Comments from the deck: MTG views from an old Judge

It’s like I’m hardwired to bang on about how long I’ve played Magic the Gathering for. It irritates me intensely, so I extend an (ongoing) apology to all the long-suffering folk within hearing range. But, reaching 2.2 decades as an itinerant cardslinger prompted this article. After all, I should have picked up a few things worthy of regaling you folks with by now. Please note, I make no pretence, nor imply, any degree of excellence – I’ve just played a lot for a long while and have no intention of stopping.

Over twenty-two years, I’ve watched MTG go from a game that no-one had ever heard of (or admit to) to a game with over twenty million players – that no-one has ever heard of (or will admit to). I have also seen a cohesive vision evolve over the last decade or so that has arguably saved the game at the cost of a few pieces of its soul.
Some elements of gameplay have been removed as they put off new players, and some have been removed patently to foster market value. This drive for simplification and market share is understandable – MTG is a profit-making entity, after all. That does not stop the storyteller side of me quietly mourning the attention to implicit detail that made this such a delightful platform to create with, back then.
Matching the simplification of the rules, it is notable that the plots and concepts behind the world builds are turning more commercial, as well as becoming averse to truly confrontational topics. However, like the rules changes I object to, I’m not going to dwell on the details. It’s only personal opinion, I’m not able to effect change, and I’m not going to stop playing. Therefore, any objections I have are moot.
However, the increase in popularity has allowed the game to attract better artists. Many pieces of art over the last few years have been excellent, with a couple crossing the line into absolutely breathtaking. This trend can only be applauded and is to be encouraged, because some of the early art was a bit ropey, to put it politely. It’s also good to see the fine artists who have supported the game from early on reaping their just rewards.

So, rewind to early 1995. There’s a card game catches my attention. It’s called Magic: The Gathering. The term ‘magic’, to a pagan, carries many connotations. Someone back at MTG headquarters knew their lore very well, something that became clear in the quotes and usages of some of the cards. (To this day, I have never discovered who that was.) As a pagan and storyteller, the concept of having a medium to tell and play through a story of fantasy conflict whist reflecting some core values of magic into the real world was irresistible.
I got into the heart of the game and swiftly found the rules – at the time – were completely intuitive for me. Also, my love of the game allowed me to heartily advocate it’s wonders to all and sundry.
The budding tournament scene had only a vague appeal. The concept of limiting the pool of cards available simply didn’t work for me. However, if any of the group I played with had had the revenue to get more cards, I think my attitude may have developed in a different way. As it is, I remain a 60-count casual player to this day.
What those early days of being broke but wanting more cards taught me was that, at a pinch, any card can be used (with the exception of Sorrow’s Path) – you might not be happy with all of the cards, but being able to play is more important than aesthetics. As a group, we experimented with daft cards, had decks that took ages to turn lethal, and generally had a marvellous time with cards that would be ignored by affluent or ‘serious’ players.
A friend introduced me to the concept of ‘the combo’ – he used Howling Mine with Island Sanctuary, so he could still draw one card while activating the Island Sanctuary to prevent creatures without Flying or Islandwalk attacking him. That lesson in how some cards functionally ‘fit together’ was a turning point in my deck tech. Not just in developing combos, but in spotting which card was pivotal to a combo, or could prevent one working – a skill that remains handy to this day.
One afternoon, a gent wandered up and asked if he could join our keen group, who were ignoring the glorious countryside about the campsite to huddle round a couple of tables and get some cardslinging in. As he hadn’t brought his decks, we offered him the spares box. Twenty minutes later, our monstrous (and mainly rare card) decks were being slaughtered out of hand by a deck utilising Llanowar Elves, Mesa Pegasus, Swords to Plowshares, and Giant Growth. It was an eye-opening lesson in the application of simplicity and speed. It was also an early lesson in the fact that life gain, on its own, will not save you – or the opponent, in the case of Swords to Plowshares. Your life total is just another resource. (There is a view that if you finish a game with more than 1 life – 6 if you’re facing burn – you’ve been wasting a valuable resource.)
Years progressed and my lifestyle allowed me access to more cards. I swiftly found that being the only one in a playgroup with access to tiered cards was no fun for everyone else – which led to it being no fun for me. Eventually, my fortunes and everyone else’s flipped. Since then, my advantages have only lain in deck building and quality of play – which, let’s face it, is where they should be.
I spent twelve years as a level one judge, and probably established some sort of record for the lack of sanctioned tournaments judged. My initial qualification was done on a whim (like I said, the rules came naturally to me). I renewed with the introduction of classic rules (sixth edition) and carried on until some core elements of the game became counter-intuitive. After that, I didn’t renew. Judging is, in many ways, a calling. When it stops calling, it’s time to stop.

A few observations from the journey:
• You can’t get a good control deck player below three life.
• Mean control decks are no fun to play against.
• Basic evasion (usually Flying) and consistent creature removal will win games.
• Any deck that provokes an awkward silence from your opponents for more than a minute after you win should not be used very often.
• Single-stack Planechase is the finest multiplayer option since the invention of multiplay.
• Playing in any way at less than your best is an insult to you and your opponent.
• Always RTFC (Read the F***ing Card). Apply twice if playing in a tournament.
• Never blame your deck for your mistakes.
• Never play a deck that you can’t enjoy losing with.
• A day at a tournament requires extra deodorant and breath freshener as well as cards, drinks and food.
• Never riffle shuffle someone else’s deck.
• Whenever you shuffle your deck, remember to present it for your opponent to split. They may decline, but always make the offer.
• Take that freebie. Never leave a card or goodie behind.
• Every player is a card-hound. We’re never happier than when we’re plowing through an unexplored stack of cards.
• Never be afraid to ask for help – or for a second opinion.
• Be polite.
• Play fair.
• Have fun.

In all my time as a wandering cardslinger, only a couple of communities have inspired me with their welcoming spirit: that quintessential friendliness combined with players who act as ambassadors for the game by their sheer enthusiasm, all of which is backed by a decent level of knowledge. The first was Luke May’s group in Eastbourne, 2006-2008.

The second is centred at the shop behind this site: A&B Gaming. Learning and playing MTG can be an imposing task. Finding a haven where this can occur is always a special discovery. MTGO (Magic the Gathering Online) may be an invaluable resource for players, but I will always be an advocate for spending time playing this game face-to-face. Crazy moments and hilarious banter are only available when you can interact directly with a friendly crowd, able to pick up on moods and body language, getting into exchanging tips, deck tech, heroics and sarcasm.

Magic the Gathering is a marvellous game that has been lauded for increasing the vocabulary and social skills of those who play it, has provoked outbreaks of peace amongst those with no common ground bar what they stand on, and can make you lifelong friends that you wouldn’t otherwise have met. If you see some Magic: the Gathering cards and they ‘call’ to you, give in. Play a little. Good things happen.

Jae,

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