The Long and Winding Road

Posted in Serious Fun on June 2, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

Where to begin?

If we're talking about the beginning of my love for Magic, there are more possible answers to that question than you might think.

It would be easy to start the story with my return to Magic around the time of Mirrodin. "I used to play, back in the day," I'll hear a lot of people say, sweeping whatever happened "back in the day" under the rug as they continue, "but I came back right before Time Spiral came out" (or whatever), and treat that as the beginning of their story. Me, though? I'd go further back.

Did it start when I first laid eyes on a Magic card?

I was over at my friend Brett's house one Summer day in 1994. I was 11. Brett and another friend, Marc, had picked up some new game that they wanted to show me. They began teaching me the rules, such as they knew them.

We played with our hands face up on the table (helpful while getting the hang of the game) and "all mana down," meaning that we could play any number of lands each turn. We thought damage stayed on creatures from turn to turn; we marked this with counters.

Nonetheless, lands were tapped, spells were cast, creatures attacked and blocked. It was Magic. I don't remember anything about these games, but I remember some of the cards involved. Foremost in my memory are Kird Ape, War Mammoth, and Wall of Wood. Not exactly the stuff epic fantasies are made of—but I was hooked all the same.

Kird Ape
War Mammoth

After learning to play from Brett and Marc, I headed to the local card shop on my bike to pick up some cards of my own. I only had so much money, and while I had the option of purchasing one or two packs of older sets (I think The Dark boosters were $8 at the time), I opted instead for a 60-card starter and two boosters of Revised Edition. Those 90 cards were my first real window into the game.

In the Beginning

Some people fall in love with Magic at first sight. Others see the game and shrug it off, only to return years later and discover what everyone else was talking about. Many, I think, are somewhere in the middle; initial curiosity gives way to active involvement when you see that one thing that really and truly speaks to you personally.

For me, that one thing that spoke to me personally was the Shivan Dragon I got the first time I ever opened packs. I was enthralled. It was my favorite card. I kept it protected in a top-loader. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But why did that dragon mean so much to me?

I had enough experience with games to be not just aware but excited that the 5s on my Shivan Dragon were way, way bigger than the 1s on my Mons's Goblin Raiders—and the Dragon's numbers could even get bigger! I knew what power and toughness were, I knew what flying meant, and I was more than ready to get this thing into play and attack.

But even though I understood the mechanical significance of my new dragon, I don't think that's what struck me. It was the total package: the "firebreathing" ability that I'd already seen on, well, Firebreathing; the art, an enormous dragon menacing me from above; the flavor text, about the unusual cruelty of this particular breed of dragon; everything. A dragon!

Magic wasn't the first fantasy I encountered. I'd read The Hobbit at that point, and I was fascinated by it, particularly the dragon Smaug. Here, in my hand, was a dragon like that—but it was mine to summon, mine to command. That is a pretty heady feeling.

So that's the real beginning of my Magic addiction: not the first time I saw Shivan Dragon, or the first time I saw a Magic card, but the first time I ever saw a dragon in fiction or art, whenever that might have been. I'm sure many people have similar experiences, with some Magic card resonating in perfect harmony with some aspect of fantasy they've encountered before.

Early Days

Seems about right.

So I had my 90 cards. I knew how to play. The problem? I only knew two other people who played, and they were too far away to bike. I needed more opponents. I needed to get my other friends hooked, too.

The means at my disposal were modest. I divided my 90 cards into two 45-card decks of two and a half colors each, splitting the artifacts between them. If I'm recalling the land distribution in starters correctly, that meant that each deck had a paltry ten lands—not that I realized at the time how few that was. The resulting play experience was, shall we say, not stellar, and I utterly failed to get my friend Chris into the game.

With my limited play group and extremely limited budget, I was in a sort of stasis. I got new cards occasionally, but I hadn't really ever gotten acquainted with the concept of deck building; I added new cards, got new lands where I could, and played with an unbelievably ugly five-color "rainbow" deck that had to be at least a hundred cards. It was terrible—but so were Brett and Marc's decks, so what did it matter?

That changed when Chris finally started playing (because of one of his other friends—a sore point, I assure you). That was the real start of the playgroup that was home to me for the early days of my Magic career. Chris's friend Scott, then Chris himself, proved far better ambassadors for the game than I had. Before long, Scott's little brother and even Chris's dad were playing with us.

My world had changed. I was forced to adapt. No longer was my rainbow deck adequate; it was a clunker, no match for the sleeker decks the rest of the group was building. Thus was born my "green deck," which was every green card I liked plus half that many Forests. As it, too, inched north of a hundred cards, it got a bit unwieldy. Finally, Scott showed me a guide in the Magic magazine The Duelist for making a 60-card deck. It specified 20 lands, 20 creatures, and 20 other spells, with further instructions on keeping the deck to one or two colors, including creatures and spells to fill particular roles, and minding your mana curve.

As it happens, I have a snapshot of this stage of my Magic development, in the form of two decks I kept around even after I stopped playing regularly. At first, this was because I figured I would use them again; eventually, it was for posterity.

Kelly's Ancient Green Deck

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Kelly's Ancient White Deck

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These are very typical of the decks I built at the time—random creatures and spells I liked, no removal to speak of, and, for the green deck especially, a weakness toward creatures with flying. The green deck focuses on getting big creatures online as early as possible, while the white deck tries to build up a critical mass of Kor to create an impregnable defense. I recall games with the white deck in which my creatures could absorb up to 14 damage without any of them dying, shuffling it around thanks to cards like Spirit en-Kor and Lancers en-Kor. Meanwhile, I would be gaining life with Congregate or Noble Purpose. Obnoxious!

Lancers en-Kor
Noble Purpose

Because the green deck tries to win through creature combat and has literally no recourse against fliers, when you run the two decks against each other, the white deck wins four out of five games or better. Against other decks, the green deck occasionally got a quick enough start to overwhelm, while the white deck often got enough defense to stall forever while winning the game 2 points at a time with Spirit en-Kor.

Spirit en-Kor

The deck lists can't give you the complete impression of these two decks, made as they are from a hodgepodge of cards from Revised, Urza block, Masques block, and elsewhere, with lands from across Magic's history—whichever I happened to grab.

Go to 61 and I’ll cut you.

My past self is not available for comment, so I can't explain some of the weirder choices here. How on earth did I end up with 1 Grizzly Bears and 1 Balduvian Bears? How does that happen? One thing I can explain is the proliferation of 2s and 3s instead of 4s, often of pretty closely equivalent cards (like Holy Armor and Holy Strength). That's something you'll still see in my decks—being a diversity gamer, I'd rather have half the chance of drawing two different cards. When I couldn't decide which cards to cut, I would more often than not trim the number of copies rather than the number of cards. (Going over was unthinkable—I was already well inculcated in the Cult of Sixty.)

Other decks from that period are no longer with us, but they were similar. One of my first decks, inexplicably, was a Griffin-Elephant deck. It didn't have any tribal effects. There was no reason for it to exist. I just decided to make a two-color deck centered on two "tribes" with no connection to each other and few tribal rewards (none of which I owned), nearly all of whose members cost four mana. So ... that deck was bad. My Golem-Chimera deck fared a little better, and I remember toting that one around for a long time.

Ekundu Griffin
Lead-Belly Chimera

My pride and joy, however, was my black-red-green token deck. Even a decade before Jund, that was the color trio to turn to for making and sacrificing tokens. I wish I still had the list for this deck. It had the token classics—various Thallids, Verdant Force, Breeding Pit, Lord of the Pit, Goblin Bombardment, etc.—as well as some more obscure options, such as Diamond Kaleidoscope, Jungle Patrol, and Mr. Proto-Overrun, Marton Stromgald. It also featured Misfortune and Vaevictis Asmadi, because, hey, I was in those three colors anyway.

I very seldom won our group games, individual or multiplayer, but I liked my decks, I enjoyed playing, and I felt like I was getting better all the time.

Shock and Awe

Slowly but surely, the tournament world started to impinge on my happy reverie. I got a subscription to The Duelist. I went to Prerelease tournaments, starting with Tempest, and started learning how to play Sealed Deck. I faced a Prosperous Bloom deck (based around the combo of Cadaverous Bloom and Prosperity, then a Tolarian Academy deck (based around Tolarian Academy being totally busted), both piloted by my super-competitive friend Jason. I even demanded to try one of those combo decks myself, and when it utterly failed to work for me, I declared that it obviously liked Jason better. Never did it cross my mind that playing a combo deck correctly was incredibly difficult, a skill I hadn't mastered and indeed didn't know existed.

Cadaverous Bloom
Tolarian Academy

I later took a break from the game, and when I returned—finding Chris and Brett once again, along with some new faces—my journey to the Spike side was complete. I didn't even build decks anymore, just drafted, drafted, drafted. We were never seriously competitive—we didn't play tournament Constructed because we didn't like it, we did fun events like Sealed Deck tournaments and wacky drafts, and sometimes we even played Fat Stack, a casual format if ever there was one. But our evenings together were by and large spent drafting the latest competitive format, and our Saturdays were often occupied by Sealed Deck PTQs and other tournaments.

That was the trajectory I was on—a bad Spike, basically—when something changed the course of my Magic life forever.

Mr. Wizard

When I got hired at Wizards in late 2006, it meant I could no longer play in those PTQs my friends and I had frequented. I kept drafting regularly with a group of people in the building, but gradually it dawned on me that there was no main event to prepare for—no reason to pursue perfection in our drafts and every reason to pursue fun.

From there, it was a short jump to rediscovering the joys of casual deck building and multiplayer mayhem, and I found plenty of other people both in and outside the building who were more than happy to join me.

I don't want to make it sound as though I was a casual player who transformed into a competitive one and then back into a casual one. I've always been both. It's just my emphasis that has changed, and I've never had more fun playing this game.

Stepping Stones

These are the steps that brought me here, from young fantasy fan to casual Magic enthusiast to PTQ player and finally back to the casual fold. What about you? How did you get where you are? What got you into Magic? What made you stay? And how did you become the player you are today? Head to the forums, fire up the emails, and let me know!

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