Only at Gen Con

Posted in Feature on August 16, 2010

By Nate Price

A longtime member of the Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage staff, Nate Price now works making beautiful words for all of you lovely people as the community manager for organized play. When not covering events, he lords over the @MagicProTour Twitter account, ruling with an iron fist.

Gen Con. Gamer Mecca. It's not called "the best four days in gaming" for nothing. Each year, thousands upon thousands of people descend on Indianapolis to whet their appetites, quench their thirsts, and generally devour as many games as they possibly can in the 96 hours that the convention lasts. For four days, downtown Indianapolis is awash in a sea of gamers like some sort of unnatural disaster. Somewhere in the eye of this perfect storm, I sat with my camera and computer, ready for the time of my life.

You see, just like anyone reading this, I too am a gamer. I have been attending Gen Con for over a decade now, before it even moved to Indianapolis. I can still remember the drive to Milwaukee, stopping for pancakes on Wednesday morning, touring a brewery that evening, and then simply disappearing only to emerge sleep deprived and in an ecstatic coma four days later.

Some things never change. Some things do.

Now, my purpose at Gen Con has been replaced. No longer am I there to inject as much gaming into my veins as I possibly can (though I still get my fix as often as possible!). Instead, I am sent as an observer, some sort of remote view into this amazing world. I am your guide on this Midwest safari. Now keep your hands inside the Jeep. We are about to enter the untamed wilderness of Gen Con!

The first major event to await the players at Gen Con took place on opening day: The Zendikar Block Constructed Championship. As Mark Rosewater is fond of pointing out, restriction breeds creativity, and Block Constructed formats are about as restrictive as they come. These tournaments have always proven to be among the favorites of players that identify themselves as deck builders for this reason. It's like a badge of honor: Who can do the most with the least?

Fortunately for others, the format this time around comes on the heels of a fairly active Standard Pro Tour Qualifier format, providing plenty of existing deck archetypes just waiting to be modified for the Block Constructed environment. As expected, the decks in the tournament seemed to follow the typical law for Block Constructed events. The overwhelming majority of the decks were either variations on Standard decks or collections of the best cards the format has to offer.

With the dust settled and the Top 8 decided (which didn't happen until about two in the morning, I might add), we were privy to a fairly decent cross section of the environment. There were a couple of red-white aggro decks relying on efficient landfall creatures, fetch lands, and Stoneforge Mystic to defeat opponents before they could put up much of a fight. There were a few copies of the blue-red-green Good Stuff deck that dipped into each color for the best spells in the format. Cards like Oracle of Mul Daya, Explore, and Lotus Cobra fueled accelerated copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Sphinx of Lost Truths, and Comet Storm. All with Flame Slash, Burst Lightning, and Deprive to back them up. The other three decks were each represented by a single player: White-Blue Control, All-In Red, and Eldrazi Green, but all three of them made the Semifinals.

Perhaps my favorite part of this tournament, and honestly one of my favorite parts of Gen Con as a whole, was that it saw the return of the old Midwest guard, seemingly coming out of the woodwork for a stake in the championship. Standing at one vantage point, I could see Michael Bernat playing his White-Blue Control deck (prying Mike away from Islands is near impossible!). I saw Patrick "The Peoples' Champion" Sullivan playing against some unwary opponent, with (surprise!) Mountains. I also saw Chris Anderson, who I remember being much smaller than he is now, playing against Matt Severa—a great player from Wisconsin. Add to that Cedric Phillips, Gabe Walls, and Kyle Montgomery, and it was like being thrust into a time machine back to 2001. Gen Con: Magical Time Machine.

That's the thing about Gen Con. It's centrally located, filled with games, and has been an institution in gaming for just about ever. That draws players in from all eras and areas to one central location. It's not uncommon to walk through the aisles and see someone like Bob Maher or Justin Gary sitting next to Brad Nelson or Adam Yurchick. I guess we'll throw in a Brian Kibler to act as a bridge. You never know who is going to show up there, but you always know that someone is going to. Since I've been around the game for a long time and most of these guys are my friends, I'm glad that this is a chance to get together with some of the old guard and new for a weekend of fighting and fun.

Being the first event of the weekend, the Block Constructed Championship always boasts the biggest lineup of well-known players. This year, I wandered around the first round of the tournament and spotted:

Gabe Walls
'The Boss' Tom Ross
Alex West
Brian Kowal
Owen Turtenwald
Michael Jacob
Matt Severa

With the field seeded with Pro players, it only seemed reasonable that there would be a pretty good Top 8. And this Top 8 was a fairly stacked one: Bernat and Severa were joined by Owen Turtenwald (more on Owen later), Joel Gagnon, Nicholas Montaquila, Nick Lehman, Scott Nocco, and Julian Booher. Booher, in particular, made an impression on some of the older players who didn't know him. Pat Sullivan stood with me watching him for about five minutes before walking over to Gerry Thompson, pointing at Booher, and asking, "Ringer, right?"

Julian Booher

"Oh yeah," Thompson responded.

Sullivan, who as a great player himself has an eye for talent, didn't take more than a few minutes to decide that Booher was an impressive player. Julian's Top 8 finish did nothing to dissuade that opinion. He was playing the Good Stuff deck, and doing a great job of managing his resources en route to an impressive Top 8 finish.

This Top 8 had a reasonable representation of the format, with five distinct deck types, and even some variation amongst the blue-red-green decks in terms of cards played and in what quantities. Play during the Top 8 got a little sloppy at times, some players forgetting about onboard tricks, others needing a little ... reminder about how combat works under the newest incarnation of the rules. In all, though, the players who made it to Top 4 played very well and deserved their share of the prize. Since first place was a foil play set of the entire block, second was a non-foil play set of the block, and third and fourth each received a non-foil Zendikar block set of their own, the players chose to split the prize after the quarterfinals. There was still pride and a title on the line, though, and Matt Severa was the eventual winner, taking home the title of 2010 Block Constructed Champion.

Matt Severa

After a long night of gaming on Thursday, I wasn't sure I'd see any of the players who had done well in the Block Constructed Championship bright and early the following morning, Vintage decks in hand. Imagine my surprise when I saw Owen Turtenwald, who finished in the Top 4 the night before, sleeved up and ready to go. Joining him in the Vintage Championship was a smattering of recognizable names, most of which are famous for Vintage play. Stephen Menendian, who has been the voice of Vintage for around a decade now, was in attendance, MUD deck in hand. Renowned deck-builder Conley Woods was there, as well. And it wouldn't be a Vintage Championships without Magic-player-turned-poker-superstar David Williams. Vintage is Williams's pet format, and he has been playing in the Vintage Championships since their inception. Even The Great One himself, Bob Maher, came out specifically to battle some Vintage. The format certainly does have its loyal supporters, and with good reason. The format is an incredibly intense one, with a great deal of interaction and a high level of difficulty.

David Williams

Many people find that hard to believe. In fact, there seems to be this misconception that Vintage is all about just vomiting cards on the table, and one player just blows the other out. If not, then, due to the sheer power level of the cards, all games are either completely non-interactive, over in two minutes, or easy to play since the decisions are all effectively made for you. After all, it doesn't take much skill to play a card like Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, or Time Walk, right?


Stephen Menendian

I had the pleasure of sharing the coverage booth with Stephen Menendian for one of the highest-level matches I've watched in a long time. At first glance, I thought we'd made a mistake in picking the quarterfinals match between Jesse Martin and A.J. Sacher. It was a near-identical Storm Combo mirror match. The only real differences between the decks were Sacher's choice of Preordains over Duress, and his lack of an Inkwell Leviathan as a Tinker target.

Upon seeing our match-up, I was less than optimistic about our chances of a solid match. Like most uninitiated, I figured this Vintage match would be all about who could get their combo onto the board first. Instead, what I got was an elegant look into the difficulty of some of the decisions one is faced with in Vintage that can occur nowhere else. For example, how aggressively should one play the incredibly powerful Yawgmoth's Will? Common wisdom would dictate that, since the card's power scales with the quantity of cards you have in your graveyard, it is an incredible way to build a storm count, put your combo together, and build mana—you generally save it until you're ready to go off. During this match, I saw it cast for a second fetch land and to recast a Duress. The best part was that it was the right play. A.J. Sacher, after carefully holding onto his Brainstorm, was able to pitch it at the perfect time for a Force of Will. And after writing a long article, a scant few weeks ago, on just that subject no less. There were attempted combos that resulted in needing to reset and rebuild critical mass. Both players played around Spell Pierce and Misdirection perfectly and there was even a suspenseful Mind's Desire to end the match. It was a great match of Magic, and it was only the quarterfinals.

After the dust settled, Sacher fell to Martin in three games. Martin, in turn, eventually fell to Block-Constructed-Top-4-finisher Owen Turtenwald. His opponent in the finals was none other than The Great One himself, Bob Maher. Where we had watched a near mirror-match in the quarters, this finals match was a perfect 75-card mirror. Both players had brought a Tezzeret-less Tezzerator deck to the tourney, complete with Time Vault and Voltaic Key as a kill. Perhaps the most critical element in their decks were the three main-deck Trygon Predators that ate both Moxen and MUD parts alike in the rounds leading up to the finals. After a series of great games, the finals all came down to one turn, and one step. During his upkeep, Maher put his life in his own hands. At 3 life, he revealed the top card of his library for his Dark Confidant, the Invitational card he himself designed. Staring back at him was bright orange art surrounded by a blue border: Force of Will. He had committed virtual suicide. In an ironic twist, The Great One learned that sometimes, greatness comes at too great a cost.

Bob Maher

This was a continuation of a pretty absurd run for Owen Turtenwald. He had finished in the Top 4 of the previous day's Block Constructed Championship and, after little sleep, managed to battle his way to becoming the 2010 Vintage Champion. For his efforts, he was rewarded with the final piece of the nine oversized, alternate-art power nine cards: a beautiful Mox Sapphire. Prize in hand, he wandered off for some well-deserved rest.

Owen Turtenwald

Vintage has always been one of my favorite formats to cover. I have always felt like I understood most of the other formats well enough to actually contribute well to the coverage, but Vintage has always been another story. I have never been as thoroughly exposed to it as I have in the past few years covering this event, and I still feel like I'm learning about it. It doesn't hurt that I always have the same great support group to talk to about the format and discuss its ins and outs. Vintage truly does have one of the most loyal fan bases in Magic, right up there with EDH, both having near cult-like followings. There are players who make the trek from their homes specifically for this event here at Gen Con. Some are older Magic players who have rediscovered a love for the game in Vintage, like Maher, Williams, and Eric Froehlich. Some of them are Vintage specialists who almost exclusively play Vintage, such as Menendian and last year's winner Itou Hiromichi. Whatever their reasons—Vintage stays alive and well, thanks to them.

The last championship of Gen Con was the one I have the most experience with: the Legacy Championship. The week before Gen Con, I was the coverage reporter in Columbus for Tomoharo Saito's dominating Grand Prix win. Legacy is a format that I understand fairly well and it was fresh in my memory.

It also happens to be my favorite.

You see, monotonous repetition of matches in a tournament can become mind-numbing after a long stretch (if I have to watch one more Jund mirror match ... ). With Legacy, that problem does not exist. Sure, with Saito's win, the percentage of people playing Merfolk went up slightly, but it still didn't comprise more than ten percent of the field. That's part of what makes Legacy so fun to watch, cover, and play—but also what makes it difficult. The variety that keeps us all interested and lets us play whatever we want also means that there is so much more to keep track of for deck builders. You can play in a ten-round tournament and feasibly play ten different match-ups. It's impossible to prepare for them all individually, so you either have to make concessions or find cards that allow you success in multiple match-ups.

Another inherent issue with Legacy is the sheer number of decisions that have to be made. In a format with Sensei's Divining Top, Brainstorm, fetch lands, Æther Vial, and Doomsday—the number of opportunities to make a mistake are limitless. Legacy is one of the hardest formats in existence, and players were going to have to be on top of their games to make it.

Fortunately, most players were helped by the fact that most of the well-known players (including Owen "The Champion" Turtenwald) were taking the Legacy Championship off in order to play in the Midwest Master Series event later on in the day. That meant a significantly weaker field overall, leaving the field ripe for the picking. In fact, the only players who really stuck out to me, after a quick glance at the pairings, were Stephen Menendian and professional good-man (and Midwest native) Adam Yurchick.

After falling short in Vintage the previous night, Stephen Menendian tried his hand at Legacy.

One of the most noteworthy things to mention about the Legacy Championship was the fact that, after the Swiss rounds, we had eight distinct deck types in the Top 8. This is the exact same phenomenon that occurred at Columbus the week prior. This is the hallmark of a well-balanced, wide-open format. Watching the format change after the new additions from Columbus was also quite interesting. Only a week had passed, and I was already starting to see versions of Caleb Durward's awesome Blue-Green Madness deck making the rounds. I didn't manage to catch any footage of a Blue-Black Doomsday deck, like Chris Gosselin's new take on the deck. Thanks to Saito's win, though, there were a hefty number of players piloting Merfolk through the field.

The even more amazing thing to note is that between this week and last, we only had two repeat decks make Top 8. That's fourteen distinct deck types in back-to-back tournaments! That's just unheard of and goes to show both the strength of Legacy and why so many players list it as their favorite Constructed format. I admit, that I made the distinction between both Landstill decks and Merfolk decks since they were White-Blue in one version and Blue-Black in the other, but the decks were different enough to warrant the distinction. Feel free to check out the list from last week. It's absolutely unreal.

Interestingly enough, the proliferation of decks in the format has pushed some other decks that were once staples of the format to the side. Gone are decks like Owen Turtenwald's Land deck from last year's Championship and even the Dredge deck Ernest Turck piloted to take this very tournament last year. With all of the graveyard hate in the format, the decks just have to dodge too much to be effective. Another thing I, and many other players, expected was a shift towards Zoo during this tournament. After all, with Merfolk winning just six days prior, it seemed to be natural that the tides would switch that direction. Since Merfolk has a difficult time with the more efficient creatures of Zoo, it seemed natural that the format would skew slightly and both Zoo and Merfolk would be high in representation. Instead, people stuck to their guns and just played the deck they felt most comfortable with, resulting in a balanced field. Neat!

After all was said and done, Steve Sadin had the last laugh, though not the way he would have necessarily liked. Sadin was the champion of the previous Grand Prix-Columbus back in 2007, also a Legacy tournament. He played the Hulk Flash deck that is now defunct thanks to the banning of Flash. Going into this year's Grand Prix, and looking to defend his title, he piloted what he referred to as the "Deck of Champions." After all, with his previous winning deck now unplayable, what should he play but the deck that he had to beat to become the champion? That's right, Goblins is the Deck of Champions. And in Ryan Messick's hands, it won another championship!

Ryan Messick

While my main focus at Gen Con was to shine a bit of light on the three major Championships taking place that weekend, it was by no means the only thing I did. There was so much going on that it would have actually been impossible to have only watched those events and nothing more. Between me and our other plant at Gen Con, Monty Ashley, we covered as much of the Magic goings-on as we could. You can check out his musings and pictures in the blog he kept throughout the weekend here. As for me, I managed to snap a couple of great pics from some of the more interesting occurrences over the weekend. Here are the hits.

A very happy Brandon Edwards celebrates his victory over the coverage team's very own Rich 'Best of the Best' Hagon.
Wait, what is Rich signing there?
Holy crap! It's the Baneslayer Angel that Edwards opened in the pack he won from Rich in the Champion Challenge! Nice pull!
Is that Eric Sorensen, Scott Larabee, Sheldon Menery, and Charles Rapkin I spy playing a little EDH in the Champion Challenge arena? I think it may be!
Oh no! Rashad Miller from is under attack! Get your filthy tentacles off his hats!
Isn't Jace playing in a game of Planechase a little unfair? I mean, he can planeswalk for free, right?
Brad Nelson marshals an army of Magic fans against the evil empire of R&D in Massive Magic.
A.J. Sacher made it to the Top 8 of the Magic Online Live Series, though not without a little help from his support group, Tims Aten and Landale.
For shame, Monty Ashley! Are you cheating on your beloved Plant token by representing a Snake token?

I remember these days. Gaming for eighty straight hours until I'm unsure if the cat lady I saw walking around was a cosplayer or simply a figment of my delirious imagination. With so much to do, and so much to participate in that can only be done during this four-day window, it's only natural for people to not want to miss a moment of it. I understand, trust me.

If attendance and results were any indication, it appeared to me that Magic is stronger than ever. There were around 200 side events run throughout the course of the weekend. There were five different championships. There was a Pro Tour Qualifier. Each event was loaded with people, regardless of the hour. Only at Gen Con do you have to forego starting a Draft at 6 a.m. so you can make sure to have enough time left to prepare for the Legacy Championships a few hours later. Only at Gen Con will you play against a copy of Jace, the Mind Sculptor one round then sit across from the real thing in the next. There are so many things that can (and do!) only happen at Gen Con that it's impossible to list them all. I guess the only way to experience them is to be there. We can only get you so close. You have to do the rest.

See you next year!

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