I started playing Magic during what some would consider the Golden Age.
We didn’t have the Internet to tell us what decks to play. We simply opened a couple of packs now and again and tried to build a deck that would crush our buddy who beat us last time. We complained how stupid it was that the Black Lotus at the local shop was $50, and wondered who would be stupid enough to pay that much for it. We traded dual lands like water, because they “didn’t do anything.” Craw Wurm was awesome.
Time passed, I quit the game and moved away from my hometown. I lost touch with some of those old friends, as happens when life takes the wheel. As time passed, I thought little about Magic, and little about the old group I played with.
In 2004, I was getting over a bad breakup and my friends lured me into the world of tabletop board games to distract me. While browsing the local game shop for a new game one Friday night, I saw tables full of kids playing Magic. “Wait … that game is still around?”
I soon found myself jumping headfirst into the world of Onslaught/Mirrodin Standard constructed. The game was dramatically different, but I slugged along with a bit of the casual spirit still inside of me. I won some matches with a deck based around Karma and Mind Bend. I managed to slap a Tooth and Nail on a Panoptic Mirror at an FNM. Even while the mighty Ravager Affinity was tearing up the local scene a year later, I still found ways to sneak in surprise decks with alternative agendas.
I gained a gaming identity with this process, along with the respect of the players in my local shop after I won a small Legacy tournament with a Mesmeric Orb deck. Although I stepped away from the tournament scene to get married and focus more on my career, I still closely followed events while sticking mostly to Limited.
Then there was Mark. Mark was one of those folks I played with back in my college years during the 90s. We suffered through Fallen Empires and Homelands together, but we lost touch around the time I originally quit Magic in 1996.
Mark recently reached out to me through a common friend, and soon we were reliving some memories over a happy hour. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to Magic. It turned out Mark still slung cards with some of those same people from the college years. He enthusiastically invited me to sit down at one of their multiplayer pizza nights and told me tales of their crazy free-for-alls.
It became clear when I mentioned a few cards in my own decks that Mark and his friends were casual players. They weren’t aware of the competitive Magic scene at all, and when I mentioned things like “Standard legal,” it required a bit of explaining for him to grasp the concept. I certainly wasn’t looking down at Mark or his friends for being casual. In fact, it was a bit like finding the Holy Grail of Magic players.
These are the guys that people argue about on Internet forums. These are the players who spend a ton of money on Magic, yet no one seems to think exist. These are the people that WOTC designs wacky cards for, the ones that competitive players swear about opening them in draft.
Back to Basics
When Mark invited me to play, I was filled with excitement to take on the challenge and show some respect for a side of the game I rarely saw anymore. A few nights before the big day, I sat down with my decks and flipped through the cards. Suddenly I found myself almost dreading the experience looming on the horizon. I had no idea what to expect. No sideboard plan, no meta analysis, no secret tech.
I also worried that perhaps some of my decks might end up being too good for this group. While I didn’t expect these guys to be slouches, I also didn’t want to sit smugly behind a Draw Go control deck countering and removing anything they could send my way. I wanted to have a good time, and making them hate me didn’t seem like a key to this plan. I also built a couple of decks — Kor Spiritdancer auras, monoblue Illusions — that I expected would be similar to the decks I would see at Mark’s house.
After we spent time catching up at Mark’s house, I nervously looked at my deck boxes wondering how to properly gauge the evening.
Play What Makes You Happy
I figured I’d start with a slapped together Standard G/W aggro deck, which was filled with playsets of efficient creatures from Standard and a bit of ramp to help me cast them, aiming to win with a pair of Collective Blessings. The deck was all creature action, with no real disruption or protection. It would allow me to just turn guys sideways and see what kind of decks these guys typically brought to the table. It became very clear in the first few turns that they were playing decks filled with mostly “one-ofs” and between 60 and 100 cards. Immediately I felt that because I was running playsets of certain cards, I would have an unfair advantage right away, which was something I hadn’t expected.
I had two Strangleroot Geists and Collective Blessing in play, and attacked into Pete, who was playing a black deck filled with removal and ways to steal creatures from other people’s graveyards. He had No Mercy in play, which wasn’t much of a threat for Undying triggers. After a few sweepers and some fatties appearing on the other sides of the table, I paired Deadbridge Golliath with Wolfir Silverheart. This was enough to find myself the first person dead in the circle thanks to applied hate from the others.
Pete won the match with his deck, which he proudly showed me later. It happened to be filled with Revised rares that I had personally traded him way back in the 90s. He still owned the cards and could tell me exactly the ones they were. I was floored, and knew that the night would continue to be something special.
Appreciate Wins With Flair
I had inserted a few multiplayer-friendly cards in my “Moatless” Enchantress deck, but it was still one of the fiercest tournament-level decks I brought. I knew it would allow me to sit back and see what people could do, and unlike last time, possibly not attract too much attention while I built up.
A new player, John, joined and pulled out an unsleeved stack of about 40 to 50 cards that “he had just thrown together.” Mark was playing an Elf deck and Pete was playing a 5-color monstrosity that included a couple of interesting cards I hadn’t seen before (Dragon Arch and Tainted Aether), as well as mint condition copies of almost every Revised dual land.
After stabilizing, the guys took turns beating up on each other rather than me (thanks to my double Elephant Grass), and soon I had the Solitary Confinement lock. From there I was able to hardcast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn off of Serra’s Sanctum for the win, which was received by the group with resounding praise. What? No table flipping?
Take Nothing for Granted
I had a version of BR Zombies built that was the Blood Artist version rather than the currently popular Hellkite/Hellrider builds. Now that I was comfortable with what I was seeing from these guys, I knew I could bring out something more aggressive and not feel like I had been a bully.
Mark pulled out a deck box with Star Wars stickers on it, and John and Pete immediately groaned.
“It’s his Death Star Deck.”
Not knowing what that meant, I prepared to be swift with attacks. I started with a hand featuring Pillar of Flame, Searing Spear, Blood Artist and a Vampire Nighthawk. Mark played Rites of Flourishing and Pete had another ramp enchantment in play soon afterward. Unfortunately, I was only drawing into burn spells and removal. But I knew that once I found creatures, I would be able to cast them without issue.
Mark tutored an Emrakul to go into his hand, and I knew why there were groans earlier. His next turn he hard cast Kozilek, Butcher of Truth. Mark played his Emrakul the turn afterward and proceeded to attack John with it, and sent Kozilek at Pete. Pete died, but John had plenty of Saprolings to sacrifice and life to lose.
I topdecked Bloodthrone Vampire and proceeded to sacrifice my field to deal mark enough damage to kill him with Blood Artist triggers and the Pillars of Flame left in my hand. However I had an empty field versus the Saporlings, which were starting to grow again.
When the stalemate came, I had a Blood Artist and another Bloodthrone Vampire on the battlefield. He had a Thallid Shell-Dweller with five counters and a Saproling token. I drew Zealous Conscripts to steal his Dweller, attack with the Conscripts, create a token of my own, and bring him down to one life by sacrificing everything. I knew I would win with one burn spell or Geralf’s Messenger.
Careless? Sure, but I didn’t think he had what he was about to draw. Elixir of Immortality gained him enough life to stabilize and kill me with his Saproling token equipped with a Sword of War and Peace.
Planeswalkers Aren’t Invincible
At this point we had each won one match (Mark overwhelmed everyone, including my Misthollow Griffin-Seance combo, with UB zombies) and it was announced this would be the game for the “winner” of the evening.
I pulled out my Esper Planeswalker build, throwing out my original plan of refusing to sit behind a Draw Go deck. I mulliganed a rough hand, only to find a worse one with only black or white mana. However I had two Think Twices and knew I had plenty of blue mana in the deck to help stablize. By the time I did, it was clear that Pete was playing a mill deck.
I felt confident, as my deck packed an Elixir of Immortality. Unfortunately it only took three Grindclock activations (with the help of Memory Erosion) to find not only that, but most of my desperately needed lands as well. Soon I sat pathetically behind four lands (only one that could produce blue) and a small batch of Lingering Souls tokens.
In my hand I had two Jace, Architect of Thoughts, Tamiyo the Moon Sage and Terminus. Pete played a Mindslicer that John attacks into, making us all discard our hands. In topdeck mode, I could do little against an oncoming Guiltfeeder, which did 25 damage to me without mercy. John got Tramautized and Mark shocked everyone by pulling out Grimoire of the Dead and getting back all of John’s creatures that Pete had previously milled.
With those creatures he got off the final win, giving him the crown!
Something for Everyone
I announced I had to get home, and was genuinely touched when everyone looked disappointed. It was a fun night for everyone, and I had some very important lessons at the end of it. Not only do these mythical Casual players exist, but they can play a good game of Magic as well. I saw plenty of creative playing, interesting interactions, and most importantly laughs and good spirits. With no prizes on the line, there was room for friendly joking and teasing, but not for bruised egos and pouting. I may have been prepared for the local FNM, but I sure as heck wasn’t ready for pizza night. Now where did I put those Mind Bends?
— Peter Lane
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