In Honor Of Dragons

Posted in Serious Fun on June 6, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

Even though it's not Dragon Week here at, today I am in a dragon mood. I'd like to celebrate that mood by passing on three Magic-related stories about dragons. The first is a tale of woe, comeuppance, and humiliation. The second is a tale of new hope in a strange land. The third is a tale of wondrous glory with all the comforts of home. Dragons are fickle creatures – did you expect anything different?

Dragon Tale #1: The Girlfriend Was Much Gentler

My first run-in with a dragon reminded me of a girlfriend I had in high school. Nicole was her name, and she was an altogether different sort of girl for me at the time: tall, blonde, brilliant, talented at music, open with her feelings, and just a great deal of fun to be with. She was lovely. We rarely argued, though we had passionate conversations. I got her flowers, she sent me love letters. It was all so cute. Her mom was even a big fan of mine. (This is an Alongi family trademark. Decades after he was married to my mom, my dad wrote Christmas cards to lots of other women… the mothers of ex-girlfriends. Not the girlfriends themselves, mind you. The mothers. Very Sicilian.) Things were wonderful.

Naturally, I broke up with her. Why? I have no idea. You young women reading this should really, really take this heart: no teenaged boy has a freaking clue. (No, teenaged boys, don't write to me in protest. Just hush now; I'm not talking to you.) It's not even about sex. It's about having no idea who you are, when you're a juvenile male with raging hormones. Hopeless. And not much better ten or more years later.

I blew it with Nicole not once, but twice. Junior and senior years. That's right, she gave me another chance, and I still blew it! And I went to Harvard! Ladies, I'll say it again: no clue. You are still amazing. Hold your head high. And know that karma will have its way with the ass who treated you wrong.

Fast forward several years, to my first year of playing Magic. My brother-in-law Paul and I have just learned how to play, and we're in a game with a far more experienced friend of ours named Dean. Dean has the old cards (which at the time – Rath block – meant Legends or older). Dean bobs and weaves, crushes us in ways we didn't know we could be crushed.

Nicol Bolas
One game, he doesn't have very much going on – just a lot of Mountains, Swamps, and Islands. I'm pounding on him with a bunch of small white weenies, while Paul's establishing position with a blue deck of some sort. Just as I'm feeling good about my chances, Dean lays down a nifty gold-bordered card and says, "Nicol Bolas".

"Nicole Beau Lass?" I repeat, since that's what it sounded like to me. I immediately thought of Nicole. Such a beautiful lass! Of course, by then I hadn't seen her in years and was just about to celebrate my fifth anniversary with my wife, the beautiful but devious MaryJanice. But she was still a happy memory.

Why, I'll bet this card will be charming, I tell myself as I lean in for a closer look.

Well, it wasn't charming at all. A few moments later, when it was done smacking me for seven and ripping apart my hand, I decided I liked the old Nicole better. But I'm sure that somewhere in the world, a certain Nicole experienced an unexpected, warm feeling, without knowing entirely why. And she deserved the boost. That's karma for you.

I acquired my own copy of Nicol Bolas a few weeks later. I store it in a special hard sleeve, and I rarely use it in decks. I just don't want to see Nicole hurt again, I suppose. (Either that, or the casting cost is just ridiculous. I forget which.)

Dragon Tale #2: They Were Playing With What?!

Long-time readers of mine know that is not my first Magic writing gig. In fact, it's not even the first gig Wizards had me on.

I used to write for the Sideboard, which was a print magazine (and then internet site, predecessor to that focused on tournament reporting and strategy. Omeed Dariani, who had been my editor at, arranged for me to write for them. Omeed had no preconceptions about what it took to write for a Magic tournament magazine, which was good because I had no relevant qualifications beyond the ability to type fast.

Invasion block had just begun in 2000, and I had learned quite a bit about Limited formats by getting close to a Pro Tour invite (Top 4 in a qualifier, and I might have gone further had I not followed the advice of a certain spectator by the name of… Noah Weil. More on that story with my current Tuesday companion, another time! It will bend your mind.) For all my confidence in Invasion block Limited, I knew virtually nothing about Constructed formats, and my first "big" assignment for the Sideboard was coverage for Pro Tour--Chicago.

"Pro Tour--Chicago?" This highly skeptical comment came from Todd Petit, the only member of our group to qualify for a Pro Tour. He placed, like, 196th or something. But it's still better than the rest of us have ever done. "Pro Tour? You're going to report on the Pro Tour?"

"What," I replied somewhat defensively, hands on my hips. "I don't have the goods? I can't put butts in the seats? I can't sell it? Is that what you're telling me?"

"What are the major deck types in Constructed Standard?" he asked me.

"What's a deck type?" I asked him back.

As he made an exclamation of disgust, I lifted my hands in victory. "I turned that right back on you, didn't I? You don't even know. I win, my friend. I win."

"God help any Sideboard reader who expects helpful analysis from you," he muttered while rummaging through his deck box for a multiplayer creation capable of taking the field against my own stacked slices of perfection. "The best they can hope for is you'll spell the players' names right, so they can look them up in a telephone book and get real information direct from the source."

"You're just jealous because I get an all-expenses paid trip to Chicago, jewel of the Midwestern United States."

"My company sends me there every month. Go to the Navy Pier, you'll like it."

"Screw you," I retorted wittily, resolving on the spot that I would go everywhere but the Navy Pier. Yes, this would be a Navy-Pier-free trip. I would have a blast – and so would Chicago! We'd be great for each other. We didn't need this Petit jerk.

"Maybe you should check in with Noah before you go," he suggested. "He probably has some insights you can use in your writing, when you find out how unbelievably in over your head you are."

"You," I informed him, "are a petty, petty man." And with that, I kicked his ass with a really cool deck featuring Gilded Drake. Just like the Pros would the following week in Chicago, I was sure.

(I may – MAY, mind you – have taken some poetic license with the story above. It's possible, upon further reflection, that Todd was even more of a tool.)

Wizards flew me down to the Windy City, kept me up in the event hotel, and gave me plenty of time to have dinner and drinks with one Michelle, who at the time was a minor celebrity in the Magic world because of her strong play skills and engaging writing for sites like Michelle and I got along great, and I called my beautiful but devious wife each and every night I was in Chicago to let her know what an amazing person Michelle was.

"Michelle's funny as hell," I would tell her.

"Yeah," MaryJanice would reply with unbounded enthusiasm.

"Tall, too. Nice eyes."

"So, are you getting anything done?"

"Anything done?! Are you kidding? Last night, Michelle and I were up until 1AM figuring out where the enormous, thirty-foot-tall paper-mache penguin in the hotel lobby came from, and what it likes to eat for breakfast. We must have gone through at least five beers apiece. We're getting tons done."

"It's only 1:30 AM now."

"Break's over, then! I gotta get back to the grind – call you tomorrow, honey!"

"Not if I block this number."

In between scintillating conversations with Michelle and MaryJanice, I did a little event reporting. One of the decks that tore through Pro Tour--Chicago 2000 was the Invasion-based "Fires" deck. Fires of Yavimaya was the cornerstone, and later on things like Flametongue Kavu, Blastoderm, and/or Saproling Burst would win the game for you.

A few players had the idea of adding a tiny splash of white to the deck, for Rith, the Awakener. Thus a legendary chapter of Magic history began. I was fortunate not only to see the first high-profile "mirror" match of two Rith-centered Fires decks, but to report on it. I talked with Brian Kibler afterward to ask him the name of his deck, and he called it the "Red Zone", named after the portion of these new playmats Mark Rosewater was forcing everyone to use. Mark kept going around, reminding people to keep their lands way back in the dark green zone, and their creatures and other permanents in the light green zone, and their combat-involved creatures in the red zone, which was in the middle of the mat. Players kept forgetting to put their creatures in the red zone when they declared attackers or blockers, and Mark kept reaching into these games and moving the cards around. It really ticked off a few players, and at the beginning of two or three matches a player who had seen Mark do this would ask me (mistaking me for some sort of authority figure) if I could keep this mat-consumed maniac the hell away from their game.

Of course, Mark was absolutely right to be a stickler: "Red Zone" Magic playmats are now the driving force behind sales of Magic cards and accessories, right up there with E-Z spill drink containers that make your carbonated beverage of choice wobble dangerously close to your unsleeved cards; and spindown counters featuring a miniature pewter likeness of Mark himself, looking festive in a judge's striped vest. (Tiny paints not included; miniature pewter, dog-eared Roseanne script sold separately.)

We've strayed a bit from the dragons, but don't worry; they'll wait for us.

For trivia freaks: Pro Tour--Chicago 2000 was also my first run-in with Scott Johns, who is now the current content manager for this site. I was incredibly stupid in my interview with him (which came after a heartbreaking loss, though I don't recall to whom or how), and I asked him questions like, "how does it feel to lose such a close game?" You know, just like those ridiculous sideline reporters at football games who ask struggling coaches coming back from halftime, "what does your team need to do to win?" Scott avoided punching me in the nose, but he did let me know he thought the interview could be better managed. Then he walked away. Even after that incredible show of restraint, he actually approached me later and apologized. He apologized. To me. Naturally, I accepted and told him I didn't expect to see that sort of behavior again… ever.

So then they go and make him my boss. Karma again, I suppose.

What, you're still missing the dragon part? It was Rith. The guy was all over that tournament, and I reported on an ultra-cool match with Jon Finkel and Brian Kibler. That's not enough for you?! Go away; I'm trying to reminisce, here.

Dragon Tale #3: Graft That Dragon!

I'm writing this the very same night where earlier, I dragged out an old Black/Red dragon deck and updated it with some new toys.

The deck begins with Shivan Zombies and Hidden Horrors (with the possibility of Anger), and then moves to Dragonspeaker Shamans and a wide variety of dragons. Rorix Bladewing is one of my favorites, since he can come out on turn 4 with a Shaman out on turn 3. But I've also added Hunted Dragons to the deck, since the Shivan Zombies can handle the appearance of White Knight tokens.

We were playing Emperor format, my friends and I. Todd was on the other team. (He's always on the other team. We both prefer it that way.) He was trying a new philosophy with his emperor deck: instead of lying back and setting up a combo over five or six turns while his lieutenants did their best impression of 20-life speedbumps, Todd decided he would try a deck where he would help his teammates. After all, we had been hounding him for years, complaining about the lack of interaction his decks had and pointing out at every possible opportunity how the opposition had done better in a given game because they worked together.

So Todd, who's fond of both blue and green, latched on to the Simic Combine as the source of his salvation. He would build a graft deck. It would feature modest creatures like Aquastrand Spider and Vigean Hydropon, as well as showy stuff like Forgotten Ancient and Doubling Season. Creatures on the flanks would benefit tremendously from his generous gifts, and he would ride his lieutenants coattails to victory.

It all sounded so good. Maybe a bit too good, eh.

No sooner do we start a best-out-of-three Emperor match, that Todd learns two things:

  1. One of his teammates is playing a near-creatureless control deck on the flank.
  2. The other teammate is playing lots of small creatures, but is experiencing mana flooding.

On his third turn, Todd is able to Temporal Spring one of my lands to the top of my deck, but I suffer no penalty for it. Why? Tim (Todd's teammate) is grinding through Mountain after Mountain. A Raging Goblin with a single +1/+1 counter on it pokes me in the neck once or twice.

On his fourth turn, Todd plays a Vigean Hydropon. "Let's get those creatures out there," he urges his troops.

The dragons won. That's what dragons do.

His troops do not respond. Two turns later, Todd has three graft creatures on the board – and nowhere to put the counters (other than each new graft creature of his, which may be tactically wise at times but is not the sort of unbridled excitement Todd signed up for this evening).

Meanwhile, he watches his opponents play creature after creature – I play a Hidden Horror, discarding Anger and swinging for four; my teammate Paul plays a Golgari Guildmage; I play a Dragonspeaker Shaman and swing for six more; then I play Rorix Bladewing and end Tim on turn 6.

On turn 7, Hunted Dragon and Rorix Bladewing begin the pounding on the emperor's stronghold – and the emperor, wise and benign leader that he is, spares his subjects further abuse by raising the white flag.

It's a fine story, isn't it? Majestic dragons flying high and fast, bringing glory to their creator. The fact that Todd's team won the other two games that match is, poetically speaking, irrelevant. The dragons won. Because that's what dragons do.

Anthony Alongi has been playing various Magic formats for over eight years, and has been writing for much longer than that. His latest dragon tale, JENNIFER SCALES AND THE MESSENGER OF LIGHT, was co-written with his wife MaryJanice. It's available on web sites and in North American bookstores today.

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