Gen Con: A Magical Four Days

Posted in Making Magic on August 23, 2013

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.

The end of August is rapidly approaching, and with it, a lot of great memories are going to be stored away. The World Championship and World Magic Cup are history, with Shahar Shenhar and France being named champions, respectively. My birthday came and went in subdued fashion. Football (of both varieties) has returned to television. All of these are wonderful things. Yet nothing is quite as wonderful and bittersweet as the feeling that occurs as the lights drop on the last day of Gen Con.

Hi there, everyone. My name is Nate Price, and I am one of the lead writers for Magic: The Gathering's Pro Tour and Grand Prix circuits. It has been my pleasure to bring you the happenings in the world of Magic for close to eight years now, from the Community Cup to the Pro Tour to the World Championship. As a resident of the fine city of Indianapolis, I am also uniquely suited to bring you an insider's view of the goings on during the best four days in gaming (i.e., I can attend Gen Con and sleep in my own bed at night).

In previous years, Gen Con has played host to events such as the Vintage Championships, Legacy Championships, US Nationals, and the World Magic Cup. Magic at Gen Con has always had a special place in my heart, because it was the first place I played Magic outside of my local community, way back in Milwaukee in 1998, where I cracked my first pack of Unglued. It has such a massive presence nowadays that a significant portion of the TCG hall is devoted entirely to Magic. The addition of Planeswalkers to the game has also given a face, or many faces to be precise, to Magic—faces that can be seen strewn about the milling crowds as cosplay enthusiasts begin to get into the Magic spirit. It's all over the place at Gen Con, and it's incredible to see how far the game has come in its lengthy two-decade life.


As entrenched in Magic as I have become over the past few years, I have often found myself attending Gen Con to do work more than really get out to enjoy the con itself. While it's been great being present for some of the more momentous occasions in Magic's history, it has been unfortunate to miss out on a good deal of what makes Gen Con fun: getting to game! This year, I set out with something different in mind. This year, I was going to go to Gen Con, enjoy myself, and game until I passed out. As I did this, I couldn't help but notice how much of an influence Magic was having not only on my Gen Con experience, but on those of others as well. With this interesting lens through which I could view Gen Con, I set about to tell my story of Gen Con, the Magic adventure it was.

Things started early on Thursday, as they always do, with me arriving to pick up my badge. I mean, as much fun as the con is to simply wander around, you don't get much done without one of those babies. My first stop, as every year, was to the Puzzle Hunt HQ, run by Mike Selinker and his crack crew of puzzle writers. It's always an incredible experience, as I love puzzles, and it's on the short list of things that I have to do every year. I was a little confused to find that they had been moved from the same spot that they've occupied for the past few years, and it took me a good fifteen minutes to realize that they'd just been moved a few hundred feet down the hallway. Part of the reason it took me so long to notice this was the monstrous horde of people filling the halls. The Expo Hall, where all of the vendors are set up, opened at 10 a.m., and people were eagerly crowding around the doors in anticipation. As for me, I was willing to wait until a little later in the weekend to make my jaunt into the pit of doom, and I set about looking for the puzzle placards dispersed throughout the convention hall.

I usually have a team of people working with me on the puzzles, but they weren't going to be arriving until later in the weekend, so I simply took note of all of the ones I found and worked my way to the TCG Hall. Once there, I took special note of the one hidden on the way to the Magic event registration, one that was based on a very familiar game...

With puzzling having to take a backseat, I decided to fill my time with a worthy endeavor: trying to qualify for a seat in the 20th Anniversary tournament to be held on Sunday.

The 20th Anniversary event is one of the coolest concepts for a tournament that I think I have ever heard of. Eight different tournaments spread over the first three days of Gen Con each filled one spot in a special tournament to be held on Sunday morning. This tournament would consist of one booster pack of every Magic set from Beta to Magic 2014eighty sets in all. The oldest of these packs would be opened individually and the contents drafted Rochester-style. The remaining packs would then be drafted intact, with each player selecting the packs they wanted access to when building their sixty-card decks. The ultimate prize at the end of this tournament was a set of eighty packs, identical to the ones used to draft in the first place. That's right, the winner of the tournament would get a Beta pack, an Arabian Nights pack, and even a Portal: Three Kingdoms pack. It seemed like quite a cool haul.

I decided to try my luck in the first qualifier: Magic 2014 Sealed Deck. Sitting down to build, I was less than pleased with my pool, as I only had a Haunted Plate Mail for bombs and was light on removal. I (likely) built my deck wrong, ending up with a UR deck featuring the best of my cards, a bunch of fliers, and some removal and bounce to support them. I figured I might be able to get there with it, but luck had to be on my side. Unfortunately, not only was luck not on my side, but I ran into a few incredibly powerful decks, as well. I managed to scrape together a couple of wins in the tournament, but ended up picking up more losses, knocking me out of the tournament.

Still, I had quite a fun time, talked to a number of players, and made some friends for the weekend. I mean, it was Magic. That's kind of par for the course. After dropping from the tournament, I spent the remainder of my night helping some friends test a new game they're designing before calling it a night on my first day of the con. I had a busy day ahead on Friday, so I needed to get at least a little sleep.

Friday opened with a trip through the Expo Hall. For those of you who haven't been to a convention like Gen Con or PAX, nothing can prepare you for the experience of meandering through the Exhibitor's Hall of a convention of this size. It is inundated with people, all milling about at their own pace, stopping randomly, some carrying packs twice their size... it's an utter madhouse. All the while, you are bombarded by the sensory overload of vendor upon vendor demoing their newest games, offering their latest products, or simply explaining more about themselves to anyone who will stop and listen. There are loud videos, flashing lights, corsets galore, banners, posters, and art—a whole lotta art.

In other words, it's pretty freakin' awesome.

I'm the kind of guy who loves the experience of simply wandering the Expo Hall as much as I like playing new games and looking for new products. One of my favorite things to do is wander through artist's alley. There are always plenty of names I recognize there, either from their work on Magic or D&D or simply because I just like their work (I got to meet Jeph Jacques!).

This year, one of the coolest things I saw by far was at Jeff Menges's booth. For those of you who don't recognize the name, Menges was tapped to illustrate cards for Alpha, a true OG of Magic. He illustrated fifty-five cards, from Alphathrough Tempest, including some of the most iconic images from Magic's past, such as the original Swords to Plowshares and Black Knight. What struck me at his booth, other than the incredibly cool original prints of Consecrate Land and Armor Thrull, was the giant poster he had advertising for The Gathering, a book dedicated to the original artists of Magic and their vision. More than forty artists from the first two years of Magic contributed their time and work toward this effort, creating a book that not only explores the early life of Magic art, but expands upon it.

Jeff Menges

Prints and originals from Jeff Menges

You see, early in Magic's history, it was not uncommon for artists to get little more than a card name to describe the artwork, a far cry from the more structured details given today.

Menges laughed when I asked him about how he was directed to do his work: "When I was commissioned for Swords to Plowshares, the only thing I got initially was the name. I asked Jesper [Myfors] what the heck that meant, and he explained that it's about turning an aggressive, militaristic entity into a peaceful one. That's why there's a castle in the background, representing his past, and the fields he is working in, in the foreground, representing his decision to leave that behind him."

Swords to Plowshares | Art by Jeff A. Menges

In The Gathering, you get to see a jump forward two decades, as these same artists who created these incredibly iconic images have reinterpreted some of their original artwork, giving it a new life. My personal favorite from the images I saw was the incredible reinterpretation Heather Hudson did of Chains of Mephistopheles. Menges's own reinterpretation of Black Knight was on display in his booth, adding a bit more color to offset the darkness of the Knight, while keeping the same foreboding presence he creates. There are dozens more of these entries in the book, and I highly recommend checking it out, although I have been warned that it is going to be a limited release. So move quickly!

Jeff Menges reinterprets Black Knight

After leaving the Expo Hall (although it was more like being sucked along with the flow back into the hallway), I headed off to meet tournament organizer extraordinaire Steve Port for dinner at the Colts Grille. While I was definitely hungry, the main reason I chose that venue as the place to grab some grub was the cool Friday Night Magic that they were hosting that evening. Saltire Games of Indianapolis and Gnome Games of Green Bay held an NFL-themed FNM, with the Colts obviously being the home team (go blue!). It was a free-entry event, and dozens of gamers from both cities showed up to play some Standard, enjoy food and drinks, and talk lots and lots of trash.

A familiar face welcomes players to FNM

FNM at Colts Grille

Home-field advantage

I opened the next day with some big things on my mind. First up was the annual Gen Con costume parade and competition. Cosplay is an integral part of the Gen Con experience, and it represents all of the best parts of the con. There's the obvious sci-fi/fantasy/gaming element that is the core of why we all show up. Then there is the attitude of "I'm dressing up, and I don't really care what people think of me"—an independence from care that Gen Con openly fosters. It's amazing seeing not only myriad costumes that people wear, but the incredible openness that cosplayers are shown as they parade around the halls. They are the stars of this event, with people stopping them for photos nonstop, everyone looking to grab pictures of their favorite characters, or looking to be pictured with them.

Since I was there with Magic on the mind, it was clear what I was after: Planeswalkers. While certain legends have certainly captivated the creativity of players since there began to be a cohesive backstory for Magic, nothing truly gave the brand a face like the creation of the Planeswalkers. With characters inextricable from the storyline while existing as independent entities in their own right, Planeswalkers have given people heroes to root for and villains to hate that surpass any in Magic's history. As such, it was no surprise that there were a large number of Planeswalkers in attendance for the parade. The only one I wasn't able to find was Chandra, but I figured she was probably busy...

Jace cosplay

Avacyn cosplay

Elspeth and Liliana cosplay

Ral Zarek cosplay

Gideon, Jace, Nate Price, Liliana, and Garruk cosplay

After trying (and failing) to ignite my spark, I headed back to the TCG room, where I had a very special surprise waiting for me. Just like many of you out there, I have friends I have introduced to Magic. Much like watching a child take his or her first steps, watching someone you introduced to the game playing in his or her first sanctioned match is a watershed moment. You get to see the fruits of your labor on display as your baby sets off to battle against the harsh inevitabilities of the world.

Unfortunately, I am apparently a terrible parent. My friend Brian, who has been playing casually with a group of friends at work for the past few months, was interested in learning how to draft. I took him through the Draft Simulators and Draft Viewers from the World Championship in order to teach him the basics of Booster Draft. Magic 2014 is one of the best possible sets for a new drafter to get into, as it is good, old-school Limited Magic. Unfortunately, I neglected to mention to Brian that he should probably stick to only M14 Drafts. He got into a Return to Ravnica draft, and... well, it didn't go so well. In his words, "I got beat by an eight-year old, and I have no idea how he beat me."

His next draft, this time in the correct queue, went well. He didn't win his match, but he put together a reasonable BR sacrifice deck, managing to take a game off of his opponent. From there, he built on that by queueing with me in a 2HG draft. We wanted to go Slivers (what can I say, I work with Jacob Van Lunen), but it appeared that we weren't the only ones with that idea (no surprise). In the end, we did end up with a reasonable four-color Sliver deck for me and a BR sacrifice deck (now Brian's favorite archetype). Facing off against a Trollhided Elite Arcanist with Tome Scour under it, it looked like we weren't going to make it out of the first round, but a timely Megantic Sliver and some intricate sacrificial work on Brian's part stole the game one turn before we would have died. Brian had won his first competitive match of Magic, and he was thrilled. He was happy enough that he didn't even care that we got utterly steamrolled in the following round. Whatever, he got three packs that he had won for winning Magic. A tear rolled down my cheek. I was so proud.

Nate Brian, the Unbowed

There was no more time to celebrate, however, as I needed to get some sleep. The main event, the reason I was so pumped for Gen Con, started bright and early in the morning. The 20th Anniversary tournament was set to begin, and I didn't want to miss anything, from the packs being laid out in front of the players to the final points of damage. I dipped in early, where Scott Larabee was beginning to set up the feature match area where the games were to be played. The packs looked incredible. It was amazing to see how far Magic graphic design had come over the years, from the days of Beta through Modern Masters and Magic 2014. It was epic.

Every Set from Beta through Magic 2014

The old-pack corner

Old-pack corner from above

The newer sets

Eight players had won the right to play for the ultimate prize, one of every Magic set since Beta, eighty packs dating twenty years. David Gleicher, Josh McClain, Conner Russell, Devin Koepke, Adrian Becker, Zack Wolff, Neil Milligan, and Ralph Navarra had all won their respective qualifiers and entered the arena for the opening draft.

The 20th Anniversary Tournament Top 8

First up was drafting the older packs. Beta through Legends, Portal: Three Kingdoms, and Zendikar (because why not) were the packs up for grabs. Drafting first, Zack Wolff chose the obvious Beta pack, cracking a Dark Ritual for himself. Players seemed down about the fact that Roc of Kher Ridges was the rare, but at least it wasn't a basic land! As more old packs were opened, spectators began to get disheartened about the lack of anything particularly noteworthy. The biggest surprise was the Karakas that came out of the Legends pack.

Drafting Beta

Drafting Unlimited

Unlimited choices


Sleeving Up

After the last individual cards were taken, players began to draft the remaining packs in whole. I had a bet that the last two packs taken would be Fallen Empires and Homelands, and with the final two picks of the draft, Zack Wolff proved me correct. Interestingly, although they were the bummers of the draft, Wolff actually came out significantly ahead. Having opened with a Dark Ritual in Beta, Wolff was rewarded with the best possible cards he could open in the two packs: Ihsan's Shade and a pair of Hymn to Tourachs for his troubles. In the end, these cards would carry him all the way to the finals, as his BR deck made short work of his opponents in the quarters and semis.

David Gleicher

Josh McClain

Adrian Becker

Neil Milligan

Ralph Navarra

Conner Russell

Devin Koepke

Zack Wolff

Zack Wolff's BR deck

In the finals, he met up with Devin Koepke from just outside of St. Louis in Oak Lawn, IL.

Zack Wolff faces Devin Koepke in the finals...

Koepke's draft strategy involved taking a majority of the base sets in the draft, but opening the draft with a first-pick Modern Masters. The set has no bad cards, so why not? In the end, he built a great, sturdy deck built around green fatties and blue fliers. His fight with Wolff was epic, made even more so by the time limit imposed by the closing of Gen Con. It took a full three games, but Koepke was able to take the match from Wolff, netting himself that gigantic booster payload.

... and in the end, Devin Koepke becomes the 20th Anniversary Tournament winner!

"First year of school is paid off," he shouted as he went around high-fiving friends. Having only been playing competitively since Worldwake, the overwhelming majority of the cards in the tournament were new to Koepke, and he read more than his fair share of cards as it went on. Still, despite his young age, he was able to maneuver his way to a win, continuing the Magic theme of the year: youth. Even as Magic gets older, the game continues to attract new players. It was a fitting way to celebrate Magic's 20th Anniversary, and a fitting way to draw Gen Con, and my story, to a close.

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