Now you're staring out to a brown horizon, peaks of waves frothy caps of white, gusts of wind like mammoth breaths. The Mighty Mississippi, your brochure reads, and "mighty" starts to seem less like hyperbole and more like a statement of fact. The sun pulses even in the gripping cold, its reflection mirrored off the Pyramid and blinding. Passing drivers squint and visor their hands over their eyes. Insects flitter even in winter. The dew on the grass holds far into midday. Then a barge's horn shatters the silence, even and tedious, the cocoa baritone of a Beale Street bluesman blends with last night's muted saxophone and this morning's passing trolleys and the radio and the lights and the B.B. King on the jukebox in the BBQ Shop and the sizzle of flipped pancakes at the Arcade and most of all the air, that insistent Southern air fresh and new, like the dawning of another world, and all of the sudden you realize that yes, in fact, you're in Memphis.
If I sound a bit nostalgic, it's because I am. Half a world away here in Malaysia I have my own sights and smells, my own little hemisphere carving out as I sit here reading at a KLCC Starbucks, but Memphis is my home. For twenty-two years I've lived there, grown, watched the city grow, performed in its theatres, walked on its streets, eaten at its restaurants, studied in its schools, worked in its offices, and sat talking at its bars and lounges long, long into the night. Now, with Worlds arriving in a few short days, I finally have a chance to show it off.
I've spoken with a lot of people about the choice of venue for this year's World Championships, coming up this weekend. "Memphis?" they say, cock their heads to the side, and look confused. And surely with a pedigree like Paris, New York, and Berlin, we've got a lot to live up to. Nevertheless, it's my sincere wish that if you're reading this article right now, you try and make it down to Worlds. The city, the tournament, the experience—all together, they make for something you'll never forget. Magic is hitting its stride as, now almost fifteen years after its debut, people realize that it's not a passing craze that's going away any time soon. Worlds is nothing less than a part of the game's history, in many ways the pinnacle of all the game can be. It brings together friends from different continents, culls the best decks and the best players from every conceivable format, and brings out the competitor in everyone. But beyond all that, it's also fun—four days of nonstop Magic, prizes, trading, artist signings, qualifiers. Massive checks, even outside of the main event. Last year my friend Sam Black won a car. This year they're offering up $10,000 in gold. Truly, there is something for everyone.
I had the good fortune, last year, to be qualified for the main event. The big tournament itself was fun, sure, and I was more than pleased with my solid finish. In particular it was great to be playing Legacy at a competitive level. But there's a common misconception that the entire Worlds experience is reserved exclusively for the people qualified for the big show.
I can assure you that this isn't the case—not even remotely.
Even for we "pros," the memories aren't necessarily from the big finishes and big checks. Sure, who can ever forget Craig Jones's topdecked Lightning Helix or the epic Dragonstorm mirror match last year, with Pat Chapin squelching Gabriel Nassif's comeback attempt in truly spectacular fashion? But equally memorable are the late-night diner-excursions to finish up a team draft long after the site has closed shop, the windmill-slamming of a Time Walk from Evan Erwin's Cube, the pros giving autographs and artists signing prints and the Dutch guy laughing at a joke told in English by a player from Japan. The Average Joe winning an iPod in the finals of a side event against a former Pro Tour Champion, and the story being told and magnified as the night progresses:
"I can't believe he topdecked that one-outer."
"I just saw the craziest deck."
Or, one from my experience:
"Dude dude dude dude seriously dude look what Mark Zug drew on my Gaea's Cradle. That is the fiercest squirrel ever."
This year's Worlds is packed with public events, events which anyone can play in regardless of what country you're from, how many Pro Points you have, or whether or not you've ever played in a tournament before at all. A number of the game's best players cut their teeth on these events long before they became household names, and I know personally that my teammate Stuart Wright even to this day cruises forums from a laptop he won playing cards. Some of the highlights:
Game in the Gulf Magic Cruise Qualifier (Thursday, 6 p.m.)
I've written about Steve Port's brilliant "Game in the Gulf" Magic Cruise before, but to sum it up in a nutshell:
- Magical Cards
- AN OMG ACTUAL CRUISE LIKE A BIG BOAT AND TROPICAL LOCALES AND OMG
Yes, Steve's Legion Events is hosting a series of qualifier tournaments, with the winner of each getting a spot on the cruise, with the fare and event entry fees fully paid. If there are enough players at each event, he's even tossing in a $250 travel award. This is the perfect event for people to bring their friends and families along to, as well. I remember the way my parents warmed up to Magic was that, courtesy of the JSS, it was an excuse to have a Disney family vacation every year. Imagine how much mileage you can get when you show your girlfriend that these guys you spend so much time hanging out with really are alright, how many smiles you'll receive when you pluck the family out of a cold Midwestern February and into the smooth subcontinental tropics. And by winning this qualifier, you can enjoy all of that—for free!
Question Mark (Thursday, 8PM)
My first brush with the Magic media mainstream came at U.S. Nationals 2000, when small child 14-year-old me brushed shoulders with Magic legends Mike Flores and Zvi Mowshowitz in the finals of an epic QMark. Sadly, your hero was felled around the thirty-third green instant he had to name in the tiebreaker round—to this day I will always have a vendetta against the card Elven Rite—but the event itself was a blast. I came full-circle last year, making the finals again with all-around good man Adam Prosak. Point being it's absolutely astounding all the stories that abound from even the most random Magic cards, and trivia (in addition to earning you great prizes) is a fantastic opportunity to dive even deeper into the game.
Pro Tour Qualifiers: Kyoto and Honolulu (Friday and Saturday, 10AM)
Here's your chance to make it to the Show. Pro Tour–Honolulu in particular was a massive success the first time around, and I'm positive the sequel won't disappoint. If you don't know how the PTQ system works, the winner of the tournament not only qualifies for the Tour, but receives full airfare to and from the destination. So even if you don't perform as well as you'd like, you still get a chance to explore a part of the world that, in all likelihood, you'd never get a chance to see otherwise.
$3000 Draft Challenge (Sunday, 9AM)
The Draft Challenges have become more and more popular since their recent debut at United States Nationals. If you love drafting, this is the event for you. Players compete in two separate draft pods across seven rounds, with the top eight competitors entering into another pod for the finals. The top finisher enjoys a cool $1500 cash, with the remaining money being distributed throughout the Top 8.
Other events include iPhones, iPods, original artwork, sets of From the Vault: Dragons, dual lands, pieces of Power 9, and even Xbox Elites as prizes. Check out the full schedule for more.
But let's not forget the World Championships itself, either. Players have access to the Feature Match area, where they can watch all of their favorite competitors battle for fame, fortune, and okay sure those ever-elusive Pro Points. Scouting out the competitors is a great place to find new Standard or Extended technology for some of those events I just mentioned. And when it comes time for the Top 8, they erect a massive screen at the rear of the venue, I am talking like a couple stories high, so that everyone can see for themselves how the last few matches play out without having to trample over one another for space. The tension literally hangs in the air, especially amongst players whose countrymen are in the spotlight—I can guarantee that if an American makes it you will hear "YOU-ESS-AY" at least once—and it makes for a truly one-of-a-kind experience. I'll say it again: it's something you'll never forget.
Of course you've heard the slogan: Play the Game, See the World. And Seeing the World ought to involve more than Seeing the World's Convention Centers. Fortunately, I know this city like a wonderfully appropriate hand-related simile. As a tour guide I may have my failings, but I'm pretty certain that if you leave it up to me, you're never going to be bored.
First, though, we've got to dispel some stereotypes. So many people have said things to me like "What if I don't like country music?" or (not kidding) "Do people there have internet access?" Let me assure you that whatever your preconceptions about the South, Memphis is probably going to shatter them. We may be home to a huge variety of music—rock 'n' roll to soul to funk to modern alternative to Oscar-winning hip-hop (thanks Three Six) to that oh-so-sweet timeless Southern blues—but if you want country you'd best head to Nashville. Sorry, chief, there ain't no Opry here.
Since I mentioned music already, we might as well start out there. What you're going to want to do first is to grab yourself a copy of the Memphis Flyer, Memphis' alt-weekly and your heralded author's former stomping grounds, so that you can verify for sure who's playing and where. I'm going to mention a lot of particular acts and places in this little wrap-up, but that's not going to do you a lot of good if they're not playing, and I've been gone just long enough not to be sure of everyone's schedule anymore.
So yeah, music, and the biggest elephant in the room, Graceland. I'll say it now: you want to go. I know that all of us Magic players are much too ironic to appreciate some dead old awkwardly gyrating white guy, and that's great, but take it from me: make time to go. It's something to see. For a lot of people it's a spiritual experience—I actually took a class once analyzing Graceland as an American Sacred Space—but if that's not your thing (and I'm suspecting it's not) it doesn't change the fact that the place is an icon. I am pretty sure you could not come closer to embodying the idea of early 70s excessive gaudiness than this particular house. But the appreciation for the place goes beyond making fun of it, too. Like his music or not, think he's especially talented and/or relevant today or not, Elvis changed everything. I mean everything. And Graceland is a place you'll thank yourself for seeing.
But realistically, do I think Magic players are going to make the trek to actually go see Elvis's place? Nah. That's fine. But I'm a connoisseur of everything, music included, and so if you're looking for places with a little more street cred I've got you covered, too. Information about most of this is available on the internet, so a quick Google search should yield things like addresses and phone numbers. Don't worry; getting around isn't very difficult, but you've got to find someone with a car. Public transit is laughable—read, nonexistent—past downtown. With that in mind, I'm going to try and keep everything as close to the venue as possible.
First off you have Stax Records, which they've converted into the American Soul Museum, the home of artists as diverse as Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs, Richard Pryor, and Little Milton. Soul music was "alternative" long before Alternative became a genre, and Stax explores the emergence of this style into the mainstream. Along the same lines you've got Sun Studios, the "birthplace of rock 'n' roll," which recorded tracks for the likes of Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis before any of them became superstars. Finally, if you're more into modern music, you really ought to take a look at Ardent Studios, the venue of choice for all of Jack White's projects, along with Cat Power, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Three Six Mafia, Yo Gotti, and Three Doors Down. It was also where underappreciated Southern Rock pioneers Big Star recorded all three of their albums—each of which was listed in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time." You may recognize their song "In the Street" from That '70's Show.
Of course, you're only going to music studios to learn about music, kind of a functional museum of sorts. If you want to hear music, you'll need to check out some different venues. The Hi-Tone on Poplar Avenue has become a breeding ground for indie artists across the nation, hosting over the course of the last year everyone from Cat Power to MGMT to of Montreal to local favorites like Papa Top's West-Coast Turnaround. If you're into a mellower, more acoustic sound, the Gibson Guitar Factory downtown—itself a site to see—frequently hosts grade-A performers like Dave Matthews Band guitarist Tim Reynolds. Your New Daisy Theatre on Beale St. served as the birthplace of hard rock mainstay Saliva, and Newby's over by the University of Memphis serves up a little bit of everything, my personal favorite being rock-rap-electronica duo Rehab.
Club-wise, you'll find everything from the crunk-infused heartbeat bass of Plush, at the end of Beale, to the smoother and softer Senses further towards Midtown on Poplar Avenue. Atlas in Jillian's sits within walking distance of the venue, but I'm not going to vouch for its quality. And there's of course Beale Street itself and its veritable confetti of clubs, bars, music, and everything under the sun. My favorite late-night haunt, though, has got to be a simple bar, the Flying Saucer, located over by the Orpheum theatre. The venue boasts over 150 beers on draught and another 80 or so in bottle form for those 21 and over, and I've challenged even my skeptical Belgian friends to be dissatisfied with the selection. Every so often, the venue will also host the absolutely outstanding Rockabilly band The Dempseys, who just might be the greatest performers I've personally ever seen. Look them up in your flyer, if you have time.
Some people, of course, may not be into the hustle and bustle of live music, may find the entire process a little too loud and jarring. Other people may simply not have time—but can still appreciate a little art every once in awhile. For that crowd, I'd recommend a few places. The Jack Robinson Gallery near Tennessee Street hosts an excellent gallery of celebrity photographs from Robinson's fifteen-year tenure at Vogue and Rolling Stone. It was also the venue of choice for my old improve comedy troupe, the Running Gag. You've got bigger, more traditional art galleries at the Brooks Museum and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, but I prefer the more intimate, smaller displays present in the South Main Arts District and at the intersection of Cooper and Young in Midtown. I mentioned comedy, and one performer in particular, Andy Fleming, never disappoints. Also, Chatterbox Theatre hosts a special brand of comedy whereby live audiences are invited to observe a taping of their "audio-theatre" in action, complete with crazy sound effects and elaborate, zany sketches. While we're talking performance, Benjamin Theolonius Sanders, a.k.a PoetIQ, might be the best slam poet in the southeast, and he has the accolades to show it—when he performs, which is comparatively rarely.
Finally, for the film buffs, Malco's Studio on the Square hosts all of the world-class cinema that manages to escape the mainstream while at the same time allowing you to experience the latest Hollywood blockbuster, depending on your mood—all the while serving up an excellent selection of wines and beers. In two consecutive days I watched an Iraqi-Kurdish film called Kilometer Zero, sipping Rosemount Shiraz and peppering the filmmaker with questions, followed by 300. If that's not enough, it also occasionally showcases the latest from prominent Memphis filmmakers like Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan), Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue, Married Life), and Morgan Jon Fox (Blue Citrus Hearts, oMg/HaHa).
What I haven't mentioned yet is food.
Before I moved to Malaysia, I was one hundred percent certain that Memphis had the best food in the world. I went to New York and laughed out loud. St. Louis, New Orleans, sure, whatever. Boston, great but hoity-toity. Memphis you can eat like a champion for next to no money, eat basically every food under the sun. I'm going to share with you some of my favorites across different categories, with the caveat that I am salivating even as we speak and might need to take a break to regain composure. I miss some of these places like whoa.
You can't go to Memphis, of course, and not eat barbecue. I am pretty sure it's not physically possible in the first place, but even if some kind of Newtonian law of the universe doesn't prohibit you from getting back on a plane without consuming shredded pork and sauce, you're really going to regret it if you don't. The challenge is of course where to get it. The standard answer is that you want to get your BBQ sandwich from Corky's and your dry ribs at the Rendezvous, but kids, I am here to tell you that that's the cute, touristy answer. Not that Corky's or the Rendezvous are bad. No, I eat there plenty myself. But it's sort of like playing three Cryptic Commands: it's good, sure, but why aren't you going for the best?
What you are going to want to do is head up Madison Avenue to The BBQ Shop. That's it's name, not "Todd's BBQ Shop" or "Leroy's BBQ Shop" or even "The Madison Avenue Barbecue Shoppe" or some such something. The. BBQ. Shop. Big red letters boldly declaring their barbecueshopsmanship on the front façade of the store. You are going to head in there, say "howdy" to whoever is working the register, and order two BBQ pork sandwiches. If they put coleslaw on top don't argue, but also don't ask for it if they don't. You'll order two because let me tell you right now one is not going to be enough. While you're waiting for your sandwich you're going to want to have a nice conversation with your friends, talk about whatever, talk about nothing, talk about a deck or a band or the weather outside or that movie that you saw last Tuesday. But you will do all of this while you're waiting for your sandwich, because the second you take that first bite you're going to want to do nothing but experience the taste. Go with that urge. Say nothing. Eat. Listen to the sounds of eating. Taste. Be okay with enjoying the process of eating food in and of itself. Compliment whoever cooked the sandwich for you. Smile. Then be secure in the knowledge that whatever those Virginia or Carolina or St. Louis or New York people tell you, you've just eaten the best barbecue in the world, and no one can realistically argue with you.
"Fried Chicken, that is so stereotypical. I'm not Southern; why would I eat that?"
Shut up shut up shut up. Take your pretensions and check them at the door. Take all of the nice like grilled filets of chicken breasts you've arrayed neatly on a bed of rice and string beans and wave goodbye to them like you would a passenger on a trans-Atlantic ship. Those meals are good. Those meals are nice. But everyone on Earth, I mean everyone, enjoys fried chicken and there is really no point in denying it. Who honestly can tell me—look me in the eyes and tell me—"no, not a fan." You may say "Eww, gross" at the grease and express environmental concerns about the number of napkins you're going to have to burn through by the end of the ordeal, but it's not like anyone dislikes the actual chicken. Just take a deep breath, trust me, and head to Gus's Fried Chicken, conveniently enough real close to the Jack Robinson Gallery. It's altogether possible that the two people at the checkout counter are going to be arguing with one another. That's fine. You are going to try to find something like a menu or vegetables or something at least flirting with the possibility of health. No dice. You will receive a plate of chicken, some French Fries, and one (1) square of sliced white Wonder bread. You will be a bit skeptical of me—seriously now, what is so good about this particular chicken place? And then you will take a bite. And like gnosis, like epiphany, all will become clear.
Southern Food, Generally
A common misconception is that all Southern food is terrible for you. This is actually not true. My favorite thing in the world is a vegetable plate served with some cornbread and honey. From wherever. But the best, by far, is served at Alcenia's, a little house-turned-restaurant on Main Street that is open precisely whenever B.J. Chester-Tamayo, the owner, decides that it should be. The menu changes daily. B.J. cooks everything herself, and I have been known to wait tables there for an hour in exchange for a free meal. Also the best sweet tea this side of dying and going to heaven. Go in there around twelve or so and devour a meal your mom only wishes she could cook.
I will not lie, Memphis is not known for its delicatessens. But the Young Avenue Deli at Cooper and Young is the exception. I challenge you to find a New York deli, any of the best of 'em, that compete with any sandwich you get at YAD—at least, compete to a level that escapes the realities of variance. It's positively unreal. They also boast an excellent beer selection, occasionally some phenomenal music (Ben Kweller, of Montreal again), and some absolutely mean foosball tables. It's also smack dab in the middle of Memphis hippest, trendiest, and artsiest district, the aforementioned Cooper-Young.
- Brazilian Churrascaria: Texas De Brazil, 2nd St.
- On par with any Brazilian steakhouse I've ever eaten at, though I won't argue it's leagues beyond or anything. Always very, very solid.
- Diner: Bob's Barksdale Restaurant, Cooper St.
- Just rock-solid diner food and plate lunches. A favorite haunt of mine during the college years. Also some truly grade-A people-watching.
- Mexican: La Espiga Taqueria, Graham Ave.
- I only deny this one its full large-scale section because every Texan ever is going to argue with me when I say this is the highest-quality Mexican food I have ever consumed, and every single friend I bring to it agrees. My friend Cody and I have actually renounced all other Mexican establishments, because why settle for less? Ultra-fresh ingredients, excellent preparation, and an average sale price of around five bucks. What is not to like?
- Sushi: Sekisui Midtown, Belvedere, off Union.
- Perpetually fresh ingredients and top-notch presentation make for the perfect sushi experience, especially with their surprisingly diverse wine and sake selections. Your friendly neighborhood squirrel here has used this restaurant for more than one first date.
- Burgers: Huey's Midtown, Madison Ave.
- Huey's has won "Best Burger in Memphis" for something like twenty years running. Their Steak Pita will also make you want to slap your momma. In Southernese, that means it's really good.
- Pizza: Memphis Pizza Café, Madison Ave.
- Similarly, MPC wins almost every conceivable pizza-related award the city can confer. My favorites are the barbecue chicken and the feta cheese, though they also whip up a mean Italian sub. If you're into New York-style pizza, head over to Little Italy on Union Ave. instead.
- Mediterranean: Petra Restaurant, Madison Ave.
- In addition to throwing the best New Year's party in history, Petra's blend of Mediterranean staples infused with unique Korean influences leads to a one-of-a-kind dining experience that somehow outlasts the novelty of the combination. Try the Bi-bim-bop or the Korean Chicken Kebabs.
- Just Excellent Food Period: Do, The Beauty Shop, Automatic Slim's, or any other Karen Carrier Restaurant
- Karen Carrier, local restaurant virtuoso, somehow manages to hit the nail on the head with every single venue she opens. She technically sold AutoSlim's, actually, but the menu remains the same and the customers keep piling in. The woman can do no wrong, food-wise.
So there we are, close to 4,500 words and the trip itself hasn't even started. But I hope that even this sliver of a portrait, this dimly-lit landscape, has somehow provided you a window into my city that now, in my absence, I pine for more than ever. The bottom line is that you're never going to want for things to do at Worlds, either at the venue or outside. The people, the sights, the attractions, the cafes and restaurants and clubs and bars and, bottom line, the main event, the show, the contest to determine who's champion, regardless of origin or boundary or who you know or who you namedrop or anything else. Above all, I hope you trust me when I say it's an experience truly not to be missed, something you will remember long after the sets fade into obscurity and a new wave of cards and characters overtake our beloved Alara.
I hope to see you there—if I myself can make it!