From Pestilence to Pro Tour

Posted in Latest Developments on August 1, 2003

Whenever anyone asks me about my most memorable Magic moment, I always tell them about the time I won Pro Tour – Chicago. However, I’ve already told that story in this column so when Aaron told us we were having Magic Moments theme week in honor of the anniversary, I knew I needed to go back even farther into my past and find something suitably nostalgic to talk about. So this week I’m going to tell the story of how I first discovered and then started to play this wonderful game.

I guess the story starts back in high school, long before Magic was created. I have always enjoyed competitive games, especially those that required the use of my brain. In high school I started playing in academic bowl competitions – each school would send a team of four players to these tournaments where you had to buzz in as soon as you knew the answer to the question that was being read. (Basically, imagine team Jeopardy and you’d be pretty close to correct.)

Anyway, when I went to college (at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN) I got onto the Vanderbilt College Bowl team. Over the course of my college years I got to know a lot of the players at other universities from the area because we’d run into them every month or two at tournaments, plus we would often keep in touch through the Internet. (Any of this sounding familiar? In retrospect I find the College Bowl community to be remarkably similar to the Magic playing community. I have lots of memories of driving all night Thursday or Friday night to get to a tournament that was a couple of states away where I would compete against the same group of guys who were just as addicted to this intellectual sport as I was.)

I formed a number of friendships back when I was playing College Bowl in the early 90’s that survive to this day. In fact, this one friend – Charlie Steinhice – hosts a get-together every summer at his in-laws’ orchard up in the mountains of Tennessee. A bunch of us from Vandy, the University of Tennessee, UT-Chattanooga, Memphis State, and NC State crash there for a weekend mostly just to catch up, but we also break out a buzzer system and some questions. The orchard has a cider house, so that weekend has been called “Cider House Rules” since back when the John Irving book was a reasonably obscure trivia question, rather than an Academy Award winning movie.

When I went to “Cider House” back in the summer of 1995 I arrived on Friday and a number of the people who were already there were gathered around the kitchen table playing a card game. I had never seen it before, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves so I wandered over to watch. Obviously you know where this story is going … They were playing Magic and by the end of the weekend they had taught me how to play. Their method of teaching was to hand me a deck and add me into their multiplayer free-for-all games. The deck they handed me was a based around Pestilence, which can be quite a powerful weapon in multiplayer as I quickly discovered.

When the weekend was drawing to a close another friend, Scott Bowling, decided he could spare enough cards to put together an all-common version of the Pestilence deck I had been using. At the time, you could pump as much mana through Pestilence as you wanted and prevent all the damage to yourself by activating Circle of Protection: Black just one time so that combo was central to the deck. It also had a bunch of creatures with protection from black (including Order of Leitbur) that would live through Pestilence activations.

When I left Cider House that summer with that all-common Pestilence/CoP: Black deck in my hand I was ready to take on the world. I went back to Minneapolis where I was a graduate student in the philosophy department at the University of Minnesota. (My B.S. was in physics and I was very interested in philosophy of science, especially interpretations of quantum mechanics.) When my roommate (Jason Schwengler) moved into our new apartment a few months later and started unpacking, he discovered a pile of about a hundred Magic cards that had been abandoned by one of his housemates from the previous school year. I recognized them and mentioned that I had this deck that I had been given over the summer and, again, you can probably guess where the story goes from here…

I still have great memories from those days. I discovered that there was a game store about a block away from campus and they had a binder of Magic singles. I remember going back multiple times to visit, wondering the whole time if I was really going to pay three dollars for a single Magic card. It seemed like an extravagant amount of money to spend on one card, but it was such an amazing card. After visiting it several times I did finally purchase a Sengir Vampire to add to my deck – an uncommon! – though I vowed that I would never purchase anything more expensive than that (and I couldn’t really imagine who would).

A couple of months later Jason and I were engaged in a full-scale arms race. Every time either one of us would go visit one of the several game stores we had discovered, the other guy would feel obligated to also go purchase cards just to keep up. We mostly bought Ice Age and Fourth Edition packs, though Fallen Empires was so cheap at the time that we bought a fair affair amount of that too. At one point Jason and I negotiated a “two Icy Manipulator détente.” Basically, we both felt that Icy Manipulator was an amazing card (and it was an artifact, so it could go into any deck) and whoever had more of them would be at a serious advantage, so we both promised that neither one of us would go buy a third.

Another funny memory from this time involves my girlfriend Del Laugel (who is now my wife). She was in grad school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (we had met at Vanderbilt but wound up in different cities for grad school), but she’s always been great about indulging my hobbies and so when she would visit we would sometimes play Magic. She had her own small collection of cards, which she just left in Minneapolis because none of her friends in Pittsburgh played the game. That box of cards was extremely tempting, just sitting in my room full of magical goodness. She had the only Northern Paladin I had seen, and she also had this card called Land Tax that seemed really good. Between visits many of the cards in her box got replaced with little notes that said things like “I owe you one Serra Angel.” Eventually, Del and I just merged collections and dropped that charade (and that next summer I moved to Pittsburgh and we merged the rest of our lives too).

I didn’t play Magic against very many different people during my first six months as a player. It was pretty much just my roommate, my girlfriend, a couple friends of his and a couple friends of mine. All that changed when I discovered tournaments. Once I found that outlet for my competitive side I got completely and thoroughly hooked on Magic. When Alliances came out I found myself buying an entire display of booster packs… and then deciding a week later that I really needed two more. That was about when I discovered that people talked about Magic on the Internet and I soon heard about the Pro Tour and suddenly I had a goal to work toward. The rest, as they say, is history.

So that’s my Magic Memory for this week. Even the most grizzled Pro Tour veterans have stories like these, of innocent days before they knew how to tell which cards were good and which were bad… days when they played just for fun and ripped open each new booster pack with tingling anticipation running up and down their spines. One of the coolest aspects of my job in R&D is that I’m encouraged to relive those days and find ways in each new set to rekindle that excitement for Magicplays new and old alike.


Last Week's Poll Question:

Do you play Multiplayer Magic regularly?
Yes 6444 62.2%
No 3912 37.8%
Total 10356 100.0%

There was some debate here in R&D over how popular multiplayer play actually is. Those of us that said "very" seem to be more correct.

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