Back when I played Magic competitively, I wore many hats. I was a player, a judge, a vendor, and a reporter. Of all those things, I’m undoubtedly best
known for my willingness to travel to Grand Prix events anywhere in the world. I played Magic in places like South Africa, Chile, Russia, and Australia
among many others. If there were ever a Grand Prix: Afghanistan, I probably would’ve been there, playing a Top 8 match against a camel.
It’s impossible to attend so many events without accumulating some pretty cool stories. In this article, I’m going to share some of my favorites, from
four corners of the world.
North America – How To Impulse Like A Pro
You don’t have to fly to Japan in order to get a feel for what it’s like to be on the road. You do it when you and your friends pile up
into the car at an ungodly hour of the morning for that long ride to a tournament. Back in the early days of my Magic career, this was no different.
We’d get into Mike Pustilnik’s Saturn and be on our way to exotic PTQ locales like Industrial Center, New Jersey, or
Middle-of-Nowheresburg, Pennsylvania. We used to say “New Jersey is just like hell, except you have to pay tolls to get there.” Some things
Mike drove the same way he played Magic — slowly and deliberately. This worked well for him — he was willing to drive just about anywhere
for a Pro Tour. Mike made multiple car trips to California in his college days, so anything closer must have seemed a short hop by comparison. One day,
as Mikey P., Hogan Long, and I were cruising at a steady 50 mph down the New Jersey turnpike, we managed to come up with one of the first ever
Magic-related internet memes.
The resulting masterpiece was “How to Impulse like a Pro,” and it poked fun at various Magic personalities of the day. We signed it only as
“Three Guys in a Car,” mostly because we did not want Tom Guevin to punch any of us in the face, and sent it off to The Magic Dojo. It can
still be found online today, in the archives.
The whole Impulse thing took on a life of its own. People began writing local variants, to various degrees of success. The likes of Jamie Wakefield,
Paul McCabe, Sean McKeown, and Adam Maysonet could not resist creating their own entries. Eventually the Dojo had an entire page dedicated to this.
If your idea of a ride to the tournament is to sleep quietly in the back seat or tune up your sideboard, the bar has been raised, my friend.
Europe – The Hunt For Kai Budde
My first international Grand Prix trip was to GP Barcelona in 1999. It was an Urza’s Saga Sealed event. Saga remains my favorite Limited format
to this day, and I played it a gazillion times, so I felt well prepared for that event. I played in a couple of Pro Tours at that point but had yet to
post a strong finish, so you can imagine my excitement when I found myself undefeated going into the last round of Day 1. I was paired up against a
German player, who I’d never heard of previously and met for the first time at that tournament. His name was Kai Budde.
We had a great time playing a relaxed match since we were both locked in for Day Two, win or lose. I managed to win the match, and we went out for food
afterwards with a bunch of other English-speaking players from Germany and the U.K.
The stars aligned just right for me in Barcelona, and I remained at the top of the standings throughout Day 2. By the last round, I was a lock for top
8 and so was my final-round opponent — one Kai Budde. Since both of us were guaranteed in, we didn’t need to intentionally draw and played the
match out for the top 8 standing. I won.
Having drafted a very good deck and beaten my first two opponents, I felt pretty confident when I sat down to play against Kai, for the third time of
the weekend, in the finals. He was a good player, I thought, but I had already beaten him twice, so how hard could it be? What I did not know at the
time is that the German Juggernaut tends not to lose in single-elimination rounds. Almost ever. He proceeded to thoroughly crush me and then write a
tournament report about Barcelona titled “The Hunt for Alex Schwartzman.” He mangled my name even after repeatedly seeing it on his result
slips over the weekend, but with a vowel-deficient last name like Shvartsman, I can’t complain about that happening too much.
Although I did not win the event, making finals of a Grand Prix was exciting, felt great, and set me on the road to competing in many more around the
South America – Rebelde
Finishing in the finals of GP Barcelona was exciting, but my favorite second-place finish was at GP Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, in 2000.
I showed up at the tournament with my Constructed deck, only to find out that the GP format was inexplicably changed last minute to Mercadian Masques
Sealed. This was a week or two after the Masques Prerelease, which I did not attend. In fact, I hadn’t really seen the new cards at all. To make
matters worse, I was informed that the Sealed product given out would be in Portuguese!
Tournament organizers scrambled to find some English Sealed packs for the handful of American players at the event. The fact that we would not be able
to read our opponents’ cards wasn’t something they could do much about. I built my deck, exploring the new cards and feeling like I was at a
Prerelease. Then I found an English language spoiler list for Mercadian Masques and got to studying during my three byes.
My opponents were very understanding and patient, helping explain the cards to me as they cast them. By the end of Day 1, I learned most of the key
commons in the set, but uncommon and rare cards were going to be a serious problem. Needless to say, Day 2 draft would be conducted using Portuguese
packs too. The organizers assigned a judge to me, who would whisper a translation of the card into my ear during the draft if I needed it. Very helpful
but not optimal, since the draft was timed. I realized that there was no chance I could learn the entire set by the time we sat down to play on Sunday,
so I decided to learn two colors really well and just force them every time. My friend Marc Paschover, who did attend the Masques Prerelease, told me
that he thought Rebels was the best draft strategy in the set. I took him at his word, learning to recognize creature type “Rebelde” on
Portuguese cards. I also studied up on the blue cards and proceeded to force U/W Rebel decks all day. I made Top 8.
In the final draft, I followed the same strategy. I ended up making a few key mistakes, such as first-picking Charisma because I misunderstood what the
card did based on a hasty translation from the judges but ended up with a decent deck and proceeded to place second overall, losing to Carlos Romao in
the finals. To this day, I view making the finals of a Limited event playing with a set I’d never seen before and drafting cards in a language I
don’t speak as my greatest tournament accomplishment.
Asia – The Malaysian Adventure
I got to visit a lot of cool places while traveling on the Grand Prix circuit and made friends around the world. One of those friends was Nick Wong
from Singapore. We hung out at a number of tournaments, and I once teamed up with Nick and Trevor Blackwell to win a Grand Prix in Japan. I always
wanted to visit Singapore, and when an opportunity presented itself to attend Grand Prix: Kuala Lumpur, my plan was set in motion. I would fly into
Singapore, hang out with Nick and some other friends for a few days, and then all of us would take a bus together to Kuala Lumpur. It was a five-hour
ride between the two cities.
The first part of the plan worked like a charm. I got to hang out with my friends, explore Singapore, and get addicted to Bubble Tea before anyone in
America really knew what it was. Now it was time to play some Magic.
GP Kuala Lumpur fell on Easter weekend, and we were traveling on Thursday preceding Good Friday. The plan was to leave super early in order to beat the
massive amount of Malay citizens traveling back home for the weekend from their jobs in Singapore. Think the San Diego / Tijuana border crossing, only
over a huge bridge and with significantly more people. It was a mess.
The process worked like this. We went through the Singapore customs and passed through to the base of the bridge. You could either walk across or take
a shuttle. It would take over an hour to wait in line for the shuttle, so we walked in tropical heat for what must have been a good mile, dragging
along our luggage. At the other end of the bridge was Malaysian customs.
A humorless man behind a desk studied my American passport, flipping through it for several seconds. The way I’ve been traveling, I actually
managed to fill up the entire passport with entry stamps from various countries, so much so that border agents were stamping over older stamps for the
last few months at least. The Malaysian border agent finished going through the passport and turned his attention to me.
“Your passport is full,” he said in pretty good English.
“I know,” I smiled. “I’ve been traveling a lot.”
“There isn’t a place to stamp it,” he said.
“Oh just stamp it anywhere,” I replied.
“No,” he said. “If there isn’t a place to stamp it, you can’t be admitted.”
A supervisor was called. I promised to go to the embassy in Kuala Lumpur and get a new passport right away, but they would not hear of it. Instead,
they filled out some paperwork on me (presumably to add to the public enemy list) and had a guard escort me to the shuttle bus stop on the bridge
leading back to Singapore. Nick and others were kind enough to join me.
Although we joked about sneaking in to Malaysia by boat or train (where passport control is supposedly less stringent), a legitimate course of action
was to go to the US Embassy in Singapore and have blank pages stapled into my passport. While waiting for the shuttle, I called the embassy and
explained my situation. I was told that they’d be happy to help me; all I had to do was to stop by the embassy… on Monday! The embassy was
closing early that day in observance of Good Friday, and no one was available to help me for the next three days.
We got back to the Singapore side of the bridge. Mercifully, there were virtually no lines going into Singapore. The local border clerk examined my
documents and said, you guessed it, “Your passport is full.”
This happened several years before The Terminal with Tom Hanks hit the theaters, and it’s a good thing too because for a few moments, I
could definitely imagine being stuck on that accursed bridge for a while. That bridge was not nearly as nice as a JFK airport terminal, and
that’s saying something. Thankfully, border agents in Singapore are a lot more reasonable than the ones in Malaysia. Once I explained my
situation to him, he was happy to just stamp my passport over an older stamp and allow me to reenter his country.
I’ve seen enough movies to hold a firm belief that if I were to show up at the US Embassy and cause a ruckus, somebody would help me. At least,
that’s how it worked on TV. So our entire group headed there in person. Singapore is a very small country, and the embassy was only a
fifteen-minute taxi ride away. Bursting into the US Embassy to demand help seemed like a great plan. However, it did not take into account the fact
that 9/11 happened very recently. No one was letting me step one foot inside the embassy building without an appointment, American citizen or not.
Our group camped by the front entrance, and I pestered people going in and out of the building. Eventually, a kind soul summoned someone out to see me.
I was told that the person who held the keys to the safe containing extra passport pages had gone home for the day. She was phoned and agreed to
return, as long as I was willing to reimburse the embassy for her overtime and cab fare.
There are several lessons here. Apparently, extra passport pages are sensitive-enough documents to be held under lock and key. However, they’re not so
sensitive that the key in question isn’t held by a Singapore national employee of the embassy, a girl in her twenties who takes the key home with her
with no one else able to access the safe. In an emergency, getting extra pages stapled in (a process that took all of two minutes once she actually got
there) will cost you upward of $300. To be fair, at that point, I would’ve paid twice that to have the entire affair be over with.
People came out to see me by the front door during this entire process. At no point was I actually allowed inside my country’s embassy.
By the time we got back to the bridge, it was early evening, and it seemed the entire population of Malaysia was on its way home. We spent hours in
lines on both sides of the border and had to traverse the bridge by foot yet again. The new pages were stamped into the middle of my passport. I swore
that I would go over the counter and lunge at the Malaysian border clerk if they casually stamped over another stamp instead of leafing through to find
an empty page. Lucky for me, this did not happen, and I avoided getting myself into any more trouble with the Malaysian government. It was midnight by
the time we boarded the bus for Kuala Lumpur.
This was a long, hot, frustrating day, and I would not care to ever relive it. Even so, I only had to go through it once, but I’ve told this
story countless times and will undoubtedly continue to tell it for the rest of my life.
These days, I do not travel very much anymore. Instead, I recently began to write science fiction and fantasy short stories. The published ones are
linked at my blog ( alexshvartsman.livejournal.com ). I sure do miss the Magic events, though.
There’s a Star City Games Open weekend coming to within an hour’s drive of my house. Who knows, perhaps I will see some of you at the Edison Open