Thursday, March 1, 2012

In My Day

Quick, how much did you spend on Magic when you first started playing?  Did you buy tons of packs, or singles?  How old were you when you learned how to draft?  How old when you stopped casting Craw Wurm?*

The most terrifying thing about Craw Wurm is that I once traded a Bird of Paradise for one.

Nostalgia in Magic is powerful.  I still get the same shiver cracking packs of the newest set as I did when my cousin first took me down into my grandparents' basement because he had something to show me.  Recently, I was at a tournament when I found myself sprawled headfirst on the sentimental plane where everyone listens to late Beatles music, owns a piece of power, and people trade Savannah Lions for Tundra Wolves because of first strike.


As I wandered through those Elysian fields, I watched eight year old me arguing about whether or not Icy Manipulator stopped a Serra Angel from attacking.**  I saw my first PTQ Top 8, where I battled with a terrible Sealed deck with just enough bombs to make up for the lack of card advantage, removal, and playable creatures.  I caught a glimpse of the first time that a deck I designed made Day Two of a Grand Prix, and alongside it a picture of my friend smiling after a deck I built for him at 2:00 in the morning qualified him for Nationals.

Hiding behind the different flora and fauna from various Magic environments are my achievements in writing about the game.  Occasionally, Grand Prix Day Twos pop their heads up, frightened because they don't want me to look too long less I see a 2-4 or 1-5 record trailing behind them.

One of the ghosts I couldn't shake hovered over me.  It's the time that I first played Magic against the child of someone I had played against years before.

I pull back to the present.  I remember how important that was.  Over a decade had passed from when I first slapped an Alpha Starter and two boosters into an ugly frustration-trap.  I was playing against someone born a thousand miles from my hometown, whose father once beat me at X-1 in the late rounds of a Mox tournament.

Should have been mine.

That sense of community is palpable.  Magic, in this way, served as an early form of social media for me.  It connected me to hundreds of people and allowed me to feel part of something, and it never stopped.

All of that comes back to me when I meet my first third-generation Magic player, something I would never have expected, even as late as Invasion.***  Sure, she's only five.  She plays a deck filled with cats and dragons.  She thinks the dragons are scary, especially when her dad uses one of them to wallpaper his laptop, but she likes how they can just win the game.

All three generations are in the store.  The grandfather, a massive block of a man who looks like he played college football but actually went pro, started during Ice Age.  His son was nine at the time.  They began playing together when the son broke his leg in high school and had time to try out the card game his father was always messing around with.

"I should never have traded him that Jace."

"She picks the cards she wants, and we set a good curve and land count for her," the grandfather tells me.  "Well, he does, I still play twenty mana in all my decks."  The son laughs and I smile, remembering my old 20-20-20 rule that I picked up at some random store credit tournament in Iowa City, nearly twenty years ago.

She doesn't like me much at first, because I beat her in the Swiss rounds, but her dad gets revenge in the Top 4.  His crucial Corrosive Gale takes out 2 Captains and a few lingering souls.  After that, she perks up enough to tell me that Brimstone Volley is her favorite card in Standard.

"Because if a creature dies, it does five points to anything," she confides in me, whispering as if she's telling me a secret.

"And also, it burninates your face."

She doesn't play blue because it isn't fun, and she likes her squirrel deckbox because she has a pet squirrel who lives in the tree outside her room.

"Don't get her started," her grandfather warns me.  Unfortunately, I can't, because the shop is closing and it's time to go.

The son and I stand outside, his cancer stick of choice the more potent version of my own.  Since he is playing an up-to-date version of Hexblade, I ask him about the playmat and how he feels about the current state of the community.

He tells me that he stays out of it.  Most of the guys that play locally are older, and everyone respects that kids are around.  I pester him some more.  He tosses his cigarette away and reveals that in the factory he works in he's always around a crew of guys who seem to never have made it out of high school.

"It could be worse, I guess," he says, "But I think it's getting better."

I ask him what he thinks is better.  When he started playing, he could count on one hand the number of girls that he ever saw at tournaments.  One of his wife's friends plays in Grand Prix now, and has won a $2,000 event.  He brings up Finkelgate, not to talk about the occasionally vapid response from the gamer community, but to suggest that Magic has more exposure than ever.

We light one more, since we both smoke fast, and talk about what it was like playing during Urza's Saga.  I point out that if his daughter is still playing when she is our age, another quarter century will have gone by.

And I will look like this.

"See," he says, "They'll get it figured out by then."

We talk baseball and whether or not I can find a job around here, then grandpa pulls up with the daughter.  She wants to go home.  After seeing her dad's match against me, she wants to add Corrosive Gale.  She can even cast it in her red/white deck because of "friction" mana.  I shake hands with everyone and ask if I can write about it.  The dad nods and he leads his daughter to their car.

I think back to the tournament.  No one was patronizing her, maybe humored her by not playing ultra aggressively, but that had more to do with her being a Small Child.  She went 1-3, beating a solid Mono-Green Aggro deck with an unanswered Balefire Dragon.  No one complained and the atmosphere was fantastic for a slow weeknight.

Put that image with the rest of them, and it seems like there is a chance.  I look forward to playing against her for invitations to Pro Tour: Moon Base Alpha and not having a bunch of skeptics watching the match with thinly veiled derision.

*Not an actual moon base.  Yet.

Our game pulls us together in ways that bridge time and distance, and we should all be thankful for that.  When you sit down to play against someone next time, if you get a chance, ask them about their own experiences.  Magic players generally enjoy talking, and even if you have to listen to a few bad beat stories, you get the chance to take a look at the past.  From there, maybe we can figure out how to improve what comes next.

Ben Snyder cannot believe how many years have gone by, and how somehow, everything got tangled up with a ridiculous game that his mom thought was going to drive him to drugs, Satanism, and pre-adolescence pregnancy.  He did eventually figure out that he couldn't get pregnant, so he never stopped playing.  His novel is available now, and is coming soon to Barnes and Noble, Apple, and other premium retail outlets.  In the meantime, share your stories in the comments, and don't forget to follow him on Twitter: @snglmaltproof.

*Applies even if you never cast Craw Wurm.
**Lacking BethMo's guidance, we weren't sure.  Someone who wasn't playing decided it didn't.
***It baffles my mind that the Invasion block sets came out almost ten years ago.

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