The Vintage Underground

“What is this?”

She stood in the doorway. With the light beaming in through the window from the hall behind her, I could only make out her silhouette. As my eyes focused, I could see that she was holding something in her fingers. It was a piece of paper.

I held my tongue and tried to gauge her body language. She was tense. Nervous. Was she holding her breath? I did not recognize it, and I did not want to imagine what it might be. She seemed to be holding it up accusingly. Any reaction would unleash her fury. I was curious, but far too aware to step into such an obvious trap. Any misplay would would cost me dearly.

She cleared her throat. What was it? A phone number? A receipt? The suspicion was oppressive, but I could not get a read on her cards. Terrified of playing into her agenda, I kept my eyes fixed on her and sipped my scotch. I scoured my memory for the crime, but I could recall nothing to give birth to guilt.

Pulling the paper taut, she broke the silence with a crackle. I sipped my glass again, swallowing the last of my whiskey as she started to read. The pit in my stomach was breeding horror and fear.


“Where did you find that?”

I poured another glass of whiskey. How the hell was I going to explain that? I am a terrible liar, but the truth was pure madness. She was never going to believe me. Looking out the window, I took another sip and drew in a heavy breath.

“I was cleaning downstairs. It fell out of your winter jacket.”

Fuck. I needed time to think. I drained the glass again.

Six months earlier I was managing the receiving docks for a retail warehouse. It was a night shift, after hours, and it served as a sort of save haven for some of the less desirable members of society. No one asked each other too many questions or passed too much judgment. For the most part, we peacefully co-existed by not looking too closely at each other. I fit in well.

Breaks and lunches were spent gambling on hands of Spades, or hustling chess games for cash. The other two managers in the building were uncomfortable in the trenches with their soldiers, so there was no one to question why I not only allowed but also participated in illegal gambling every night. If I knew then what I know now, I would still be there, playing chess and financing my whiskey habit from the spoils.

But we always burn down paradise when we dream of a sweeter poison.

On my way in one night, I was running a few minutes behind because I stayed in the car long enough to listen to the end of the newest Nile album (In Their Darkened Shrines.) It was January and it was cold. As I made my way to the back of the building to punch the time clock, I was met Yuper-Dave, one of the freight guys who identified himself as much by his crude sense of humor as his strange moniker.

He was called Yuper, which rhymes with Super, because he was from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As with most people from that mysterious region, he was odd. The previous summer he brought me a large Ram Skull that he found a decade earlier when he was hiding from the Government in the Rockie Mountains. It was beautiful and it sat on my bookshelf for years. On this night, Dave had something else to offer.

Dave asked me if I wanted a Fox Skull. Over the weekend he skinned a fox and was making a pelt, and I seemed like the person most likely to appreciate the skull. Perhaps he was stereotyping my fascination with Death Metal and Magic, but it was not a misjudgment and I told him I would be happy to have it. He promised to bring it in sometime throughout the week, and we parted ways so I could get to work.

Friday night found me at a Goatwhore concert instead of work. I gave little thought to Dave’s offering. When I returned to work Monday, bruised and sore from moshing, I found his note taped to my locker. I laughed as I read it, but as I collected my tools I paused. I read it again, and anxiety manifested in the form of suspicion.

Not Skull. Head. Fucking Dave.

I waited for the freight team to clear out before I went into the break room. When I opened the freezer, a small black plastic bag sat between an old pot pie box and a lean cuisine. My name was written on an affixed piece of masking tape. With reluctance, I pulled it out and untied it.

Staring back at me was the head of what looked like a small dog. It was a gory mass of matted fur, blood, eyes, brain matter, and sinew, all frozen together in and around the bone. A popsicle of horror. This was not what I had in mind.

zombie sicle

I retied the bag and put it back where I found it. I was not ready to deal with it. When lunch hit and numerous people opened and closed the freezer, obtaining their lunch with no inkling of what it shared space with, there was a war of hysteria in my guts. I felt helpless, hoping desperately that no one would become curious and open the bag. I should have taken it with me when morning came, but I had no idea what to do with it, so I left it as I headed home, only to find it haunting my dreams during the daylight hours.

This went on all week, until finally, on Friday night, I resolved to find a solution. It plagued me all night, and I even once carried the bag back into my work area intent on throwing it in the trash compactor. But paranoia got the better of me, knowing that if the machine jammed and someone found it inside I would not be able to deny what the camera would clearly display. The same fear prevented me from throwing it over the back fence or leaving it on an outbound truck.

Finally, when it was time to leave, I walked out of the store with the bag in hand. My pace was brisk and my eyes averted, frantic to escape without an encounter. I passed a few early morning customers and waved a shaky hand at a cashier before plunging into the cold winter air of a snowy Saturday morning. It was still dark and I shambled towards my car with the bag still clutched in my hand, at a loss for what to do now.

On a long enough timeline solutions present themselves. I made my way to my tattered blue pick up truck, complete with a gray door and rust colored hood. Parked beside it was a current model Lexus, headlights and wipers on, engine running. I walked to my driver’s side door, looking inside the car as I passed it. It was unoccupied. With a trembling hand, I tried the passenger side door. It was unlocked.

I shoved the bag under the passenger seat, shut the door, and got in my truck. I turned the ignition and drove off without letting it warm up. Without looking back. Without the bag. Without the fox skull. And I forgot about it until the following Summer, when my (now ex-) wife found a strange note in my winter jacket and decided to question me about it.

As I told her the story of the note, she looked at me with a mixture of disgust, incredulity, and abject horror. She knew it was true, and my delivery of the tale made me more of a monster in her eyes than I was before. She walked from the room and I poured the rest of the Glen Livet into my glass. Moments later, it washed away any feelings I had about the memory.

It is a wonder that we stayed married as long as we did.

This is the part where I tell you the moral of the story.

What is it this time?

There is always a way to dispose of a frozen head. Be creative and play to your outs.

Or maybe it is something to do with expectations versus reality. But expectations are always hazy. And right now, my grip on reality is about as sketchy as playing Seafarer’s Quay.



Which brings me to the magic.

One of these times I am going to forget this part and see if anyone notices.

I have played two vintage events in the last month: the Team Serious Invitational, held on December 19th, and my Birthday Vintage Tournament at RIW Hobbies on January 10th. Both events were fantastic. I chose a deck I never piloted prior for each of them, and though I was under prepared to wield such weapons in my human condition, I managed to do some damage with them nonetheless.

The Team Serious Invitational is a private tournament, and only an invitation discloses the secret location where it is held. Underground enough for you? It does not stop there. Out of the watchful eyes of the Law or the DCI, we are able to conduct ourselves like true gentlemen. Food is catered. Company is celebrated. Sandwiches are punched. Alcohol spills from glass and mouth alike, but far less onto the floor than into our guts. With unlimited proxies there is still no shortage of power, and Vintage thrives the way it was meant to be played. It is (and should be) a coveted affair for outsiders, who get but a glimpse of the most tame and civilized moments via the live stream, which still make your average magic tournament look like an anger management support group.

Each incarnation attempts to surpass previous events, so this Invitational featured not only a live stream, but also commentary via some kind of internet Voodoo by Andy Probasco, aka BRASS MAN. Though it will never give you a deeper understanding of how so much joy can be present amongst Magic players, you can watch the history as it unfolded.

This is what MTG Underground is about.

On the morning of the event I set out alone into the dangerous landscape of Ohio. While the road that carried me away from my home was trusted and comfortable, as time carried me south I could not help but notice how dark the horizon grew. Where there was once open sky there was now an endless mass of grey, though lacking the definition of clouds to even feign a natural appearance. Every time I make the drive I cannot help but wonder if it feels the same as it felt when Frodo carried my Ring into Mordor, and though it sends a shudder of fear through my bones, I am always able to fasten my purpose to my chest and find the courage to keep driving.

Originally, the event was going to be held deeper into the depths of Hell, but some last minute change brought it closer to attempt to lure me in. While it has been affirmed that the change had nothing to do with the fact that I would not be able to attend at the original venue, my Doctorate in Superstition still leads me to believe there was a greater evil at work. With the change my ability to make the event not only became possible, but also necessary. Life has a strange way of reaching out to me, and even if it spills some carnage on my pants as it grabs my legs, I never hesitate to plunge into its darkness.


This road to perdition was not without a soundtrack. I started the adventure with Skinny Puppy’s “Too Dark Park” and thought of how we listened to it when I got my first tattoo. Simpler times, I was half the age I am now and I knew so much more about everything. I laughed to myself about this, and when the music stopped I switched to Ministry’s “The Land of Rape and Honey” just as I crossed into the eternal construction of Toledo. I dropped my speed and cranked the volume.

I am grateful to be part of the Team Serious family. Since my return to Vintage, I have found the spirit of everything that I love about Magic. This was my third Team Serious Invitational, and I am patiently awaiting the announcement of the next. These guys encompass the ideas of the MTG Underground. They organize a grassroots tournament series that has pop up cells all over, aptly named the Team Serious Open. Unlike other open series, this is an unsanctioned full proxy Vintage focused extravaganza filled with the best people (even if not the best players) of the Vintage community, battling it out without the burden of Planeswalker Points or Qualifiers for some Gravy Train of Mediocrity. No hoops to jump through, no glass to walk on. The only bullshit is the bullshit you bring. Vintage is the only purpose. Team Serious does not give a fuck about mainstream magic.

But the Invitational is always something more. Entry fees are collected to cover the food and prizes (though it is likely we would battle it out regardless, just for trash talking rights, and some of us would even play for Ante) but in spite of the Time Vault secured for first place, winning the event is mostly an afterthought. The true purpose is to get bombed and talk over each other into the deep hours of the night. Strategically, there would be an advantage to remaining sober and preying on the rank and file of this organization of lunatics. But that means being the only sober guy in a room full of heroes. It means forsaking the revelry to try to head home with no stories or scars.

Could it possibly be worth it? Would you sacrifice the triumph of the human spirit for a moderately played piece of borderline power? If so, you are not sculpted of the Primal Clay of Team Serious, and there is an obvious reason you were not invited. Your avarice would poison our atmosphere.

primal clay full

Holding to my determination to only play Workshops in Vintage, I set about gathering ideas for a myriad of options. The restriction of Chalice of the Void knocked my chosen archetype from the throne, but now that I am free of the weight of the crown I am eager to explore the rest of the kingdom. The Robot Apocalypse will not come from the top, but rather from the unexplored realms of a Vintage wasteland.

Once I had a rough idea of what my options were, I did what any reasonable person trying to dodge responsibility for his decisions would do: I let the internet vote on it. I presented numerous archetypes and held a series of Twitter Polls. I did everything I could to persuade the masses to select Two Card Monte, the only presented option I had experience piloting, but in the end the smoke cleared and the masses had spoken.

I would pilot Uba Stax.

I set to work. The list from the VSL as well as a high finishing build from Japan’s God of Vintage tournament were both MUD builds. They were fascinating, but I envisioned a machine that employed Goblin Welder. I scoured both time and space, and I found at least the framework of what I wanted in the annals of the Mana Drain. I was getting closer, but there was much work to be done.

Putting the call out to Twitter, I was provided with some ideas that featured my electrode wielding friend. I plundered all of the lists and stitched them together, creating a monster that Frankenstein would fear. My research shined light on my madness. Like a surgeon possessed, I cut away all the negative synergy and purulent excess. Slicing away the fat layer by layer, I molded the remaining flesh into a functional form.

At one point I had the perfect fifty card pile, and at another I was certain that I had the perfect eighty one. Nothing was lining up. The fluctuations between the two left me no closer to victory, and I nearly gave way to despair as I looked lasciviously at my grindstones.

I would not surrender. I started the slow murder of a liter of Jameson and started listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor! loud enough for my neighbors to share in my plight. Within an hour the bottle was half empty and I dreamed of a fallout. My eyes were alive with curses, my tongue was thrashing with plagues. I scattered and arranged the cards before me with fervor before stepping away in a moment of abandonment.

When I returned to the table, the perfect 61 card pile was spread out before me. I sculpted a sideboard from the discarded pieces, lacking regard for purpose or function. The end result was a work of art. Superstitious, Final Art.

Uba Stax

uba stax“I do not know how my deck works, but it makes it so you do not know how your deck works either.” – Shaman Ben

The main event was five rounds. Each one taught me more about my deck. At the beginning of the day, I did not have a game plan. Somewhere in the middle, I was struggling with my poor sideboard. By the end, I was in love. The day brought me many four card hands from heavy mulligans. It showed me what it feels like to lose every die roll. And it taught me that sometimes the game you win overshadows the two you lost, because you beat a resolved Energy Flux that stayed on the table for close to ten turns and removed multiple pieces of hate with an Uba Mask while Tangle Wire kept them from being cast.

My only regret was not getting the chance to activate Jester’s Cap.

There is plenty of time before the grave opens up to swallow me.

After the Swiss rounds, while Top 8 was going on somewhere else in the house, perhaps the basement (where most top 8s take place,) I played about twenty games of Oldschool (93/94) Magic with Danny Friedman. His deck was built under the rules of Eternal Central while I observe the practices of Oldschool MTG it really did not matter. What did was that we were playing a better magic with better cards, and enjoying our exchange as better people making the world a better place.

Danny was playing an eloquent control that closed out games by establishing the Power Monolith Combo and employing Mirror Universe. It had Guardian Beasts to exploit the power of Chaos Orb and Nevinyrral’s Disk. It was a thing of magnificence, and it decimated me more than once, even if my Electric Head (Blue Red Counter Burn) deck managed to take a disproportionate number of games.

We conversed heavily on the format, our passion for it, the Evil that Men Do, elitism, degeneracy, and the nature of all things Underground. I do not take moments like this for granted. In 21 years of playing magic (almost 22 now) I have met a handful of people that not only share my passion but help it grow. Danny is one of them. I had a blast playing Vintage, but playing Oldschool overshadowed it like a Lovecraft tale in the midst of the works of R.L. Stine (my daughter loved Goosebumps when she was five years old, I am not judging you.)

If you ever have the chance to play Oldschool or discuss the Community with Mr. Friedman, you should take advantage of it.

dark rit ink

 My “Dark Ritual” tattoo, done sometime around 2001

Every year I organize a Vintage tournament around my birthday (January 11th) as a way of celebrating (usually after a night of boundless revelry) with the Magic community. This year, the tournament was ushered in by a snowstorm. While it kept numerous fiends away, ten of us managed to demonstrate our stupidity and battle the weather for the chance to Vulgarly Display our Power.

As usual, I woke up somewhere between being still drunk and hungover. When my minions rang my apartment to pick me up, I was passed out on the floor in the hallway. Instead of buzzing them in I got in the shower. Fortunately they took advantage of the kindness of an old woman to get in and my forgetfulness to get through my unlocked door. Fortunately for their innocent eyes, I at least had some clothes on before I started yelling at them. I poured a glass of Scotch for breakfast, and within the hour we were on the road.

I hosted the tournament at RIW Hobbies in Livonia, Michigan. It is about twenty five miles from my apartment, and in the conditions of the morning it took about an hour to get there. The store is a second home to me, even if I do not make it there enough these days. It is more than a card shop. It is a sanctuary.

I was going to play Uba Stax again, wanting to give it another run now that I have a better grip on what it does. But in the days leading up to the event I was playing around with Tiny Robots, the deck I would have played in Ohio if I had not left the decision up to the whims of the internet. It does not take much to get me to play Skullclamp, and since I already had it together I could think of no reason to torture my brain with trying to transition.

After seeing the deck in action at the Invitational, narrowly losing to it in an epic match, I wanted to pilot it more than I did when I first saw the list. Doing so on my birthday added to the joy I would find in playing cards like Contested War Zone and Memnite in Vintage. It looked like a terrible pile on paper, but it looked like unadulterated degeneracy in action. I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to play it, all the cards to do so, and I felt good about the list I settled on sometime earlier in the week.

Tiny Robots

tiny robots

It is a little different from my initial draft, and though I drew on the ideas that I saw Duane using in Ohio, I did not want to blindly embrace his approach. In hindsight, I could not be happier with the way I chose to play it or the cards I included.

The tournament was four rounds and by the time it started I was feeling divine. A solid breakfast at a nearby diner, combined with a few glasses of Scotch and some Green Mana cookies almost made me believe I was an incarnation of Mishra. It was time for a Robot Apocalypse.

In the first round I faced my friend Derek, who I was delighted to see embracing the format for all the right reasons. He is the sort of guy that fell in love with Magic, and intends to enjoy it when he plays. As such, he prefers Eternal formats, and I cannot fault him for it, even if he was playing a Mentor deck.

Our first game lasted only a few minutes, and though he was able to play Dack Fayden on turn two after Forcing my Lodestone on turn one, it was too little and too late to save him. Genesis Chamber and Skullclamp fed a Ravager that craved justice in the form of blood.

Game two was even worse. On turn one, I burned through my hand. On turn two, I attacked for fifteen. There was little he could do. The round was over quickly, and I was excited about the puissance of my deck.

turn 2 robotsOff screen are four tokens, making 15 damage on turn two

The great thing about birthday tournaments is the participants. With the majority of the players being my friends, I was presented with the opportunity to battle them. Round two brought Chad as my rival, and I was excited to see him. That is, until I discovered he was playing Mentor as well. I forgot that even though Chad was my friend, and one of the more upstanding ones, underneath all of his conservative white model citizen exterior was a ruthless fiend full of depravity.

Game one started off strong for me, and I had Chad down to just a few life points by turn three. But a main deck Ancient Grudge and a Dack Fayden stablized his position, and drawing fifteen or so extra cards found him the opportunity to lock up the game with a Jace the Mind Sculptor. I scooped prematurely, but the writing was on the wall.

Game two I fared much better, and before Chad played a Mentor on turn three he knew he was dead. As I drew my card during my fourth turn, he admitted it and scooped his board. Neither of us were fucking around.

Game three promised to be contentious. I started strong, and I overextended to threaten lethal the following turn, only to get blown out by a Supreme Verdict. Chad was a fucking villain. Turns passed and he either countered or destroyed everything I did to try and kill him, but he somehow never found a mentor in spite of digging through half of his deck, and the clock brought us into a mutual embrace of indecision.

I do not go to time often. This was my first unintentional draw in a long time.

Before I could piss and take two swigs from my flask, round three was underway.

I got paired against the Andrew who is not my brother. He rode down with us, and I knew he was on Mentor. For the third straight round, my opponent was the same pretentious white bastard and his grotesque display of privilege. I was determined to smash him. If there was any justice in the world, I would prevail.

I told Andy I was going to smash him, but I dropped to six cards against his seven and lost the die roll. On turn one he forced my Ravager, misstepped my Skullclamp, and cast Ancestral Recall. Fuck. How the hell was I supposed to beat that? The next turn he had Force again for my Hangarback Walker, but it was a bait play and I followed up with a Lodestone Golem. Somehow, I was going to prevail. My follow up Ravager and Signal Pest made sure of it.

Game two I came out of the gates from the start. He had Ancestral on turn one again, but his Force of will on my Skullclamp meant my Lodestone Golem was free to resolve. The next turn found him tapping out to cast Preordain in search of something, and in turn left me free to empty my hand and smash with my Golem. He untapped and slammed Serenity, hoping i had nothing on my turn to make a difference. One artifact would do it, but a Contested War Zone did it better. He was a turn too late. His White Hate would not hold off my uprising.

The final round brought not only a delightful change but also an opponent that I with whom I was unfamiliar. We spoke briefly and I was happy to get to play him. He opened with a fetch land for a Watery Grave into a Thoughtseize, doing five damage and making my agenda easier. I was not fooled however. This was an unlimited Proxy tournament and he was the only other undefeated player. It was not without reason. I was not going to waste time waiting to see. He did not like what he saw in my hand, and he appreciated it less the next turn when all of it was on the table. I killed him on turn three, still unsure what he was up to but happy to not find out.

For our second game I decided not to sideboard. I did not know what I was up against, but I was confident that dealing damage as quickly as possible was the best plan. I came out hard, and I had him at four with swiftness. At the end of my turn he cast a Hurkyl’s Recall, and when he untapped he cast a brainstorm during his main phase. He followed with a pair of Death’s Shadows. I understood. On my turn, I replayed my hand into a Force of Will, leaving him at three with lethal on board if he could somehow clear the way. Before he did, I landed a second Signal pest and punched through to finish him off.

And with that, I finished first at my Birthday Vintage tournament. I caught everyone unprepared and I punished them for it. Mishra versus Everybody.

When I started writing this, I was going to close by addressing the brief threat to Proxy Vintage that came from a mix of confusing and conflicting statements from Wizards of the Coast. Now, as I finally am fleshing out the words, things have changed and much of what I had to say is of little relevance.

Sort of.

There was an immediate panic when it appeared that the Establishment Magic was going to crack down on unsanctioned, community organized events. Whether or not it was their intent to suppress our freedom or a poor delivery and public overreaction is not what matters.

What matters is the underlying theme of the MTG Underground:


The only way they can take the game away from you is if you let them. This game belongs to us. They need us more than we need them. If the Hand of Power makes our lifestyle illegal, so be it. We will continue to live as Outlaws.

Love not Law motherfuckers.

I want to talk about one more thing before we part ways.

The #MTGFORLIFE campaign spearheaded by Magnus de Laval was a booming success, and I am grateful that I had the chance to be part of it. When all was said and done, it smashed all expectations, and it did so because this community is full of love. I am proud of all of us.

In addition to a handwritten letter from my friend from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Magnus sent me a couple cards, both of which hold a special place in my underground world.


The cat is Chloe, and belongs to my girlfriend, even if she believes she belongs to me (or more accurately, believes that I belong to her.)

The Hellfire makes a perfect addition to my mono black sideboard, and will see a heavy amount of play in the days to come.

The Horror of Horrors hails back to the beginning of this blog, and I appreciate it on numerous levels. The most significant? This is a card that has had one owner prior to me, opened when every card counted in Our Darkest Past. It will remain in a sacred place, and pop up in sideboards from time to time, for honor of the past and the opportunity to tell a good story. Which is just about my favorite thing in the world.

This concludes another episode of the MTG Underground.

Go out and do something that matters.

Shaman Ben


4 thoughts on “The Vintage Underground

  1. I love your post man.
    Inspired me to go and build myself an Old School mono-black. Nothing like the day I finished my set of Juzam!
    Thanks for your blog!


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