What’s the first thing you do after a 12 hour series of flights from Chicago to Europe? Play a prerelease, amiright?
After my girlfriend Jess and I arrived in Brussels and were scooped up by Marijn Lybaert and his lovely partner Kelly we headed to Ghent, a small city just up the road from where The Bear lives in Aalst for a Sunday prerelease. Before we get too involved in our story it’s important to know a great number of things are different in Europe than America. Electrical outlets are arranged differently for example. The light switches are more futuristic. Roads are considerably narrower (a fact it seems no European driver has ever been informed of with their high speeds and careening turns and oh my God Marijn look out I think it’s a kid on a bike for God’s sake would you slow down!). Prereleases are no exception and when Marijn asked if I wanted to go I had a very specific image in my mind. We’d drive to a local venue somewhere at which dozens of players would be filling out decklists and/or drafting in continuous running events that go throughout the weekend. This is how it works at home and, unlike the rest of life I figured, why would Magic work any different in Europe?
I don’t have that answer, but I do know “prereleases” in Belgium at least run for two weekends back to back and that, unlike at home, players simply sign up for one main event and battle it out. We arrived to see somewhere near 40 players waiting in line at the Church where it was being held (Pius X, celebrating 50 years of existence in beautiful Ghent!). For 25 euro you were in and the fatigue that had been whispering at the back of my consciousness following a full day of no rest turned into a throbbing hum when M informed me we’d be battling for six rounds. Ai chihuahua.
We waited for our pools and I took in our surroundings. The church we were at was pretty small and, like everything else in the Old World, not quite the image an American has in mind when someone says “church” at home in the States. On one side of the room was the church bar where you could belly up to order beer, gas water, Coca Cola, coffee, and all manner of drink (just remember no tipping; that’s such an American thing to do). On the wall was a sign that read the name of the bar “Delirium Tremens” a play on one of the most noticeable side effects of alcoholism. Underneath it was a placard outlining the house rules for poker at the church.
So. They had a bar with a cheeky alcoholism reference, house poker rules, and they were hosting a Magic tournament? How pious could this Pious X have possibly been?
After a while I relaxed and took in the experience of listening to everyone else at a Magic tournament speak an entirely different language than myself. The judge, who had sought me out before the tournament began to verify I was an American, made his opening announcements in English. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was the reason for that but I’ve played enough prereleases to know how things go and after six rounds I had emerged the victor though they mistakenly gave first prize to a different person (hmmmm…a Belgian, as I recall. How suspicious…). The tournament was a blast to play, prizes aside… the payout was much lower than what we might expect in America (being crowned winner at the end of six rounds netted you 18 boosters). Still, it would have been nice to nab the t-shirt that said “Belgium prerelease winner” for posterity’s sake.
Magic is the world’s game
It never ceases to amaze me how small the world is, or how large the game of Magic is. As Jess and I headed in to Brussels for some touristing on our first actual day in Belgium, we were met by an odd site upon exiting the train. I was CERTAIN I recognized the curly haired gentleman with his suitcase standing on the platform near us. I knew saying anything would merit but an eyeroll from my traveling partner, as she already believes I think I “see” far too many people I’m certain I recognize as it is.
Still, there was something different about the guy on the platform. I didn’t recognize him as someone specific; he simply had an aura of familiarity. Who was he?
We didn’t wait to find out and headed to the information area for a map of the surrounding city; museums and sites and souvenirs beckoned more hastily then wasting time chasing gooses. As we stood trying to navigate the brochure we had been given (Jess: “Bill, this map says it’s for South London…”) there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned slowly and there he was.
“Excuse me?” He asked in American English. “Are you Bill Stark?”
And there it was. Thousands of miles from home, thousands of miles from the States, and disconnected entirely (or so I thought) from Magic for a day. And yet here was a clear reminder I wasn’t. The guy with the suitcase turned out to be Alex, a guy who you might remember from the Grand Prix: Vancouver coverage if I could only remember his surname. He explained he was on his way back from travels in Israel and since he was going to be in the area anyway… might as well play a Grand Prix, right? We exchanged pleasantries and discussed Brussels and the Grand Prix Trials before parting ways to see each other again at the tournament site. He would manage to Top 8 the GPT in Brussels just a few days afterwards.
Later that afternoon as Jess and I toured the Belgian Museum of Comic Strips it happened again. Bushed from a long day of sightseeing I was waiting on a bench people-watching while Jess sought out a gift for a friend at home. Person after person passed by, some speaking one language others speaking another, no baseball caps or flip flops and somehow “European,” in a sense that perhaps they weren’t “European” at all but simply “human,” and the romantic idea of “Europe” was simply too much for my chubby American brain to put aside.
A herd of school children stopped to play with a Volkswagen on display, pushing up and down on its bumper and chasing each other around rocket statues, replicas on display from the Belgian comic “Tintin.” Their attendant swooped in to chastise them and pull them back into line. He was average height and fashionable; his Dolce and Gabbana hat was positioned just so on his head and every wrinkle on his shirt seemed meticulously planned out down to his low cut jeans faded to exact specifications to match the factory worn look of the aforementioned hat. Slung over his shoulder was a satchel, slightly off color from the rest of what he was wearing, but a close approximation.
It was the satchel that caught my eye. There was something on it, a flash of familiarity as he had turned to tend to his flock and I perked up from my somnambulic state watching passersby to get a closer look. From behind him two children fell out of line again and the teacher quickly turned to chastise them. There it was, as plain as day: emblazoned on the satchel was the full sized Magic logo from Worlds Paris.
I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me anymore, seeing Magic twice in one day while half a world away from home. It’s like running into Brian Kowal at the Prague Castle and picking up an extra traveling companion while in the Czech Republic. Or playing cards on a train with German schoolkids out of the blue because Brandon Scheel was wearing his Pro Tour shirt and they happened to be shuffling their decks as we got on. It’s like prowling the back streets of Valencia with a group of Americans and Belgians to find, on a completely random corner in a completely hidden section of town, miles away from the nearest Magic retailer, a poster for the game put up as if to tease us; certainly not to appeal to the customer base who couldn’t possibly be spending that much time in Valencian back-alleys near coffee shops.
They say the world is a book, and that if you don’t travel you’ve only read a single page. Magic has always made me feel like perhaps I’ve skimmed ahead just a little, or that no matter what chapter I’m dropped into, I’ll have a base for relating to some of the characters I’ll meet. Even if you take away the countless games played, put aside the dozens of friends, the thousands of miles traveled, the hotels shared, the good times spent, the pure enjoyment of it all, even if you took all of those things away I’d still be satisfied to have a pastime that provided me that advantage in life.
Magic. What a game.
To many Americans Europe is an amorphous “foreign country” with a homogenous identity and interchangeable cultures, peoples, and places to visit. Of course, reality is the opposite of that, with multitudes of countries each having their own distinct identity, language, culture, way of life, etc. much as a Texan might bristle at being called a New Yorker only moreso. Belgium, however, is an even more unique case in this regard.
For comparison, let’s look at how large the country is using my native Iowa as a gauge both because they’re similar and because I know there are a multitude of Iowans reading this article at this very moment (hiya Yung Blud!). Belgium is slightly SMALLER than the entire state of Iowa, but population wise has over five times as many people inhabiting it (11 million to our 2 million). Unlike Iowa, however, Belgium consists of two very distinct geographic regions: Wollonia and Flanders. In one they speak Dutch and their culture has a distinct Netherlands flavor to it. On the other side of the country (and in the capital Brussels) they speak French and live a lifestyle that might feel right at home on the Champs Elysees. They speak different languages, have different cultures, and yes, have difficulty communicating with one another in their non-native tongues.
Of course, the Magic community isn’t exempted from this and the public forum they use to communicate runs into problems of translations wherein the French Belgian players want to speak French while the Dutch Belgian players want Dutch and all have to settle on English as a happy medium. Naturally using your second language as your primary means of communication can lead to breakdowns in understanding as players make incorrect translations or use the regionally influenced English dialects they’re familiar with (ask an American what a lift, lorry, or loo is and they’ll return a blank stare, but any Brit on the face of the planet will direct you to the nearest escalator, cargo truck, or bathroom).
Playing in this environment I couldn’t help but imagine an Iowa in which Cheeks, Scheel, Kyle Mechler, and the rest of the Des Moines/Ames players spoke German while Andy Hanson, Blake Rasmussen, and myself all spoke Spanish. I suppose part of the problem in imagining that scenario is that you have to picture a group of Americans speaking a second language, but it speaks to the attitude of the Belgian community and of Europe in general. Speaking of which…
It’s an unfortunate circumstance of America’s isolation that we view “other cultures” and “other languages” with such disdain while more global communities like Europe (connected to two other continents while we’re simply connected to the one) incorporate learning a second language and visiting the cultures of those around them into school curriculums. I think this is in part because of how isolated North Americans are, or more appropriately how isolated we perceive ourselves to be.
Europe is a nation of first world developed countries. The colonies, on the other hand, and Canada to the north, is a conglomeration of only two countries that view themselves to be first world developed nations and whose cultures are mostly the same (Quebec I haven’t forgotten you, and I think what you’re doing is great, but you’re a statistical anomaly). When you view all of your neighbors as like you even though they’re different in many regards it becomes a lot easier to reason learning their language, customs, and beliefs instead of imposing all of yours on them as they immigrate to work, visit, and play in your country. Welcome to Europe.
These attitudes are reflected in our playing communities, with Europeans utilizing a common default language taught in most schools throughout the region (English) to communicate from France to Germany and Germany to Portugal etc. while Americans act indignantly while playing those who don’t speak their language or who don’t do so as their mother tongue. Why travel the world and see the sights other places have to offer if those sights aren’t in English, aren’t American, and worse don’t serve AMERICAN FOOD? One pro who shall go unnamed even referred to Pro Tour: Valencia as “Pro Tour: Mexico.”
Not all is rosy regarding foreign affairs in Europe. Stereotypes exist for North African migrants just as they exist for South American migrants in the U.S. and problems with Muslim communities arise here just as they do at home (meaning problems of cultural misunderstanding, economic opportunity, religious differences, etc. not that either side of the fence is specifically to blame). Stereotypes, distrust, and other matters of xenophobia exist, but it saddens me to see so many friends here able to fluently move between so many different cultures while I’m left offering up anglicized Spanish I didn’t REALLY start learning until college and staring blankly at anyone who asks me a question in Dutch, French, German…
When Americans shield themselves in the blanket of “otherness,” reasoning out why we shouldn’t HAVE to learn a “foreign” language or concern ourselves with the cultures of our neighbors globally or closer to home, we penalize only ourselves and our future generations. Traveling at least is an inoculation against that reality, but I’m afraid not enough people do it.
On Thursday Marijn and I headed into Ghent again for a day of drafting to get a handle on the format before competing at the GP. We met a cavalcade of other players throughout the day who each wanted to sharpen their teeth in preparation for the event (thanks to Peter, Pascal, David, Kim, Christoph, and everyone else who was there) and I managed to 3-0, 1-2, 1-2, 2-1. I felt comfortable with the results as I was feeling I had a good read on drafts. The first 1-2 was with an Elsewhere Flask deck that was better than its record, but I wasn’t playing tightly and it cost me. The other results seemed accurate, and I was excited to have been able to try two different archetypes that sort of fell into my lap.
The first was my 3-0 deck which abused Power of Fire, a card going criminally late at our first pod and which is easily abusable in conjunction with Pili Pala, Merrow Wavebreakers, and Silkbind Faerie. I had 3 copies of both Pili and the Power as well as 2 Silkbinds and a copy of the Wavebreakers, meaning I almost always had a means of playing the aura on an untapper. It didn’t hurt that I had a solid Blue base beyond that, with the UB Fuguelord. In fact, throughout the draft I thought I was in the Dimir Guild but I realized during deck building that most of the cards I had drafted could simply be slid into a mono-Blue core with the Power of Fires splashed via Pili Pala and a duo of Mountains. That made the manabase a whole lot smoother and I was happy with the results.
The second deck I was able to draft which was a lot of fun happened entirely by accident through maintaining flexibility throughout the draft and taking what came my way. It happened when I was gifted a second pick Corrupt, which I happily snapped up. The uncommon is “good” as that type of card should be, but the problem in the SSS format is that Black is pretty weak and you have to be REAL Black to play Corrupt. I went back and forth on colors through the first pack before settling on Green, assuming I would be cutting the Corrupt.
The second pack changed that, however, as I opened a second copy of the card, was passed a third, then picked up a Jaws of Stone. All of a sudden I had a skeleton for a deck and began aggressively taking Elsewhere Flasks to go with the deck. I rounded out the third pack with the Wolf token generator to add to my land based concoction, then a Prismatic Omen. If I hadn’t drafted all of those cards, however, I did have trips Presence of Gond and Pili Pala again and would have utilized that combo instead. Still, since I had already done that once on the day I figured broadening my horizons a little was called for and I was happy with how the deck played out, though through my own mistakes I cost myself at least one match.
By the time you read this you’ll know how my story in Belgium ends in regards to the Grand Prix. When we return next week I’ll close my time here at StarCityGames by recapping the event, photo essaying, and covering everything I can before I start my time at Wizards for the next half year.
See you then.
*Bonus Elves Sideboard with Shadowmoor*
3 Kitchen Finks
3 Mercy Killing
3 Elvish Hexhunter
3 Door of Destiny