“To reflect on the past, we must pull our teeth from the flesh of the present and our vision from the hellfire of the future.” – Baron Sengir
Summer 2002. My daughter was three years old. She was almost as fascinated with me as I was with her.
The first time I found her looking at a Magic card, but I could not see what it was. She was talking to my brother about it.
“This is my dad. That’s blood by his mouth.”
Shaman Ben, aka Bengir Vampire, circa 2000
I knew right away what it was, but I looked anyway. A casual utterance from an astute observation. I was as amused then as I am now. For a long time, the card became known as Bengir in my small circle (My name is Benjermin.)
Even then, the MTG Underground was present in my love of the game. We were running unsanctioned “Extended” events out of a sports card shop, the same one where I finished second in my first tournament. We had dual lands and everything from Ice Age on was legal. It was not perfect, but it was exciting. We were always trying new decks and exploring old ones, and for a window of time the game seemed to be in a Golden Age. But like all things human, it eventually withered and died.
The format rotated, and we tried to keep with the Establishment version of the game. But it left much to be desired, and before long we were exploring Vintage and once again trying to find magic on our own. We did not know what we were looking for, but we knew it was not to be found in the confines of rotating formats.
Maybe even from the beginning, when I was cracking packs of Antiquities, the Underground mentality was with me. Long before I could define it, before I knew what I was doing or how I was doing it, the die was cast and the wheels were in motion. The game would be what we made it. I would never be happy with the mediocrity when I knew of the majesty.
Many tales remain to be told between then and now, and in the year to come many of those tales will take form, even if they show a little too much of my questionable handling of life. But tonight I want to focus on some of the specific moments that brought me to start writing here.
In the Spring of 2014 I was transitioning between jobs. My workload was increasing and it was becoming difficult to commit to judging. I gave up my residence at RIW Hobbies in Livonia, Michigan, finding it too difficult to make it in time to run Friday Night Magic. Each time I declined to judge a $1k or an invitational, I questioned my role as a judge in the days to come.
I was always a rogue in the Judge Community, always finding my place without much assistance from the system. I was sought after by local stores and never left wanting for opportunity, and even though I judged a few SCG opens (judging standard was a perfect way to cover costs when traveling to play legacy) and PTQs (I found that the judge community worked for much lower compensation than I was accustomed to, and quickly stepped away,) the program itself never offered me much. It existed in the form of cliques, and I drew nothing but ire from those I was supposed to need.
It was time for a change. I reached out to a local veteran, and we talked for a long time about what I would do as I stepped away from being a judge. I decided that I wanted to become a serious player. I consistently did well without applying myself, often while heavily intoxicated, so it stood to reason that I would thrive if I put in a little work.
Summer rolled in and I decided I would qualify for the Pro Tour by playing Modern. I had amassed cards while judging, and I had many options. My primary deck was Tin Fins, but if I was going to be serious I needed to play something less focused on style and more driven by consistency. I built UWR Twin, tore through a couple weekly tournaments, and took a day off to play in a PTQ.
It was about this time that the changes (for the worse) rippled through the oceanic judge world. I spoke incessantly with peers from all over, feeling smug that I stepped away before the system chased me away.
The day of the event I decided to play a Mono Red burn deck instead of my default pile. Five sober rounds later, I was 4-1 and had an excellent chance of making top 8. I was bored. I started thinking about actually winning the event, about having to travel to Hawaii, taking time off, and letting the true cost of it wash over me. Not to mention all the preparation and practice it would take. The prospect was ominous.
Round six introduced me to a miserable bastard who was desperate to get back on the tour. Sweat dripped from his brow and on to his grubby hands as they shuffled my deck. My sleeves were suffering his tasteless need to ensure I was not cheating. I introduced myself and he grunted, showing his disinterest in anything not directly related to the game.
The salt started to crawl out of his skin from the moment I won the die roll. My Eidolon of the Great Revel on turn two won game one on its own. The whole time he sideboarded he bemoaned his terrible luck and my undeserved fortune. Game two resulted in an even more lopsided display of entropy, and when it was over he found the courage to lash at me with his bulbous and festering mouth.
I just looked at him. He was shaking. He hated magic, and losing pronounced that hatred. He was a Grey Ogre in a room full of Sedge Trolls, Granite Gargoyles, and Spinal Villains, cursing his common printing while refusing to accept it. He signed the slip and stomped off into a corner, void of friends to bitch to, but before I rose from the table he returned.
He told me he was going to drop, and I casually commented that I was going to do the same. His slimy face turned red, and he informed me how the sporting thing to do would be to concede to him. I smiled and decided not to explain sportsmanship. I declined and checked the drop line as he watched in despair. This time as he walked away, the anger was gone. The only thing he had left was a toxic mix of self-pity and self-loathing.
I was sitting in a bar before the top 8 started. I did not even bother to find out who won. I did not want to feel bad for the sucker with the envelope.
The next weekend I was supposed to go to Ohio and do this all over. Prepare. Grind. Hope. The idea was revolting, and I ordered another Jameson to wash away the last of my fleeting desire to play Pro Magic. It tasted better without the burden of a miserable dream.
Competitive magic was always a hellhole where I had to bring my own booze. The first time I tried it sober helped me cure myself of Organized Play. I finished my drink, paid my tab, and decided that I would return to Vintage and leave it all behind.
The next day I traded my modern collection for a Black Lotus and my Twin Deck for an Ancestral Recall. There was no turning back. When I decide something, I do not fuck around.
The world I was leaving behind is important to some players. It gives them purpose. It fills a need. I would not miss it, but they would be incomplete without it. The reclamation of power filled a similar hole for me. I sold my pieces a couple years earlier when my brother was sick. It felt good to hold it once more.
But these were not the first in my venture to reclaim my throne. A month prior I sent some cards with a cohort to GP Chicago. He met with one of my West Coast Family, handed over the binder, and brought back a Mox Jet and Mox Ruby. With four pieces in hand, I was Far Beyond Driven to complete my quest.
My Collector’s Edition set was no longer satisfying.
Eternal Weekend was in October. I made arrangements to go, forcing a deadline that I was not sure I could meet. But fortune smiles upon the mad, and my Unorthodox Steps of Ritual were nothing if not determined.
As a result of the upheaval of the judge world I received an envelope in the mail. Inside I found a packet of Bribe Lands, specially commissioned for a specific purpose. I traded them for my Emerald and never looked back.
A local Legacy event for a Judge foil Force of Will was the next source of glory. I spent the morning communing with nature and the afternoon haze carried me to victory with grace and ease. I won the tournament and the highly sought after piece of ostentation. Before I left the room I secured a trade for my Timetwister and Time Vault. Once again the skin I had shed was nourishing the landscape and feeding my ambition.
Downsizing my Legacy collection was the next step. This meant parting with all of my white cards and lands that were used to cast them. It also meant parting once again with a playset of unplayed Tarmogoyfs. I cast it once, in my first legacy tournament, and from the moment I spent the mana I knew I would never do it again. My load was lighter and my collection improved. I had an Unlimited Pearl and a Beta Mox Sapphire (I could not find an unlimited one locally, and I was determined to get all of my power from familiar sources,) and I still had a month to find a Time Walk.
I finished in time to set out for Philadelphia, but in the process of collecting my weapons I spent no time practicing. I went into the weekend with no idea what I was doing, so I had no expectations. Instead of troubling myself much with the tournaments I spent much of my time celebrating with companions from around the country.
I shared tales with friends old and new, slung cards and sipped whiskey, and let everything else remain trivial. In the midst of everything I heard about the Oldschool Tournament that was happening offsite, but far too late to even find it. I was interested, and I called my brother to tell him about it.
The prior summer we took to playing “Pre-Dark” magic, replicating the time when we started, and intending to slowly re-release the sets so we could experience them over again. Life got in the way and not much came of it, aside from picking up a random stack of old cards and remembering the greatness the game once had.
We talked about it for an hour (or I talked at him for an hour, as I rarely listen or shut up when I have consumed a liter of Glen Livet, at least until I pass out.) He was excited about the idea, and I spent the rest of the weekend looking for cards to feed the yearning and nostalgia. I made some notes and decided I would wait until I was home to call McIntosh.
Just before my trip, in the process of getting the right mix of cards to trade for the Sapphire, I ate some Green Mana and spent an afternoon in the Underground watching him peddle cardboard to the unwashed masses.
We talked about the good times and our mutual love for old cards. McIntosh loved the game in a different way than most. Before long we reminisced about Shandalar. He was a man possessed. As we rambled on over the hours, we hashed out the idea of a “Shandalar Cube.”
This helped me justify my few purchases at Eternal Weekend, and when I got back I discovered that he was close to having a rough cube assembled. Mine was put off as I prepared for GP New Jersey, and eventually forgotten in the aftermath of the ridiculous run I made with the People’s Cannon that weekend.
McIntosh was undeterred, and his cube was up and running. And it was brilliant. The first time I saw a picture of Flood because of its impact on an evening of underground magic, I knew that something special was going on. We were closer to a full immersion into Oldschool than we realized.
Meanwhile, I wrote the greatest tournament report (RABBIT HOLE!) of all time. It was so brilliant that the website I wrote it for wanted nothing to do with it, knowing well that they would not be able to live in its shadow or ever come close to its grandeur. It could have been the madness and alleged drug use, but it did not matter. My voice lacked the conduit to reach its audience.
As it collected digital dust on my laptop, I thought about how hard my writing would be to publish for any mainstream site or anyone who valued their reputation. It amused me enough to pacify me for a while, and by the time of the Team Serious Invitational (where i lost in the finals to fellow Belcher Fiend Nat Moes, the one and only @GrandpaBelcher) I accepted that it would remain unread.
But Nat was interested, and I sent it to him. He was kind enough to provide some editing without censorship, and he gave me an outlet by getting it published on Mana Deprived. It felt good to get it out there, but it left me wanting more. I needed a forum of my own.
A year later, here we are.
No need for a publisher. No succor for a sponsor. No reservations for my audience.
This is the MTG Underground.
It is still a young and unexplored landscape, but it becomes more familiar with each passing day. The year to come will offer more than the year prior. This is a New World. Our World.
I will continue the narrative. There are many stories to tell. I have all but abandoned Legacy, and I have formed a permanent alliance with Mishra in Vintage. More and more of my magic lies in playing Oldschool, but my degenerate desire to gamble and drink almost certainly means that I will be holding more high stakes limited or suspect format tournaments out of my apartment by the freeway.
I have so much bullshit to share.
My last update (I have been busy avoiding writing) was brought to you by Magnus from OldschoolMTG and I am fortunate to play host to his piece. In the year to come, I will lure him into Guest Writing again, as well as some others that I would love to feature. But I will also be a little more consistent with my own work (this is likely a lie, I do what I want when I feel like doing it.)
During my time not writing, Eternal Games in Warren Michigan hosted its first Oldschool Tournament. We had ten players, and I split the finals with McIntosh on his birthday with my UR Burn (Electric Head) Deck. We did not play the finals, not from some gentlemanly agreement or nonviolent protest, but rather because we were both so heavy with the weight of celebration that we could never make it to the table at the same time.
For this tournament, we decided to remove Mishra’s Workshop from the restricted list, sort of testing the waters, and allowed four copies. Unfortunately, there were no copies of the card in any of the decks, and the results do not offer any insight about the safety or danger of the card.
Which does not mean I did not try it out. I built an Atog Deck to give it a run, and the afternoon I ran it I did not drop a single pre-sideboard game (nor many post board.)
(This game started with being Mind Twisted for 3 on turn one. He hit three lands, and a few turns later he was in terrible shape.)
The tournament was four rounds with a cut to top four. In the swiss rounds, I faced some tough battles.
Round One was a Five Color Juzam Smash Deck. I won in three close games. Round Two I played against my brother, who was piloting my Mono Black deck, and in spite of having strong opening hands I could not win a game. Round Three was another Juzam deck, but I was more fortunate this time. After Round Four against McIntosh (and his fearsome Zoo) I made top 4 at 3-1.
In Top 4 we agreed to split the prize support (which I have no idea what was, it did not matter to me) and battled on for love of the game. I stole two quick games from Mike D (@Flusterstorm) with his version of The Deck, complete with Moat and a combination of Millstones and Braingeyser as his win conditions.
I intended to get a copy or a picture of his deck, and I am sure he would have provided it if I asked, but it is too late now. I am too deep and in no condition to contact him.
After not playing the finals, I spent some more time socializing and talking about my deck.
I loved having four factories in the main deck. It was worth cutting the black, even though I did it so my brother could play my Mono Black deck and not to improve this one. This is my favorite deck of all time.
I am in the process of acquiring another Shivan Dragon, which will allow me to try a few other things. Sometimes I board out the creatures, blanking cards kept in to answer them, and it has inspired me to try a build that eschews them entirely. I have plenty of time to try it.
This was my sideboard for the day, except I played Blood Moon over the Stone Rains. I added the 2 Energy Flux and I liked them against The Deck, but I may trim them back again for the third shatter and another control magic, which is my standard configuration.
Also, I came upon an Alpha Nevinyrral’s Disk.
I gave up on the idea after donating my funds to buy one to #MTGforLife, but the disk found me and it makes a perfect partner to my tagged one.
The #MTGforLife campaign was the biggest moment of the year in Magic for me. I cannot express enough how much it means to me.
The most interesting Deck of our small tournament was Nick Rausch’s Mono Red Diamond Valley deck. He discussed it somewhere on Facebook, but I will include a picture of it here.
And with that, as we close the year, I will also close this edition of the MTG Underground.
Love not Law,