Second Helpings

Posted in Serious Fun on December 16, 2008

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.

When people ask you how long you've been playing Magic, what do you say? If you're like me, you don't tell them the number of years you've been playing, or the date you started. Numbers are hard to remember—but everybody remembers their first set.

"I've been playing since Onslaught," you'll say, or "I learned to play with Tenth Edition," or, in my case, "I started during Revised." You need a calendar of product releases or a deep knowledge of the game to convert these unusual temporal coordinates to standard timekeeping (Fall 2002, Summer 2007, and sometime between April of 1994 and April of 1995, respectively).

In my case, though, "since Revised" doesn't tell the whole story. Like a lot of people who started in the days of yore, I took some time off from the game in between then and now. I've been a Magic player over half my life (a sobering thought, let me tell you), and it's no wonder that in that time I drifted away from the game for a while—and no wonder that I came back afterward.

For Rerun Week, I want to talk a little bit about that process of coming back, and about a format I played around that time that's weirdly on-theme as well. First, though, let's talk about why people quit.

Down and Out

People who quit the game have many different reasons. The reasons they give often have to do with the cards. I've heard "those weird two-in-one cards," "those weird half-and-half mana cards," and "those cards that can get stuff from your sideboard" cited as reasons for quitting, and I'm sure in the old days people who quit talked about "those weird new 'gold' cards" or "these ridiculous 'snow-covered' lands" or whatever.

Personally, I've never believed these much. Being a Magic player means learning to love new cards three or four times a year. The people who give this excuse have seen mind-blowing new things set after set and liked them fine. What's different now? Is it the cards? I don't think so. It's that they've fallen out of love with the game. When learning new cards that do strange new things becomes a burden instead of a joy, yeah, maybe it's time to step away.

Most people who quit, however, do so for a much simpler reason, I think: Because their lives change. New responsibilities, new time constraints, changes to one's social circle, new jobs, new schools, new significant others, new offspring—all of these things can make a simple hobby start to look like a bigger commitment than you have time for.

Mercadian Masques

I quit shortly after Mercadian Masques came out, which is a pretty common tale. Masques followed on the heels of the insanely overpowered Urza block, and for many people, it didn't measure up. That wasn't me, though—I loved Mercadian Masques. I own more Masques cards than I do cards from all of Urza block. I thought Rebels and Mercenaries were both super-powerful (turns out I was half right), alternate play costs (like that of Snuff Out) really got my gears turning, and Spellshapers struck me as one of the coolest things ever. I mean, why would I ever put Unsummon in a deck again? I can just play Waterfront Bouncer instead, and then every card in my deck is an Unsummon! (Yeah, I know. There are some holes in that logic. Still, I was excited.)

Waterfront Bouncer

So it wasn't the cards. As with most people, it was a change in circumstances that had nothing to do with Magic—in my case, going to a different school. For eighth grade (and through to senior year), I transferred from public middle school to a university-run five-year "laboratory" high school (which I believe means they experimented on us). It's not like I couldn't see my Magic buddies anymore—I was still living in the same house in the same town, just a bike ride away—but hey, you know how it goes. I wasn't at the lunch table every day talking about deck ideas and playing pick-up games, and I made new friends at my new school who had different interests. I'm sure you're familiar with the tale.

The Way Back

I never actually decided to quit, or even stopped considering myself a Magic player. I still had all my cards—I never took the plunge and sold them, a decision I'm thankful for to this day. By the time I graduated high school, it had been years since I'd played. When I headed off to college, I lugged my collection with me (back then, it fit in one big white card box). I figured that with all the new people I'd be meeting, I was bound to run into some Magic players. And so I did ... but not right away.

In the meantime, I started poking around the Internet for Magic info. I found this very site, along with several independent sites, and the game started getting back into my brain. I learned that the upcoming set was called Scourge, and it was the third set of the block. I decided it wasn't a good time to jump in—and besides, I still didn't have anybody to play with.

I lurked for another few months, and then I saw the previews for Mirrodin block. Soul Foundry. Chrome Mox. Mindslaver! Mindslaver was the one that convinced me. I get to steal your turn? Sweet!

It wasn't just the individual cards that got me hooked again. The game was headed to a new plane for the first time in years (remember, Invasion, Odyssey, and Onslaught blocks were all set on Dominaria), a weird metal world unlike anything Magic had done before ... and yet the block was all about artifacts, something thoroughly familiar that I'd always really liked. The time was right. I was back.

Play It Again

I had some advantages in getting back to the game. I'd been around for the Sixth Edition rules change, just barely, so I wasn't shocked by "Creature — Goblin" or the stack. I'd been reading Magic web sites voraciously for months, so I had some sound strategic advice rattling around my brain. And I still had all my cards, which was a huge boon—it didn't feel like I was starting over from nothing.

Of course, I still hadn't found any other Magic players, more through my own busyness than any lack of players in the community. I seemed to know an endless supply of former Magic players, but nobody who was currently invested in the game. I convinced a few of them to join me and headed to the Mirrodin Prerelease, where the staff unearthed my ancient DCI number and gave me a Sealed Deck pool.

Now, I was just happy to play; I didn't harbor any illusions about winning. Four match wins and 18 packs later, I was a whole lot happier—and I had a plan. These 18 packs and I were going to get my lapsed Magic player friends back in the game. I got people up to speed on the current rules, and we got a draft together—the first time I'd ever drafted, actually—and had a blast.

And then a funny thing happened. When I was asking around about the draft, other friends of mine started asking, "Hey, you play Magic?" Before I knew it a whole play group had sprung up out of the woodwork, pulled old decks out from whatever storage they'd been in, picked up some of the new cards, and started playing Magic regularly.

I was a lot more plugged in to the Magic scene than the others were, which gave me an interesting perspective. They were resurrecting old play styles from years ago; I was researching current formats. On one occasion we played a four-player pick-up game where everything was doubled—start with 14 cards and 40 life, and draw two cards and play two lands every turn. Apparently they used to play this way all the time. They didn't have a name for the format, or if they did I've forgotten it, and they didn't hear about it—they came up with it because they thought it would be more fun that way.

I had kept a whole collection where they had kept a few individual decks, which sometimes made for power-level problems. I, after all, could build whatever I wanted; they were more or less stuck, at least for the time being, with whatever they'd built long ago.

I made a Sliver deck at some point, with the Slivers I had from the old days (including my beloved Sliver Queen) and the Sliver Shivers preconstructed deck from Legions, which I hadn't been able to resist picking up. And the thing is, I knew the reputation Slivers had even then. I knew they could be explosive. I built a Sliver deck with whatever Slivers I had on hand. It was five colors, the mana was terrible, and I purposefully left out things like Shifting Sliver that I thought would be unfair and unfun. I was pretty sure the deck was terrible.

I trounced four people in Free-for-All with that Sliver deck. I was that guy. And it's funny, but protesting that "I thought the deck was bad!" never seems to help. I wanted to keep playing with them. I wanted everybody to have fun. So I made the deck worse on purpose. I still won with it, but not as easily. I started borrowing decks more often, and I resigned myself to being that guy, at least occasionally.

Coming Back for More

One lazy Saturday, we blocked off the entire day for Magic. There were something like six of us, of widely varying levels of play skill and commitment. What we wanted was a way to just keep playing Magic all day, such that nobody had to stop playing for any length of time—but anybody could leave if they had to, because some of us had other places to be.

The solution was a format I'd never played before or heard of. One of the others suggested it, so it may have been another format they used to play—and again, it doesn't have a name as far as I know. The idea is simple: it's a multiplayer Free-for-All game, and when you get knocked out, you can shuffle up again (with the same deck or a new one) and "respawn," first-person-shooter style. You get a three-turn grace period where nobody can attack you or mess with your stuff. After that, you're fair game. The goal is to score the most kills over time and be killed the fewest times yourself, although of course the real goal is to keep playing Magic without stopping for as long as you can stand it.

This was surprisingly fun. Getting to jump back in beats the heck out of sitting and watching, even taking into account the fact that you're going to be way behind. Besides, there were people getting knocked out all the time, so it's not like you're the only one. Even better, you could switch to a new deck, or make adjustments to the one you'd just played, so there was no getting bored. When more people arrived halfway through the day, we scooted over and they shuffled up and joined with the same three-turn grace period. When somebody needed to go, they waited until they died and then neglected to rejoin. All the logistical considerations of waiting for games to start and waiting for games to finish was out the window in favor of nonstop action.

Naturally, one player built up a commanding board presence, killing every one of the others in turn. Also naturally, our new incarnations banded together to defeat him. It was an absolutely epic confrontation, and I was more than willing to leave myself completely open with a huge attack just to get in a few points of damage. Sure, I died on my next turn—most of us died more than once—but slowly and surely, we wore him down. And then he was back to being a lowly newcomer with a grace period of his own, and the game went on.

Some of my more goal-oriented readers may wonder what the end-state looks like for this format. The answer is—there is no end-state! You keep playing until you're out of time. If you want, you can tally up total kills and total deaths and somehow work out whether it's better to have five kills and one death or eight kills and five deaths. Or, I suppose, you could treat it more like an old-style side-scroller and give each player a specific number of "lives," with the normal Free-for-All "last one standing" endgame. (Maybe killing someone gets you an extra life?)

I don't even know how it ended. I had to work that evening, so I packed it in at 4:30 or so and headed out. They were still going strong. Come to think of it, I left town for the summer shortly after that, and some of those guys I never saw again, so for all I know they're still playing ....

Happy Returns

Have any of you ever quit Magic, or drifted away, and came back later? Why did you drift away? How and why did you come back? Did you still have your collection? What tips would you give someone who wants to get back into the game after a long absence? I really would like to know, as I still have a few lapsed Magic player friends I'd like to bring back...

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