Old School of Thought

This is how it ends. “How may cards in hand?” The single worst question anyone can ask you in an Old School tournament. One could argue for a ban, as Brian Weissman did in the mid-90s. Whichever way you look at it, Mind Twist is a hell of a card.

Summer of 2014. It was the first 93/94 tournament in Småland, Sweden. Småland is known as the home of characters like Carl Linnaeus, Pippi Longstockings, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, and Nils Dacke; famous for instigating the rebellion Dacke Fejeden. Dacke Fejden is an almost exact homophone of Conspiracy planeswalker Dack Fayden, but I digress. We’re currently operating at a time 20 years before Dack Fayden saw the light of print, and 500 years after Nils Dacke ruled Småland.

We had travelled up to Småland the day before to attend the WSK gaming convention. It was the second year of the convention, which marked an end of a one-hit-wonder and the start of a solid tradition. The road trip team consisted, apart from myself, of Mikael “Åland” Johansson and Johan “Freespace” Anderson; two of Sweden’s current top players in formats that allows Moxen. Since Easter, both of them appeared in the 93/94 World Championship Top 8, they scored first and second places at the Vintage tournaments during the large Lincon convention, and Åland also placed Top 8 in the most recent Bazaar of Moxen in Annecy (France). Much more than that though, they are good friends and have the wit to trash talk the paint of a wall.

The Deck

Åland’s deck is, well, The Deck. It was the first bogeyman of Magic back before there existed different formats. It’s pretty easy to see its potential today, but back in 1994, it was revolutionary. This was the deck that made card advantage a thing. Freespace is playing a four-color Juzam/Berserk deck. I’ve brought my pet deck, a blue/black Transmute Artifact pile with the good ol’ Guardian Beast / Chaos Orb combo. Vesuvan Doppelganger and Juzam Djinn for value.

It’s probably cheaper to buy a new standard deck ever year for at least a third of century than build even a white bordered version of The Deck. If we only have time to play a few times a year anyway, the choice is easy though.

If you’ve been a Vintage player in the last ten years or so, you have a pretty decent grasp of what the 93/94 community is like. You have a deck that is more expensive that what you could ever hope to win with it in tournaments. You want to win, sure, but playing Magic is a social experience. The people in the community are pretty casual, at least compared to what you’d expect to meet in more competitive formats. Players outside the format are impressed by the cards, but often have preconceived notions about the format. For Vintage, players sometimes assume that it’s a coin flip format. For 93/94, players sometimes assumes that it will stagnate after a few tournaments due to the limited card pool. Players need to invest a lot of time and money to get into the format, without the possibility to gain much more than enjoyment.

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Finding new technology, tuning, and playtesting for these kind of tournaments differs quite a lot from testing something like Legacy or Modern. When you playtest Legacy, you do some online research, go to the local game store, maybe test some ideas out on Magic Work Station, and create a sideboard plan against the gauntlet of common decks. You observe results, and tweak your deck. Playtesting 93/94 is exclusively done in person, usually with a slight level of intoxication. You don’t really have a gauntlet of decks to test against, and if you suddenly realize that you need a couple of Forcefields in the sideboard, you are unlikely to have the money (or time) to get them before a tournament. Instead, you build a pet peck, add a couple of Lord Magnuses to the sideboard (even if you’re UBR), and focus on learning how to flip your Chaos Orb correctly. Building a deck in this format can easily take years before it is complete, and actually winning is low on the priority list for most players. You add a Mox here and dual there, and eventually you’ll reach something you love.

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Love is a strong word. “Passionate about” is probably more correct. If you ask a long-time pro what Magic means to them, it is usually along the lines of “I met friends through Magic” or “I got to see the world.” It is rarely “I got to build a great deck against the meta.” Why did I want to build Project M? I guess it was more about getting to sit there on the train with Freespace and Åland than to actually win something. Maybe to have a format with like-minded people. Tournaments are excuses to play and meet people, not to prove myself better than someone else. Or maybe I’m just a bad player making excuses not to try.

As an Old School player, it’s pretty easy to have those excuses at hand. Most of us have demanding jobs, families, or other requirements that makes us unable to grind the non-eternal formats. Many have played for a long time, some since the beginning. I guess we might play to get away from our responsibilities for a short while, to have a hobby to fall back on after stressful days, or to get the sweet sense of nostalgia.

So, if you want to play, how to start? Well, either build something monocolored, or accept the fact that you won’t be able to afford a perfect mana base from the get-go. White Weenie is probably the cheapest good deck, it can be had for a little over $200. It can then be transformed to a myriad of decks, splashing blue for WWu, red for TaxEdge, black for Deadguy, or green for ErhnamGeddon. Mono black is very solid as well, though you’ll probably have to settle for Su-Chis or Juggernauts before you can afford the Juzams. UR Electric Eel Aggro preys on decks with Power and duals, and doesn’t really need them to function itself. There are lots of other competitive alternatives, and lots more if you’re going for a lower tier. There must be a Frankenstein’s Monster / Nether Shadow deck with Millstone somewhere. Or some strange Ashnod’s Transmogrant / Argivian Archaeologist / Aladdin deck with Sage of Lat-Nam for value.

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Pimping your deck deck in 93/94 is pretty easy, as far as classic pimping is concerned. Step 1, own a deck. Step 2, profit. Even if you have a fairly inexpensive deck by the format’s standards, any deck full of cards from expansions which haven’t been sold in stores in the last 20 years will raise some eyebrows. I guess that Unlimited is sometimes frowned upon as a budget alternative, but by any other metric you would have a pimp deck simply by having a deck. Some players try to find the next level by getting cards signed or altered, or go for the Alpha printings. Alpha versions are of particular interest if they have a different typeset or rules text than in Beta. Cards like Icy Manipulator have a comparatively low demand in Beta, as the Alpha version is so much cleaner. Rather than buy Beta, many players would rather buy an Unlimited version as a “stand-in” before they can find the Alpha version.

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WSK, then. The tournament in Växjö. It was eventually won by Joakim Jansson, a casual player and event organizer of some reputation in Sweden. He won a Prodigal Sorcerer signed by all the competing players. It’s mostly about pride and the joy of the game, rather than expensive prizes in these tournaments. A couple of weeks back, the local game store MindStage organized a convention in Gothenburg. I found the time to compete in the 93/94 and the Vintage tournaments at the convention. In the 93/94 tournament, I went 1-3 in the Swiss with a new experimental version of WR TaxEdge. I don’t know what the prize support for that tournament was, and I don’t think anyone who played it really cared. The Vintage tournament was called “Duel for Duals” and had different duals in the prize pool. The first prize was a Volcanic Island. I won that one. While I obviously enjoy winning, and find Vintage to be an amazing format, I must say I had even more fun in the 93/94 tournament than in the Vintage one. It’s just so damn charming to lose against a second turn Erhnam Djinn, or getting Timetwistered while three Underworld Dreams are in play. It is fun to flash in a Containment Priest against Dredge in Vintage, but it doesn’t really hit the “Fork your Mind Twist” level of satisfaction.

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If you want to travel to Gothenburg to battle at the 93/94 championships this Easter, feel free to contact me. I might have a couch to spare, and I most definitely can show you where to find a good beer and good people in the city.

Cheers,
Mg