Baptism by Fire: My Introduction to Competitive Magic

Forward

I have a Magic-related story that I’ve never written about, but I’ve considered it many times. I never found a way to work this material into an article in a way I was comfortable with. Since this blog is accountable only to myself I figured that perhaps this could be a good place to tell this story.

This is the tale of how I peaked in Magic at a young age, qualifying for my first and only Pro Tour at the tender age of sixteen.

St. Albans Vermont, 1995

In 1995 I was a fourteen-year-old high school student and avid Magic player. I had been playing since around the release of Chronicles, building my collection by buying packs of cards with my lunch money.

In the first year of my Magic career there hadn’t been any Magic card shop for my friends and I to play in. When a shop did open up in my little Vermont home town I became a regular customer. My school friends and I spent much of our free time at the shop, and we also met new Magic-playing friends from the surrounding area.

By 1998 I started attending tournaments at the local hobby shop. We didn’t have DCI sanctioning, but we muddled through the events with the help of future Judge and card store owner Jeremy Muir. These tournaments were fun, but Jeremy wanted our group to experience real DCI sanctioned Magic tournaments.

My first experience at a sanctioned event was fun, but it was fraught with beginner mistakes. I had Snow-Covered lands mixed in with my mismatched basic lands and the judge nearly gave me a game loss for it. My youth and inexperience allowed me to receive only a warning, and I kept playing and losing all my matches. I don’t remember a lot about that event, but I do remember meeting Jaime Wakefield there. Jamie was the only Vermonter that had been to a Pro Tour before, so we all were impressed by that.

My second sanctioned Magic tournament raised the stakes dramatically. My friend Jeremy Muir had his own Pro Tour aspirations, and there was a qualifier coming up for Pro Tour Rome. I had never thought about trying to play on the Pro Tour, but I was always interested in tagging along with what my friends were doing.

When Jeremy invited me to the event, I immediately decided to go, and I started working on a deck. Up to this point I had mostly played my own terrible brews, but since this was a big deal I felt I needed to finally make a “net deck”. I fired up my computer and went to the premiere Magic strategy website of the day, “The Dojo”.

The PTQ was going to use a Tempest Block Constructed format, and I couldn’t find any Block decks listed on The Dojo’s “decks to beat” section. I did happen across a Standard deck that I liked called “Suicide Black”, so I took a closer look at that list.

When read the post and deck list for Suicide Black, I realized that the deck was comprised largely of cards from Tempest Block. Basically the idea for a mono-Black aggro deck had been around for a while, but the deck had added a ton of new cards in the last year. Dark Ritual was printed in Tempest, and the block also featured two different 2/2’s for one (Sarcomancy and Carnophage) and four 2/2’s for 2 with evasion (Shadow).

In 1998 Savanah Lions was considered an amazing card because there weren’t many two-power one drops available to players. Having access to eight “Lions”, eight efficient and evasive creatures, and Dark Ritual in the same deck seemed too good to be true.

As good as that creature package was, there was another powerful tool for Suicide Black found in Exodus. Hatred was a card that screamed out to be broken. The Channel/Fireball combo was well-known to all of us at the time, and this card was basically Channel and Howl From Beyond in the same card.

ChannelHowl from Beyondhatred

Once I saw Hatred, I just had to play Suicide Black at the PTQ. I was young, and certainly not the best Magic player in the world, but I had a hunch this deck could be really good. My theory was that by playing this Black Aggro deck I wouldn’t have to make many changes because all of the best cards were legal in Block. Other people would have to find and build entirely new archetypes that exist only in Tempest block.

I don’t recall the exact list I used for the tournament, but I do remember many of the cards. One card in particular that sticks out in my head is Spinal Graft. The Standard Version of Suicide Black used Bad Moon, but there was no analog in block. I went in search of a two-mana enchantment that could add more damage to my clock. Spinal Graft is the card I ended up running in that spot, and as bad as it seems it did a lot of work that day.

soinalgraft

My theory was that Spinal Graft would cost the same as Bad Moon, and the three extra damage it provides should do about the same amount of work. I was a little scared about the prospect of getting two-for-one’d, but it also fit very well with the self-destructive “Suicide” theme of the deck. Looking back at that tournament armed with the knowledge I have now, I realize that it wasn’t a great idea. Running creature enchantments is a risky maneuver, and this was no exception. My only saving grace is that the card actually performed very well that day, which could have been a product of luck more than anything.

Once I had my deck nearly completed, I told my mother that I would be going to Montreal, Quebec for a Magic tournament. My mother immediately told me that I could not go, and that it wasn’t open for debate. She did not want her son leaving the country to go to a big city and play some stupid card game. I didn’t try to convince her, but I knew in my heart that I had to go.

Dauthi HorrorDauthi SlayerCarnophageSarcomancyDark RitualHatred

(Pictured above, cards from my deck that were run as four-ofs)

When the day finally came to leave for Montreal, I told my mother that I would be gone to Burlington. Vermont for the day. My mother was the type to never check up on me, at least not at that age, so the plan was perfect. I packed up my Magic cards, which included a deck that was only perhaps 80% complete. I ran out of time trying to put the finishing touches on my list, so I decided to work on it during the hour-long car ride north to Montreal.

The trip to Montreal is one that I had made quite a few times growing up. St. Albans, Vermont is very close to the Vermont/Quebec border, and in those days no special ID was required to cross the border. While heading north on the highway I put on my headphones and I began to listen to “Mechanical Animals” by Marilyn Manson. When one of the lyrics mentioned “the Suicide King”, I made that the name of my Suicide Black deck. I sat in the back of the car, trying my hardest to make the last few card selections.

Once we arrived in Montreal, we headed to the site for the PTQ. The tournament was being held in a ground-level gymnasium type building. My memory of the venue is a bit foggy, but I think the room was used for basketball games when it wasn’t being used for a nerd herd.

Jeremy Muir, Jeremy Holbrook, and I found a table to sit at and began to register our decks. Muir frantically found a few cards for me to round out my deck and sideboard. Then we all began the arduous task of writing down our decks before the event started.

Around this point Jeremy and I spoke about my deck. I said that I felt it would be pretty good, and Jeremy agreed with one major caveat. He noted to me that a mono-Black deck like mine would have no real answer to Light of Day, an enchantment that was likely to be in the sideboards of any White Weenie decks. Tempest block had many cheap and evasive White creatures too, and White Weenie was expected to be a popular deck.

lightofday

The bane of my existence…

In all honesty, the thought of losing to Light of Day scared the hell out of me. I had paid about $25 to play in the tournament, and that was a lot of money for a highschool student with a minimum wage, part-time job. Still, it was way too late to pick a new deck, so I just swallowed my fear and pressed forward.

Once I was paired with my first opponent, I found my table and got down to the task at hand. Game one went very well, I believe I won the die roll, but I’m not entirely sure. I know that I had an explosive Dark Ritual-fueled turn one that put four or six power on the board. My opponent happened to be playing White Weenie, with all of the Soltari creatures and the best white spells available.

We sideboarded and went into game two, and things took a drastic turn for the worse. I started off well putting out creatures and turning them sideways, but my opponent was one turn ahead of me as he was on the play that game. On turn four he tapped out, looked me in the eye, and dropped Light of Day on the battlefield. I felt a lump in my throat, tried to hold my composure, and conceded game two. Game three happened to be very similar, and even though I had one more turn I was not able to close out the game before my opponent again smugly tossed his color hoser onto the table. I was seriously crushed.

As I sat there picking up my cards I honestly wanted to drop from the tournament right then. It seemed like everyone in the room was older than I was, and I felt suddenly like I was a terrible player and I had no business being here. I thought about how I’d wasted my entry fee, which was a lot of money for me at the time.

“Would they let me have my money back if I just promised to leave right now?”, I wondered to myself. “Nope. They’ll just laugh at you for asking such a foolish question, just suck it up and move on”.

I didn’t know a lot about tournament math back then, but I remembered my friend Muir telling me that losing in the early rounds was bad, and that losing more than once was probably a death sentence as far as a top eight berth was concerned. I knew I wasn’t in a good spot, but I decided to stick it out. My round one opponent had crushed me pretty quickly, so I headed out to the streets of Montreal to find something to eat before round two started.

The next rounds are somewhat hazy in my memory. It was a long time ago, and I forget exactly how many rounds we played. What I do remember are specific incidents that stick in my mind, like the lack of grace in some of my opponents.

Round two I was paired against Counter Phoenix, the alleged best deck in the block format. I’m pretty sure that every one of the subsequent rounds had me paired against one of these decks, or a similar build, because that’s the only other archetype that I can remember from the Swiss rounds. The thing I remember the most is that starting in round two I just kept absolutely smashing my opponents, rarely going to game three.

After my wins started to rack up, I got a deck check. I wasn’t worried, but I found it strange that I actually got more than one deck check in the Swiss. I distinctly remember feeling like the judges had a hard time believing I was doing so well in a field full of older and more experienced players. On the bright side, all the scrutiny from the judges just proved that I’m an honest player.

The next major incident in the Swiss that I can remember is a judge call. During game two of a match against a Blue Red Counter Phoenix deck I was about to win the game by casting Hatred. I had enough mana from Dark Rituals to play it, but just in case my opponent had something to mess up my play I tried to be cautious.

I added five mana to my mana pool during combat and I said, “I’m casting Hatred on my Dauthi Slayer for… How much life are you at?”

I stopped myself and checked the game state because I didn’t want to pay more life than I had to. My opponent told me his life total, and that’s when he called the judge. My opponent and the judge spoke to each other in French for a minute, then the judge told me that I had effectively cast Hatred for zero life because I failed to announce a number before I asked my opponent his life total. I was shocked and it certainly didn’t seem right to me, but I guess I felt that I couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t know that I could have tried to ask for a different ruling or anything.

I ended up losing that game, but my opponent died a quick and painful death in game three, so I feel that I got my revenge. Shortly after that match Muir let me know that I had squeaked into the top eight, and I was ecstatic.

The Top Eight

My first opponent in the top eight was named Alan Webster. Alan is the only opponent whose name I can  remember because he was a fellow Vermonter. He was much older than I, and he was known as a very good player. Alan had tested for this event with local Vermont legend Jaime Wakefield, and he was prepared to take it down.

Alan was on some sort of Blue Black control deck with Recurring Nightmare. The plan of his deck was to control the game long enough to get to a point where he was recurring Scrivener over and over again, which gave him infinite removal and Counterspells.

ScrivenerRecurring Nightmare

Alan’s deck was very strong, and although I had taken game one quickly, by game two he was beating me senseless. Alan skillfully avoided losing long enough to eke out a win, and we moved on to game three.

Game three played out much like the second had. I was able to create a frightening board presence early on and I applied a ton of pressure. Alan slowly started to crawl back by blocking with Bottle Gnomes and gaining life, then recurring some value creatures. Soon he was able to start attacking, and we began a damage race.

By gaining life at opportune times Alan was now sitting in a position to win with an alpha strike on his next turn. He passed the turn to me and I surveyed the board state.

I looked over at my adversary and said, “You’re going to win next turn unless I can do three more damage next turn.” Alan simply smiled at me and looked at the battlefield. I knocked on the top of my deck, and I peeled a Spinal Graft and windmill slammed it down on one of my Shadow creatures.

“I’ll attack with everything”, I said. Alan looks at his hand, the battlefield, and back at me. His smile suddenly vanished, and he started angrily picking up his cards. I knew that I had become the king of all lucksacks, but I didn’t care. I was just too happy.

I spent more time waiting for the next two rounds to start than I spent winning them. I actually remember very little about those matches, since I won each game in a short amount of time. Tempest block was a slow format, and I was playing Dark Rituals and eight Savannah Lions. Even one of my slower hands seemed unstoppable much of the time.

When I finally defeated my last opponent, I was physically trembling with nervous energy. I was over-tired and exhilarated at the same time. The head judge walked over to me and presented me with my envelope. Inside that envelope was a letter of congratulations, I had been invited to Rome to play on the Magic Pro Tour.

Along with the invite came a bunch of sealed product. I started opening packs out of habit, and the judge kindly asked me to wait until I left to open them. I realized that it was very late by then, and the staff just wanted to leave. My opponent had received a pack of Italian Legends in his prize pool, and he offered it to me for a small stack of Tempest boosters. I accepted the trade, because I had always wanted to open a pack of Legends.

Jeremy Muir had stayed and watched me win the event while Jeremy Holbrook had gone and slept in his car. As Muir and I walked up to the car and piled in, Holbrook awoke and asked me how I had finished. We told him I won, and it took him a few minutes before he actually believed we were serious.

The trip home was amazing.The bright lights of the city slowly dimmed as we left Montreal, all the while i told Holbrook the story of what had just happened.

The Aftermath

I wasn’t sure what I was going to tell my mother when I got home. I couldn’t tell her that I had gone to Montreal, but I had to tell her what had happened. I ended up saying that I had won the tournament, but I stuck with lie about its location.

I told my mom that I was now invited to go to Italy to play Magic on the biggest stage in the game. I let her know about the travel prize, and the prestige that comes with the Pro Tour.

Unfortunately for me, my mother wasn’t interested in Magic. Without even entertaining the idea for a second she told me that there was no way I could go to the Pro Tour. I tried to make my case as to why I should take the trip, but it just didn’t matter. The travel award wouldn’t have even paid for my plane ticket, let alone one for my mother. I remember her final argument was that the only way I could go would be if she could escort me, and since we couldn’t afford it, I just wasn’t going. I offered to pay for the trip with money from my job, but she just wasn’t going to back down.

I missed my opportunity to play on the PT, and although I tried a few other rimes to qualify for an American Pro Tour I wasn’t able to make it. By the year 2000 I had given up on the idea, and my decade long hiatus from the game began.

I still sometimes wish I had kept grinding, because never getting to use my Pro Tour invite has always kept me wondering what it would have been like to go.

Underground Sea

Islandswamp on MTGO – @josephfiorinijr on Twitter – Vintage:101 on MTGGoldfish Thanks for reading! Support additional content @ https://www.patreon.com/user?u=4271290

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Patreon Started!

Hey folks. Just a quick post to let everyone know I’ve started a Patreon. I plan on using this to expand the amount of content I’m able to create. For instance, this blog never really got anywhere because I couldn’t justify spending the time on it. Now I have a good reason to use this again!

Anyway, thanks for reading, feel free to paw through the old stuff and hit me up with feedback. Also, I have a partially written blog post about winning a block format ptq in the late 90’s, I’d love to finish that if anyone is interested in reading it just let me know.

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