You Lika The Juice? – Storytellers and Hometown Heroes

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I have to say, Aaron Forsythe’s column last Friday put a huge grin on my face. When they first listed the categories for the Magic Invitational this year, the “Storyteller” category certainly raised an eyebrow and got the imagination working. Then, when they pushed back the ballot announcement, that raised expectations further – why the delay? What had changed? What was going on behind the scenes? Let’s dig into what Aaron said and figure out what’s going on…

I have to say, Aaron Forsythe’s column last Friday put a huge grin on my face. When they first listed the categories for the Magic Invitational this year, the “Storyteller” category certainly raised an eyebrow and got the imagination working. Then, when they pushed back the ballot announcement, that raised expectations further – why the delay? What had changed? What was going on behind the scenes? Let’s dig into what Aaron said and figure out what’s going on.

“I’m speaking as an individual here, not as a company director, when I say that I would love for the Invitational to be less like the All-Star Game and more like “Dancing With The Stars” in the future.”

Anyone who’s a regular reader knows that nothing gets me riled up quite so much as how Pro-centric Wizards tends to be, and has been for a really long time. The Pro community certainly has a big role to play, but there are a lot more people who make the Magic Community as vibrant and exciting as it is than those who happen to have some Pro Tour points on their resume. And while there are plenty of Pro players who still truly love the game of Magic, there is a huge number who simply play because a) they can still make some bank on the game and b) they get to see their friends. I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day who mentioned he was talking with a mutual friend who’s on the Tour, and this fellow was lamenting the fact that he was about to fall off the train. My reply? He needs to play less World of Warcraft and play more Magic! But apparently our Pro friend doesn’t find Magic fun anymore. My reply? Quit Magic. Playing professional Magic shouldn’t be a chore, it should be an honor and a pleasure to have the talent, time, and connections to enable you play at a level most of us only dream about.

Anyway, I find Aaron’s sentiments very encouraging. “Back in the day, there wasn’t much being offered to so-called “pro” Magic players in the way of perks. You got money if you did well at an event, you got invited back to the next one, and that was about it. The Invitational was a really nice cookie – a present of sorts – to the players that dedicated themselves to the game, and at the same time it was a nice event for fans to watch. Players really coveted it, put a lot of effort into the potential prize cards they submitted, the decks they brought to play, and the reports they wrote afterwards. In the years since, we’ve been lavishing things upon our top Pro Players… The Invitational is no longer all that special in the big picture, and it shows.” Boy, does it ever! I remember those days when it was a very big deal, and the honor of being able to design a card that would enshrine your idea and image into the history of the game really meant something. Nowadays you get joke submissions — remember the stupid Penguin card? Participants also used to write about their experiences too (and one year they required participants to write about it), but writing isn’t easy and it requires drive to pull it off. If Pros are playing Magic just for the cash and camaraderie, and they don’t actually enjoy the game anymore, then they aren’t going to write very compelling tournament reports for the Invitational, and they certainly aren’t going to spend any time coming up with a really neat card submission.

“We have legions of players, judges, writers, and fans who aren’t pros and who would positively kill to be able to participate in something like the Magic Invitational. They eat, sleep, and breathe Magic, and do marvelous things for the game and its community. We have legions of players, judges, writers, and fans who aren’t pros and who would positively kill to be able to participate in something like the Magic Invitational. They eat, sleep, and breathe Magic, and do marvelous things for the game and its community. We don’t fly them anywhere, pay them $500 for showing up anywhere, or put their mugs in tournament packs. But they are awesome and should get a chance to shine.”

I mean, this is truly revolutionary thinking at Wizards, and I’m thrilled that Aaron has managed to prod their Pro-centricity off its pedestal just a tad bit. He’s right – there are legions of people who kill to be able to participate in the Magic Invitational (ahem, raises hand…). A few years back I tossed out the idea of a Writers Invitational, and I’m thrilled to see decidedly non-pro writers on the ballot. I suspect up until a few weeks back, the Storyteller category included only Pro players who happened to also be known as good writers/communicators until someone — my bet is on Forsythe — suggested adding people like John Friggin’ Rizzo and Evan Erwin to the mix.

“In the future, I want to continue to modify what it means to “deserve” to go to the Invitational… Understand that this is contentious here at the company, and I can’t just wave my hand and make it so. Heck, I might be wrong. People might not want to watch a writer play against the best pros at all and would rather keep it all about those with the best finishes. At least it’s worth talking about.”

Indeed it is! Note the word contentious Aaron used here – that’s the Pro-centric bias we’re talking about. And yet the guys at Wizards are smart and passionate about the game, and Aaron has a big enough voice that I think he likely got everyone seriously thinking about the notion. So they bumped the date for the Storyteller ballot to give everyone time to discuss and, with the change implemented, time to get the added people on the ballot to make their case.

So whom did I vote for? For me, it was an obvious cut to two since Jeff Cunningham and Mike Flores, while both fabulous writers, have already gone to the big show. Evan Erwin deserves some serious recognition for being a media trailblazer, smashing the preconceived notions we had as to what a Magic column should be. And I find him damn funny to boot. I felt a little torn about not voting for him, and will certainly be thrilled if he wins the vote.

But I threw my vote to my man John Fernando Rizzo; we go way back like car seats. The man is a writing animal and a top-notch storyteller; he’s got an unmistakable voice that comes through in his writing, and I have no doubt he’d give us 50 hilarious pages pouring out a perspective on the Magic Invitational that we’ve never seen before. And hopefully he’ll make a hilarious video to go with it; who knew he could pull that off too?

So, huge props to Aaron Forsythe and any allies he had in the halls at Renton that helped make this happen, and I pray they continue making inroads into ways of giving back to those who give so much of their time and energy making the Magic Community the thriving and vibrant scene it is today.

Say, this makes a nice segue to the next segment…

I imagine Magic readership overall is likely down during the summer except for us die-hards, so I’d pretty much decided to reboot my call for Hometown Heroes again this Fall, when everyone has gotten summer vacation out of their system and are again buckling down and playing Magic. But I’ve actually received some pretty good emails through my starcitygeezer gmail account, so I wanted to go ahead and shine the spotlight on these folks.

Jason La Rue writes:

Hello Bennie,

Okay, I guess I’m always afraid to send an email, because I just feel it’s one of many that won’t get read. I suppose that’s what you get when you write to the big guys at WOTC. Reading your current article though, and seeing you didn’t have much in the inbox, I’ll send my email and see what happens.

My Hometown Hero is our local group back at The Game Habitat in Monterey, CA. A great place to play! They’re all great people, from the storeowners and the local staff to those of us that play at FNM and (when we got enough people) our Saturday Standard Tournaments. We were always ready to accept new people and always willing to help. Though with Monterey being a large Military community, there are a few of us that have come and gone (including myself as I left there this April to come out to sunny Bahrain). The community was always great, and I made many great friends. I never knew a time when others wouldn’t help someone out. Be it with a draft, sealed, or even our small Standard tournaments. The local community was great.

Can I include another one from years ago? My old game store, Comics Plus in Ellsworth, ME, back in 1998 – 2001. I have many great memories from there. Not to include the time the storeowners gave me the Magic Instructor t-shirt for helping people to play, and them presenting me the Foil Serra Angel they had on hand on a cake saying farewell to me as I left for a new assignment in Germany.

I also must include a great person from back in my early days, Grant. He would run tournaments through the Military League back in ’96, to include getting the Japanese players on base to allow them to play Magic with us. A great person indeed.

This talk makes me miss my days in those places. Still trying to set up a small group here in Bahrain. Always ready to help others play and always ready to give away cards. (It helps when you have movers moving all your cards from base to base!)

Jason, I really appreciate you writing in, and I doubly appreciate your service to our country. I think a lot of people — myself included — tend to forget that there are a good number of Magic fans in the military. In a lot of ways, these guys embody the very style of gamer Dr. Garfield had in mind when he designed the game – something very portable that you could pull out and play anywhere, anytime. I’d love to hear more stories about how gamers in the military find the time and places to have some fun with Magic, especially given the heightened state of conflict our military finds itself embroiled in. How do you guys (and gals) get the cards you need to play, is it easy to order and receive the singles you’re looking for through the mail, or do you tend to trade for them amongst the players in your area? I imagine some of the stories military Magic players could tell would leave many of our silly tournament reports in the dust.

Drop us a post in the forums or send me an email and I’ll put it in my column.

Brian Taylor wrote:

Hi, Bennie!

My name is Taylor, and I guess I’m going to nominate a hometown hero. He is our local deckbuilding genius, Don!

Don’s about 22ish, a nice guy, and a deckbuilding genius. And he stands out with the other Magic players we know because he leads the way all day long in obscenely delicious wins, because he is a supremely friendly guy, and because he is always willing to help someone get the cards they need and play the game.

I’ll give you a few examples.

In the delicious wins example, my favorite – ever – is when he played against, during Kami-Rav Standard, Peppy’s G/W OMFGSHINYDRAGONS. (Basically a G/W Greater Good deck, but everything was foily and foreign.) Don was running Blue-Black Mill. By all accounts, Peppy should have won easy. His deck was packed with Dragons, lifegain, card draw, Kodama of the North Tree. Don’s was packed with… Traumatize? Either way, in the much-discussed, much-loved final game of their match at FNM, Don and Peppy were squared away in a tight, one-mistake-is-costly match. It was game 3. Peppy dropped Kokusho and Yosei, and you knew he’d sac them to Miren in a turn and it’d be game over for Don. Don, however, just sat back, smiled, and went Glimpse / Uyo’s ability / Twincast / Glimpse, and followed it up with Compulsive Research… targeting Peppy. Peppy was forced to scoop ’em up; he was mighty mad — he’d just been beaten by Compulsive Research.

In relation to just being a nice guy, he generally doesn’t even play these days. He works behind the counter at our local shop, Alternate Universes, happily just talking trade or seeing if he can find you that one extra Onslaught Shock for your deck. He’s taken the time to build beginner decks for the little kids at our shop so they can learn Magic; decks that are easy enough to allow the little kids a chance to learn how to play, but fun enough that, when the experienced players sat down, they were downright hilarious. He’s helped me personally when he just up-and-gave me one of his extra binders when a waterfall of soda ruined mine. He’s helped me build decks, and he’s helped countless others find the perfect way to balance their decks. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shown him my deck, hoping he’d find something he’d like. I’ve lost times the number of times I’d played his decks and laughed so hard I drooled when I did something obscenely powerful (or stupidly weak… I once misfired an Erratic Explosion that was going to win me the game into a Sensei’s Divining Top.)

I hope this is what you were looking for in the Hometown Hero category. He’s just a really awesome guy and I don’t know why I didn’t think of him sooner – I’ve been away from Magic for a few months now, so I guess I haven’t seen him in a while. But he’s just a good guy, a popular pillar of our community, and probably the best deck builder I know.

Thanks Brian! He sent me Don’s email address, so I sent the man some questions to find out a little more about this fellow who’s gone the extra mile in making sure his local Magic Community is thriving.

Name? Donald Sundstrom

Age? 21

Job/school? Valet at a Subaru Dealership. Currently attending Lincoln Tech to be an Automotive Technician.

Married/kids? Not married/no kids

How long have you been playing Magic? Almost 10 years.

How did you get involved in playing Magic? A friend showed me how to play back in middle school.

Any notable Magic achievements? PTQ Top 8s? Champs/Regionals performance? Pro Tours/Grand Prix? I don’t usually show up at the bigger tournaments. I play in FNM once in a blue moon, but I usually just play casually.

Do you consider yourself a Limited or Constructed specialist, or do you enjoy both equally? I enjoy both, but I like Constructed more.

What’s your favorite Magic card in Standard? Extended? Of all time? Honestly? I don’t think I have a favorite, or at least not one that comes to mind.

Do you have a favorite Magic writer or player? Not really. I don’t usually follow players, and I don’t read a whole lot of articles about Magic too often. (oof! a blow to the ego…)

Do you have a favorite deck? I don’t have much of a favorite deck list. I’ll tend to play more of a rogue deck most of the time. One of the more memorable decks I made was a Blue/Black mill deck. It wasn’t anything fancy, it worked off playing Glimpse the Unthinkable with Twincast to mill 20 to 40 cards (most of the time it was 30) in one shot.

Brian mentions you build beginner decks to help teach people how to play. How do you go about building these sorts of decks? When I make a beginner deck for someone, I try to figure out what they like. Most of the time newer players lean to Green because it’s where size matters, and it’s straightforward to play. As for the deck lists, it varies dramatically depending on what the new player has available to them. It is usually twenty lands, at least fifteen creatures, and twenty-five “fillers,” which can be anything, but usually its color dependent (i.e. Green would add more creatures, where Red would have sorcery and instant burn cards).

Brian’s answers was a little humbling, because he’s obviously someone who’s not nearly as “connected” into the larger Magic Community as many of us are; Brian doesn’t run for the PTQs, he doesn’t really read about Magic on the Internet much (and I’m guessing he might have not even know who I was when I contacted him), and yet he’s a pillar in his local Magic Community. I think it’s important to remember that there are many layers to the onion outside of the layer you live in. People like me and many of you, who follow the happenings of Magic religiously around the Internet on a daily basis, are a minority of Magic players. There’s a lot more people out there who play casually like Brian, who are not as “plugged in” and yet they’re down there at your local game shop. Go out there, support your local shop, and meet these guys. They’re the grass roots, people.

Stephen Gertz writes:

I have been playing Magic on and off since Fourth Edition, and have recently become competitive with the game… recent as in Kamigawa block. I read a fair amount of articles mostly on StarCityGames.com (the only ones I can get at work), and have recently been a little concerned about articles pertaining to “the Decline of Magic.” Would you consider Magic as a mature product, or one on the decline? I have always thought that, since every block brings out different cards and mechanics, it is going to be difficult for Magic to ever be a mature product, as it essentially reinvents itself with every set. With Magic only being thirteen years old, and with seemingly unlimited genres to explore, I can’t imagine that it would be declining. Then again, how many sets require R&D to make a 2/2 for 1G for Green and rename it something other than Grizzly Bears? I am not quite sure how many people work for R&D, but I would think that expanding the group would allow more ideas to be floated around… taking away nothing from Aaron F, and the fact that I work in data entry so I have no room to talk about creative genius.

Overall, I am just afraid that, with Lorwyn and the next block being two sets instead of three, ideas just aren’t there. There are rumors of powerful cards being reprinted… does this mean that Magic is dying, and Wizards making its last stand? What do you think?

Hi Stephen – thanks for writing in… and don’t worry, man. Magic is not in decline; in fact, in my opinion, Magic is just now really hitting its stride.

The guys who make the game continue to impress year in and year out. While on an individual level, a certain set or block may strike your fancy more so than others, I don’t think anyone can deny that Wizards has got two things going strong right now. First, they have the process of making coherent Magic sets down to a science, and second, they have people who really know how to breathe new life into the game, set after set after set after set. Lorwyn was made a two-block set not because they didn’t have enough ideas, but because Wizards wanted to shake things up a bit, make the game fresh and new all over again (that, and the fact their business requirements drove them to go ahead and formalize the four Magic set a year standard, as I talked about last week).

I’ve been playing Magic since the very beginning, and I often find myself awed at how far the game has come in terms of the science and art of set design and development. Back in the day, I was positive in my ability to make a Magic set just as good or better than, say, The Dark or Homelands (heh, insert joke here). Nowadays, I know I couldn’t do it as well as these guys do; they are professionals, and I have faith in them.

That’s not to say they won’t make mistakes and blunders; they’re creative and intelligent, having fun creating a game they love, but they’re still mistake-prone humans, and they are detached somewhat from the vast majority of Magic players on the planet. Which is yet another reason to be pleased that Aaron Forsythe is fighting the good fight in the halls at Renton, and making sure Wizards remember to give back to the larger Magic Community that exists outside of the Pro Tour onion skin. So long as they keep doing that, I have no doubt that Magic is just getting started.

‘Til next week, y’all go down to your local game shop, stay cool and have some fun!


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com