I only began playing Magic by chance. My step-brother at the time had been walking down the street and found a $20 bill on the ground. He was conveniently outside of a gaming store, and decided to pop in to see what he could spend his newfound riches on. He decided on a Fourth Edition starter pack that contained two starter decks and some life counters. On his next weekly visit to my house he showed me the game and I thought it was awesome. I liked the art and the flavor. We played plenty of nerdy board games in our time and this was just an extension of that. The flavor of the game is what got me interested, but not what got me hooked.
After collecting cards for a few months and playing casually I got my best friend from school involved and we’d play in between sessions of whatever Shining Force game was currently out. We didn’t really understand the rules and would occasionally get into fights about them. I remember vividly going to the dictionary to look up the definition of “counter” when he cast Counterspell on my lethal Fireball. He insisted that it redirected it to me and that I lost, and I disagreed and claimed the spell just fizzled. He eventually convinced me that I was wrong. (Brian, I knew I was right.)
My friend and I shortly thereafter discovered a local game store that held tournaments for kids. I was 12 years old at the time, excited but nervous to compete with other kids. We learned the rules a bit better and also used a book my mom bought to learn how to build some competitive decks. The name of the book was Mastering Magic Cards by George Baxter and Larry W. Smith. The book had a bunch of deck ideas, but the one that stood out to me was land destruction. I already owned a Demonic Hordes from a booster pack so I was ready to go. I went on my way, bringing my likely 77-card deck to my first tournament. All in all there were probably 12-16 participants in these tournaments. I did poorly in the first run, but my friend won with his Kird Ape deck that he copied directly from the book.
My friend won almost every week for a couple of months and eventually I started to win some as well. We were both told that we had to start playing in the adult tournaments, which we had no objection to. The format for these tournaments was called “Dark and Beyond.” Basically, we could play any cards from The Dark on so that people weren’t showing up with full Power and just winning because they had more powerful cards. I had built up a bigger collection at this point and built a deck with a playset of Mana Crypts, Sol Ring, Erhnam Djinns, and Armageddons.
I adapted to this new tournament quickly and started winning my fair share, but my friend decided at some point that he was done with Magic as he started to play some other kinds of games—he took a deep interest in chess. We lost touch with each other as our passions diverged. I started to make friends with the other players even though they were probably 18 or 19 years old and I just 13. We were equals on the battlefield, and that’s what drew us together. Some of these people are close friends of mine to this day, 20 years or so later.
One of my new friends asked me if I wanted to attend a tournament in Boston at one point. After clearing it with mom, I decided to go to one, and another, and another. I never really understood what I was playing. My friend would tell me what the format was, I’d build a deck, but I never even knew what the prize was and I didn’t really care. I just wanted to game.
Fast-forward a year to my first major tournament, the first Grand Prix in Boston. I believe the year was 1998, and the format was Tempest Block Constructed. I brought one of my favorite decks of all time, Living Death. I was allowed to play Living Death, Mox Diamond, Survival of the Fittest, and Recurring Nightmare in Block Constructed. People complain about Kaladesh block? Sheesh.
I started out doing well in this tournament but also had the most bizarre thing happen to me. In round 2 or 3, my opponent was clearly dead to a fast Tradewind Rider lock when he was stuck on lands. He was visibly frustrated and called the judge. He told the judge that I had played an extra land on my turn. I of course denied this allegation because I was positive that I did not. I simply played a turn-1 Hermit Druid off of a Mox Diamond, then activated it and played a land every turn.
By turn 4 I had activated it three times, and also cast a Tradewind Rider. The judge decided to check and see what turn it was because my opponent had missed land drops by counting up the cards I had and reconstructing my Hermit Druid activations. He came to the conclusion that I had 11 cards total minus the free lands from the Hermit Druid, and determined that it was enough cards for it to be the third turn of the game and that I was going to receive a match loss. You read that right—playing an extra land was a match loss apparently. I got up from the table and literally cried I was so upset. I knew I didn’t play an extra land and I knew this guy was just phishing for a way to get out of the fact that he was going to lose. I ran over to my friend to tell the story, and immediately realized, wait a second. Eleven minus seven equals four. It was turn 4, just like it was supposed to be. I had 4 lands and a Mox Diamond in play. I run over to the judge and ask him “What’s eleven minus seven again?” His face drops. He runs over to the microphone and tries to track down my opponent. My opponent is conveniently nowhere to be found and the judge decided to assign us both byes for the round. I was happy to get the win I deserved, but thought it was ridiculous that the person was allowed to get away with this. This isn’t the last time I met up with this opponent.
Despite walking away with a sour taste in my mouth, I managed to fight on and ended up making Day 2 of the event, and even cashing for an “amateur prize,” which at the time awarded money to the top 5 or 10 players with ratings under 1700. I remember being kind of sad after the tournament and my friend who drove me there asked why. I realized because despite doing well and making a couple hundred bucks, I wanted to play on the Pro Tour. I had the itch to compete at the highest levels after my first Grand Prix, and I got within a couple of wins of achieving that goal, which seemed so close to me at the time.
At this point I started taking Magic more seriously. I still played my local Dark and Beyond tournaments but my friends from the store also started focusing more on the current PTQ formats. I played that PTQ season with my trusty Living Death deck and did quite poorly, as I recall.
Then Urza’s Saga came out. I started traveling to Boston and playing at a store called Your Move Games. I’d play weekly Drafts and then do Team Drafts whenever there wasn’t a sanctioned event. One Friday night, a new friend from Your Move Games asked me to attend a PTQ in Albany New York that Saturday. The previous weekend I had drawn myself into 9th place at a PTQ and was eager to put that behind me. We were going to leave in a few hours because it was just about midnight when he asked me. I didn’t have a change of clothes, barely had money, and I was only fifteen and my mom was already asleep. So of course, I went. I left a message on the voicemail that I’d be gone for the weekend and took off.
After a hard fought day I managed to reach my first PTQ Top 8. I was excited to get to Draft, because I’d drafted that format a lot. Several times a week I’d draft at my local store or at Your Move Games. The Draft went well, and I was nearly mono-black splashing some green creatures. For those of you unfamiliar with the format, black was the best color by a substantial amount. It had cards like Pestilence and Corrupt at common that incentivized you to be heavily black. I ended up with only 1 Pestilence, but 3 Corrupt and 11 Swamps.
I manage to slog my way to the finals. My opponent in the finals—that very same gentleman from round 2 of Grand Prix Boston. In my eyes, it was good vs. evil. I lose a quick game 1, and win a quick game 2. Game 3, my opponent plays a turn 2 Rune of Protection: Green, followed by a turn 3 Rune of Protection: Black. My entire deck shut off by two cards. I had no ways to deal him damage anymore outside of tapping him out of black mana then chipping away at his life total with Pestilence. I did, however, have one way to remove one enchantment in my deck, an Elvish Lyrist.
We play a tense, long game, in which my opponent calls the judge on me several times asking the judge for me to take mana burn because my lands are kind of angled when untapped. At one point, the judge pauses our game and tells my opponent that he is being unsporting, and if he tries to ask for me to receive another penalty he will disqualify him from the tournament. As the game continues I am able to stabilize and cut off all of his win conditions with my Pestilence, and a big creature I play of my own that can’t attack but keeps my Pestilence alive. I eventually draw my Elvish Lyrist as my second-to-last card, activate it on my last turn, and Corrupt my opponent for 11, which is enough to kill him as he let a few Pestilence activations through during the game.
This win qualified me for my first Pro Tour, and I was over the moon. I called my mom because I needed my social security number. She answered the phone. “Where are you? What? You won?” I could hear the excitement in her voice, which made me feel awesome. I thought that I was going to be in trouble.
I ended up doing poorly and did not make Day 2 of my first Pro Tour. This discouraged me. My goal was to play on the Pro Tour, but I didn’t really think that I’d have a chance. I wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough to get there. I continued to play Magic and played PTQs for several years after, but I started focusing more on my social life outside of Magic in high school. I had a girlfriend, an occasional retail job that I’d quit a month after I started it just to start another a month after that. Magic became more causal hobby than the obsession it once was. I won a couple of more PTQs here and there, and would attend the Pro Tours, but usually having not tested at all or maybe for a day at a game shop the weekend before. I didn’t put the effort in to the Pro Tours because I thought I was simply outmatched and the time investment just wasn’t worth it.
One thing I’d always compete in, though, was team events. I loved going to the Team Sealed GPs and PTQs playing with my friends, and if we lost, good—we’d get to Team Draft. I always played with my good friend Matt Rubin, and eventually stuck with another good friend of mine Josh Smith. We qualified for our first PT together, and converted it into a 7th place finish. I won $2,500, and it was more money than I’d ever had in my life. We qualified for the next Pro Tour, and finally had a real chance to get onto the gravy train.
Unfortunately, poker overshadowed Magic for quite some time. Josh and I decided not to even attend the next Pro Tour. I would often play MTGO while playing online poker, but never really pursued competitive Magic after that. I moved to Las Vegas with my then girlfriend, now wife, and fell out of the Magic world almost entirely—for a few years.