other side. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that these two decks are clearly above the rest of the decks in Standard as far as strength and consistency is concerned.

If you’re going to attend a Standard event before the release of Born of the Gods, I highly recommend picking whichever of these two decks suits your playstyle best. I think I’ll be sticking with Pack Rat for a little while longer.

For me, 2013 is the year where I got back to the Pro Tour. I didn’t have as much success on the StarCityGames.com Open Series, but I did Top 8 two Grand Prix, which counts for a lot in my book. I will be going to Valencia, Spain to participate in Pro Tour Born of the Gods in 2014. That is already a step up from 2013.

It’s hard to quantify success when it comes to Magic, especially in the current era when there are so many tournaments going on every single weekend. Which ones count, and do others count for more? What should matter more to you: the money, size of event, or the prestige associated with the event?

What I do know is that I can be pretty decent when I’m putting my nose to the grindstone. I just have to want to work for it. I’m not going to tell you how awesome the next year is going to be because I don’t know how I’ll feel a year from now when I sit down to write another article like this one. But what I do know is that I have a lot more to strive for with the StarCityGames.com Players’ Championship on the line and I have a lot of events coming up over the next few weeks. We’ll just have to take it one step at a time and see how far Pack Rat will take me.