“Instead of stealing from the people, why not just steal the people?” –Rubinia Soulsinger
Spring 1992. There was no Magic.
What did we do before there was magic?
I was twelve years old, and I was preparing to shoplift for the first and only time in my life.
April is often a cold month in Michigan, and this year we still had snow on the ground, and possibly in the sky, but it is not always the case. The day in question, by mid afternoon, was into the high sixties. That is Fahrenheit for my non-American readers. I am sure you are aware that the consistency and practicality of the metric system are regarded as barbaric by the people of my homeland. We go to great extremes to ensure that we do not measure anything in a way that conforms to the world around us, and then we mock others for not knowing how much a tablespoon is (even though we do not know either.) Most Americans cannot spell Fahrenheit, but you can be certain that they know all about why Celsius is evil. Clearly, it was invented by Canada (as all crimes against humanity are) to make things difficult and swindle you out of money.
Never doubt the resolve of an American to blame Canada for anything and everything.
The importance of the temperature lies in it’s attempt to thwart my plan. If the younger edition of myself had any sense, he would have at least postponed his plan until he could safely carry it out or find another means of execution. But he was stubborn and driven, and the weather would not stop his poorly-designed scheme. When school let out, he set out on foot with his accomplice, both clad in winter jackets and headed for the bookstore.
Typically I rode the bus, but on this day it did not suit my nefarious intent. The walk home was just under two miles (what the hell is a mile?) and the bookstore was about halfway. For a couple days we planned it, so there were few words to be spoken as we sweated our way onward. I was nervous, but my cohort, who we will call Bartimeaus, or Bart for short, was oblivious. I was practically trembling, but he could not see it, because Bart was legally blind, and could not see much of anything.
I was on my way to steal books with a blind co-conspirator.
We approached the building swiftly but stopped for a few minutes outside. Our suspicious loitering was a silent alarm for the clerk, and when we finally entered her eyes followed us as we made our way up and down the aisles. We eventually found our way to a back section of paperbacks, heavily encumbered by our ridiculous attire, and found reprieve from watchful glares. We were free to carry out our pernicious deed.
I took a book off the shelf and shoved it down the front of my coat. I positioned it carefully under my arm. I looked over to see my companion do the same.I felt flush, growing warmer by the minute, and I needed to get out of there before I cooked to death. The store was as warm as my guilt, and it was smothering me. I made for the front of the shop, minion in tow, and just as I turned towards the door the elderly woman behind the counter stopped us with a shrill command.
I was paralyzed mid-step. My friend walked into me, not realizing that I complied until we collided. She spryly made her way around the counter and positioned herself between us and the door. Her skeletal figure made a poor barrier, but I was too petrified to consider escape as she began screaming belligerently at us.
After insulting us, she began lecturing us about right and wrong. I was choked by guilt, but my cohort, Bart, was bored at best. She closed her scornful tirade by forbidding us from ever returning and demanding that we return what we took. I pulled a copy of Moby Dick from my jacket and handed it over. Bart delivered a copy of Paradise Lost. She told us once again how terrible we were, and emphasized how fortunate we were that she did not call the cops.
She was setting the contraband on the counter when it happened.
Bart dropped another book from under his jacket by accident, and it fell to the floor with a thud. I looked down to see Fahrenheit 451 laying at his feet. The old woman was looking too, incredulous for a moment before erupting. The whole time she was lecturing us, in the face of certain doom, he was still in the process of stealing.
This pushed her over the edge.
As she moved to call the police, I panicked. I bolted through the door and ran as hard and as fast as I could, despite my hatred for physical exertion. I was down the street and out of sight before I stopped to catch my breath. As I did, I glanced around to discover that I was alone.
He was still standing there. He did not see me run.
My blind accomplice would be my undoing.
I remember that day clearer than I do last Thursday. It could be because one of those days involved a heavy consumption of Jameson, and it was not the one where I was twelve. It would be years before I discovered the divine nectar, and many important things, like learning to play Magic, would happen in between. The cards I would buy two years later are now older than the best Scotch I have left in my apartment, but soon it will be gone, and the memory of getting caught stealing with a blind kid will linger.
It is a memory of guilt unlike any I have felt since (perhaps from my slow moral decay, likely aided by my deep understanding of my limited yet absolute ethics) and it made me sick. I vomited heavily as I made the remainder of the trip home, half from physical exertion and half from physical reaction. A sense of embarrassment coated my emotions like the aftertaste of puke coated my mouth, and as terrified as I was to go home, I had nowhere else to go. I knew that even though I escaped, soon enough my accomplice would face the law, and it would not be long before justice descended upon me.
He did his best to protect my identity. His efforts were admirable, but the splash damage was visceral. He gave numerous false identities, which resulted in being taken to visit kids we went to school with, and the spread of interest and partial knowledge of what transpired. Eventually the pressure was too much and he gave me up, but by that time I was so deep in self-loathing that I was relieved to get it over with. No consequence could compare to the punishment of enduring my guilt.
The arrival of cops in my neighborhood was always a cause for alarm. When the car pulled up to the house, a slew of family members and neighbors panicked under the impression it was some kind of raid. They scattered like roaches suddenly confronted with light, hiding a mix of illegal possessions or fleeing to avoid being taken in on a warrant. Even the innocent were uncomfortable when cops came around, because when the long arm of the law started poking around, it was determined to find something, and when it failed it often kept a stash up its sleeve to ensure that the effort was not in vain.
At that moment I could have stopped to reflect on my upbringing. Was this what the nurture versus nature debate was about? Was I somehow a product of my environment, and therefore not to blame for my actions? But instead of doing that, I wallowed in my emotional prison and accepted the weight of my crime. Nothing would free me from the prison of my mind, but as much as it tormented me, it also protected me from caring about what was to come in the more immediate physical world.
When the cops made it clear that they were not there to bust my stepfather for whatever drugs or weapons he had, his reaction to the officer went from indignant to cooperative. I heard their conversation, and I wondered if he was sober enough to control himself in front of the cop. When he bellowed my name from the yard, I had my doubts. I rose slowly and made the seemingly endless journey through the house and out on to the porch.
When I stepped across the threshold and into the wretched sunlight, I watched the officer get in his car and drive away. I was confused, and I looked to my stepfather for answers, but when I saw the mix of anger and sadistic glee in his eyes I forgot all about the cop. I had a bigger demon to face.
He went to great effort to control the volume of his voice, slurring his words as he scolded me, threatening me with more punishments than his inebriated skull would be able to dredge up later. His hands were balled into fists, and I knew at any point that things could take a dark turn. But stayed restrained, and explained to me that he was not going to beat me because he was too drunk to be sure he could stop when I had what I deserved. I stayed quiet and waited for his thirst to strike. It did not take long, and when he went for another beer I returned to the safety of my room.
So I was caught stealing when I was a child. Big deal. You were caught stealing last week. Or you have been stealing your whole life and have never been caught. Probably because you are smart enough not to take a blind person with you to do it. Good for you. You are a better thief than I am. You are Dack Motherfucking Fayden.
But I am the author. You are the audience. So I get to tell my story, and you get to sit there with yours. But never fear. I have a solution. You want to tell me all about your criminal endeavors? That’s what the comments section is for. Tell me all about your theft. Don’t worry, this is the MTG Underground. There are no consequences. If you take the time to write it, I will take the time to read it.
Now that we have that out of the way, it is time to get to my story. It is still my turn. I am not even in my draw step yet.
How does any of this relate to playing Magic Tournaments?
Relax, Dack, and I will tell you.
Here we continue my ancient stirrings, my primordial awakening. This is a tale of days long gone. Come back with me to 1994.
(photo courtesy of @pintacso on Twitter. Follow him.)
After the Ante fiasco with my brother (see my earlier blog post, From Our Darkest Past part One) I spent about a month of trying to play the game with some kids from school. Having grown bored with their insistence on playing multiplayer games, I needed something more. They were more concerned with casting every spell in their deck than they were with winning. It was more about being cute than competitive.
This was the most miserable experience I could imagine coming from this game. It reminded me of my agonizing encounter with Dungeons and Dragons, and before long I stopped even pretending to care. I stopped participating. I became focused on assembling a streamlined collection, perhaps owning four of every black card, and at least in collecting I found some joy. But the hunger was real, and my need for the blood of a true nemesis was growing severe.
When I could take it no more, things changed.
I was riding the bus home, listening to Sepultura on my Walk Man (on Cassette) and found myself looking over the shoulder of the guy in front of me, who was thumbing through some magic cards. There was a card on the top of his stack that I had never seen, and the art held my attention. It was a gold card, which meant it was from Legends (as the Dark had yet to be unveiled,) and though it was the most current set it was the least familiar to me.
I was so entranced that I did not immediately notice the animosity radiating from Dan’s eyes as he stared incredulously at me. He looked like a cross between the Undertaker and James Hetfield (before the transition to corporate meat sock) and though he was still in High school, he had a full beard. He also had a reputation for having a violent temper. He was a few years older than me, and as I met his eyes I recalled a moment when I watched him chase a little league umpire around a baseball field with a bat after he was struck with a ball and it was called a strike. Dan was crazy, and he did nothing to hide it.
“What do you want?”
This is where it comes together. My blind accomplice “Bart” was Dan’s younger brother. I was caught stealing with him and then abandoned him, letting him take the fall and later take the blame, because he already had a reputation for stupidity and I was perceived to be the follower in my own disastrous scheme. Fortunately, Dan hated his brother, and it was unclear whether he even knew about what transpired or simply did not care. At that moment I pictured an afternoon when he “Tombstoned” Bart onto the hardwood floor of their living room for saying something derogatory about Star Wars. Dan then grabbed a chair and struck Bart with it while he was sprawled unconscious on the floor. He had no control and no conscience. He also had no idea why I would be staring at his cards.
He asked me again.
“What do you want?”
I finally spoke.
“What is that card?”
“Its Magic. Its a game.”
“I know, but what card is it? I haven’t seen it before.”
“Its from Legends.”
“Yeah I see that. Its gold. I don’t have any gold cards. What is it?”
“Can I see it?”
“Do you actually play?”
“Yeah, I am really good. The art is better than the card.”
“I like it. What cards do you have?”
An hour later I was playing cards with him and a couple of his friends. They were an older crowd, but they took the game more serious than my peers from school and I found the environment much more suited to my desire. I was a natural fit for their group, and as the fourth person I provided a significant improvement for them as well. They no longer had to have one person sitting out waiting to play the winner. We could now have two games going at a time. There was never any mention of multiplayer games.
They all had cards from Legends. It was the most current set, as I mentioned, but it was also ten dollars a pack, and it was not always available. I had cards from Antiquities (though, as I related in the prior tale, most of the good stuff was plundered by Jimbo,) and for the most part they had not seen many of them. They each honed in on a different color, finding their place in the flavor of the game. It was a great dynamic and allowed them to make mutually beneficial trades almost every time they cracked packs.
Dan preferred black, but unlike my preference to splash red, he was determined to play mono black. His favorite card was Nightmare. It was the closer of his deck. He had over twenty of them, which was absurd to me, as I had no more than four of anything. I did not understand why anyone would have more than they could play, which has for the most part not changed in the 21 years I have danced with this game.
His friends each had their own approach. Dave loved green cards the way I love green mana. From Llanowar Elves to Force of Nature, they were all his favorites. He was determined to own every green card in the game. I was able to help him out, trading him a pair of crumbles and a powerleech. He was the first person to compare my likeness to Sengir Vampire.
Scott, on the other hand, was the White Knight. He was just as abrasive as the cards he favored. From the beginning there was a silent distaste for each other between us, which I found antagonistically amusing and he found uncomfortably awkward. Scott never really had any friends outside this circle, and my presence within it seemed to be regarded as threatening.
It did not take long for it to come to light. Scott had 3 Serra Angels in his deck, and had somehow been unable to obtain a fourth. I had one, and I was happy to trade the useless bird. I thumbed through Scott’s cards and came across The Abyss. It was beautiful. It was also everything I ever wanted for a deck. I pulled it out of his stack, and he immediately said it was not for trade.
“Why? You don’t play black cards.”
“It kills Serra Angel. I don’t want to play against it.”
“So does terror.”
“Its not for trade.”
I was furious. I refused to trade him the Serra Angel until he changed his mind. I also traded for both of Dave’s Angels to further keep Scott from getting them. I then showed them to him, and when he was sulking about it I tried to pressure him into trading the card. I even went as far as to offer him all of my white cards. He refused without even looking at them. The Abyss was not for trade.
The next week we prepared for my first tournament. It was held at a local sports card shop, Sports Card Mania, in Waterford, Michigan, and I was overwhelmed with excitement. They had gone a couple times, it was a weekly affair held on Tuesday evenings, and it drew a large crowd (30-40 players if memory serves, though it may have been about half of that.) It was a single elimination, Battle to the Death sort of affair, and the only distinction aside from a restricted list and a limit of four of any card was that it was “Type 2” and you could not play with cards that were “discontinued” after unlimited.
As much as I loved playing black, I was sour about Scott’s stubbornness and I decided to play the blue and red deck I had spent the last two weeks working on. It was mostly damage and counterspells, and it was surprisingly effective. It helped that I had Mishra’s Factories, and I had just acquired three Chain Lightning from Dave for some green cards I sharked up in school. I had some flying creatures like Serendib Efreet and Roc of Kher Ridges, and I was ready to face anything.
My deck was accidentally brilliant. It was hyper efficient in a time when most players had terrible mana bases and no concept of a mana curve. I won my first two rounds with little effort. It was exhilarating. I only had a few more battles to go. Both Dan and Scott were eliminated, and Dave lost in round three. While he did, I had my first experience with what I considered cheating.
When I sat down at the table, my opponent was “Mana Weaving” his deck. One land, two spells. Over and over. A perfect arrangement. I felt my stomach turn. It was cheating. After he did it, he passed his deck for me to cut it. I started counting the cards, and at the same time slowly undid what he had done. When I passed his deck back, most of his lands were on the top. Needless to say, this did not fare well for him. He lost two games without playing much magic, and he was furious at me. I felt good about what I did.
I mentioned it in the car ride home, and it was unanimously stated that what I did was wrong. The only consolation was that the player in question was a jerk, and usually won the tournaments. He was a shark to trade with and treated people poorly. Ultimately, anything that was harmful to him was likely helpful to the community. There were no judges back then. Hell, there were barely rules. Someone had to stand up for the people.
I lost in the finals and won sixty dollars in credit. I used it to buy my first Juzam Djinn.
Throughout the night I also took up trading for Serra Angels, knowing that Scott did not bring his extra cards because he was afraid they would get stolen. One of the ones I acquired was Beta, which was not exactly clear to me aside from having the black border. During the ride home I showed them to Scott, who nearly lost his mind at the black bordered one, but he still refused to trade The Abyss so I had no choice but to continue to taunt him.
For the next week I spoke heavily of my success. Doing so well in my first tournament cemented that I wanted to play more. It was almost all I talked about, and Dan told me that there was another Shop, The Card Castle, that ran tournaments on Saturdays and they sometimes went. I made note of this and set about encouraging attendance at both events every week. Scott and Dave were not always interested, but Dan was the one that drove, so he was the only one I needed to be on board.
Dave went with us on Saturday, and he asked me if he could play my deck from Tuesday since I was going to play my black deck. I complied and looked forward to battling at a new location. It turned out to be the basement of the store, and it was the perfect atmosphere for the MTG Underground that was already in the making, even if it would not come to be what it is for many years.
I lost in the first round to a deck with The Abyss, further driving my want for the Enchant World. Dave went on to win the event with my other deck, and in the mean time I was able to trade for my second Juzam Djinn, depleting my stock of Serra Angels. When Dave won he gave me some of his credit, so I picked up my fourth Chain Lightning and a copy of Underworld Dreams. I was bewildered how it could be a card. It was so powerful, so malicious, and so beautiful.
Much of the crowd was the same, so while talking and trading with people I was congratulated numerous times for my performance on Tuesday. It fed an already megalithic ego, and it made me want to win even more. I learned more about the value and rarity of cards, the rules for Enchant Worlds, and saw a Black Lotus for the first time. It was a definitive moment in my Magic History.
From that night on I had little interest in playing unless it was preparing for or performing in a tournament. The game was only fun when there was something on the line, but this came more from the gambling nature of my personality than the competitive. It was not quite the same as playing for Ante, but it was close, and in time I forgot all about what initially brought me to play the game.
Over the years little has changed for me. I still prefer tournament play, I still have a soft spot for black cards, still want to trade for The Abyss (even though I have one, which, tragically, is signed in silver,) and still antagonize the most uptight members of the community. I am always looking for a way to gamble on things. I am more likely to try and hustle up games of oldschool or vintage than play just any tournament, as the cards themselves are as important as the competition, but I still find joy in legacy (mostly for the turn one kills) and am always looking for new and degenerate means of gambling.
I have certainly offered to bet a set of Juzam Djinns against a Mishra’s Workshop in the 75 card belcher mirror over Twitter, but I have yet to find a fool with the means to take the bet. This is my life, and I enjoy piloting it to victory.
I did get to play some Oldschool and Vintage at GP Detroit. I love my decks for both formats.
And with that, we part ways again. Go forth into the world, and let not the order of mankind restrict the will of your heart. Love not Law. MTG Underground.