A cluster gathered around an obscure corner of the tournament hall at Grand Prix Milwaukee. This organism was bustling with movement and energy. The thing grew at the end of each round, filling with vibrant young teens (and a few pre-teens), then dispersed at the beginning of the next — leaving just a few camp chairs, some jackets and backpacks, and a few mothers left to maintain the space until the end of the round again.
This was the Bilder Cluster.
The two mothers who remained reclined with ease in their relaxing, portable furniture. The Bilder sisters live apart - Debbie Philadelphia, and Anne here in Madison – but reunited this weekend to form the epicenter of the cluster. The buzzing electrons around their nucleus were their children: Max (13), Harry (10), and Martijn (13), along with Madison friends Lachlan and the ringer of the crew, Kenton. "He's the alpha; he's in deep," the parents said.
The family coordinated a weekend trip between school days for many of the boys' first Grand Prix tournament (though I'd be remiss not to say that this is Martijn's second). Unlike some of the unprepared, Anne and Debbie brought books, snacks, stitching materials and camp chairs; the whole set-up needed for a weekend in a convention hall.
It was the perfect central command for the kids to buzz around between rounds, between draft pods, between whatever they wanted to do this weekend. In fact, on the second day, they had even gained another local parent, Lachlan's father Kelly. He pulled up a chair and joined the fun — another proton to the atom.
But just because this is the first Grand Prix for these teens doesn't mean they are new to the game. When I caught up with the boys, dominating an entire side event draft pod, they clued me in as to how they all wound up here.
It all started with Max back in 2013.
"At camp I met some people who played. I had no idea what it was, but I hung with them, watched, and even played a little." He explained, admitting that the game wasn't even to figure out. "It took about two weeks to learn, but that was because I was really just watching."
Upon returning home he convinced his mother to get him an intro pack, and it was elementary from there.
Max taught his brother Harry - who was seven at the time – to play, and on a family trip to Madison they taught their cousin Martijn. At a restaurant there it all coalesced; Max split the intro pack in two, and started gaming.
"My mom was getting real angry too, because we were playing over dinner," he recalled with a smile.
Despite 1,000 miles and a time zone between the trio, they kept in communication and kept learning Magic together. And yes, they eventually acquired more than one intro pack. All it took for the parents to fully support the new hobby was seeing how much it not only helped with strategic thinking and intelligence, but the profound social impact it had as well. Anne got so on board, she even got all the kids Magic t-shirts for camp ("it was great," she recalled).
Each of the cousins continued to play at camps and at and their local stores — Max and Harry at Showcase Comics and Games in Bryn Mawr, and Martijn at Pegasus, On Board, and Mox Mania in Madison. Martijn even had both the Dungeons and Dragons club and the Sci-Fi club his at school for more Magic. But the family clique made sure to play together on both visits and over the internet.
And we're not talking about Magic Online.
The way these close relatives keep in Magic communiqué is by hooking up on Facetime, and playing the physical game with just a screen separating them.
"Our Aunt got us erasable chalkboards, so we could keep track of life totals, and like, cards in hand and stuff," Harry explained as the other two nodded enthusiastically; it's a system that works.
The parents, in their enclave in the corner, love the ingenious use of technology to reinforce their children's bonds with each other.
"The reason we're in favor of this as a hobby is that interaction aspect," Lachlan's father Kelly said. "Though you can use a screen to play, you're always interacting with others."
Between playing "online" and at FNMs and Preleases, the trio grew in both experience and network — with Martijn, friends like Seager, Kenton, and Lachlan at the local stores, who are all in attendance this weekend. Kenton is definitely the ringer, and was the one who pumped competition into their veins.
Now, after this inaugural Grand Prix — which they all, with resounded force, described as amazing — it's clear that they'll keep pushing forward. Onward and upward.
Even though none of them made the second day (though Kenton lost by the skin of his teeth in a Round 9 win-and-in), they were taking up entire draft pods in side events all day Sunday.
They were a dominating presence at the tables — such diminutive statures confidently spouting Magic jargon with the best of us:
"He's already ramping up his Self-Assembler deck! I don't know what I'm supposed to do?"
"You've got Gearseeker Serpent, right?"
"Yeah, the Serpents are really good."
A few beats later, an unrelated "Ooohhh!" about another match right next door.
They constantly chatted — discussing their Sealed pools from the day before, their current draft decks, and how to change them in the future.
As for something to do differently the next Grand Prix?
"I would definitely get more sleep," Lachlan said. Unsurprising for such a momentous group trip together (and, quite frankly, that's a lesson that more of us should learn as well).
Seeing this gleeful group together took many players at the event back to when they played Magic at that age. Though the world has changed in myriad ways since — for better and worse — the normalization of Magic, both from parents and the community at large, is certainly one of the best.
"The school that my son and Kenton goes to are all nerds," Kelly said. "You can be on the basketball team and that's cool; you can be in the play, and that's cool. It's supportive."
"People aren't as pigeonholed by hobbies like that anymore," Anne added, qualifying, "though it's not true everywhere, yet."
But one place that was certainly true was the Bilder cluster, the bustling hive where all these players found refuge between the anxious rounds of the tournament. It's just us who feel that anxiety — not Max, Harry, Martijn, Lachlan and Kenton.
These kids are having the time of their lives.
Though we in the competitive community often forget that fact, it's why we play this game in the first place, and it's really all that matters.