Dragons to Riches

Posted in Building on a Budget on December 23, 2009

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

I've received hundreds of emails since the original publication of "Dragons to Riches." This column really seemed to stick out for a lot of people. People feel connected to things like this; I was no different than every other Johnny/Spike until I haphazardly stumbled upon a Pro Tour win. It's also uplifting. I constantly find myself reading this piece when I'm having a lousy day.

I feel like the piece gently touches on the overall Magic experience. When the dust settles, the last thing you take away from Magic will be the friends you have made over the years. I have been lucky enough to have great friends at my side for every part of my journey with Magic. Without further ado, here's my story, again ....

This article originally ran on June 3, 2009.

Hello, and welcome to Origin Stories Week here on magicthegathering.com.

I was nine or ten years old the first time I saw a Magic card. My brothers and I played a lot of video games and we had a seventeen-year-old neighbor that came over every day to battle with us in some Street Fighter 2 matches.

My neighbor was a lot of fun. He taught me a lot about life and helped me keep a positive outlook even when I was teased at school. Zach had Down syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with the presence of an extra chromosome 21, characterized by mild to severe mental disability. Despite the age gap, Zach really enjoyed coming over our house to play video games every day after school.

Icy Manipulator

One day Zach brought over a new game. He explained that his cousin taught him to play a card game and went on a long tangent about a card called Icy Manipulator. He brought two decks with him, he explained that you can add or remove cards from your deck as you acquired new cards from booster packs. After my brothers and I had learned the basic rules, we were pretty hooked.

It started as a very casual gathering once or twice a week. Zach would come over and show us his new cards and we would play against one another with the decks we built out of cards we got from the five-cent bin at the local card shop.

I never thought about Magic as a competitive game, but I was very competitive within our four-person playgroup. I loved adding new cards to my deck; I felt as if I were playing an RPG and acquiring new items.

One day my father left his briefcase at his office and stopped by with my brothers and me to pick it up on the way home from an ice cream run. My older brother wasted no time loading up the Internet. This was 1996 and most people didn’t have Internet at home yet. My dad showed us how to use a search engine and the first thing we typed in was “Magic decks.” Thousands of results came back, and we clicked on the first one. Cadaverous Bloom / Prosperity combo.

Cadaverous Bloom

We looked at this list of cards and had no idea how the deck ever won. “Where are the creatures?”

“I get it,” announced my younger brother.

He went on to explain that you draw a huge amount of cards with Prosperity, discard the cards to create a huge amount of mana with your Cadaverous Bloom, and fire a huge Drain Life at your opponent.

Drain Life

We were in awe of the way the deck functioned. My older brother went to the local card shop the next day and traded his basketball card collection for all the cards in the combo deck. We played hundreds of games and I probably won less than 10% of them. I decided I needed to do something about it. I got my hands on some Force of Wills, Force Spikes, and Counterspells. I built a control deck that won a long, drawn-out game with Blinking Spirit. My younger brother built a red deck that played Ironclaw Orcs, Incinerates, Lightning Bolts, and Fireblasts.

Blinking Spirit
Lightning Bolt

Suddenly, my brothers and I had a metagame shaping up in our house. Zach didn’t want to give up on his 110-card red-green deck, but we helped him change some of the cards so he could splash white and play Armageddon along with his Llanowar Elves, Fyndhorn Elves, and Birds of Paradise.

Birds of Paradise

That summer I met a group of kids who played regularly at the public pool. I went there every day and played Magic for hours. I didn’t even bother swimming anymore, so I stopped bringing my swim trunks with me.

When school started again I found a group of people who played, and I spent every recess for the next few years slinging cardboard.

I started following the Pro Tour at some point, and my family got a computer. My brothers and I would stay up all night following Pro Tour coverage. Jon Finkel was our favorite player. We would be excited when he won and confused when he lost. I also started drafting. A man named Phil McLaury (You may know him as a judge in the Midwest) had opened up a shop in Cedar Grove, and I went there regularly to draft Urza Block. I never did well with drafting, but I learned something new every time I went. I met a lot of friends who I became close with, and we started getting rides to State Championships and PTQs.

When I was a freshman in high school I was playing Magic during my lunch hour one day. A cute girl came over and asked about it. I asked if there was any chance she might want to learn how to play. She accepted the offer and came over one day after school. I don’t think I successfully taught her the rules of the game, but I started to learn something about a different kind of game ….

I’m not sure how it happened, but by my junior year I had taken a step back from the game. I stopped going to tournaments and slowly drifted out of contact with my friends that played Magic. Then I went to college. My parents and I had just arrived on campus, and we wandered into my assigned dorm to find my room. The first thing I saw when I walked into the lobby was a group of eight people sitting around a table drafting Mirrodin block.

I was uncharacteristically shy and didn’t say anything. My parents and I finished unpacking the car, and they decided to go to some meeting for the parents of the new students. I had read a few articles about drafting the new set, but I hadn’t actually played a game of Magic in a few years. I sparked up a conversation, and the group of sophomores took my number and said they would call me the next time they were planning on getting a draft together.

I read a few more articles on the new set and I felt like I understood it pretty well for someone that had never cracked a pack. I got a phone call a few days later.

“Is this Jake?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“It’s Mateo. We met the other day. I was playing Magic in the lobby.”

“What’s up, buddy? You wanna draft?”

“Yeah, we’re getting a draft together in a few hours. You want to drive with me to pick up some packs?”

Mateo and I started talking about Magic in the car, but the conversation shifted to more personal subjects. We would become close friends pretty quickly.

We got back to campus, and the draft was waiting for us. The group explained that they usually draft and then head over to a local Mexican restaurant called El Rodeo.

“The winner of the draft doesn’t have to pay for their meal,” they told me. Three hours later I was enjoying a delicious (and free) chimichanga.

I continued drafting regularly for the next two years. I was home for Thanksgiving and I got the fever to draft. I called some local shops and found a draft not to far from my house. I showed up and saw a familiar face. Chris Lachmann was always a pretty tight player. None of us really won tournaments when we were kids, but Chris would consistently 4-1 at Friday Night Magic.

There were eight people and we were ready to crack some Ravnica packs. I drafted a very strong Boros deck and won my first two matches with ease. Lachmann and I sat down to play the Finals and chatted about the old days. Something happened during this match, though. We had created a very unique board state where I had a mild advantage. It was clear to me that Chris probably had a Hex in his hand, so I was trying to play around it. Chris was milling me with a Vedalken Entrancer, and I got nervous and played a fifth creature. Chris had the Hex and I was blown out.


After the match Chris asked why I stopped playing around the Hex. I didn’t really know. He invited me to an Internet café and we stayed up all night drafting. Chris taught me the ins and outs of the format and I quickly started winning 8-4s online. Chris was scary-good at Ravnica block drafting. In all seriousness, he would enter a Sealed premier event and be a 3-1 favorite to win the whole thing. There was a two-month span where he had the highest limited rating on Magic Online.

I went back to school, but kept in touch with Chris. I started going to local tournaments and doing pretty well. I went to a few PTQs and had a few Top 8s. My appetite was growing, and I wanted to go to a big event. I came home that summer and reconnected with a bunch of my old Magic friends. Chris continued to train me, and I was becoming a very strong Limited player.

My friends and I went to Regionals, where my friend Steve won with Ghost Husk. I offered to drive down to Nationals, and we were off for our first Magic road trip. Chris couldn’t come because of work obligations, but he downloaded the event schedule and told me what events I should play in.

I tried to grind into Nationals (at the Last-Chance Qualifiers), but I lost in the Finals of two grinders. I played in a bunch of side drafts on Saturday and planned to get a good night's sleep before the Amateur Limited challenge on Sunday.

I opened a decent Sealed Deck and started the tournament with a 6-0 record. In Round 7 I was paired against the most pugnacious Magic player I’ve ever met.

It was Game 1, and the board state was pretty simple. My opponent tapped out for a Cytospawn Shambler and attempted to pass the turn. He only had a Cytospawn Shambler and a Centaur Safeguard in play. I cast Wrecking Ball on his end step targeting the Centaur. He started laughing uncontrollably.

Cytospawn Shambler
Centaur Safeguard

“You’re so stupid. Why didn’t you kill my Shambler? Oh my God, you’re perhaps the dumbest person I’ve ever met. Can I take a picture with you after this match? I want to show people that I met the biggest idiot alive.”

“Is it my turn?”

“Yeah, it’s your turn, moron.”

Twisted Justice?”

Twisted Justice

I’ve never seen someone turn more red in my life. He picked his deck up off the table, stood up, and spiked the deck as hard as he could at my face. He was promptly disqualified, and I had my spot in the Top 8.

The Top 8 was a Coldsnap draft. I had no idea what I was doing, and I called a few friends to ask what I should draft. No one answered their phone and I was getting nervous. We had an hour-long break before the Top 8, and I needed to know something about the format. I ran into a kid named Steve Sadin. We had some mutual friends, and I told him my predicament. He was calm and to the point.

“Force red-green. Pick up Aurochs and removal early. The deck should build itself.”

Aurochs Herd

I followed his directions well and ended up winning a few thousand dollars. My friends and I talked about it the whole way home.

I grinded the PTQ circuit for the next year and never made it on, despite a few close calls. I drifted away from Magic toward the end of the year. I came home from school and was invited to a friend’s graduation party. Chris Lachmann was there, and we reminisced about Magic. He told me there was a Two-Headed Giant PTQ the next day, and he didn’t want to play with the person he was planning to go with. I told him I would go. We stayed up all night and drove to the PTQ the next day. My memory of that day is pretty fuzzy, but I know we won.

We went to the Pro Tour with a really sound strategy and ended up taking the whole thing down. It was, without any doubt, the best weekend of my life. I had been, in some way or another, working toward that achievement for more than half my life. I kept pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. We did it. We won a Pro Tour. We even beat Jon Finkel on the way to victory.

That’s my story. I’d love to hear yours in email or on the message boards. Happy Origin Stories Week, and happy brewing.


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