by Stu Ziarnik
But when a belief disappears, there survives it – more and more vigorous so as to mask the absence of the power we have lost to give reality to new things – a fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief once animated, as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent cause, the death of the Gods.
– Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
Magic is memory.
We remember our wins, our losses.
We remember the foil Mythic we pulled from a pack.
We remember our first tournament.
We remember the PPTQ we won.
We remember what cards we passed to the left.
We remember the time we attacked for 36 on turn 3.
We remember the time we died on turn 1.
We remember how we would have won if we drew anything but land.
We remember that face from a GP, but can’t remember the name.
We remember Standard in 2006.
We remember damage on the stack.
We remember the smell of new cards, just out of the pack.
We remember the game of EDH that lasted until 3:00 AM.
We remember three of the cards in our opponent’s hand after we Duressed them.
We remember what lists performed well for us.
We remember that that guy plays Storm.
We remember the first pack we ever bought.
The first Rare we ever pulled.
And we miss it. We want to return to the time when it felt new, or when Standard was good, when we were winning more, when all our friends played, when our schedules let us play more often, when Wizards designed balanced cards. We miss the old feeling.
It’s 7:08 on September 2nd, 2020. I’m sitting on my back patio. The sky is gray after a day of rain, but it’s still hot, 80 degrees and thickly humid. I can hear grackles and distant sounds of traffic. I’ve sat here many nights over the past five weeks for my Middle School webcam league matches, but Swiss is done. I finished 3-2 on Sligh. Top 8 is playing now, before the next league kicks off later this month.
Yesterday, Wizards announced its schedule of 2021 releases: another Return to Innistrad, a Walking Dead crossover, a second Modern Horizons set, and Chalice of the Void in the original frame. These are natural continuations of 2019 and 2020. In the past year and a half we’ve seen five expansions, Modern Horizons, Ultimate Masters, and a string of promotional products and special printings. Almost all of these sets have given us new playables, ranging from simply annoying cards like Lavinia, to the dozens of format-defining staples found in War of the Spark and Modern Horizons. Of course, there have been numerous, much-maligned mistakes: Oko, Once Upon A Time, Uro, Underworld Breach, Karn, Narset, Teferi, Hogaak, Veil of Summer, and the Companions all immediately spring to mind.
These releases and resulting seismic shifts leave me fatigued. There are too many, too good new cards. And in this new paradigm, any given overpowered card isn’t just individually problematic: it’s emblematic. Uro is not just Uro. It’s a constant reminder of where the game is headed, toward uncertainty.
And of course, it’s been a broadly disastrous year for the non-Magic world. Federal and state governments have completely failed us, and so I can no longer see any of the people I’ve met through Magic, people who I care about.
In this solitude, I’ve begun to examine my relationship with Magic. Why, at thirty one, am I playing this game? What am I looking for, and what am I getting out of it? When I stop to consider the past few years of printings, the direction Wizards is moving – both with the game itself, and the value and nature of cards - I feel despair. How long, and why, will I stay with this game?
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that I’m drawn to the Middle School format. Yes, it’s ideal for webcams: less visually complex than something like Vintage, and the format is new for me and everyone I play with. It’s unexplored and exciting, and insulated against new design mistakes.
To seek out fun, new experiences by returning to old cards is a bit of a paradox. But then, nostalgia isn’t about reconstructing days gone by; it’s about paying tribute to them. The Middle School card pool – 4th Edition through Scourge – was never played together at the time. The cards are familiar, but the gameplay is unlike that of the past.
For many of us this simply isn’t what Magic looked or felt like two decades ago. In 2000 I was in sixth grade, still very much a child. I had a tenuous grasp of the rules, and a piecemeal collection. Even a few years later, when I was playing a “real deck” and attending local tournaments, there wasn’t widespread access to information or game philosophies that we all enjoy today. And, of course, there’s money. While now I play sanctioned Vintage, at fourteen I couldn’t even afford a playset of Wastelands for my Sligh deck, and so just did without them. This approach is unfathomable for me now; it’s been years since I registered an unoptimized deck.
But even if we could recreate those exact conditions, we ourselves are not the same people. We have lived too much in the interceding years. I am now in my thirties. I’ve been out of school for a decade, I’m married, a father, a homeowner, and live thousands of miles from where I grew up. I play Magic with an entirely different group of people than those who I learned it with, and play for different goals and reasons. I am a different person now, and so Magic is different for me.
I grew up in Hartland, a small town in rural Connecticut. I was predisposed to a hobby like Magic. My mom read us the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was in third grade; my dad played Dungeons & Dragons when he was in college; neither my brother nor I were interested in sports.
Hartland, though, was ill-suited for Magic. The town had no stores, and was home to a strong strand of blue-collar Protestantism still scared of devils and witchcraft. The game was an unlikely cultural import.
In 1998, as I began fifth grade, a new student moved to Hartland. Ben came from Winsted, and he introduced all the boys in my class to Magic. I wasn’t immediately friends with Ben, so at first I was only vaguely aware of the cards all my classmates were getting into.
One weekend my dad took me to the soup kitchen in Winsted, where we occasionally volunteered. Beforehand we stopped in The Corner Bookstore, a small bookshop attached to the Stop N’ Shop supermarket. I saw a glass case of Magic products. The dragon on the Tempest tournament box was easily the coolest packaging, and so I bought it. On the drive to the soup kitchen I opened the box, and was enthralled and a slightly confused. There were creatures called “Slivers,” and it seemed like a plot about someone named Gerard. I didn’t have time to examine them closely, but as I prepped food I ran through the cards in my head. They were just impressions: I’d only seen them for a few minutes, the text on the cards meant nothing to me, so I began to form a narrative in my head of what the cards meant, the story they told, what the creatures were.
Though I was temporarily fascinated, I didn’t immediately return to Magic after that day. I’d leaf through those seventy-five cards, but didn’t buy anything else or learn how to play. They were, essentially, just another toy in my closet.
In sixth grade I was in the class without Ben. My class didn’t have a Magic evangelist; Pokemon had its time, all the kids in my class had some cards, and we all traded. At my birthday party that October I got a few packs, and in one I opened a Charizard, the most sought-after card. No one in school had one, and although I was surrounded by other boys, when I opened that Charizard I was so caught up in excitement and happiness that I cried.
That was sixth grade. I was almost becoming a teenager - later that year I’d have a girlfriend, and was becoming aware of looks and fashion – but still enough of a kid that crying wasn’t wholly unacceptable. It was a last window for that behavior.
But Magic wasn’t gone in Hartland. In the other class, Ben and the rest of the boys were talking about it, buying cards, and playing. At my best friend John’s birthday party a month later, his parents bought a booster box of Urza’s Destiny and split it between the boys. I’d forgotten about Magic, but when I opened my packs I was drawn back in. I remember the Capashen Knight, though only a common, was so epic in scope, misty mountains in the background as he advanced towards an unseen enemy.
At age eleven I didn’t have a job or much money. I wasn’t suddenly able to buy all the cards I wanted. In the coming months I picked up packs here and there. How strange and old the Ice Age cards looked in comparison to the crisper, newer designs, or how I first noticed the new card smell opening a pack of Weatherlight. And then there was the foil Rushwood Elemental I opened in a Masques tournament pack, a beautiful deep green and the best fat monster in my collection.
But when was my first game? When did I learn to play? I have no idea. The first memory I have is of a trip to my grandparents’ house in Maine. It was winter, my older brother and I sat on their living room floor with our cards, he’d bought some Sixth Edition, and we pieced together a game, all wrong. We thought combat damage was permanent, “wounded” the creatures, like Infect counters. All wrong, but the spark was there. We knew it was good.
In seventh grade I was put back into class with John and Ben, and my true fascination with Magic began. In the last year they’d covered so much ground that I had not. Ben, who had played since 1994, was clearly the best player in our school: he had a powerful Blue White control deck, a Suicide Black deck, and messed around with Stasis. John was a distant second to Ben, but well in front of the rest of us. He played a Red Green aggro deck with Kird Ape and Rancor that ended the game several turns faster than the decks everyone else built.
I understood that I was worse than them, but did not know why or how to change my situation. Invasion had just been released, and I loved the set; it continued the Gerard storyline I’d encountered in my first packs, and the Kavu were oddly appealing to me. I bought lots of Invasion, and tragically, a booster box of Prophecy that was immediately disappointing. These were the cards I built decks from, piles of my highest casting-cost cards. Ben and John crushed me.
So what pushed me towards the desire to be better, to compete, to win? I can point to a few specific circumstances.
My mom and Ben’s mom taught at our school. We were often there early, before the other kids, or we stayed late. On those days we hung out in the library together, playing games instead of doing our homework. This was the beginning of my actual friendship with Ben, and I absorbed ideas by playing with him more than anyone else got to.
I also began to read Inquest Gamer. While not exactly cutting-edge, Inquest was much more sophisticated than my classmates, and showed me what competitive decks looked like. Most influential was their “Block Party” article, in which staff built decks representing every block and played them, round robin. The Sligh deck from Tempest was a revelation. I didn’t know you could build a deck that way, from cheap, ostensibly bad cards, and win. The idea was so appealing, to turn trash into treasure: these were cards I had overlooked, flipping past them in favor of larger monsters and splashier spells. The Sligh deck also had two copies of Rathi Dragon, the card featured on my first product.
At this point I also became aware of buying singles. Ben said that packs were a waste of money, just buy the actual cards you wanted. So after a trip to Slapshot Games in Simsbury, I had myself a Sligh deck.
Middle school is a time of uncertainty, ugliness, and change. But Magic was something to hold on to. As my body and emotions changed, and classes got harder, I could understand Magic and feel good at it. Had I been a few years older, I wouldn’t have needed it.
All of this meant a deepened connection to Magic, and while the mysticism and novelty I’d felt towards the cards faded, it was replaced by the excitement of growth and success. Once I built Sligh, I also built a White Weenie deck and overtook John as the second best player in class. By eighth grade, I was disinterested in playing against the other kids: it was funny, killing them so thoroughly, but I understood then that we were in different leagues. Mostly, I lived for playing with Ben in the library, where he was gracious enough to field his four-Negator Suicide Black deck against my Lightning Bolts and White Knights.
At some point, Ben invited me to attend a tournament with him at Howie’s, a card shop in Torrington. It was Type 1, so he helped me refine my deck with Gorilla Shaman and Price of Progress, cards that were dead at school but gave me a chance against the Type 1 field. By now I don’t remember that first tournament specifically, nor really any individual tournaments thereafter. Rather, I have a series of impressions and memories: the thrill of competing; waiting for the next round to begin; Howie’s frozen pizza slices cooked in their toaster oven, which I’d have to weigh against buying more cards; playing against high schoolers; the feeling of casting Price of Progress against five Dual Lands; getting annihilated by PandeBurst, the first combo deck I’d ever encountered; a finals match on White Weenie against Blue Control, everyone in the store standing around us, watching. I never played sports. This feeling was new to me and I loved it. Hartland didn’t have its own high school, so after eighth grade students were sent to whichever high schools their parents preferred. Ben and John went to Gilbert, while I went to Regional 7. In my yearbook Ben wrote, “Your Sligh deck should only play 12 creatures,” the last word on an argument we’d had all year. A few months later he sold all his cards when his mom convinced him Magic was just a fad.
As a freshman I withdrew into myself. Regional 7 was comparatively enormous to Hartland Elementary: I’d just graduated from a class of thirty eight, kids who I’d known my whole life, and joined a class of almost two hundred students who’d spent their lives together but didn’t know who I was. Still, I brought my Sligh deck to school in a Ziploc bag. My older brother and his friends played, so after school I’d sit in Commons with them and play. This was public, of course, but otherwise I hid my cards, didn’t acknowledge to anyone in my class that I played Magic. I saw no one else who played, and so assumed it was taboo, for losers.
This was confirmed after school one day. Sitting at a table in Commons with my brother and his friend Dan, two kids in the after school program walked up to us and asked what we were doing. Playing Magic, we answered, and then they sat down and called us babies, couldn’t believe we were babies who played this game. Don’t respond to them, my brother told me, they just want a reaction. But I burned. They were right, because my brother was being bullied too, he fell back on such a weak defense, he should have punched them or told them to fuck off.
And then one of them asked to see my cards. I handed him my Sligh deck and he flipped through, calling every card “gay.” Was he going to rip them up? And who was watching, seeing this? There were kids at the other tables, and classroom doors were open; surely a teacher had overheard. But no one said anything.
The next day in study hall, a kid in my class said he saw what had happened. It was hilarious, he said.
I didn’t really bring my cards to school after that. I still played with my brother and his friends, but things had changed. Towards the end of freshman year I befriended a few kids in my class; by sophomore year I had an actual circle of friends, and when my brother graduated I just stopped playing. For the rest of high school I was a normal, well-liked kid: I joined the wrestling team, had a girlfriend, was even elected class Vice President my senior year. Magic no longer had a place in my life. For Christmas my brother got me a Ravnica preconstructed deck. I opened it, set it aside, and didn’t think about the cards again.
How strange it is, what forms our lives, how arbitrarily we cross paths with something that can effect decades of life thereafter. I’m in my thirties and have dreams about a card game that was randomly thrust upon me at ten, dreams filled with longing I can’t fulfill. Why Magic? How different of a man would I be if Ben had never moved to Hartland, and I’d never encountered this game?
Once I hit high school everything changed and I left the game. And yet I carried the game with me, didn’t I? Just because I was not tapping Mountains did not mean Rathi Dragon didn’t live somewhere in me. Experience is experience, no matter how tucked away it is, and so the years of Magic were there, a backdrop for what I lived thereafter. When in Biology we learned about biomes, didn’t my ears perk at Taigas and Tundras? In Anthropology, what first came to mind when we discussed Artifacts?
These are echoes of my early years of Magic. Every so often I will remember something – say, a complete page of Inquest, or what the gumball machine at Howie’s looked like – and the yearning, the feeling of that decades-old experience will come back to me, fleetingly, that sense of the unexplored, of newness, I glimpse it again for only a second and then it is gone. But that is enough, now. For when nothing is new anymore, when you know the game, have all the cards, that is perhaps the most you can ask for, a momentary glimpse back.
I returned to Magic in 2014. I was living in Chicago, but my wife, Jess, had just been accepted to a one-year Masters program at Harvard. We’d move to Boston later that summer.
One day I got a text from Ben. He’d dipped his toes back into the game, was playing online a bit. Ben and I had stayed in touch: we went to college together, and he’d visited us in Chicago a few times. So while it wasn’t odd to hear from him, I was still surprised. I had assumed Magic was completely behind him; he’d never talked about it in all these years. But of course I was excited. Both my time spent playing Magic with Ben, and really the game overall, had always felt forcibly cut short. I’d given both up before I wanted to.
After work a few days later, I took the bus north to MtG Card Market and registered for a draft. The current set was M15, and I drafted a Blue/Green deck that I somehow piloted to 2-1! After a decade away, I could still win games!
I wanted to keep winning, so I bought Patrick Chapin’s Next Level Magic. I understood nothing in the book, of course – without games, the concepts meant nothing. I kept drafting, but couldn’t manage another winning record. Still, as I boxed up everything in our apartment and prepared for the long drive back to New England, I had an image of myself as an unknown veteran player who remembered the forgotten cards of the past, who would show the new players how it was done.
The closest shop in Boston was Pandemonium Books & Games, which ran a Thursday night “Drafts and Draughts” event at a bar next door. Khans of Tarkir was released, and on my first night with the new set, in my new city, I finished 2-1. But at every draft thereafter I couldn’t manage better than 1-2. Oh, there was still some pleasure there, in a city where you know no one, to sit in front of dark windows looking out on rain-slick streets, a cold beer in your hand . . . This was a new type of Magic for me, completely unlike what I remembered.
Ben still lived in Connecticut, about two hours away. While I was on a tight budget, he was building an impressive collection, including Mishra’s Workshops, Dual Lands, and a few pieces of Power. Drafting had little to do with what Ben was playing or the type of Magic I wanted to play. And so I began to buy into Legacy Burn.
In Boston, JP Comics held small weekly tournaments. My Burn deck was pretty incomplete, only two copies of Goblin Guide and no Fetches. This was enough of a handicap, but it was also clear what an experience deficit I had, the other players understood Burn and could easily pick apart my plays. I saved money and finished the deck, but it felt like I needed more: Burn was so linear, and the obvious disdain it evoked made the experience even less enjoyable, not only was I losing, but no one wanted to play me. With my tax return that winter I bought Force of Wills and started building towards High Tide. Of course this speaks to how little I understood, that I thought High Tide would be interactive and better received by my opponents!
Ben came to visit every month or two. We played Legacy at the kitchen table, staying up until 3:00 drinking beer. He also introduced me to Vintage, running Burn against his Shops deck. The games weren’t close, but I was fascinated. Ben’s cards were beautiful, and the Forgemaster plan was a thing to behold, how I’d suddenly face down a Sundering Titan or Wurmcoil Engine. I knew I wanted a Shops deck of my own, then, but let the dream go as quickly as it occurred to me, it was simply impossible . . .
. . . until I discovered that Pandemonium ran Vintage weeklies, allowing ten proxies! I did some math and discovered that with Workshops, Moxen, and a Lotus covered by the proxy allowance, the deck would only run me about $300! I didn’t have the money, especially after finishing High Tide, but I was already too far gone, I was a Magic player now, and so I bought the cards.
I never did well with Shops. In 2015 it was the completely dominant archetype that everyone in Boston had a plan for. With that I made no friends, I was just the bad player adding one more Shops deck to the pile. But I didn’t care: it was the type of Magic I wanted to play.
Ben and I attended SCG Worcester that spring. I went 4-5 on Burn, and decided that neither of my Legacy decks were fulfilling. A few weeks later, Jess accepted a job offer in Austin, Texas. Coincidentally, at the same time Ben and his girlfriend decided they were moving to Houston. It looked to me like Austin had a Legacy community centered around a store called Pat’s Games, so I decided I’d have a new deck ready by the time we got there. I bought myself playsets of Grim Monolith, Metalworker, and Locus lands, converted my Shops deck into Legacy MUD, and set off on the five-day drive west.
Serendipitously, Pat’s Games held a “Legacy Super Series” tournament my first weekend in Austin. Ben drove out from Houston and slept on our couch, and on Sunday morning he and I went to Pat’s. Before the tournament began I bought a City of Traitors and Ugin to finish my deck. After seven rounds I was 4-1-2, the best record I’d managed in my adult life, and good for Top 8! I quickly lost in the quarterfinals, but it didn’t matter. I felt like a different player, or rather, like the player I thought I’d be when I returned to the game.
After my loss, a local player introduced himself to me. His name was Patrick, and we spent a minute chatting about my deck. At the Legacy weekly the following Thursday we got paired against each other, and talked more. Patrick was getting his Masters in Educational Psychology from University of Texas. I mentioned my wife had just completed her Masters in Education, and we decided we’d hang out sometime. A week or so later we met Patrick and his wife, Katie, for brunch. Jess and Katie got along well, and suddenly, we had friends in Austin.
I became a regular at Thursday Legacy, and played other nights as often as I could. Legacy was now my preferred format – I was happy getting to play some of the older cards, and the gameplay felt well-balanced, sophisticated. And now that Jess was working and we lived in a much cheaper city, I could afford the cards! Over the next few years I built out my collection, and had as many as six different Legacy decks built at any given moment.
I got to know the local players. For some, that meant just recognizing their faces, knowing their names and what they played. But others I got to know better. Patrick and I hung out a lot, we’d talk about Magic parallel to our wives having a “real conversation,” and I befriended Mike. We both played Maverick, and he lived in an apartment near mine. We’d meet at Nasty’s, a tiny dive bar, and play Pauper on the dimly-lit tables. And one day as I was walking through my apartment complex, my neighbor’s blinds were up and I saw he was watching a Twitch stream! I knocked, his name was Jay, he played Modern, and so from then on Jay and I attended Pat’s Modern events together.
On Thursdays, Patrick, Mike and I met at Billy’s, a bar up the street from Pat’s. We’d have a few beers, eat a burger, and jam some games before the tournament began, often getting scolded by Pat’s staff for cutting it too close to registration. Gradually, the circle widened and other players joined us: Hockey, Jake, Robin, Tweedy, Rob, and others might be at Billy’s on any given Thursday.
In 2016, a year after I moved to Austin, Starcity Games hosted a Legacy Classic tournament in Dallas. Patrick and I drove out together and shared a hotel room with Ben and his friend, Tim. While I didn’t place, both Patrick and Ben made Top 8, and I experienced that strange mood reminiscent of my years on the wrestling team in high school: disappointment with my own performance, but elation for my friends. In other words, team spirit. Afterwards we discussed the idea of forming a Magic team, and after some back and forth on names over the coming weeks, we founded the Lone Star Lhurgoyfs.
What I experienced in those first years in Austin was an opening of the world. When I first left Magic, it was something to hide and be ashamed of. Now, though, Magic was a shared ritual. I saw that there were so many men like me, in their twenties and thirties, who had a passion for and history with this game, men who weren’t all strange nerds or socially dysfunctional, but essentially normal people, the kind of people I wanted in my life. Sure, so much of it was about the cards, the game, but also I felt a richness and depth that had been absent since I’d finished college and moved away from home. I was part of a community.
What an impact a single person can have on our experience of Magic. To this day I have never played a single game of Standard; neither has Ben. Have his preferences colored mine all these years, from the very beginning? How do the decks I play now relate to our games back in the library?
And if we are open to them, so many people come into our lives through this hobby. Patrick chose to introduce himself at that first Legacy event, and now our wives and daughters are close friends. Mike and I both played Maverick, and he’s come to our Thanksgiving almost every year since. Tweedy and I text or call each other almost every day. Nate and his wife brought us fresh cookies early in the pandemic, when we all felt so strange and alone. Hockey invited me to his wedding . . . All these people I could so easily have never met, and my life would be worse without them.
At GP Las Vegas 2017, I played Burn to a disappointing 2-3-drop. Walking around the vendor hall afterwards, I considered buying into Miracles. Browsing through the vendors’ cases, I realized the cards would cost me about as much as a Mox Ruby. I’d never seriously considered buying into Power, it seemed out of reach, but suddenly it was approachable. I chose not to buy anything, but a seed was planted.
Back in Texas, I spent a weekend in Houston capped with a Lhurgoyf Vintage event at Brash Brewing. I went 3-1 on a Null Rod Shops list I’d brewed. On the long drive home, two things occurred to me. First, that I’d enjoyed the Vintage gameplay more than any recent Legacy. And second, that the White Eldrazi deck Ben had played was fairly similar to my preferred Shops deck, but “only” needed Moxen and a Lotus.
Around this time, Jess and I decided we wanted to have a kid. I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but anticipated that my relationships with both Magic and money were going to change. And so with these last months of freedom, I surveyed my collection. If I sold everything but my MUD and Maverick cards, and set aside some cash from my next few paychecks, I could afford all five Moxen!
At the time Austin had no organized Vintage scene. The old Eternal Struggle series had faded, and none of the stores held Vintage events. The Lhurgoyfs and I ran a charity Vintage tournament after Hurricane Harvey, but that was it. And so as my first Moxen arrived in the mail, I knew I had to find a way to play with them.
In the fall of 2017 I pulled together a small group of friends and Vintage enthusiasts: me, Patrick, Mike, Rob Connolly, and Brian Tweedy. Over a few meetings at Billy’s, we mapped out the logistics of creating and running a Vintage tournament series. A few ideas for names came up – I remember “Austin Vintage Beer League” and “Urza’s Nutsack.” Tweedy wanted something more ambiguous and suggestive, and proposed “Romancing the Stones.” Though I’d never seen the movie, we couldn’t think of anything better, and the name stuck.
In December we found out Jess was pregnant. We told no one, and I said to myself, I have eight or nine months to get ready and to really enjoy this last stretch of free Magic.
We held our first tournament in January 2018 at 4th Tap Brewing. Twenty four players attended, a huge success. The turnout alone would have been enough, but then I also won the tournament! I had an undefeated run on White Eldrazi, and was from then on hooked on both Vintage and Romancing the Stones. Our first season was humming, the players were enthusiastic, and turnout was fairly steady. Over the first six tournaments, I made Top 4 four times. Ben, Mike, Patrick, and I also flew to SCGCon in Virginia, where after thirteen rounds of Vintage I finished 9-4, good for 13th place. In short, it was a good time for me.
My daughter was born that September. Although only a month later I attended our next Vintage event, things had changed. I was tired, they were my first games since she was born, I played poorly and finished 2-3. Over the coming months I continued to play poorly. I couldn’t put in the necessary testing or practice, and I gradually realized that the immersion with Magic I’d enjoyed these past few years had ended.
My run from January through August was the best streak of my competitive life, and had made me feel I was capable of something greater – maybe a Top 8 at Vintage Champs, or winning The Waterbury. I was disappointed, but only slightly. Fatherhood became a bigger part of my identity. There were obvious emotional rewards to that which took the edge off losing at Magic, and more importantly, as my self-conception began to shift, I reconsidered Magic’s place in my identity. If these past years had been largely defined by playing Magic, now I was a community organizer.
We ran another full season of Vintage tournaments in 2019. Everything went well with the tournaments themselves, and we started meeting every Wednesday at Batch Kolaches to playtest. Our efforts were further validated when Bryan Hockey, a staple of our community, finished 3rd at Vintage Champs. Not only did we have a great local thing going, we were producing pretty good players and getting some recognition outside of Austin!
I was confident we’d have another successful season in 2020. The year started well: a group of us attended the Battle For The Alamo Old School tournament in San Antonio, and a week later twenty six players attended our first Vintage event of the season. Then in February, we had twenty two players at Austin Beerworks. The brewery was packed full of people, the sun was shining, and I felt good about life. And then, of course, the world ended.
A few weeks into the pandemic, the Romancing the Stones committee convened. We decided to put the season on hold, and that our weekly meetup group should stay apart.
At first I enjoyed the break from the game and from organizing events. But by late spring, I missed Magic. To get our players interacting again, I held a Vintage Card Design competition through our Facebook group. We received some great entries, and more importantly, this stirred up some activity and got people talking again. Shortly after I put together a webcam league for Middle School, a format I’d wanted to explore. Only ten players registered, but as we streamed our matches in the Romancing the Stones Discord, people started watching. By the time the league ended, the rest of our community was interested in the format. We immediately announced another league, promoted more heavily, and got thirty players – one of our largest tournaments to date, including a number of players from around the country! Everyone spoke well of the gameplay, and we even began streaming feature matches on Twitch, getting a broader audience.
This is no substitute for our paper events – I miss everyone, and I miss the experience. However, as interest and momentum around these webcam leagues grow, I feel a renewed faith in and affection for our community and what we’ve built. Online interaction comes cheap, of course. But it’s been six months since we’ve seen each other, there’s no end in sight, and it’d be easy for us to forget each other, to recede into the quarantine. And yet, players are talking. They’re strategizing, writing articles for our site, joking, and playing games. Tweedy and I text or call each other daily to discuss deck ideas or plans for our tournaments. I see a deliberate effort to be in touch and to stay connected. In this time of distance and separation, I am reminded of the power of friendships, for that’s what we’ve built in Austin. A community of friends. A bond.
Every so often I lapse in judgment and open Twitter. I deleted my own account some time ago, but as I’m responsible for the Stones Twitter, it’s an easy habit to fall back into. This is largely an exercise in discouragement. While our feed has some cool Old School deck photos and webcam tournament information, after cursory scrolling I’ll find the broader Magic community’s current drama: cosplayers harassed out of the hobby, professional players catfighting over Hall of Fame nominations, outrage at the next broken printing, culture wars over racism, sexism, and transphobia in the game . . . Almost inevitably, to glimpse what Magic players are thinking and talking about will push me towards despair, for Magic suddenly looks so ugly.
This is not to say I am only dismayed at the state of the larger community. The game itself can be disappointing. Last summer, as Karn Shops and Dredge ran roughshod over Vintage, I began to ask where we were headed, if the game was entering its death throes. And of course, I’ve had to ask that again and again in the months since.
But in examining why I play Magic, it occurs to me that these conditions – an ugly community, the bad cards – are not the important stress point. Rather, why am I as an adult man worked up and upset by any of it? And if I’m upset, if my relationship to the game becomes negative, why am I spending time on this?
Oh, it’s an easy answer: history. There is so much meaning and time there, for me and for all of us, that it is wrong to succumb to despair, especially despair over such small things. When I first left this game, I had so little behind me and so much ahead of me. Now, I can look back on all these years of Magic. From here, it looks alright.
My family has “podded up” with Patrick’s. Our daughters both turned two recently, and after months of isolation we all thought it was best for them, and for us, to have some normal human interaction again. At Patrick’s house this past weekend, we were all hanging out in the back yard. While Jess and Katie sat on the porch and chatted, Patrick and I watched our daughters as they climbed on a small plastic playscape. The sun shone, the lawn was deep green. In a little while we’d gather sticks together and roast marshmallows over their firepit.
As is usually the case, Patrick and I turned to Magic. He’d just gotten a beautiful playset of altered Sensei’s Divining Tops, done in a seasonal panorama, and was planning to send out his Walking Ballistas to get altered into iconic BattleTech mechs.
“I guess this is just what I’m into, now,” he said. “Alters and proxies. Recently I haven’t really been expressing myself creatively, and they feel like a small way to do that.”
“Well, it’s not a bad time to be doing it,” I said. “Wizards is changing what a Magic card can look like with every set. You might as well start to decide that for yourself.”
He nodded. “Yep. I guess I’m just not going to care what they do anymore.”
Patrick and I have discussed this extensively over the past two years, how reprints and promos are so heavily pumped into the market that the cards will inevitably lose any value as collectors’ items; they’re essentially meaningless. And yet this time, discussing it I felt no sadness or anger. Patrick is doing with his cards what makes him feel good; he’s taking ownership, not being swept away in the tide of products or the dialogue around them. He’s still playing with his old cards – he piloted Landstill to the Top 8 in our league! – while turning the new ones into something to treasure.
It’s September 10th. Austin has precipitously cooled off: it’s 1:28 in the afternoon, I’m sitting on the patio in jeans and a long sleeve shirt, and it’s only 63 degrees. Tomorrow we close registration for the Fall Semester Middle School. While that will mean a flurry of organizational work for me, I’m ready to see everyone and begin the league.
So, then, why am I playing Magic? What am I looking for, and what am I getting from it? In planning this essay I presupposed an answer to that question: I wanted a return to the past. Because I am drawn to older cards, the cards I grew up with, I have assumed that my attachment to Magic is largely just a nostalgic one.
There’s some truth in that. I feel a warmth for my first years of Magic, when it was all new. But writing this has given me hope. If we feel a loss of meaning, if the Magic of our youth is gone, we are not relegated to simply looking back or trying to reconstruct the past. Rather, we must fix our gaze on the present, for there is meaning here. I let my gaze wander these six months, and lost sight of that.
None of this is tied to the cards themselves, to the meta, to Wizards’ design philosophy – in these pages of recollections, where have I mentioned the gameplay itself? The old cards may evoke the past, but they are not anchored in time and come along with us.
There’s shelter in these nostalgia formats; we are only as affected by the present state of Magic as we choose to be. But they’re not the full solution. Magic has twenty seven years of noise surrounding it, and we need to cut through that noise to what matters to us, be that history, the cards, or the people we play them with.
At thirteen I loved Magic. I knew my time playing the game was great. But I didn’t know that one day, I could look back at it as the best time. So what of today? Already I feel nostalgia for January, when we could all meet at a bar and play, only a few feet apart from each other. How will I look back at this time in a decade from now? Magic is memory.