Electricity crackles across the packed courtyard of Pat's Games, carried by players' voices and multiplied by our nervous energy as we speculate again and again, with friends and strangers alike, about the unplayed set's strongest archetypes and biggest bombs. We're minutes from midnight, minutes from cracking Gatecrash for the very first time, and minutes from discovering which predictions are real and which will be turning into pumpkins and mice.
Five hours later, the evening's electricity has dissipated in hundreds of brilliant—or brilliantly lucky—plays and terrible punts, transformed into bad beat stories of epic proportions. After five hours of boasting and grousing, we're left with a static hum that might be the last remaining players debating rules and mechanics or might be the sound produced by minds numb with sheer exhaustion, like the brain's equivalent to a computer fan.
"Never again," Maria and I say to one another as we stand in a prize line that snakes out the door and into the courtyard while above us the sky pales into the light blue of early morning.
We went back to Pat's Games twice more over the course of the weekend, and the thrill of opening boosters and building decks never diminished. I never discovered an ideal sorting method and I doubt I ever built the best possible deck, because each new card turned me into the dog from Up, perpetually distracted by shinier cards and always chasing interesting interactions. I still loved piloting my Prerelease decks, because every play was fresh and new and every board state still entirely novel.
Though I didn't know it at the time, my first Prerelease experience was somewhat unique. Pat's Games, in Austin, Texas, hosts an incredible number of players for their Prerelease. For the Battle for Zendikar event, 606 eager players turned out. Even without the incredible number of people, Pat's would still stand out. The building was modeled after a castle in England, and as Pat says, "the atmosphere is fantasy-like. Players can play outside under covered patios next to the koi pond and waterfalls. The landscape is beautiful with flowers and vines. The amount of preparation for these tournaments is tremendous."
It's the story of my first Prerelease, but with a change of location it could be my second or fourth or sixth. Every time I've said I'll never go to another midnight Prerelease, I've found myself at my local game store at 11:30 on Friday night, dice and playmat in hand, to revel in that electric atmosphere. I know I'll be exhausted, but I also know that there's nothing else quite like it—no better place to experience such an abundance of gleeful anticipation and to celebrate my favorite game with 40 or a hundred new friends.
The above is my story. Below, I've collected a few more from players and stores to illustrate how Prerelease weekend is an opportunity to engage with the game whether you prefer casual or competitive play, one-on-one or multiplayer, the anticipation or the camaraderie.
Brennon has been playing Magic on and off since Revised Edition. He was on a break from the game when an article about New Phyrexia taught him that, like quicksand, Magic is nearly impossible to escape.
"I started to look into events I could attend. Needless to say I had no idea what Standard was. The only format I saw that I had any cards for was Legacy. My daughter, Camryn, had been playing a different card game with her friends, and I thought this would be great if we could do something together. I was able to cobble together a Soldier tribal deck for myself and a Goblins deck for my daughter. We went to the Wednesday night Legacy tournament and promptly went 0-4. It was a beating. We had no chance. So, the hunt was on to find something that required no prior cards and put everyone on similar footing."
Prereleases are known for drawing out casual, new, and returning players in addition to Friday Night Magic and tournament regulars. In an environment where every player is learning new cards, strategies, and rule interactions, patience and friendliness trump the competitive edge more often than not. An article about Return to Ravnica that highlighted what happens at a Prerelease presented exactly the environment Brennon and Camryn were looking for.
"I showed my daughter that everyone got the same amount of cards and no one would have High Tide! So we decided that we would go and try it out." Camryn and Brennon particularly enjoyed playing Two-Headed Giant at the Prerelease. For their first event, it felt like the perfect choice. "I had some knowledge of the game and she was still learning," Brennon says. "Being able to coach her through her first Prerelease while sharing in the victory was pretty sweet."
These days, Prereleases are a tradition for the two players. "It's interesting to me that in a world where my daughter's interests seem to change as often as the weather, she still looks forward to every Prerelease," Brennon says. "She always wants to go. Even though she is fifteen years old, hanging out with her dad on Prerelease day is still cool."
Camryn and Brennon
Anthony also thought he was on his way out of Magic and was ready to shelve his Standard deck for good when he began playing with his then-friend and now-fiancée Sarah. "It's crazy how things work out sometimes," Anthony says. "I didn't end up parting with the deck, as it turns out. It was my first competitive Standard deck, a Luminarch Ascension control deck. You would have liked it," he adds, knowing my personal preference for having all the fun while my opponent has none.
Sarah and Anthony began playing Two-Headed Giant at their local game store. They've done well at a number of Prereleases and even have a method they impose on the madness of cracking a brand-new set.
"Two-Headed Giant was a great way for us to play the new set and a great way to play together. We gave it a shot for Theros, and ever since we have made it a tradition at our LGS. We start by separating out all of the cards by color and we see what commons we have. We go in knowing the types of decks we want based on the previews, and normally have a decent idea what works. She always makes the control deck and I make the more straightforward aggro deck. Not sure how that came about, but it became tradition. We very much wanted to have a way for us both to experience the new sets at the same time. Then we found out we were real good at it."
The picture above is of Anthony and Sarah at the Born of the Gods Prerelease, where they won the Two-Headed Giant event. "It wasn't really close," Anthony says. "We made the best decks we could and didn't think they would work. They very much did."
While winning is a nice bonus, for Anthony, Prerelease is about the people. "Not to be corny, but my favorite part is that I get to experience the new set with Sarah. We really have a blast."
Big Orbit Games, in rural Evesham in the UK, focuses on decorating their store to fit the theme of the upcoming set. The picture below shows the store decorated for the Battle for Zendikar Prerelease last September—thankfully pre-Ulamog.
"The effort that we put into creating a theme for the shop gives us lots of material for marketing Prerelease—ensuring that we get good attendance even though we are in a rural location," says owner Paul. "There is always a lot of excitement, especially at the midnight event."
Enough excitement, in fact, to inspire some players to make the Prerelease an all-day—a full day—experience.
"Every Prerelease, we have people staying for 24 hours, from FNM, through the midnight Prerelease, up to the end of the Saturday afternoon Prerelease event—some even bring their sleeping bags."
Of course, bringing a sleeping bag to Big Orbit Games doesn't mean camping out in a game store, but instead taking a rare opportunity to relax on a still-flourishing Zendikar.
Good Games Town Hall in Sydney, Australia, provides pizza for the midnight event and encourages new players to attend Prerelease events by running a promotion where if someone brings a friend who hasn't played in a Magic event before and signs them up, both players get a booster.
Due to its unique location, Good Games Town Hall has experience catering to a wide variety of players. "Our store is in the center of Sydney City," says Marty, the store manager. "This means that our player base is a little older on average, and school kids and university students rub shoulders with lawyers, doctors, and reasonably high-level business executives. It really hammers home that gaming is a great equalizer, and we make a point of treating everyone with the same high level of service."
Good Games Town Hall runs both casual and competitive events for the Prerelease, the difference between the two events being the prize structure. Casual events more evenly distribute the boosters in the prize pool with less emphasis on wins, while competitive events reward more wins with more boosters. Whether their preference is finding and exploring strategy or spending time with friends, players can find an event that suits them.
"I think gamers are fairly similar across the world, and we all love being part of getting to play something for the first time and enjoy/talk about it with mates," Marty says. "Prereleases are opportunities where we are all able to 'geek out' together."
So whether you're going to scope out the new set for upcoming drafts and Standard decks or you're just enjoying time with friends and family, whether your preferred event is a midnight Sealed or a Sunday Two-Headed Giant, I hope that this Prerelease you relish the energy, get driven to distraction by incredible new cards, and celebrate Magic with 40 or a hundred new friends.